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Ihor Mitrov: A bohemian poet at war turns into an ordinary soldier22.04.2023
Poet, critic, and literary scholar Ihor Mitrov was born in Crimea. He used to explore the peninsula, participating in archaeological excavations. Now he sees his homeland only in his dreams, but as a soldier of the 95th separate airborne assault brigade, he is doing his best to bring the moment of its de-occupation closer. We talked to Ihor about what the life of a “bohemian poet” looks like at war, what writing in a trench is like, why there are Russians fighting on our side, and what should unite Ukrainians after the victory. The conversation happened within the framework of the special project Words and Bullets, created by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine.
— A year ago, on the eve of the invasion, you and your wife traveled to Zakarpattia. What do you remember most from that trip? Did you feel the approach of the big war at that time?
— We had a very cool trip back then. We saw all these castles and ruins. It was my first trip to Zakarpattia. I always like to discover new parts of Ukraine. It was a very bright trip. Uzhhorod is an extremely cozy, beautiful city with interesting architecture. After two years of the pandemic, it was such a breath of fresh air for me.
In general, I have a plan to travel all over Ukraine, including the eastern part, after the victory. I really want to see Donbas not as a gunman who does not get out of the trenches and assaults, but as a tourist and traveler. And to see what the Russians left behind in the occupied Donbas and in the occupied Crimea. To see the sites of military clashes. To see the cities. Because before the war, for example, I had never been to Donetsk and Luhansk. I would really like to get there. I hope I will find like-minded people to realize this idea together. Maybe we’ll do some kind of literary tour. Or maybe we’ll just go for a drive.
Did I feel a big war coming? No. I did not believe in a full-scale invasion until the morning of February 24. I didn’t believe it myself and told everyone that it was bullshit and that the Russians wouldn’t dare to do it. So everything happened unexpectedly for me. A lot of plans and ideas were ruined.
– However, you reacted very quickly and applied to the military registration and enlistment office almost immediately. What do you miss most about civilian life?
– I miss my civilian life, because it was interesting and eventful. I miss the literary crowd, our meetings with friends, poets, our parties and events. I miss my family, my wife, who is very far away and with whom, unfortunately, we don’t have full communication because of the crappy connection. Usually, it’s just chatting in messengers and a few minutes of absolutely poor-quality video calls that cut out and disconnect. It’s more of a nerve-wracking experience than a source of satisfaction and reassurance.
I really miss Kyiv. When I was there on leave, I just walked around, looked around, breathed. I miss it very much now: with its atmosphere, Shevchenko park, which we call the “green campus”…
Despite the war, life in Kyiv continues, and this makes me very happy. People on the home front should not forget about the war, but focusing on it alone is also wrong. After all, the front exists for the purpose of making life go on in the rear. That’s why I’m glad that people still go to work, solve different issues, poets still gather in Kupidon (literary coffee house in Kyiv), read poetry to each other…
– Oleg Kotsarev wrote about you as being a poet with a “bohemian image.” What does the life of a “bohemian” poet look like at war?
– A bohemian poet at war turns into an ordinary soldier. Therefore, there is no need to talk about any special image at all. Here we are all the same. That’s why I’m hiding my bohemian image in some distant drawer for now and will only get it back after the victory.
– You have admitted that, unlike some of your fellow soldiers, you don’t feel much of a thrill from what you do. Nevertheless, you continue to serve without losing your vigor. What keeps your spirits up?
– I wouldn’t say that I don’t lose my vigor. I just try to create a picture to motivate those around me and those who follow my life and work in the civilian world. Although in reality it’s very difficult, it’s exhausting. The only thing that gives me inspiration is that someday, when the victory comes, I will be able to return to my normal life and realize myself exactly where I want to be, not where I have to be.
– You often share a variety of experiences that you are currently living through. The hashtag #впершечерезвійну (#forthefirsttimebecauseofthewar) is particularly touching. It was at the front that you first attended a church service, and that you visited the island of Khortytsia for the first time. What else happened to you for the first time during the war?
