One of the two winning entries for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize is Daisy Gibbons’ selection of Facebook posts by Artem Chekh, a Ukrainian writer and veteran who went back to serve in the Armed Forces when Russia launched the full-scale invasion. As the translator observes, the dispatches showcase Chekh’s ‘wry appreciation of social relations during wartime’ which combine experiences such as lying in a sniper’s nest and receiving nudes from strangers, conversations with air defence servicemen who have just shot down a missile, and with liberated civilians who have survived months under occupation.
[Untitled town in eastern or southern Ukraine]
3 April 2022
‘Please, just don’t shoot our dogs’.
‘Good God! We would never!’
‘The orcs also promised they wouldn’t shoot them, but they killed almost all the dogs in the village. Two of mine. They just came into my yard and shot them. The white one got away—if you see a big white one, don’t kill him’.
Dog corpses, puddles of blood, burnt-out cars, destroyed houses: who’d be surprised by this scene now? The woods are full of presents, left behind for us: the IEDs may have been put up in haste, but there’s a lot of them. Everything has been put through an iron mincer, and the towns are strewn with wreckage.
Black-and-white photographs lie on the ground: someone’s memories from the seventies or early eighties. I want to gather them all up and return them to their owner. But there is no time now—besides, where could I find their owner? There’s little left of their building; only these photographs skittering down the street.
The yards here are ruined and naked, like an acid wasteland. You walk past and unashamedly gawp at the remnants of someone’s ruined home, their refuge. There’s no home left. There’s nothing left. Everything’s dead. Everything’s evaporated. Everywhere is dark.
A glowering anger is in the eyes of those who stayed behind. They leave their wooden homesteads to tell their stories. They really want to tell us what happened. But there’s no time to listen.
The older ladies start crying as soon as they start talking. The fuck, I’m also crying, and my glasses start steaming up straightaway. I turn aside so my boys can’t see me.
I recognise some of the houses here since we’ve passed through so many times. But everything’s changed. Now people will recognise this landscape by its battle scars. Our toponymy will change: ‘next to the tank over there, behind the Russian trenches, where old lady Nina’s house used to be…’
I used to think that I was too callous for this war. Now I think I’m too sensitive.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
What not to eat on duty
6 July 2022
I took this photo after a night of seven hours spent lying in the sniper’s nest. The guy here before me had been eating smoked fish, and the sleeves of my fleece reeked of this insufferable smell, a smell I associate with red, unwashed necks and swollen yellow fingers.
Before taking it, I killed approximately one-and-a-half-thousand midges. It took me 15 minutes to count the number of casualties and I arrived at that number. An eagle was flying overhead, bronzed-brunette beavers bobbed and grubbed around nearby, and a brood of ferrets scurried about. Khudya sat a metre away from me. He couldn’t see the ferrets, because I was the one looking through the thermal imager, so long that my eye started hurting.
Then dawn broke, and I took this photo. And then another half an hour later the sun came out, and I shuffled off to sleep. True, before that I washed my hands thoroughly. It seemed the smell of smoked fish became one with the smell of my body; and that my neck had become red and dirty, and my fingers swollen and yellow. But no, it’s just the fleece—it’s going straight in the wash!
For breakfast I ate buckwheat, hummus, cheese, olives, and tomatoes. One must always have cheese and olives. One must always have a strategic supply of cheese and olives. Especially cheese: Brie, chèvre, aged goat Gouda, Cambozola, Lithuanian Džiugas and even plain old hard cheese… You can match cheese with any food.
Later I went back on sentry duty. Bossa nova played on low volume, and a storm threatened. I sent my wife the photo that I took after a night of seven hours spent in the sniper’s nest. She replied: ‘That’s some otherworldly beauty!’
It’s because she couldn’t smell the smoked neck and swollen yellow fish.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
27 October 2022
‘Dear Artem, good afternoon,’ she writes to me. ‘I would like to ask—as I know they’re difficult to come by in the army—if you would mind if I sent you some nudes?’
‘Hello there’. I answer as tactfully as I can: ‘I, of course, do love beautiful things, but I already have some and right now I’m not in any severe need. Though some of the lads in my unit are not adequately provided for. I could act as an intermediary and pass them along, and you could send them directly to me’.
‘Are you trying to be funny?’ she replied, offended.
Then she blocked me.
Still, I’m glad she didn’t write ‘Dear Anton’.
Thank you for blocking me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written this post, out of respect for good intentions, no matter where the road paved with them leads.
But afterwards I sat there and got kinda sad. I regretted offending her. Yeah, I hadn’t slept enough, we were out of electricity, so I hadn’t drunk my morning coffee or had breakfast, and there was no time to cook something over the fire since I had to go out on duty. As a result, like a hungry kitten I was in the mood for play, with lots of banter, ironic jokes, and sarcastic excursions during conversation.
