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Yaryna Chornohuz: It’s not putin, prigozhyn or the Russian army who fight us, it’s the entire Russian people22.05.2023
Some people remember Yaryna Chornohuz from her one-woman protest near the President’s Office against the implementation of the Minsk agreements in 2020, others from her language projects and initiatives, from Focus’s list of the 100 most influential women in Ukraine, or from last year’s fall photos at the Pentagon. Yaryna started her military career as a volunteer paramedic with the Hospitallers, and now works on the front line as a scout with the Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. Her collection “Як вигинається воєнне коло” (How the War Circle Bends), dedicated to her beloved who died in the war, was awarded the Smoloskyp Prize. Now she continues to write and she’s preparing her next collection for publication.
As part of the special project Words and Bullets, implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked to Yaryna about the changes needed in Ukrainian society, about how we can cope with the losses we are suffering in this war, how to break our centuries-old war cycle, and what our victory can look like.
– Recently, Ukrainians marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s great war against Ukraine. For you, like many others, the war began much earlier. But did Feb. 24 mark the beginning of a new countdown for you? Has anything changed for you since the full-scale invasion?
– No, nothing has changed for me. When I joined the army, I realized there would be a second, hot phase, and I just wanted to be ready for it. We knew a few weeks in advance that there would be certain actions from the enemy. When we were woken up by explosions at night on Feb. 24, we just started acting on the orders we had been given for this scenario.
– However, do you see any changes in Ukrainian society and the country in general over the past year?
– When I return to peaceful cities for just a few days, I see that there is more Ukrainian language and Ukrainian music. It’s nice that in some places people are trying to bring Ukrainian-language content back into the space. I see these changes. However, this is still a long way to go to see a significant change.
Many people continue to live without memory, without a proper understanding that many things need to be remembered and publicly commemorated: such as our dead, dates related to the war and history. Judicial reform has not yet been implemented, and corruption continues to exist in institutions from the highest to the lowest levels, destroying our state from the inside. It’s sad that there is no law on civil partnerships for people with homosexual orientation, I have friends among them who have been fighting on the front line for more than a year, but the state does not recognize their right to be a couple and share property rights, and the opportunity to be near each other in intensive care in case of injury. Also, little has changed in the perception of women’s equality. And this is sad.
– What can we do to change this?
– First of all, we should define the boundaries: what is ethical, acceptable, and what is not. We are a democratic society, and norms are determined by attitudes, boundaries, and ethics. Many women are now fighting in the war as soldiers, rescuing the wounded in hospitals and ambulances. Many women lost husbands, sons, brothers, and friends in the war. This all requires titanic strength, work and endurance. Therefore, we cannot impose old stereotypes on women of this time.
photo courtesy of Yaryna Chornohuz
– Changing this worldview is a long process that will take time…
– Yes, it is a long process, but how long it will take depends on us and our reaction to it. I try to respond to such matters and express my opinion publicly.
I’m sad that my experience as a soldier, as a combatant, if I manage to survive and return from the army, will be devalued. As soon as I leave the army, people will start treating me with contempt. Because when a man has the experience of being a soldier in the army, he gets respect for life. If you are a woman who served and then returned to your family for some time, to civilian life, your service will be despised. You will be told that you were doing nothing useful in the war and questioned why you went there instead of staying with your child. All this is because of stereotypes. I am mentally preparing myself for this, because I know what will happen.
We went through all this in 2014-2015, just on a slightly smaller scale. One of my friends, a veteran, came back from the war, got married a year or two later, had a baby, and then, when she showed her combatant certificate, people asked her where she got it. They had a hard time believing that a woman with this certificate could really do something important and dangerous for her life at war. Although combat medics of the platoon, like me, are doing just that. Sometimes society devalues even those female soldiers who died. People even talk about them, questioning why they went there, saying they would have been better off staying at home. Imagine how their husbands and relatives feel about this.
– What does feminism mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist?
– Yes, I consider myself a feminist. To me, feminism is, first and foremost, a fight for equality, aiming for women to be recognized as autonomous individuals with their own aspirations, rather than being relegated to secondary roles in comparison to men, as dictated by societal norms. She should have equal access to all professions and businesses. And, what is very important at the level of ethics, she should not be judged according to patriarchal stereotypes and social roles.
– You have many identities. Who do you identify yourself as in the first place?
– As a human being. In my understanding, a person is never just one thing. A person always has many different roles that are close to him or her at one time or another in life.
photo courtesy of Yaryna Chornohuz
– Is it important for you to keep a balance between these roles?
