Petro Yatsenko

Petro Yatsenko: The heart of Mariupol is definitely alive


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In the fall of 2021, Petro Yatsenko, a writer, presented his novel “Magnetism” in Mariupol. He enjoyed the city, and met many great people there. Just some six months later Russians turned Mariupol into a burned out field, forcing tens of thousands of its inhabitants to leave their homes. In the framework of a special project Words and Bullets, produced by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we have spoken to Petro Yatsenko, the Head of the Press Service of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, why his novel about the events of 2014 is especially timely nowadays, where the heart of Mariupol beats, why things lost their value for us and whether this war can change anything in the conscience of Russians.


– In the first months of the full-scale invasion you were engaged in volunteering. You helped to evacuate your friends and acquaintances to safe places, later collected books for Ukrainian children who now live abroad. How and when did you decide to join the army?

– I’m a reserve officer. I was never in the army, but studied at a military department of a civilian university. That’s why I wanted my military education to serve my country. When Ukrainian writer Volodya Arenev and I finished sending books to Ukrainian children abroad, I willingly mobilized.

– Have you ever imagined yourself as a military man?

– Never. I have always been an anti-military person and found the military order of things quite repelling. Even though I commanded a party at the military department, I never thought I’d have to do it as a professional. The army was as far away from me as possible, that’s why it was an extremely revolutionary decision, a revolutionary step for me.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


– Did you have any idea about what the Ukrainian army looked like before you joined it? What atmosphere was there in reality?

I had an idea, yes, because some of my colleagues went to serve before and told me something. Actually, I was ready for everything, for  any challenges.


In general, I’d say that my expectations are verified. I’m fortunate with my command. They are competent, kind-hearted, and capable of being attentive . If they gave us some discipline drills or tasks that make no sense that would be the worst thing. That’s the worst thing for any creative personality, it is hard to bear. We don’t have it, and I’m happy about it. From time to time I’m reminded: there’s certain subordination. Army is army, they have their system. People in that system differ from those who, as I joke, “grew up free,” But it should be like this, it works this way.

– What civilian skills help you now?

– My skills of setting contacts and information systematization help me a lot. Writing large books, I saw them as a project, as complex, ambitious and complicated tasks. Analytical thinking and experience in many spheres is always useful.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


– How did you manage to adapt into a completely new environment? Who are the people working with you?

– I’m lucky to have my division and I choose like-minded people. For the most part they are volunteers, which means they are motivated. Just yesterday I was a civilian, so it is easy to be with them, they inspire me. These are very interesting, talented, very competent and well-read people. The army, after all, is an analogue to a very good business structure, where all tasks are bound to be performed without questions. So, we act as a single organism. I understand that we are not just fellows, we need a different level of trust. In case of unpredictable circumstances you must be fully confident in them, and they must be fully confident in you.

– Before the full-scale invasion, the Western countries were skeptical about our chances to fight. But we were able not only to withstand, but also win back some of the occupied territories after Feb. 24. How did we do this and what will support us if this war is long, what do you think?

– First of all, the horizontal structure of our society is firm. Broadly speaking, Ukrainians are very bright and smart. We learn new things fast and well. Every one can take initiative: a soldier, sergeant, junior officer. And this is what our enemies don’t have because their management hierarchy goes down from the top. Our motivation, of course, is of great importance too. This is our land, our homes, our children — and we need to protect them.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


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– Different experiences of this war is a very interesting topic. Will there be an abyss between us, what do you say? Between those who stayed here, in Ukraine, those who lived on occupied territories or under constant shelling and those who evacuated abroad and watched everything on the screen of their smartphone?

– We sent our families abroad, so that they don’t have to go through all this. They are watching and following what is going on here, of course. But there’s a great difference: watch everything on the screen and see the first shell-holes and burned tanks in reality. I see no problem that they are not experiencing this and, God willing, will not experience it. The Armed Forces of Ukraine exist for that purpose. There will be misunderstandings over time, that’s for sure. After all, if we do our job well, then, God willing, for the next generations this war will be as old as the world itself, only some fables, stories, movies and books. And now civilians do not need this experience with explosions, shots, broken glass, burned houses. This is very traumatic.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


– An inequitable attitude towards people who left the country dominates in society. If we imagine that a considerable part of these people stay abroad after the end of the war, will it mean that they are not Ukrainians anymore?

