Flight from Kyiv: Reality, precarity and war


Associate Professor Galyna Piskorska: Arriving as a refugee in Berlin, she recalls asking herself “who I am? I’m a refugee without my things, only my head, only my mind. I’m sitting and crying, and what can I do?”.

In her knit cardigan and spectacles, the middle-aged woman seated under an umbrella at the Queen Victoria Market may appear an unremarkable presence in the lunchtime crowd. She’s eating morsels of cream cheese rolled in salmon and slices of grilled eggplant, pausing to tell me about black swans.

It’s what she has to say that might stop passers-by in their tracks ⁠— stories so arresting and urgent they demand attention.

Associate Professor Galyna Piskorska asks if I know Nassim Taleb. I confess I don’t. I learn that Nassim Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, famous for his concept of black swan events. In his part of the world, black swans are rare events – things you never see coming but which have an enormous impact. They change lives, Piskorska says, clutching her chest with both hands. Of course, this analogy risks being lost in translation in Australia, where black swans are the norm, and it’s the white ones that are the surprise.

When we first meet at the market, Piskorska has been in Melbourne less than a year, having fled her home city of Kyiv on 1 March 2022, early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We meet several times, Piskorska always apologising for her English. Yet her words, her impassioned body language, is so enthralling, so resolute when she speaks of home, of learning, of life. She tells of a personal crisis of identity, and of a reality utterly undone by a black swan.

“How the future of Ukraine looks like, without children, without students, without women?”” Associate Professor Galyna Piskorska is presently based at the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne under the ‘Scholars at Risk’ program. Photo: Jerome Des Preaux

As Taleb tells it, there are three criteria that identify an event as a black swan. First, it must be unforeseen, maybe impossible to predict, and certainly outside what is expected to happen. Next, the event must have a profound effect, regardless of the scale, be it personal or international. Lastly, it must be justified and explained in hindsight.

To Taleb, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA could be characterised as a black swan; as could the 2007-8 global financial crisis. Not the COVID-19 pandemic ⁠— too widely anticipated. By the same rationale, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would not qualify as a black swan. Russian military mobilisation was predicted by many in the lead up to the declaration of war, and left few surprised who were watching from afar.

But Piskorska was not watching from afar. Back in February 2022, the notion of war between Russia and Ukraine floated somewhere between fear that Russia’s escalating military presence near Ukrainian territory would inevitably be exercised, and disbelief that war of that scale could again break out in Europe. Each day articles listed the soldiers, tanks, and ammunition lined up along the border, and reiterated the Russian line: “Putin does not want war, that there will be no war, that there are no tensions”.

Despite analysts and media trying to convey the possibility of war, for an international audience entirely divorced from these events, the reporting amounted to little more than a convincing abstraction. Then came Putin’s declaration of war on February 24.

Piskorska made the decision to leave Ukraine when bombs started falling, striking the churches and botanic gardens near her home. In her Ukraine life, she works as an informational policy researcher and professor of journalism, and today she continues to teach her students online from her temporary offices at the University of Melbourne.

Piskorska’s decision to leave Ukraine came after her daughter called her in late February, shortly after the war began, urging her to come live with her and her family in Australia. “No, no, no Masha, I can’t do it,” Piskorska told her.

A few days later, bombing began in Kyiv and Russian troops came within 20 kilometres of the city. “Only 20,” she leans in and whispers. “Knock knock!” War was at her door. With all flights out of Kyiv full, leaving over land was the only option. Her neighbours offered her that chance. “Galyna, tomorrow we have a bus with our children from the American school. If you want, you can come with us.”

The next morning they set off from the international school near her home. For two nights they slept in Vinnytsia, then Lviv, as they moved west through the country, moving underground when bombing began.

“It was awful situation. Dogs, cats, children, little children, crying.”

Once they crossed the border into Poland, Piskorska says they found solidarity with the people helping them. They understood that they would be the next target for Putin if the invasion of Ukraine was successful.

“They say to me that you are first and we will be second, because enemy is very cruel.”

After the turmoil of the anxious days escaping the conflict in Ukraine, she was left for a time waiting in Berlin, before continuing her journey to Australia. In this state of suspension, between her old and new life, she could begin to process what had happened.

“Now at night, [in] Berlin – who I am? I’m a refugee without my things, only my head, only my mind. I’m sitting and crying, and what can I do?”

Finally, on March 10 2022, she arrived in Perth, where her daughter lives with her family. All these months later and 15,000 kilometres from home, she is working to answer the questions that first plagued her in Berlin.

Piskorska says that her parents’ love for working with people was passed onto her. “I like students best of all, in my life,” she laughs, “and that’s why I can live. All this activity makes me light.”

