“They Are Bombing the City. I Am Editing Poems”: Conversations with Ukrainian Writers
Still, no word from Valery.
“Take immortality, God, but give me / this cold apple cellar. Take the souls / and other toys, but let us live: not-Adam and not-Eve not your son’s but / my son’s life.” So writes Dmitry Bliznyk, a poet from Kharkiv. One day in spring 2022 Dmitry writes to me from the bombarded city not to report on what is happening there (much was happening: his next door neighbor was killed and buried in their shared front yard) but because he wants to talk about poetry. “Morning: they are bombing the city. Night: I am editing my poems.” Another day: “Morning: bombardments again. For everything, there is time: bombardments, fear, quiet, loved ones, moments of wonder. Reality fragments.”
That same week I receive an email from Aleksandr Kabanov, one of the best living Russophone poets and a citizen of Ukraine. His mother and brother are in occupied Kherson. Aleksandr is in the capital, Kyiv, where he’s been since the invasion began. Kabanov has been writing poems. For many years he edited Sho, a prominent bilingual cultural journal. When the war started the journal had to stop publication. Putin’s propaganda claims Russia is sending troops to “protect Russian language and culture in Ukraine,” but Kabanov sees things for what they are: “Everything we’d seen in classical films about modern warfare, everything that had happened to others somewhere out there, far away: in Africa or Syria, Iraq, or Libya … it all suddenly took over Ukraine.”
Another Kyiv writer, Dmytro Drozdovsky, emails about roadblocks and checkpoints in his neighborhood and sends a photo of a shell from an artillery strike. A week later I see a photo of Dmytro in a military uniform online and know what this means.
The war began in February. It is the middle of spring when I finally hear from my uncle. Valery had a bad case of COVID and spent two months in an Odesan hospital on the ventilator. Millions of people were fleeing the country. Doctors and nurses left hospitals. “I picked the wrong time to get sick,” Valery wrote in the first email he sent me when he got home.
Meanwhile, from another part of Odesa, my friend, the playwright Elena Andreichykova, writes about air-raid sirens and frantically packing to move her family. She saw buildings explode and miles-long lines of cars at the border as she brought her family to safety abroad and returned to Odesa: “I keep thinking about how my son will grow up and tell his own son how he survived the war. How he escaped with his mum. But not all his friends managed to leave.”
Also in Odesa is Zarina Zabrisky, one of the bravest people I know. How is your uncle, she emails periodically to check in. The first thing I learned about Zarina is that she drove for many nights to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine. These days, she reports from war-torn Mykolaiv and emails with tenderness about the famed Odesa beach called Langeron, where many of her and my childhood memories were made. It is summer in Odesa, she says, and one can almost forget it’s wartime, and then the air-raid sirens sound.
Ihor Pavlyuk and Ostap Slyvynsky, poets from Lviv, email to point out how the nature of time itself is changed in war-zones. “Time is now a liquid, blood-stained space metal: heavy and fast at the same time, like an angry hippo or a tank,” writes Pavlyuk. “Time has stopped. Many people feel this way. The days have become similar to each other and differ only in some special news from the front line or in the number of air-raid sirens. In Lviv, for example, a day without air-raid sirens is like a day off. In Kyiv, the same can be said about a day without missile strikes. There are no days off in Mariupol or Kharkiv,” writes Slyvynsky, one of the Ukrainian language’s most talented poets.
Meanwhile, in Odesa, as my 80-year-old uncle is learning to walk again, a Russian missile hits a building on his block. Multiple people are killed, including a child.
“I can’t talk about the war with my female friend, who escaped miraculously from Bucha after hiding in a basement without food or water. She’s in Austria now. Her son has started stuttering, but I can’t even talk to her about that,” writes Elena Andreichykova from Odesa. “I can’t talk to my neighbors back home any more. They don’t talk about anything with anyone now. I don’t want to scare you. But please talk to me.”
This is what we, in the West, must do: we must keep this conversation alive, must collect and document the reports of eyewitnesses and survivors, share the testimonies of war crimes with the wider world. Silence is unacceptable.
— Ilya Kaminsky
Dmitry Bliznyk, Kharkiv
There were days and hours when the city was shelled and I told myself, OK, I am about to die. We live in a private house without a basement: my mother, my 82-two-year-old uncle, and me.