– We see the Ukrainian diaspora of the first, second, and third waves of migration. We see that they cherish the traditions and language of their ancestors. Here’s something different. My son, for example, appreciated how good our medical system is and that there’s no need to wait months to see a doctor. He sees other bonuses in Ukraine that are unattainable abroad. That is, now it is all comparable. Before the war, Ukraine was actually on par with other European countries. The gap that used to exist between Ukraine and the Western world has disappeared. Of course, some people will settle there, some will find themselves elsewhere, not in Ukraine. But these people will always know where they come from, who they are, and will not be ashamed of being Ukrainians. This is what matters. Because this war has made the whole world realize who we really are.

– You say you’re a historian of things. If you write a book about things of this war, what would it be?

— Things are important to me. Things are an epoch, a history. One can say that the USSR collapsed largely because of lack of things. Despite the iron curtain and propaganda, people saw the difference between a pencil-case made in the USSR and a pencil-case that relatives sent to a classmate from the USA. You are constantly told that this state is the best and most developed, but you compare things and realize someone is lying.

Now we have a different society, things are not so important. When at the beginning of the full-scale invasion we traveled with the French writer Lodewijk Allaert around the Kyiv region, he was very surprised to see destroyed houses and happy people around them. They were pulling out buckets of broken glass and shining with joy. “The Muscovites are gone, the enemy has fled. This is happiness already. People are alive, full of energy, everything can be rebuilt,” — I explained.


In our community, other symbols are important. Love is important. I see that people started loving each other more. And this love is shown in the fact that volunteers help the army, people share what they need with each other. We don’t have this consumer society anymore, and this is good news. It shows that we have evolved a lot in these 30 years.


If I were to write such a book, it would be about a child comparing things from peaceful life and weapons. It would show that a tank and a rocket are made of grief. It would show that Russia is throwing weapons at us that are actually the embodiment of this grief, this hatred. I imagined that the hero of the book drew a rocket in his sketchbook with the word “Hatred” on it. This “Hatred” is flying and wants to destroy our love.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


– If we speak not about things, but people as heroes of books. Are there modern personalities who attract you that much so you would be ready to write about them?

— There are people who have shown themselves very worthy. And there are many such people. We all know the names of Zaluzhnyi, Budanov, as the commanders who held against the enemy attack in the Mykolaiv and Kyiv regions. Actually, huge material that will be enough, not just for decades, is accumulating right now. Processing of this historical period is a work for a very long period of time. Among the people I know there are those, who could stay somewhere abroad, those who have built their careers there, but they left their positions, well-paid jobs, homes, and came here. They changed their comfort, social status to become soldiers in this war. This is huge. There are those who disappoint, sure. But the majority truly fascinates.


I have never written biographies, but in the future, I think, I’d like to write something about my division. That might be some fiction. Or something that is far away from the truth, like a story about James Bond 007. Would be nice to write such a prose about Ukrainian heroes. It could appear in various genres.

photo courtesy of Petro Yatsenko


I would also really like to write about Ukrainian radio. About how they did their job and wouldn’t let people lose heart in the first, the most difficult days. When everyone stood in lengthy deadlocks and drove to the western border, the radio was on in every car. Despite the fact that over the first weeks radio was the priority goal as a strategic facility, people worked there, went live and inspired others. Some journalists went on air even from the occupation. They are heroes in their own way.


In fact, our reality is very interesting and some non-fictional things, documentary things, may seem incredible. This is a very important experience for every author and it is very important to experience it, not to be on the sidelines.


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– Describing events of 2014, I mean your book “Magnetism,” you chose the fiction genre. You were not a direct witness of the events back then. If you wrote about the present day, what genre would you choose?

– Not so long ago a reader wrote to thank me for “Magnetism” and said this book helped her survive through what happened in Mariupol. That it gave her rationale, another insight of what is happening. The novel is about how cities have hearts, cities live and people are their blood. Without people cities might die, but you can bring them back from the ashes anyway. This topic is very important. I see that this archetype is actively used now. On a poster “Azovstal” there is a stylized heart in which arteries are plant pipes and inside, in the darkness, hide the protectors of this heart, this “Azovstal,” this city. This is a very important metaphor.

– Donetsk and Kyiv were the heroes of “Magnetism”. If you imagine it as the start of a trilogy, what cities would be the heroes of the next books?

