Cover Image for The Shell Hole in the Fairy Tale

The Shell Hole in the Fairy Tale

Victoria Amelina
Special Issue 3 (2023)

This is a previously unpublished excerpt from the book Looking At Women Looking At War: A War & Justice Diary which Victoria Amelina was working on when a Russian missile took her life. This entry reminds us of the days just before the full-scale invasion when Russia had already escalated attacks on the eastern regions of Ukraine.


I just bought my first gun in downtown Lviv. I’ve heard that everyone is capable of killing, and those who say they aren’t just haven’t met the right person yet. An armed stranger entering my country might be just the ‘right person’.

My new gun lies black and hazardous, on the bed, among all my swimming suits and bright summer dresses. I might need it later when I come back. But not yet. Now we are going on vacation to Egypt.

‘We’ll come back to Ukraine on 24 February, and I’ll start going to shooting practice’, I explain to my son, who has been watching too much news for his age in the past few months but isn’t afraid of the invasion at all.

I put the gun into a safe and our swimming suits into a suitcase.

The invasion didn’t happen yesterday, on 16 February 2022. So I head out the door, full of hope that it will not happen at all. After all, the full-scale Russian invasions have been rescheduled for the past eight years since 2014.

‘Mom, when’s the next time we get invaded?’ my ten-year-old jokes, like many adults in Ukraine.

At the last moment, I turn around and run to the bedroom. I use a chair to reach the jewellery box on the higher shelf. What if Kharkiv, Kyiv, and even Lviv will soon look like ruined Aleppo or Grozny? What do I take now if I am not coming home? Ever.

‘Mom, we’re going to miss the flight!’

I take one pendant, gold-plated silver with little rubies. I have it from my grandma, the only jewellery her mother had left her, and thus the oldest family relic I have. The great-grandmother who left it to us was born in Russia, somewhere on the Volga river. My Ukrainian grandmother and two Ukrainian grandfathers didn’t have such old things; for them, everything was gone with the wind in the turmoil of the last century in Ukraine, the heart of the bloodlands.

I put the pendant with rubies on as if it were my soldier’s badge.

In line for a security check at the airport, I cannot stop staring at the news on my smartphone. Around 9 am, an artillery shell hit the ‘Fairy Tale’ kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, making a hole in the wall of the children’s gym. The photo of the kindergarten is difficult to comprehend: a shell hole in one of the walls, a painted magical island with palm trees and animals on another, yellow ornamented wallpaper, which still makes the kindergarten room look cosy, and numerous footballs in the pile of broken bricks.

I visited Stanytsia Luhanska near the contact line a couple of years ago to meet with the community in the local history museum. I was met by its kind deputy director and its bizarre exhibition: the damaged bust of Lenin hit by a Russian shell, the older shells from the Second World War, and the new ones, including those that conveniently got to the museum right through its roof. Through the small window, I looked to ‘the other side’, the territory occupied by Russia or, according to the occupiers, ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’, a place from where all the shells, except those from the Second World War, have come. Back then, the deputy director took my books to add to the museum collection, as if contemporary Ukrainian literature was a wonder under the circumstances.

Staring at the picture of the ruined kindergarten gym long enough, I realize what the magic island with palm trees represents: a scene from a Soviet cartoon. Alas, the beloved characters from my post-Soviet childhood, the elephant, the monkey, and the boa, stare from behind the palm trees at the pile of broken bricks, just like I do. This pile is between the Russified little girl I used to be and me.

‘No children were killed or injured in Stanytsia Luhanska as no one was in the gym at the time of the shelling’, I read in the news. So, we’re all lucky.

I often tell myself how lucky we all are, as if arguing with the last line of the famous Serhiy Zhadan poem, which tells the story of refugees from a city that ‘was built of stone and steel’ but doesn’t exist anymore. Serhiy wrote it in 2015 after Russia occupied the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Crimea peninsula. I only paid attention to the poem in 2018 when I saw it written on a wall on Peace Avenue in Mariupol.

My son is trying to see the screen of my phone. He shouldn’t see destroyed kindergartens. Not yet. I close the page with the news and open the work chat. Although technically I’m on vacation, my team is to complete the funding application for a literary festival we do in the Donetsk region, not so far from Stanytsia Luhanska. The application is due before the end of the week, by 25 February at the latest, or else we won’t be able to launch on time. So I have to work.

The war crimes researchers and analysts at Truth Hounds NGO are also working, researching and compiling the report about the kindergarten shelling. They will call the report ‘Where did the shells come from?’ and publish it on 23 February 2022. It’s crucial to document every attack to prove that Russia, not some mythical separatists, is attacking us. But maybe these days the world already knows the truth. Perhaps these days it’s us not heeding the warnings.

Fundraising is underway to support the New York Literary Festival founded by Victoria Amelina. For details, please visit this page.


Image: Victoria Amelina’s Twitter.

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Cover Image for Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Issue 2 (2024)

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