A Ukrainian Philosopher’s Reluctant Departure from Kharkiv

On January 3rd, the feminist philosopher Irina Zherebkina texted me that she was leaving Kharkiv, Ukraine. Throughout the war, I had been reading her essays and Facebook posts about daily life under bombardment. Now, she told me, she and her husband and co-author, Sergey, were packing cardboard boxes. They would leave as soon as their cat, Keti, was medically cleared to travel to the United Kingdom. When Keti was cleared, Irina wrote that they would leave as soon as they got an airline-approved soft cat carrier. Then she wrote that, although a bomb had just destroyed a building two doors down from them, they had been unable to exchange their old Soviet-issue driver’s licenses for international ones, and they’d leave once they had done so. Then she wrote that they’d leave as soon as she herself had some medical exams. Then they’d leave after she got some dental work done. When I travelled to Kharkiv in February, just before the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Irina was still there, editing her journal of the first year of the war, which an Italian publisher was going to release. As soon as she was done, she and Sergey would leave, she told me.

Irina and Sergey, who are sixty-three and sixty-five, respectively, live in a conspicuously neat and bright apartment in central Kharkiv. They have a white dining table, white couches, and white built-in bookcases, which seem to alleviate the heft of books, shelved tightly and stacked on most surfaces. The first time I visited, Irina had a burn on her cheek. During a recent power outage, she had slipped while using a candle to light her way to the bathroom.

Before the war, the Zherebkins didn’t know their neighbors. The building was heavy with the wealthy and the well connected, including several retired high-ranking military officials, and the philosophers didn’t feel at home among them. But once the war began the few people who remained in the building formed tight bonds. They pooled their resources to get food when most stores were closed and venturing outside was perilous. During air raids, a neighbor sometimes took shelter in the Zherebkins’ apartment—they have a big bathroom without windows. Like everyone in Kharkiv, the couple had learned to distinguish types of munitions by ear, and had established a hierarchy among them. Grad rockets, which make a terrifying whistling sound before impact, are more frightening than S-300 rockets, even though the S-300 does more damage. It makes its presence known only when it hits, with a loud bang: there is no time for dread.

In the early days of the war, Irina wrote an essay in the Boston Review, placing Vladimir Putin’s war in the context of what the philosopher Judith Butler has called “new fascism,” a global phenomenon that legalizes the “freedom to hate.” Irina called on the world not to conflate Putin and the Russian people, many of whom, she argued, didn’t support the war. It was important to reclaim and rejuvenate the ideas of solidarity and internationalism in order to fight Putin, she wrote.

Two days after the essay was published, a rocket hit close to the Zherebkins’ apartment building, and they decided to leave the city. They drove out to the countryside, in the direction of their dacha, a modest weekend cottage, but a bridge along their route had been blown up—they later learned that Ukrainian forces had destroyed it to make passage more difficult for the Russian troops. Irina and Sergey ended up in a house that belonged to an acquaintance. Several other families were also staying there, each occupying a bedroom. Unlike their dacha, the building had heat and running water. They encountered a kind of war fever in the countryside, a performance of war. Local men had put on uniforms and armed themselves. In anticipation of battle, some spent their days drinking and exchanging news. This was in the spring of 2022, when news seemed meaningful, when the course of the war seemed unpredictable, before everything, including bombs, became monotonous. After a month, Irina and Sergey returned home, to Kharkiv.

By then, Butler had read Irina’s essay, and proposed co-hosting an online international feminist conference on the war. With Sabine Hark, a German sociologist, they envisioned a panel of speakers that would include Ukrainian feminists, Western supporters, and Russian and Belarusian antiwar dissidents. Some Ukrainian feminists objected to including Russians and Belarusians. In the lead-up to the conference, arguments grew heated. Irina’s message about solidarity, internationalism, anti-nationalism, and nonviolence had inspired the event, but in wartime it suddenly seemed less than obvious. In the end, the conference included one Russian and one Belarusian participant.

