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Varieties of Heroism: Ada Wordsworth at the Przemyśl Train Station

I have a new hero. Her name is Ada Wordsworth. What I know of Wordsworth comes from an article she wrote that appears in the current issue (December 8, 2022) of the The New York Review of Books under the title Ukrainian Lessons at the Train Station.

At the beginning of this year Ada Wordsworth was halfway through a master's degree in Slavonic studies at Oxford. Her thesis was on Josef Brodsky and the effect of internal exile in the Soviet Union on his poetry. She was, in her words, entranced by Russia, "its fascinating strangeness and enormity." The walls of her room were plastered with maps of the Moscow metro and postcards from cities she had visited. She had planned her future around Russia.

"And then," she writes, "Putin invaded, and the juxtaposition of my academic research into Russian dissident culture in the late Soviet period and images on the news grew unbearable." In March, desperate to do something, she booked a one-way plane ticket to Przemysl, a Polish city on the border with Ukraine that since the Middle Ages has been at various times claimed and reclaimed by Ukrainians, tsarist Russia, the Soviets, the Poles, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On her first day in Przemysl Wordsworth wandered through the city looking for somewhere to get a cup of coffee and found her way to the train station that was one of the main entry points for refugees arriving from Odessa, Kyiv, and Lviv. She went to the reception point, said she spoke some Russian, and was handed a high-visibility vest by someone with the local authorities. After that she worked things out for herself "in the middle of a beautiful central hall, with mock-Greek frescoes on the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, as a seemingly endless crowd of people approached," asking for help. Though she did not speak Polish, she provided reassurance, "some calm, among all the chaos and noise and distress."

She took refugees to cafés and bought them coffee, first with her own money, then with money she received as a result of social media posts. There were encounters with the deputy director of a major art gallery in Lviv, who extolled the virtues of Ukrainian literature and planned to travel in Europe until he could peacefully return home, and with the very old who did not understand what was happening to them. An elderly woman with some form of dementia trying to go back to Ukraine slapped her in the face with her handbag and screamed obscenities when told that she had missed her train before being "pinned down, sedated, and taken away by the Polish Red Cross."

Wordsworth became part of a diverse volunteer community in Przemysl, people who "came from all over Europe, and as far afield as South America and South Africa." Some had useful skills: nurses, psychologists, translators. "Others simply arrived, responding to the desperate need they had seen on the news." With three other British volunteers, students and academics like herself, she formed a loose group that eventually became KHARPP (the Kharkiv and Przemysl Project), a charitable organization providing humanitarian aid in Przemysl and Kharkiv.

KHARPP and similar groups worked to fill the gap left by the big aid organizations who, according to Wordsworth, failed to turn up until months into the war. The Polish Red Cross was there from the beginning, along with Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, and World Central Kitchen, an American charity. It was not until summer that any meaningful international NGO presence made it to Przemysl.

She tells of a mother who arrived from Donetsk with her four-year-old daughter and four plastic bags. She had never left the Donbas before and had no idea what to do. The most important thing for her was finding a kindergarten for her daughter. Wordsworth bought them a suitcase and visited every day in a local shelter where they stayed for five days before being relocated to Germany. An Armenian woman and her ten-year-old son had been living in Kharkiv for five years after coming to Ukraine to escape an abusive husband. Wordsworth helped them onto a train for Warsaw and forwarded the woman a link to a website where they could apply for free housing. Other stories that put faces on people fleeing a brutal war are related briefly but movingly.

The fact that Wordsworth spoke Russian, and understood Ukrainian not nearly as well, turned out not to be the issue one might anticipate.

A lot of people ask the language question: Do the Ukrainians crossing the border object to communicating with me in Russian? On my Twitter feed, Ukrainian academics and writers vow never to speak the "language of the occupier" again, but Russian has certainly not, in my experience, been banished from Ukraine. Ukraine remains a bilingual country. Being able to communicate in Russian is what allows me, along with multitudes of other international volunteers, to assist those fleeing war.

Wordsworth says that her time on the border fundamentally altered two aspects of her life. First, which came about abruptly, she is not longer a pacifist. Antiwar convictions had been at the core of her identity after growing up as a Quaker.

In the days following the invasion I stood awkwardly at protests in London and Oxford as the Ukrainian diaspora called for Western nations to send weapons to the Ukrainian army. When my Ukrainian friends shared links to donate to the army on their Instagram, I would swipe past.

Later, looking at the thousands of people crammed into the Przemysl train station, the elderly men and women forced to sit on the floor, the children who had not washed for days, the hundreds of dogs and cats that were disturbingly silent and as traumatized as their owners, all I felt was rage. Once I would have argued that rage needs to be channeled into dialogue. But at the border, the impossibility of dialogue when one country is ravaging another became abundantly clear.

The second change was an inability to consume Russian culture. She cannot finish her thesis on Brodsky because she cannot open a Russian book.

This is not out of some moral imperative but because I am overwhelmed by guilt. Dostoevsky's nationalistic tendencies, which I had previously overlooked, are now all I see…Even the writing of dissidents is tainted, such as Brodsky's unpublished poem "On the Independence of Ukraine," which is filled with ethnic slurs against Ukrainians, describing them as khokholy, a term that originally referred to the hairstyle worn by Ukrainian Cossacks, now used in Russia to derogatorily refer to Ukrainians in general.

