Peter Mickwitz: A trip to Ukraine

Ryhmäkuva Ukrainan PENin järjestämän kokouksen osallistujista

The last week of October I travelled to Kyiv, Ukraine together with representatives for the Nordic PEN centres, PEN Berlin, PEN Montenegro and PEN Bosnia and Herzegovina. We had been invited to one of the regional meetings that PEN Ukraine has been organising since the Russian invasion in 2022.

PEN Ukraine organised our trip with great engagement and competence. Everything related to the complicated trip to and from Kyiv was organised perfectly by our Ukrainian colleagues. The panel discussions (which I also participated in), lectures and debates organised for us were realised with a professionalism that I can only envy.

The theme of the panel discussions that were open to the public was Europe and the war. The discussion that I participated in addressed northern Europe’s solidarity towards Ukraine from a historic perspective.

On the last day of the trip we heard a series of lectures by Ukrainian writers about the role of the writer in a country at war. During the trip we also met representatives of key Ukrainian cultural institutions and publishers.

The trip to Ukraine was the first time in my life that I travelled to a country at war and I was unsure beforehand how I would react. Perhaps that was why one of my strongest impressions from Kyiv was the opposite: the absence of war in life on the streets. Restaurants, cafés and shops were operating as if everything was normal for the inhabitants of Kyiv. Few people in uniform could be seen in the streets and until curfew at midnight Kyiv was a city bathing in light. It was only during the excursions to Bucha, Borodyanka and Yahidne that the reality of war was visible. In addition to traces of the atrocities that took place in spring 2022, before Ukraine expelled the occupiers from these areas, there were also roadblocks and checkpoints at regular intervals on the roads.

I have seldom been looked after as well as in Kyiv. Which may have been the reason that I paradoxically slept better in Kyiv than I have for a long time at home in Finland. Not even the air raid alert the first night made me feel worried. After spending an hour in the hotel’s bomb shelter – which reminded me of an office – I fell asleep again almost immediately.

Still, two weeks after returning home, I am not sure why I had such a sense of safety in Kyiv, but it is something I will have to interrogate myself about.

PEN Ukraine’s resources are completely different from ours in Finland. Because of this, one of the paradoxes of the trip was that Finnish PEN, which exists in a country at peace, would never be able to dream of having activities at the level of PEN Ukraine.

I want to thank Volodymyr Yermolenko, Tetyana Teren, Alisa Bondarenko, Maksym Sytnikov and  PEN Ukraine as a whole for enabling me to make this important trip to Ukraine. Ukraine needs our continuing and consistent support and we must not let ourselves sicken into a lazy belief that the war in Ukraine is some kind of normality.

Peter Mickwitz

Peter Mickwitz is a poet, essayist, and the President of Finnish PEN.

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