June 2023. I’m in a piazza with my girlfriend in a small Tuscan village, sweating and sipping Campari. The light is golden, the prosciutto and olives perfect. I marvel at the old clock tower and a statue of Garibaldi pointing to a blue sky. My pocket buzzes: a text from a neighbour asking if I am okay. Police are outside my Berlin apartment, with the door badly damaged and kicked in.

I call the subletter, Misha, immediately. “What the hell is going on?”

He says everything is fine, not to worry, he and Anna had a fight. (Misha and Anna are pseudonyms.)

When I ask about the door, he says, “Just a few scratches.”

Then Misha asks how the weather is and if I am eating good cheese.


He hangs up before I inquire about the police. I call Anna. She’s my friend, the reason Misha is staying in my apartment in the first place. I can hear her walking Berlin’s rainy streets. Then I realize she’s crying.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean this to happen in your house.”

“Why were you fighting?”

She clears her throat. “Misha wants to go back to Kyiv.”


“Says it’s not worth staying if I don’t want to be with him. I’m sorry about the door and the police.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. After everything that happened.

“We can’t live in the same city,” she says. “It’s good he’s going back. It’s for the best.”

Before the 2022 Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it would have been strange to even call Anna and me friends at all. I met her in Kyiv in 2017 for a play of mine, a Russian Ukrainian co-production about the Demjanjuk war-crimes trial. We spoke for five minutes while we waited for the curtain to go up.

Over the years, we kept in touch sporadically, followed each other’s lives from a distance. Instagram told me when she’d had a son or gone on vacation to Greece. I knew she was with a computer programmer named Misha, an IT whiz, and that she was looking for a new job after a year of motherhood. During the pandemic lockdown of 2021, she discovered I was writing a novel about post-Soviet Georgia. It included a subplot about the role jazz played for Soviet dissidents. On the way to visiting her grandparents in Germany, she brought me several of her parents’ Soviet jazz records: strangely photographed covers of moonscapes, radical fusion sounds, awkward Dixieland. It was the first time we’d met since that initial conversation.

In January 2022, as Russian president Vladimir Putin was amassing troops at the Ukrainian border, we wrote more often. She was visiting her grandparents again with her son, who was almost two years old. I suggested she stay a bit longer in Germany. She asked if I really thought Putin would invade. “You have a child,” I said. She extended her ticket but was supposed to start a new job—an editor at a magazine—so she returned to Kyiv. The date was February 9, 2022.

On the evening of the first day of her new job, Monday, February 21, Putin made his infamous speech about Russia’s project to de-Nazify Ukraine. She called me that night. Misha wanted to leave right away; he was firm about it; they’d already packed the car. I said it was a good idea.

She said, “But I just started a job and I love it. The cafes are full of people. Everything is normal. Kyiv is my home.”

I said, “If Misha is worried, go. Even if just for a week. Until this blows over.”

She sighed and said okay. She promised to write from the road.

But Anna, Misha, and their son did not leave that night.

The next day, Anna went to work. Misha’s worry heightened; he texted Anna, suggesting a month-long vacation in Portugal; Anna acquiesced. They planned to go to Poland in order to fly to Lisbon on February 24.

On February 24, at approximately 5 a.m., Putin invaded Ukraine. By the time they left—it was 7 when they piled into the car with Misha’s mother—the traffic leaving Kyiv was gridlocked. It took twelve hours to leave the city. Hours more to get even close to the Polish border, where there was five kilometres of traffic. Everything was at a standstill. After a day of the traffic barely moving, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy proclaimed martial law. Along with the proclamation came the cancellation of the freedom of movement for men between the ages of eighteen and sixty for reasons of national security. Requiring men to stay wasn’t a conscription call. But they needed to be ready to be drafted at any moment. Anna called me in a panic.

“It’s my fault,” she kept repeating. “He wanted to leave. But I didn’t. Misha’s right, I never listen. How can we break up the family? How can he stay behind and die? He’s not a soldier.”

