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Words and Bullets
Alla Pushkarchuk: It will take years to get rid of the patriarchal view of military service15.05.2023
Alla Pushkarchuk worked as a journalist for several years at Ukrayinsky Tyzhden newspaper and later became part of the Chytomo team: she was responsible for the news feed and coordinated the #EmptyChairPeople project. During the Revolution of Dignity, she joined the Right Sector and later traveled to the frontline as part of their information department to write and take photos. That’s when she got the call sign “Ruta”. After the full-scale invasion, she joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces with her boyfriend. Now she is one of 38 thousand Ukrainian women soldiers.
In the framework of the special project Words and Bullets implemented by PEN Ukraine and Chytomo, we talk to Alla about what it is like to be a woman on the front line, what should be changed in the Ukrainian army to make it more comfortable for women, what is the most difficult thing to do during constant relocations, and what books mean during the war.
– During the ATO, you worked as a press secretary and photographer in a volunteer battalion, and after the full-scale invasion, you joined the Armed Forces. How did you come to this decision? How did your family and friends react?
– For four years in the volunteer movement, I fought for the right to work on the front line. It was difficult, often with tears and despair. I have heard many times that photography and writing are not worth the risks, that I face terrible dangers there, that I am just an extra burden for the military. It was very difficult for my then-unformed personality, so in general, I didn’t manage to do anything particularly outstanding in the volunteer battalion. I published a few texts and photos. At the same time, this period was a real school of life: I realized then how different the words and actions of people, who were initially united by a common goal, can be.
At the same time, in my free time, I was learning to shoot a sniper rifle and had good results. So, I finally decided to leave the volunteer movement, guided by Zhadan’s lines: “What has not yet begun is not over, everything you asked for can still happen” and with the understanding that sooner or later I would return to the war, but as a full-fledged combat unit.
Once, long before the full-scale invasion, my beloved and I were talking about a possible escalation at the front and agreed that if anything, we would go to the army together. So on February 24, we didn’t waste time thinking about it – we already had a ready-made decision.
My family took it differently. My mother’s reaction surprised me: I expected absolute rejection, but instead I received support. At the same time, my uncle, with whom I have always had a close, trusting relationship, said that I do not belong at war and that my decision was a mistake. He is also a military man, so I still write to him from time to time, asking how he is doing. Sometimes I get a curt answer, sometimes not. At the same time, he has never asked me how I am doing. He only advised me and my beloved to think about having children when he found out that Maksym and I had gotten married. For me, this is an absolute disregard and devaluation of my contribution to our victory, albeit a tiny one. Such words are not only tactless, but even cruel. After all, it is not known when we will all be able to return to civilian life, or if we will be able to do so at all.
photo courtesy of Alla Pushkarchuk
– How do you feel about the army in general? Nowadays, a female soldier is not a novelty. In your opinion, do women have the same conditions for service as men? Or do you still sometimes feel prejudiced by male soldiers?
– If you imagine that serving in the army on the front line is Antarctica, men get here by air, while women still have to cross the Drake Passage on their own, each in her own homemade boat, with all its storms of unjustified skepticism, icebergs of prejudice and undercurrents of devaluation. I am no exception in this story, but my heart is forever filled with gratitude to those people who, with their support and trust, do not allow me to give up and quit.
In our mortar team, I work with an artillery boussole, a tablet with special software, firing tables, a pen and a notebook. This is primarily mental work that requires an attentive and responsible attitude. Otherwise, the efforts of the entire team will be in vain. Despite the fact that I cope well with my duties, from time to time some colleagues criticize me for my lack of physical strength. This usually happens when I dare to talk about gender discrimination, or, God forbid, say the word “sexism” out loud. Then I immediately get the following response: “You don’t have the strength to pull several seriously wounded soldiers, 150 kg or more, off the battlefield by yourself, so you shouldn’t assert yourself with feminine terms.” And this is a substitution of concepts and twisting.
Sometimes a fighter refuses to work under a “chick”, even though the commander confidently leaves me in charge. Sometimes my smallest mistake is met with gloating of unimaginable proportions, saying that this is another proof that “women do not belong here.” But the main thing is that I don’t hear these “She still has children to give birth to, so we don’t take her on trips” anymore, because at the beginning it happened.
This all spoils the mood a bit, because it is important for everyone to understand that they are valued and respected. Although I get a little bit of satisfaction when the commander of another unit shakes my hand, thanking me for productive cooperation. Or when a corrective officer, whom I have never met in my life, records a voice message in the evening after a busy day, in which he calls our work great. I am also very happy when I hear a woman’s voice over the radio waves and realize that these women, like me, have overcome all obstacles and crossed the Drake Passage on their homemade boats.
