Words and Bullets

Kateryna Mikhalitsyna: Sometimes our memory is the safest of all possible hiding places


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Writer, translator, and artist Kateryna Mikhalitsyna has been volunteering since the beginning of the full-scale war: first, together with her husband and friends, she started collecting and sending parcels for the military. Then she began organizing auctions of her paintings to support animal shelters, including the Nikopol-based Chance for Life, which she now patronizes the most. Later, she became a “liaison” between Lithuanian writers and cultural figures who actively collect and deliver aid for the Ukrainian army. Kateryna also joins literary and volunteer trips organized by PEN Ukraine, travels abroad to give speeches, and communicates with foreign authors who come to Ukraine.

As a part of the special project Words and Bullets, implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked about memories that time can’t erase, the light that helps in the darkest of darkness, Lithuania, Ukrainian cities, the most vivid images, poetry, guilt and love.

– The year of full-scale war is behind us. What was it like for you?

– I can’t define it yet. All the comparisons are too conventional, and I have not yet found my own definition for this year.

– What memories of it does your mind try to displace? And which ones, on the contrary, will stay with you for the rest of your life?

People and their stories, read, written down, or shared, will remain. Even if it is a single conversation on a bus or in the basement of a theater in Kherson. The destroyed houses will remain, at least the ones I saw with my own eyes: in Dnipro, Borodyanka, Kryvyi Rih, Kramatorsk. I think I will remember them even if they are demolished and rebuilt. I will remember the shrapnel-bitten walls in Nikopol or Kharkiv, walls that I want to caress. I will remember the corpse smell in the Izium cemetery, the trees mowed down by shelling, books and shutters pierced by bullets, flags fluttering over the graves of soldiers.


At the same time, I will remember the theater in Kherson, built on the model of the one in Mariupol. The woman I hold by the hand while she quietly tells me how she escaped death. The curtain fluttering in the broken window of the library, from which you can see the Russian positions. The story about bread in Mykolaiv, which was baked in all corners of the region to be sent to the soldiers. A tall flag over Kharkiv. Invisible in the darkness, but still alive and tangible, the Kyiv Dnipro.


These are just the first shots that immediately pop up in my head, what is on the surface. But in general, I don’t allow myself to displace anything, I give myself time to perceive it and put it on the right shelf. To be honest, these shelves are currently in chaos. But everything is there, and it won’t go anywhere. Because our memory is sometimes the safest of all possible hiding places.

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna

At this time, days and hours have become denser, containing so much information, communication, and movement that sometimes you get lost in them – in this endless stream of everything, the brain does not always have time to comprehend, it only records. And when everything becomes too much, when emotions come rushing in, poetry comes. You write it out, breathe it out and let it go. You get the opportunity to breathe again and move on. I assume that this is the case for many people. Poetry is a therapeutic practice and a way to defer experiencing the emotions. It can be used to read back time and the war, to catch up on reliving through what is important, and on crying, to prevent something essential from slipping through your fingers in the midst of everything that is happening around us and our war.

– What has been the most valuable to you in these extremely difficult times? What illuminates your path even in moments of deepest darkness?

– People. The closest ones who accept me with all my pits and black holes. And also those who have just come into my life and no one knows for how long. Alive, strong, fragile, infinitely beautiful people with their quirks and traumas. Children, in particular, who bring us back to earth and help us stick to daily rituals. Lithuania, and specifically Vilnius, where I already have my own community and which gave me a spirit, Naminukas, who protects his home against the winds of history. There is such a legend and a lane named after it in Užupis, Vilnius. Polish Krasnogruda, where for the first time after Feb. 24 I felt a desire to paint again. And also the field that is visible from the windows of our apartment in Sykhiv.

– Tell us about Lithuania. How did this interaction begin? How does this great web of assistance work in general?

– It all started with Marianna Kiyanovska and the translation workshops in Lviv and Druskininkai, which she co-organized 9 years ago. Marianna was my gateway to Lithuania and its literature. And literature became the basis for thorough volunteer assistance after the start of the full-scale phase of the war.

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna


It was on the basis of the Literary Foundation of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union, which was intended to support primarily Lithuanian writers in a crisis, that residencies for Ukrainian writers (a month’s stay in Vilnius and a scholarship) were launched last year. Later, on the initiative of Laurynas Katkus, Marius Burokas, and Donatas Petrošius, poets, translators, and essayists, this foundation was turned into a fundraising and assistance center for Ukrainians.