The next day, they left the lineup at the border to reassess in the Carpathian Mountains. She posted a video of their son’s second birthday, a happy child unaware of world politics. I watched as he blew out candles in a hotel room. Meanwhile, Misha was looking for ways out. Over Telegram, he discovered the bootlegger option: a man would guide him across the borderlands, into Romania, for something like €5,000, cash. This was dangerous, risking imprisonment or death if caught. If he made it, it meant arriving in the EU without a stamp in his passport. The stamp was important in order to declare, according to the Dublin II Regulation, asylum status. In other words: without a stamp, he basically wouldn’t exist. He was debating going back to Kyiv to fight. Anna called me several times in tears.

Suddenly, she went radio silent. I was on edge. The whole world was.

In Berlin, hundreds of thousands gathered by the Brandenburg Gate protesting Russian aggression. There was intense debate in parliament and on the streets about supplying the Ukrainians with weapons, something Germany had not done for any war since 1945. Given the country’s dark past, I felt a particular unease amongst my Berlin friends around the violence and aggression of a war a thousand kilometres from its doorstep. People wanted to get involved but didn’t know how. Should we send tanks or food? There was also an existential panic I’d never experienced. Nobody knew where Putin would stop; the media liked to remind us that a ballistic missile from Kaliningrad would take less than two minutes to hit the German capital. Everyone was anxious. I worried about Anna and her family’s fate.

A few days later, I got a message from Anna saying she was in Berlin. They were staying with a friend. She had registered with the local authorities and received a three-year residency visa, social assistance, and health care. It was all happening quickly. Germany might have been hesitant about arming its neighbours, but it opened its doors to Ukrainian refugees with or without papers.

“Did Misha make it?” I asked.

When Anna came to my apartment several days later, she looked frail. She admitted she hadn’t eaten much in the past weeks. Then she told me: Misha pretended to be a single father. It was one of several ways for men to leave (others included having medical proof of chronic illness, being the father of three or more children, or studying abroad). Misha had gone to a nearby village and convinced the magistrate to sign the document. At the Hungarian border, he had left Anna and his mother in the car, walking hand in hand with their son, carrying a suitcase. Even though he had the requisite document, the Ukrainian border guards denied him passage several times. On the fourth attempt, he got lucky: a guard, tired from a long shift, let them through. When he phoned to say they’d made it, Anna and Misha’s mother passed through in the car. They met on the other side, in Hungary, and drove to Berlin.

Anna worried that whenever the war eventually ended, there could be trouble for Misha, that he could go to jail. I told her not to worry: who knew what would happen, if they’d ever be able to go back. Which made her cry. Who wants to consider their home taken away, an entire country evaporating into smoke? I passed her tissues. “I should’ve listened to him. You see? It is my fault. Now he’s a criminal and we have nowhere to live.”

Without thinking, I said, “You can live here.”


“In a week, I’m going away for work. Move in. I can come back when you’ve found something more permanent.”

“You barely know me. What if I steal your things?”

“Where would you put them?”

Anna laughed. “Are you sure? You can always change your mind.”

“Stay. Please.”

She cupped the tea mug with both hands. “Why are you helping me? Why do you care about this war in Ukraine?”

Ididn’t know how to answer Anna’s questions. I found myself at the time, like many others, wanting to do something but not knowing what. War engenders a sense of powerlessness, especially among those not fighting in it. In those early days of the war, as so many of us scrolled through scenes of horror, as though watching some kind of perverse twenty-four-hour reality show, I felt a need to help. As a Jew whose family had lived for generations in what is now Western Ukraine, I felt a connection to the country. As a writer who travelled to the villages of his grandparents to write about his past, I felt a need to do something for a place that felt like home, even if that home is where much of my ancestry was expelled from or murdered.

