Sana Krasikov on War and Friendship

This week’s story, “The Muddle,” opens as a woman named Shura, who has lived in the United States for many years, is trying to get in touch with her childhood friend Alyona, in Ukraine, shortly after Russia’s invasion. When did you start thinking about writing a story about the war? You were born in Ukraine—did that have an impact on your response to the conflict?

For the first month of the war, I was, like so many others, in a state of shock and distress, which made me incapable of focussing on much else. I’d wake up and say, “It’s day six now.” “It’s day eleven.” I wondered, At what point does the counting stop? I dreaded the thought that there would be a moment when this war might be normalized enough that we no longer remembered which day we were on.

Though I was born in Ukraine, where my mother’s family is from, I spent my school years in Georgia, where my father was from. I returned to Ukraine each summer until I turned eight and we emigrated. It’s a different country now from the one we left, having chosen a radically different path from Russia’s. In many ways, I’m viewing the war from the perspective of an outsider. At the same time, because of the personal connection, I kept hearing about so many families who were divided over this conflict. My sister, a doctor in New Jersey who serves a sizable population from the former Soviet Union, told me that, in the first few weeks of the war, many of her patients came to her with heart complaints, insomnia, and other ailments, because of the war in Ukraine, and also because of the arguments over the war within their families. There is a cousin-vs.-cousin, father-vs.-son quality to the conflict, which has revealed preëxisting fissures. I wanted to examine the war from this perspective of family divisions, generational divisions, and, of course, as a division between lifelong friends.

Early on in Shura and Alyona’s friendship, when they are in their second year of school, their teacher gives the children an assignment to paint the spring. Shura looks at the scene outside the window on a dreary, gray day and re-creates that, but the teacher had a more cheerful image in mind—something that Alyona immediately understood. What does that reveal about the contrast in their characters?

Themes of self-censorship and self-correction have always fascinated me. It gets to the heart of the question of how our perceptions of our environment are formed. In “The True Believer,” Eric Hoffer writes that the foundation for any kind of political conditioning begins with a willingness to deny the evidence of one’s own senses. In order to see reality as other people want you to see it, you first have to learn to unsee what’s in front of you. This particular lesson in painting was one I distinctly remember from my childhood, but I don’t think its message was unique to the Soviet environment. Rather, I wanted to look at self-correction as a natural process that begins with our accommodation to other people’s expectations of us—our teachers, our parents, our spouses. I think that Shura is simply less capable of being a pleaser than Alyona is, and as a result she becomes more independent-minded. Yet, at the same time, Shura’s certainty about herself is also a kind of blindness that makes her mistakenly see Alyona as someone who has been brainwashed rather than someone who is also making a choice.

Shura and Alyona met each other in the first grade more than sixty years ago. “Alyona was one of only five Ukrainian kids in their class of twenty-nine,” Shura recalls. She reflects that “Zhidovskaya shkola—the Jew school—was how the Ukrainians and the Jews both referred to School No. 6, a neighborhood Russian school known to be one of the best in the city.” Did Shura’s parents also make a choice to send her to that school, or was it a given that she would enroll there?

After I wrote the story, I realized how much the politics of language works its way into the lives of these characters. Shura would have been enrolled in the “Jew school” by her parents because it’s a Russian-speaking school, and her first language is Russian. In the former Soviet republics, families could send kids to schools that taught subjects in Russian, or in their native language—Ukrainian, Georgian, Latvian, etc. The language of the republic would then be taught in a separate class—like a foreign language. For most Jewish families in Ukraine, like Shura’s in the story, Russian was their own first language. (Yiddish schools were phased out in the nineteen-thirties.) Though some of these families would have sent their kids to Ukrainian schools, the choice of a Russian school was the more natural choice for another reason: a strong foundation in Russian gave a student a competitive advantage in the college-entrance exams that were taken across the whole of Soviet territory. For Jews, it was even more critical, because there was a quota system for Jewish students.

Alyona’s parents’ decision to enroll her in a Russian-speaking school reveals their ambition for her. They are professionals, and she’s obviously a gifted child, so they want to give her an extra advantage by enrolling her in a Russian school that also boasts a strong academic reputation. As far as the word “Zhidovskaya” goes, it is a very insulting word—closer to “kike” than to “Jew”— and yet it served as an almost neutral, acceptable description for the school among the locals, which I think speaks to the complicated history of anti-Semitism in the country. The irony is that Alyona, who is Ukrainian, has become more culturally Russian because of her schooling, which influences how she feels about the war. (She also has a Russian husband, of course—Oleg, the son of a Soviet colonel.) A major debate within Ukraine, which has been going on since it declared independence, in 1991, has been over whether Russian should be maintained as a formally taught language. It’s not just the language that gets taught—a whole system of assumptions and values comes along with it. But this war united the Ukrainians, to the point that even in formerly Russian-speaking cities, like Kharkiv, people have switched to speaking Ukrainian. Here is what the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote about Kharkiv recently:

Voices in Ukrainian sound especially distinct and noticeable in shops
and on the street—it is noticeable that when the saleswomen switch to
Ukrainian consciously, they pronounce every word carefully and

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