How to say, how to unfold the words that I clench inside my fist onto this page? I am re-watching a video (I don’t know who took it, I found it online) of a bomb that exploded on my street, not 300 meters from my home. Sasha, my neighbor, was killed.
Saltivka, the Kharkiv neighborhood, is a scene from a movie about the apocalypse: Russian soldiers bomb everything in this part of the city. They bomb the city center, too: hospitals, schools, shopping malls. If there is a logic to this bombardment it is the logic of a madman who wants to shell everything he sees. But the city refuses to give in.
At night: large stars. Silhouettes of houses. And hours of fear and waiting. All streetlamps are turned off. People are hiding in the basements and metro stations. During the day: this large city is deserted, like an empty sports stadium, no one is there. In the first days of war, people are hunting for food in groceries, crowds in pharmacies. But the war also unites us — neighbors help each other, it is as if we look into these days as into the mirror and see ourselves for who we are. My friend Oleg volunteers by transporting people. He drives under bombs every day. Another friend, a young man named Nikita, and his mother find themselves in the basement of a shopping mall where they cook food for 1,500 people hiding in a nearby metro station. He walks underground for miles bringing people large pots of food. My neighbor Kostya drives people out of town in his ancient, trembling car and comes back and drives more people. Probably, we are all going mad here. Poetry is what saves me, daily; my straw through which I breathe fresh air. One must breathe through terror.
Morning: they are bombing the city. Night: I am editing my poems. Morning: bombardments again. For everything, there is time: bombardments, fear, quiet, loved ones, moments of wonder. Reality fragments.
Those who have seen war understand this.
Elena Andreichykova, Odesa
Talk to me. Who else can I talk to? No one, so I’m asking you. I can’t talk to my son like this. With him I must stifle the horror and fear in my voice, the despair on my face and my wild, shrieking gestures. I must not let pessimism seep into my consonants, hopelessness into my vowels, and hysteria into my exclamation marks. I can’t turn myself inside out in front of a 10-year-old boy, though I’d like to sometimes.
Sadly, my son already knows a lot about the war. He knows about being woken on a normal Thursday not by the familiar, irritating sound of the alarm clock but by air raid sirens.
“Mum, in the group chat my friends are saying the war has begun.” The first time he says that word, it spills from his mouth easily. Without a pause. Without comprehension. But that doesn’t last long. Only a few hours separate the boy with a happy childhood from the boy of war.
For a while, this war meant nothing to him: he only knew about it from things he had heard, read, or been told. I took advantage of his ignorance. When we left Kyiv, I played a game with him: let’s pretend we are special agents. We must gather our things quickly and leave Kyiv. We should avoid the main highway, take the back roads through fields to Odesa, because there are hundreds of thousands who want to leave and we only have half a tank of gas.
He fell for it. Up to a certain age, all children believe their mothers. Perhaps they always do. Or they’re at least willing to listen to them.
We got in the car and left.
We drove first to Odesa, the city of my childhood, which was still peaceful. But in a week we had to leave there too. We drove on, farther and farther. We drove for five days through various towns and cities, countries and hopes. We are in Turkey now. It’s calm and peaceful in Istanbul, but we still jump at every car alarm, firework, or rumble of spring thunder.
No one knows when we might return home.
I keep thinking about how my son will grow up and tell his own son how he survived the war. How he escaped with his mum. But not all his friends managed to leave. No one wants to say how many children couldn’t get to safety.
Talk to me about the war, because there’s no one else I can speak to.
My mother is here beside me, but I can’t talk to her about the war. All we can do is joke and cook together. We distract and calm ourselves by slowly chopping everything into neat cubes for the Olivier salad. I still encourage her to read literary books and we discuss them afterwards. Books about anything except war. It’s too much for her; she has high blood pressure and heart problems and she’s worried about all her children and grandchildren.
When I phone my husband, we don’t talk about the war. We talk about how much we miss each other, how big our son is getting, and what we will do when Ukraine has won. We also talk about our dream: that one day we will buy a sailing boat and sail around the world. We send each other photos of boats and yachts. I can’t talk to him about the war, because he is there and I am here. Anything but the war.