But it was more than a sense of home that kept me involved with Misha and Anna. In the two years since Putin’s invasion, many of us have become numb to the headlines. For those of us not in the conflict zone, the war has become normalized in the form of daily updates on our phones. The murkiness of Misha’s situation penetrated this distance. He moved me.

Misha was a deserter, according to the Ukrainian government. But he was also a diehard patriot: he loved Ukraine, an affection intensified during the Maidan demonstrations of 2014 (the Russian invasion began not in 2022, as he liked to remind Anna). He also wanted to be a father, to help raise his child. It was Misha’s contradictory positions—deserter and patriot, citizen and exile, partner and father—that drew me in. He made the war real, even though I’d never spoken to the guy. Misha made me wonder: What does it mean to participate in a war if you’re not on the front lines? What does it mean to be a patriot, to call a place home? What does it mean to be a father, a partner, a man?

Around the time Anna and Misha moved into my apartment, I contacted my friend Pavlo Yurov. I wanted to know how he was managing under the circumstances. In 2015, I had worked with Pavlo on a script about the war between Russian separatists and Ukraine loyalists in Donbas. He had a personal connection to the region: his mother was originally from there. The year prior, Pavlo had gone to visit her. On his way back to Kyiv, while having a drink in a cafe, he had gotten into an argument with a couple of locals. Shortly after leaving the cafe, a van pulled up beside him. Two men threw a sack over his head and tied his hands and took him away. For seventy days, Pavlo says, he was held hostage in stark conditions, beaten with a lead pipe and asked to answer questions regarding military strategy—questions he had no answers to (Pavlo is a theatre director and playwright, not a soldier). It was a miracle he survived. Months later, I helped Pavlo write his story, which he performed to audiences in Toronto and Szczecin, Poland. He would always say to me that the Russians were going to invade Kyiv. “It’s a question of when, not if,” he had said back in 2015.

His response was practical: he joined a local NGO that offered military training. He told me he wanted to be ready the next time. But when I reached out to him in May 2022, he wasn’t at the front lines. Instead, he was in Donbas with a French television crew, working as a fixer. I asked why he wasn’t in the army.

“I can help in other ways.” Pavlo felt it was more important for him to act as witness than to fight. “I’m a bad soldier. The army wouldn’t want me with a gun. And besides, plenty of people want to join.”

This was true in the first months of the war, when the Ukrainian army recruitment offices swelled with long lines of volunteers. Within a few months, the army had exploded to 700,000 soldiers, in addition to 250,000 in the national guard, police, and border guard services. Some months later, in July, we spoke again. Pavlo had just been in Irpin and Bucha after the massacres. He described the bodies exhumed. The smell, more than anything, got to him. In Bucha, he took pictures and videos on his phone of dead bodies in the streets. The Russian soldiers hadn’t let the locals bury the executed, and dogs were starting to feed off them. He had never done anything like this before. He found the experience uncanny: the dead cannot agree or disagree to being filmed. This was not a moment Pavlo wanted to keep on his phone. He posted the images on Instagram as an act of documentation, both for himself and the world. He knew the Russians would distort, rebuff, and lie about these events. So his pictures were an act of attack and counterattack: he wanted to preserve the memory of the dead and the crimes committed by Russian soldiers.

Pavlo’s decision to become a witness instead of a soldier intrigued the writer in me. He wanted the outside world to know the horrors of what was going on in his country. The information war—the war of storytelling, the battle of conflicting narratives—was his contribution to the Ukrainian cause. And he wasn’t a pacifist. Several times in our conversation, he insisted the West needed to send more weapons, that only with our help would Ukraine prevail over Russian imperialism. Yet he was clear he would not pick up a gun if he could avoid it. I asked him if he would consider leaving illegally.

“Absolutely not,” he replied. “I couldn’t live with the humiliation.”

“But what if you could contribute to the war in other ways? What if you made a play?”

