russian-ukrainian war

The curse of the conjunction


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The war is loud. It drowns out all the sounds around you and alters their nature. It often takes away the ability to hear semitones and distorts the core of important messages. However, one of its most painful abilities is its capacity to easily cancel out your voice and strip it of its power when your voice is what you need to tell your own story, the one you know and only you can tell.


I remember the feeling of terrifying, eerie freedom that came in the first days of the full-scale invasion. The war happened to everyone, so no one could turn a blind eye to it anymore. Everything that made up one’s previous life and gave it structure, our rituals and imposed trivial daily routines, suddenly ceased to be important. All of yesterday’s understanding of the world and one’s place in it faded and evaporated, and the established hierarchies collapsed before our eyes. In the expanse of this terrible freedom, where it felt like all the winds of evil of this world were blowing in your face, the only things that mattered were the courage of self-determination, choice, rank, and finding your place. I remember thinking that this could be what the afterlife felt like after having lost the boundaries and meaning of everything past, feeling like a tiny atom inside a vast universe, searching for a place to settle down again and be productive.


For a while, it genuinely seemed like everything we once considered to be our superpowers — our so-called intellectual skills, literary craft, and civic activism — no longer mattered. All that mattered was honest and oftentimes anonymous work and our connection to the bustling anthill of volunteer formations and their headquarters. My voice naturally fell silent, lying in wait. It was only later, when acclimation to this new reality, this new life after the death of the old one, had become both unbearably painful and, at the same time, easier to comprehend, that writing returned to me. Actually, it seemed to come back on its own, independent of my own free will.


I have always rejected the notion that an author’s pen is steered by someone else or by a guiding light of some sort. I have often shared my belief that writing is always the craft of a specific person with his or her own specific experience and, therefore, a characteristic voice, writing from his or her own hand and at his or her own risk. But something metaphysical was happening at the moment that writing returned to me for the first time following the full-scale invasion. It felt as if language had found its voice in me and then picked me up and carried me away like a stream. And if it was so powerful that, despite my deep muteness, it was able to awaken my voice and the stories I wanted to tell through the medium of such language, then obviously, in times of war, one must accept this responsibility as well. Our language and voices are needed now, first and foremost, to call a spade a spade. To bear witness.

I was lucky to be in Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. No, that’s not a typo. Even in such situations, one can be fortunate. If I had been out of the country on business that day, I would have done whatever it took to return to Ukraine, even if that meant walking for days to meet the parades of cars driving westbound.


Nothing can compare to or replace how it feels to get caught in a temporal whirlwind or experience a giant reset, a fracture inside of which you find yourself groping for at least some language to describe your inner state.


The attachment that we formed in those first few months to land and community, a connection that nothing else could ever make up for, is still impossible to fully describe. It has not been eroded even by the fatigue accumulated during these years of the Great War, nor has it been fundamentally damaged by the neuroticism of today’s society. This attachment has brought our self-identity to life and made it clear that we have matured, even though it has caused us to age rapidly with the heavy burden of responsibility placed on our shoulders. This is the sudden coming to adulthood of the eldest child in a burning house suddenly bearing the weight of every decision and its consequences while the elders are in a stupor, giving unnecessary advice or indignantly explaining something on the phone to the fire brigade of the neighboring town. Everything happens very quickly. A split second can mean the difference between life and death. Afterward, you will forever have the authority and courage to tell your old gods that some of their grand judgments were helpless and their actions were untimely, unnecessary, and foolish.


Those things that you were unable to achieve or do fast enough will linger in your memories far longer and more vividly than what you did achieve impulsively as the world whirred by in one continuous stream. So, for a year and a half, I would carry inside me the story of how I was unable to open my home in Vinnytsia to those who were very dear and important to me. There was simply nowhere for them to go. The flow of people was overwhelming, and all our apartments — those of our friends and those of our friends’ friends — were already packed.


I would think about how long they drove on the congested highways leading out of Kyiv as it was being shelled, how they made their way in the dark via obscure detours through the woods, and how they only had a few hours of anxious sleep at some suburban tourist complex before moving on again. I still carried this story with me when they later returned to Kyiv, and still later when the people who replaced them in my home turned out to be absolutely despicable. Feelings of shame would warn me against excessive contact, and it would get easier only when I once again poignantly relived the situation by talking about it… and asking for forgiveness.