Read also: Victoria Amelina: No words are needed after a tragedy, all words slide into a whirlpool


The first collection of donations was announced in late fall, and in December, Marius, Laurynas and Donatas arrived in Lviv with a car for the Armed Forces and a bunch of goods. The car was handed over to a unit run by the Women’s Veterans Movement. They also visited Kyiv, Irpin, Borodyanka and Bucha. This is a very important testimony on their part. Soon the guys will buy the third car. In addition to cars, they bought several powerful generators, radios, night vision devices, clothes, hot water bottles and much more for our military. Now, on their third visit, we are preparing, among other things, nice things for the Dovzhenko Children’s Library in Chernihiv, which was damaged by the Russians.

I am honored to be their “liaison”, to build these bridges of mutual assistance and mutual understanding. Yes, this is a lot of work, effort, and time for each of us. We postpone things, abandon things, fail to meet work deadlines, our homes turn into warehouses, but I can’t imagine it being otherwise.

And I am infinitely grateful to Marius, Laurynas and Donatas for this initiative. Because it’s all about deep connection, trust, and not being alone in this total shitstorm. And for me personally, it is the way to the light from the deepest darkness you’re asking about.

– Everything that Lithuanians, Poles, and other nations are doing for us. What is it about for you in the first place?

– All this help and support, which we don’t have to ask for and which doesn’t require explanations, because we have a skin-deep understanding of what Russia is and what will happen if it marches over us and further, is about the ability to endure and resist. It’s about the opportunity of at least a second’s respite, support, and not being alone in all that is happening. It’s about our amplified voice, which is harder to drown out.

– How do you feel abroad? Have you had to face incomprehension or denial of what is happening here?

– In Lithuania, I feel almost at home: there is so much understanding and support at different levels. But it can also be painful there. When you relax, everything you haven’t lived through comes flooding back: because you carry guilt and the feeling “I’m not doing enough” with you everywhere, like a snail carrying its house, because it’s still easier within your own borders than outside of them.


In Poland, there is just as much understanding, but quite often I had to answer questions about why I didn’t leave with my family, about some household things, about Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna


In Milan, we managed to make a little breakthrough, to arouse interest in how the war is changing libraries, how children react to sirens. My Yaryna (middle daughter, 12 years old) was just there, and it turned out that it works: here is my daughter, and this is how she spends her time in the shelter under the school. Small, seemingly very private daily stories evoke a reaction. In Italy, this is very difficult. The general opinion is: “Just calm down with your war, make peace, don’t spoil our pizza and wine…” That is why it is so important that the writer and journalist Paolo Giordano, who has just published a new book Tasmania, that made a bit of a splash, came to Lviv, traveled 3000 km with me and San’ka (Oleksandr, the husband), visited Chasiv Yar, and then described all this in human stories. His article made a great impression on the Italian public.

– What messages should we articulate to foreigners at this stage of the war? What else can they do for our victory?

– Perhaps the most important thing is a clear understanding: if you want to help Ukrainian culture and civilians, you have to support the Ukrainian army. Because one is simply impossible without the other. And one more thing: what we need from our Western partners is not so much sympathy as understanding of who we are and what path we are on, what price we pay for just existing.

– In addition to volunteering, you write a lot of poetry, paint, and continue to translate. What does each of these activities fill you with now?

– Perhaps all this is an attempt not to forget who I am outside the war. I’ve already said about poetry: it’s a way of capturing a moment that lasts longer than the news, on different levels. In addition, poetry is a personal prism, your perception of something, an opportunity to enter into a conversation with the Western world through a thin slit of personal experience that touches, finds common points of experience on which we can build a broader understanding of situations. But personal doesn’t necessarily mean what I experienced myself.

To be honest, it’s easier for me now to write, listen, and read about others. For example, during this time, I conducted several interviews for the platform Local History: with Henry Marsh, Michael Katakis, Edith Eger, Marius Burokas, Vitas Deksnis, and Antanas A. Jonynas. Now we are working on the next conversations. It’s my “first time” doing this. Thanks to volunteer literary trips to Ukraine with PEN colleagues, I started writing emotional reports. I write down many stories of women volunteers or just women who are coping or not coping with this war.


Translation and editing are more about work. The kind of work that is actually a job. And that is difficult, I lack motivation and focus. What used to take an hour to complete now takes two or three hours at best. But I turned back to translating poetry: by Wisława Szymborska and Jakub Pszoniak from Polish, Marius Burokas from Lithuanian, Rimas Užgiris and Michael Katakis from English. I translate simply for myself, because I hide in their texts, looking for support or an echo of my own emotions and fears.

