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Oleksiy Sinchenko: The war makes you forget everything you have learned before, and begin from scratch31.03.2023
What is it like: turn the reality of the peaceful life off and switch to a war one, leave the fight at the cultural front and appear at ground zero. Oleksiy Sinchenko, a man of letters and senior lieutenant of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, talks about his own transformations, experiences, reevaluations and observations that were opened up by today’s reality in an interview for a special project of Chytomo and Ukrainian PEN «Слова і кулі» / Words and Bullets.
— What was your morning of the 24th of February? How and when did you decide to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and why?
— On the evening of Feb. 23 we had an online event at Taurida University that lasted for three hours and was devoted to “oral history” of displaced people of the Crimea. The atmosphere was so warm, there were tears, much hope and faith that we’ll have our Crimea back and it will finally be a common home for the Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and everyone who wants to live in peace there. Later in the evening that day I went to Dorohozhychi underground station to take care of my sister’s dog. In the morning I got a telephone call, then another and another one. I didn’t pick up, but thought to myself: “The war must have begun.”. When a third phone call rang I had to pick up. And that was the war.
To be honest, I reacted quite calmly at the time. Because of lack of actual experience of war, I think. At first I called my niece, and she picked the dog up. Then I went straight to the Territorial Defence Force office. Getting in there turned out to be not that easy. For the next few days I did nothing but look for some way to get to the “territorials”. When I found the place for the dog, I immediately went to the military registration and enlistment office. They wouldn’t even let me in at their premises. Then I went to the second, third… At the third they finally accepted me. They took my ID, and a week later I got a call: “You have two hours to pack your things.” The taxi driver who was driving me was envious: “Lucky you are. I didn’t serve, so they won’t take me.”
The truth is that my first attempt to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine was in March 2014. When I came to visit my parents in Bohuslav (Kyiv region – ed.), I registered at the military registration and enlistment office. I was then astounded: more than a thousand volunteers enlisted. No one contacted me back then. I had a surgery in a few months and didn’t insist. In the years that followed, I believed that by actively working for Ukrainian culture, I had my own sphere of struggle. However, I have always had the feeling of guilt within me. Especially when at a presentation of “Hospital Notes” by Margaryta Dovgan, I saw 20-year-old young men on prostheses. So in 2022, I had no doubt what to do and what to engage in.
— If you knew beforehand that a great war lay ahead, could you get ready? Physically, morally and psychologically?
— I knew perfectly well that russia would launch a large-scale invasion sooner or later. Everything indicated this, especially the type of their rhetoric, evocation and reformatting of imperialistic narratives. It makes my heart ache when I think about the pro-russian mindset, prolongation of agreement on presence of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation at our territory, attack at Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Sakartvelo…
It seems impossible to prepare for the war: physical fitness is powerless against artillery shelling, morality yields to the immorality of specific combat situations, and psychological attitude collapses completely after the first shelling or contact battle. War says: “Forget everything you have learnt before, and start from scratch.” And it is true. You learn apace and get used to everything when you find yourself at ground zero. However, getting used to it is the most dangerous feeling. Because then you can lose your alertness and caution.
All your life experiences also undergo changes: in civilian life you think ideate, values are fuzzy, choice is relative. You need to know what is most important here, though. It is even interesting to ask yourself: “What if the next mine is mine? How would I like to live this moment?” Soldiers have a superstition that you cannot hear “your mine”. This is a great experience, existential to the bone, so real.
— What do you have in your military backpack and what is lacking? What do you feel nostalgia from the times of peace for?
— It is difficult for a civilian to decide what stuff is the most important, that’s why at first a military backpack grows into a military portmanteau. Only after the first fight do you realize that the most important things are underclothing, wash kit, water, meal ready to eat and allowance of ammunition. Symbolic as it is, because not only material but also spiritual needs are narrowing, or rather, becoming more pronounced: you only keep things you are ready to live for. I don’t say “ready to die”, no one prepares for death. Death at war is an enforced necessity to save somebody else’s life.
