Serhii Shebelist

Serhii Shebelist: Ukrainian resistance reminds the Western countries about their values


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Serhii Shebelist, a journalist and a lecturer, had military training back in 2016 and took an oath of loyalty to the Ukrainian people. On Feb. 24 2022 he went to the military registration and enlistment office and took up arms to defend his country from Russian aggression. He guarded strategic objects, military machinery and equipment and checkpoints at Poltava region at first, later went to Donetsk region. Now he serves in the 72nd Mechanized Brigade named after the Black Zaporozhians.

For the special project Words and Bullets, produced by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we have spoken about debunking myths and collected disappointments, adaptation in the army and going back home, affinity to Europe, wall at the border, farewell to the empire and “brotherly nations”.

—Now analyzing these fifteen months of the full-scale invasion, what myths about Ukraine and Ukrainians we managed to debunk for ourselves, for Russia and the world?

– In the very first days of the full-scale invasion many Ukrainians chose resistance, not fleeing from the country, which was clearly shown by the queues forming at the territorial recruitment and social support centers. Instead of running away to avoid receiving draft  papers, people were looking for ways to join the army and be useful for their state. Granted, this  was at the very beginning of the “full-scale” and the level of enthusiasm has since declined, but it was a very good and promising sign at that point. We believed in ourselves and our collective strength.

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


The main myths that we managed to debunk were regarding “the second strongest army of the world” and its ability to “seize Kyiv in two days.” I think Russians were not quite ready that representatives of a “brotherly nation” would resist them that fiercely instead of meeting them as “liberators” with bouquets  of flowers in their hands. After every mass shelling of Ukrainian territory which, they truly believe, is supposed to intimidate Ukrainians into submission, we become even fiercer and donate generously to the army.


But I think there, “behind the curb” (Za porebrykom, “behind the curb”, is a Ukrainian meme that appeared with the start of Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. People were watching Russian fighters attack the building of a  public office in Kramatorsk and Russians ordered people to go away, not to be in the way and to step behind the curb. “Za porebrykom” is also a mocking name of Russia), they are still sure that Ukrainians are “nazists” and “fascists” who must all be “demilitarized”. This is not Putin’s war against Ukraine, this is Russia’s war against Ukraine and Ukrainians. We can’t live in a fool’s paradise and believe tales about evil Kremlin authorities and good Russian people who can stop being blind.

It is not merely a nation that is blindly following Putin, rather Puttin is catering to the  expectations of Russian society with its imperial complexes, resentment and stereotypes. It’s not just the people echoing propaganda; the propaganda is resonating with deeply ingrained societal beliefs.

The war has put Ukraine on the radar for many people in the world. Before, we didn’t exist on their mental maps. We would want to be known for other reasons, of course, but it is what it is… We need to support, nourish and sustain interest in Ukraine and its people through  media, cultural institutions, artists and millions of ordinary people worldwide. Every one of us is now an ambassador of Ukraine to the world.


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

What disappoints you the most at this stage of the war?

– The surge of patriotic fervor is diminishing. The war is becoming a common thing, confined to the front line. Fear we felt in the first months is gone now and many people are back to their previous state, before Feb. 24 2022. When my comrades went to Kyiv in spring last year, they came back with a feeling that “the war is over” and “there’s no war.”

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


On the one hand, it is good that the majority of cities can maintain regular civilian life without the perils of front or near-front territories. On the other — the detachment of society from the war is dangerous because it dampens the sense of urgency. One should be ready to step in and replace those who fall in the line of duty, whether through  death or injury. None of us was born for war, but you need to be ready to take part in it. There are different possibilities in non-combat areas, in particular training sessions for civilians that will be useful in case of mobilization. Just “believing in the ZSU” (Armed Forces of Ukraine) is not enough, you should either be in the ZSU, or be there for the ZSU.

What is the hardest thing to get used to in the military?

– Yesterday’s civilians will find everything in the army  novel and astonishing.  in the army. It’s an entirely different world. But gradually one gets used to everything — from living conditions to the combat environment. When you hear the whistle of incoming projectiles  for the first time, it is stressful, but then you listen to it and can define where and what is flying, how much time you’ve got to take cover or make it to a shelter.

After several days at the positions under shelling it is silence that becomes unusual. You value simple things: water, light, mobile connection.

Has your attitude towards death been changed while being at the frontline?

– It is impossible to get used to death. We take it emotionally, of course, and feel sorry for people you actually knew and who fell in battle. But we have no time to suffer. Emotions are not dulled but are kinda frozen. We will mourn for all our fallen after the victory.

What problems do you think military men will face coming back home from the frontline after the war is over?

– Many people with combat experience and who have seen the real hell, risking their lives for the highest goal will go back to peaceful life after the war. But we shouldn’t expect that these guys will come back from the frontline and singlehandedly rectify all the issues in the country. We can’t pass the buck to veterans, among whom there are different people. No need to idealize them all. But one should at least be grateful that they went to defend our homeland. I do hope that we keep a high level of respect for veterans and military men in general, and any attempts to “give them a hard time,” and advice to “go to their Bakhmut” will be absolutely unacceptable and have the appropriate reaction.

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


You got a call sign “Journalist” in the army. Do you consider yourself more of a journalist or a lecturer?

– Even before the full-scale invasion, when I was already in the army at a training session of military reservists, I got a call sign “Journalist,” It was coined by my friend Oleksii, who died in April 2022 in the Kharkiv region. We discussed what we did in our civilian lives and I said that I wrote articles. That’s how I became a “Journalist.” During mobilization,  the story repeated and I remembered that I teach journalism at the university. I didn’t mind the call sign even though I could be “assistant professor” or even a “professor” for that matter because some of my comrades call me that way when joking. I think of myself as a journalist more. Using football analogy I’m a player-coach, that is I teach how to write, and write myself.

