russian-ukrainian war

Maksym Kryvtsov: I had a fearsome dream — to walk around Kyiv with a rifle in my hands


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Maksym Kryvtsov, a poet, volunteered to go to war in 2014. Later on he worked in the Center for Rehabilitation and Readaptation of ATO and JFO Participants and the Veteran Hub. After the full-scale Russian invasion he went back to the frontline and for thirteen months hasn’t had a single day on his own. Maksym misses that, he admits.

In a framework of a special project “Words and Bullets”, that is produced by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we asked Maksym what has changed during these nine years of war, what is the most difficult for the military, how he sees young Ukrainians and what is God doing at war.


– You joined the Right Sector Ukrainian Volunteer Corps as a volunteer in 2014. Did you realize back then that this war would last many years and that first stage would grow into full-scale invasion?

– I realized nothing back then. Everything around me was new. People, smells, sounds. Ruins, wounded, weapons. This gum was chewed for a long time.. I had a fearsome dream, and often saw it as I slept: to walk around Kyiv with a rifle in my hands, and wait for my station with a weapon on my knees. I am one of those horrible people who said the war must come to the streets as a blaze. So others could understand what was actually going on. I regretted these thoughts on the morning of Feb. 24.

– You have a poem:


Once upon a time

in spring of 2014

I fell asleep

and didn’t wake for a couple of years

my dreams were covered in snow and so cold

just like palms of a dead near Izyum

I think I didn’t wake up

fell asleep in this long

as a mature black-snake



What has changed over these nine years of a dream: in ourselves, our state, army, your perception of the war?

The Earth went around the Sun nine times over these nine years, birds flew to warm regions and came back nine times, leaves fell down and trees formed  buds nine times. Many things changed over these nine years.


As to social processes, after 2014 an engine of a train named “Ukraine” was started. There started to emerge discussions of the importance of the language, culture and so on. In cinemas you could watch movies not only with Dwayne “Rock” Johnson, but also with many Ukrainian actors. I was really delighted to find out about such initiatives as БУР (BUR, “Building Ukraine Together”, youth non-governmental organization), УАЛ (UAL, “Ukrainian Leadership Academy”, platform for youth). Brand new communities of people, who were united with something good, something, they are ready to be responsible for have been formed.

photo courtesy of Maksym Kryvtsov


And it catches my breath when I see how everything Ukrainian, that was drowned before, is emerging at the surface today. Ivasyuk (Volodymyr Ivasyuk, Ukrainian singer), “Smerichka” (ensemble), folk clothes, forgotten movies… At the same time I fear the opposite process — a rollback, which happened after the 1990s.

– You mentioned Ukrainian youth. How would you describe them? What is the next generation of Ukrainians?

– They are great, strong, open, talented, and inspired. There will be, of course, some inner contradictions and dialogues. Some things will be correcting, changing, defining. But these blood cells of the country will be moving and will be bringing oxygen to its tender heart every day. We only need to win.


Read also: Petro Yatsenko: The heart of Mariupol is definitely alive

– What is war? How do you see it?

— I think the war is a micellar water that washes cosmetics off: from a face, streets, plans and behavior. It is a hoe that cuts sagebrush and leaves a bitter aftertaste of irreversibility. You become yourself at war, no need to play a role. Right now you are just a person, one of billions who ever lived on the Earth. Common is only one thing — we all breathe.

There’s no time for love at war. It lies next to a waste pile and disappears like a grandfather in a fog, somewhere behind this summer’s uncut sunflower field of a heart.

– What astounds you at war? What do you find the most difficult?

War is awful, absurd and very illogical. But it is one of the forces that starts over and over again.


You sit in a place you cannot leave because the enemy is so close and your fortification is not quite strong and suddenly your fellow says: “Look, a hoopoe is eating a cabbageworm.” That’s a bird and a beetle (laughing). People who met us with applause in Balaklia astounded me. It was one of the best days of my life.


The hardest thing is to fall asleep. And to realize what atrocities might be ahead of us…

photo courtesy of Maksym Kryvtsov


– With this appearance of yours, the way you speak and think, you resemble a philosopher or father-apostle. Is the warrior’s hypostase close to the real you?

– I do not know what is close to me. I think I know nothing at all. But there is nothing to know too. You just must. It is about to be or not, exist or not, breathe or be out of breath. That is the reason I am at war.

– What traits of your character help you at your service?

– Calmness, maybe. Feeling of responsibility, sometimes, a bit of experience. The most important thing at war is to understand what you’re doing here. I think that a kind of naivety, childish, weird, helps me at war. In the face of danger I usually smile a lot and wait for adventures. It might be easier to perceive things, I believe.

– Your call sign is Dali? What is the story behind it?

– Oh, that is simple. Someone asked me what my call sign is. I haven’t thought about it before, so I didn’t choose anything special. But then I grew a mustache to curl it just as Salvador Dali did. And so the call sign asked for itself like an excellent student (laughing).

– You are 33 now. Many call it “the age of Jesus Christ”. Do you feel somewhat special at that age?

– I rarely remember my age. Even about the date, day of the week, or month. Everything happening is different here. There’s no age, no time here. The important thing  is what happens at the end.

– You are a man of faith. What does your faith give you at this time?

I do not understand God. Like at all. I don’t know why he is protecting me, and what for.


Sometimes we have quarrels about religion in our division. I try to intercede for someone who still intercedes for me for some reason. I wear a cross on my neck, woven from red and black paracord.

– Do you pray? How does your prayer sound?

– It’s different. It could be classical prayers. Could be something of my own. Sometimes I ask, sometimes I argue. It’s different.

– In one of your interviews you said that God “charges machine gun” at war. In what places and doing what one can meet him there?

