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In Stoic Ukraine, Stony Faces Are Starting to Crack and to Cry


KYIV, Ukraine – Crouching over a bowl of soup in a crowded restaurant, the man brags about how many people he has employed, all of his political connections and how, if necessary, he can even kill someone and cause trouble “go away.”

With his shaved head, black sweater, and hands the size of a bear’s paw, he certainly looked like he could carry out that threat. And if the owner of this overtly masculine construction company can’t do it on his own, he’s constantly making hints about his connections to the Ukrainian underworld.

But then his face softened, a little sad.

“My whole life, my whole life, when I have a problem, I can fix it,” he said. “But now… with this war…” – he couldn’t even finish his sentence. He covered his face with his hands and burst into sobs, tears mixing with the soup.

Ukrainians in general are very good at putting up a brave front. Many messages from President Volodymyr Zelensky and below are that they are tough, they are willing to sacrifice, they are “unbreakable” – that is one of Mr. Zelensky’s favorite words.

But as the war dragged on, an almost unbearable pain built up. And just like the sudden outburst at the restaurant, which surprised everyone at the table, especially the man himself, so many people here tried to hide their pain that it caused a precarious emotional landscape, filled with unmarked cliffs.

“People don’t want to open up because they fear that if they do, they will lose it,” says Anna Trofymenko, a psychotherapist in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine.

She has a metaphor for this tendency to suppress emotions.

“There are two types of people in this world – avocado and coconut,” she said.

She explained that avocados are soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Coconut is the opposite.

“We are like coconuts,” she said.

Even before the war, she said, Ukrainians tended to be stoic and reluctant to express their emotions. She attributes this to the lingering obscurity of the Soviet era when the survival strategy was: Don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t open up to strangers.

Yevhen Mahda, a leading political scientist in Kiev, agrees.

“In Soviet times, each person was a small part of a big machine,” he said. No one expressed their feelings. It’s not necessary. No one cares.”

“Although young Ukrainians don’t share the same baggage, ‘society doesn’t change so quickly’,” said Mr. Mahda. “It’s a process, it’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a Harry Potter book, it’s our lives.”

In Pokrovsk, an eastern town near the front lines, I met a young woman sitting on an evacuation train. Her village has been bombed relentlessly, and she hastily flees. She carried 150 hryvnia in her pocket – about 4 USD. But she was calm and neatly dressed, her carefully made-up face an empty mask.

I didn’t ask many questions, but there was a time when I looked at her and said, “Sorry you’re going through this.” She looked straight at me and burst into tears.

Trofymenko, a psychologist, explains that this is also part of the context. “As soon as you feel safe,” she says, “you let go.”

“You know, we seem very reserved, emotionless, emotionless,” she added. “But once you’re inside, it’s a different story.”

ABOVE Polish-Ukrainian border in the first days of the war, I watched one of the biggest refugee crises of modern times. ONE Endless set of women and children flows across borders, millions of them. Burdened by bulging suitcases, hastily packed, and driven from their homes by counter-historical circumstances, they are small, vulnerable figures shrunk by long roads and immense sky.

A woman in a green hoodie stops to rest along a Polish highway. Because of the rule that Ukrainian men of military age are not allowed to leave the country, she is alone. She had just broken up with the husband she had known since she was young. At first, she also had dry eyes.

But after she shared her breakup words with her husband, her calm was fractured. Once she allowed herself to think about the man she loved and how she didn’t know when, or even if she would ever see him again, and how it felt to hold him one last time at the border, she cannot be burned. feeling.

As a journalist, covering major traumatic events doesn’t necessarily get easier the more one does. Sometimes I feel like my protective lining is worn out.

Recently, I saw a photo of a building on fire in eastern Ukraine, not far from Pokrovsk. I took a closer look and felt a pang of fear. Wait a minute, I said to myself. I’ve been to that building before.

Also in the town of Chasiv Yar, where I had an unusual interaction with a sympathetic Russian. He told me and my translator, Alex, that he believed the Russians were “doing the right thing” by invading Ukraine. Alex and her family have suffered greatly because of this war (as do most other Ukrainians), but she doesn’t argue with the sympathizers. As a journalist, that’s not her role.

At the end of the interview, the Russian sympathizer, in his 70s, cheerful and full of life, trudged into his garden and began sawing a bunch of grapes. He said that he really appreciated the company and wanted to give us a gift.

As he leaned toward the sparkling fruit, I saw Alex’s eyes fill with tears.

“What is it?” I ask.

We interviewed a lot of people who lost everything, but I never saw her cry. She is very tough. She was difficult. She is, by her own admission, a coconut.

Why is she crying now?

“Because these people are good,” she said.

If someone from the “other side” – as most Ukrainians and most Westerners consider Russia and its supporters – can happily offer fruit from his or her garden, that speaks volumes. What about the complexity of war?

We walked with bunches of grapes, our hearts filled with emotions that are hard to suppress.

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