Country, War, Love: Excerpts from the Donetsk Diary

April 2015
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June 15, 2014

Is acceptance of another as your own possible?

If he is as strong, formidable, and severe as a thousand of your own, then yes.

Other gods can’t be good.  People here don’t believe in what they’ve never seen.  They’ve never seen good.  They don’t know it.  They don’t believe in it.

For another god to win, he has to be menacing, strict, and vicious.  Not necessarily just. Justice is a pitiful characteristic for a god.

Cruelty and murderousness are customary.

The army took one town three times.  Every time it left it, in peace and quiet, leaving a checkpoint behind, people started shooting at that checkpoint with a mortar gun.  From somewhere amongst the apartment buildings.  Every night from somewhere else.

One of the men stationed at the checkpoint was a local.  He said, “That’s it!  Enough mollycoddling!”

That night he constructed – go ahead, look to the heavens – ten gallows.  He modeled them on photos from the Second World War.  Nothing complicated.

He constructed them and put them in the center of town.

The next morning, local residents came up to the checkpoint.  They brought cherries, dumplings, kvas, and potatoes with onion.

“So…boys…We apologize on behalf of the whole community!...”

“And what the hell are these nighttime shenanigans of yours?” the guys asked severely.

“Well…you know…We didn’t actually know that you’re in charge now…And how are we supposed to get by without someone in charge?  There’s no way!”

“So we should take down the gallows?

The locals grew embarrassed, whispered among themselves, and made their decision:

“Leave them be.  Without them we might get spoiled…”

For another god to become yours, he ought to put a gallows on the town square.  And then, next to it, a school.

And only in that order.

Because a school is something good, justice.  And that would mean weakness…


July 15, 2014

We’re not dealing with militia anymore.  It’s a war.  With foreigners in it.  Sorry, Russia.  We haven’t been brothers for a long time now.  I don’t have to ask why.  I know why.  And you know, too.

We are listening to a walkie-talkie. Over its airwaves, aside from hate, there are pay rates.  The mercenaries get paid by the day.  The locals too.  But there are five hundred locals.  Only five hundred – for seven million people.  And they get paid less.  The convictions of my compatriots cost significantly less than the professional work of yours.  Just killing – what an interesting job.

I speak with a drawl.  Earlier, whenever I was in Moscow, I always tried to “pick up the pace,” speak more quickly.  Blend in.  Now I ask myself, “Who did I want to resemble?” Your news anchors?

Recently they invented a crucified boy.  A three year old boy, crucified, and his mother, gunned down by a tank.  In Sloviansk.  On the main square.  Hm.  In front of a huge crowd of people.2

You don’t have to stop there.  The boy ought to be resurrected.  And come to his killers.

As an adult man, with a beard and a Caucasian accent.  Just a few more months and you, Russia, will have written a new Bible.  The story of the crucifixion is more or less ready.

My speech is slow, drawn out.  Let it be as languid as honey.  As the heat of the southern wind.  As milk straight from the cow.  As life.  Why should I have to pick up the pace and speed up life?

I am a Russian ukraïnka.  The stress is on the "ï." The "ï."3

And now I want to distinguish myself, separate myself from that fast and hard articulation of sounds.

Carl stole coral from Clara.  What good is that to me?  I no longer want to be a part of this language that sounds like machine gun fire.


July 17, 2014

You don’t necessarily have to be poor or poorly educated to have no self-awareness whatsoever and not value yourself.

The lack of selfhood is a complicated problem.  Somewhere back in childhood there was an absence of love and a toxic sense of shame.

“You are bad.  There’s no one worse.  You don’t exist…”

We’re talking about death again.  A childhood death is felt acutely.  You can’t forget it…the mantra “I don’t exist.  I really don’t exist.” remains a call sign for your whole life.

But some manage to escape.  Maybe not in perfect health, but with a bearable and even good life.

Others don’t.  A stern or vacuous look from your parents magnifies the death you die daily.

To get a foothold in life, those “others” zealously search for emblems of success.

A degree.  Career success.  Money.  Applause.  Fame.

But if you don’t have you, then all of this is nothing.  The biggest thing of all is missing.

The bigger the non-existence, the more wide-ranging the search for emblems.