– It would definitely be Mariupol. Because I was in Mariupol a few months before the full-scale invasion, in the fall of 2021. I saw how beautiful this city was, the way it was developing, what wonderful people lived there and how well they took care of their city. And when you look at what the Russians have done to it now… I remember the coffee shop we went to, the delicious cakes, and the atmosphere. And what is left there? Only one burnt wall. I remember the Drama Theater, where we went to listen to Polezhaka and other Ukrainian poets…

That would definitely be Mariupol. All the more it gets into this outline. But I would like to write about this when prophecies and foresights come true. The heart of Mariupol is definitely alive. This city is damaged, ruined, wounded externally, but inside, deep down its catacomb its lively heart is beating. It is important. The enemy couldn’t destroy it.

That also would be Lviv, for sure. The city has a very powerful history. And Lviv is pretty mysterious for the majority of Ukrainians. The city is very striking, with many layers and atmospheric history. And it too has undergone serious cataclysm.

– You have once mentioned that Russians don’t have enough love, and that is the reason they started the war with us. The title of your article for the Polish magazine Znak is “The War to Win Love”.

I told a real story. When in 2014 Russians destroyed a Ukrainian APC and found drawings that Ukrainian children made for our military, a Russian soldier took the drawings with him to Russia. And when later a journalist asked him why he did it, the soldier, this murderer and invader, said that they were very bright and there was much love in them.


This war is truly irrational. There are some “excuses” which the Kremlin uses to explain the war. First they say they fight for one thing, then — for another. But, in my opinion, they fight to be loved. They want to force others to love them.

– Is there a chance that Russians realize that this is not only Putin’s war, but of their nation’s?

– I think they are well aware of this, they know it very well. People at war unite around some idea. Russian propaganda is playing on this very well right now. It seems that most of them are fully aware of what they are doing and deliberately support this war.

I had relatives in Russia. Many years ago, in 2003, before the Orange Revolution, I visited them in Saint Petersburg, and already felt that atmosphere. Putin was the president only for three years, but even then the amount of TV propaganda terrified me, and they were talking about Ukraine all the time. And these relatives couldn’t understand why Ukraine should be independent. These were quite well-educated people. That’s why it was clear back then, twenty years ago, there would be war.

It is not possible to keep such a degree of tension in the society, lead such agitation so that it has no consequences.

–Foreigners often live in the illusion that it is all about Putin, and if he’s gone, the war will stop…

It seems to me that this is already changing. The further we go, the more people in the Western countries begin to realize that it’s not only about Putin. And that such a large system cannot function simply by being controlled by one person. As long as there is an internal consensus, everyone is pretty happy with it. We all remember what the opposition was like before the Crimea and how it stopped after it was occupied. Putin actually made them all accessories in the crime. The stolen piece of land turned out to be so sweet that he was able to bribe both the opposition and almost all citizens.


Now, most Russians are also accessories in this war. Even those who live abroad, who try to distance themselves, but do not want to take responsibility. They want to associate themselves with Russia if it succeeds, but not if it fails.

– Is this war able to change anything in the consciousness of Russians? Or should we forever live with the insight that all this might happen again?

– My feeling is that no — they will not change. Impossible. They had a different way of development, or rather degraded. It is thirty years of propaganda, different life, different mindset and traditions. Any changes are possible only from a far perspective. No sign of these changes so far.

Our relations with Russians are relations of an executor and a victim. To change it, much time must go by. Right now there are no forces that are ready to start a dialogue and atone their guilt in Russia. This is a very long process. And maybe it will not start in the perspective of our generation.

– Will we be able to make a point in the story about “brotherly nations”?

It seems to me that this was done long ago. While the myth was ruined by the Russians themselves. We were too sincere and trusting. The sense is that this love can not be demanded by force. The fact that Russians are a totally different nation, different people is obvious, we clearly see it. Also, this war has busted the myth about the “great Russian culture”. If your culture is so good then it means that you kill us and want to destroy us as a nation and that is the consequence of its influence? Something must be wrong with your culture then.


Before the full-scale invasion I was re-reading a book of memoirs by the Galician writer Ostap Tarnavskyi about how Russians were entering Lviv in 1939. And it was all the same. That is, nothing has changed. Murder, repression, and destruction follow the arrival of the Russians. What we need is to realize and never ever forget that there is a predator country next door. We need to be strong and not give them the slightest opportunity to think that we can be easy prey. It is important for people not to relax and start fighting with each other, as they did after 2014. Important is security: consistent and continuous.


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