“Pacifism is a Privilege”: Words from Ukrainian Art Historian and Curator, Valeria Schiller.
By Ewan Waddell

“Pacifism is a Privilege”: Words from Ukrainian Art Historian and Curator, Valeria Schiller.

A couple of weeks ago, Crimea-born Art Historian and Curator Valeria Schiller came by the studio to share with us her story of escaping Russia twice, and her feelings on the current war in her homeland.


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Balaklava, Sevastopol, Crimea, 2021

“For the last months I was having anxiety, and it was growing and growing — but I’m from Crimea — so I’ve already run two times from Russia and maybe I just have this PTSD from Crimea. But I was prepared for anything to happen, and although I was shocked, when it happened, I also felt a little bit relieved — like ‘I’m not crazy’. And of course, the war, this is like the worst thing that could happen. But at least now it was like, okay, it started. Now I can act.”

“I was living in Crimea and I started to study remotely in Kyiv in 2011, for art history, and then when this whole thing happened in 2014, I moved [to Kyiv] and started to work for PinchukArtCentre, which is one of the largest contemporary art centres in Eastern Europe. It was a very good place to work and I worked there for almost five years. From guide and librarian to associate researcher and junior curator… So that was very nice. But then I decided to leave and teach art history, which was also super cool. It’s a non-governmental organisation and the main idea was to invite people to teach who already had a good reputation or are already running some creative agency or something inside of Kyiv, so that students could get connections with them. It was very cool.”

Kyiv, Ukraine, 2021

“So I was prepared. I had my suitcase fully packed. My Mom didn’t believe it, but my Dad believed. But yeah, my Mom wasn’t prepared. It’s kind of hard for her to accept everything… In the morning my Dad called me at five. I think I fell asleep maybe 3am, but at five it had already started. And then I heard explosions. There was a haze from explosions everywhere. There were so many people at the petrol station; an absolute mass with so many cars there.”

“So we just started to leave in the direction of Poland. But also, at the same time while leaving and quite unexpectedly for myself I was like maybe everything’s fine? Maybe I should stay? I think this hesitation comes from two fears fighting with each other: fear of leaving and fear of staying. You just have these thoughts like maybe it’ll be finished in two hours. Because this happened in Crimea. Russians just invaded and Crimea capitulated, so it was possible to leave home even later. But anyway my parents and I left [Crimea] because we didn’t want to tolerate one country invading another. But of course Kyiv and Crimea were uncomparable in the amount of Russian propaganda supporters so nothing like that could happen.”

Sevastopol, Crimea, 2021

“We got to the border, but men can’t leave, so my Dad stayed there. But I don’t think he would leave anyway because he’s feeling his mission now and bringing humanitarian help in the warzone. He’s collecting humanitarian help from Poland and also help from villagers from Western Ukraine who are giving a lot of their potatoes and preserves, and he’s just with his friends bringing it all to the warzone, which is also very stressful. I’m trying not to think about it all, but I think my Mom thinks about it all the time. It’s weird because they’re one of the happiest couples I know. They spent thirty years together. Every day, together. And so I don’t know how my Mom is dealing with it; understanding he’s very close to these shootings and explosions. I talked to my Dad today and he said they’re bringing help to people super in need. Because citizens are standing in line for four hours to get only seven potatoes for one person.”

“So I stayed with my Mom for two nights and three days on the border, without sleeping, food, toilets and in the cold outside. In huge crowding. It was absolutely crazy. There were people fighting inside the crowd. The only thing you can do to survive in the crowd is go forward and be more rude. It’s the only strategy, just to survive sometimes. It was an absolutely crazy experience. I’m glad I still have my documents, but someone stole my wallet. I really thought I would die on this border.”

Żelek, Warsaw, Poland, 2022

“And then somehow, because I was in a residency in Vienna a couple of years ago and this artist from Croatia who found my number and [asked] if I’m fleeing from Ukraine and I told him which point of the border and then his friend of a friend of a friend from Portugal and volunteers came to the border, and I cried so much. Three days without sleeping and eating and going to the toilet and outside in the cold. They just gave us tea and soup and we cried so much. The Polish people were cheering us up so much. I feel that Poles understand it so much because they also feel that it might start in Poland. I remember entering some cafeteria and asking a waitress for soup and then she asked if we were from Ukraine and she just started to cry. There was so much support from people in Poland.”

