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Archive for March 8th, 2022

With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 13 days old, I can’t get Virginia Woolf’s August 1940 essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” out of my mind.

In it, she writes:

Unless we can think peace into existence we — not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born — will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead (173).

As I write this, the Ukrainian people are lying in that same darkness. They are hearing that same death rattle.

One Kyiv woman’s story

This week, I read of a 74-year-old woman who emerged from the basement of her home after 10 days to find everything in sight destroyed and dead bodies lying in the street.

For most of that time, Katerina Oleksiivna had survived without heat, electricity, or water. She had existed on canned vegetables and stale bread while listening to explosions overhead and feeling their reverberations beneath the ground.

A bomb drops. All the windows rattle. The anti-aircraft guns are getting active. Up there on the hill under a net tagged with strips of green and brown stuff to imitate the hues of autumn leaves guns are concealed. Now they all fire at once.

Echoes of Woolf

That could have been Katerina Oleksiivna’s description of her ordeal. But it is not.

Instead, those are some of Woolf’s words written 82 years ago in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.” They recall the fear she experienced during the Second World War as she heard German planes fly over the Sussex countryside. One plane flew so close that she and Leonard were forced to shelter under a tree in their garden at Monk’s House.

It was not Woolf’s first go-round at war. She had already lived through four years of the Great War, listening to bombing from across the English Channel and hiding under a basement kitchen table in Richmond during air raids (D1, 123-4). From 1939 until March 28, 1941, when she committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse, she lived through the trauma and deprivations of a second.

Is the war everywhere? – Katarina Oleksiivna, 74, of Kyiv, Ukraine

Repeating history

As the brave Ukrainian people defend themselves against the Russians, my heart aches. It aches at the memory of my maternal grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1923, bringing their Ukrainian culture with them and sharing it with me. It aches at the repetition of some of our modern world’s bleakest history. It aches at our failure to spend the last 82 years thinking — and acting — peace into existence, as Woolf wished. And it aches at the thought that we may never do so.

A display at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

For as Woolf says, war perpetuates itself, rippling infinitely outwards in time and space, unless we stop it by turning our minds and our energy towards creating universal peace.

Thinking peace into existence

For Woolf, that means thinking peace into existence by thinking against the current, by thinking against the nationalism that dictators and autocrats like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin promote through propaganda and force.

And in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” Woolf maintains that the primary requirement for fostering peace among all peoples of our world is the act of artistic creation. It is, she maintains, the antithesis to war’s destruction.

For her, “the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.” Artistic creation helps to make sense of the world, a world that in the midst of war makes little sense at all.

Woolf certainly did her part to think — and write — peace into existence. May each of us do ours as well. #StandWithUkraine

Post-It notes written by visitors became part of the peace symbol display pictured above at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

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