Russia is wide-ranging.

You can hide all your inadequacies under your love for Russia. She feels like a mother whose gaze was always gentle.

The great return to the womb.  To a fetal, dark, and extremely dependent existence.  So you’re an infant again, inside her belly again.  “I’m in my little house.”

And no one comes to you and asks, “Why the hell did you buy your degree?  Why did you steal that honor?  Why did you rob the city?”

The warmth of your mama, the soft noise and your own heartbeat…in unison with hers.

Rivers, expanses, snow, victory…


Sleep.  Death.

It’s strange – saving yourself from death through death.  But this death is collective and reliable.

“Mama is going to come; she’s going to thrash you all…”

I know people whose material well-being can’t be called into question.  But they cry for their mama, because they can’t make it on their own.

Or they can, but badly.  Their academic articles are full of plagiarism; their healthy bank accounts don’t contain a single cent they’ve earned themselves; some relative is driving their political careers.

At moments of self-revelation – and even the most hopeless people have them – at these moments, which are difficult even for me, you know everything about yourself.

Good, but not excellent.  In places just satisfactory, especially in English…And you could be a better mother.  And daughter, too…And that passage there in your book is so-so, and that one is also not so great…

I don’t envy those moments in the heads of people who’ve taken what doesn’t belong to them.

The fear of disgrace.  The fear of being unmasked.  The boy pointing at the naked emperor.  Or a different, bloody boy, standing in front of your eyes…

This fear searches for a reliable cover.  And that’s exactly what Russia seems to be.

Russia seems.

It doesn’t exist.  Just like these “others,” it doesn’t exist for itself.

But it doesn’t have anywhere to hide.  And in its fleeting, murky moment of conscious revelation, it prefers to die in public.

Misery loves company.

But meanwhile we’re dying…


July 26, 2014

You can also think about all of this from the point of view of love.  From a human point of view.

Forgotten children.  A forgotten regiment.

The world the Donbas entered in the 1990s was incorrect and unwanted.

And yes, very unjust.

That world put an end, once and for all, to the vision of the future painted by the utopians, in which the rule was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Capable, smart, honest people no longer seemed needed by anyone at all.

It is practically impossible to adopt a model where the law of force and the law of idiots is decisive.  But if you believe that all of this is only temporary, not for real and not forever, then why not?

It’s just a game of sorts…Bad parents, usually mothers, have been playing this game for centuries.  They leave their children in the forest, by the side of the road, at the train station, and they tell them to wait.  Sit and wait.  Days pass, weeks, years…The children are waiting.  They find something to eat, they beg, they find shelter somewhere, they grow up, and they start stealing for real.  But they don’t leave that spot.  They sit.  They wait.

Mama will definitely come.  You just have to be patient.

You could also explain it in army terms.  Here’s a regiment, a target.  The commander said, “Take that target and keep fighting, down to the last bullet.  Reinforcements are coming.” And then he left.

This is again followed by days and weeks and years.  The ammunition is long gone.  The local women have given birth to children.  There’s nothing to shoot with, other than maybe words.  They hold on to the target and shoot with whatever they can.  They eat local food, sleep with the natives, but in their hearts and minds they still live in that country that sent them to capture this spot.  Someone forgot to tell the soldiers that that country doesn’t exist anymore.  And the Kursk, which waited for help in exactly the same way, sunk long ago.4

For 23 years many people led a make-believe life.  Some of them became “bad,” because circumstances encouraged them to be bad.  But that’s no big deal.  Because it’s “make-believe.”

Do you remember why Pechkin the mailman5 was so angry? Because he didn’t have a bicycle.

Russia is that dream of a bicycle.  The dream of a means to become good, not angry, whole, placated.  An external means.  As simple as a gift.  And as unstoppable as fate.

Russia will come and everything will change.

It’s just that “the first person you meet at the station in Paris will be yourself…”

Our waiting soldiers and waiting children don’t read Dovlatov.6

They believe that this “bicycle” will magically transform them into good people.  That it will finally bring together the outer and inner mirror.

What we have is not a civil war.  There are people who want to live in Russia.  It was the same way in the United States, in the 18th century.  There were people there, too, who were sincerely devoted to the English crown.

