Tetyana Oharkova

Oharkova and Yermolenko: The lesson of the first year of the big war is a lesson of strength


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Ukrainian literary critic and journalist Tetyana Oharkova and philosopher, essayist, and writer Volodymyr Yermolenko have reformatted their lives to fit the war regime since the beginning of the full-scale invasion: they have been actively fighting on the information front, recording regular podcasts for foreign audiences and making documentaries about the war, as well as continuously taking cultural and humanitarian trips to frontline and de-occupied cities and villages.

For the special project Words and Bullets implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked to Tetyana and Volodymyr about things and people’s stories, the importance of physical presence at war and the possibility of being an eyewitness, the concept of Ukraine’s victory, democracy and de-imperialization of Russia.

– Looking back at the year of full-scale war, what was it like for you? What was the most important thing you learned, realized, rethought, or discovered?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: For me, this year is a year of some kind of grand equality. I don’t think there are any societies that experience such equality as Ukrainian society does now. We realized how unimportant our sense of ego and vanity was. Because in one way or another, these feelings are about competition: with your neighbor, with the people next to you. But here, we have no competition. And there’s this feeling (I recently wrote about this) that you don’t know the name of the person who probably saved your children’s lives. Because it could have been a person who, for example, shot down a Russian missile. This is a very important feeling for me.

photo courtesy from private collection


Tetyana Oharkova: For me, the greatest feeling of this year is the realization of our common strength. It seems to me that no one thought that we were capable of doing the things we are doing now: as a society, as citizens. A year and a half ago, we could not have imagined that we would be able to do as much as we are doing now. I think a large number of Ukrainians did not know that they would be able to take up arms and kill their enemies. A large number of people did not know that they would be able to devote a huge amount of time helping the army.


I think that many Ukrainian mothers, who said a year and a half ago that they would like to have more support from their families and husbands in taking care of their children, did not know that they would be able to travel all the way to the border on their own and manage to get on their feet abroad, enroll their children in schools, often without knowing the language, and to take on the responsibility of raising children on their own. I think that many of us did not know our own strength. Therefore, the lesson of this first year of war is a lesson of strength.


Volodymyr: This is also a story about transformation. Each of us has somehow started to live some other life, some more, some less. It is a kind of grandiose power to live several lives in one. For some, unfortunately, this new life has already ended.

– Writing about the war, Volodymyr, you said that now for us “things have become texts that tell us new stories.” Tell us about the things-stories that impressed you the most.

Volodymyr: Here I meant that our understanding of humanity has broadened. Objects bear witnesses of people, and when these people suddenly disappear, these objects become even more significant testimonies. For example, once in Bucha, a man came up to us and said that he recognized his friend’s pocketknife in a nearby car. Or when we looked at a piano in Izyum, hanging on the fifth floor of a house destroyed by the Russians, and couldn’t help but imagine the person who played it. Or the books we come across in destroyed apartments. Serhiy Krymsky once said that a person does not end in the space between his shoes and hat, that he continues much further. That is, he humanizes the world around him, and objects become human in the human world. And I believe this war reaffirms this once again.

Tetyana: Yes, the first time we were in Izyum, we saw this five-story building and a piano that was actually standing over a chasm that had formed as a result of a 500-kilogram bomb falling. It was hanging there, almost on the edge of the abyss. Another time when we were there, we saw that someone had put a photo of a young girl playing the piano. There was also a photo album next to it. And you involuntarily begin to imagine this situation. The young girl apparently died during this strike. Maybe in the apartment, maybe in the basement. You encounter this story, and the person is no more. When you look at these things, devoid of people, for a long time, they begin to speak to you. Because they are witnesses to worlds that no longer exist.


In Sloviansk, for example, we recently saw children’s toys in a kindergarten that are still lying there in the open air. Although the attack on this kindergarten took place on Sep. 2, 2022. It is not difficult to imagine how children used to play in this kindergarten. We know that no children were killed in the strike, but it’s not hard to imagine how traumatic it would have been for them to witness this.  After each strike, there are things that lie in ruins, and behind each such item there is a whole world. But with toys, it’s somehow the most poignant, because toys for a child are almost living beings. They play with them, talk to them. And you realize that in some cases these children are no longer alive, and the toys are still lying in the open air and remind you of them. So these things carry their stories further and tell the tragic story of this war.

