Red patent leather high heels set aside at a folk festival in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2013

Folk festival image from the 2013 summer folks festival in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Of the too-many horror stories coming out of Ukraine, I find myself stopped when I read yet another about a family that fled with nothing of their settled lives. Grab a jacket, the children, the dog, your passports, whatever cash you have, maybe a loaf of bread. There is no time to think about the rest, as valuable as it might be, and no way to carry it to an uncertain future. That’s happened to more than three million people who have fled the country; an estimated one in four Ukrainians are now displaced from their homes.

For the fortunate among us, the inventory of what we would take in a crisis is a hypothetical one. Even if we live in a tornado alley or on an earthquake fault, as I do, the notion of leaving it all behind is abstract — until it happens.

As I hunted through my haphazard collection of photos from my many trips to Ukraine, I found myself pausing over the above image of shoes. Red patent leather reflecting a sunny afternoon. Maybe three-inch heels. A small, silver rivet on the heel. Tossed next to red-painted toes that had grown pinched from dancing. So much dancing on that happy day, when I crowded around a picnic table with Russian and Ukrainian and American journalists and their families and friends, sharing beer and brats and laughter and music.

Those shoes haunt me now. If you’ve ever visited the State Museum at Auschwitz or the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you will see shoes. Bins and bins of shoes, left behind by those who would never return to put them on and dance.

There are many ways to tell a true story, whether in words, pictures or sound. All are at hard and dangerous work now in Ukraine. Friends, colleagues and the larger journalism community are grieving the death of Brent Renaud, a documentary filmmaker and 2019 Nieman Fellow. Then came the deaths of Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman with Fox news, and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian journalist who was working with his crew. More are sure to follow.

Stories that give us pause to think and feel for a moment are as varied as we are, but deserve to be studied for how they do that. Consider just these three from recent days:

  • The impassioned speeches by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to the U.S. Congress and then the German parliament, will be studied far into the future for their storytelling approach and their impact. It’s interesting to note whether or how various news sites included direct links to the raw video Zelensky used at the end of his talks.
  • “Inside Chernobyl,” by Wall Street Journal reporters Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. It is a masterful blend of news, context and narrative that takes us inside the captured Chernobyl nuclear plant, where 200 technicians and support staff have been working with no sleep and little food to keep the plant safe as they face Russian guns. If you can’t get past the Journal’s paywall, beg a friend.
  • “Citizens of Kyiv,” by Ukrainian documentarian and portrait photographer Alexander Chekmenev, is a gallery of faces published by The New York Times. No dead bodies. No blood. Rubble and sandbags only as blurred backdrops of where these ordinary citizens now find themselves. The portraits are graced with short profiles written by Times Magazine writer C.J. Chivers. Each of the faces carries a lifetime of stories. Scroll down and you’ll find one of a young couple, their shoes shed for a moment just outside their tent.
Toddler in Lviv, Ukraine, 2013

A toddler at an outdoor bistro in Lviv, Ukraine, in the summer of 2013.

The hard news is made moreso by a memory from one of the happiest afternoons of my life. A friend and I stopped for three days in Lviv, Ukraine, as part of a trip through Eastern Europe. We toured churches and wandered through cemeteries — Jewish, Orthodox, Christian — filled with history and respect and imagined stories etched in stone. Then we settled in for a slow lunch in the sun at a charming bistro overlooking the city.

The couple at the next table had a toddler who was in that slipstream of age when everything in life is a wonder to be explored, every encounter a chance for joy. My friend and I were thrilled in return to spend time laughing with a child who hadn’t been taught to fear strangers.

i think of that trip now as I read of the lines of people crowded together — dirty, hungry, tired and frightened — at the train station in Lviv and the bus station where we crossed into Poland. Our was a confusing adventure at times as we got lost and tried to navigate through layers of language and gestures. But it was mostly one of laughter and delight. And as the bombs hit the edges of Lviv late last week, my own wondering returns to that afternoon on a sunny patio, and to that child. She’d be a young teenager now. I can only hope she’s safe, and soon finds reason to trust and laugh again.


A version of this post was first published as a Storyboard newsletter on March 18, 2022.

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