I can’t talk about the war with my female friend, who escaped miraculously from Bucha after hidinf in a basement without food or water. She’s in Austria now. Her son has started stuttering, but I can’t even talk to her about that. We talk about how, one day, we’ll dance all night. We send each other uplifting music, like all the versions of “Oy u luzi chervona kalyna” by Andriy Khlyvnyuk and Pink Floyd.
I can’t talk to my neighbors back home any more. They don’t talk about anything with anyone now.
I don’t want to scare you. But please talk to me.
Aleksandr Kabanov, Kyiv
In the beginning was the word and the word was War.
I am a representative of a marginalized profession — editor, poet. Hipster. Therefore, my daily agenda corresponds with my lifestyle: I go to sleep typically after midnight and wake up closer to noon. As a result, I slept through the start of the russian aggression, and the first word that I heard was the word: “War.” The word rang out of my wife who, upon waking up much earlier, was already aware of all the events, had already wrestled with the initial attacks of horror and the monstrous implausibility of it all. “russia has attacked Ukraine!” Upon hearing this phrase, our terribly hungry, lop-eared black cat, Whiskey, of Scottish breed, appeared at my wife’s feet and began to vigorously rub them. “War is war, but a cat’s meal must follow the schedule.”
The nearly constant and psychologically draining howl of the air-raid siren, warning the citizens still left in Kyiv of imminent death from the sky: Russian missiles “Caliber” or “Totchka-U.”
Fear, disgust, and hatred — these are the fragments of emotions that seized the majority of Kyiv’s citizens, including myself.
Everything we’d seen in classical films about modern warfare, everything that had happened to others somewhere out there, far away: in Africa or Syria, Iraq, or Libya … it all suddenly took over Ukraine.
Before all of this started, nearly a year and a half ago, I suddenly fell gravely ill. The nature of my illness has left my old life, with all its old rituals and vices, behind. And that means essentially everything has changed: what I eat, how I drink, the way I spend my time. But one thing has remained: just as I had been a night owl then, so I have remained, to my great pleasure.
And so, while seriously ill, one begins to consider surrounding existence through a different lens of emotions and sensations. Smell, touch, and sense of time have all been transformed. For me, time has transfigured into a supremely transparent, bulletproof cocoon, in which I now live.
During the first three days of war, time had moved insufferably slowly, monotonously. Fear and hopelessness enveloped me and those close to me, like the amber of the flame enveloping insects. And this amber won’t cool down, day after day, stretching on like bubble gum without flavor or smell. Our mental capacity, having survived the impetuous shock, seemed to slowly restore itself. People began to acclimate incrementally to the new and eerie realities — that there won’t be, in the nearest future, any zone of comfort; that this is war, and for a very, very long time; that the civilized and comfortable world we grew accustomed to has ceased to be; that the time of existence has also shifted entirely, becoming more practical, more cynical, and economical, verified in movement and means. Time has become warlike. Time has put on camouflage.
But even within it remained the slight pauses of the caesura in the Greek hexameter — pauses for happiness, for love, for kissing my wife, Lesya Anatolyevna Kabanova, and for petting my black, lop-eared cat of Scottish breed, Viska Aleksandrovna Kabanova.
My mother and brother are currently under putin’s occupation (may you all be cursed), in the city of Kherson, held by the russian military — the city of my birth and my childhood. But all this is a whole other story.
My latest poems, written in February, a week prior to this horror, directly speak of the coming grotesque catastrophe. Precisely these poems, these premonitions, were published in opposition to putin’s regime (tear putin to hell), in russia’s New Gazette which was closed soon after the publication of my poems.
The thing is: I had already long ago written endlessly of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Several books were printed where I precisely and unambiguously discuss the war between Russia and Ukraine. These books were widely discussed in many journals and publications. And so? Those with ears still have not heard. And the invasion still began.
Now the time has come for the poets who had previously written exclusively of flowers, little birds, and love to speak instead about the dismembered limbs of Ukrainian children in Mariupol, of the innocent citizens shot in Bucha and Hostromel.
Dmytro Drozdovsky, Kyiv
There were roadblocks. Hedgehogs, checkpoints. Podil, the neighborhood where I live, is where I found my first trophy of the war: some shells left over from an artillery strike. At night I heard this horrific first shooting in Kyiv and in the morning I came across these shells. The window glass is still shattered in that place over the Embankment.
