‘Because it stinks and because it is everywhere. Where will you find me a soul not filled with this kvas?’
– Hryhorii Skovoroda, translated by George L. Kline and Taras D. Zakydalsky
On February 24th I woke up around five o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t that something had woken me up, no, first I woke up and only then did I hear strange quiet sounds from the hallway. G. wasn’t by my side. I thought she must have worked through until morning again, and I wondered how she would get through the day without a headache. I had to get up and send her to bed. The light was off in the living room. The strange quiet sounds carried from the bathroom, and so did a stripe of light under the door. I knocked and the door opened. G. was sitting on the edge of the bath and crying. ‘The war’s started,’ she said.
G.’s parents live in Kharkiv, or rather they lived in Kharkiv, in the past tense. They are refugees now, lodged in an empty house near Chernivtsi. Will they return after the war? Will they have anywhere to return to? Will their house remain standing? G. has subscribed to the Kharkiv groups on Telegram, which provide regular information on what has come flying down where, what has been destroyed, what has been burnt down, how many have been killed, where food will be brought, whether water is available, and so on. And videos: explosions, eruptions of yellow and red, followed by grey or black smoke. Cars blown away by the shock wave. Houses in ruin. Sometimes dead bodies. Often the serious faces of volunteers who bring victuals, medications and help with evacuation. That is Kharkiv. The Russians failed to take it. They were hiding in the forest around the suburb where G.’s parents live/lived, they were shooting at cars and cyclists, but they did not risk revealing themselves. Now the Russians have been driven off. But they certainly left mines behind – a lot of them. No more walks in the forest, not even after the war.
After the war. What does the expression mean? When will it end? How? When I sat down to write this text, the end was nowhere in sight, although some outlines of the future were emerging from the smoke of the fires. No, that is not true. What emerges from the smoke is only the outline of what is happening now, the present, which will inevitably determine the future. Tens of thousands of dead people will have no future. But the millions of refugees will. And the tens of millions who have remained in Ukraine. And so will those who belong to neither group, like G. She left Ukraine some ten years ago, but she is still faced with the question of the future: will she be able to return to her home town of Kharkiv? Some day. After the war. But will it still be Kharkiv, rather than ruins, ash, mutilated cars and bodies? Everyone wants the bodies removed quickly. Everyone but the Russians, of course. They simply leave them behind, whether they’re the bodies of their own soldiers or the bodies of others, doesn’t matter.
This war has exposed a surprising quality of the Russian character – indifference to the dead body. And yet in Russia they bury their dead in open coffins, kiss them on blue lips, cover the body with dry ice – those who can afford it, at least. The body smells. The sweetish tang of the dead is one of the important elements that constitutes my former homeland. Somewhere in a corner of my brain stands a cupboard with a special drawer labelled: ‘What my former homeland starts from and what it ends with’. The drawer contains a test tube with the repulsive, sweetish smell of dead bodies.
Actually, what kind of future do I have myself? I was born in the USSR, lived first there and then in Russia, then moved abroad a very long time ago, so it seems there isn’t much left to link me with that place. My sister. Several views from the Upper Volga and Upper Oka Embankments, a small park on Ilyich Avenue in Avtozavodskiy District. A handful of friends. That’s it. And, of course, the language, but that’s like the air you breathe. And it changes; in recent years, whenever I found myself east of Smolensk, I often struggled to understand what was being said. Now, I suppose, I won’t even get a chance to try to understand – I won’t return there any more. No, I am not being dramatic. Just stating the facts.
After the war. No, I don’t know what will be left after the war, I only know that the country won’t be the same as before the war, not even the same as on February 23rd, when war seemed unavoidable. It started, like in the old Soviet song about the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, at 4 a.m.
On June the twenty-second,
Sharp at four o’clock,
Kyiv was bombed and we were informed
that the war had begun.
Except back then it was the others who bombed, although, in fact, it’s always the same people, those who hate life and desire to annihilate it or at least make it unsuitable for living.
In the morning of February 24th I went to the shop. Everything was the same in Riga, the wide steely Daugava, the naive post-modernism of the National Library, the passers-by, the gigantic Latvian flag on the isle, close to the NOASS gallery. On the other side rose the spires of the three main churches, the towering Radisson Hotel, the Stalinist-style building of the Academy of Sciences a little to the right, and the cable-stayed bridge resembling a Celtic harp to the left. Air with a whiff of the sea. Seagulls and stuff. The world was the same and yet completely different.
I remembered the beginning of the Blockade Diary by Lidiya Ginzburg, which I’d reread once a year, as if expecting something like this to happen in Prague, London, Chengdu:
I returned home along streets apparently still pre-war, and past objects still pre-war but whose significance was now altered. There was as yet no suffering, no mortal anguish, no terror; on the contrary, there was an excitement – and a feeling bordering on elation that this life was coming to an end.