Irina grew up in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. She had wanted to be a philosopher since she was in seventh grade. “She wanted to change the structure of society,” Sergey said. They met at university, in Kyiv, and eventually found their intellectual home with a group of philosophers led by Valery Podoroga, a prolific postmodernist scholar whose former graduate students are now some of Russia’s best-known philosophers. After the Soviet Union broke apart, and even after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Irina and Sergey maintained relationships with colleagues and friends in Moscow, and continued to write and publish in Russian. Much to their relief, none of their Russian friends have supported Putin’s war. They feel relief, too, that Podoroga didn’t live to see this war: he died in 2020.

“For him, Michel Foucault was the most important writer,” Irina said.

“His ‘Discipline and Punish’ was the most important book,” Sergey said.

“And now they say Foucault is ‘propaganda of homosexuality,’ ” Irina said, referring to Russian propaganda that’s been used, among other things, to justify the war in Ukraine.

After university, Sergey got a job teaching in Kharkiv; Irina joined him there a few years later. In 1994, she co-founded the Center for Gender Studies at Kharkiv National University, which she modelled on gender-studies centers at American and British universities. She assumed that it would be one of many such centers in the post-Soviet, post-totalitarian world—none of Russia’s biggest universities had gender-studies programs—but the center in Kharkiv remained one of only a handful. Irina, Sergey, and their colleagues translated foundational Western texts into Russian, and Irina co-founded a summer school in gender studies that took place in Crimea and drew participants from Ukraine, Russia, other former Soviet colonies, and beyond. Kharkiv is a city of universities and colleges—more than forty of them—and was, before the war, home to hundreds of thousands of students, including tens of thousands who came from other countries. The center thrived there.

Nine years ago, Irina had a stroke. She believes it was her body’s response to the news of the first death at the protests that ultimately led to the Revolution of Dignity. Irina heard that the victim, a young man of Armenian descent, had been shot in the back of the head, and she feared that he’d been shot by one of the other protesters. (No evidence that this was the case has since emerged.) She collapsed.

“Many people died of heart attacks at that time,” Sergey said.

“Two of our neighbors have died of heart attacks since this war started,” Irina said.

Now, as a feminist philosopher and an anti-nationalist living in and thinking about war, Irina was troubled by feminist colleagues’ rush to mobilize around nationalist rhetoric. She was also unsettled by some well-meaning foreign supporters. In May, the philosopher Paul B. Preciado came out against supplying arms to Ukraine. “We don’t have to send weapons,” Preciado wrote. “We need to send peace delegations to Russia and Ukraine. We must peacefully occupy Kiev, Lviv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odessa. We all have to go. Only millions of non-Ukrainian and unarmed corps can win this war.” Writing on Facebook, Irina acknowledged that Preciado’s proposed strategy was consistent with Butler’s philosophy of nonviolence, but objected that the proposed strategy “implied a discriminatory, racist division of human lives into ‘Ukrainian’ and ‘non-Ukrainian,’ those that are more and less significant, or, in Butler’s terms, more and less grievable.” By suggesting that Putin wouldn’t bomb millions of “non-Ukrainians,” Preciado seemed to be conceding that millions of Ukrainians were bombable. (“I have never objected to Ukrainian self-defense,” Butler told me. The conference “was very difficult for people who espoused nonviolence, because we also saw the necessity of Ukrainian military self-defense against Russian aggression. If the implication is that I, like Preciado, object to sending arms to Ukraine, that would be emphatically wrong.”)

After the invasion, the university went fully online. (Some classes had been virtual since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.) All of Irina’s graduate students, many of whom have children, left Kharkiv—some to go abroad, others for safer parts of the country. International students left the country, too. This, in turn, meant that the university lost much of its funding. In August, 2022, the university didn’t renew her contract. Soon after Irina lost her job, the London School of Economics offered her a position. She worried this meant that, as an academic from war-torn Ukraine, she was now, as she put it to me in a text, a “marketable commodity.”

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