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna


Drawing for me is about courage and challenge. Thanks to the translator Alla Tatarenko, my drawings became illustrations for a Croatian anthology of Ukrainian war poetry. Then Aneta Kaminska, a poet and translator, asked for a drawing for the cover of her collection “Pokój z widokiem na wojnę”. But she writes such a poetry-about-us that I also drew a few illustrations for the inside of the collection. In the end, I dared to illustrate my own collection of poems, which will be published by the Old Lion Publishing House.


Last year, I wrote only one small text for children, but I don’t dare to let it go. During poetry readings, I am much more willing to read poems by, say, Artur Dron. He is at the front, and this is the least I can do for him.

– Do you see your work written during the war as a separate collection? What would you call it?

– I hesitated for a long time, but finally, after a recent conversation with Olena Huseynova, I succumbed to my husband’s long-standing insistence and started to collect something little by little. If I have enough strength to organize everything, the collection will most likely be called “Уроки ворожості” (Lessons of Hostility). At least that’s the name of the file with these texts now.

– If you were to paint a picture of this war, what would it necessarily include?

– Fireflies-spirits of home, which are being painted now. And also roots and cracks.

– Can you read now? Which books about wars resonate with you the most?

 I try, but it’s much slower than usual. I try to negotiate with my own brain about “cooperation” and concentration beforehand. John Hersey’s Hiroshima, translated by Yulia Semeniuk, and Pavlo Kazarin’s The Wild West of Eastern Europe worked very well for me. I re-read Overcoming Gravity once again, about the life and legacy of Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit, as well as stories about the Moomins and a biography of Tove Jansson and her letters.


I read a lot to children and with children. With my children, I’ve read everything that has been published in Ukrainian this year about our war: books by Kateryna Yehorushkina, Volodymyr Chernyshenko, Oksana Lushchevska, Zoryana Zhyvka, Mariana Savka, and Hryhoriy Falkovych.

– How do you talk to your children about what is happening around you? How do they perceive this war?

– San’ka and I try to talk honestly with our children about everything that is happening, what we are doing and why. The oldest, Anton, is well-versed in military equipment, weapons, and the structure of our army. He loves memes and listens to every episode by Sternenko (a Ukrainian far-right nationalist, social activist, lawyer and YouTuber). These are our entry points into the conversation with him. Being a first-year student during the war is not easy, but he has one answer to any advice to try to go study abroad: “If I leave here now, how can I come back later?”

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna


The middle one, Yaryna, teaches us a lot. For example, to be honest with your feelings: to be afraid when it’s scary, to accept inner deafness (as a defense mechanism of the psyche and simply because it happens), to find nooks and crannies of normal life in yourself, such as reading Semenko while sitting on the floor, eating pancakes in your favorite coffee shop, and laughing. It’s not easy, but it’s good with her and for her sake.


Read also: Bohdan Kolomiychuk: Cultural figures should follow our soldiers to the destroyed cities


The youngest Matvii has come up with so many different ways to destroy putin and the muscovites that we just have to find the strength to implement them. He packs boxes for the military with us, glues stickers, and takes everything to the post office. He asks me to read aloud, hugs me when he sees tears in my eyes, and calls me to dance. For the past year, I have danced only with him: to Zhadan and Joni Mitchell, Bakhmut Fortress by Antytila, and Agnes Obel.


The war took away the lion’s share of our children’s time with me and San’ka, sharpened them. But we seem to be growing somewhere along with them. Hopefully, upward.

– What is the most difficult thing for you now? What do you have to put the most effort into?

– To see myself, to take care of myself. Not to put an equal sign between myself and the war, to leave something to myself outside of it. And joy is hard to experience. I mean, it doesn’t come to me at all. Sometimes there is burning happiness, a lot of love, lots of affection. But not joy.

 Many of us very often feel guilty: towards the dead, the wounded, those who lost their relatives, their homes. How do you deal with this feeling?

– The most important thing is to admit and accept that there is no escape from it. It won’t get easier no matter how much you keep your hands and head busy, no matter how much you run away into action and endless work. But what is definitely possible is not to deepen the guilt of others, not to cause unnecessary pain, not to stir up trouble where it is already burning. This takes incredible effort, but it is very important. And to help where you can, and as much as you can, or even a little more. And to rely on gratitude. Because every little “thank you” is like a step that helps you climb up from the black hole of despair or anger. And there is always someone and something to be thankful for.

photo courtesy of Kateryna Mikhalitsyna

– You have a touching watercolor where new shoots break out of the destroyed tree-house, and fairytale creatures appear. What will grow on the ruins of our destroyed lives, stories, and hearts?

– Love. I really wish it was love.


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).