What does writing mean to you now?

For me writing is a way to engage with reality, a chance to express my thoughts in a journalistic form and not bottle them up. I’m gathering material so far. When I have anything to say — I let daylight into it. My characters are ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations: military personnel and civilians. I do not seek to create an epic narrative, or make sweeping generalizations, nor do I aspire to gain the renown of a Ukrainian Erich Maria Remarque, but try to capture and convey  what is happening around me.


Sometimes situations are so funny it is a sin not to write them down.


Once in a breach between rides to ground zero my comrade went to a shop in a near-front town in Donetsk region. He had a Multicam uniform commonly known as “British.” On his shoulder he had a British flag (remember this detail, please, it is important). He looked British too: tall with a red beard.

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


Having noticed a “foreigner,” one of the locals broke into a tirade against foreign recruits in Donbas. “What have they forgotten here? What are they fighting for?” — he asked a saleswoman a rhetorical question without knowing he’s saying this in front of a ZSU soldier. “For China. We’re fighting for China,” — replied “legionary” Volodka from Cherkasy region in purest Ukrainian language.

– What would you advise Ukrainians to read to never ever go back to the questions: “Who are we, where are we from?”

– You could start with “The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy. The book is well-written with a light essay style, easy, simple and interesting not only for professional historians. In my time “History of Ukraine for children” by Antin Lototsky was important personally for me. That’s the book my uncle and godfather Anatoliy from Kharkiv gifted to me. Still unable to read properly, I copied pictures of grand princes, Cossacks and haidamakas (Ukrainian paramilitary outfits) which no doubt influenced the formation of my national consciousness. Later on, when I grew up, I looked through this edition and found out that children in Halychyna (Galicia) were brought up on it in 1930s. I find it fascinating how Halychyna, Slobozhanshchyna and Poltavshchyna entwined in this context.

What do you think differentiates us from other European nations and what unites us with them?

– With Europe and the civilized world in general we are united by common values of freedom and democracy which became habitual and mundane for the majority of the Western countries.

It might sound naïve and romantic, but I think the very fact that Ukraine fights back and resists reminds the West about its values.

We are closer to Eastern European countries in terms of our political culture. Therefore, we should not have any illusions that the day after joining the EU we will instantly turn into France or Germany. Even to catch up with Poland, we will have to work hard.

Do you think we managed to say goodbye to our postcolonial past forever?

– Our “farewell to empire” is still on in different aspects. Unfortunately, the carriers of the postcolonial practices are not only representatives of the older generation who feel nostalgic to the USSR past and “old songs about what’s most important”. Many young people still listen to Russian music, many of our artists used to consider having a successful career in Moscow a criteria of success and strived for access to the Russian market. On the other hand, there has been a surge of Ukrainian language content including quickly produced work like the “Bayraktar” song. But OK, let it be. Wheat will be separated from the chaff, and the content that stands the test of time and resonates with people will endure.


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

Who of the historical people do you think determined the formation of the Ukrainian nation?

– In the coming years, Ukrainians will be determined not by figures from the past, but by our contemporaries, living and deceased, who created the current myth of an indomitable people in an indomitable country. We are already uniting around a common goal, common values, and a common vision of the future, which should be just and worthy of the memory of those who gave their lives for it.

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


What do you feel towards Russians?

– Disdain. There is no point in convincing them or arguing with them. Even the most liberal among them almost always fail on the Ukrainian issue.

What national traits do Russians show in this war, and actually in all previous wars they took part in?

– Chauvinism and confidence in their own messianism. They consider themselves patriots, but all others who love their country are nationalists, nazis and russophobes. Human life is nothing to them, “women will give birth to new babies.” This is exactly the reason for the “meat assaults” that Russian soldiers are currently engaged in in Ukraine, with many turning into “minced meat” in fields and forests.

They are ready to live in poverty, but with nuclear bombs. They want the world if not respecting them, should at least fear them.

Instead of worrying about the development of their own state, they seek to seize other states and create territorial problems everywhere around in order to poison the lives of other countries and keep them in the orbit of their geopolitical influence.

Do you think this war will bury forever the myth that was cherished so long by the propaganda about brotherly nations?

– Maybe it won’t bury it, but will dispel it to a large extent. Today, unfortunately, for some people, “things are still not so clear,” although it would seem that they can’t actually get any clearer. There are people who cannot be convinced. On the other hand, there are many positive changes, such as the transition of many Ukrainians to the Ukrainian language in everyday life.

photo courtesy of Serhii Shebelist


Russia is used to perverting its own history. Will we be able to break this paradigm and step by step give the world the truth: about what is happening now and what has lasted for centuries?

– To break this paradigm, we need more translations into different languages and to work with various audiences. We also need academic components, as well as scientific and fictional. Replying to Russian propaganda with our own is not the answer. We should compete with both quantity and quality. And must be ready to discuss the dark pages of our history.

–What will be the victory in this war for us?

– Going back to internationally acknowledged borders of Ukraine from 1991, return of all temporarily occupied territories and punishment of war criminals from the Russian Federation.. We can do without the parade of victory on the Red Square and the trident over  the Kremlin.

What do you imagine will be on the borderline of Ukraine with Russia and Belarus in 100 years: both physical and mental?

– I immediately have in mind a huge thick concrete wall that divides us from orcs and Mordor. But actually it is hard to say what will happen to Russia and Belarus in 100 years, the world is dynamic and things change fast. The least I want to think about is the future of Russia. Let them focus on themselves and, paraphrasing Les Podervyanskyi (Ukrainian painter, poet, playwright and performer), get off our backs. Normalization of relations is possible only when in Russia, like denazification in Germany, there will be deputinization, which unfortunately currently seems like a distant fantasy.


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