Pavlo slunk away from the computer camera, into shadow. “I don’t see a point to art right now,” he said. “In Bucha, when I photographed the bodies, I thought I could make a play about this. An eyewitness testimony. But for what? We all know the horrors. No piece of art can stop what happened.”

Misha and Anna, along with their son and both of their mothers, stayed in my apartment for two months. When I moved back in, the perimeter of the balcony was lined with basil, rosemary, and pansies. Anna had planted them. It moved me when I found them: traces of their life. Also on the balcony were Misha’s cigarettes in the ashtray; they lay like crushed tombs. Two months after they left, I still hadn’t gotten rid of them. And I still hadn’t met Misha in person.

One day in late July 2022, Anna came over for tea. The Ukrainian counteroffensive was gaining momentum. The Russians had been pushed out of Mariupol and other strongholds in the south. It brought hope to Ukrainians that they could win the war. For the first time, they were going back to Kyiv; of the 32 million who have left since 2022, 21 million eventually returned. Included in them was Misha’s mother. There was still a curfew in Kyiv, but raves were happening in the daylight hours; people were dancing in abandoned and bombed-out buildings. Money was raised at the raves to buy weapons for the Ukrainian army.

In Berlin, things were looking up for Anna’s family: Misha’s well-paying IT job had allowed them to sign a lease for an apartment, no easy task (even before hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrived in Berlin, there was a housing shortage). Anna was taking German lessons and a diploma course in web design. Their son attended a local kindergarten. Anna went to local yoga classes and shared workspaces, all provided free to Ukrainian refugees. The entire contents of their Kyiv apartment had just arrived in a moving truck. There was a sense of normalcy to their lives. But with that, cracks rose to the surface.

“Misha is worried about Putin bombing Germany,” she said. “He thinks Europe isn’t safe. The other day, he told me he was looking for jobs in Canada.” Anna made a face. “I am not moving to Canada. It’s too far.”

It upset me to hear Misha’s verdict for Europe. In my mind, he had become an oracle for all things bad.

“Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Now we always have to listen to Misha.” She grimaced. “Misha has an amazing certainty. He believes things strongly, but he quickly changes tack. He’ll have a plan and we’ll have to follow it. And he can always reference that stupid thing I did: ‘Remember what happened the time you didn’t listen to me?’”

I asked if the law regarding male conscription and banning freedom of movement made them mad at their government. After all, they loved and supported their country. Anna explained that Misha was sending money earned from his German IT job for the purchase of drones and weapons, that he was more helpful outside of the warzone than in, where he’d likely have no job at all—unemployment in Ukraine being 34 percent.

“But Misha is a criminal now,” I said.

Anna said that when the war was eventually over, the government would probably forget. But I’d been reading about men who, upon returning, were immediately enlisted into the army or arrested. I also read that, in late May 2022, an Odesa lawyer had started a petition that demanded Kyiv lift the ban on men going abroad. After the petition collected 25,000 signatures, Zelenskyy was forced to consider the demands. His response? The petition should be addressed to the parents of soldiers who died defending Ukraine. I mentioned these stories. Anna brushed them off.

“I’m a patriot. Misha is even more so. We do so much from here.” She told me how much they hate the Russians. That when she hears them in Berlin, it makes her skin crawl. That every Russian who doesn’t speak out is complicit in this war and Putin’s acts of terror. After all, they bomb Ukrainian hospitals and schools.

I asked Anna if I could speak with Misha. I told her I wanted to write his story, something human that looks at the nuances and complexities of war, a story I believed was sorely missing. She explained he wouldn’t want to talk about it, that his focus was on the future and protecting the family, on surviving.

“Does he feel guilty for not fighting?”

“No. Misha is not a soldier.”

I suggested they come over for dinner. Anna either ignored the suggestion or didn’t hear me. Her mind was elsewhere. Her eyes drifted to the cracks in my building wall. She confessed she would like to go back to Kyiv. She wouldn’t tell anyone. She would get on the train and go—just to see a glimpse of her former home. I wondered why the secrecy of her daydream but didn’t ask. I could sense the strain of the past months. Likely it affected her relationship with Misha—a split-second decision whose consequences would ripple through their lives. It was something that would haunt them. Now it haunted me.