– Yes, it is important. For example, I really appreciate the fact that my three years of service in the Marines did not create a big gap between me and, say, the environment I was in at Mohyla Academy or the person I was when I graduated from university. I mean, I have learned some things, I have gained some experience, but I can just as easily communicate with my professors who used to give interesting seminars as if these years had not happened. It is very important for me to maintain this interest in intellectual discourse: art, literature, philosophy. It is very important for me.
– You went to war right after your master’s degree. Before that, you translated books and wrote articles about literature. If you had the opportunity, what would you like to work on now?
– I used to translate Sylvia Plath’s poems, which were very personal to me. It would be interesting to finish doing this, to make a whole collection of her translations. Once I even thought about postgraduate studies – a doctorate in philosophy. It would have been interesting for me. Now I carry quite a lot of philosophical literature with me: Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger. What I like the most and what I would probably return to is the intersection between literature and philosophy. This is something that inspires me a lot. Right now I’m reading Hesse, his myths, legends and sagas. I like it all very much.
– That is, you manage to even read now…
– Yes. There was a period when I couldn’t read or watch movies at all. And then somewhere in the summer I started to gradually come back to it. I ordered Milan Kundera’s book, and with it, my ability to read was restored.
– Which authors of Ukrainian literature are significant for you?
– First of all, perhaps, Lesya Ukrainka. Her philosophical dramas once changed a lot of things in me aesthetically. For example, The Fireplace Master is a drama that I often return to when I analyze certain traits in women or certain things in women’s nature.
From the 20th century, in terms of poetry, Yevhen Pluzhnyk is very important to me. His Galileo was almost a revelation for me. I read it very enthusiastically. His cordocentrism, the poetry of heart expressionism, is very close to me. When you read about this pain, this contemplation of the suffering that also existed in his time, you get the impression that it was written by a contemporary. 100 years ago, they were going through the same things that we are going through now. However, it seems to me that his language was more sincere and genuine than ours in its ability to embrace all of this. Because our language is from the age of consumerism, the world of technology and goods. It is different, and sometimes it is difficult for it to describe all these painful things, the realities of war.
I also love Sofia Yablonska (a Ukrainian-French travel writer), her essays about Morocco and other countries. For me, she is a type of vintage traveler from the 20s. I’ll also mention Mykola Kulish (the most famous Ukrainian playwright of the twentieth century). I really liked his drama Sonata Pathetique. In general, I like artists who have a scope of philosophical generalization, semantic lacunas that you can fill with some meaning yourself.
– Do you write yourself now?
– Yes, I write. Mostly poetry, but there are also prose sketches. In order to write prose, I need to distance myself a bit from the duties I am currently carrying out in the combat zone. But yes, I’m writing poetry. My second collection is about to be published by Vihola Publishing House, “Dasein. Оборона присутності” (Dasein. The Defense of Presence).
photo courtesy of Yaryna Chornohuz
– Compared to the first collection, how different will it be? Can we talk about a certain continuity between them?
– There is, of course, continuity between them. There is a consonance. It is rather a continuation, a development of the first. What unites them is a sense of loss. Loss as something personal and more general is probably the main thing that unites them aesthetically and philosophically.
– Speaking of losses. How do you think we should deal with all the losses we are suffering in this war, with the price we are paying for our victory? How do you as a person cope with your personal losses and how do we as a nation go through all this?
– When I lost a close person in the war, I told myself that I wanted this loss and the memory of this person to make me stronger, not drag me down. I repeated this to myself many times, but I didn’t always succeed. For some time it really hurt more, but then there came a period when this memory began to give me strength. Because this is the nature of loss. At first, it hurts, and then it becomes a “life for two”: for yourself and for the one who is gone. I hope that the same will happen to the whole society. In the beginning, it will be very difficult and painful for us, but then the memory of those who are gone will finally allow us to do what we have not done for 30 years of stagnation. Finally, we will change and realize what we have to do every day to prevent such a tragedy from happening to us again.
– Your first collection is called How the War Circle Bends. You are talking about the circle of war that has been repeating itself for us for centuries. Will we always be in this circle? Do we have the opportunity to break it and change the course of history?
– Yes, indeed, this is a circle in which the entire history and existence of the Ukrainian nation continues. It can only be broken by accepting it. As paradoxical as it may sound, this is the only way. I did not have time to publish one of my essays prior to the full-scale invasion, which would have better explained the understanding of this war circle. The collection reflects it.
The point is that historically and geopolitically, we are constantly near such a neighbor, this multinational horde with the ideology of the Russian world, and the only chance to survive near its borders is to accept that we have been holding a defensive line against them all our existence. That is, they are trying to destroy us, and we must be strong enough to defend ourselves against them. If the majority of people accept this – at the level of their own actions and decisions, the actions and decisions of their children – then perhaps we will be able to build a defense here in Eastern Europe that is similar to that of Israel in the Middle East, for example. And then we will be able to live and live very well. Because a state that takes care of its defense in advance can only be a developed state.