– What do you think is important to change in the Ukrainian army to make it more comfortable for women to serve?
– In my circle there is a lot of talk about women’s uniforms, shoes, underwear, and hygiene products. If Ukrainian women soldiers have all this, it is only thanks to private initiatives such as Zemlyachky or Arm Women Now, but not thanks to the Ministry of Defense. This is sad, because it is not only about comfort, but also about health and respect.
But it’s not just about these attributes. The Ukrainian army is a reflection of Ukrainian society, and therefore, society itself needs to change. In my opinion, women will not feel comfortable in the army as long as the worst insult to a male soldier is “you act like a girl.” How can we fight this? From an early age, we need to demonstrate to both boys and girls that military service is a worthy job for both sexes… In general, we need to get rid of patriarchal optics, and it will take years of hard work.
photo courtesy of Alla Pushkarchuk
– Do you still have the opportunity to work as a journalist and photographer? Do you feel the need to return to these activities?
– I carried a camera in my backpack for about six months, but I never captured anything worthwhile. In the end, I sent it home. At the beginning of my service, I had plans to write reports about the life of the unit, about the people we meet on our way… But all this requires powerful empathy and the ability to reflect, and now, unfortunately, I do not have enough emotional resources for this.
– Do you keep an army diary? Do you make any notes outside of Facebook posts? What is the most important thing for you to record from your current experience?
– I don’t keep a diary in the proper sense of the word, but sometimes I write something down. Excerpts from local people’s stories about life under occupation, my impressions of what I experienced, some fragments, moments… For me, it is important to find the right words to explain to myself my own reactions to certain events, or lack of reactions. In other words, it is rather a documentation of my inner state. I am determined to forget everything that happens outside.
– Do you find constant relocations difficult? How important is it for you to organize your personal space?
– Constant changes of location are extremely difficult. It’s like constantly ripping the skin off a wound. I get very attached to the corners where I can be alone with a book, to the views, to the conditional comfort, to the organization of the space in general. Every next relocation is kind of an unknown for me.
But the worst thing is to part with animals. For some time, we had a dog living with us at the position, a smart one named Albert. He was curly-haired and covered in burdocks. He was so afraid of explosions that after each one he would run into our basement, crawl into the farthest corner under the shelf with canned food and not come out for a long time. He was so quiet that we even forgot about his presence. In Selydove (Donetsk region), we made friends with a cat named Thom Yorke. He meowed so pitifully every time he needed attention that we decided to name him after the Radiohead singer. We had seven dogs living with us in Chasiv Yar: Sheep, Rex, Don Juan, Malvina, Beetle, Squirrel, and Vuhlyk (Coal). Expressive and unforgettable troublemakers. It was so good with all of them, even though we had a lot of trouble…
photo courtesy of Alla Pushkarchuk
Vuhlyk, or Vuhledar, broke my heart. He was a very special dog with whom I developed a special bond. He was so open, artistic, he trusted us, and during every thunderstorm he would run into my and Maksym’s room and play with us. Two days before we left, he came in worried, started whining, and then howled and ran away. We never saw him again, although I looked for him everywhere and called him. Now I will never forgive myself for leaving him there under shelling…
– What is a military uniform for you: a source of pride, just comfortable clothes, or an imposed mandatory attribute?
– Comfortable clothes that are an honor to wear. But at the same time, I’ve already missed dresses, plaid shirts, and knitted sweaters.
As I already mentioned, I have to get my uniform through volunteers. Now I work in a uniform from the Zemlyachky charity foundation. I also have a change set from Arm Women Now.
It’s good that I received a set of comfortable, warm, soft thermal underwear from the volunteers, tailored to the female figure. But I had to change my hat three times until I found the perfect one. By the way, it can be transformed into a balaclava, so my cheeks are no longer afraid of night duties.
– Despite your service, you still manage to read books and even post reviews of them on Facebook. Have you ever thought about writing more detailed reviews and publishing them in professional publications?
– I used to think about it, but my work in the Armed Forces takes too much energy. I read very little now, I can’t concentrate, I’m always sleepy…
Although I keep buying books, I now have more than 20 paper editions with me. I’m afraid that during the next move, the commander will notice this and simply kick me out of the unit because I use the common space so irrationally (laughs). But I can’t do otherwise, books are my strength.
My “library on wheels” includes a new novel by Olga Tokarchuk, Rilke’s poetry, an astronomy textbook, a guide to Carpathian magic, books on theater, works on comparative studies, and artillery manuals. In general, my reading tastes are unlimited and changeable.
– You wrote that prose has always been the closest to you among the genres of literature, but after the full-scale invasion, you are especially moved by poetry. What do poems mean to you now? Which poets resonate with you the most?
