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It All Started with this (Chapter one)

The following is an email that I sent to a few dozen friends and family as a group update after having left Ukraine following the invasion on 24 February 2022 (my brother's 52nd birthday). The response to this email started the ball rolling on the L'viv Alliance.

This is a LONG mass email largely formed out of tapping on my contacts list, and surely misses some folks and adds others that may very well be asking "why am I receiving this?" Apologies all around for any inappropriate exclusion/inclusion. IF YOU REPLY, PLEASE DO NOT "REPLY-ALL".

The first purpose of this email is to update the several people who have been asking, and many who may not be aware, about my recent experience in Ukraine. I left yesterday evening local time on a train to Budapest, where I am now. The second purpose is to ask those who are so inclined and have the time to help with some small writing campaigns. I fully appreciate this is our fight over here, and not yours over there, and that you may even disagree with my position. No need to read further if that's you.


It took me part of a couple days to get out, but nothing really harrowing. Earlier this week, I was hopeful that I'd be able to make my flight out as scheduled, which would have been this weekend, but once the attack was launched all commercial flights were canceled. Some foreign air crews got stranded from what I understand. I was mostly packed and ready to go the days before the attack -- y'all know how light I travel -- but I did need to prepare my apartment for in-coming guests/refugees.

As of this morning local time, I have a couple from Kyiv staying in my apartment in L'viv. L'viv has not been unscathed out in the west but there is no ground assault yet. Friends of mine barricaded in Kyiv and Kharkiv (the second largest city spitting distance from the Russian border) believe they may be unable to run the seige around Kyiv and so are staying put. These guests of mine endured a slow and anxious train ride out of Kyiv and made it to L'viv. This is the reason that I have been really trying to focus my communications with Ukrainians and folks inside and outside: share information on options.

It's exactly the surreal experience you may be imagining it to be: doing laundry with air raid sirens in the distance and while German tv news reports on rocket/artillery attacks around the country. I can assure you the hand soap dispensers were full and the bed neatly made by the time I left. Plenty of coffee and TP too. My cleaner/manager gal lives at quite some distance from the apartment and so I didn't want her to make any unnecessary travel. On a tangent regarding her, she was scheduled to have a non-critical but important surgery next week. These are the normal aspects of life we were all proceeding with until a few days ago.

The view out my living room window on the morning of 24 February. Normal except with cafe closures.

If you're asking why I was not in a hurry, it wasn't so much that as having to be patient with the process as buses and trains filled up and options became limited. Many of my cards were not working as they usually do, and so my bestie in L'viv -- a feisty athlete of a redhead who speaks English with an American accent -- bought the train ticket for me with her card. It was basically the price of a cappuccino at Starbucks (if ever you're that desperate). It was also my first time in the 3rd class car on one of those trains. Very tight, but not one of the Soviet models I'm used to. One of my upcoming paintings may be of 20-something Ukrainian women (students and young professionals) evacuating a war zone, as a more fashionable and comely evacuation you may never see.

There was a bit of a hike to get to the train. Uber was out, transit was a bit unreliable, but moreover it was a warm sunny February day. But I hadn't lugged a backpack in ages and at several points -- to all my gym friends out there -- I was regretting hitting traps and delts so hard at the gym the previous day. While on foot, there were lines of people calmly waiting outside banks, trying to withdraw their cash in fear of a bank crisis. This is the reason I previously asked many of you to write to your rep about supporting Ukrainian banks by taking on the Ukrainian government's responsibility to back deposit accounts, you may recall.

About eight hours later, amidst the Covid fertile environs of a train car with nearly 100 people, I made it to Uzhhorod on the Slovakian border. I had already booked a hotel, but my prior rack in that historically Hungarian town was fully booked, as were all the nice hotels. What I ended up with was a room in a massive concrete monolith of architectural inhumanity that was Soviet Brutalism. It had few working lights and no real heat. The limited staff had their winter coats on inside the hotel. My room smelled like one in which the no-smoking policy had been invoked last December, or just rarely considered. There was a sign on the door warning not to throw trash off the balcony. A really classy joint, as you can see, and you know I loved it. For one night, at least.

My accommodations in Uzhhorod on the Slovakian border

There was one working lift for the 12 or so floors and I would not have been surprised if that number would be reduced by one any time I was on it. I worked my way with the staff in a mix of English, Hungarian, and Ukrainian, which got me connected with a "taxi" driver who originally agreed on 300 hryvnia to take me to Chop, and then asked for 500 so he could drive back. I thanked him for his time and put the money back in my wallet, and booked a ride on the Bolt app for 250, and gave that driver 300. The second guy was a standup fella. There are enough of both personalities anywhere.

Waiting for hours in Chop. It's usually a hurry-up and wait exercise at this rail border crossing with Hungary, but this was worse. Absolutely bearable, just a poor system.