How has my own life changed? A constant willingness to help. A sincere willingness to support the opponents of the former life was born and all misunderstandings are now a thing of the past. And at the same time, there is a certain feeling that I am not doing something important and what has been done is simply not enough.
There is no time for me after February 24: it’s just one long day. I’ve already lost track of time, only the news sometimes reminds me that it’s the 33rd day of the war … the 35th … Otherwise, it’s all one day. In the morning, a few messages for loved ones that all is well. At the beginning of March, everyone was waiting, horrified of what might happen after the sounds of air-raid sirens. I didn’t want to fall asleep at night as I didn’t know if I’d wake up. Just pray and leave the rest to God.
There is one long day of war. A day that started at 4–5 AM on February 24 and continues until now. The war does not care for vacations, sick days, weekends … The war continues non-stop, 24/7. But in general, there is no more time because it can no longer be the same as it was before February 24. And how will it be? I don’t know.
As for poetry, I didn’t think that a whole genre of “war poetry” could appear. How else can you be honest about the war? Such poems are a cry, a scream. I read poetry and beyond it I saw Ukraine: Mariupol, the Kyiv region (Bucha, Borodianka, Hostomel, the Poliske district). And my attitude towards language has changed in general. In one book I like, a character says that he can’t read fiction because there is a distorted reality beyond those metaphors. And the character wants the word to be equal to reality. You don’t need excessive artistic devices, metaphors, subtext, or ambiguity. Speak sincerely, honestly; a word is almost equal to an action.
Ihor Pavlyuk, Lviv
On the streets of bombed Ukrainian cities and villages, dead children’s bodies lie with phone numbers on their backs written by their mothers so that they could be identified in the event of the mothers’ deaths … This is beyond literature. This horror is beyond Stephen King. Therefore, I look more and more inside myself in these eschatological times, I talk to myself, to God (that is, I pray), to my ancestors and descendants (my children and grandson), because I move much less these days. I don’t seem to have changed much myself, except I pray more and sleep less. In Lviv there is now a tense silence torn apart by the apocalyptic voices of sirens summoningus to bomb shelters.
My life motto of “I am ready to live forever, I am ready to die any time” has now gained a more concentrated manifestation because the death of a person and their loved ones (which is much more terrible) can be brought by a missile at any time, and this mysteriously makes me appreciate every moment of earthly existence and think about the eternal.
However, this permanent tension drains both physiological and subtle creative (poetic) energy from a person, so I can’t write a novel or a drama now, I’m even struggling with this interview … Yet, I’m especially productive in these anxious days with my spiritual diary, two volumes of which I plan to publish before the end of the year — if I survive, if we survive …
Time is now a liquid, blood-stained space metal: heavy and fast at the same time, like an angry hippo or a tank. Days are creeping, weeks are passing and months are flying by. You get the gist.
As a person, I pray more and more as my grandmother taught me. As a citizen, I volunteer.
As a poet … I would not like to be a poet now because it is especially painful. I’d rather become a soldier.
But you can’t change your nature, for better or for worse … We are advised to prepare an emergency kit with the essentials in case of an urgent evacuation during an air raid. And I clearly felt that my most valuable property was my flash drive with books written but not yet published.
Zarina Zabrisky, Odesa
As a kid, I used to come to Odesa every summer: my grandfather was a proud Odessite. We stayed with a loud, tanned family always laughing, cooking, and eating things savory, sweet, and rich in a pink building with lots of ivies, a cast iron gate, and lazy ginger cats sleeping in the sun in the yard. The façade and the yard stayed etched in my memory. In my first novel, the protagonist, an Odesa-born Californian, daydreamed, “The air in Odesa was like condensed sweetened milk, dense, alive. In the midst of a July night, you could almost eat spoonfuls of air, and it would hit that sweet spot on the roof of your mouth. I’d searched for that lost taste ever since and never found it.”
I lived in California while writing this novel and feared returning to Odesa and finding out that I remembered it all wrong. Last fall, I finally returned: I stayed in a pink building, with ivy and a cast iron gate. It felt so painfully familiar. There was even a ginger cat — along with about 20 other cats of all shades, colors, and degrees of furriness climbing on the roofs. It felt like home.
My whole family is long gone and I can’t find out if this was the place. I don’t remember the relatives’ names or connections — just Sofia, Sofa, and there are way too many Sofas in Odesa. I stayed all September and planned to come back and settle in Odesa.
