By Laura Keil
It was 1913 when Taggart Wilson’s grandmother, who was six at the time, left Ukrainian soil with her family forever. They sought a better life in Canada, chasing a promise of free prairie land in exchange for turning it into farmland. More than 100 years later, Taggart is the first person in his family to return to Ukraine, and his arrival — to the blare of air raid sirens and the provisioning of soldiers — is under very different circumstances.
Wilson arrived two days after the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Feb 26th, and despite assurances that life in Lviv was quite safe, the air raid sirens he was greeted with were anything but reassuring. His job was to volunteer in a kitchen that prepares dehydrated meals for Ukrainian Forces, his workplace supposedly far from the battle lines that constantly shift in the eastern part of the country. Indeed the air raid sirens soon waned, and Wilson sunk into a routine in a city that has thus far escaped much direct action from Putin’s forces. Life has carried on under a new normal, with work commutes and restaurant dining and the tragically frequent memorials posted for fallen soldiers.
While some things carry on, there are many signs the country is at war.
Wilson’s first apartment in Lviv opened onto Rynok Square in a central historic district. Every morning he’d come out onto the street to witness new memorial posters for the young men (and sometimes women) who had recently lost their lives fighting for their country’s freedom. Crowding one street corner, the posters — held tight in freestanding metal frames — showed a picture and write-up about the person, often something about who the person was, their profession before they got involved in the war, and the family left behind.
“Those were always hard to see,” Wilson said. “For the first month here, it was the first thing I would see when I would walk out of my apartment building every day. And I would always make sure to go over and have a look.”
He said they were people of all ages, but overwhelmingly young men, who’d often left behind young children.
“It’s really just heartbreaking,” he said. “The deaths, the destruction … the war has etched these pains on people’s faces.”
But parallelling the tragedy is the resilience of ordinary Ukrainians. On sunny days musicians play Ukrainian folk songs in the street, songs previously banned under communism.
There’s also the resilience of people who continue to survive under the shadow of war, and to contribute what they can in places like the Lviv Volunteer Kitchen.
Wilson works alongside Ukrainians as well as international volunteers, often literally shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped work space used to prepare and package dehydrated meals for Ukrainian forces. Strapping on aprons, the volunteers spend hours peeling beets, potatoes, and onions, readying nutritious food to feed the troops.
With the weather warming, some have opted to work in the courtyard, and Wilson says he always arrives early so he has a chance to visit with and have coffees with some of the other volunteers, people like Mariana and Svetlana, who are from Ukraine. With them he’s been practicing his Ukrainian. Wilson has made connections with many people, some of them quite spontaneous. Just recently, over a Limoncello in downtown Lviv, he got talking to a stranger about why he was there.
“He was this big burly guy, balding with a beard, a tough guy. I started telling him the story about why I’m here and he started tearing up and he was hugging me and everything. And it’s just those types of things have really been the highs of being here.”
Wilson came to Ukraine after following the news about the invasion over the previous year. While he has no relatives in Ukraine that he knows of, he felt a growing urge to help directly. Last year, he and his partner Swantje welcomed two Ukrainian refugees onto their small farm north of Tete Jaune. After that ended, he researched other ways to help – finally settling on the Lviv Volunteer Kitchen.
He says it’s just one of many international volunteer programs that exist, but this one allows Ukrainian and international volunteers to work side-by-side. That feeling of support from the international community is hugely important for Ukrainian morale, he says. There’s also the obvious benefit of ensuring healthy food gets into the bellies of young soldiers on the front lines.
“They’re on the front line of this struggle between democracy and fascism right now. And I think the more support they get in the kitchen, the better.”Story continues below
Wilson is scheduled to arrive home May 10th. His partner Swantje says she trusts his research and decision-making and hasn’t worried about him too much.
“He’s not someone who jumps into risks with both feet. He’s very cautious and always does his homework.”
It has been busier for her at home, however. Running a farm on her own with 60 laying hens has led to frozen eggs a few times when she wasn’t around to collect them in time.
“The dogs are always staring at me because no one’s ever home,” she said.
She says his parents and sisters have certainly been concerned. Last week, Lviv marked its first civilian deaths after missiles hit three warehouses and a car service station, killing seven people and wounding 11.
Wilson is conflicted about leaving – in one sense, he looks forward to coming home. In another, he feels as though he’s abandoning his new friends. He’s already planning to return, likely next fall or winter. Many Ukrainians hope the war will be over by then, and even if that’s the case, Wilson wants to help with the reconstruction effort.
“Ukraine is going to need a ton of help.”
Before he leaves, he has one last personal journey to make. A short trip outside Lviv to see where his grandmother — his Baba — grew up.
“I’ll check out her hometown, and kind of complete the circle, if I can put it that way.”
It’s estimated that over 100,000 Ukrainians have been killed or wounded since the war began, and that Russian casualties are even higher — possibly double that.
In the weeks leading up to its invasion, Russia made several security demands of the United States and NATO, including that they cease expanding the NATO alliance, seek Russian consent for certain NATO deployments, and remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. Alliance leaders said they were open to new diplomacy but wouldn’t shut the door to new members. Others have suggested the most important motivating factor for Putin was his fear that Ukraine would continue evolving into a modern, Western-style democracy that would undermine his autocratic regime and ruin his dream of rebuilding a Russia-led sphere of influence.