In Stoic Ukraine, Stony Faces Are Starting to Crack and to Cry

KYIV, Ukraine — Hunched over a plate of borscht in a crowded restaurant, the man bragged about how many people he used to employ, all his political connections and how, if he ever had to, he could even kill someone and cause trouble. “leave.”

With his clean-shaven head, black sweatshirt, and hands the size of bear paws, he certainly looked like he could make good on that threat. And if this openly macho owner of a construction company couldn’t do it himself, he kept dropping hints of his ties to the Ukrainian underworld.

But then his face suddenly softened, saddened.

“All my life, all my life, when I had a problem, I could fix it,” he said. “But now… with this war…” — he couldn’t even finish the sentence. She covered her face with her hands and burst into sobs, tears falling into her soup.

Ukrainians are generally good at showing a brave front. Much of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s downward message has been that they are tough, they are ready to sacrifice, they are “unbreakable” – that’s one of Mr. Zelensky’s favorite words.

But as the war progresses, an almost unbearable amount of pain accumulates. And like the sudden outburst in the restaurant, which shocked everyone at the table, especially the man himself, so many people here try to hide their suffering that it creates a precarious emotional landscape, full of unmarked cliffs.

“People don’t want to open up because they are afraid of losing control if they do,” said Anna Trofymenko, a psychotherapist in Kremenchuk, a town in central Ukraine.

He had a metaphor for this tendency to repress emotions.

“There are two types of people in this world: the avocado and the coconut,” he said.

The avocado, he explained, is soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Coconut is the complete opposite.

“We are like coconuts,” he said.

Even before the war, he said, Ukrainians tended to be stoic and reluctant to get emotional. She put it down to the lingering haze of Soviet times when the survival strategy was: don’t stand out. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t open up to strangers.

Yevhen Mahda, a leading kyiv political scientist, agreed.

“During the Soviet Union,” he said, “every person was a small cog in a big machine. No one expressed their emotions. It was not necessary. Nobody cared.

Although younger Ukrainians don’t have the same background, “society doesn’t change that fast,” Mahda said. “It’s a process, it’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a Harry Potter book, it’s our life.”

In Pokrovsk, an eastern city near the front line, I met a young woman sitting on an evacuation train. Her town had been relentlessly bombarded and she fled in a hurry. She had 150 hryvnias in her pocket, about $4. But she was serene and well dressed, her carefully made up face a blank mask.

I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but at one point I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” She looked directly at me and burst into tears.

Ms. Trofymenko, the psychologist, explained that this was also part of the landscape. “As soon as you feel safe,” she said, “let go.”

“You know, we seem very reserved, without emotions, without feelings,” he added. “But once you’re in, it’s a different story.”

On the border between Poland and Ukraine, in the first days of the war, I observed one of the largest refugee crises of modern times. A endless gathering of women and children They crossed the border, millions of them. Saddled with bulging, hastily packed suitcases and driven from their own homes by circumstances that were changing history, they were tiny, vulnerable figures dwarfed by long roads and vast skies.

A woman in a green hoodie stopped to rest on a Polish road. Due to the rule that Ukrainian men of military age cannot leave the country, she was alone. She had just separated from her husband, whom she had known since they were young. She was dry-eyed, too, at first.

But after sharing her parting words with her husband, her composure broke. Once she allowed herself to think about the man she loved and how she had no idea when, or maybe even if, she would see him again, and how it felt to hold him one last time at the border, it was impossible to sear her. . feelings.

As a journalist, covering major traumatic events doesn’t necessarily get easier the more you do it. Sometimes I feel like my protective coating is wearing away.

Recently, I saw a photo of a burning building in eastern Ukraine, not far from Pokrovsk. I looked closer and felt a pang of fear. Wait a second, I told myself. I’ve been in that building.

It was in the same city, Chasiv Yar, that I had an unusual interaction with a Russian sympathizer. He told me and my translator, Alex, that he believed the Russians were “doing the right thing” by invading the Ukraine. Alex and her family have suffered immensely from this war (as have almost all Ukrainians), but she did not argue with the sympathizer. As a journalist, that was not her role.

At the end of the interview, the Russian supporter, in his 70s, cheerful and full of life, entered his garden and began to saw a bunch of grapes. He really appreciated the company, he said, and wanted to give us a gift.

As she reached for the glistening fruit, I saw Alex’s eyes fill with tears.

“What is it?” I asked.

We had interviewed so many people who had lost everything, but I had never seen her cry. she’s tough she’s tough She’s, by her own admission, a boob.

Why was he crying now?

“Because these people are good,” he said.

If someone from the “other side,” as most Ukrainians and much of the West labels Russia and its supporters, could so happily offer up the fruit from their garden, what did that say about the complexities of war?

We left with the grapes, full of emotions that were not so easy to control.