“In the Shadow of Invasion”: Artist Molly Crabapple & Ukrainian Journalist Anna Grechishkina Document Ukraine War
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
Ukraine is accusing Russia of bombing a dam in the southern city of Kryvyi Rih, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was born. Parts of the city have been evacuated due to flooding. This marks the latest Russian attack on civilian infrastructure, after Ukrainian forces recaptured over 3,000 square miles of territory from Russia during a counteroffensive. On Wednesday, Zelensky visited the city of Izium, which Ukrainian forces retook over the weekend.
We’re joined now by the New York-based artist and author Molly Crabapple. She recently returned from Ukraine, where she traveled across the country drawing sketches of what she observed. Several of those sketches appear as part of her article just out in The New York Review of Books. It’s headlined “In the Shadow of Invasion.” In her article, Molly talks about and draws about her meeting with Anna Grechishkina, a Ukrainian journalist who is a full-time motorcycle traveler, riding around the world for the past nine years, trying to set a record in The Guinness Book of World Records for the motorcycle female rider who traveled the furthest. She returned to Ukraine when the war started. Molly Crabapple joins us from New York. Anna is with us from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Molly, talk about this journey you took. Talk about why you chose to focus your enormous talent, your illustrations and your writing, on what’s happening in Ukraine right now.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Thank you so much for having me here, Amy.
I chose to travel to Ukraine at the beginning of August because history was happening there. Ukrainians were writing their own history, and I wanted to document it. I had known Ukraine primarily from my research for my next book as a place where some of the greatest cataclysms of the 20th century had happened, where millions of people were killed in a planned famine in the 1930s, the place where the Germans essentially began the Holocaust, also the place that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union by voting for its independence in 1991. And because of this, I wanted to see with my own eyes how Ukrainians were writing and defining their own future in the face of this idiotic and unprovoked invasion.
I traveled all over the country. I didn’t go to the frontlines at all, but I went to Odessa, to Kyiv, to Lviv. And with Anna, I also went to Borodyanka and Bucha. When I was there, I saw a country that was fighting so hard to preserve its independence, to preserve its identity, and also to preserve a sense of normal life and just to, like, go about your day and have some beauty and sit at a cafe and be able to live, even when war had extracted so many costs from every single person.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anna, could you talk about your meeting with Molly and what kind of assistance — your decision to go back to Ukraine once the war began, and what kind of aid and assistance you’ve been providing to people who have lost their homes, people who have had to flee their homes and whose homes have been destroyed?
ANNA GRECHISHKINA: Thank you so much for having me here and for the opportunity to talk about Ukraine and to share my experience in Ukraine.
Yes, I’ve been traveling around the world for the past nine years on my motorcycle. But [inaudible] broke out in Ukraine, I decided to come back, because I just wanted to be with my country and with my people and to contribute as much as I could for the cause in Ukraine and to fight. Honestly, I didn’t know what exactly I could do, you know, so I was talking with many of my local friends and with the military people who had experience. And one of my friends, he was the commander of one of the voluntary battalions in Ukraine, in Kyiv, and he said that “You just come, and we will find — we will find you a job to do.” And without thinking twice, I came back. I joined this military battalion. I went through the basic training. So I learned some basics of combat, of tactic medicine, of shooting, of using the weapons, some psychological moments, etc. And it was really, really useful for me as a person who had no military experience at all.
What I’m doing at the moment, because I am a traveler and I’m a writer, so I decided actually to use this same skill for Ukraine. So, what I’m doing now, I’m traveling around Ukraine everywhere, and even close to the frontlines. I’m meeting people. I’m collecting the stories of the war. And I’m recording interesting facts, and just to show to the world how Ukraine is managing and how people are surviving and how they are managing actually to keep the normal life, despite everything, and to be the huge source of inspiration for the whole world, because we are protecting the values of freedom and democracy. And in this sense, we are not just fighting for our land, you know, and for our values, but actually for the values of the whole world.