At home, I still have a book by Kant I didn’t have enough time to read till the end on my desk, unfinished books and projects in my head, and mothballed plans for the hereafter. I am nostalgic for all this, but I am happy because if I had not gone to war, I would have gone crazy from powerless passivity. Only now I am internally calm, feeling that I am doing something necessary, first of all, for myself. This is my choice, and it gives me inner freedom and a certain affinity. When you work with words, it is important that they do not turn into rhetoric, do not diverge from the deed. That is a kind of Vynnychenko’s “being honest with oneself…”
At the same time, I try not to think about what I left behind the door of the military registration and enlistment office, that reality must be excluded till the end of war. There is only here and now, and my orientation in it. After all, if you take something from the past with you, it will act like a magic herb wormwood: it will tell you that the real world is somewhere out there, and here is something temporary, unreal. And this is the greatest illusion of all. It does not make it possible to accept the situation, to accept your present self.
— You speak warmly of your comrades. Who are these people? How do you all – absolutely different in civilian life – manage to close with and become one?
— Fraternity — is the biggest value of my new reality. It is a special experience, the core essence of which I haven’t yet fully realized. There are people I would never have met in civilian life, but then suddenly you eat from the same plate, sleep in the same trench, share ammunition… They become very close, influence your life, change your principles and preferences. I talk to them on topics I would never have talked about before, listen to the music I would never have listened to before, turn off all my criticism and try to accept them with my heart… After shelling, I shout to someone nearby: “Buddy, are you alright?”, and one of them shouts to me, too…
Integration is the basis of any military unit. It is good when you have several months before going to the frontline, it allows you to create a solid organism, get to know each other, know character, gait, voice, and understand what to expect from your comrades. Just as any social group, a military unit is flexible. At first you behave and show yourself the way you want people to see you but time goes by and you show the real you. All that is hidden will finally be brought into the open. One cannot play a role for a long time.
Fraternity is formed in phases. After the very first fight a considerable landslide takes place. A person shows himself in a fight, and that influences regrouping. Someone becomes an outsider, someone – a leader. In combat, it doesn’t matter much who the commander is, the most decisive one takes over, the one who can offer a solution, and everyone automatically starts listening to him. The hierarchy is best manifested during combat, and the stricter the control, the more clearly the soldier performs his functions. But respect for the commander remains fundamental.
One of my comrades with the call sign Sumy once said: “We are the chosen ones, because it is a great honor to be in the trenches in a position.” I see how war makes people better, activates something bright in them. Each of us runs the risk of not coming back, strives to understand why we are here. Consciously or not, everyone wants to be better than themselves. Some of us admit it, others just speak with their actions. This is an amazing world of characters, habits, and reactions.
— On your Facebook page you often write about comrades who passed away. Will these texts later become a ground for more capacious memories about them? Do you imprint your everyday military experience? Have you ever thought about making it a solid text?
— Losses are a very traumatic, not fully home-felt and unconscious experience. Not just by sight do I know every commander and soldier in my unit. I knew where we were going and I knew what we were risking. Therefore, it was important to remember everyone as a person, not just by “military post or name”, but by their identity and core. This is a sore knowledge, but this is exactly what gives me the strength to survive the moment I hear “We have a dead soldier” or “We have someone badly injured.” It is the knowledge that forms the need for responsibility to testify here and now about each of them, to capture their image in words, to somehow bring them to life.
I have many stories on my mind but I’ll tell you about a man with a call sign “Saint” now. He was a unique man with a rich life and criminal experience. But I already knew him as a person who had dramatically changed his life. He was really religious and I never saw him upset. A few days before he died, we talked and he said: “When you ask God for courage, he does not give you courage, but creates a situation in which you can find it.” He believed in his own security until the last moment, and I believe that he is protecting us right now, harmonizing the heavens above us.
I walk around with a notebook all the time. I keep it in my pocket in a plastic bag so that rain or sweat won’t wet it. I write something related to my work down: my thoughts, observations. I try to communicate more with the soldiers, to record their stories, sayings and thoughts. It’s like field research. I will see what will come out of these patchwork pieces one day. I don’t know what will happen after the war, I don’t know what I will be like when I return and whether I will return…
— Is it so crucial to talk about war? Who should do it, and how? What is war literature for you personally? Do you think people who didn’t take part in the war have a right to create it?
