Galina & Shtempel

Translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

Visiting Odesa, Ukraine this July, I have met with Maria Galina and Arkady Shtempel, two well-known Russian language poets who have decided to leave Moscow for Odesa before the war began. Although both have spent their childhoods in Ukraine, they have lived in Moscow for decades, but as hostilities began it became clear to them that they must leave Russia. As we sat in the restaurant in Odesa, air-raid sirens wailed, yet Maria and Arkady continued the conversation, ordering more drinks. They have shared the story of their journey and first months of this ongoing war.

–Ilya Kaminsky

Maria Galina: While we still could travel back and forth between Moscow and Odesa, we did. Our families and friends live here in Ukraine. For a while, it seemed that we would continue that way of life, residing in the cultural space between the two countries. But I missed Ukraine. Once, Arkady took me to the meeting of his classmates in Dnepropetrovsk, and from the train window, I saw poplar trees standing along the roadside and I began to tear up. Moscow, for me, was a temporary place of residence, though of course there was much holding us up there after decades in Russia. For instance, I loved my job as an editor at the journal Novyi Mir, the human connections, friendships that grew in thirty years of our life there – I know I will miss those. But since the Russian invasion of Crimea it became clear to me that I must leave Russia or I will lose Ukraine for good.

During pandemic we have moved to Ukraine, and worked online, renting all kinds of apartments here. In that time, Moscow grew more and more nationalistic, I wasn’t feeling comfortable there. I was afraid. Propaganda posters hang everywhere. The feeling of incoming catastrophe. I did come back to Moscow for a bit, to finish up things at my work. But it was apparent, already, that war was coming. I had to hurry up and leave for good. So, my husband and I dropped everything and left. It was freezing cold.

Arkady Shtempel: We have long planned to immigrate back to Ukraine but bureaucratic details always pile up. Maria’s paperwork is in order by now, and approved by Ukrainian officials, while mine is still a work-in-progress. The last year and half we have lived in Ukraine. In November we returned to Moscow, but as soon as the talk of war began, we came back to Odesa. The full-scale invasion wasn’t an unexpected news for us, though till the last day we hoped it wouldn’t happen.
Maria Galina: Usually the road takes between twelve and twenty hours. There are no trains. It’s difficult to pass through Russian border. They take a long time to check the papers and so on. But it was so cold, the border guards’ eyelashes were freezing. We found a driver, and in seven hours we were in Kyev.

We arrived here before the war and settled in Odesa, renting a place near the sea. I knew the was coming and tried to hurry up and finish my book.

Then, at five am on February morning I woke up from explosions. That’s how it began. They were shooting from the sea.

The shock of the first days of war, when you are checking the news non-stop, going to the kitchen for coffee, standing in the middle of the kitchen, having forgotten why you came there. Or, you begin talking non-stop and then pause in the middle of the word having forgotten what it is you are saying.

I volunteer at the center for refugees—most of them are women, but there are some men, too. I made friends with a family who escaped Kherson, they left on the last bus out of the city. They didn’t have time to take any clothes, but they grabbed their paralyzed neighbor. They couldn’t leave her there. There is also a family from Mariupol, who were lucky to escape, and even brought their dog. But here in Odesa the dog got lost: it was raining, thunder, and the dog through it was artillery fire and she just run. They keep looking for her.

Then, there is a woman from Kherson. Her husband is at war. Kherson is a Russian-speaking city, but the woman refuses to speak Russian now. She just can’t.

When the war began, I thought everyone was running away. I was frightened. I thought no one would be left in Odesa streets. Then it calmed down somewhat, and so I sit on the bench and observe this comfortable Odesa life: the overfed cats, the funny little dogs, everyone here loves animals. And, I see how the bombs are falling on these animals, on these gardens, the gardens catch fire. These days, I am afraid of the sky.

Arkady Shtempel: When the war began, people forgot about Covid, no one wears masks. Odesa is a Russian-speaking city but when the invasion began, crowds of men lined up to volunteer in the military. Long lines of people also stood outside of blood donation centers. Mandatory curfew was at 6pm. Restaurants, stores, shut down, and many of them did not reopen. Air-raid sirens wail non-stop. Yet, at the same time, people are kinder to each other now. A Ukrainian woman offered me strawberries in the open street the other day.

Refugees from the occupied city of Kherson come to Odesa. People from the bombed out city of Nikolaiv also come. Air-raid sirens moan in Odesa non-stop but so far without too many casualities, so people are used to them now and few go to bomb-shelters. Not long ago there was a terrifying attack on the Odesa outskirts, a district of Sergievka, with 22 dead and 40 wounded.

With all of this happening, I can’t say I am writing much poetry. In months since February I only wrote two poems in Ukrainian and one in Russian. But many friends are writing strong work.
The days are surreal: air-sirens wail and people continue to toast in restaurants. The beaches are covered in signs “Swimming is prohibited. There are mines in the water” – and everyone is swimming. I can’t say I am thrilled at this surreal state of things: everything is strange, and yet everything is as it should be.

Maria Galina: I can’t write poems right now. I know others are able to write, some friends write very powerful poems.

Time is moving so quickly, soon it will be a year of this full-scale invasion. And yet: the time stands still, because the days are framed by the same worry and the same news of explosions.

I am uncomfortable, watching the social media pages of my Moscow friends who are posting happy photos, as if nothing is happening, as if there is no war.

At the same time, we are sitting here in the restaurant, having a conversation, while the air-raid siren moans, and we continue speaking about poems, about days. Strangely, this, too, is an act of resistance. We are trying to live a normal life even if they are sending missiles in our direction. This resistance is all we have.


Katie Farris is the author of Standing in The Forrest of Being Alive, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in 2023. Her previous collection, A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving was published by Beloit Poetry Journal as the winner of Chad Walsh Poetry Prize.

Ilya Kaminsky is the poet and translator, author of most recently Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press) and Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press). He lives in Atlanta.