And we, as Ukrainians, really appreciate the support of the whole world, of all the people from many countries, from the United States, who actually come physically to our country to support us, to support financially, morally, with their knowledge. And that’s why I was really happy to meet Molly here in Kyiv and to spend a couple of days with her and to travel a little bit with her to the outskirts of Kyiv and to different towns. And I was really impressed with her passion and with her dedication, with her talent, that she used to show to the world how Ukraine is and how Ukrainians are. So, I really appreciate that, and I really appreciate every foreigner that I met here in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: Anna Grechishkina, I also want to say how well you’re doing right now, given that you have COVID. So I thank you for your energy. I wanted to play a clip of one of the civilians you spoke to during your travels in Ukraine, this woman named Kateryna, who lost everything in the war but still works in her garden and plants vegetables.
KATERYNA: [translated] They bombed the house on the 18th of March. We left by that time. And we came back when Ukrainians take over. You see the car is almost new, Fiat, burnt down. What can you do? But I have the garden here, planting everything — beetroot, cabbage, carrots, everything.
ANNA GRECHISHKINA: [translated] So you planted all of this now, after the house was burnt?
KATERYNA: [translated] Yes, in spring, after coming back. You see everything here, real garden, but no house.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Molly Crabapple. It’s women like these you met across the country as you rode on the motorcycle with Anna. Describe that journey that you took and the places where you mainly focused, that you were most affected by.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I have to give a small correction. While I was on the back of Konstantin’s motorcycle to visit Borodyanka, most of my trip, unfortunately, I was only traveling by train, and not anything so cool as being on the back of Anna’s motorcycle — though, you know, fingers crossed for the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Maybe you could break a Guinness World Book of record together.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Most drawings drawn on the back of a motorcycle.
Katya was one of the women who impressed me the most, actually. You have this working-class woman, who saved her whole life, going to Poland to work, doing like hard, physical stuff, and everything she owned was destroyed by the Russian bombing. She had to stay with her husband in a cellar that was — I feel wrong even calling it a cellar. It was like a little, like, root cellar where you’d store pickles or something. And yet, despite all of this, she was growing vegetables. And she grew dill in the crater, where the missile hit, in a pattern to emphasize how it looked.
And one of the things about war and about covering war is that it’s the same in many places. I, you know, briefly went to Azaz, which is a city just over the Turkish border in Syria that was bombed a lot by the Assad regime in 2014. I went to Gaza, as well. And what war looks like is war looks like blackened buildings that are half fallen down with bits of people’s lives hanging from the side. But it also looks like tough working-class old women standing next to the rubble that used to be their homes and offering you the most delicious dessert you ever had in your life, because they still want to be hospitable to a guest.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Molly, I want to go back to the history that you pointed to, Ukraine as the center of so many calamitous events in the 20th century, including the created famine, the so-called terror famine of the 1930s, to what’s happening today and what happened, most notably, in the Second World War. Among the places you visited was Babi Yar, where tens of thousands of people, the vast majority Jews, were shot dead during the Second World War in what became known as the Holocaust, as part of this Holocaust by bullets. Could you describe what you saw there and what you learned of that history? What’s happened to that site?
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Babi Yar is a park now. Me and Anna, actually, we went together. I mean, it’s a bit hard for me to talk about. When you go there, it’s like this huge ravine where 100,000 people were forced to strip naked and murdered, and you feel like the ground is crying out with all of their ghosts. But right now it’s a beautiful place, though the Soviet plaque on the memorial just says 100,000 citizens of Kyiv, not that they were Jewish.
But for me, something that was very personally meaningful was that despite the Holocaust and despite the murder of the vast majority of Jews in Ukraine, there is a Jewish community still, of which, obviously, President Zelensky is the most famous member. And there’s also a community of people that are Jewish/not Jewish who are passionately committed to keeping Ukrainian Yiddish culture alive.