On February 24, Russia started a full-scale war in Ukraine. I did return and settled — to report about war, shelling, and killing.
The pink building didn’t change during the war: like other streets in Odesa, it stays suspended in time as if underwater — the same crumbling balconies, the same smell of sunny dust, the same poplar fluff flying around, golden in the sunlight. By May, the ivy crawled up the walls, and the ginger cat, Ryzhik, was still kicking, even though he’s about 20 and not feeling well. By June, the streets are sunbathing, and it is very quiet — you hear birds singing and the air-raid sirens really well. It’s because there is no gas and very few cars are driving around.
One of my favorite places in the world is Lanzheron Beach. At about five, I used to build sand castles there, with my first crush, Sasha, and my mom and mysterious Sofa were laughing and joking and made me blush so badly I still feel the hotness on my cheeks and forehead. I wrote about Lanzheron in my novel, too: “hot yellow sand burning my toes, bleeding red cherries smudged on a white page of The Three Musketeers, transparent seagull shadows in white-blue skies … I didn’t realize how home-sick I was, how much of a foreigner I was — here.”
In 2022, I went to Lanzheron after an explosion rocked my street and the pink building. The Russians shelled an apartment complex on Orthodox Holy Saturday, killing seven, including a three-month-old baby. “The city itself helps to get over it,” said my hairdresser, Sveta, cutting my hair. She doesn’t stop during air raids. “You walk along the sea, and you feel better. It’s just too bad we can’t walk on the beach. I miss my grandma but not that much.” The beaches are mined. I had a coffee at Maman’s restaurant by the sea. A Pomeranian dog chased the seagulls and pigeons on the promenade; the waves crashed against the pier. Lanzheron still smells like dolphins, salt, something marine, seaweedy, like my childhood. Last week, a man was killed picnicking on the beach — stepped on a mine.
Writing fiction doesn’t feel right. I only report.
I first wanted to join the Foreign Legion to fight but had enough common sense to realize that I’m more efficient with my pen. My fiction informs my journalism, though. One flows into the other.
The first thing the Russian troops seized was the Chornobyl power plant. As a teen, I was engaged to a boy from Kulykivka, a village 60 kilometers away from Chornobyl, a rather sad place at the time. We went to see his mom and to traffic poppies to Leningrad. We “cooked” and used homemade heroin, made from the minced poppy stems and flowers. It was 1986, and the Soviet government kept the Chornobyl explosion a secret. Clueless, we trafficked nuclear-laced poppies. Chornobyl entered our bloodstream. In 2015, after the Russians annexed Crimea and started the hostilities in Donbas, I wrote a novella about the Chornobyl explosion and researched technical details of the power plant operation and the geography of Chornobyl. It came in handy in 2022, when I interviewed an engineer from the power plant about the threat of contamination and a family escaping the region. I am now planning to return with a TV crew to do a piece on the nuclear threat.
Before the war, Odesa music inspired my writing a lot. My grandfather loved Odesa songs, jazz, and gangster folklore. I wrote stories re-interpreting his songs, for instance, a Jewish-revolutionary folk song about a rabbi from Kakhovka whose daughter married a Russian commissar in the 1920s. Now, Kakhovka is occupied by the Russians and I reported about Russians publishing propaganda materials for the fake Kherson referendum in Kakhovka.
I wrote a short story inspired by “Murka,” a famous bandit song, our family’s favorites, and it was just translated into Ukrainian.
The Odesa cats made it into the story, because they are everywhere, war or no war. Odesa loves its cats. Even more so during the war: I think the cats are fatter and their fur is shinier. They sleep on anti-tank hedgehogs and mined beaches. I take photos of cats when I report from the Territorial Defense centers and humanitarian aid offices and photos of cat murals on the walls. I’m planning to write stories about a monastery that now serves as a cat shelter and a lady who evacuated 15 cats out of Torets to Poland.
Musicians in Odesa are everywhere even now, playing violins, accordions, and saxophones. It makes things look and feel “normal.” I take videos: Odesa jazz on Deribasovska Street or a little girl in an embroidered Ukrainian dress riding a white pony. I much prefer writing stories but it is different now.