Or think of the example of the bulletproof vest that missed my friend by half a day. It arrived as quickly as possible, given the circumstances, and was top-quality. I was already on my way to my destination, driving on the highway, when I learned that my friend had died. I cried and squeezed the vest in my arms as if it were being worn by a living person. I then gave it away to another soldier and it served him well, but I still continued to carry this imaginary, untested vest with me. It is known that those who wear bulletproof gear regularly suffer spinal cord injuries because of the equipment’s heavy weight. There is also a school of thought called psychosomatics that suggests the mechanics of one’s inner experiences have an impact on the mechanics of one’s physical state. By the second summer of the full-scale war, my spine was “crumbling” under the weight of this imaginary gear. However, it is even harder for the backs of those who wear real body armor every day.


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Askold Melnyczuk’s novel “Ambassador of the Dead” often comes to mind these days. Whenever we arrive somewhere abroad as a group that has lived through the entire range of these fresh Ukrainian experiences, I think: “We are an entire embassy of the dead.”

“Ambassador of the Dead” by Askold Melnyczuk (Ukrainian book cover)


We rattle off the numbers: the number of dead, tortured, captured, missing, or kidnapped from the occupied territories. We remember our colleagues, friends and comrades-in-arms who are no longer with us. Their work still has value, so we borrow their voices to try and continue the work. Listening to us can be uncomfortable. Take, for example, an incident that happened at the Ukrainian booth of the Frankfurt Book Fair in the fall of 2023. A woman stood up in front of me in the middle of a discussion and, in response to the oh-so-slightly judgmental look I gave her, apologetically said that she “could not listen to these Ukrainian stories anymore.” Subjectivity can be bloody as well.


While I understand the need for nuanced messages, for selecting different approaches for each target audience, and the disparities in our common narrative, I also understand that we have been acquiring the right to speak aloud and the right to be heard for a very long time.


The fact that what people are hearing now makes them uncomfortable is not our fault. For a long time, I have been carrying in my head a phrase by the director general of the Ukrainian Institute, Volodymyr Sheiko, from his interview with the periodical “Lokalna Istoriya” in March 2022: “At the current juncture, Ukraine has the right to say whatever it wants, as the West bears part of the responsibility for what is happening here today.” This is poignant and honest.


One author (whose work I used to translate but later stopped) has been writing, since the start of the Great War, a sort of column of solidarity on his social media entitled “My Little Ukrainian and Belarusian Library.” I stared at this title for a long time and tried to understand what was so unsettling about it. Let’s forget for a moment the still unreflected collective guilt of Belarusians for the attack on Ukraine and for what they have allowed their country to become over the past few decades.


There was something else that stung: The fact that Ukrainian literature still fits into someone’s “little library,” with all its unread classics of completely European caliber, not to mention the talented authors of contemporary literature who are constantly making a name for themselves on the world stage. It is even a compassionate irony to place in the same category two literatures “blemished” by the “great Russian literature” narrative. And the point is not that Ukrainian is not a global language. For some, our literature is still not enough to appreciate as is, to perceive it as an independent, full-fledged, holistic phenomenon that does not need a conjunction. However, this same writer once saw the blue and yellow flags that were hung from balconies and windows during the first phase of the war, meant to be amulets, shields, and signs of home, as dangerous manifestations of nationalism. This is why I no longer get so upset by his opinions.


In general, I often have to explain to foreigners that what they put into the concept of “nationalism” (while at the same time shying away from the term) would be more appropriate to call “chauvinism” or “xenophobia,” and that what Ukrainians refer to as nationalism could be characterized as “patriotism,” though this is still an oversimplification.


In its Ukrainian dimension, nationalism is the defense of identity and the protection of physical and mental borders for the sake of forming a political nation, in all its ethnic and religious polyphony.


It is precisely this that does not fit into the conceptual apparatus of our enemy, which makes the Ukrainian idea particularly resilient, not aggressive, but enduring and ultimately able to defend itself. On the other side of the world – in Africa, for example – the picture may be quite different. There, we are more likely to be perceived as a problem-riddled swath of grain fields that is at risk of triggering a famine. I’ve seen posters where Ukraine is caricatured as a figure of starvation. And when you think about this, you experience a very real physical pain, the same one you feel, for example, when you see piles of grain intentionally dumped on the ground at the Polish border.