– During your visits to liberated frontline towns and villages, you talk to people a lot. These people also tell you their stories…

Tetyana: Yes, and there are many stories like this. One of the most recent: in Izyum, we met with Mr. Mykhailo, a man in his 60s, who told us about what happened on March 9, 2022, when he and his family were in the basement of a 5-story building. At that time, Izium was being bombed, there were explosions everywhere. At one point, a huge bomb fell on this house, and in one second his three grandchildren, his daughter and her husband, his wife and her aunt died: seven family members at one time.

He doesn’t remember the impact himself, he was just hit by some debris and he miraculously remained alive. But perhaps the most horrifying thing is that after this strike, which occurred on March 9, he had to wait a very long time until he could finally see the bodies of his relatives, because due to the fighting, the search operations could only begin on April 1. That is, it took three weeks for the work to begin, and he was near that house day and night all this time and could not do anything. It was only on April 12 that he was able to find all seven bodies of his relatives, transport them to the cemetery and bury them there.


He also told us the story of a woman who was injured in that house as well. She survived the impact, but she was heavily trapped and could not get out of that basement. For some time, neighbors came and brought her water and food, but they could not get her out. She was moaning in pain, and after a while she just stopped calling out to anyone. She endured her final days in agony after the attack.


Volodymyr Yermolenko: We also have to mention the stories of murdered children. We encountered the story of a girl named Rita. She was killed by a Russian cluster bomb in the village of Bezruky, not far from the border with Russia in the Kharkiv region. And it’s an incredibly heartbreaking  story. She was eight years old, she was reading a children’s book in the yard and died there. Rita’s aunt also died. The girl’s grandmother let us into her room.Seeing her drawings invokes a profoundly painful feeling. I remember them very well. One was made for her mother’s birthday, the other for the New Year. I remember the snowflakes, the purple and red marker pen… There was also a little kitten that Rita loved very much. Its name was Mouse. A black little kitten who is a living reminder. The numerous instances of child death is perhaps the most painful story in this war.

– What is holding these frontline towns and villages together now? What is the center of their resilience, despite everything?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think it’s the feeling of home. Cities are holding up better, it’s easier to survive in cities during the war. At the same time, we saw a lot of villages that became deserted: Kamianka, Dolyna, Bohorodychne, Dovhenke, Yatskivka. These are some of the most destroyed villages between Izyum and Sloviansk. When the Russians captured Izyum, they tried to go for Sloviansk, because it would be easier to capture it from that side than from Bakhmut. Thank God, they didn’t succeed, but it came at the cost of a lot of destruction.

But we also know that people are returning there. Every time we come to Kamianka, we are told that there are more and more people there. Of course, there are not hundreds of them, just dozens, but this sense of home, this sense of magnetism, this sense of community is, I think, the main thing. The same can be said about Kharkiv in March-April 2022 and the people who stayed there. They felt like a regiment of soldiers and volunteers. I think this sense of a common cause is very powerful.

photo courtesy from private collection


Tetyana Oharkova: In general, it is very impressive how swiftly life returns to places where there was only death. Take, for example, Saltivka, a neighborhood in Kharkiv that we saw for the first time in the summer of 2022, and it appeared straight out of a horror movie. On Natalia Uzhviy Street, artillery was hitting the houses hard, and everything was black, destroyed and ruined. I remember our conversations that no one would ever want to live there again, that these houses were beyond repair. And when we went back there recently, about eight months later, we were we were simply stunned. There are construction cranes near many houses. Also, people are returning to the area, shops and markets are open. It is very impressive how quickly life is bouncing back to these destroyed places that have become symbols – symbols of the brutality of Russian aggression.


Volodymyr: Let’s also bring up Sviatohirsk. Our initial impression when we arrived there was that it was a completely destroyed town, very tragic. This time, we drove a little further and found that there is a lovely hotel there, with a wonderful restaurant that is open. And how many cultivated kitchen gardens we saw near the destroyed houses… And these islands of life give you the feeling that Ukrainians really cling to life whenever possible.


