Air Sirens Wailed: Q&A with Maria Galina and Arkady Shtypel

Ilya Kaminsky

Visiting Odesa, Ukraine, this July, I met with Maria Galina and Arkady Shtypel, two well-known Russian-language poets who decided to leave Moscow for Odesa before the war began.

Maria Galina is the author of several books of fiction, including the novels Little Boondock, Mole-Crickets, and Iramifications, which was published in English by GLAS New Russian Writing. She is also a prize-winning poet and literary critic and a regular columnist for the literary journal Novyi Mir. Arkady Shtypel‘s debut poetry collection was published when he was fifty-eight. Since then, he has published five more books of poetry. He is also a translator of many poets, from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas, and has translated poetry both into Russian and Ukrainian.

Although both have spent their childhoods in Ukraine, Galina and Shtypel have lived in Moscow for decades. But as hostilities began it became clear to them they had to leave Russia. As we sat in a restaurant, air-raid sirens wailed. Maria and Arkady were unfazed. They continued our conversation, ordering more drinks. They shared the story of their journey and the first months of this ongoing war. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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 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 keeping us there after decades in Russia. For instance, I loved my job as an editor at Novyi Mir. The human connections, the friendships that grew from thirty years of our lives there—I know I will miss those. But since the Russian invasion of Crimea [in 2014], it became clear to me that I had to leave Russia or I will lose being able to return to Ukraine for good.

During pandemic we 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 hanged everywhere. There was a feeling of imminent 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.

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ARKADY SHTYPEL: The last year and half we have lived in Ukraine. In November 2021, we returned to Moscow, but as soon as the talk of war began, we came back to Odesa. The full-scale invasion wasn’t unexpected news for us, though till the last day we hoped it wouldn’t happen.

MARIA GALINA: Usually the trip between Moscow and Kyiv takes between twelve and twenty hours because there are no trains and it’s difficult to get through the Russian border. The border guards take a long time checking papers and so on. But it was so cold when we crossed that the guards’ eyelashes were frozen. So in seven hours our driver had us in Kyiv.

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

Then, at five a.m. one February morning I woke to explosions. That’s how it began. They were shelling from the sea.

The first days of war are a shock. 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 in there. Or you begin talking non-stop and then pause in the middle of a word having forgotten what it is you were saying.

I volunteer at the refugee center—most of the refugees 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 rescued 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, thundering, and the dog through it was artillery fire and she just ran. 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. Then it calmed down somewhat, allowing me to sit on a 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 SHTYPEL: When the war began, mandatory curfew was at 6 p.m. Restaurants, stores shut down, and many of them did not reopen. 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 Ukraine military. Long lines of people also stood outside of blood-donation centers. People are kinder to each other now. A Ukrainian woman offered me strawberries on the 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 here non-stop but so far without too many casualties, so people ignore them now and few go to bomb-shelters, even though not long ago there was a terrifying attack on the Odesa outskirts, in the district of Sergievka, where twenty-two people were killed and forty were wounded.

With all of this happening, I can’t say I am writing much poetry. In the months since February I only have written two poems in Ukrainian and one in Russian. But many friends are writing strong work. The days are surreal. The beaches are covered in signs stating “Swimming is prohibited. There are mines in the water”—and yet everyone is swimming. I can’t say I am thrilled at this 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 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.

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

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