In this first instant of the event which was coming to pass, it seemed that one ought to be rushing off somewhere, that nothing could now be as it had been before. Then it turned out that, for the moment, a great deal was as it had been before. The trams were still running, royalties were being paid, the usual things were on sale in the shops. It was astonishing. The sense of a former life coming to an end had been so unbearably intense to begin with that the mind, setting all intermediate events to one side, concentrated exclusively on the denouement.
She is right. It was astonishing, even irritating. I mean, how could people still be walking around, laughing, smoking at the front door as usual, wearing a puffer coat over the office blouse, babushkas growling in the shop, ladies and damsels savouring pastry and coffee at the Frenchman’s cafe in Ģertrūdes Street? How can they possibly do all that, when such things have happened, are happening – and will be happening? But they have to, because what the Russians want to do is to annihilate life itself. So life has to continue, and this is resistance in a form, resistance by those who lack the opportunity to take up a machine gun. And so I continued to live.
I am ill with war and this illness establishes its own rules. The day has a new schedule: I wake up early, I grab my phone and check where the bombs have landed during the night. The phone has become a chief source of suffering – and, at the same time, a medicine. A screenshot of a conversation gone silent – this is what a funeral looks like these days.
Illness means fear. Fear of dying, fear of staying ill forever, fear of pain. Illness establishes an internal censorship, but in Russia that censorship is supplemented with an external one: they have been banned from saying the word ‘war’ at all. The majority seem to happily go along with this. After all, it’s just a word, nothing special. Life goes on.
About half a year before the war, G. and I travelled to Kyiv and Kharkiv. The weather was hot. Khreshchatyk Avenue resembled a mythical Carthage, emerged from the cultural subconscious of Stalinist architects, or a British Museum variation on the ancient city of Nineveh. Good coffee could be got anywhere in the street almost free of charge. After five o’clock, a funny chain serving a wide range of apple drinks was besieged. People wolfed down oysters, which were almost free of charge too, for some reason or other. It was a perfect South without symptoms of the North, symptoms of the East, symptoms of Russia.
In Kharkiv, we found ourselves in a small antique market, trading mostly in goods from the former USSR. G. and I began an archaeology of the Soviet times: from under the heaping piles of objects, we dug out several beautifully illustrated children’s books from the 1960s, and I bought a Sei Shōnagon in an excellent ‘Eastern Literature’ edition, to replace one that I had lost. A jovial guy pushed on G. his self-published poetic opus about his comrades-in-arms around the square; in order to stem his monologue, we had to run away. We took shelter from the heat in a shopping centre, lingering in the air-conditioned coolness. That shopping centre has been destroyed now. So has another, next to Sumskaya Street, where I sheltered another time. I black all of this out: the oysters, the Kyivan Nineveh, the ‘Daddy’s Size’ coffee van in Kharkiv’s main square, the monumental university on the left and the right, the unbelievable Derzhprom straight ahead, with its remnants of Stalinism still evident here and there. The square used to boast a statue of Lenin; eight years ago they tore him down for some reason or other. There’s a fountain there now. I wrote ‘now’, and felt a stab in my heart. Russian rockets have rained down on that square, and I don’t know what is there now. It’s better not to remember, not to touch. Toponymy under censorship.
I have truly been ill with war three times, although many more wars have taken place, but somehow without touching me. The first time it happened was during the First Chechen War; I remember I could not believe that the likes of it could be happening here, in our country, rather than somewhere in Afghanistan. Yes, I lived in Russia back then, the geographical distance did not yet render its moral allowance to me. The second time was during the war in Iraq. This time it was the distance that drove me crazy; I observed that nightmare from the eastern part of Central Europe, asking myself the question still not answered to this day: why? And here comes the third war, a third illness, the gravest one. Although I have been away from Russia for a long time, I nevertheless come from that very country which, last invaded eighty-one years ago, has only invaded others since. In my epicrisis this fact is present somewhere in the footnotes, but it remains true. And there is nothing I can do about it.
Image © Rookuzz
Extract from ‘A Conversation Among Five Travellers Concerning Life’s True Happiness’ by Hryhorii Skovoroda, translated by George L. Kline and Taras D. Zakydalsky, reproduced by permission of East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies (EWJUS), first published in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, summer 2005, p. 12.
Extract from ‘On the 22nd of June’ by Boris Kovynev was first published in the front line newspaper Юго-Западного фронта in 1941, translated here by Veronika Zitta.
Extract from Blockade Diary by Lidiya Ginzburg, translated by Alan Myers, Harvill Press, 1995.