– Poetry pushed all other literature out of my life for only a few months. I know that this happened to many readers, because poetry is a powerful and quick reflection, something that the brain needs at the beginning of a full-scale war. But later, the ability to perceive and enjoy prose returned.
photo courtesy of Alla Pushkarchuk
Speaking of poetry, I loved to read Pluzhnyk most of all, I don’t know anything stronger than his words. I am also fond of Vasyl Stus, Mykola Kholodnyi, Natalka Bilotserkivets, Kateryna Kalytko, and Paul Celan. But on the wall of our basement I wrote a poem that has followed me all these years – “And this love with a touch of trouble…” by Zhadan.
– I know that in June you were in Kharkiv, which at that time had already suffered badly from Russian shelling. What was your impression of the city and the people there?
– Our unit has been stationed in Kharkiv since the beginning of May. But even before the full-scale invasion, I had been trying to find a job in this city for several months, going for interviews, doing an internship in a bookstore. I’m from Volyn region, and my husband is from Kharkiv region, so I tried to connect with this land, to find my place here. However, my relationship with Kharkiv didn’t work out – the city didn’t accept me, it was too cold and reserved. In the bookstore where I hoped to work, they said that it was very preferable to switch to Russian with Russian speakers; in the subway, they reacted to my questions in Ukrainian saying “what?” in Russian… In general, the most difficult thing was the language, but something else made me feel like a foreigner, something elusive.
But I also know another Kharkiv, the image of which is shaped by Oleksandr Savchuk’s publishing house, the Kharkiv Literary Museum, Serhiy Zhadan, our 20s, Berezil (an avant-garde Soviet Ukrainian theater troupe founded by Les Kurbas), and the Slovo House (a residential house for cultural figures of Ukraine during 20th century). This image is very dear to me.
For the first time, on my way to Kharkiv, I read Volodymyr Kulish’s memoirs about the Slovo House on the train. My Kharkiv dates with my husband were unthinkable without walks to 9 Kultury Street (where the Slovo House is located), without wandering the floors where creative life once raged with such passion. I remember the first time I stood in front of the door of Kurbas’s apartment, and my heart was pounding, and skipping, and stopping.
So despite the fact that my relationship with Kharkiv is complicated, it remains an important, outstanding city in my life. I am proud that it has survived.
– Recently, Artem Chekh said this in an interview about his service: “Now we have up to a million pixel people (drawing on the uniform of the Ukrainian military). And all of them are protecting something of their own, and at the same time, something that is common to all.” What are you protecting?
– I defend my personal borders, which are closely intertwined with the state borders.
– You have a dream: to open your own bookstore after the war. Tell us more about it.
– I have a large home library and I love looking through it. It’s my private space, my hiding place. The books in it are not arranged in alphabetical order, but according to my own, personally invented system. It reminds me of “The Hidden Life of Trees” (a scientific publication by Peter Wohlleben), in which texts interact with each other on different levels and eventually transcend their boundaries, becoming objectified. That’s why on these shelves you can also see a Schumann vinyl record, a flute, an old polaroid, an hourglass, sheet music, a bottle of gin, a jewelry box… For me, all of these are also literature.
Intertextuality in its broadest sense, intermediality multiplied by my reading experience and the author’s biography, is something that arouses my awe. This is what I am primarily guided by when telling other people about books.
As a result, my library is mostly dominated by strange connections: unpredictable, confusing, and fascinating. It is a pleasure for me to discover these connections. Here is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina next to Paul Celan’s No One’s Rose, and right away, the correspondence between these authors, so sensitive and beautiful. And here is Tanya Maliarchuk, who introduced me to Ingeborg Bachmann during the Meridian Czernowitz festival, and here is Oksana Zabuzhko, who is considered the Austrian writer’s successor in terms of style and theme. The Creation of the World by Tetyana Teren, where Taras Prokhasko says that Ingeborg Bachmann is an important figure in literature for him.
On my shelf, the poetry collection of American beatniks, The Day Lady Died, translated by Yuri Andrukhovych, stands next to the book Just Kids by the godmother of punk rock, Patti Smith, in which all these beatniks are beautiful and alive, and in my phone’s bookmarks there is a touching conversation between Andrukhovych and Patti recorded during the 27th BookForum, a conversation about Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, among other things…
In the future, I dream of founding a bookstore that would be similar to my library with all these visible connections and intertwining. I live with this thought, imagining its realization more and more precisely. There is still a bit of time to think it over properly while the war is still going on.
Words and Bullets is the special project by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined the army or started volunteering when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapon used by the heroes and heroines of the project before Feb. 24, which they were forced to take up after the outbreak of a full-scale war with Russia. The special project is being implemented with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Translated by Maria Bragan
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