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Russia hasn't hit Lviv directly yet but signs of war are everywhere

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

I'm Leila Fadel in Lviv. It's a city that so far hasn't been directly hit in Russia's war on Ukraine. Many restaurants and cafes are still open. People are out and about during the day. But even here, as you walk the cobbled streets of the safer but not necessarily safe part of Ukraine, signs of a country at war are everywhere - literal signs. The first is just outside our hotel. A decal on the rear windshield of a car reads...

OLENA LYSENKO: Russian military ship, go F yourself. It's a very popular slogan nowadays.

FADEL: So before the war happened two weeks ago, would you ever see obscenities on signs in Lviv?

LYSENKO: Not really, no.

FADEL: That's our interpreter, Olena Lysenko. As we walk, she points to ads on bus stops that typically promote movies and live shows. Now those signs play up the strength of Ukraine.

LYSENKO: Thank you for the...

FADEL: There's one with a honey badger tearing apart a Russian bear. Another shows Russian soldiers dissolving into the ground, sunflowers sprouting from their remains. But it's a poster on the other side of the square that really captures the deep anger toward Russia. At the bottom of the poster, there's a little graphic - eyes and a handlebar mustache. The next day, a tall man in a hoodie with that handlebar mustache meets us in the city center. Andriy Yermolenko walks us to one of the signs he created.

So we came here the other day, and we saw this, and we saw your name...

ANDRIY YERMOLENKO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FADEL: ...Which is why we called you. So if you could just tell me what we're looking at.

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) This is very long conversation and very long story, but I'm going to show you what this is about.

FADEL: He pulls out his laptop, opens it up, and hundreds of illustrations pop up. He stops at one of his pieces from 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. This is the start of Yermolenko's very long story.

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) We were made to have some compromise, and this looked something like this.

FADEL: So this is a pistol being put into a woman's mouth, and it says, think of finding a compromise. This was from 2014.

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) We were told that you are very weak, and you need to find a compromise because you will not stand.

FADEL: In 2014, Ukraine made concessions to Russian-backed separatists in the east to try to bring an end to the fighting. Yermolenko says Ukrainians understood then compromise with Russia would never work.

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) We've been living in this situation when they tell us that Ukraine doesn't exist, there is no Ukrainian culture, that we are not really humans. But we live with that.

FADEL: The wartime poster in front of us is the continuation of that woman's story, Ukraine's story. It's work he donated to the Ukrainian territorial defense.

So this poster is very different. That poster shows a gun in the mouth of a woman - a position of weakness, really. This poster shows that woman putting that gun...

YERMOLENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: In this new one, he flips the narrative. It's the same woman, eight years older. She's more confident, her hair pulled back by a headband of yellow and blue flowers, the colors of Ukraine's flag. This time, she's holding the gun, the barrel inside Russian President Vladimir Putin's mouth. The text on the sign reads, I'm not a beauty for you. It refers to lyrics Putin quoted from a Soviet-era punk song that references rape and necrophilia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: Whether you like it or don't like it, Russia's president said in the weeks before he started this war, bear with it, my beauty. Just as his country was being threatened by Putin in the days before the war, he was getting threats on Facebook over his work.

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) My personal account was attacked by haters from Russia. I received a very interesting message saying, are you ready? Did you leave the country? We will come after you soon.

FADEL: Obviously, everyone in Ukraine feels unsafe right now. There's a Russian invasion and bombardments of cities. But do you think you have a particular target on your back?

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) I don't care. What can they do to me? The maximum what they can do is to kill me. Nothing else.

FADEL: Like so many Ukrainians, Yermolenko is defiant, unwilling to succumb to a much larger country attacking his own.

So on the top of your poster, it says #UkrainiansWillResist. Are these posters your form of resistance?

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) Absolutely. These are my bullets. And actually, it's very hard for me to create my work right now because I want to go back to Kyiv, and I don't know if I will be able to do that.

FADEL: I'm so sorry. I know this is hard to talk about. So in this conversation, I feel pain from you, frustration, anger. Can you talk about those feelings? What's moving you to tears?

YERMOLENKO: (Through interpreter) The whole country is in pain right now. You need to understand that when they bombard hospitals where pregnant women are, and somebody is at the same time - somewhere, somebody very high are deciding to provide us with the weapons or not - it's hard.

FADEL: Hard, he says, not to be in control of Western leaders' decisions on how and when to help. All he can control is the messages in his political art.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "AS IT CHUD BE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.