116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Wednesday, I was in an Issaquah, Wash., cardiac unit on IVs. Thursday, I was out of the hospital, and Russia invaded Ukraine. Friday in Dnipro, Ukraine, my wife, Vika, awoke to the sound of explosions. She thought they were near the airport, which it turned out they were.
“It was terrifying,” Vika told me Saturday morning when we spoke on Facebook Messenger.
She's not easily terrified. This is a woman who accomplished her immigration to Slovakia while she was alone in Turkey while I worked the other end in Slovakia.
I’d gone ahead to Bratislava after having been deported by the authoritarian Erdogan regime. My crime? Working as an English teacher at a university run by the Fethullah Gulen movement, once tight with Erdogan and now his sworn enemy. Apparently, countable nouns and phrasal verbs somehow made me “a national security risk.” I was held in jail for a number of hours, then allowed to fly out of Istanbul for Copenhagen, which I picked because I'd never been.
Eventually, Vika and I lived in Bratislava for four years, then moved to Dnipro, Ukraine, where she owned three apartments. We took one, did some remodeling, and settled into a comfortable life. I taught online, and she learned to plaster walls. She had already been a mining-equipment engineer, the ad manager of a big TV station, and an English teacher. It was the reverse of the Ukrainian gold-digger stories you hear online.
I flew to Washington State for Christmas, and Vika stayed behind in Dnipro, her life disrupted by air raid sirens as Feb. 24 came and went and Vladimir Putin's war came to Ukraine.
WORLD EVENTS, PRIVATE LIVES
Once again, world events intruded on our private lives. I couldn't come back, and she couldn't leave. All Ukrainian airline service was suspended. I spent time in the Washington State hospital, Vika hid in bomb shelters every time a Russian missile flew over. A phone app warned Ukrainians of the presence of missiles.
The Russians had an impeccable record of sending their missiles over Dnipro after midnight, disrupting everyone's sleep as much as possible. When she told me about this, I imagined her in bed, staring at the ceiling, which she did before plenty of nights, even without sirens.
Eventually, Vika had had enough. Her nerves were frazzled, if not shot.
She boarded a “refugee train” with 2,000 other people. Meant to hold about 200 other passengers in normal times, the train had no announced destination. She had a small backpack; otherwise, everything we had was left behind in Dnipro. All her cooking devices and all my pottery store Christmas presents from my grandchildren and family pictures. She landed in Poland, in a refugee camp. Her son, who happened to be in Magdeburg, Germany, retrieved her.
She began the process of applying for refugee status in Germany. Why not? she thought. Turns out it was much simpler than trying to come to the U.S. permanently, although she did visit for five weeks in April and May on an existing tourist visa.
A DARK YEAR
The Russians attacked Dnipro again and destroyed a shoe factory, of all things, killing one man.
Like a lot of people, including Vika and I, the man was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So many other people have been, too. Many have had it far worse than we have.
Still, this is two autocrats in a row who have dislocated us and separated us from one another and our possessions. We had to leave all our furniture and household goods in Turkey, and now this, which follows an extended period of isolation forced by COVID-19. COVID killed Vika's mother in October 2021. Vika had it herself after I came to the U.S.
So, quite the dark year.
Since July 2021, I have spent 36 days in hospitals while doctors puzzled out what was wrong with my heart. In Ukraine, for 28 of those days, nurses performed far fewer functions than in the U.S., so Vika did literally all of my nursing care except for finding veins for my IVs. Might as well pick up another career skill. I fell twice in the hospital and accomplished two concussions, after one of which Vika had turned orange and I didn't know her and couldn't remember what country I was in or who I worked for.
We paid bribes to the nurses and doctors, just as we had for my permanent residence visa. Not ideal, but that's how these things are done in Ukraine.
There is no way to bribe your way out of Putin's War. Since the war started Feb. 24, at least 32,000 Russian soldiers have died, and, according to the United Nations, somewhere around 5,000 Ukrainian civilians had been killed by June 8. The totals are inexact, and likely much higher, and it's awful.
I’m sick of it. I don’t want to whine, but we want our lives back. We were quiet and worked hard. Any sort of work ethic or morality seems vaguer than it should. Millions of lives have been disrupted, and it shows no signs of abating. The world seems tilted.
I'm generally a pacifist but would happily make an exception to pacifism in Putin's case. He's a murderer and a thug. He deserves to be repaid in kind. I can’t begin to tell Joe Biden what he should do in Ukraine. I'll leave that to the Facebook warriors who know even less than I do.
One thing those loudmouths can’t do is tell me what my lived experience has been. A few have tried, but I’m having none of it.
Other people, who also didn’t experience what we have, have gone far beyond what they needed to do. Mary Sharp of Cedar Rapids set up a GoFundMe account to get Vika to the U.S. and buy her some things like shoes and clothes. Other people, acquaintances really, have contributed other money that they wouldn’t have had to contribute. We appreciate these gestures more than they know. They have had an absolute concrete impact.
My three daughters and two spouses have hosted me, and my ex-wife and her husband did the same. In the end, of course, there still is good in the world.
But it seems at least as hard to find — generally speaking — than at any point in my growing up in Ottumwa starting 69 years ago. A mass shooting every week, it seems. Ukraine. COVID. Erdogan. Duterte. Orban, and their analogues in the U.S.
The light at the end of the tunnel may not be an oncoming train of the old cliché. But it's hard to say. Real hard to say. I don't feel totally hopeless, but neither do I feel exceptionally hopeful.
In this new, crazy world, that would be exceptionally naive.
Larry Johnson was a news editor at The Gazette from 1996 to 2002 and is a former editor of the Fairfield and Fort Dodge newspapers. He has lived in Central Europe for the past 20 years, teaching journalism and English for the City University of Seattle/Vysoka Skola Manazmentu. He now lives in his daughters' basements and guest rooms. Comments: email@example.com