Six Eastern European Women Bring the War to San Francisco

Maggie Levantovska reading. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

It was the first event for Lit Crawl 2022. The Werx Theater on Valencia bulged at the seams with an audience eager for news more than for entertainment. It was day # 241 of “Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine,” as The Guardian newspaper termed it. President Zelensky announced that rockets hit “energy facilities” in his country and that millions of Ukrainians were without power.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from the bombed buildings, the people huddled in basements and soldiers firing bullets and rockets, seven women writers who identify as Russian, Ukranian and Moldavian, took the stage and aimed their well-crafted words (in English,) toward a receptive audience in San Francisco near the heart of the Mission District.

Listening to their voices and reflecting on the portraits of their war-torn homelands, you might have been forgiven if you shuddered at the terrible destruction and marveled at the amazing acts of resistance and courage. By the end of an hour that went by too-quickly, it occurred to audience members that Moscow wanted to freeze Ukrainains to death, and force Zelensky’s government to cave in, much as Russian and Soviet cold, ice and snow had helped break the back of both Napoleon and Hitler.

The seven women—call them sisters—seemed unlikely to surrender their own self hoods or the sovereignty of their homelands. They were not the types who would send texts urging friends and family members in Ukraine, Russia and Moldova, to surrender their birthrights, their identities and citizenship.

Maggie Levantovska read a nonfiction piece titled “What Flag Can I Wave?” which ends, “There is no flag I can wave.” Born in Kyviv, Levantovska came to the USA with her family at the age of ten, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Caifornia, San Diego, teaches at Santa Clara University and lives in San Francisco where she says she hears people say that the genocide of the Jews is fake news.

The piece she read drew on her sense of the contradictions between the USA and Ukraine, the privileged world of Kim Kardashian and the disadvantaged world of Ukrainians. Unafraid to say “fuck you,” and offer descriptions ordinary habits, like shopping at Trader Joe’s, she can’t help noticing that in the Bay Area,“sartorial support,” (i.e. fashionable solidarity) for her homeland is everywhere.

Still, she didn’t spit needles. “Life is a wheel,” she said. What goes around comes around, including her own words.

Tatyana Sundeyeva calls herself “a Russian-Jewish writer.” She has a body of work in non-fiction that explores the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in her native, Moldova, in the 1990s which she remembers well.

All five women were born in parts of the former Soviet Union, all spent time in “Post-Soviet spaces,” all have friends and families still in Eastern Europe and all have what the MC, Masha Rumer, the author of Parenting With An Accent, calls “Complicated relationships with that part of the world.”

To say they love it and hate it would miss the mark. They’re attracted and repelled, detached and engaged, far away and very close to home. They’re bi- and tri-lingual, they write and publish in English, and, while they live in the world of texting and the latest technologies, they’re also conscious of fashion and good grooming. Some wore all black, others long, elegant dresses with floral patterns.

MC Rumer explored the world of shtele food, cooking and eating, along with ancestors and families. She connected the personal to the historical, riots by anti-Semities, and the clash of communists and fascists. “Cooking,” Rumer told the overflow, hushed crowd, “is an act of resistance.” Someone might have added that the reading also counted as an act of resistance, though no reader called for more weapons and no one demonized Putin.

Vlada Teper moved adeptly from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile crisis, from a sense of fear and guilt, to an appreciation of origami and the beauty of flowers. She invited listeners to “see each other and ourselves,” and suggested that “one person can make a difference.”

Shasha Vasilyuk grew up in the Crimea, Moscow and San Francisco. She read a Dostoevsky-like, ironical story about a KGB interrogator and his prisoner that bled past and present, and linked the transparent to the secretive. It was her first public reading, Vasilyuk said. Her Like Water and Other Stories, which takes place in Germany and Ukraine, and from the time of Hitler to the end of World War II, will be published in 2024.

At the end of the performance, which was free and that didn’t disappoint, a reporter took the stage and asked the women for the correct spellings of their names. “Glad you want to get them right,” Sundeyeva said. “We have had some doozies.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.