“A constant risk of getting killed.”

By Matt Aibel

A Ukrainian psychoanalyst introducing herself as Natalia Belova of Kyiv speaks plainly in a heart-rending video appeal produced by the Ukrainian Psychoanalytic Society called “Help Ukraine: The Story of Ukrainian Psychoanalysts and Psychotherapists.” With equal parts fatigue and resolve, Belova is one of several Ukrainian analysts and analytic candidates who speak to us with remarkable poise, as we watch harrowing if by now sadly familiar video scanning the gutted shops and burning apartment buildings of her city. “Due to continuous attempts of the hostile forces to capture Kyiv and their brutal attacks on innocent civilians,” she tells us, “there is a constant risk of getting killed.” 

The horrors befalling Ukraine since Russia’s late February invasion, and their reverberations throughout Eastern Europe, Russia and the rest of the world, cannot help but dominate our consciousness at this terrible moment of international aggression, destruction and slaughter. We all felt a world-wide connection and began awakening, variously, to our implication in each other’s suffering in the dark days of the pandemic’s unfolding. This anguished commiseration is now renewed as we bear daily witness to the traumas of the Ukrainian people. 

On listservs and on forums quickly established by colleagues around the world, we’ve been hearing from both Ukrainian and Russian colleagues about their existential, moral, political and economic struggles, and we’ve had opportunities both to engage with them directly and to provide material aid. A Virtual Large Group was organized in March and again in April, both to lend emotional support to our Ukrainian colleagues and to facilitate an international discussion about “how our social unconscious is influenced by such cruel incidents in conscious ways of being and relating to one another, ourselves, humanity as a whole,” in the words of its organizers, hailing from Israel, Greece and Ukraine. 

I remember watching images of the United States’ nightly attacks on Iraq during the Persian Gulf War back in 1991. Television commentators at the time described it as the first war to be broadcast to the world in real time. Today, of course, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Telegram and other social media, as well as network and cable TV, give us unfettered access to every moment of the attacks and their sequelae in Ukraine (though much less so for Russians, as social media there is blocked and/or subject to criminal charges). As a result we can witness and immerse ourselves in livestreamed coverage of atrocities as well as remarkable acts of resistance, and hear directly from correspondents on the ground – unprecedented international access to this heart of darkness as well as to the inspiring strength and stamina of the Ukrainian people. 

I happen to be teaching a course on Relational psychoanalysis to a group of Russian therapists. Our weekly meeting shifted at the end of February from a class devoted to theoretical and clinical discussion to a support and processing group. For several weeks we sat together in our dozen or so Zoom boxes, releasing a slow, halting tumble of thoughts and impressions (simultaneously translated) across a range of topics: the war’s impact on their clinical work; witness-bearing and recognition; unbearable encounters with radically different realities; trauma and dreams; the fears of speaking forthrightly in a repressive society where danger lurks. We have sat as well with silence. And with sadness, tears, shock and numbness; some smiles and laughter; and we remind ourselves to keep breathing. It is hard to keep thinking at such times. We sit in front of our screens, as one or another’s Zoom freezes, as faces disappear, then reappear in the rows of boxes: some speak, some are silent. We speak of Ukraine, Putin, patients’ grandparents telling stories of World War II, whether to flee or to stay, and other topics I hesitate to put into words in case it should cause trouble for my Russian colleagues. 

In the closing minutes of a meeting last month, one class member, her head averted from the screen, her face largely concealed by her hair yet still faintly visible, lets herself silently cry. Conversation stops, and we are all with her in silence, simply breathing, as she continues allowing herself to cry. 

“Mmm,” I say, “yeah …”

“Da … da …” 

Words are largely beside the point in this moment, but still I quietly remark that I think she is expressing something we are all feeling. I say something to the effect of how we all need each other. The content of my words might be helpful, but they are mostly just an effort to establish connection across Zoom, across time zones and geography, across culture. In our different languages, the words feel like both barriers and bridges. We sit together and apart, looking at each other’s images, breathing. We all wave goodbye. Sometimes the end-of-class wave feels a little corny over Zoom; not today. Today it feels necessary.

Whether by happenstance or design, I also lead a monthly supervision group for the Kiev International School of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Our March meeting was, as you can well imagine, quite intense. Until this meeting I hadn’t realized that only three or so of the group’s members (at least of those who had the wherewithal to attend class in the midst of the invasion) are Ukrainian; the majority are Russian or living in Russia. It was fortuitous for this meeting that I’ve spent so much time reading, writing and thinking about working clinically with political differences here in the States – what does it mean to encounter someone whose politics not only oppose yours but also essentially aim to negate or destroy you? Having recently read Chilean analyst Victor Doñas’s paper, “The Undream: When the Clinical (Becomes?) Political” (Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 2018), I suppose I was as well-prepared as any analyst might be for the emergence of heated us/them dynamics along national/political lines. While no one professed to support Putin’s war, the prickly dense knot of affect some of the Russian clinicians experienced and expressed around feeling implicated and/or blamed for their government’s belligerent actions took patient work for us to contain, address and understand. I was pleased that we seemed able to collectively work through the crunch of pained discord over the course of our two-hour meeting. 

In the waning minutes of our time together, the tension subsided, and we arrived at a calmer, sorrowful, and rather fatigued depressive position. We could now jointly acknowledge and dwell in the pain of a shared reality. 

Some moments into this well-earned self-reflective quiet, a siren’s angry wail shredded our peace. The Ukrainians flinched, reeled, went white. I live within very close range of my town’s firehouse, and the piercing sound was my firehouse’s siren, alerting the local volunteer firefighters to get to the station quickly for an emergency dispatch – a routine occurrence, but one that instantly took on a very different dreadful meaning. I quickly hit my mute button. I was desperate to assure them everything was ok, but I didn’t want to unmute myself until the arc of the siren’s wail peaked. Once it did, I unmuted and quickly explained the siren’s source: There’s no air raid, it’s just my firehouse. 

What an awful moment of my own inadvertent iatrogenic contribution to their traumatized state. Oh my.

We took a few minutes to resettle ourselves, hearts working to loosen their panicked grip, as I apologized to the group. I conveyed my good wishes for the Ukrainian members’ safety and for the fate of their nation. Again, we all waved goodbye, one Zoom box to another, as we clicked on our little “Leave Meeting” boxes, faces disappearing one by one, returning us to the rest of our day.

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