The train experience in Chop and across the Tisza river into Hungary itself wasn't really noteworthy, including doing customs and immigration on both ends. It was 50% cluster-fyck, which is to say it was 75% normal. I probably spent 6 hours on my feet just standing in the whole process of going from home to the train to Budapest. People were patient and calm and respectful, and so that too wasn't entirely normal. There were men crossing the border with me, but by then I think they were all on Hungarian passports. It was almost all women and children. I was the only American at that border crossing and probably for some while.

Under martial law, Ukrainian men from 18-60 are prohibited from leaving now. My friends in Kyiv and L'viv may be handed rifles soon. In the time that I've written about my experience, I've received an "air raid, seek shelter" notification on my Telegram app with the City of L'viv notification. Other notifications, unconfirmed at the moment, was the repulsion of an airborne platoon raid to a small airstrip 60 miles from L'viv. I'm not really sure of the tactics that are involved in sending such a small number of Russian troops into a major city. I'm guessing they were hoping to be undetected and then work to disrupt supply lines and identify civilian resistance posts around the city and perhaps break the morale with a few well placed shots. Again, it's really hard to know if the event really happened.

It's a lovely day here in Budapest, and I know I'm surrounded by Ukrainians because I hear them talking, many in Ukrainian, but mostly in Russian, which tells me more of them are from the east or central regions. It's not normal to hear so much in Budapest.


* If you're so moved, take a couple hours to do some research into organisations, businesses, and events that are connected to Russia and ask them to suspend their relationship. It's about being a voice that is heard. Maybe it's international rowing, or you own a German car, or you broker international gas/petroleum shipments... The idea is that if many "Western" (you Australians are really far west, after all) citizens make enough noise we can hasten the siege around the Kremlin and force not only the end to this current conflict (which may no longer be possible) but to all those that are growing on our doorstep. There are potentially many. I am happy to give you ideas of what organisations are out there that will listen to your voice, but try to do some looking around for ideas and contacts yourself.I'm gonna be pretty busy in the coming weeks. And yes, we're small and insignificant... until there are enough of us that we're not.*

IMPORTANT NOTE: I don't believe many Russians are in support of this war, honestly, particularly my many young friends in Russia and abroad and the thousands that have been arrested protesting across Russia. As for those that do, if you were given the information that they have been, you too might be wanting to battle the Donbas genocide and the Nazis in Kiev. While that's not the reality, not even close, that is what they've been hearing for years. (Part of what happens when you kill an independent press.) Still, culturally it's a country that believes in the strong-man leader -- the type who makes the trains run on time, the type that makes them proud to be Russian (and that historically involves a strong military). I believe weakening Putin beyond what anyone has ever imagined will be part of the process of eroding his support. This is done on the numerous fronts I've been touching on.

WRAP UP (meandering as this email has been)

I know many of you are relieved that I'm out, and I've told many of you that I'm not feeling relieved myself. I'm sad and angry. I left primarily because I have other financial obligations to fulfill so the personal economic fallout from these events doesn't bring down the whole house. I'm prepared for this, for a while, and it's all part of the game I've chosen to play. (I've had to pardon myself more than once for having neither the risk of a pandemic nor war in Europe on my radar screen.) Still, I do see this war as in my backyard. You know how I make a point of where "home" is? Well this is the flipside of that same coin. The people I've left there I see more frequently than many of you, especially in the last two years. Some of them are newly weds, many have helped me immensely with translation and organising utilities and all sorts of the mundane crap. Almost everywhere I've gone and lived in the world, I've been welcome, including Ukraine for these last five years or so.

So, I'm taking up my role to raise awareness and to counter-attack in the way many western governments have been responding: non-violently. You may have seen that F1 and UEFA have moved events out of Russia. I've been involved in some of those writing campaigns (who knows if it matters). We have Gazprom sponsorship throughout European sport, much of which is being only "reconsidered" now. I'm working on UEFA and FIFA to remedy this. I think we all know that many of these organisations, including the IOC, have been bending over to the money at the expense of institutional integrity and the larger moral landscape for decades. Europe and European businesses have been enabling the Putin regime for decades. I've written to many German business organisations that are still expecting that we can just sweep our Putin Problem under the rug again and go back to "business as usual" despite the evidence that it is only getting worse and worse.

People are generally unwilling to see the writing on the wall because, I believe, it's going to mean we and Europe are going to get our noses bloodied. There's no way around this. We cannot wait for our representational governments to get the electorate to that recognition either. The responsibility is as much on folks like me as it is on my Congresswoman or Senators in Pennsyvlania. This is, I suspect, how our system was supposed to work from the beginning. This construct, this enabling of the little guy, is what we've been growing in awareness around the world all my life. This is what is under threat within Ukraine and without, and that is why I think this is a fight for all of us, sooner or later.

(Telegram update from L'viv: Air Alarm Stopped, You can now leave the shelter.)



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