Freedom News

Notes from a Once-Invaded Capital

On the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, L is leaving Prague. She has been planning to see her family. Oh. It’s happened, she says in the early morning as she checks her phone. Shit, I say — blinking — still lying in bed.

* * *

I’m meeting W at a kavárna(1) in Staré Město(2), where we decide to go to a concert that evening at the Maisel Synagogue. We’re sitting together, sipping coffee, eating koláč(3) and reminiscing about school years. He’s telling me about the best era of saxophone production. Just last week he played a gig in Moscow. I take a newspaper and translate the Czech headlines: These Sanctions Won’t Stop Russian Tanks. On the cover is a shaky image of a T-14, cannon forward, aiming beyond the frame.

* * *

A man carrying a magazine, a briefcase, and a paper-cup of coffee, with his smart-phone shouldered to his ear, is trying to make his way out of the kavárna by leaning hard against the glass front door. No matter how he tries, he can’t get it open, no matter how much force. He tries again. But the door reads: SEM (meaning, quite simply, PULL). Ignoring this instruction, he is now resorting to PUSH. He tries harder, tilting coffee down his shirt-front, and snaps Блядь! That’s Russian for fuck, W explains. Secretly, we laugh at this newly-stained man as he stands outside, gesticulating into his phone.

* * *

On our way to the concert, W and I circle the streets of Staré Město several times. During our flâneur, we come into a narrow and densely-packed lane. Students are spray-painting cardboard banners and handing out blue and yellow ribbons. We both take one and fasten it to our coats. By the time we’re reaching the Maisel Synagogue, an immense line of people occupies the entirety of Pařížská(4), from the Old Town Square, to the banks of the Vltava. They’re carrying a long outstretched flag, illegible in the streetlights. It looks like a funeral procession, I say. And W replies: Yes — it really does.

* * *

One week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a student of mine is telling me about a video-game he plays. The IT company he works for was recently bought by an American firm, and now he is taking English lessons. It’s a strategy game, he explains, set in Mediaeval times: you play as different countries in the world. You can make peace or go to war, he goes on. I listen carefully. But it’s quite clever, because you can’t just invade another country. You must have what they call casus belli, he says. Because without good cause, then everyone is angry — you will be hated by all the world — and you will lose the game.

* * *

One quarter of all foreign residents living in Prague are Ukrainian, according to estimates of 2021. This is the highest proportion after Slovakia and Vietnam, with Poland, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Britain tailing off behind. Like all foreign residents, they are often scrutinised, and an unseeable line divides the ‘expats’ of wealthy Western countries, and the ‘immigrants’ from the East, who are mostly (and not always correctly) perceived to work manual jobs for lower wages. Russian nationals account for only two-fifths the number of Ukrainian nationals. Ukrainian nationals such as my friend and former student, K, for example, who works for Microsoft these days.

* * *

A few months earlier, I meet K in Reigrovy Sady(5) to drink beer and play frisbee in the park. He lives in the same neighbourhood as me, in the shadow of the Saint Prokop Church. I tell him I love Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, and want to visit Odessa because of this film. It’s beautiful. A silent film about people’s lives over a single day. And it changed cinema. I think it’s probably the greatest movie ever made, I say. He tells me Odessa has a great arts-scene and cool techno-clubs, if you like that kind of thing. It’s a very European city, he explains.

* * *

On the second day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two of my poems are published online. Of the two, the second is titled: Prague, Spring. Somewhere, in some province of my imagination, someone is laughing. An almost inaudible sound. Without a smile. Without a grin.

* * *

I send K an email and he replies. He’s sick with the virus and can’t leave his apartment. His family, fortunately, he tells me, are safe, and his father is travelling from his home in Zaporizhzhya to Prague via Lviv. If you need any help with your father’s arrival, just let me know, I write to him. I’ve got your back, I continue, whatever you need.

* * *

I have a reading tonight in Kampa, and I’m late when I get there. Hurriedly, I greet the other poets, as we shuffle around the cramped room and take our seats at the side-table. My friend, the organiser, tells me that there is a donation jar, and as she introduces us in her speech, reminds the audience that all donations will go towards humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. For everyone in the room, there is a passing silence that follows the applause. Outside, an exhaust backfires, like the retort of a gun.

* * *

I have looked up ‘what is a thermobaric weapon’, ‘fuel-air blast video’ and ‘vacuum-bomb explosion’ for greater clarity. I have watched several clips. I have seen the effect of these devices. I have seen all I ever want to see.