— All in good time. Everyone is writing about the war now, and they do it in different ways: emotionally, entertainingly, with or without experience, some are professional, some are not. This is normal. It is important to record different experiences, different reactions, situational reflections, every smallest detail. What seems to be the most important now may be discarded later, and what remains will be important for future generations. Our task is to testify to the experience; narratives will be created by others.
That is why I believe that both eyewitnesses and those who did not experience the war directly have the right to write about it. I have never accepted the idea that a writer should write only from his or her own experience. There is something Soviet-Marxist about it. Each of us, the eyewitnesses, sees the war in a fragmented, aspectual way. Only a writer can summarize different experiences, place value accents, typology and construct a reality that will become a model and basis for future generations to understand this war.
— Do you manage to read now? Do books matter now when reality is worse than a tale?
— The only book I read continuously for six months was the Combat Manual of the Ground Forces of Ukraine, but what I read most is the “book of reality.” Well, there are two more collections of poetry: by Maksym Rylsky and Osip Mandelstam, which I found in a bombed-out village club. They are like medicine: I take a poem a day. I don’t read anything else on purpose, because war requires maximum immersion in its reality.
It is dangerous to mix different realities. War is not an artistic convention: the slightest mistake can lead to irreversibility. However, we have to fight against the sense of conventionality all the time. For example, when you go on rotation after a battle, you are immediately tempted to switch to another reality. And then it seems that the war is somewhere far away but it is always there, it is in me, behind every tree, sound, even silence. That’s why I have to be as immersed as possible and as attentive as possible.
I think everyone has come to war having his/her own insight, modeled based on reader or spectator experience. I often hear: “Does a war have to look like this?”, “I expected it to be something else”, “War is contact combat and we’re thrown with automatic guns against artillery.” Soon reality takes over and a person begins to recognize things, not extrapolating beliefs to real situations but subding himself to it. A Tabula Rasa principle acts here and that is where a soldier starts.
— How would you characterize the modern Ukrainian army?
— One can say only one thing about the modern Ukrainian army as a whole: we grew up into a serious battle-worthy structure. Our soldiers perform miracles, they are unrivaled in contact combat. However, this is not enough to fully confront the enemy, and technical assistance is the only condition for successful warfare. And yet, the little bit of equipment we have is used quite efficiently. We have competent military leaders and this is good news.
However, like every organization, it has its defects. The army is the best embodiment of social processes: the struggle between the Soviet and Ukrainian. Where former Soviet officers are in charge, authoritarianism and disregard for life and Ukrainian values often flourish. It is surprising that none of them have been subjected to decommunization, or rather de-Sovietization. This makes things disgusting. Especially when nationally conscious expectations are shattered by the realities of the Soviet Union known as “sovok”.
If we talk about continuity, it is interesting that the narratives of the modern Ukrainian army still include the narrative of the Cossacks but the narratives of the Ukrainian war of independence of the early and mid-twentieth century are not well represented. They are simply not cultivated, because our society has not fully accepted them. They still exist as something artificial, imposed from the outside. I once asked an engineer if they took into account the experience of UPA, Ukrainian Insurgent Army, engineers when building dugouts. He just looked at me with incomprehension. But this is an indeed extraordinary experience!
There is also little adoption of NATO’s experience. There is this newly created structure of moral and psychological support which in accordance to Soviet stereotypes is perceived as a system of “political officers”. Although it is based on a completely different concept, and has a totally different purpose.
— How do you evaluate current events in the context of world history?
— I would not exaggerate the significance of our war for the world, but would not underestimate it either. For some, it is a local conflict, for others it is a geopolitical one. For us, it is the most symbolic, because for the first time we are fighting Russia fully as a state on its entire territory, with the real support of the whole world. We are rewriting the narratives of world history, as we are including a country little known in world history that has challenged the largest, most stereotypical army in the world.