“When I came to Berlin a friend invited me to an exhibition opening and he introduced me to his friend who told me like ‘Oh, you’re from Ukraine? You should capitulate’. And I’m like what? Like maybe I should move somewhere else. It’s just absolutely crazy. You just need a little bit of empathy. Just a little bit is enough. I’m a war survivor, I just came here, I’m crying twenty times a day, and you tell me what to do without me asking? I was just so angry. But then I realised it’s probably not obvious for people in Germany. I think in Poland, you don’t have to explain anything. They just understand.”

“Instagram doesn’t allow to show burned corpses in the feed so I will just show you some photos of Bucha as I remember this heavenly beautiful place”@lera.schiller

“About how I feel… Not really safe. For the first two weeks I had survivor’s guilt. I didn’t know it actually exists, but yeah, I had it. It just paralyses you from doing anything, because you have these feelings about friends who are still sitting in basements. And like several days ago, these pictures of the corpses in Bucha. These whole mediaeval scenes. It’s absolutely crazy. I lived in Bucha for three years with my friend. It’s a miracle she wasn’t there when the war started, because they occupied Bucha so fast that people couldn’t move. It was super scary for my friends to escape Bucha. As my friends say now maybe the Russian soldiers were drinking while celebrating 8th of March and were distracted, I don’t know, because somehow [my friends] managed to leave, but the day before, a car that was leaving was killed and the one after them was also shot at… I remember walking every day through Bucha. I remember these streets.”



“I have these waves of crying sometimes. But I think it’s a normal process in this situation. It’s my Mom who’s in the worst state, because she doesn’t know the language. She really misses Dad and doesn’t know what to do. Yesterday she was crying hysterically, and it takes a lot of energy for me to calm her down. But I think that’s the balance between two people. Like when you’re drinking and one’s getting super drunk, everyone cannot get drunk because they feel subconsciously that they have to take care of this person. I cannot let myself feel bad because I feel responsible for her. But when she starts to feel responsible for herself, maybe then I will start in these hysterics. I don’t know. I mean, I’m taking pills, and I had panic attacks. But I haven’t had any more for now.”

“My Grandmothers, they still live in Crimea, and I’m not answering them because I feel angry. I expect that I will never see them again. It’s just that my Dad goes into the warzone, and my friends sit in the shelter, under bombs, and my Grandmothers are just ignorant to it. Because one of them was actually at a demonstration in 2014 for Putin to come to Crimea. So it feels like she’s somewhat responsible. That’s why I’m angry. One of my Grandmas is one hundred percent German. She was oppressed during the Soviet Union, bullied in society, the whole family couldn’t get a promotion, and [her] Dad was killed because he was German. So I just don’t understand why she’s still supporting this… And this ‘denazification’ process. It couldn’t have gone more wrong. Now the whole country is really united. Like before, I guess we had a little bit pro-Russian questions inside, but now, they understand this view is bullshit.”

Warsaw, Poland, 2022

“Killing and raping children… So many of them raped and killed. I don’t know what can be more facist?And I hate it when the Western media right now is just accusing Ukraine of problems. Of course every country has some problems. Yeah we have a right wing party but it wasn’t even presented in the parliament. The parliament in Germany I think is more than 10% right wing (AfD). It’s good to work through some inner problems that every country has during peace time — of course — we’re evolving. But you cannot use excuses like ‘this country has this problem, so that’s why we invade it’. You cannot kill civilians because of that.”

“There’s this first wave of anger when you’re just crazy with panic attacks, crying all the time in hysterics… I rarely talk to my Dad right now because it’s just painful. I would paralyze myself if I was more often talking to him. I’m crying because of these stories. Why are Russians doing that? I don’t understand what’s the profit of it. I just don’t understand the idea behind it… You just want to publish huge pictures of raped and killed kids and make posters and hang them everywhere. You just want to tell the world what’s happening. It’s not fair.”

Bukovets, Zakarpattia Oblast, Ukraine, 2020

Below are some links to ways you can help right now.

If you would like to support through donations, you can do so here.

If you would like to host refugees, you can find more information here.

To learn other ways you can help Ukraine as a foreigner, please see this website.

And if you know of any stories or individuals who you think should be heard on our platform, please reach out to us.

Interview by Ewan Waddell.

Photos courtesy of Valeria.


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