Chytomo Picks

Review: The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister — an honest, beautifully told diary of grieving


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An honest diary of grieving by Olesya Khromeychuk, author of the book The Death of a Solider Told by His Sister. Monoray, 2022.


It hurts to say, but you should read this book to understand almost every Ukrainian nowadays. I mean every single one. What was once an intimate family experience became, after the turning point on Feb. 24, 2022, an experience shared by an entire nation. This is a book that describes a loss and how to cope. And it also addresses how to be truly honest in the process. It is not a psychological guide on how to move on or heal from trauma; it’s a candid yet professional discourse about what it is like to live during historic moments when the death of your loved ones becomes headline news.


“One of the main reasons I don’t like talking about ‘what happened’ as I still sometimes refer to it, is because of people’s reactions to my words. Or, rather, because they feel that they have to react somehow, but they have no idea how. It makes all of us feel awkward: me for bringing up a difficult subject and them for having to respond to it”. None of us wants to feel awkward. None of us is ready for grief. Living in a war state for several years makes an expectation that something will happen very soon quite logical. But every time grief greets you unexpectedly. “I realized how unprepared I was for what I had been subconsciously expecting for almost two years,” says the author, Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian, Director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, and a public figure who is used to publicity but not used to losing loved ones.


This book speaks frankly, simply, and in a vital way about topics we are not used to discussing: the (un)reality and unattractiveness of death, the truthfulness of biographies and the fiction of obituaries, the inappropriateness of ceremonies, fears, resentment and confusion in the face of loss.


“If you have two siblings, and, after one of them dies, people ask you if you have any siblings, what do you say?” Khromeychuk goes through all the answers and settles on the most neutral one: “I am the youngest of three children”. She asks herself all these naïve questions that are so familiar to each and every one of us who has experienced loss: Did he know he was dying? Was he alone? How long was he conscious? Did he suffer? Would he have approved of a church service? Would he have welcomed the ceremonies? Who are we really doing all this for? Where do we look for relief? How should I tell my parents?


My mother interrupted me and said: “I got a call from a commander. Our Volodya was killed on the frontline.” She was so calm. I felt a strange sense of relief: so, he hadn’t been captured after all!



Perhaps only a select few understands this relief at death instead of captivity. Recently, I talked to my Ukrainian friends at a party somewhere in Europe. They were set to return home the following day. One of the men said, “There is nothing much left to be scared of, really. Basically, it is just nuclear war, occupation, and captivity. I understand that now, earlier I did not. Much like many other candid descriptions of hardships in ‘A Loss’ book.


A loss alters people’s lives instantaneously, there’s no delaying its impact. The war has woven its way into all Ukrainians’ lives unnoticed just as Olesya’s wedding shopping list got invaded by military supplies: tartan table napkins (3 packs of 20), table confetti (20 packs), advanced blood clotting sponge (25 g x 2), favors for wedding guests, emergency burn care dressing (pack of 5).


War means throwing a party when one brother is “2,000 miles away in a warzone and the other is in rehab, waging a war of his own”. They went ahead with a party, by the way. “It was a nice day,” and Volodya would crack a joke or two about the photos, Olesya reflects. It turns out that one can both listen to wedding toasts and be anxious about loved ones on the frontline. This is how war comes into life even if it is happening thousands of miles away.


RELATED: Valeriy Puzik: The war is when everyone does what it takes


People removed from the war tend to think: now that the war has started, life halts, no more weddings-restaurants-going for the walk or to the office, it is a different ontological state. Recall the delegation of African politicians to Kyiv, when they were disappointed that residents didn’t appear overtly terrified. People would walk the streets, fall in love, get pregnant, and even enjoy their morning oat-milk cappuccinos. To these visitors, life appeared relatively undisturbed. But all those civilians know where to run during an air raid.  They are used to it. And even if they have adapted, they are not truly prepared to be killed or lose their beloved. Today, this book reads differently than two years ago.



I remember that in one of our first Dialogues on War, launched just a week after the full-scale invasion, Ostap Slyvynsky, Ukrainian poet and translator, said that you cannot be truly prepared for war unless you are the aggressor. Similarly, you cannot be prepared for grief, even if its arrival is anticipated. It is impossible to accept the contrast between the existential experience of loss and the “Kafkaesque horror of bureaucracy” when it comes to the everyday “processing” or even the legal registration of such a loss. However, based on the author’s description, I am inclined to believe that all these rituals were deliberately invented as coping mechanisms: By anchoring oneself, both individually and collectively, and methodically checking off task from the to-do-list, one manages to trudge forward, finding a path through the grief, one day at a time.


What is undoubtedly attractive about this book is its combination of unerring technical craft and raw honesty. As a professional historian, Olesya Khromeychuk meticulously deconstructs the myth of her brother and humanizes him. Her adept technique of event chronology and the de-heroisation of the main character are honed to perfection here. She examines the contents of his phone (despite her reservations ) and approaches the question of motivation with brutal transparency. She evaluates the veracity of obituaries and does not recognise her brother in the stories they tell. There’s a genre-specific expectation at play, as she put it, “Something for life, something for death, but not for the obituary.” Reality does not make it through. It seems to be common practice to make up things, because the loss of a soldier should be portrayed in a triumphant light, the family and friends should have some kind of moral compensation, something to be proud of. And other soldiers should be motivated to “Die with dignity.”


“Suka! Bliat!” (“Bitch! Fuck!”) were the last words that Olesya’s brother’s friend heard on the phone before the connection was lost. These are not romantic or victorious words, they are not quoted in obituaries or mentioned in speeches at ceremonies, but I suspect they are the words that are most often heard on the battlefield. Olesya then poses a poignant question that touches me as a person who works with memory and archival evidence: if all of this, these obituaries and social media posts, these innocent journalistic tricks, are so far from real people, “What sort of memory do we create for them with our little white lies?”


Loving memory of Volodymyr Pavliv (1974-2017) — from the Ukrainian edition



She responds herself:
Maidan Protests (one folder).
Power of Attorney (one folder).
War Casualties (one folder).
Family members of War Casualties (one folder)
War Veterans (twenty-one folders).


The truth lies hidden among the statistics of files and folders, and the brusqueness of Soviet-style clerks in passport offices, whose attitude can only be softened by your own sharp resistance. The passport goes to the archive, a medal replaces the life, and, if a family is lucky enough it can be given a tiny flat. No time for emotions, next in line!


After recounting her journey, Olesya admits she would have preferred to have no such stories to tell or book to publish. She just wants to have a brother. Remember this when you are tired of the “Ukrainian news” — they just want their loved ones back.


“This is a European war that just started in the East of Ukraine,” my brother told me, explaining his choice to return to the frontline in 2017. Soon he died at the frontline.”


The publication is a part of the “Chytomo Picks: New Books from Ukraine” project. The materials have been prepared with the assistance of the Ukrainian Book Institute at the expense of the state budget. The author’s opinion may not coincide with the official position of the Ukrainian Book Institute.