The Ukrainian Officials Leading Double Lives Over Dinner

Two tired Ukrainian officials who work in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration arrived the other night at a dinner party in their honor, in a leafy district of Brussels. Maria Tomak and Tamila Tasheva, both residents of Kyiv in their mid-thirties, had spent a long day in meetings with European diplomats. They’d been advocating for an E.U. ban on Russian fossil fuels, a seven-hundred-million-dollar-a-day habit that helps fund Russia’s war on Ukraine. They also wanted to remind people that Crimea—a territory that Russia illegally annexed in 2014—is serving as a base for Vladimir Putin’s efforts to erase Ukrainian identity. “We didn’t have too much hope,” Tomak said, adding that their efforts were unlikely to be “game-changing.” She had on a black turtleneck and Calvin Klein sneakers.

The host, Simon Papuashvili, a human-rights lawyer from Georgia, began the meal with a toast of rosé. “For peace,” he said.

“And for victory,” Tomak added.

Tasheva, who wore a gray blazer with a pearl brooch on the lapel, is an exiled Crimean Tatar, from a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to Crimea which Stalin deported en masse in 1944. Authorities have warned her not to return to Crimea. (“Our security forces say to me, ‘You could be arrested immediately,’ ” she said.) Brussels was the pair’s last stop on a long journey from Lviv, the Ukrainian city near the Polish border. Tomak and Tasheva were on a work trip there when Russia invaded Ukraine, in February. They had not been home to Kyiv since. Tomak’s father was still there, but her pregnant sister had made it to Lviv. Friends had managed to evacuate Tasheva’s cat. “We’re I.D.P.s,” Tomak said—internally displaced persons. “It’s a really bad feeling, although I understand that I am lucky indeed.”

“I met Tamila back in 2014,” Papuashvili said, at the table. He’d been on a fact-finding mission in Ukraine, after the annexation of Crimea.

“I met Simon a bit later, in Donbas,” Tomak said, referring to the home of two breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, occupied for years now by pro-Russian separatist groups.

“In the war zone,” Papuashvili said. Now the two women work for the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Former human-rights activists, they also volunteer as fixers for international journalists in Ukraine.

Tomak talked about the historical origins of the war. “I think that this conversation has not yet started, internationally, about the legacy of the Russian Empire, and then the U.S.S.R. We’re representing three peoples that suffered from Russia: Crimean Tatars, Georgians, Ukrainians.” She added, “There was no tribunal over Stalin’s crimes and the U.S.S.R.’s crimes, as there was for the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis.”

“Truth was never established,” Papuashvili said. He had helped coördinate the women’s trip from Lviv. First, they travelled by car to the Polish border and exited along a humanitarian corridor.

“Psychologically, it’s very hard,” Tasheva said. “Because when you go through these corridors, you see the U.N.H.C.R. tents for refugees.”

“You’re fleeing your own country,” Tomak said. “It’s not a good feeling.”

They then took a bus to a registration point, where Papuashvili met them in a car. First stop: meeting with U.S. diplomats who had been relocated from Kyiv to a town in Poland; then a four-hour drive to Warsaw. From there, a flight to Brussels, and then to a hotel.

Papuashvili’s wife, Lucia Mascia, served a squid pasta dish and arugula-and-citrus salad, and Papuashvili poured white wine. Conversation shifted between English, French, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, and a little bit of Georgian, as the hosts’ two daughters performed gymnastics in the next room. Brigitte Dufour, a French Canadian lawyer who directs the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, called out, “Bravo, les filles,” and clapped her hands.

Taking a break from backflips, Papuashvili’s ten-year-old handed Tomak some drawings she’d made: a Ukrainian flag, captioned “Aller Ukraine” (“Go, Ukraine”), and a Ukrainian woman in a traditional blouse and a beribboned flower crown.

“Wow, beautiful,” Tomak said. “Can I keep them?”

Dufour’s dog had got into the chocolate cake she’d brought (“I hope he’ll be alive when I get back”), but there were backup desserts, and plenty of spray-can whipped cream.

Tomak explained that, although residents of Kyiv and Lviv now have use of supermarkets and cafés, those in areas under the most intense Russian siege are cut off. “They have no access to basic foods, water, nothing,” she said. She looked at the table, laden with delicacies, including mini fondant cakes. “Eating and drinking like this feels strange. Especially after yesterday’s shocking photos from Bucha,” she said. “It’s just another feeling when you see all those dead bodies.”

Despite the rumors of chemical warfare, Tasheva said that she was glad they’d be going back the next day.

“This is a psychological rest,” Tomak said. “But you also feel guilty. Not only being here . . .”

Tasheva finished the sentence: “But because you’re alive.” ♦

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