Tetyana: That’s why I think that when we say the phrase “Ukraine is regaining its territories,” we mean that we are regaining our homes. Because every territory is someone’s home: a village, a house, a land that is filled with meaning for a person. So we are fighting for these meanings and for these people who would like to return there.

When you drive through the destroyed villages, you can clearly discern which houses still have owners who plan to rebuild them. They cover these houses with a special blue film distributed by international humanitarian organizations. It helps protect the house from further destruction – from rain, snow, cold. And these blue spots are like spots of hope. This implies that this building, this house, is needed by someone, it belongs to someone, it is not anonymous and they do not want to exchange it for any other.

– Why is it important to document this war in a variety of formats: from Facebook and YouTube blogs to personal diaries and books?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I am currently writing a book. After all, I am a philosopher, so it is important for me to travel between empirical reality and meanings, ideas. It will be a travel philosophy of war. Of course, there are things that you will never tell anyone. That’s something we need to understand. Recently, I wrote an essay for the Book Forum project and Ukrainska Pravda, where I tried to put myself in the shoes of people who will not be able to tell their stories. People who died, or people who can’t overcome their experiences, or people who will force themselves to forget everything.


At the same time, I think that this war will be one of the most talked over in history. I just caught myself thinking that when our historians: Kostomarov, Drahomanov, Maksymovych published collections of songs in the nineteenth century, they were looking for the spoken word of the war. And most of these songs were about war. Neither the First nor the Second World War has been spoken about enough in Ukraine, because we were silenced. This time, it’s going to be different.


Tetyana Oharkova: My understanding of our role in this war is quite clear. It revealed a very important thing: there are experiences that are incredibly difficult to communicate. Especially for people who do not have these experiences. We tell a lot about this war for foreign audiences, and there is a very clear pragmatism in this: our aim isn’t merely to tell the story, but to encourage action. Because we know very well that we cannot win this war without the help of our partners.


We also realize how important it is to be physically present at this war. Nowadays, there are a lot of Ukrainians scattered around the world. But Volodya and I realized how important it is for a foreign audience to see people who are physically present at the scene of events: not only in Kyiv, but also in the places where we were and saw with our own eyes these destroyed villages, destroyed bridges, destroyed buildings, battlefields that can testify to what happened there. After all, there is no shortage of virtual reality about this war, it is largely happening almost in real time. Investigators like Bellingcat can remotely find out which general ordered the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, which is quite easy to do with modern technology.


That is, on the one hand, this war is transparent, visible. But there is a great lack of physical presence, of visibility of the transformation that the war has on people. It is very important to be able to speak from the position of a person who has seen everything with his own eyes, who has physical experience, experience of his own body, and is a living witness to this war.


Volodymyr Yermolenko: It is interesting that Tetyana and I grew up in an intellectual culture that emphasized the notion of absence: Jacques Derrida and others. What did they mean? That culture is a sphere where life goes on even after it ends, where interpretations of texts continue. That is, “the author died,” but his texts live on, they continue to be discussed, a kind of self-regeneration in culture. All of this was encapsulated in the notion of “absence,” which was a very productive word at the time.


But now we live in a virtual world, and this virtualization makes our lives very cruel. This is the reason for populism and wars, when you can kill people through missile strikes without even thinking about it. That’s why we are trying to fight against it. By the way, our friend, the Portuguese philosopher Bruno Maçães, believes that we will go even further into virtualization. But we believe that we won’t: we need to return to reality, to presence. So presence is the key word now.

photo courtesy from private collection


– Your podcasts Explaining Ukraine and L’Ukraine, face à la guerre are listened to in dozens of countries around the world. How do you choose the topics for these conversations?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Our approach here is very simple: we try to talk about what we see, to be as reportorial as possible and at the same time to talk about ideas. Because if you build a conversation only on ideas, it will be speculation. Of course, it’s very important, you have to reflect, think, compare. But if it is only about ideas, then it is just a war as a chess game. At the same time, if you stay only in reality, it can make you a little blind. That is why the Nietzschean combination of the eagle and the snake is important here. These snakes are reporters who crawl between the stones and feel this reality with their stomachs. You also need to be an eagle to see the whole landscape from an eagle’s eye view.