Misha wasn’t fighting, but plenty of people were locked in a war that seemed to be grinding to a stalemate. Not all of the soldiers were men, though. I was put in touch with Antonina and Oleksandr, two theatre performers from Kyiv who voluntarily enlisted in the army at the beginning of the war. Antonina is a non-binary soldier who signed up with Oleksandr, her partner. They were in a mortar unit in the south. They spoke to me from a poorly lit blindage, a fortification dug into the ground, on Google Meet. I asked what impelled them to not flee the country as other LGBTQ people had.

Oleksandr was black bearded and dark eyed. He ran his hand along his shaved head, explaining that the day after the war started, he found himself in a bomb shelter. After a few hours, it became clear there were three options: keep hiding, leave the country, or join the army.

“We felt we could do more by fighting.”

They had never held guns before. I asked if other friends from the LGBTQ community had joined the army. Antonina said she knew a few they were in touch with. I asked if they had experienced discrimination in their unit. Antonina explained that they were much more open minded than they had expected, that they hadn’t experienced any bullying. Oleksandr said that most of the people in their unit had never interacted with LGBTQ people before. At first, there was confusion; they continued to call Antonina “Anton” and to use “he” and “him” pronouns. But over time, they adjusted and now called her “Antonina.” This gave Oleksandr hope: people can change.

I asked, “Can the Russians change?”

“I doubt it,” said Oleksandr, shaking his head. “This isn’t a war only between Ukraine and Russia. It’s between democracy and totalitarianism. We want Ukraine to join the EU. We want to uphold liberal values and principles. We want one day to get married.”

Oleksandr showed me flak jackets where they had sewn green and brown embroidered unicorns. Antonina explained it was made by someone from the LGBTQ community for queer soldiers. “It’s nothing official,” Oleksandr explained. “But anyone who wants can wear it. We do, and we’re proud to fight wearing them.”

Antonina told me about her dream: after the war, they are going to build a house, plot a small garden around it, and adopt a dog, because there are a lot of dogs left behind now, lost from their owners, struggling to survive. This is the life she wants, the life they’re fighting for.

In spite of Pavlo’s insistence on the irrelevance of art, in August 2022, he took a break from working with the French media to make a play for a theatre in Cologne, Germany. Called The Revolution Lets Its Children Starve, it compared Putin’s invasion to the Holodomor, the forced collectivization imposed by Stalin on Ukrainian farmers that resulted in a horrific famine and the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Pavlo received permission from the ministry of culture and information policy of Ukraine to leave the country for rehearsals in the autumn months. This was common at the time: male cultural workers were allowed to work abroad and promote their output. Pavlo spoke with a restrained excitement about the piece. As the war dragged on, he found he was able to reflect on things. The parallels between the oppressive Soviet past and imperialist Russian present were foremost in his mind.

I appreciated Pavlo’s desire to try and understand the context of this war. His was a sane voice in a world that felt increasingly insane. I had noticed a certain glee amongst friends when Ukraine pulverized the enemy. It had become a kind of sporting event, a game to cheer on, a voyeurism of violence that seemed not only grotesque but permissible. Sure, Putin and his cohort were evil and the war awful. But in Berlin, that assessment spilled over from social media into our judgments of all Russians. I knew plenty of Russians—many of whom had lived in Berlin for years—who were strongly against the war. I also knew they feared for their lives, just because of their passport.

One sleepless night, I stumbled on the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement’s website. The next day, I contacted Yurii Sheliazhenko, its co-founder, on Telegram. Based in Kyiv, Yurii ran the small organization, which originated in 2019, out of his own apartment on a shoestring budget. His dream, he told me, was to start a research centre for pacifism and nonviolent resistance. For me, it was both refreshing and shocking to hear someone, in the middle of Kyiv, calling for a ceasefire. It was not a popular opinion.