Once, at an international event in Ghana, I was asked whether Ukraine had her own language. Prior to that, I had spoken at several venues about the importance of language for us, about how the Ukrainian language is now synonymous with home, and how, throughout history, it has often served as a mental territory and a means of belonging when we were forcibly deprived of our statehood. In the end, the young volunteer who asked the question did not mean any offense. He was not participating in the festival, per se, but rather was working to enhance the attendee experience.


We Ukrainians, if we are honest, do not know much about the history of Africa or its Indigenous peoples and their plethora of languages either, some of which have already disappeared or are dying out right now. Nevertheless, this question threw me off balance for a few days.



I have often thought about diplomacy during the times of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR).


I have thought about the heroes who had to explain to world leaders where this Ukraine that suddenly appeared on their map had come from, why it should be recognized and why it should be supported.


It now seems like I can somewhat imagine what this would have been like. I had the opportunity to speak at the Munich Security Conference on the very day that Ukrainian troops were withdrawing from Avdiivka. It was hard for me to find my words: I kept picturing the Avdiivka industrial zone and the shrapnel-riddled welcome sign as you entered town. By strange coincidence, it was on this very day in 1919 (February 17) that the UPR appealed for help to the member nations of the Triple Entente and the United States. The history of the 20th century in this part of the world might have been different if this plea had been heard.


Today, Ukraine again needs weapons and international support to hang on. The difference is that we now have an independent, sovereign, and full-fledged state for the longest time in memory for many generations. But the price for this independence remains a shared world history as we enter the future together. We are not alone in the world and we do not live in a vacuum, so, in this case, the conjunction becomes painfully necessary: Here, you are with your ally, even if your alliance is objectively and mutually complex.


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Once, at a reading in Berlin, the moderator remarked that my poetry is steeped in corporal references. Indeed, I really do experience the world through my body in a profound way. But war, by its very nature, is very conducive to corporal references. It is impossible to write any other way when you know the odor of a mass grave exhumation site. It is impossible to write any other way when you have witnessed the corpses of people lying in the streets of their cities. It is impossible to write any other way when your body coils like a spring upon hearing the sound of an airplane, even in foreign skies.


When I need to explain to the organizers of various events why joint events, readings and discussions with Russians, even those who label themselves as dissidents, are ethically unacceptable, I feel like Baida Vyshnevetsky, who, hanging by his rib from a hook, attempted to hold a balanced philosophical debate as he swayed in the wind.


Should the furious Cossack soul break down and begin to scream, no one will hear or accept his arguments, and dignity will be lost. At this same event in Berlin, after reading my Izium-inspired interpretation of “Our Father,” I was asked what question I would like to hear from God. Now I think: I would like to hear Him sympathetically ask whether we aren’t tired of always talking about Ukraine using a damned conjunction.


The spring of 2024 finds us in the midst of two more comparisons. Almost every major international event has a new focus: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are attempts to compare the Ukrainian situation with the one in Gaza. Making comparisons is a completely human desire because it allows us to make analogies, establish convenient daily patterns, and simplify the work of cognition and acceptance. The danger, however, is that comparing always implies, to a certain extent, the watering down of a complex context, which can result in an unpleasant revisionism emerging.


Once again, you grit your teeth as you look at caricatured posters in which a hand that might be interpreted as “Euro-Atlantic,” offers a sweet lollipop to a Ukrainian baby, while a Palestinian baby is offered… a bomb. Many people argue that Ukraine gets too much coverage in the global media and that we receive too much attention and aid. It is difficult to counter this rhetoric without taking a deep look into history. But every time you are made to, you explain that Ukraine, as a victim of a planned massive external aggression, is able to empathize with civilian victims on both sides and can see the disproportionality and inadmissibility of certain actions in response to threats.


However, you emphasize that our current subjectivity, our right to speak for ourselves, and the strength of our resistance is the accumulated result of our hard work and our struggle with ourselves. Therefore, we will not deny ourselves the right to be more than just silent victims, to be more than a group of native-born citizens who weep and endure. The Ukrainian demand for freedom naturally also includes a demand for recognition and justice. And for this, it is imperative to speak the truth in our own voice. Sometimes loudly. After all, this is how people sometimes must speak after experiencing shell shock.


