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Harriman Magazine
Pencil drawing of Warsaw's main square with a colorful cloud background
2024 Issue | Ukrainian Culture
To See Beauty Again
by Anna Stavychenko, translated by Masha Udensiva-Brenner


This book is born out of immense loneliness. Since February 24, 2022, I have discovered many new forms of loneliness. When the first explosions of the full-scale war thundered through Kyiv, amidst the shock and numbness I also felt something that continues to surprise me to this day: a sense of injustice stemming from the fact that I would die alone. That there would be no one near me to witness my last seconds. No one I could ask to pass along a few tender words to my loved ones (if they themselves survived). It was as if this made my whole life unreal, something that never existed. And this created a very bitter feeling. And it also generated a lot of anger. Perhaps it was precisely this anger that triggered me to act. To save my family. To save myself. “You won’t get me, Russians. After you killed so many of my family members in the Holodomor, after breaking the lives of my ancestors in the Gulag, after labeling those dear to me ‘enemies of the people’—no, you won’t get me”—these words were whirling in my head for every second of the three days of the evacuation. I promised that my life would have many more witnesses. That I would utter and receive many more tender words. I would live. And I would write a book about it.


After the outbreak of the full-scale war, Valeria and her parents planned to stay in their country house not far from Kyiv, but being there turned out to be more dangerous than they expected. So, after traveling for a few exhausting days, they found themselves near Warsaw, having only their documents and a day’s worth of spare clothing with them. They were sheltered by a Polish family, headed by a woman named Katarzhyna, which soon became a second family for all of them.

Valeria asked Katarzhyna to drop her off somewhere in the Old Town. After walking through a labyrinth of small streets, she quickly emerged close to the main campus of the University of Warsaw. The sun, still wintry, illuminated the ancient buildings that had once risen anew from terrible destruction, the gates of the university, the cobblestones. It was shining on a completely different—ordinary—life. People were sitting in cafes, laughing and rushing to their destinations. Everything looked exactly like her life had been just 10 days before.

She stopped in the middle of the street and started weeping for the first time since the start of the full-scale war. She hadn’t wept when Russian missiles and bombs flew toward Kyiv. She hadn’t wept while she closed the door to her perfect, warm apartment that held all her dreams and all her plans, not knowing when, if ever, she would return. She hadn’t wept during that frightening night in Kyiv Oblast when she had been making plans in case of capture by those Russian bastards, and the only way of saving herself and her family from rape and torture would have involved killing her parents and then taking her own life. She hadn’t wept when, just before reaching the Polish border, Russian tanks surrounded their evacuation train and held them at gunpoint for an hour and a half. Her animal instinct had held on to save her family and she had felt nothing but the burning desire to survive.

But now she dissolved into tears as she faced the tragic contrast between ordinary life and what was happening in Ukraine, just 186 miles from these streets—skies free of Russian missiles, cafes, people rushing along somewhere to complete their peaceful tasks …

“Why us? How did we deserve this?” Valeria watched the Warsaw weekday around her as if she were watching a movie. Her personal reality was now completely different. Only the war was real. Nights were restless. After arriving in Warsaw from the Polish village where her parents were still living, Valeria had to accustom herself again to the noises of a new place. Night after night she couldn’t sleep, absorbing every sound, studying them, attaching  a mental label to them so she could identify them as safe. “The hum of a motorcycle.” “The knocking of a door in the neighboring lobby.” “The upstairs neighbors’ creaking floorboards.” “Rolling thunder”… her mind had to learn to recognize every sound so as to not be afraid of it.

Valeria had already survived something similar in 2014, after the executions of the protestors on Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the Russian occupation of Donbas—the year the war really started. In that awful moment her consciousness had failed to hold onto her sense of security. Mass killings were happening just next to her home and outside of her alma mater, the National Music Academy. And then the shock that the neighboring government could tear off a part of your territory and capture a huge region—she had experienced all of this as an attack on her own home. At night she had been scared to fall asleep, listening, wondering if someone was breaking into the door of her apartment. She had been frozen in fear when, standing in the shower, the sounds of water sounded like the footsteps of murderers coming to kill her …

Now, in Warsaw, her traumatized consciousness transformed the regular metropolitan soundscape into the sounds of explosions, gunshots, and air raid sirens. Awakening to the horn of the passing ambulance, she reached for her telephone and checked the news, afraid to discover that the Russians had attacked Poland, too, and that the ambulance was transporting victims of the first missile strikes to the hospital. She imagined that this time she would be completely alone: her family thirty miles from Warsaw, with no way to reach them during another invasion. She wouldn’t be able to save them. And now the Russians would kill them all. This terror was difficult to appease with rational logic, because it arose from the trauma of lost security, which had lived in her for years and now battered at her psyche with newfound strength. The stress and the lack of sleep took her voice. She would soon have to meet with the director of the National Institute of Polish Culture and the director of the Polish National Orchestra. These discussions were supposed to determine whether or not she would be able to bring the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra to Poland.

Valeria came to the restaurant meeting very early and drank tea with honey and lemon in short sips, hoping that her voice wouldn’t betray her, at least for the next hour. Elzbieta, the director of the institute, appeared first. A young, beautiful brunette whose features projected not only strength but also extreme kindness, she had in her hands a large, multicolored bouquet of tulips. “This is for you,” she smiled and handed the flowers to Valeria. “I just wanted to do something nice for you. You must be having such a difficult time right now.”

Valeria got up, timidly took the flowers and thanked Elzbieta. She suddenly felt great warmth. She felt her voice coming back. She and Elzbieta sat across from each other at the table.

“And so, how are you?” Elzbieta asked.

“I’m ok, thanks. The date of the orchestra’s departure from Ukraine is already decided. I hope that today we can finalize the details of their arrival in Poland.”