“I am not supporting the war, nor is my organization,” he said. “We believe any war is a crime against humanity.” When I asked how his country should be responding to a militant aggressor like Russia, Yurii said, “We resist through nonviolent means.”

“Do you mean lying on the streets and letting bombs drop on you?”

“I mean negotiating a ceasefire.”

“But you’re being attacked.”

“Even in an act of self-defence, war doesn’t solve anything. Mark my words. Things will only get worse.”

I asked Yurii for his thoughts on the law that banned freedom of movement for men between the ages of eighteen and sixty. He found it problematic from a moral and legal standpoint. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all people are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; many see conscientious objection as an interpretation of this right. He referenced American conscientious objectors during World War II, explaining there were more than 70,000 men who applied for such status then. He told me about Dmytro Kucherov and Andrii Kucher, two Ukrainians given jail sentences for refusing to serve in the war against Russia for reasons of conscience. They received three- and four-year prison sentences respectively, both of which were whittled down to probation.

But Misha wasn’t a conscientious objector. He had fled not because of religious or ethical beliefs but because he wanted to raise a family safely. Is this any less noble than conscientious objection?

“Could a man, say thirty-five, who fled Ukraine to be with his family be arrested when he comes back?”

“Military authorities announced that people who evaded military service by leaving Ukraine will be prosecuted. There’s a risk that this will happen. Of course, no one knows for sure. It’s a cruel law,” Yurii added.

Yurii was right about one thing: the war would drag on. And on. By August 2023, the New York Times reported that over 500,000 troops had been killed or wounded on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. While Ukraine and other sources have reported lower numbers, US officials were estimating 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers dead and up to 120,000 wounded. And while in 2022, when I spoke to Yurii for the first time, there was no shortage of soldiers fighting, by spring 2023, volunteers were scarce. Reports of men being taken off the streets and forcibly enlisted were rampant. Men started hiding in their homes to avoid the recruitment people, known as “olives” due to the colour of their uniforms.

In spring 2023, Pavlo asked the ministry of culture for permission to leave the country to attend a rehearsal for a new theatre project in Portugal. Instead of receiving permission, he was conscripted into the army and stationed near Kyiv. After a few months, he managed to get moved to Donbas, where he was to work in the press office for the first presidential brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine.

Pavlo’s initial reaction to the military orders was one of shock. He told me in May 2023 how hard it was to adjust to the new reality of not owning his life. After all, taking orders wasn’t something he was used to. But he was adjusting by studying his peers. In a way not unlike a writer’s, he was watching to understand. “I remember, when the war started and everything was open, we were all in this together, a kind of love,” he said. “Now people are more selfish. A lot of egocentrism, a lack of empathy. And with the war mostly in the east and the south, in Kyiv there is a sense of remove.”

He was judgmental about the men who left by bribing the border patrol or recruitment officers. He spoke about an artistic colleague in Portugal who had left and didn’t come back. It was something he could have done but didn’t.

“I had the chance to stay in Germany,” he said. “But I came back. I can’t imagine being elsewhere. I feel an obligation to be here. For me, it’s important to see that hundreds of years of Russian oppression will end. And it will end. We will win this war.”

In August 2023, Zelenskyy fired all regional recruitment officers for reasons of corruption. Reports of thousands of Ukrainian men leaving the country illegally had been reported. The thousands of dollars collected in bribes reflected a deeper problem: people who wanted to leave would find a way out.

That same month, I discovered that Yurii had been put under house arrest by the Ukrainian secret service. The charge was that he supported Russian aggression. The claims were unfounded as he had spoken out against it in numerous interviews. He believed the charges were motivated by the desire to silence the pacifist movement—in particular, a “Peace Agenda for Ukraine and the World” he had drafted the year before. The statement called for an immediate ceasefire and peace talks as well as more critical thinking about the way Russians were portrayed in the media. It called for the prevention of human rights violations by the armed forces and demanded the protection of the rights of conscientious objectors.