Another complicated case involving the conjunction is unfolding in Bosnia. A group of Ukrainian artists will be traveling there to work on a project with the symbolic title “Report from the Future.” The project organizers, sincerely empathizing with the Ukrainian situation, wish to portray the realities of living in a country that, thirty years after its own genocidal war, exists under an ill-conceived peace treaty (rather than a constitution) that the international community used to stop the fighting: the Dayton Accords. For example, how are the ethnic quotas for representation in government institutions, which are provided for in the Accords, supposed to work?


I know this context well, and I’m traveling to Bosnia to say that the Dayton scenario – and it is quite likely that Ukraine will eventually be offered something similar – is unacceptable for us. However, the group I am traveling with is diverse. Some will be getting their first real taste of Balkan realities, and so, once again, everything teeters on the edge of superficial conclusions and careless generalizations. Despite a certain universality of anthropological experience and even mythological substrate, all wars, their initial conditions, and their consequences are not all the same. Unless, of course, one perceives them as an abstract evil imposed from above, rather than evil committed by the hands of real people, fanned by propaganda, cultivated by the ideology of imperial superiority, and so on.

“War Is The Same Everywhere” by Slavenka Drakulić (Ukrainian book cover)


The core message of Slavenka Drakulić’s book “War Is The Same Everywhere” has always irritated me. The relevance of this annoyance was illustrated at the 2023 Book Forum, when, during one of the discussions, the author argued that the pain of a Ukrainian mother who lost her son in the war for their own country and that of a Russian mother whose soldier son was convicted of killing a Ukrainian is essentially the same. This is precisely the case when the conjunction becomes outright criminal.


The Russian army’s actions on Ukrainian territory for the past two and a half years, let alone what we have been experiencing for an entire decade of war, undermines the belief in the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt tried to explore. It turns out that this evil can be very crafty. It is capable, like wet mittens, of exposing the true inner natures of those people you think you can know just by looking at them. No amount of rationalization or newspeak to describe the acts of genocide committed can obscure the sadistic intemperance of its organizers and perpetrators, who sometimes still consider themselves to be very spiritual people. Therefore, the abstract doctrine of pacifism no longer makes sense.


Humanity has been at war for so long that it has managed to develop conventions, doctrines, and rules of warfare, but has done nothing to ensure that these rules are actually followed. The world is not black-and-white, but being allowed to attack another country and commit genocide without a commensurate response remains a very concrete problem. If the world order wishes to reinvent itself with some new and effective formula for a future where this will become impossible, it will have to try to come to terms with Ukrainian history as if it were its own. This is when the conjunction will finally be on our side.


Peace is impossible without justice. Justice is impossible without truth and a lasting memory. The truth about our war can only be told by Ukrainians who have seen it with their own eyes. That’s why I feel something akin to a dull toothache from trying to foolishly fall in line with the big names of the world in my efforts to talk about Ukraine. Yes, we do need allies, but only to the extent that we do not dissolve into them. Increasingly, I appreciate the value of what the Ukrainian community is living through together, how it is overcoming growing pains and trying to design a new social contract. Ultimately, this is all about self-identity. When I find myself abroad, I choose to talk about what we are as a community, not to brand myself as an individual independent of the land that gave birth to me. I do this even if, to some, it seems audacious. But I know: There are enough Ukrainian names to be great. Ukraine is enough. Being Ukrainian is enough. And knowing this is fine, if no one interferes, or if you know how to defend yourself properly and speak out with conviction.


We’re in our third spring of the Great War. Children and even starlings have learned to imitate the sounds of air raid sirens with perfection.


I collect the siren sounds from different Ukrainian cities. They differ in much the same way as regional pronunciations do. Sometimes, for fun, I play my collection for my foreign friends. The young daughter of friends of mine asked her mother before going to bed one night if “it is true that anyone can find themselves in any situation.” This is a very Ukrainian question, I must say. I try to imagine how it might sound in a child’s voice. Our experiences later in life will show that, very often, it is the situation you find yourself in that elucidates what kind of person you really are. But it is best for this situation to not be a war.


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Translation: David Soares

Copy editing: Matthew Long, Terra Friedman King