– So you think this war will last for centuries?
– I think so. If you look at the history of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossacks, and the Ruin, it goes back at least to the seventeenth century. This empire changed its names: it was the Russian Empire, then it was the Soviet Union, now it is the Russian Federation, but in all centuries they did the same thing. We didn’t defeat them in the seventeenth century; they inflicted three famines on us in the twentieth. And now they use the tactic of scorched earth: they simply level cities to the ground, along with people. With all this in mind, the fact that we continue to fight against them is actually our incredible success, and we need to continue it. I believe that we will be able to successfully defend ourselves for many, many more years, and perhaps we will break them and change this several hundred-year tradition, inspired by what we have now. But it is already costing us the lives and health of the best of us. It is costing us the incredible efforts of spirit and endurance that are made every day on the front line.
– Will the collapse of the Russian Federation mean peace for us?
– It won’t. Many people don’t want to understand that it’s not putin, or prigozhyn, or the Russian army that is at war with us – it’s the entire Russian people, who have been living with these imperialist clichés for centuries. Now there’s also propaganda, which they also have a consensus on. They say live on their propaganda channels: “Why is propaganda bad?” Thus, they justify the very fact of self-deception and lies. This is the kind of people they are, and you need to understand this. If there is a collapse, if putin is removed, there will be a lot of other equally crazy criminals who will try to do the same or continue this mission. We will feel calm only when we plan our defense in advance, well in advance.
photo courtesy of Yaryna Chornohuz
How to build it? By using the weapons we are given as successfully as possible, by strengthening cooperation with other armies around the world, using their technologies, testing them. This is also very important for them: here they see the real effectiveness of what they have been developing for years. And, on the other hand, to develop our own, to increase our own production of what really works on the battlefield, what has been tested. To develop high-tech sectors that show their effectiveness. It’s very pleasant to watch stories about how we are developing our own kamikaze drones, various UAVs, shells, and technologies. This is a very promising industry that is really capable of holding the line for a long time.
– Will the government develop these areas properly and is it even possible in times of war?
– I’m not in the inner workings of the government and senior military leadership, so I can’t say how much this is on their agenda. But it’s a shame to see some politicians and officials involved in the defense sector show incompetence in the means on which our defense actually stands. They are just digging a hole for themselves. The government should be very interested in this. If they haven’t started thinking about it yet, it’s about time.
I really hope that after this year’s experience, the rhetoric of strengthening the army will become a priori important for our society. Because before that, we had been at war for eight years, and people perceived narratives about the army as something unnecessary and meaningless. This is the infantilism I’m talking about: people do not accept the war circle in which our state and nation have always existed. This must be accepted, and then we will have a chance to survive in the long run.
– Now many people are worried that after the victory we will face many domestic political problems. That, for example, some politicians might try to usurp the victory. Will we be able to deal with this?
– I am very unimpressed when politicians put on the garb of national heroes on the basis of someone else’s blood. Because the fact that we still have a state is not their victory, it is the victory of the people who go to the frontline every day. Every day fewer of them come back, but they still go there. I am very worried and I really don’t like the fact that the world sees Zelensky’s face as a symbol of our resistance. This is an absolute substitution of concepts.
I really hope that a military man will be elected as the next president of Ukraine, a man who has been to the front, but is also competent and educated enough to be a politician. I will support such a person. Because what Zelensky is doing now is disgusting to me. He, along with the rest of the state leadership, failed the defense on February 24. He did not fully believe the warnings from America that there would be an invasion. He did not make sure that the southern border: Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and, ultimately, Kyiv, were sufficiently protected.
photo courtesy of Yaryna Chornohuz
He lost hundreds of kilometers of our territories, where I spent almost a year of service before the rotation – Mariupol, the coast of Kherson region: Skadovsk, Lazurne, Krasne. These are all such beautiful places. This coastal strip is so promising and fertile. And there have always been pro-Ukrainian people living there, waving to us as we drove by. And now they are probably in torture chambers.
That’s why I really hope that society will make Zelensky understand that he shouldn’t put on the liberator’s garb alone. Because there are many liberators, and some paid for it with their lives and health.
– What would you consider a victory?
– For me, victory will mean the opportunity to return to the cities I traveled to safely before Feb. 24. An even bigger victory would be the opportunity to return to Crimea, where I spent a lot of time as a child. Another victory would be the collapse of Russia, the change of their cannibalistic leadership and the payment of reparations to us for the cities they destroyed. I consider the fact that we still exist and are fighting against the enemy to be a slightly smaller victory. This is also actually a victory. But we should not stop there.
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 Maria Bragan
Edited by Jared Goyette
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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