* * *

I’m at a bar in Vinohrady(6) and I’m about to leave. As I take out my wallet, the ribbons pinned to my coat come loose, spiralling to the floor. The barman and I both gaze down at them, lying limp by beer-stains. We’re frozen by this faux-pas for several seconds, becoming the only two people to exist in the room. I bend down fast. And so does he. He grabs them in an instant, cradling them in his palm, examining them, his expression turning inward. Then he hands them to me, seeming that together, we’ve lifted an insurmountable mass in these two thin ribbons that barely weigh a thing. Pinning them to my coat, I thank him, and as I do, a smile seizes his face — rapidly, softly — then vanishes. Keep it, I say, as he motions to me. In a little jar, he deposits the rest of the change.

* * *

All morning I listen to the folk song Хай живе вільна Україна!(7) Until I can sing the words to eight bars of the chorus to myself in the kitchen with decent pronunciation, just after breakfast on a Sunday prenoon. Khay zhivé, khay zhivé, vilna Ukrajina! Long live free Ukraine! I doubt anyone can hear me. It helps that I’ve recently been attempting to learn Greek, and some of the Cyrillic letters are more or less the same. I look up the one-thousand year-old Saint Sofia cathedral in Kyiv, five centuries older than its latter Russian namesake in Vologda, proof against one of the invasion’s many fallacies: that Ukraine isn’t a nation, that it has no culture, no history. I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to see the cathedral. Then I click the news back onto the screen.

* * *

The Russians are shelling the power-plant in Zaporizhzhya, the largest nuclear plant in Europe. This is the first attack ever of its kind, and already journalists and politicians are claiming it marks a new point in history: the first time nuclear energy has played a strategic role in a ground war, an act of atomic terror. But they already took Chernobyl days before they advanced on Zaporizhzhya. K’s family, I remember, are from that region. His father must have fled by now, surely. Zaporizhzhya is just over two-thousand kilometres from my apartment, though something resounds in the news of that feckless shelling. In the Prague morning: mysterious snow.

* * *

Today, I notice I’ve developed a very slight twitch in my right cheek. I try to ignore it, making myself a cup of tea.

* * *

It has been only fifty-four years since the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. Fifty-four years since the crushing of the Prague Spring. In the past few days, numerous friends and students have emphasised to me what happened in ‘68. The atmosphere in the city now is somewhere between hysterical nerves and grim humility. Everyone expects a re-run of History, capital H. They expect a repeat invasion, or if not, they’re already living through one in their heads. The mental cartography of this violence is the same: its territory is contested, militarised, photographed by satellite. Riddled with the bunker and the trench.

* * *

Silence on the metro is newly shared. Few speak. Some people wear blue and yellow ribbons on their clothes and there isn’t a district without Ukrainian flags hanging here and there from poles, balconies and the half-open windows of buildings. 1968 was just training exercise for Russian army, a Czech friend tells me, it was easy for them to do. But I’ve seen the burning tanks, the bitter faces, the black and white photography. I’ve seen the steel-spiked plumes erected by the Vltava, monuments to the self-immolation of the student Jan Palach and the memory of his mother. I wasn’t born then. My Czech friend was. He lived it. He became a Physical Education teacher to avoid mandatory service in the military. He knows well what it was like. But it didn’t look like a training exercise to me.

* * *

I read The Funeral of Jan Palach, by the American poet David Shapiro, for the first time. This poem is inscribed in both Czech and English on the monuments by the Vltava, in the Old Town. I read it twice, slower with each reading. Then I read the final stanza over again.

The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead.

* * *

I’m wondering why I’m writing any of this. For what purpose. To what end. I’m not under siege, no one is shelling me, cluster-bombing me, or launching thermobaric missiles at my home, my friends, my colleagues, and my family. No one I know has been shot or run over or beaten. Who am I fighting (or writing) for? The oppressed Ukrainians aren’t giving up. They’ve surprised Russia. And they’ve surprised the world.

* * *

I’ve seen those videos online of men trying to stop tanks with their body-weight, running in front of armoured convoys, and carrying live land-mines from the road into the trees, cigarette drooping from their lips. Women berating the invaders (take these seeds, so sunflowers grow from your pockets when you lie down dead!) civilians filling molotov cocktails with gasoline and polystyrene baubles (for a napalm effect) and toting AK-47s in social media posts. These pictures, these videos, are everywhere now, who hasn’t seen them? The internet has collapsed all distances. A dimension of thinking. Where everyone lives next-door. Somehow, mentally and geographically, this seems very close to home.

* * *

Before she left, L entrusted me with a pair of trainers, vegan-leather. The soles had split after just a month of wearing them, so I took them to be repaired at a custom-shop on Prokopius Square. This kind of service is very popular in Russia, where our company comes from, their website tells me. Now I’m going to collect them, pay, then take them home. Back at the apartment, I realise nothing has changed: they have done nothing, and cavernous divides are still riven along the chunky soles. Feeling illogical rage, I stare at these trainers, seeing bombed apartments, touching scorched earth. So I search their website again, finding this time the text has morphed. It reads: This kind of service is very popular abroad, where some of our staff have worked. I have to read it several times. Now I’m at the shop again. Hi, says a staff member. Yeah hi, I yell. He sees the ribbon on my coat, his face changes, and his feet skip, hurrying him to a back room. I shove the trainers onto the counter as his colleague looks up from the desk. Then there’s an absence — a blurred still — neutral. After that I try to calm myself, to lower my voice. I count in my head, breathing. Then I hold them up again, wrenching them apart, showing his colleague the unrepaired wounds that have split and severed the unity of these plastic soles. He looks away in a flicker of shame.