I have heard many people saying that February 24 started and never ended. I certainly feel like this. It’s the 110th day of the war. Making plans is impossible. I don’t know where I will be in the evening: if there is an explosion, I will go to report. I don’t know where I will be in a week. Of course, in theory, I am free to leave — but only in theory. I was unable to live my life back in California and Europe. In Odesa, I hear everyone saying “before the war” — there is a distinct line separating today and the time before.
Not just time, space feels different. Some spaces become unavailable. You can’t go there, physically. They only exist in your mind. Primorsky Boulevard is closed during the war. I miss going up and down the Potemkin Steps.
The Potemkin Steps are all about the optical illusion and its symbolism is especially poignant now. I always connected to these steps and wrote about their feeling of illusion, a nearly constant hallucination, derealization. Wartime Odesa certainly feels like this: it can’t be real, it’s a long dreary dream. But as it got warmer, women started to wear flowy dresses and fake Louboutin heels, kids play by the fountains, young couples kiss under chestnut trees, and, suddenly, it is all real, more than real. Hair blowing in the breeze, a woman walks along Yevreiska Street and stops by a shop sign that says, “Why not?” You forget that it is war. Then, the siren howls or you bump into a checkpoint, white sandbags like fat, alien caterpillars piled up at the corner. Or anti-tank hedgehogs like giant insects bar the alley by a bakery. After a while, you stop noticing them. It’s Odesa, layered like a Napoleon cake sold at Privoz Market.
And Privoz is buzzing and steaming just the same: only now you can get the all-the-rage T-shirt “Russian Warship Go F*** Yourself” and camouflage pants next to smoked cheeses and honey cakes by the slice, “Can I try it?” “What do you even mean, ‘Can you?’ You must!” The old women sell cakes and know the exact locations of the latest missile hits and the latest plans of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
We often stayed at Karolino-Bugaz, about an hour’s drive from Odesa. I loved the name. It always felt as if I was in Alexander Grin’s fantasy novel The Scarlet Sails, even when I had a bad case of dysentery — I remember my dad’s scared face. In May, the Russians bombed a hotel in Karolino-Bugaz and heavily injured a seven-year-old girl — her leg was torn off. I couldn’t go to report from Karolino-Bugaz because of the gas deficit. I simply couldn’t reach it. The Ukrainian Post has released a memorial stamp reinterpreting The Scarlet Sails tale. The girl is no longer a dreamer waiting for her prince to arrive. She is aiming a machine gun at the sailing ship, and the sails are scarlet like blood. I know this girl’s rage. I feel it.
I can’t find any place for myself in the outside world. The only space I can live now is here.
About two weeks into the war, the Russians bombed Babyn Yar, a Holocaust memorial near Kyiv. My paternal great-grandparents from Uman’ are buried in that mass grave.
My father once brought me there and told me that they didn’t believe the “cultured German people” were capable of atrocities. In 2022, my Ukrainian friends didn’t believe that the Russians were capable of atrocities. I couldn’t get it through my mind: first, the Nazis shot my ancestors, naked, in the pit in the ground. Then the Russians, 80 years later, shot at this pit. I went to report about the shelling of the cemetery in Odesa. The stench of burning was all you could feel. I looked inside the charred open graves and photographed them, touched the broken tombstones, and studied the faces of the Soviet Army officers on the scattered enamel portraits. My family history feels like that. Exploded, razed, in shambles.
In March 2022, I recognized an unusual ancient church in the video reportage from besieged Chernihiv: I had sketched it as a kid, brick by brick (I loved drawing). Chernihiv was like Mariupol: people had no water, heat, food, or power.
I interviewed a young woman from Mariupol: how she hid from shelling with her three-year-old, and how they had nothing to eat. These sieges remind one of the Seige of Leningrad during World War II, which took the lives of another part of my family.
I grew up with these stories. I cannot reconcile the present ith the past. My mind fails to do it. All I can feel is fury and the desire to destroy those who dared to destroy the past and the present. I do believe that they will fail in the future. Ukraine will win and the future is here and now.
Ostap Slyvynsky, Lviv
Time has stopped. Many people feel this way. The days have become similar to each other and differ only in some special news from the front line or in the number of air-raid sirens. In Lviv, for example, a day without air-raid sirens is like a day off. In Kyiv, the same can be said about a day without missile strikes. There are no days off in Mariupol or Kharkiv. Since classes resumed at the university where I teach (online of course and then with optional attendance), I began to distinguish between the days of the week again.
