Words and Bullets

Pavlo Stekh: War makes you switch to black and white optics


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Ukrainian journalist, reporter, and writer Pavlo Stekh put his journalistic activities on hold when the full-scale invasion began and went to war. At first, he guarded strategic facilities in the rear, then got to the front line. Now he is fighting in the outskirts of Avdiivka. 

For the special project Words and Bullets, implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked to Pavlo about realizing his place in this war, army restrictions and adaptation to them, the military map, missing of being on the road, changing his journalistic optics and the literary worlds he wants to escape to.

– Tell us how you ended up in the war. Was it a conscious choice?

– On the first day of the war, I evacuated from Kharkiv to Lviv region and stayed with my parents for three weeks. On the one hand, I made the decision to join the army in the event of an invasion back in the fall of 2021, amid constant news of Russian troops on the border. Instead, when they finally crossed the border, I left my hometown and blamed myself for it. Instead, when they finally crossed the border, I left my hometown and blamed myself for it. Now I also had to make the decision to leave my beloved girlfriend and my profession.

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


At the same time, I realized that I had no moral right not to go to war. It would contradict both my beliefs and the law on general mobilization. If I had stayed in civilian life, I would have had to carry this disgusting feeling of guilt for the rest of my life. So I went to the military registration and enlistment office with confidence, although with a certain doom, because I had no previous military education.


Now I’m happy that I did exactly that, and I don’t regret my choice. On the contrary, sometimes I reproach myself for not going to the war earlier, in 2014.

– Was it difficult to adjust to this new state? Do you find it hard to cope with the restrictions imposed on you by the military service?

– When you come from a free and mostly untroubled life to the military structure, with its hierarchy and regulations, it can really feel like a lot of things have been taken away from you. Too many restrictions and much less freedom. Instead of constant work trips of a dynamic journalistic profession, you’re sitting for long hours in the middle of the forest in a permanent deployment point or in a trench on the frontline. But it is important not to forget why you are here, not to follow the flow that betrayal is everywhere, which is sometimes dispersed by your comrades, and to dream of a life after victory.

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


At the 15th month of my service, I can say that I have long ago adapted and I take the environment I am in for granted with all its irritants. The main thing is to set boundaries for yourself and not go beyond them. Psychologically, it is very difficult to withstand the complete lack of privacy and an opportunity to be alone, but I have learned to find solace. No matter how trite it may sound, art saves me: I have only now truly realized its value. Listening to my favorite albums by Dead Rooster (Ukrainian rock band), getting stuck for hours on Google Arts, thoroughly rereading the works by authors I’ve already read before – these things keep me from getting lost in the midst of the army routine.


You get used to the constant explosions around you pretty quickly. To the whistling of our own and enemy’s mortars. Whistling used to be a sign of lightness, carefreeness and fun. And without the war, it would have been quite suitable even for our shelled position. Because spring is slowly emerging outside: birds are going crazy at dawn, there are more and more insects in blindages, and March cats are eerily screaming like abandoned babies at night.

Every day, the sun rises higher and warms you up as much as a shovel together with a bulletproof vest. And digging in the middle of spring is somehow easier, you can turn on some album by Zaz or some other life-affirming French tunes.

– Who do you feel like in this war: a participant or rather an observer?

Since the beginning of the war, I have often had a feeling of some kind of derealization: you do something, you get involved in a new way of life, new conditions, and suddenly you have this amazing realization: “Wow, this is really happening to me!” At the same time, I never felt like a random element here, because there were always men around me who were mobilized just like me. So I identify myself quite soberly as a participant of this war.


The moments when you realize that you are a tiny part of a huge military machine that is successfully resisting the enemy are very valuable. All of us are moving history in the direction we want it to go right now. This is exciting and inspiring. Yes, this struggle has been going on for centuries, but for me personally, it all started with the Euromaidan protests, and the current experience is a logical continuation of that path. Both then and now, I choose the role of a participant. And I will leave observations and contemplation for after the war.

– Who are your comrades-in-arms? Do you ever feel like you’re among random fellow passengers on a train?

– Most of the people I met in the war are well aware of why they are here. The people around me are very different: in terms of social status, profession, religion, language, skin color. But all this Ukrainian diversity has one thing in common: the enemy. I am also pleased to see the ability to jointly organize the space around us. Once my brother-in-arms said: “Look at the way the entrance to the blindage is paved: you can see that Ukrainians were here.”

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


– Does the atmosphere of war erase one’s personality?

– It erases and breaks some people, while others, on the contrary, it tempers and empowers. It depends on the experience: everyone has their own psychological threshold, their own perception of what is happening. If you are, for example, a Russian soldier who goes to seize someone else’s land in order to earn some money or simply out of fear of his kingdom of violence, you are unlikely to have the courage to be honest with yourself and come out of the war without being broken. If you are a Ukrainian soldier who has to take up arms and kill a Russian invader to defend your home, your land, your family, why should this break you? We are not aggressors or occupiers in this war.

– What do you find most absurd about the war?

– Death is the biggest absurdity. The more often it happens, the more absurd it seems. People who die for this country deserve to live in it the most. It is difficult for the brain to cope with this paradox of war, it seems absurdly unfair.

– People often turn to God in the most difficult times. Do you consider yourself a believer?

– No, I am an agnostic. I grew up in a faithful Greek Catholic family, and this, of course, had a strong influence on me and the formation of my personality. But for me, that period of childhood faith is something interesting and bright, rather than a forced legacy of my parents. War, shelling, and trenches didn’t make me remember God. But religion seems very interesting to me, and I like to read some acts of saints or religious texts.