– The answer to this question would be very long. I shot at the enemy for the first time, for the first time I saw death so close, first time someone tried to kill me, first time I was shot at with a variety of weapons, first time I experienced the loss of a comrade-in-arms, the death of a friend. Last August, we were supposed to assault a forest in Donetsk region, got ambushed, and two of my comrades were killed by machine gun fire: Chorny and Mishanya, may they rest in peace.
I became friends with Chorny. We had many plans in mind. In particular, after the assault, he was supposed to teach me how to drive a car. But he did not return from that assault. We couldn’t take their bodies out of there for three weeks afterwards.
– You took the red and black flag with you to the front, which has been with you for most of your life. What does this symbol mean to you?
(It’s a flag previously used by a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary and later partisan formation during World War II, and later became a common symbol of Ukrainian nationalists)
– For me, this flag is a symbol of the fight for independence, the fight for Ukrainian land. It’s not so much about politics or any beliefs, because I can hardly be called a nationalist, I’m too liberal for that… But the fight for Ukraine was waged under this flag. And now I myself have joined this battle. It is also a symbol of a new stage in my life. I bought this flag in the fall of 2008, almost right after I moved to Kyiv.
– How did your national consciousness form?
– Somewhere around the 9th or 10th grade, I started participating in national competitions on Ukrainian language and literature, and I communicated with people from all over Ukraine. Of course, at first, I was conveying the ideas and narratives that prevailed in Crimea in the early 2000s. It’s not hard to guess what those narratives were. But there, people explained everything to me very quickly. I’m grateful that nobody beat me, but rather explained, suggested, and advised. I was coming back from there as a different person. In fact, it was then that I switched to Ukrainian. First partially, then fully. There were, of course, conflicts, in particular, in my family. But it was then that I began to reflect on all these things.
I remember one episode from that period that really stuck in my mind. It was the final year of school, and we were given textbooks on Ukrainian literature. I started flipping through the pages and noticed that half of the writers had the same year of death, 1937, and in general, the 1930s. That’s when I realized that a whole layer of Ukrainian literature was destroyed in just a few years. This still shocks and triggers me. And at least for this reason I hate Russians with all my heart. And this adds to my rage, hatred, and desire for revenge.
– You studied at the university for two years, majoring in Literary Creativity, Ukrainian Language and Literature, then dropped out and went on to study Russian language and literature. Do you regret it now?
– No, I have no regrets. It was interesting, a lot of great teachers and classmates, nothing to regret. Our department, as it turned out, was one of the most patriotic at the university, even back in 2014. In the end, I can now say with full responsibility that I know much more about Russians than the average Ukrainian (laughs). And this may even help me in some ways.
– In your opinion, which texts of Russian literature best characterize Russians?
– In a kind of conditional interdisciplinary course in Russian studies, I would leave three authors who best help us understand the essence of the sh…t that is being created in the minds and souls of Russians and their quasi-state formation called the Russian Federation. These are authors, one for every century: Saltykov-Shchedrin, Andrei Platonov, and Vladimir Sorokin. To a certain extent, they predicted what is happening now. Their books are a kind of conventional textbooks on Russian ethnography.
– How do you feel about the canceling of Russian culture?
– With all my limbs, I am in favor of a total canceling of Russian culture, the Russian state, the Russian people, and everything that contains the adjective “Russian.” We must completely shut them up in all areas, and first and foremost in the cultural one. Recognizing the right of Russian culture to exist means legalizing Russians themselves, and this cannot be allowed.
But we should understand that Dostoevsky should not be censored because he is a bad writer, and Tchaikovsky should not be censored because he is a bad composer. They should be censored because they are Russian. Because everything Russian should be censored, as it is a requirement of our time.
– By the way, a Russian is fighting in your brigade…
– And not just one, there are several of them here. They are not officially registered, they fight as volunteers. But they are always with us. There are no misunderstandings with them, because these guys are very motivated and eager to fight. They are reliable, you are not afraid to be on the ground with them. They have their own scores to settle with the Russian regime. Our ultimate goal may be different to some extent, but at this particular moment in time, in this place, they are doing their job perfectly. There are no claims or complaints against them.