Tetyana Oharkova: In general, the podcast is perhaps not the most obvious genre for classic, reportage coverage of war. It offers huge advantages in telling the story of the war: it will never be a purely documentary phenomenon, it will always include a certain reflection. It will always be a narrative through some story, a person, a thing that we saw, through some setting, an impression. Therefore, this story conveys not only facts but also meanings. There is no staging. Often, in the beginning, our podcasts were quite naturally interrupted by an air raid alarm, when the siren went on and we didn’t have time to turn off the microphone.

– Russians have shown their cruelty during previous wars: in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. How is our war different from those conflicts?

Tetyana: All these wars are a history of cruelty, a history of impunity, a history of indifference of the Western world. Why is there a war in Ukraine now? Precisely because for a very long time, people in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria turned a blind eye to the very nature of the putin regime and Russia itself, feeding this dragon to a certain extent, which became more and more brutal and bloody with each new decade, with each new war that was waged. We had a chance to talk to people from Syria who warned us that the Russians would target hospitals. The only hospitals that have survived in Syria are those that did not communicate their coordinates on Google Maps. So this is no accident. The Russians are deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure, they are targeting these facilities. The situation in Georgia was more similar to the annexation of Crimea, the first phase of our war in 2014-2015. But the nature of this aggression is the same. And it will continue until it is stopped.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Our war is different by the fact that we slapped Russia in the face and fought back. I think they did not expect this and were very shocked. This has crippled Russia. We don’t know if it will be able to get back on its feet after this or if this will be the beginning of its end. Of course, we hope for the latter.

– By the way, publicist and civic activist Valeriy Pekar claims that the West is afraid of Russia’s collapse, and at this stage they have no common vision of the future. Therefore, the war will continue until this picture is drawn. Of course, there is no other scenario for us but for Ukraine to win. But what do you think will happen to Russia after our victory?

Tetyana Oharkova: Let me start by saying that when we say “victory”, everyone understands this concept in their own way. Thank God, we have a clear understanding of our victory and it is quite monolithic. It was officially proclaimed by President Zelensky, and we all know these points. There are points about borders, justice, punishment, and reconstruction. This plan is very clear, fair, and the only possible one in terms of meanings, if we lived in an ideal world. But I think many people in the West have come to terms with the phrase “Ukraine’s victory”, but they see this victory in a slightly different way. Therefore, it is very important that after our victory, Russia is weakened to the point where it can never again launch aggression against Ukraine or other neighboring states. How this weakening will take place: through decomposition, dissolution, or any other scenario is less important. What is important is that it can no longer harm us in the future: in a generation or in 10-20 years. It is possible that Russia continues to exist as a certain unity, but we join NATO immediately after the war and have a security guarantee. Russia will never launch an aggression against NATO, as the case of Finland and Sweden, which joined NATO, has shown very convincingly, with no reaction from the Kremlin.


The question around the collapse of Russia will be the same as it was in 1991. We remember very well that a large part of the Western world was fundamentally against the collapse of the Soviet Union. And one of the conditions for this to happen was the requirement to control nuclear weapons. That’s why Ukraine and Belarus gave up their nuclear weapons back then. Now the West’s biggest fear is where Russia’s nuclear weapons will be, and who will control them.

photo courtesy from private collection


Volodymyr Yermolenko: That’s why I think the West needs to articulate two things. First, the goal is not only Ukraine’s victory, but also the prevention of further Russian aggression. This can only be done in two ways: either Ukraine regains its nuclear status, or Ukraine joins NATO. Either we cancel the Budapest Memorandum, which does not work, withdraw our commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and another nuclear country appears on the map, or Ukraine is accepted into NATO. Because NATO is a deterrent to Russia. Secondly, the dissolution of Russia may happen someday, but it is important to first make it a real federation or confederation. So that its subjects gain their own weight, define their borders, have their own parliaments and governments, live like this for 10-20-40 years, and finally come to the realization that they want this independence.