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


– What literary genres do you think best tell the story of war?

– I think the form is secondary here. Perhaps obituaries and photos of military cemeteries are the best at describing the war.

– What does writing mean to you now? What has the war changed in you as a writer and journalist?

– I try to adhere to the rule that when you take up arms, you cease to be a journalist, because you become more direct and inflexible in your thoughts. In response to the caricatured russian propaganda commandment “Not everything is so clear,” you catch yourself at the other extreme: “Everything is very clear.” War forces you to switch to this black-and-white optics. Also, due to martial law, journalists now have many justified restrictions and self-censorship. That’s why I joke that I ran away from these journalistic challenges to the army and don’t have to worry about it (smiles).

– Do you take notes about the war? What kind of notes are they? What is the most important thing for you to record?

– During this time, I have accumulated a mountain of notes and diary entries. I record the reality around me, some details, my experiences. Six months later, I open it up, look at what I wrote about fear, and realize how much of it there was.

It turns out that the further I was from the front, the more fear I had. And then you suddenly arrive at the front line and get used to it.

Then you get to ground zero of the front line, look around and think: “Is it already courage or did the war deform my instinct of self-preservation?” This constant writing has a good therapeutic effect, it allows you to talk through different things for yourself.

– You once said that your army life was more Švejk than Remarque. How does this Švejk-ness come through? If you were to write a book about this war, would it be satirical?

I often said that while I was far behind the front lines. The general mobilization took place in a hurry, so funny things often happened: here and there Soviet rudiments would pop up, which contrasted with reality.


It would be impossible to describe my war experience without satire, at least the part of it I spent in the “rear,” behind the front lines. Of course, after the war, I will try to write something about this entire period, but it is difficult to say what this text will be like in terms of form and content. I don’t know if I will have the language and skill to pack all this experience into a coherent text and convey this compressed reality, in which today you are in a collection of Soviet jokes, and tomorrow you are in some anti-war feature film.

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


– Do you have a possibility to read now? What do you want to read the most?

– Yes, I read at about the same level as before the war. For some reason, all sorts of fantasy worlds work well for me: I’ve read The Witcher by Sapkowski, the Bible, Tolkien – from The Silmarillion to The Return of the King. If you run away from an unpleasant reality, let it be somewhere with elves, hobbits, or angels.

– What are your prevailing feelings in the second year of the full-scale war?

– It is difficult to say what exactly prevails. There are the usual emotional swings. It depends on the circumstances, news, phone calls and a bunch of other little things.

– How do you cope with these swings? What brings you joy?

When I’m in a bad mood, I go to the website of a publishing house and buy myself a new comic book or some other book. At home, I have a whole closet of unread stuff that will last me until the next war (smiles).


In general, I am happy to think that I have somewhere and someone to return to after the war. Otherwise, I am happy when I manage to see a new bird and add it to my list of beginner birdwatcher. I enjoy good food, good tobacco, good conversation – the simple joys of everyday life.


I’ve gazed at the night sky through binoculars: first of all, at the neighboring Andromeda galaxy a beautiful tiny muddy slurry, but it inspires the heart and excites the brain. Then, of course, I pointed at the Pleiades- Stozhary-SevenSisters-Messier45-Whatever-they’re-called, and Yaremchuk’s “Stozhary” (a famous Ukrainian song written in 1979) immediately started playing in my head. I can watch and listen in those directions tirelessly and greedily.


Then I collected specks of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, caught the ISS, and waited till Venus appeared. Needless even to say about the Moon – it’s a magnet. Or, as King Ecbert said in The Vikings: “The Moon is a strange God”.

I added an important point to my postwar plans: to buy a telescope and disappear at night somewhere on the cliffs above the Donets.

– What does the road mean to you now?

– The road is something I really miss now. I used to travel a lot, or at least go on work trips. So I’m waiting for a vacation to finally get on a train. Now we travel only from position to position, but it is a very monotonous landscape with dug up plantations and shelled fields. The war route passes by the people we get to meet along the way.

– If you were to draw your own map of this war, what points would definitely be there?

– There would definitely be an object there, which I was assigned to guard from the military commissariat. It’s a deep rear, a deep forest, and a deep depression (smiles). In fact, it wasn’t so bad there, but I’m happy that I managed to get out of there. The next point would be the present-day Donbas, the outskirts of Avdiivka. And then we’ll see. I would love to add Crimea to this map as well.

– What places that are now temporarily under occupation would you like to visit after the victory?

– Most of all, I’d like to go to the island of Dzharylhach. It’s one of the places you always want to return to.

photo courtesy of Pavlo Stekh


I used to think it would be cool to be born in a small country. So that you could travel around a few dozen cities and make friends there and know your country literally inside and out by the time you’re 30. These thoughts came from the fact that despite my constant travels around Ukraine, I was in despair to find out that there is so much space here that it is simply unrealistic to embrace and pack it into one life. Now, on the contrary, I’m glad that I was lucky enough to be born in a country that will be enough for no matter how many more years and energy I have left.

– What would you like Ukraine and Ukrainians of the future to be like?

– First of all, independent. To be able to create our own future. And then, of course, the standard set that I would like to see in pre-war Ukraine: the rule of law, the absence of corruption, demanding and responsible citizens, a free, diverse and open society that is able to cope both with peaceful life and beat the hell out of any future invaders.

– What features of national character, in your opinion, help us to create our history?

– National character is something too abstract, from the realm of myth-making. History is created by people. And if I were to choose the main character trait that helps us, it would probably be courage.


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).