One moment that will always stay in my heart is I visited the apartment of an 82-year-old woman named Tatyana in Lviv. She was a Polish woman. She had fled from Warsaw as a little girl. And when she retired as a nurse, she devoted the last 20 years of her life to studying and performing Yiddish music. She and a small band of musicians, many of them Jewish, were rehearsing. And they didn’t just rehearse like the old Yiddish standards about thieves and about lovers, about parents; they also translated Ukrainian patriotic songs into Yiddish. And Tatyana has a daughter that’s in the Armed Forces right now. I feel like women like Tatyana or like another woman I met there, a Jewish refugee from Luhansk, the city occupied by Russia, women like these, they show the multiethnic identity of Ukraine, that it’s possible to be a Ukrainian and be proud to be Ukrainian and to support your country at this terrible time, while also being Polish or also being Jewish.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, Molly. After the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, I went to Lviv and then to Rovno, about an hour away, where my grandmother was born in 1897. She was a woman of three centuries, died at 108 just in 2005. And we visited the Sosenki Forest massacre, the second-largest massacre in Ukraine in World War II, where half the Jewish population of Rovno was — or Rivne, I think, as it’s said in Ukraine — was killed. Can you talk about the movement in Ukraine to revive Yiddish and Yiddishkeit, Yiddish culture?
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Sure. So, I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, links that are made between American institutions, like YIVO in New York, which has provided tons and tons and tons of free classes to Ukrainian Yiddishists. There’s also a Yiddish institute in Kyiv at the university there. There’s a statue of Sholem Aleichem. There are amazing musicians. I recommend everyone Google The Alabi Sisters, two of the most glamorous women I have ever seen in my life, Ukrainian women that are trying to resurrect The Barry Sisters for a new generation. There is also — there was an elderly Holocaust survivor whose name I’m forgetting, there was a documentary about him, Boris — Boris Dorfman a Mentsh, I think, about his stubborn and passionate love of Lviv and his insistence on staying there for the rest of his life and on keeping this language that he loved alive. And there’s something about it, you know, being in the city that was a third Jewish before the Holocaust and hearing that language spoken, that kind of broke my heart in two. It was so beautiful.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Molly, just to say that what you witnessed there, the attempts to revive the language of Yiddish, 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers.
And finally, Anna, we heard earlier, we covered in our headlines, that Putin has said — Secretary-General — U.N. Secretary-General Guterres said, after speaking to Putin, that there’s no possibility of a resolution at the moment. What are Ukrainians saying? What prospects are there for a negotiated peace now?
ANNA GRECHISHKINA: Well, you know, I would say that most of Ukrainians, we are looking forward to our victory, a full victory without any compromises, because we want our territory back, and all those territories that have been occupied by Russians since actually 2014, because even though the full-scale war started since 24th of February of 2022, but actually the war with Russia has been going on for more than eight years, you know? Just it wasn’t much on the news all these years. It was somewhere in the east, so to say. But now the whole world can see, yeah, what Russia’s intentions is. So, we are not ready to compromise. We are just — we are waiting, and we are hoping, and we are — actually, we are confident in our victory. And the success of the army, like since the beginning of September this year in the eastern direction and many territories that have been liberated, they really gives us hope that the victory will be ours and it will happen quite soon. So, I would say that this is the position of the most of Ukrainians. Especially after all the destruction and after all the lost lives that Russians took from us, I don’t think that any compromise is possible at all. And especially that they don’t keep their promises, they don’t keep their word, you know, so what is the point? There’s been so many lies going on from their side. So, again, as I say, we are looking forward to our victory, to the victory of Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much, both of you, for being with us. Anna Grechishkina, a Ukrainian journalist and motorcycle traveler, now back to be in her country, speaking to us from Kyiv. And again, a speedy recovery from COVID.
ANNA GRECHISHKINA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And Molly Crabapple, thank you so much for joining us. We will link to your piece in The New York Review of Books, “In the Shadow of Invasion.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Pakistan, where a third of the country is underwater after catastrophic flooding caused by the climate catastrophe. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, performed by the Rivne Symphony inside a mall in Rivne. I recorded it on my phone in 2018 in December. They were trying to get people in the mall to come to the symphony that night, and the musicians popped up from the salon, from the Apple Store, from everywhere, and they just came together and started playing.