The statement was adopted by the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement on the International Day of Peace, September 21, 2022. He had sent it to the office of the president as well as the Ukrainian parliamentary commissioner for human rights. They weren’t interested. Instead of considering the statement, they sent the secret service. For one year, they monitored Yurii’s apartment. In August 2023, they arrived at his door with a warrant. They took his phone and computer and placed him under house arrest.

Yurii had claimed Ukrainians were tired of the war. This was why the military was increasingly taking people off the streets: they didn’t want to fight. He had pleaded for a sane conversation about finding a way to end a conflict he believed would only lead to more suffering, more violence, and more lives lost. Yurii’s dream goes beyond this war. He wishes for a world transformed—our governments building infrastructure geared toward nonviolence through more democratic approaches. To put an end not only to this war but all wars.

Iremember the first time I met Misha: I opened my door and was surprised by the ferocity with which he shook my hand.

“Nice to finally meet you,” I said.

Misha looked around the apartment and nodded.

“Would you like some water or coffee?”

Misha shook his head. He was in a rush. He seemed flustered and embarrassed. Anna had called to say that she and Misha were splitting up, that he needed somewhere to stay in the interim. I offered my place for two months, since I’d be out of town. I explained how things worked, pointing to this and that.

Misha said, “I know. I lived here.”

He didn’t want to talk. He shook my hand, took the keys, and left. (Misha did not participate in fact checking for this story.)

When I received the text in Italy some weeks later, I felt something in me come undone. Perhaps my tie to Ukraine was severed. After the awkward conversation regarding the police and the door, I decided to reach out to Misha and ask if anything important had come in the mail. He told me everything was fine, no new mail, the weather in Berlin was sunny and warm. The next day, when I texted him on Signal, I discovered his contact and our conversation had been erased from my phone—like he never existed. Later that day, I heard from Anna. She told me she was in my apartment, cleaning up.

“Why?” I asked.

“Didn’t Misha tell you? He drove to Kyiv last night. He went home.”

Anna later explained that he had confessed to feeling guilty for being so far from the war. That he felt too far from Ukraine, and along with the dissolution of their relationship, the whole situation made him depressed. But more than anything, he missed home. I asked what happened when he got to the border. Anna said the guards gave him his enlistment papers, but Misha had been resourceful: he knew if he worked for the state, he wouldn’t have to serve in the army. The guards let him through, and he drove back to Kyiv, where he settled into his new job, a new life, a familiar yet different home.

In March 2024, I get a text from Anna asking to meet. We haven’t seen each other in a few months—both busy with our lives. At a Berlin cafe, she tells me about the progress she’s made: her German language lessons, her son in kindergarten, her mother settled in the city. Anna even deigns to call Berlin home: her plans are to stay. I tell her I’m staying if I can manage; this puts her at ease. Then she tells me Misha received his draft notice last week.

In the first days, she sank into a depression and didn’t want to see people or get out of bed. Suddenly she and Misha were back in touch. They texted constantly. He wasn’t sure where he’d be sent; she was worried. She didn’t want him to die. Misha didn’t want to fire a gun, and he didn’t want to go to Donbas. But within a week of the notification, he had found a way to serve his orders from Kyiv. He’d be working for the army in an office, possibly in IT.

“He’s a survivor, you know,” Anna says.

When she says it, I can’t help but agree, though neither of us is sure how long this can last.

Jonathan Garfinkel
Jonathan Garfinkel is an award-winning poet, playwright, and author. His novel about post-Soviet Georgia, In a Land without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark, was published by House of Anansi Press in 2023. He lives in Berlin.
Kumé Pather
Kumé Pather is an illustrator based in Toronto.