Eugene Lir: If you can save at least one life, it is worth it


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Eugene Lir is Ukrainian dark fiction writer, translator and co-founder of Tvoya Pidpilna Humanitarka (Your Underground Humanities), an educational project promoting Ukrainian culture and the publishing house of the same name, but since the outbreak of the new phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war Ukrainian society knows him primarily as a volunteer. ‘I was a writer until Feb. 24 2022, but now I buy goodies for the Armed Forces.’ Most of the ‘goodies’ are various vehicles for the military, and their number is now almost 300. Recently, Eugene Lir joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine.


As part of the special project Words and Bullets, implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked to Eugene Lir about the importance of the work of volunteers, the identity of the Ukrainian South, Chechen-Ukrainian relations, poetry and the involvement of the Ukrainian cultural community in the war.



Chytomo: How was your transition from art to volunteering?


Eugene Lir: Russians took over my house. I started working on the documentary “Tomb of Shadows” shortly before Melitopol and the south of Ukraine were occupied. The film is about the Stone Grave, a collection of stone blocks that can be found near Melitopol, not far away from Myrne village, where there are drawings or inscriptions of tribes from the Eneolithic era, examples of the culture of the Polovets. The Stone Grave has always been a place of strength for me, the embodiment of fairy tale stories about an accidental discovery of the holy grail or artifacts of the ancient civilizations.





Initially, I was going to shoot the film in spring, but the anxiety I felt in autumn 2021 made me hurry up and start filming without waiting for a full crew. That’s why the film is not as good as I would have liked it to be. In spring, I wanted to make a series about the identity of the Ukrainian south, which remains greatly underrepresented, unlike other regions of the country. Even when we hear about the south, it’s all about Odesa or Crimea, and the Azov region is like a blind spot.


The most popular book I have written so far, “The Steppe God” (Chimeras Publisher, 2019), is about the city of Zapropady and the history of the Melitopol region. My other work, “The Book of Fictional Non Creatures” (Chimeras Publisher, 2020), contains many tropes from the steppe region of Ukraine. Having occupied the south of Ukraine, Russians, without exaggeration, took away from me what I built my identity and meaning of life around. When a person’s meaning is taken away, the emptiness it leaves either begins to fill quickly with darkness or is occupied by routine work. That was when I started helping the army. This is the only way to return home, there is no other way than with the victory of the Armed Forces.




Chytomo: When did you receive your first request as a volunteer?


Eugene Lir: In 2020, my friends and I helped Hospitallers Medical Battalion, a volunteer paramedic unit, raise money for their expenses by organizing the Books for Life campaign. Its participants sold books they had already read and donated the money to the paramedics. With the outbreak of the full-scale invasion, we began receiving requests from the units of the 110th Independent Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces. This is the Melitopol Territorial Defense forces where my friends serve. I am from Melitopol myself. There was a big request for drones. We bought eight, and then everything somehow grew from there.


Chytomo: I know you also send vehicles to the front. As far as I understand, the main focus is on that?


Eugene Lir: We were best at buying vehicles. Drones and radio sets needed to be ordered. Significant discounts could be negotiated from abroad, but we didn’t have a competent person to do that. The cars needed to look well-maintained in the ads, because the ads often show very damaged cars for $8,000-10,000.



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When Russia blew up the Kakhovka dam, our volunteering activity became more focused on Kherson: we bought and sent generators and boats. And we returned from Kherson with a list of requests for cars from the soldiers we met there.


We helped to buy vehicles for Ukrainian writer and soldier Artem Polezhaka and translator and military Denys Skorbatyuk. The latter was wounded, and he was evacuated thanks to the car he had requested from our volunteer team.


Chytomo: In one of your tweets, you wrote that at some point the number of vehicles you donated to the front and the number of cars donated by Serhiy Zhadan differed by just a few cars. Now you have become the writer who has bought and sent the largest number of cars to the front — 295.


Eugene Lir: I would like to express my sincere admiration for what Serhiy Zhadan is doing. Of course, there is no competition between the volunteers, but I am happy to see it as a competition. No matter who has the highest score — us, Serhiy Zhadan or Andriy Lyubka — it is always good for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I am glad that they are also volunteering because it reduces the number of requests that we would otherwise receive. I am in favor of as many people as possible joining the volunteer movement.


Chytomo: You volunteer for the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, the Dzhokhar Dudayev Chechen Peacekeeping Battalion, the Separate Special Purpose Battalion of the Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as part of the International Legion, and the Khamzat Gelayev Battalion, all volunteer battalions from Ichkeria (the current territory of the Chechen Republic within the Russian Federation) that fight in the Ukrainian armed forces. Why do you focus on these units?