– Do you talk to them about ideological topics? How do they explain the decision to fight against “their own”? How do they see their future after the war?
– I would like to make a note right away that they are not fighting against “their own” because they do not consider them “their own”. Just like us, they call them f…gots. They beat them even harder than many of ours. They may have different motivations, but they all want to destroy Putin’s regime.
How do they see their future? It’s very sad and funny at the same time, but they don’t know. I tried to find out what they think about the future. But mostly these guys have some left-wing or extreme right-wing views. And they want to build some kind of utopia in Russia. We all understand that there will never be any left or right utopias in Russia. That’s why their future is really very vague. But, in the end, problems have to be solved as they come. So for now, they are fighting the Putin’s regime and Putin’s army. And then they’ll decide something.
I asked them if they plan to, let’s say, move the fighting to the territory of the Russian Federation. They say that ideally, this is how it should be. In particular, this Russian volunteer corps, which is being recruited in Ukraine and is even, they say, fighting somewhere, is being created, among other things, for the future in order to fight in the territory of the Russian Federation…
– Your YouTube channel is called “mitropolia-tv (воєнний стан)”. How will you rename it after the war? Do you want to continue vlogging at all?
– This channel existed before I went to war. I just talked about other things there: movies, literature. Back then it was a cultural channel called “mitropolia-tv”. Then I just added the sub-title “martial law” to it and started documenting my experience at the front.
After the war, I will simply remove the “martial law” and continue to talk about various cultural things. I hope I will have enough resources to do it at least as regularly as I am now talking about the war.
– In addition to your video blog, you write a lot of poetry and prose. What does writing mean to you now: consolation, torment, a desire to record/reflect on this experience?
– I consider it my duty to record and reflect on all these things. If you call yourself a writer, you have to work in this direction. Of course, it’s usually difficult, it’s exhausting. First of all, mentally. After all, when you write, you relive everything. It’s also hard physically, because I often write right after our missions. Therefore, in addition to being physically and mentally tired, I also torture myself with these texts. But, in the end, when I re-read what I’ve written, I feel satisfied, fulfilled and thus somehow balance it all out.
– Do you write/note anything outside of Facebook and Telegram? Do you consider what you write during the war as a separate book?
– Yes, I don’t post everything I write on social media yet. Not everything can be posted, there are many things that cannot be spoken out loud yet. Although someday I will definitely write about what really happened. But I think it won’t happen for a long time.
As for a separate book, I don’t know. Perhaps it will be some kind of collage work of all these texts. I think a poetry collection will appear. Although my publisher has already hinted to me that he expects a novel from me. And not only him. So I guess I can’t get away from this either (laughs).
– You often have dreams about Crimea. How has it changed in your mind since the full-scale invasion? What would you like to do after its de-occupation?
– After the full-scale invasion, as paradoxical as it may sound, Crimea became closer. One of the first thoughts I had back then was that now Crimea would return to Ukraine much faster. After all, now we will fight for it, we will go to the borders of 1991. This became possible precisely because of the full-scale invasion. Otherwise, we could have forgotten about Crimea for a long time. I think it was impossible to resolve this issue diplomatically. It’s a bit cynical, but I’m glad that this knot has been untied. Now we will move there and get what is ours as fast as possible.
After this war is over, after our victory, we will need people there, including those from the cultural sphere. I don’t know how we will realize this, I hope our government has some kind of plan for this (it just has to exist, we need to think about it already). I don’t rule out the possibility that I will go there and work there. But all this will happen later. For now, we need to bring the victory and the return of Crimea closer by all possible means.
– You say that hatred and contempt should become part of our national idea. What else should unite us after the war?
– Hatred and contempt are very useful and even necessary, they help to destroy the enemy more effectively. After the victory, we will need to unite around something more constructive, more human. After all, if we have restored Europe’s faith in its European values, it will not hurt to unite around these values ourselves.
Words and Bullets is the special project from 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 project symbolizes the weapon the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the one they had to swap it for after the full-scale invasion. The special project is realized with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Translated by Maria Bragan
Edited by Jared Goyette
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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