I once read a story by the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, a prisoner in Auschwitz, where he calls the reality of Nazi camps “extraordinary,” “incredible,” and “mystical.” I wondered: How can you use such words?
And now, when there is a brutal war in my country, when mass murders are taking place here, I really see things that way.
As something extraordinary or incredible. All this has been going on for more than a month, the war is increasingly pulling in all of us who are left here and I still can’t believe that all this is really happening.
And one more thing: I feel like the whole surroundings are hurting here. I thought I was the only one who felt overly sensitive but a lot of people say the same thing. We began, more than ever, to feel the country as a single organism.
The wounds are in Mariupol or near Kyiv but the pain is felt hundreds of kilometers away, in Lviv, where I am now.
And not only because many refugees from the East and the Center of Ukraine who have experienced hell have come here and are gradually starting to talk about it.
This is felt on some other level.
The whole country has become a contaminated landscape, an expression coined by Martin Pollack for a landscape stained by crime.
It has become a continuous open wound.
This is how I felt about Bosnia or Syria. And now many people in the world will feel the same about Ukraine and, to be honest, it’s unbearable. Because our most desired thing was just to be a normal country.
From childhood, from school, we were taught the idea that Ukraine is a victim who has always suffered from historical injustice and the process of my growing up and maturing coincided in time with the emancipation of my country, with its departure from the image of a victim waiting for sympathy.
And now this stigma is back. We’re the victim again. This discourse now dominates the world and it is much more widespread than the discourse of Ukrainians seen as a community that heroically defends itself, which is able to stand up for itself and at the same time protect someone else.
They talk more about refugees than warriors. It seems to me that people in the modern world are afraid of military discourse and run away from it to safe humanism. This is a natural view but a twisted one and, in relation to Ukraine here and now, it is also unfair.
As for the changes observed during the time of war … In the relatively safe rear Lviv which missiles only occasional reach, you can see, more than anywhere else, how much people are hungry for life during the war. At first, I was surprised, even offended, that refugees from the shelled cities come here and behave like ordinary tourists: they look at the architecture, drink coffee in cafés, laugh. But there’s a war outside — what do you mean, coffee and jokes? And then I realized that this is a psychological necessity and it’s good that there are places where and moments when you can loosen up. This is our irreversible, non-renewable life and you can’t blame them for it.
You can also get used to some things that used to scare you. We stopped worrying about air-raid sirens. Mechanically, without panic, we do what we need to do: we go to the shelter or hide between two bearing walls at home. I almost never leave the house without a backpack, in which I carry medicine, a supply of water, dried food, and a charged power bank. This is our new normal state.
I can barely write poetry or anything that has to do with the imagination in one way or another. Nonfiction is the only thing that works for me right now. On the second or third day of Russian aggression, I began writing The Dictionary of War. This idea was inspired by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who in Nazi-occupied Warsaw wrote his poetry cycle The World, where most of the poems explain simple notions such as “faith,” “path,” or “window.” He tried to explore how the meanings of words change or become clearer under the impossible circumstances of war. I try to do the same but not through poetry. I write down monologues of various people who are experiencing war — refugees, volunteers, doctors — and transform them into some kind of dictionary entries where fragments of monologues become definitions. I already have more than 30 such stories. But this is pure nonfiction, I only give it shape. Maybe over time my imagination will turn on and I will be able to write poems or short stories. Right now it is something excessive. Or, on the contrary, impotent. Because what is really happening now is impossible to imagine.
Those of us who experienced the war between 2014 and 2022, who were forced to flee occupied Crimea or Donbas, will not feel alone among us anymore. Because now we share the same experience. I feel it as a kind of shadow. I finally understand my friends who survived the war in Bosnia and said that those who had no experience of war would never understand those who had had to go through it. At the time, it seemed to me that this was some kind of exaggeration, an excessive separation of a certain type of experience. Now I understand that we are talking about experiencing the proximity of death: you can’t just describe it. Any day now, I can get a mobilization notice and would have to go to the front, but I don’t feel any fear or panic about it. Rather, I have a sense of inevitability. I do not know why this is so or how it is even possible. These days, I also think: how good it is that we can strive for a certain future but we don’t have any way to see it.