Once I’d arrived at my position, I wanted to write something to cheer her up, to apologise. Which is when I saw she’d blocked me. I should have just not replied, like I usually do. Now I see that I’d managed to both offend the girl and sell the boys short as well.
Then again, sharing nudes that have been sent to you personally is not just bad form, it’s a violation of wartime etiquette.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
Screaming in pixel
I feel like my life has a shitload of pixel in it. Too much.
This unforgiving and unrelenting camouflage pattern has followed my tracks for so many years now. It has been close at hand the whole time, even during my personal interwar period. An old field jacket that Tsilyk would wear at our dacha when it rained (which I now wear once more); some army caps and sun hats which used to sprawl like dead rats in the corners of the same dacha; a worn-out smock that journeyed from one flat to another in a bag full of unused stuff; chance pixel smudges popping up on Kyiv’s Solomyanka Street, in the metro or on Facebook pages… Now it’s everywhere. Around me, on me, in me. Lads from construction battalions, rifle units, tank platoons, air defence, artillery, fire support, volunteer support, holy spirit support and forest spirit support: they’re all in pixel uniform. The sky above me is also cammed up in pixel. It seems the time is nigh when my own skin will also become pixelated.
For me, all this is associated with pride, love, fatigue, and being broken. With misery, smoke, and crude jokes.
I am a sceptic, a pessimist, and a difficult person. I know I am hard to put up with, and harder to love. Yesterday I also found out that I can be a fucking pain in the arse. I can be such an annoying pain in the arse that people lose it and scream at me in rage. I guess I will also come to associate pixel camo with these screams.
I can also shout, but I do so silently. I wear my pixel uniform and I shout, silently. But so loudly that I piss off everyone around me.
‘Anyone want an acid bomb?’ the commander asks my lads while they’re setting up their positions.
The commander fetches me and brings me to them. That’s me: I’m the acid bomb, the sour puss who’s liable to explode. I don’t deny it. Now and then, of course, I exhale and come back to earth.
A whole day and a night on stag duty. I started nodding off. The sun rises and starts to scorch the clearing. I meet Shura at the crossroads and give her a big hug through the window.
‘Take me away from here,’ I say.
Shura smiles, says something nice and drives off. And I keep screaming. I’m wearing pixel, like the rest of my lads. It’s clear that some of them are screaming in silence as well. Actually, they’re all probably screaming. Even the ones wearing multicam. The ones wearing multicam are probably screaming even louder than we are. It’s just we can’t hear them.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
‘Have you already been to the building Lenin used to live in?’
‘There’s also a church here where this scientist brought together a famous collection on physiognomy. And do you know who helped him? Karamzin!’
So, Karamzin helped him then. And Lenin lived here too. Fucking wonderful. The writer Mikhail Shishkin is also hanging out here somewhere, keeping up his woke status as a ‘good (Swiss) russian’.
On my sleeves I wear a patch from my brigade, an army chevron featuring the Ukrainian trident, and two Ukrainian flags (‘Oh lord, look, a Ukrainian flag!’ I hear, ‘Ukrainian’ pronounced in a russian accent, of course).
I imagine myself going to the building Lenin lived in, tracing my quivering hand over the stone walls, looking around in search of the taverns and kellers where dear old Vlad would pass the time; I imagine breathing in the fragrance of revolution and arsenic, crying tears as pure as vodka.
Here, I was confronted by many questions about my upbringing in a russian-speaking family, about my first texts that were written in russian:
‘Is that true? Oh, that’s how it was? See, it’s not all that bad!’
They clutch at something, perhaps their last chance to see something human in me, something understandable, like Karamzin; a shared cultural space, a shared history, that it’s a temporary misunderstanding but with imminent reconciliation. A stubborn search for common points of intersection:
‘There are Russians who don’t like Putin after all. I actually know one! Isn’t that funny! Why don’t I introduce you to him! We’ll sit at the negotiating table; culture unites us, culture does us all good, culture heals all wounds. You used to write in Russian, after all. You used to speak Russian. You used to be a part of Russia. Everything was great, we didn’t get muddled up in these national separatisms of yours. Do you remember that Pet Shop Boys song? ‘Go west in the open air!’ It’s about all of you, about your freedom, about our hope for your freedom, about love and forgiveness, unification, about not having to lower the thermostat in our apartments by three degrees or save on energy resources. You are in this together, we are in this together; you are part of a great culture, a part of Russia; you, bei Gott, are Russia!
‘Oh, ha-ha, no, of course not! Artem, sorry, I didn’t mean to. I went overboard, mea culpa! Ha-ha! It’s just my Swiss bluntness. Of course, it’s all that crazy Putin. It’s all him. Your people are very stoic. We are all for your freedom; we are all rooting for you. Thank you for coming and gifting us the possibility of finding out more about your culture, about you, about this war. Oh, Putin is mad! We saw those horrible shots of dead soldiers from both armies. What a bloody war. You’re a tough, stoic people; but you’ll get to trade with Russia again, as in, you’ll get peace, as in… damn! What can I say without you getting offended? Victory? Ok, we support you—here’s to victory! Butmo! Cheers!’