In this war we fight with dignity. We are winning both tactically and strategically, and after the war our status will greatly change. We will be a winning country, we will have advantage, we will be included into the world rebuilding programs. And we will have to learn how to live in a new way, follow new rules and have a new personal attitude. The war will accelerate the evolution processes of nation building. No one will want not to be a Ukrainian, aspire to assimilate into Ukrainianship as this will be an implication to a winner, authority and awesomeness. We will have a historical chance to decisively get rid of colonialism, traumatic inferiority and start to live of full value as a state with its own values and insight about the world.
The experience of the current war is unique because it is nationwide. There are no more Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, no more political differences, we are united as a single organism fighting against an external enemy, and this no longer causes any discussions. We have learned to be one organism. It seems that this is not a segment of some historical continuity, but its culmination. We finally have the opportunity to get rid of our orbital status and break the historical curse imposed on us by our ancestors — dependence on Muscovy.
— “Moscow must be destroyed”. What should arise at its ruins?
— This is a metaphor, of course. It is not about destruction of the city itself, or the territory. It is, first of all, about knocking some sense out of people, about destruction of ideology. A Swedish historian once described the Battle of Poltava as a victory for Sweden. He explained his position by saying that at Poltava, his country ceased to be an empire and began its national development, while Russia had consumed the virus of imperialism.
The russian federation is facing difficult, but also salutary times. It will disintegrate as an empire and finally begin the difficult journey of finding its own identity. This will also be a challenge for us as humanitarians, because this neighbor is not going to go away and we will have to build relationships and form new constructive narratives. Perhaps their form is already being laid today.
It is hard to say about the type of future relations because the war is still on. Some narratives will be back and cause keen discussions but the situation will be different: dialog between two national states. By the way, the Russian language in Ukraine will change greatly. Losing nourishment from the Russian culture it will more and more assimilate with the Ukrainian language. If it does not die, it will probably turn into Surzhyk or Volapuk.
— You often insist that RF needs “denazification”. How do you see it? What will be an indicator of Russia’s final atonement for what it has done? Do you believe in the ability of Russians to repent?
— Yevhen Sverstyuk once organized an evening in memory of Pavlo Tychyna in the Teacher’s House. I was waiting under the stage with his son-in-law Herbert Neufeld for the performance. Children recited from the stage a poem “I Assert Myself”. After the phrase “Teutonia! You devoured me, as you hanged my daughters and sons…” Herbert asked what they ment and when he realized that it was about World War II, he whispered with embarrassment: “I’m sorry…” His reaction shocked me and it took me some time to understand the reason: in my face, he was apologizing to the entire Ukrainian people as a representative of the German nation. And this was despite the fact that his parents originated from Volga Germans. (The poem by P. Tychyna “I Assert Myself” was censored in the Soviet times. The Communist party demanded cooperation and conformity from the author, and he was made to write laudatory poetry. In the original it is “Muscovy! You devoured me, as you hanged my daughters and sons…” – ed.)
Such an ingrained sense of guilt must be formed in Russians as well. That spiteful “We can do it again” must be replaced by historical atonement for centuries of imperial supremacy and criminal act. Russia cannot be given a chance for revenge; it must change its own narratives and recognize its colonial past in order to get rid of imperialism. All this time Russians have been destroying themselves as a nation. But without external intervention and control, they will not succeed. Russia has to become an open system, and this is the only way to renew it.
— How do you see the Ukrainian reality after the war? What has already changed irrevocably in our country, and what will we still have to work on?
— I try to think about social processes in our country in a realistic way. Not much will change at a glance. Neither corrupt officials, nor lying politicians, nor people seeking only profit will disappear. But the main thing happens: we will finally be able to fight among ourselves within our country, without outside influence. One of my comrades once quoted his Chechen friend: “I still don’t understand you Ukrainians: you constantly quarrel with each other and it is impossible to bring you together but when someone attacks you, you unite and win.” That is why it is important that we finally start thinking as a single organism of a nation-state that decides its own fate.
It is an illusion to say that we have finally formed a single identity. Unfortunately, we are still in the force field of Russian imperialism. It is a long way from the time when we will no longer feel sentimental about anything Russian. However, evolutionary processes are irreversible. And we, as a state, will win this war both tactically and strategically. Our civilizational and cultural choice is obvious.
Words and Bullets is the special project from Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined 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 National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Translated by Iryna Savyuk
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