Update from Italy: Ukraine Close By

Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

Since February 24, friends and family in the U.S. have been asking me, Monica, what does the situation in Ukraine look like from Italy? Is it really that bad? Does it feel close? I have been mulling a post about Ukraine for weeks. The Russian invasion started the Thursday before the weekend that our Covid adventure began here at our house. In my lethargic confusion, I watched the headlines wink in and out from my phone.

People everywhere wanted to feel hopeful the incursion would not last too long, but that was when we all thought that Russian was a stronger military power than it is proving itself to be. I suppose the idea was that Ukraine would quickly surrender. Putin clearly thought the regime change exercise would last a weekend, maybe a week. A Russian-friendly puppet leader would be installed, maybe a symbolic election held soon after. But that’s not what happened. Ukraine is resisting, stronger than many people believed, and Russia seems irrational and decrepit (and cruel) by turns (sometimes all at once).

The population of Ukraine is roughly the same size as that of Spain – 44 million. The 35th most populous nation, according to World Meter. A vast fertile plain, it grows much of the wheat and sunflowers used for oil for the European continent and abroad. Some Middle Eastern countries depend on Ukraine for their food imports. The ripple effects of the war there will disrupt many other places for months, maybe years to come. Ukrainian farmers would normally be tending their spring planting now, but none of that can happen. As of last week, 10% of the Ukrainian population has fled the country – just under 4.5 million people. I suspect those numbers to skew low – officially counting the displaced presents obvious challenges. It’s not like they’re leaving through a turnstile with a ticker.

I heard a bit of news (unconfirmed) that two-thirds of Ukrainian children are now displaced as refugees. The Italian news reports that 100,000 newly-arrived Ukrainians are now here in Italy. Some have found their way to Florence, a city twinned with Kyiv, and where a stable population of Ukrainians lived before February 24. A friend contacted me last week to see if I had any donations for a mother who arrived with her three sons, aged 15, 8, and 5. The oldest boy is continuing his high school classes online. The two younger boys are bored. they have no toys. The mom is exhausted and scared. The father was unable to leave Ukraine due to the mandatory conscription. They have nothing, the friend said, and we didn’t have much in nice condition at the thrift shop to give them. Victor blows out the knees of his pants like no one’s business, but I promised to have a look around. Our upcycle offerings were skimpy, so I made a few targeted requests to four other moms in the area and took up a collection. The local moms were generous. We tried to remember the Ukrainian mom too, as I was told that people often donate to children and forget to remember the parents. We collected clothes for all four of them, plus a load of Lego sets in their boxes for the boys. Last Friday in the rain with two friends I walked all the bags up to the ring road for the pickup by the friend who was coordinating for this family.

This is just one Ukrainian family. There are scores of Ukrainian families in hotels around Florence, mothers and children without fathers, waiting and watching to see how long this lasts. Trying to devise some semblance of routine in the meantime. Searching for news about the fathers, thrust into battle.

There are also dissidents in Florence too, from Russia, seeking political asylum after posting their opposition publicly. It’s important to remember the internal dissent in Russia. They’re not all of one mind about this – far from it. But I have also encountered local Russians lamenting the anti-Russian propaganda, how Russia is the victim, claiming that the Ukrainians are bombing themselves and turning on one another, all the while blaming Russia. These harangues have left me speechless, locked in an airless room of Italian language between America and Russia. I cannot fathom Ukranians scribbling “For the Children” on the metal case of a shell on a train platform after an attack, the dead strewn haphazardly next to suitcases and bags, I ventured into one recent conversation trying to commiserate as an oft-dissenting American and was met with a hard line counterpoint that was not only incomprehensible but morally repugnant. I did not know what to further say to that parent. I gave it what a former manager used to call the slow roll.

Other local friends tell me their Russian friends believe none of the Russian news. We have a new legal intern in the law office, a young woman from Hungary whom I hope is running the EU in twenty years. I so appreciate her input and rational analysis of events and elections in what we used to call the Eastern Bloc, back when I was in high school in the eighties. Over espresso and case files we have covered Orban, Poland, Slovenia, and the Serbian elections. What the former Eastern Bloc thinks of Putin, and how Putin’s example emboldens other leaders in the region to take pages out of his playbook – Orban and Hungary in particular, now set to lose massive amounts of EU funding due to rule-of-law breaches. The rot runs deep. These leaders swagger hard. And their populist constituents lap it up. If no one can be for us, who will stand up for us? The great shadow of neo-liberalism – the gap in wealth and opportunity between urban and rural culture – falls long and dark the world over. The city and the country are no longer speaking the same language, and it’s doubtful that they ever were, but now the difference is seen in high relief, and it’s looking mighty ugly to the have-nots and the we’ll-never-haves.

Italy is very concerned about all of this. As a NATO member, as a country for whom the events of World War II are very much a living memory, I think it is very triggering for Italians. The blowhard Salvini (their much younger mini-Trump) has been pretty quiet on the news. Italy also has maintained a nice moral high ground, I think, in the years since 1948. The Pope lives in Rome, and Catholic humanism still very much forms a basis for cultural mores here. It is strange to be an American in Italy watching events unfold in Ukraine with the Russian aggression. I am so used to being in the US as the US embarks on some new harebrained foreign military intervention and being appalled at my perceived complicity in the culture of violence.

The older I get, the harder it is to come up with any plausible reason for a foreign war. Defense at home, ok. But that a wealthy national should sally forth with tanks and missiles to some other country thousands of miles away, to “liberate” them or save them from a “hostile dictator”? Please. I am ashamed to admit it, but I do assess myself as unjustifiably hawkish in the years 1992-1998 and 2004-2016. Why? I don’t know. I was a frog in the political pot of Oklahoma, in many ways. It is hard to see straight or hear clearly when the local news broadcast is a nonstop parrot of Pentagon talking points. So, in this respect, I understand the insistence of the Russian parent after school a couple of weeks ago.

I don’t know if any of this is useful to any reader out there. I hope so. Plenty more where this came from. I suppose my takeaway right now is, give to Ukraine relief, and resist autocracy and economic oligarchy in all their forms. And cultivate empathy for suffering. Maybe don’t sit in a hall of mirrors by yourself, muttering about imperial history and Peter the Great and the Rus tribe. You gotta talk to people and be willing to be challenged on your received ideas, maybe change your mind, admit you were wrong when necessary. I mean, that’s something we can all work on, every day.

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