‘Lenin’s house is on the Spiegelgasse. You should definitely go. Everything there is literally soaked in the spirit of your country’s history. Well, not your country, or not a country either, well, it was a country, but another one, where these real misunderstandings, well, a conflict, well, a war, happened. Is that not the spirit of the age, Der Zeitgeist? What a heavy, muscular spirit! Oh, Russian missiles, Iranian drones, Buryat tank crews, Kalmyk horsemen, Udmurt archers and Kalugan convicts? It’s hard to understand, but you are opening our eyes, eyes full of tears pure as vodka.
‘Alright, you go and figure it out then, if we don’t understand anything. It’s like one street against another street, region against region, canton against canton! Capitulate! Surrender! Bless you!’
Or they say some flaccid phrase, like:
¡Viva la Libertad !
All you need is love!
Stand with Ukraine!’
O, Karamzin! O, my state of Denmark! O, my dear Ukraїna!
[Read in Ukrainian here].
Not all military branches are equal
Yesterday, some of the lads from air defence who’d just shot down a missile came by, and I saw their joyous little mugs (ok, faces). After they sat and waited, and waited, and waited some more—bam, they blatted that little cunt out of the sky and saved someone’s life.
And here I think: what should someone who’s just saved dozens of lives feel like? The AD lads obviously have to treat their work like work, but there’s obviously another side to it: a conscious understanding of their mission, of their usefulness. Maybe, even, of their life’s greatest undertaking.
Let’s compare them to the infantry, shall we: with its close-quarters-battle that tends to be not that close-quarters; rifles; grenade launchers; where you maybe get a fucking BMP in and shred some enemy fortifications; where lads cut about doing tank stalks with NLAWs, call in a little artillery strike and blast a square full of enemy manpower. Basically, the aim’s clear—to kill as many orcs as possible, advance, hold, repel enemy attack, and build up your positions. In a way you’re also saving someone’s life but from this sort of hazy perspective, so the chain of events may take place in different ways. For this is just a battle, war in the here and now, and what comes next isn’t often clear. And if you fuck up the operation, you can always get your artillery or even your air corps in to support you.
But if you don’t shoot down that missile, death and destruction are guaranteed to follow. Your mortars can’t cover you. Your artillery can’t help.
And then these satisfied faces (I just want to call them mugs) arrive and we know they’ve shot something down. It’s like the day gains more colour, as does your mood. The surrounding nature is more hospitable, and even food tastes better.
From the other side your work seems insignificant and boring in comparison. You spend a sober evening staring into the windy blackness, holding your body armour up with your hands because your back can barely hold out any longer, and you think about the baklava you bought that day and about your Chinese cabbage, avocado and gorgonzola salad. Or you think about how you are unequivocally saving someone’s life, even if the result isn’t obvious. Or maybe you’ve already saved someone’s life, only you don’t know it yet. And you comfort yourself with this self-deception, happy as Larry.
You also think about how your face is no longer a face, but a mug, and that to make it a face again you’ll have to shave.
But the trimmer is still at the post office. I must get it sometime.
Oh, I will.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
These days I often think back to Ilya Ehrenburg and his anti-German pamphlet, ‘Kill!’ Despite its declamatory rhetoric and sturdy propagandist stem, this text resonates with current sentiment among most Ukrainians. Once upon a time I couldn’t even imagine what must be happening inside someone’s soul for them to write such a thing: ‘KILL THE GERMAN! Kill!’
Well… now we know what it is to truly hate.
But true hate is a terrifying thing, if you think about it. To hate enough to ‘KILL!’ To kill without pity, without depersonalising the ‘target’ (as happens only in wars of aggression, not liberation), to say clearly and tangibly, ‘Kill! Fucking kill him, otherwise he’ll kill you’. Despite the stupor, the despair, exhaustion, and pain—one must kill. This cry is so terrifying and strong, that one (or I) could never talk about this, mention or pronounce it on any leftie panel discussion.
‘What did you feel like when you killed someone? Let’s try working through your traumas through the prism of cultural initiatives and thereon enter a broad path of dialogue and reconciliation. How does a fee of four hundred euros sound to you?’
This ‘Kill!’ is about survival, something animal, ferocious; something stripped bare. It’s about how things shouldn’t be so, but for some reason they are. It’s about something that should have been left in the past, something that we love reading about in our comfy beds. Or that we used to love reading about.
But sure, that fee of four hundred euros suits me just fine.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
Image: Mikhail Volkov, Bucha, Kyiv oblast. Unsplash.
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