* * *

I hear from K’s friend that his family hasn’t left. They were in Zaporizhzhya and in Zaporizhzhya they remain. His father hasn’t come to Prague, hasn’t even come to Lviv. K’s friend tells me that K’s family are hiding in the basement to avoid the bombs and the rockets and the airstrikes. But still, I haven’t heard from K.

* * *

Journalists and reporters are being shot at, one news site tells me, civilian evacuees are being mortared during a ceasefire as they try to flee. They’ll make martyrs of everybody. Let them shoot me. Let them try, I say out loud to the empty bedroom. I’d rather die than stay quiet, write nothing, and do nothing. Dissenters in Russia who publish against the war are subject to fifteen years prison, another article tells me. So let them throw me in jail. Let them shoot me. But who will do the shooting? This is Bohemia, not Russia, not Ukraine. The death squads can’t be seen from my back-window. Russian soldiers aren’t at my door. At my door is nobody. Outside, nobody is laughing. But people, rushing here or there, are always passing one another blankly in the streets.

* * *

Will you stay if they came? my student M asks me. Or would you go back to UK, to your family? I answer: I’d stay. He barely pauses: Really? Really, I say, maybe too high-pitched in tone. They put in jail people like me, says M, me and my partner, he goes on. Silence prevails, before he continues. I don’t think there are much effect from these sanctions, he tells me, the West countries won’t do anything, but it’s typical response. Like in Second World War, he continues, leaning in towards the camera conspiratorially. They still teach about in schools, he says. About Munich, I add, nodding. Yes, when we were invaded by Germany, he says, and now again they won’t do anything. I know, I answer flatly, it’s completely insane.

* * *

In the evening, I stare into space, talking to myself, alone in the bedroom. Then I get up and pace the apartment. I kick the door frame. That was loud. Now I go to the window and look down at the gloaming of the Žižkov street. The lights are on in a bar, colourful and gaudy. I gaze out for a while, sighing. Then I’m angry again. And I’m pacing. Where’s the Russian embassy? I look it up. It isn’t far away. It’s in Praha-6, on Korunovační, quite close to Stromovka Park. It has a three star rating online. Some people have written INVADERS in their online reviews.

* * *

More than one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand refugees have arrived in the Czech lands so far from Ukraine. By car, by foot, by train, by bus. Trying to escape. Under fire. Bombardment. Artillery. Or simply trying to sleep. Some are leaving their suitcases behind them piece by piece on the lengthening road from their homes. So I pack three plastic bags full of donations — jumpers, thermal-underwear, antigen tests, tinned food, trousers and a coat — thrusting them down by the door. Just send money, one British academic claimed in an article I read, not to clog traffic at the border. But a student of mine tells me her new Ukrainian colleague arrived without a pair of shoes, and now she’s sleeping in the spare room of her home. I have to believe I’m helping, even through illusion, even through fantasy, hoping that these donations will ultimately go to the Congress Centre in Vyšehrad, for those who arrive with very little, or with nothing.

* * *

There’s a sense of impotence that comes from the reversal to wartime out of peace, a renaming of murder that gradually numbs eye to image, ear to voice. Over the distance of countries, of cities, every minor act is amplified, every interaction a weighing of allies against enemies. War, that ugly disturbance, is for neighbouring nations, an illness of distance: a longing, an obsession. What was concise on a map, becomes endless, becomes adjacent, and war is fought everywhere, so long as it’s fought anywhere at all. I want to cure this impotence, quickly. What can I do? I have a pen, a notebook, and a laptop. I look up the price of spray-paint from the local skate-store. Retaliation is tempting, and vandalism is surprisingly cheap. Now I take the bags for donation, gripping them tight so they hurt my palms. I spit as I close the door behind me. As I go down the stairs, I grit my teeth. Хай живе вільна Україна, I sigh. Long live free Ukraine. And now the sun is shining on my street.

Joshua Calladine-Jones

1: a cafe

2: Old City

3: A type of pie

4: A street in Prague

5: a park in Prague

6: A trendy residential neighborhood in Prague

7: Long live free Ukraine!


Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and literary critic-in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Marble, FILLER, The Stinging Fly, Entropy, 3:AM, Literární, and Snitch. It has also been translated to Czech.

Image: Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia August 21, 1968. Credit: Ceterum_censeo – die Litfass-Säule, published under CC BY-NC 2.0.