Elzbieta delicately interrupted Valeria with her gaze.

“No, I mean how are you? You?” She emphasized the last word with her melodic voice.

Valeria stared at Elzbieta. She felt that an entire lifetime had passed since someone had asked her how she was really doing. Not as a refugee, or as a Ukrainian, or as the director of the orchestra, or as a daughter. How she was. Her. As a human. With the right to grief, fear, anger. It felt good, but also a bit uncomfortable, to have someone look at her so openly and sympathetically, willing to accept whatever response came forth.

“I’m … holding on. Thanks,” she said shyly. Valeria didn’t know what else to say with words, but her gaze conveyed all the pain she felt. And that was enough for both of them.

Pencil sketch of a cellist, playing.


The Orchestra

A month and a half after the start of the full-scale war, Valeria, as a managing director, organized a residency for the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra in Warsaw, during which the orchestra was able to rehearse for the first time since February 24th, and prepared for a subsequent tour in Germany.

Before the concert in Hanover the master of ceremonies walked onto the stage to introduce the program for the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra. The famous German musicologist, who specialized in Eastern European music, was noticeably nervous, preparing to tell the public about music that, obviously, he knew very little about until recently. After a few introductory phrases about “the Ukrainian orchestra touring Germany during this tragic time,” he focused on Borys Lyatoshynsky’s Third Symphony. Specifically, he discussed its historical context, which he made primarily about the figure of Soviet Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Talking about Lyatoshynsky, the greatest Ukrainian composer of the 20th century, he again and again redirected the public’s attention to the Soviet icon. “Just like Shostakovich he was forced to create in the conditions of a totalitarian regime,” and, “In the footsteps of Shostakovich, his music dealt with military themes.” Shostakovich’s name was repeated by the master of ceremonies three or four times. Lyatoshynksy’s name—practically never. And when he did finally name him, he pronounced it incorrectly. Of course, Lyatoshynsky is not the easiest name to pronounce for a Western audience. But, as a matter of fact, neither is Shostakovich. The latter, however, is pronounced without hesitation not just by professionals but also by every music lover. Because he is known. Because his music is constantly programmed, worldwide in the most prestigious concert halls.

Valeria observed what was unfolding from the parterre. Listening to Shostakovich mentioned over and over again at a concert of Ukrainian music, she pondered how even in the 21st century Russia continued to overshadow and destroy Ukrainian culture. She pondered how Russia was liberally pouring influence and money into European institutions and festivals. She pondered how its imperial propaganda had for centuries hung the label “Russian” upon everyone and everything that Russia cleverly snatched up by way of cultural appropriation, by robbing Ukrainian museums and private collections, by physically destroying Ukrainian artists and intellectuals. She thought of the Ukrainian composer Dmytro Bortniansky, one of the key figures in 18th century Ukrainian music, whom Russians refer to as a “Russian composer,” as they refer to his First Symphony as “the first Russian symphony.” She thought of Mykola Leontovych, the author of the iconic “Carol of the Bells,” killed in 1921 by the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. She thought of the Executed Renaissance, a generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia—poets, writers, musicians, theater personalities—systematically eliminated by the Soviet authorities throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Every day of this German tour, Valeria received horrible news from home. The Russians were up to more of the same: destroying museums, theaters and cultural objects, robbing collections, killing Ukrainian musicians, writers, poets, intellectuals. Just two days before, during another concert of the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra in Germany, the orchestra’s former marketing director was killed by a missile strike in Kyiv. Just as it had done 300  years ago, 100 years ago, Russia was targeting the very heart of Ukrainian identity: its culture.

Pencil drawing of Paris with a monument in the foreground



Valeria moved to Paris to manage a project at the Paris Conservatory helping Ukrainian artists in France. She met several Ukrainian intellectuals who ended up in Paris because of the war. One of her new friends is called Mykola: he is a researcher from Luhansk who received a scholarship from the American-French institute to write a book.

One evening as she and Mykola walked from the institute, she turned his attention to a bas-relief on one of the houses near the Luxembourg Gardens. “Look how beautiful it is. You know, sometimes I choose a beautiful object in Paris, usually a building, and force myself to recognize its beauty. Because otherwise I don’t see it anymore. I look, but I can’t see.”

“Yes. Me too…”

They quietly examined the bas-relief. Paris in September was gentle and quiet in its anticipation of the buzzing evening streets. A magic hour was starting to adorn the building facades.

“Do you think we will ever overcome this? Be able to see beauty again, feel alive?” asked Valeria, her gaze fixed upon the bas-relief.

“I don’t think so,” Mykola responded, not hesitating for even a second. ◆

Featured photo (at the top): ©

Headshot of Anna StavychenkoAnna Stavychenko is a Ukrainian musicologist, former executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, and mission head of the Philharmonie de Paris project that helps Ukrainian musicians exiled in France. The following is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, which she worked on during her Harriman residency in Paris. It is inspired by true events.

The works linked below are from the other three of Harriman’s four 2023 Ukrainian residents in Paris, who participated in Art in Time of War and then continued their artistic residencies at Reid Hall, Columbia Global Centers in Paris.

The Second Beginning

By Nikita Grigorov, who is a Ukrainian writer, journalist, and editor selected as the Harriman Institute’s 2022 Paul Klebnikov Fellow. Translated from the Russian by Masha Udensiva-Brenner. Read now >>


By Natalka Bilotserkivets, an award-winning Ukrainian poet. Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella (MARS-REERS ’14) and Ukrainian-American poet and translator Dzvinia Orlowksy. Read now >>

The Smell of Mariupol

By Zoya Laktionova, Ukrainian documentary filmmaker. Read now >>