But the Civil War happened when some people saw the future of the States without slavery, while others thought it was essential to that future.

If someone wants to live in another country, if the word “Ukraine” makes someone physically ill, if looking at blue and yellow burns their eyes like acid, then I’m sorry, but what sort of civil war is that?


August 24, 2014

I don’t know what’s going to happen in ten minutes.  Much less what will happen tomorrow.  Will my city be intact?  Will my house - the blue-gray one; turn left on Treneva, then straight, almost to the end of the courtyard – still be standing?  Will I be alive?  My family.  My friends?  Where will they be, and will they be alive?  Who, where will be the beneficiary of the peacekeeping “hail” or the “humanitarian” land mine?  Who else will they manage to capture, and who will be able to save themselves…

I don’t know.

But there are two things I understand perfectly.

The first is simple and old.  Like the apple tree my great-grandfather planted in Konstantinovka before that war.

The Ukrainian state can be defeated. Generals steal, bureaucrats shave budgets and live off the deaths of soldiers, politicians lie and are afraid, tremble for their seats, their mandates…The state is coughing up its long non-existence, but these parasitic worms have massive experience of surviving.  They eat and eat.  They keep eating until the living thing dies.

The Ukrainian state can be defeated.

But the nation cannot.

It’s a very simple thought.  There’s something irrational in it – truth, faith, strength, prayer…And something completely pragmatic – the people, acquaintances and strangers, who today and tomorrow and forever will stand together with me along this long road – all the way to the horizon line, and maybe even farther…They will feed, save, build, forgive, give, heal, and defend.  As much as necessary.

We are going to do this.  And thus we cannot be defeated.

The second thing is a bit more complicated.  It’s a personal thing.

At the end of February, I fled to Rome to escape my birthday.  A city that has nothing to do with me.  Nor do I with it.   And, perhaps, it’s precisely because of that that I could live there.

My husband and I were walking along the Campo de’ Fiori, where the statue of Giordano Bruno is.  He’s standing with his back to the Vatican.  There is a lot of dignity and freedom in that confrontational pose.  Yes.  A statue.  But statues can also be free.

Here, on the Campo, there’s a market, restaurants, and cafes.  A young waiter spotted two women, talking to each other in Russian, and cried out cheerfully, “Russian, Russian.  We have a Russian menu…”

They walk past.  Keep talking.  They’re smoking.  And then one of them suddenly turns her head and says with a mixture of annoyance, bitterness, and pride, “Exactly.  I am not Russian.  I am Georgian.”

I give these words a try.  I understand that they are the right ones.  I like them.  I repeat that phrase about myself.  I smile, completely light-hearted.  I rejoice…

Rome has nothing to do with me.  Its streets are still roamed by Scipio Africanus.  And Caesar, and Constantine…

And Augustus, who wanted to be deified, and so he visited the Sibyl.  She lit the divining fire and in its smoke…both of them saw it: both the Sibyl and Augustus.  “The divine one has already been born,” she said.  He, the emperor, didn’t want to acknowledge that.  He called himself divine.

How was it that I recognized the Sibyl in this small woman with a funny knitted purse?  How did I see in her cigarette the smoke of a divining fire?

Ukraine has already been born.  In me and in others.

Exactly.  I am not Russian.  I am Ukrainian.

We are Ukrainians.

Something like that…

Or more accurately: precisely that.


KRYTYKA is deeply grateful to Kate Younger for her volunteer work in translating this article from Ukrainian.

  • 1.At 7:22 pm on Saturday, Februrary 22, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych from office.
  • 2.A falsified story of the crucifixion of the son of a Ukrainian militiaman in Sloviansk was circulated by the Russian media.  See Stop Fake, “Lies: Crucifixion on ‘Channel One” (in Russian). 
  • 3.The word ukraïnka, Ukrainian woman, as well as other adjectives and nouns derived from “Ukraine,” is often mispronounced with the stress on the first “a” rather than the "ï."
  • 4.The Kursk submarine sunk following an explosion during a naval exercise in the Barents Sea in 2000.
  • 5.A character from the popular Soviet cartoon Three from Prostokvashino.
  • 6.Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990), Russian journalist and writer who emigrated to the United States in 1979.


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