• Four Letters from Ukraine

    Elliot Ackerman

    Fall 2022

    March 15, 2022


    We arrived in Lviv last night, at around 3:00 a.m. The bus ride from Warsaw took ten hours. I’m traveling with Matt again, my old friend from reporting trips to Iraq and Syria. The city remains under a blackout ordinance and a curfew, so when the bus’s interior lights came on, all I could really see in the window was my reflection. The streets were deserted. Google Maps showed us near the intersection of Shevchenka and Yeroshenka Streets, about a mile from our hotel. The bus was continuing to the main depot, which is farther outside the city, so we decided to hop off. We soon regretted the decision. The territorial defense forces patrol the streets, and if they stopped us, I would have little more than my press pass and a few words of Ukrainian to explain why we were out after curfew.

    Iraqis and Syrians would often confuse Matt for Russian when we’d traveled together in the past. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, and standing well over six feet, Matt is a former college rower who had once driven a trailer from Germany to Iraq at the height of that country’s war to deliver sculls to a burgeoning Iraqi national crew team. A Farsi speaker, he’d also studied in an exchange program at Tehran University, which he failed to complete after the Iranian authorities accused him of espionage and imprisoned him for forty-one days in 2015. He spent thirty of those in solitary confinement and was released as a concession to the Obama administration during negotiations for the Iran nuclear agreement later that year. When we first met, he was leading a firm that evaluated the efficacy of humanitarian responses in Syria. When I told him I was heading to Ukraine and wanted him to come, he didn’t say yes right away. He explained that he was hesitant to rush off to another war zone, that war zones attract what he calls the three m’s: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. He’d had enough of all three.

    I told him there was a fourth m.

    “What’s that?”

    “Matt,” I’d said.  

    After a few blocks trundling our suitcases over the cobblestones, I spied a black sedan idling on the roadside. When Matt knocked on the glass, the driver woke with a start. “Taxi?” Matt asked. The driver nodded glumly. We piled our bags in his trunk, and he sped us through town to the hotel I’d booked on Expedia a week before. It never ceases to amaze me that you can e-book your rooms in a war zone. Wars can often feel to me like distant, far-off things, even though I have experience writing about them and fighting in them. With a war I’ve never seen, I usually feel this distance. The stream of headlines, the assault of images—it commodifies war, condenses it into a packageable story. When I feel that distance—whether I’m planning to head to that war or not—I’ll often pull out my phone and see what it would take to get to the front line. In nearly every instance, I discover I could arrive at the war with a place to stay within twenty-four hours. And suddenly, the war feels closer.

    Before we left the States, I had reserved the last two rooms at our hotel. I’d also phoned ahead, just to make certain everything was in order. However, when we arrived, the hotel doors were locked, the lights were out, and the receptionist was nowhere to be seen. Technically, we didn’t have rooms until the next night, but I thought we could at least sleep in the lobby until breakfast. I was growing worried and thought we’d have to sleep in the street, in temperatures that hovered around freezing, until curfew lifted.

    After a third phone call, a light went on in a back room. A bleary-eyed receptionist emerged, a young woman with platinum-blond hair and the look of a Eurovision singer. I presented her with our reservation, and she reminded us that we did not have a room until the next night, but she said that we were in luck: there’d been a cancellation. A room had become available, if the two of us didn’t mind sharing. We accepted and lugged our bags to the elevator, delighted by the prospect of a few hours of sleep. The room was small, a queen-sized bed framed by four drab walls. We didn’t care. The two of us collapsed onto our respective sides. Then, as sleep came over us, the hotel’s fire alarm sounded: a Russian air raid.

    Occupants from each of the hotel’s seven floors spilled into the center stairwell, which spiraled toward the basement and an air-raid shelter. These journalists, refugees, and aid workers glanced curiously at us. They’d all been trapped in this hotel long enough to identify us as newcomers, and they grumbled about another night’s sleep interrupted by an air raid. The receptionist from earlier ushered us into a shelter, which had been the hotel casino. Unplugged slot machines, empty card tables, and an enormous roulette wheel filled the floor.

    I took my seat at the roulette wheel.

    Matt sat beside me.

    We rested our heads on the green felt, right where one might place a bet, and fell sound asleep.

    March 18, 2022


    After a reporting trip, what often sticks with me most are the snippets, the orphaned moments, that make no argument—the interviews that never make it into any writing, the meetings consigned to notes. Yesterday, I had one of these with Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv.  

    Despite the war, Sadovyi hasn’t abandoned his prominent office space at the city council building. He remains quite visible, often holding press conferences and appearing at public events. The day before, he’d given a speech in Rynok Square, where a local artist had assembled 108 baby strollers in ranks to represent the death toll of children in the first weeks of the war. While I waited in the high-ceilinged anteroom off his office, his staff had politely insisted that our meeting take no more than fifteen minutes. The mayor of Lviv is, of course, a very busy man. Then Sadovyi appeared, opening the door and gesturing me inside with a sweep of his hand. Like nearly every other Ukrainian politician, he’d swapped his suit and tie for jeans and a moisture-wicking T-shirt. He asked where I came from (New York), if I’d been to Lviv before the war (three times, in fact), and where I was staying (the Astoria). He said he liked the Astoria, that they had a casino in the basement. Had I seen it yet?

    Sadovyi wanted to discuss municipal resilience. Six months ago, he’d attended a conference on the topic in Britain. When he’d returned to Lviv, it was with an agenda. He’d insisted the city invest in non-electric water pumps, stores of medical supplies, and diesel generators, so that everything might function normally during a war. He asked whether I’d noticed that the city hadn’t lost power yet. He noted that I was staying near the Opera House and that performances had been suspended because the city was using the Opera House to store supplies in accordance with the city’s plans. He continued to hammer away at his talking points: refugees had exploded the city’s population; he believed that the acute phase of the war would last through the summer; Lviv would become a hub from which the rest of Ukraine would rebuild “after the victory” (here, it’s never the “end of the war,” it is always “after the victory”). One of Sadovyi’s staffers cracked open the door, but Sadovyi wasn’t finished. “Ukraine has surprised the world,” he said. “Now you must surprise us.” Ukraine needed more support. Would NATO and the liberal democracies of the world rise to the challenge? According to Sadovyi, every nation could be summarized in a single word. “U.S.: Freedom. Germany: Order. Japan: Dignity. For Ukraine, our word is: Will.”

    He escorted me out to the anteroom. He mumbled something to a staffer. The young woman reached under her large desk and presented me with a bottle of red wine of local vintage. Given the state of martial law, a city ordinance prohibited the selling of alcohol, but the mayor pointed out that no prohibition existed on giving alcohol as a gift. I thanked him for the bottle. He advised that we take a photo. The staffer asked for my phone, which I handed over. I was holding the bottle of wine and the mayor asked that I place it on the desk, just for the photo. “Someone might get the wrong idea,” he explained. “People are easily upset these days.”

    Elliot Ackerman is the author of several books, most recently The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan. His work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal in both fiction and nonfiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He divides his time between New York City and Washington, DC.

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