Ada Wordsworth is presently spending time in Ukraine, a country where she had never been before the war, traveling with KHARPP, working on direct aid and preparing homes for winter. She is learning Ukrainian "through the prism of war terminology." Her Ukrainian teacher taught her the "rule of numbers," different noun declensions required for different quantities, "by enumerating the appropriate iodine doses for different ages in the event of a nuclear attack." She does not know the names of any farm animals in Ukrainian, but she can say "air raid," "occupied territory," and "refugee."

Wordsworth plans to return to the UK in the spring and finish her master's thesis, which will now be a dissertation on eastern Ukrainian literary identity.

Each winter through most of the 1990s and into the early 2000s I reread one of Dostoevsky's four major novels: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons (also published as The Possessed). I was nineteen when I first read The Brothers Karamazov. It was in the fall of 1971, my sophomore year in college. The previous spring The Plague by Albert Camus had been on a list of optional reading for an introductory philosophy course. I recall reading Augustine, John Dewey, and Buckminster Fuller, among others, but did not pick up Camus until later, at the beginning of the fall term. One day, during a chance encounter with Dr. Mulvaney, the philosophy professor, I mentioned that I had read and enjoyed The Plague. He suggested that I might also like The Brothers Karamazov. That was my introduction to Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky is indeed problematic, as Wordsworth asserts, and as she suggests, he is not alone. He is also not alone as a complex and often contradictory figure. Strains of imperialism and ethnic chauvinism of a type routinely denounced when taken up by Western writers run through Russian literature as well. I read The Brothers Karamazov again two years ago. That was my last return to Dostoevsky since before 2012, which is as far back as my reading lists go. I do not intend to banish him, or Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, from my bookcases. I will almost certainly return to Dostoevsky again, this time more attuned to themes and topics passed over with little notice on previous readings.

The treatment of Russian culture has been the subject of debate since the February invasion. Russian performers have had contracts dropped and concerts canceled. Some support the regime and the war, some condemned the invasion belatedly and perhaps opportunistically, and some spoke out against the war from the start, all treated as persona non grata. As is to be expected the official Russian media screech about Russophobia and equate hostility to Putin's regime with hostility to the Russian people and culture.

Cathy Young is a journalist who was born in Moscow in 1963 and came to the US with her family in 1980. She discussed these issues and individual cases with commendable discernment and in greater detail than I will devote to them here in an article last August (Should Russian Culture Be ‘Canceled’ Over the Ukraine Invasion?, The Bulwark, August 26, 2022). In conclusion she cites Russian political scientist Sergei Medvedev (exiled and now teaching in Prague). Asked in an interview what he thinks of "bans on Russian music, poetry and literature in Western countries," Medvedev replied:

Firstly, I believe this is largely mythologized, inflated by Kremlin propaganda. Secondly, against the background of what is happening in Ukraine, this is a secondary issue for me. Let’s stop the war in Ukraine first. When Russia stops killing Ukrainians, then we’ll get together and talk about the fate of Russian culture in the West. But until then, I just have a kind of moral block against talking about attitudes towards Russians, toward visas, toward Russian culture, Russian books, [about] the stigmatization of all things Russian. If it’s happening—all right, we’ll have to deal with it. At least we are alive and our house hasn’t been bombed to pieces.

To which Young added simply, amen to that. The plight of Ukrainians, those still in the country and refugees alike, is, as Medvedev and Young have it, surely the priority. I agree with Young that "as long as Russia wages a barbaric war in Ukraine, cultural institutions in liberal democracies should not collaborate with or engage any state-run or state-affiliated Russian cultural entities, including private organizations with government connections," or with pro-war, pro-regime figures.

Beyond that my own attitude is complex. It is not unlikely that many Russian émigrés are motivated neither purely from principle nor solely out of self-interest but by a mix of both. Demonization gets us nowhere. Temptation to assign collective guilt is best resisted. The dark side of Russian culture and its historical heritage, which includes the colonialism for which Western liberals are inclined to beat themselves with feather whips, is indeed a thorny matter. Here we do well to remind ourselves of America's own history of racism, slavery, terrible crimes against indigenous peoples, and capitalism in its rawest form, which we still struggle to come to terms with.

Bans on Russian music, poetry, and literature and less than welcoming treatment of Russians who fled their country, whether acting out of principle as dissidents or self-interest to avoid being drafted, may have been not so much Russophobia at work as a puritanical instinct to anathematize that is symptomatic of our time. How much of that is still happening? Have cooler heads sometimes prevailed?

At the end of the argument I see no reason not to treat Russian émigrés with decency and compassion, just as we would have our government treat others who come here for refuge from persecution and oppression, and at the very minimum offer moral support and encouragement to exiles who resist the Putin regime, and do likewise for opposition activists such as Alexei Nevalny and Vladi­mir Kara-Murza who remain in Russia and manage to continue speaking out even while detained or imprisoned. This is not a competition for our support of the Ukrainian cause but, rather, serves to complement it.

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