“I have my birthday tomorrow,” Lenny Emson, the Director of Kyiv Pride, says. Under normal circumstances, the news would be cause for celebration or, at the very least, a “happy birthday” wish. But from the tone in Emson’s voice, it almost like an admission.
Because it’s Emson’s birthday, he’s traveled out of the country on vacation.
Because it’s Emson’s birthday, he wasn’t in Kyiv when Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Thursday.
Instead, Emson – who asked that his current location not be disclosed out of concerns for his safety – is away from his native Ukraine, communicating in any way he can with friends, family, and colleagues at the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Kyiv Pride, who he refers to as his team, trapped inside the besieged city. When he spoke with GO by Zoom Friday morning, as Russian troops close in on Ukraine’s capital, we’re frequently interrupted by the chimes and beeps of his phone and computer, signaling incoming messages. He isn’t sleeping, he tells me. Nor are the people he’s in touch with, sheltered underground in Metro stations or in their basements. They can’t see the Russians, he says, “but we can hear them.”
Emson refers to himself as if he were still in Kyiv, and, in a way, he is. The fear and uncertainty of what will happen, and the close communications he maintains with his team across the different districts of Kyiv, keep him very much embedded in the unfolding crisis. “I feel it very much,” he says. “I’ll check in on them, and I’m just really surviving this. They transfer the emotions, you know, and this is scary.”
On one hand, it’s of course fortuitous that he’s out of the country. He has a stable internet connection, and is able to communicate what’s happening with his team in Ukraine to the outside world. “But on the other hand, I really want to be there. And I really want to fight,” he says.
“I really need to be there, with my family, with my team.”
The attack on Ukraine began in the early hours of Thursday morning, when Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by Russian-supported separatists. Putin claimed that the Russian troops were “peacekeeping” forces, sent in to defend occupants from debunked claims of genocide at the hands of the Ukrainian government. However, Russian troops have swiftly moved into other parts of the country from the north, south, and east – well beyond the limits of the separatist region.
At the time of this writing, Russian troops have occupied parts of southern, eastern, and northern Ukraine, and have laid siege throughout the night to Kyiv. As of this morning, Ukraine’s forces have slowed Russia’s advances, and the two countries will meet for talks Monday on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.
“Nobody in Ukraine really expected it,” Emson says. “I would say that we did not want to believe, until the very beginning of all this, that Putin is capable of such horror. We would just sit there and think that there are still diplomatic ways of solving this problem, right? But unfortunately, it didn’t work. And it was a big surprise for everyone.”
He tells me that although he is doing his best to coordinate with international organizations to get his team out of Ukraine, he’s not having a great deal of luck. Although he says that there are organizations in nearby countries that are willing to help provide food, shelter, and transport to those crossing the border, as well as financial support for those who make the journey, reaching the border from Kyiv is another matter. Trains are “overloaded,” car and bus transport difficult to come by, and also dangerous, given the deteriorating situation.
Getting out, however, might very well be the only safe option for LGBTQ+ people who, Emson believes, “will be the first targets” of a Russian oppression campaign and human rights’ abuses. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is pervasive across Russia, due in part to government-sanctioned restrictions, including a 2013 anti-gay “propaganda” law that banned LGBTQ+ content for minors. In the Russian-backed region of Chechnya, gay men have been subject to detention, torture, and abuse – a very real, and very possible precursor for what a Russian-backed government could do if installed in Ukraine.
One chilling detail emerged following the Ukraine invasion: the U.S. representative to the U.N, Bathsheba Nell Crocker, revealed that the U.S has “credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following military occupation.”
The members of Kyiv Pride, Emson says, have been advised to delete their names from the organization’s website, and to delete their personal social media accounts. He is not able to tell me how many are still in Kyiv, or how many wish to stay and fight, out of concerns for their safety; even sharing his own location, although he is out of Ukraine, is too risky. “We don’t know what [waits] for us,” he says. However, should Russia occupy Ukraine, or install a pro-Russian government, “I believe that there will be oppressions, and I believe that people will suffer,” he adds. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality that we’re facing right now. And well, I still, I still want to ask the world. What are you doing to stop this right now? What are you doing to support our human rights?”
Numerous countries, including the U.S., United Kingdom, and the European Union block have imposed economic sanctions on Russian entities, including banks and individuals with close ties to the Kremlin. After my conversation with Emson, the Biden administration announced additional sanctions directly on Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
NATO has activated its NATO Response Force (NRF), composed of around 40,000 military personnel from its member nations, for the first time in its history. However, since Ukraine is not a member nation, the NRF has no plans to engage Russian forces in Ukraine and is instead intended to defend NATO members near Ukraine against possible Russian aggression.
Initially European powers were divided on whether or not to cut Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a global banking system. Cutting off Russia from the system would damage the country’s economy, but also other European economies. The U.S. and E.U. reached an agreement on Saturday to bar some Russian banks from the SWIFT system.
“I don’t think that Europe, really, or [the] United States, they really understand what is going on here … they do not understand what is the ground war,” Emson says. “When bombs [are] exploding next to you, and when you can be just shot, just because you happen to be not in the right place, at the right time. And to sit there and wait for bombs to fall on your head. This is really scary.”
What actions would he like to see, from foreign countries and governments? I ask. His answer is for broader solutions but with very grassroots foundations. “We would like you to talk to your governments, to push on your governments, to protest,” he says. “Make your government do something” – military support, humanitarian aid, stricter economic sanctions – “not just be there, concerned, and making statements.”
While it’s easy to dismiss a conflict happening in another country – somewhere “over there” – war is rarely a concern until it happens. And, as history shows us, wars of conquest in Europe, from the colonial era to the mid-20th century, rarely have one stop.
What will be there, when Emson goes back? “Will it still be Ukraine, or [will] Russia occupy all of it? How [can] we continue our work? How can I protect my team? How can I provide for them and support them?” he asks.
“This is what, really, today, is the problem for me.”
What’s most striking from speaking with Emson – and what is, perhaps, the most haunting element from our conversation – is just how ordinary things for him had been … until, suddenly, they weren’t. How something as simple as a birthday vacation might mean you return to a place you don’t recognize, to the absence of those you love, and questions you might not want answers to.