Andriy Lysenko, Lviv
On the first day of the war, I try unsuccessfully to take my brother’s wife and her two-year-old daughter to the Shehyni checkpoint on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Waiting in the 10-mile-long line, while the air-raid sirens howl and children cry, I suddenly realize that there is nothing new for me in all this: for as long as I can remember, my peaceful world has always also been a place of war.
My great-grandmother Paraskeva Dmytrivna lived through the Revolution and the Civil War. Born a Radziwiłł, she grew up on the estate of the same name near Poltava. Right after the Revolution, she was forced to change her last name and move in with relatives near Nikopol. She saw her first husband killed with a saber. For as long as I can remember, her eyes were my eyes.
My grandmother Alla Ivanivna survived World War II.
Her younger brother died in front of her, killed by a mine. For as long as I can remember, her eyes were my eyes.
At that time, she was old enough to become a member of the Nikopol OUN UPA, which was defending Ukraine’s freedom from both Nazi and Soviet invaders.
For my family, as for the vast majority of other Ukrainian families, the war did not end in 1945. The KGB tracked down my grandmother and sentenced her to 15 years in prison for participating in an anti-Soviet organization. At that time she was pregnant with my mother.
Tetiana Volodymyrivna, my mother, was born in prison.
When she first opened her eyes, she saw bars on the windows. For as long as I can remember, her eyes were mine.
While my grandmother was serving what was essentially a death sentence — no one survived 15 years of hard labor felling trees in the “Potminsky camps” in Mordovia (Zubovo-Polyansky district) —my great-grandmother with my mother, her eldest son, his wife, and my grandmother’s husband had to move as far from Kyiv and Moscow as possible, to the Kazakh town of Lenger near Shymkent.
My grandmother’s brother Vsevolod Ivanovych developed tuberculosis in that harsh climate and died a few years later.
I never met him, but was always told that I look very much like him. I saw war with his eyes — from its first to its last day.
I never saw my grandfather either, because his relatives persuaded him to divorce my grandmother and marry another woman so that his daughter would “have a mother.” When the new Secretary General of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, suddenly announced an amnesty for political prisoners, my grandfather fell to his knees and begged my grandmother to forgive him, but she did not forgive him and never saw him again. He lived the rest of his life in Kyiv.
Seeking a better climate for my great uncle’s tuberculosis, the entire family, including my newly released grandmother, moved to Crimea — first near Yalta, then to Yevpatoria. Despite the amnesty, no one felt safe.
I don’t know what influenced me more, the stories of wars and exile or the silence that enveloped most of the family’s history. For several years in my early childhood, I could not sleep at night out of horror.
My family history is the rule, not the exception.
Several generations of Ukrainians grew up with the war on their doorstep.
So when it knocked on every Ukrainian door on February 24 of this year, most of us recognized its face.
It outraged us, filled us with anger, sorrow, and pain for all the victims, but it did not become a new experience for us.
After all, for most Ukrainians, the peaceful world has never ceased to be war.
“War is father of all and king of all; and some he has shown as gods, others human; some he has made slaves, others free,” wrote Heraclitus of Ephesus in the sixth century BCE. This philosopher was once called “the Obscure,” but for the region that historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands,” the ancient sage’s statement is the quintessence of clarity.
After all, the war made us free and has turned the Putinists into slaves, because war makes us human, and some of us almost gods, while the Putinists are turned into zombies who shoot at women and children, drop bombs on residential areas, and launch rockets at hospitals and kindergartens.
The war made us free people, because we did not start it. It freed us from the fear of dying under enemy fire, because we know what it’s like not to sleep at night from the terror that “they” — the zombies in KGB, FSB, or some other uniform — will come for you or your family.
None of us wants several more generations of Ukrainians to grow up in the same terror. We do not want the peaceful world of children who are now the age of my niece Victoria to remain one of war. If it is necessary for us to throw ourselves under the Russian tanks to create a truly peaceful world for the new generation independent Ukrainian, we will do so. Or rather, the invaders will fall under their own fire — all those tanks, planes, and soldiers who entered our land to make our peace a war.
Compiled and edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris.
Translated by Katie Farris, Oleksandar Fedienko,
Helen Ferguson, Ilya Kaminsky, Marina Palenyy,
Julia Sushytska, and Alisa Slaughter.
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