In any case, if any uncontrolled processes begin in Russia, everything will still happen on the terms of either the West or China, or these two parties. And then the West must have clear requirements for a possible Russian tsar. What should this possible Russian tsar do? Of course, reparations for Ukraine, justice, courts, but also de-imperialization, that is, maximum decentralization of Russia, and a change in the constitution. And then let them exist, but in a much weaker version.

– The philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze argues that putin is the enemy of our present, and Russian “liberals” are the enemies of our future. In your opinion, is a dialogue between our countries possible in the distant future: after our victory, justice, reparations, and everything else?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: It depends on who Russian liberals are. If a Russian liberal is a person who says: “putin attacked Ukraine in vain, because it is a fraternal nation,” then this is, of course, our enemy. Our enemy is not just a Russian liberal, but someone who, through the mask of a liberal, somehow promotes the idea of empire. The one who will gain our trust and then say: “Well, we are a good Russia, let’s be friends again.” On the other hand, I am convinced that responsibility can be collective, responsibility is a question of the future, and every Russian is responsible for the future. The question is how they will deal with it.

photo courtesy from private collection


Tetyana Oharkova: Regarding a possible dialogue, there is a simple, well-known historical parallel: Nazi Germany went a very long way toward realizing the criminality of the regime and the criminality of war. And the real changes took place only in the next generation. Therefore, it seems to me that the issue of dialog with Russians, good or bad, will be raised by our children. Because in order for a dialogue to be possible, a change of outlook, acceptance of responsibility, and many, many things are needed. Volodya and I are both 40 years old, and I’m afraid that our lives will not be enough for this. I am afraid that the next generation will ask themselves this question. I fully assume that in a generation there will be some kind of normal Russia, or what will be left of it, and there will be some absolutely normal, civilized people there. There may be many different scenarios, but this is not the issue that concerns us today. Today, Russia is the enemy, the enemy must be fought, the enemy must be killed. And we must also fight against the liberal enemy who is trying to steal our future.

– What did we manage to show the world during this war?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: First, the understanding that democracies are not weak. For the last 20 years, and especially the last 10 years, the world has been moving in the decadent idea that democracies are falling apart, that they are not capable of anything. We show that democracies – not as forms of government, but as a way of organizing society, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood them – are strong and can be stronger even than authoritarianism. Because in democracies, every individual feels his or her power and responsibility. Totalitarianisms seem very strong, but as soon as you find their weakness, a small crack, everything starts to fall apart. In Ukraine, if one barricade falls down, all the others stand. Totalitarianisms are not built that way. They are built like a system of dominoes. If you find the right spot, everything starts to fall apart, everything collapses. And I think that sooner or later we will find such a spot.

photo courtesy from private collection


Second, the fact that the twenty-first century may become a century of some kind of David against Goliath, a century of some kind of unnoticed nations. If the nineteenth century was a century of social emancipation, now we will have a century of national and cultural emancipation. And I think Ukraine will play a big role in this. And this is our main message to the Western world: no one noticed us, and we have turned from a rejected, forgotten nation into one of the central nations of the world.


It is also important that Ukraine provides an answer to the key question that splits the modern world: how to find a balance between tradition and modernity, between the past and the future. America does not have this answer, which is why they are now in a major two-party conflict; Britain does not have it, which is why Brexit happened; Poland does not have it, which is why the country is divided in two; Russia does not have it, because it was afraid of modernization and went who knows where, but Ukraine has this answer. We don’t have this conflict between tradition and modernity: we can very easily be some kind of IT people in embroidered shirts. I think this is due, among other things, to the fact that we have very different regions. The western part: Galicia and Volyn are more traditionalist, while the eastern part is more industrialized, modernized, perhaps in a bad way. The East lived more in amnesia, the West more in tradition. And suddenly these two worlds meet: a Greek Catholic and an engineer. And they meet in each of us, each of us is somehow shaped by these two poles.


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

Edited by Jared Goyette