Most often you meet him in the middle of silence. God is the water you take with you to the mission, and it is never enough. Once we were close to just drinking from a puddle. God is a protein bar that you eat, waiting in a trench for the shooting to end. God is in black dry sunflowers that you can almost hide behind. But most of all, God is to return.

– Who are your fellows?

They are the best people in the world. Sometimes I take pictures of them, sometimes write about them.


I met Kuznets in 2014, at a military training exercise. While everyone was crowding together near wardrobes to eat some stew and drink tea with sweets, he dressed his chest protector and squatted. He’s strong, smart and calm. He was irritated when someone had to speak about the enemy or the “inner workings of the war”, when they interfered with his work. He had faith in God, and God had faith in him. He showed me a beautiful church in the Dnipropetrovsk region: with blue peacocks, lakes, marshmallows at oblation, red-and-black flag you see when entering the territory. I left the base of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps in autumn of 2015.

photo courtesy of Maksym Kryvtsov


I met Kuznets again near Zaporizhzhia in April this year. He was a paratrooper who did spotting for guns and was a great operator of Leleka spy drones.


Because Kuznets had faith in God, and God had faith in him, I know and have faith that he’s smiling somewhere next to Saint Peter and is looking at Earth through the eyes of birds and says who needs to be saved and where.

– What will grow on “a field of memory, cropped with corn of sadness?”

Popcorn (laughing). I sometimes write things and then can’t savvy what it is all about.


Corn of sadness will grow into corn of sadness. The hardest happens later — to gather it, grind and bake bread.

– Tell us some words about the world that surrounds you now. What do you have in it?

Not so long ago I complained that over these thirteen months I had no single day to be spent alone. That is what I miss while at war.


Our commander has a dog named Jango. He had it since May last year. Then the dog was only about two months old, a tiny “froggy.” And this dog went with us to all rotations, all cities. When he was still small, we took him and carried to the cellar during shooting. Guys even bet  money on whether the puppy would survive until September. But he still travels with us. The other day it grabbed some rubbish and threw it around the house (laughing).


We moved many times over these thirteen months. It is always interesting to explore new buildings where you live for some time: what books and photos there are. The funniest thing is to live in collaborators’ flats. A woman, collaborator, for example, had all the shelves in her apartment filled with soaps, shampoos and cotton wool sticks from various hotels. And she, by the way, was the owner of a pretty huge agro business. It is interesting to watch this. The other took everything important, but forgot her notebook in the basement, and it was full of very useful info. She worked as a Russian passport service assistant. I ate all the chocolates “Red Poppy” she had in her fridge (laughing).

– By the way, there’s much food in your texts. What is it for you?

Cut the part with candies out, man (laughing). I haven’t realized my poetry has so much about food in it. Well, maybe it’s because food is something one understands: it has a smell, and form. I do not know, really…


Food is about something good. About childhood. And about God.

photo courtesy of Maksym Kryvtsov


– Your poetry is very delicate, touching, sometimes so fragile that, it seems, one careless flick — and it will shatter like glass from a shock wave. What is it for you: walking on the edge, pain, delight, catharsis?

In fact, I find joy in making up short stories about people. Especially if they manage to go through all of this. As strange as it may seem, it turns out that today’s ultimate goal and most significant accomplishment is simply to survive.


In  this war every person has a story. It is unique, and very exceptional. With its own sounds, voices, dreams. Someone has been building a house all their life, someone got a job as a shift manager at a poultry farm, someone loved reading the thickest books, someone gathered fallen leaves and chestnuts. A person is a story.

– ​​Your collection, which is to be published soon, is titled “Verses from the embrasure”. Embrasure is a narrow aperture for shooting in a defense wall or a dent in a trench. If not for a war, would you write? What would these verses be about?

– I wrote before the war. These were weird and simple verses. It is now that I start understanding what I like, what I want to have in my poetry: colors, smells, emotions, things that are forgotten and recognized.

– Do you read your colleagues’ texts? What authors of modern Ukrainian war literature do you feel?

– I like poetry by Valeriy Puzik, Yaryna Chornohuz, Olena Herasymyuk. Prose — “Point of No Return” by Dmytro Verbych.


Read also interviews with Valeriy Puzik and Yaryna Chornohuz

– Who, in your opinion, of the internationally-known  artists managed to talk about war the best?

Munch, with his series of paintings “The Scream”.


I absolutely love the movies “Apocalypse Now” and “Taxi Driver.” When I come to have a rest for two-three days, I feel like Robert de Niro’s character. I am among other people, but at the same time I’m far away from everything. I’m an observer. My job is to be an observer of the world.

photo courtesy of Maksym Kryvtsov


I started reading “For Whom The Bell Tolls” at the beginning of April 2022. The main hero was to blow up the bridge, and it was April. And I felt it so deep. Especially knowing the fact that being at war you can live a whole life in two days. “Slaughterhouse 5” is great, too. I have even tattooed two phrases from the book on my forearm. Psalms tell much about the war, by the way. To be precise about separate battles.


I’ve been listening to “Badass” by Chartsyzy, a month already. I would also like to have the strength to accept death with a smile on my face, just as the end of a story.

– There are often religious conceits and plots in your texts. Is religion an inseparable part of humanity?

– I think we are all cowards. We are afraid of ourselves, afraid of loneliness. So there’s always someone you can turn to and who will accept you as you are.

– So, religion is about fear? What else?

– About loneliness. About silence. About nature. About communion. About dialogue. About search: constant inner Google. About voice. About rain. About freshly baked pies with poppy seeds. About childhood and playing hide and seek in the attic. About different things.

– What will remain on Earth, if people disappear from it?

– Calmness.


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 Iryna Savyuk

Edited by Jared Goyette