Eugene Lir: Our volunteer interaction began with an acquaintance with a woman named Zarema, a Chechen volunteer. The way we developed our relationship with the Nochchi (the Chechen people’s self-designation) is probably one of the greatest discoveries of my life. I’ve been friends with people and communities before, but I’ve never had a whole group of a nation as friends before.


It should be understood that the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria is about the size of the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine, and the total population is about 800,000 people. It is the first state in the modern history of the world after the collapse of the USSR to defeat Russia in a war. When Boris Yeltsin signed the Khasavyurt Accord, he signed an agreement with a man whom he recognized as the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, so the war for independence was won, although some may consider this not a real victory, because a new war began afterwards.


In addition to their heroic spirit and traditions, the Nokhchi are close to me because they understand me so well. They know what it’s like to lose your home and to fight until the goal is achieved, not just until you run out of strength. I am immensely grateful to all Chechen people who are now fighting for Ukraine.



Chechens are very selective in their contacts because of the FSB’s hunt for them. Chechen fighters have a call sign, a fake name, and a real name. They do not give their real names to anyone except their families.The fact that several Chechen communities accept me as one of their own is the highest compliment for me.


Chytomo: Your Twitter profile description says that until February 24, you were a writer, translator, and author with the Underground Humanities project, and now you are primarily a volunteer. When was it that you realized what you should do?


Eugene Lir: It was probably during the sixth or eighth month of the full-scale invasion that I realized that I hadn’t released a single video for Your Underground Humanities (YouTube project that promotes culture and art).


I don’t believe that as a writer or translator I could do even one tenth of the good that I am doing now as a person who provides supplies for the Armed Forces of Ukraine together with this community of philanthropists.


As for self-identification, the majority of my works explore various aspects of absence, because as an author I am interested in working with the themes of emptiness, displacement, liminality and boundaries. I focus on these themes in all my books. My perception of myself as the great “Nothing” hasn’t changed much, but then my friend covered the inscription “nobody” that I drew on my backpack with the “Kharkiv-Zalizobeton” chevron. (Kharkiv-Zalizobeton is a volunteer movement in Kharkiv that raises money for the Ukrainian Armed Forces by selling embroidered patches) I have been wearing both the inscription and the chevron on my backpack ever since. My friend didn’t plan this symbolic gesture; he just saw a blank space on the backpack, but it became quite symbolic for me.


During the war, I have moved away from the theme of emptiness in order to be as useful as possible in the here and now. Now I try to balance the roles of a volunteer and a writer.



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I don’t want to sound arrogant towards my colleagues, but I think a large number of people from the cultural sector, who have a much larger audience than I do, could make a serious difference in providing for the army. Imagine the quantity assistance that could be provided if other colleagues made a choice in favor of regular volunteering. That’s why I respect even more those who have volunteered or joined the army at the expense of their writing.


Chytomo: Actually, about the disruption of a career. You wrote about the unspoken but tangible “exclusion” of a person from a civilian profession because they are forced to devote all their time either to the army or to systematic volunteering. We know of examples of dead and missing soldiers who, until 2022, were primarily artists, but abandoned this role in favor of serving in the Armed Forces. How should the cultural sphere interact with cultural figures who have abandoned their civilian activities and become military or volunteers?


Eugene Lir: Thank you for mentioning the writers who paid the ultimate price — they lost their lives. Ukrainian poet, volunteer and military paramedic Olena Herasymiuk and I are compiling a list of Ukrainian writers and people from the publishing community who have been killed by Russia during the war. It’s really hard because you realize that while you’re trying to do your best on the home front, a person in the army went on duty and was killed. That’s it, they’re gone.



It is important to understand that the Russians are stealing from us not only resources, but literally the future of culture.


The last literary event I attended was the funeral of the writer Victoria Amelina.


I remember that at one of the extra-large BookForums, a large book festival held in Lviv, I was involved in more events than any other writer. In 2023, I didn’t get to the BookForum at all. This is not about BookForum as an institution, but about an example of how a person drifts away from the profession. Unfortunately, panel discussions or events are more often attended by people who are known primarily as writers, and the work of many colleagues who are primarily involved in helping the Armed Forces may go unnoticed.


In general, I am convinced that we should pay attention to those who are engaged in charitable aid first, and only after that to those who are writing about the larger context and meaning of the war.


All meanings fall apart like a house of cards as soon as Russians occupy the next city.




Translation: Iryna Saviuk
Editing: Lea Ann Douglas