At the market over our first lunch, Galyna asks me questions about student life in Australia. How did you end up in Melbourne? And do you have exams? Written assignments? Are your classes practical? Theoretical? Do they teach you sociology? Philology? She’s asked the teachers, but it’s different hearing it from a student, she tells me.

Four days after Russia began moving troops into Ukraine, I called a former co-worker, a Ukrainian man I had worked with for two years at a juvenile justice centre in Sydney, to ask for advice on a job application. Over the phone he was distant and unfocused, it took me a little while to realise that he had spent these past few days trying to contact, and ensure the safety of, his family in Ukraine.

I hadn’t understood this, not until I heard his voice.

Why hadn’t I? We had talked about his family before, about their history, living through the Holodomor and Soviet forced labour camps. I’d seen him reading The Harvest of Sorrow and The Gulag Archipelago. Why had I not realised, when I first got in touch and he postponed our call, that his family might be at risk? Through the prism of his experience, I began to comprehend the reality of war.

I ask Piskorska, as we talk under the umbrella at the Victorian Market, if Kyiv was a black swan for her.

For people who find themselves in it, war is always a black swan, she says.

It occurs to me that the reason I hadn’t initially connected my co-worker, my friend and his family, to the invasion of Ukraine, lay in a disconnect between abstraction and reality. Without experience or personal connection, the war in Ukraine remained an abstraction, one in which I understood to be true, but which somehow remained disconnected from my conception of reality. My co-worker and his family belonged firmly within reality, people who I could interact with, and to see them affected by events I previously thought of as intangible broke some barrier between the two.

The black swan beat its wings.

I organise to meet Piskorska again a few days later, at her office on campus. Despite being obviously distracted, preoccupied with events unfolding in Ukraine, she shows up precisely on time. She immediately launches into a vigorous, carefully measured speech, which continues for 13 minutes. She speaks of her main concerns, the uncertainties looming large over the future of Ukraine. The first is around how the structure of international power dynamics and relationships will change in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

Then there is the question of what will become of Ukraine’s emigrants, the people forced to flee, fearing for their lives. What will happen to Ukraine without them? Many young women left the country with their children and began to settle elsewhere in Europe.

“How the future of Ukraine looks like, without children, without students, without women?” Piskorska asks.

She clasps her hands together and looks up, almost as if in prayer. She fears that even if Russia’s invasion proves unsuccessful, that the large chunks of younger generations missing from Ukraine may make it too difficult to rebuild, and⁠—

She looks down at her desk for a moment, exhausted by the weight of her own words. She comes back, with renewed passion. “Putin is very bad person! He tried to damage our electricity before winter, not in summer when we can rebuild, but before winter. I don’t know, I even can’t imagine what evil …”

A couple weeks earlier, I was in the lecture hall when she delivered a guest lecture to students enrolled in global crisis reporting. She had been reflecting on the stunning success of Ukraine’s social media campaign. Acutely aware of the need for Western support if Ukraine was to resist Russia’s advances, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mobilised on the informational front, influencing the popular perception of the Ukrainian invasion, to sway public opinion abroad.

“Zelenskyy quickly managed to convince the West that a complex situation is black and white. That it is us or them,” Piskorska told us. Zelenskyy has become a foil for the semi-mythologised construction of Putin as an unpredictable strongman. “Zelenskyy [has] become himself the star of war.”

Russia has been trying to control public belief, not just through asserting its own distorted truth, but limiting the scope of what truth could be. Piskorska tells me Russia has taken aim directly at Ukrainian national identity. “My mother was a child when the second world war began, and she was surviving on occupied territory,” she says. “All the children refused to learn German, because that was the language of the enemy.”

Now the Russian army is burning books written in Ukrainian.

“They destroy Ukrainian textbooks, books on history of Ukraine, books by Ukrainian writers, and make the Ukrainian language optional. They are going into schools with guns, to see the first graders. They even destroy fairy tales and children’s books.”​​

People like Piskorska, living in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine, were not ignorant to the increasing tensions with Russia, of Putin’s madness and ambition, but they nonetheless experienced a collective jolt when tanks appeared on the horizon and bombs began to drop.

Could they really not have known? Though the Russian-Ukraine war had been shambling on for the past eight years, and though the rest of the world watched Russia place the pieces of their military along the border?

Of course they had known, but they had known an abstraction.

“All of them know that sometimes drones maybe flew near them, but all people think, ‘maybe not I, not my children, not my father and mother’,” Piskorska says.

The Ukrainians’ belief in the abstraction did not equate to belief in the reality of the situation, and from the gulf between these two beliefs came the shock delivered to the Ukrainian consciousness.

With the outbreak of war, the black swan took flight.