Oleksandr Mykhed is a writer and curator of art projects. His non-fiction book ‘I Will Mix Your Blood with Coal’, an exploration of the Donbas and the Ukrainian east, is forthcoming in English and Polish translations and is available in German, published by Ibidem. He is a member of PEN Ukraine. Here is his speech ‘The Language of War’ at the festival BookForum.
Ukrainian version is available here.
On Thursday 24th February 2022, Ukraine wakes up to explosions, phone calls and messages: “It has begun”.
My wife Olena and I have been living in the town of Hostomel for four years. My parents have been living in their new dwelling for less than a year not far from us, in Bucha.
Russian helicopters and fighter jets have been flying overhead since early morning. Air smells of gunpowder and smoke from the shelling of Hostomel airport.
In the evening of February 24, Olena and I managed to evacuate from Hostomel to my mother’s hometown – Chernivtsi.
Those driving that night on the almost completely paralyzed roads of our native country, remember exactly how bloody the full moon of that night looked. Never before and, I hope, never again will I see such a moon, leaning bloodthirstily towards the ground with its blood-splattered face.
Words fail me. I can’t find the right arguments to convince my parents to leave Bucha.
They will spend three weeks under Russian occupation.
On the fifth day of the invasion, I go to sleep in a frozen gym next to a hundred men who, of their own free will, obeyed the call of their hearts and joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I have never held a weapon or served before; now I have only one desire – to learn and be useful to my country. Because under the fire of Russian missiles, all my previous experiences seem useless and unnecessary.
A week after the invasion, a Russian shell will fall on our house and bury my past there with Olena. But what is even more terrifying is that dozens of our incredible neighbors will remain under shellfire within our residential complex in Hostomel throughout the occupation, and they will fight every day for their own lives and lives of those nearby.
What is life like during the full scale invasion?
Death walks close by. Daily reports of co-workers killed. Friends of friends. Acquaintances. The servicemen, whose interviews we watched the day before. Photographers. Journalists. Civilians. Peaceful citizens.
As singer Sasha Koltsova would later say: “In Ukraine, we know every deceased person via a couple of handshakes, so every death hurts.”
In the photographs of the dead from Bucha, Оlena recognizes the body of an eccentric old man who used to carry an axe, and whom we would see daily on morning walks in our forest.
The map of the morning reports of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is a map of internal anxieties and worries about friends who serve in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Looking at these movements at the frontline, I see the faces of those who are there.
War is a tally of tragedies that cannot be forgotten, and it is a martyrology of destroyed cities and cultural monuments.
What is the book industry like during the full-scale invasion?
Writers, translators, publishers are perishing.
Publishing warehouses are being destroyed.
Libraries are in flames. Russians are burning Ukrainian books and “purging” libraries of “enemy” literature.
Publishing houses stop working. Some of the niche publishing houses founded by veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Operation that have been operating since 2014 are closed because their entire staff has gone to war.
Sales are plunging. Bookstores are only just reopening now after several months of closure. Prices for paper and printing materials are rising.
Hundreds of books ready to go into print this year will not see the light of day. A generation of authors will not make their mark in the world of literature.
Thousands of internally displaced people may never again be engaged in literature, translation, art, because they need to survive. Or perhaps they will rediscover the value of their creative work in this blood-drenched crimson fog of war.
During the first month of the invasion I wrote letters of refusal asking to be excluded from all cultural projects in which I have been previously involved. I can’t think in terms of project timelines when my planning scope is 15 seconds long – that’s the period of time it takes the air raid alert map of my country to be updated.
The deadline for the project you’re offering to me is in the next few months. Are you being serious? I am an individual with no past, a doubtful present and, I am certain, a happy but very distant future.
And if earlier I was convinced that a work of art must have certain timeless patterns that will allow it to pass the test of time, now there is an even higher requirement – to pass the test of genocide.
How many books will turn out to be unworthy of reprinting, how many films and exhibitions will depreciate and look naive or anachronistic. How many war movies will we not be able to watch. And how many classic works of Ukrainian literature will become familiar and understandable to us.
The key concept that I have been thinking about since the first day of the invasion is the language of war. What are we doing to our language? What can our language do to us?
The language of war is direct, like an order that cannot have a double interpretation that needs no clarification. We speak more clearly, more simply, in chopped phrases, saving each other's time and saturating conversation with information. Without tears. Without rhetorical questions.
A military confirmation of the information received is increasingly penetrating civilian conversations – we say “plus”, an analogue of the English “roger that”.
A week before the start of the full-scale invasion, billboards appeared across the country with the signs “4.5.0” – an expression that is army slang for “all is well.” It is this combination of numbers that should be radioed every half an hour while on duty, and every 20 minutes at nighttime.
The language of war is the flow of speech in which trauma speaks. Trauma cannot be silent.
The war engenders a return to the simplest means of communication.
Doctors on the battlefield, in the absence of a marker, recommend writing the time the tourniquet was applied to the affected limb directly on the forehead of a wounded comrade, with his own blood.
Parents write with marker pens on the backs of small children – names, addresses, phone numbers.
For if they get lost. Parents or children.
For if they get killed. Parents or children.
This war is about homemade grave crosses and attempts to record at least some details.
Like a handwritten letter from Mariupol seen on the news: “Please, tell him: Dima, mother died on March 9, 2022. She died quickly. Then the house burned down. Dima, I'm sorry I couldn't save her. I buried mother near the kindergarten.” Next is a plan with directions to the grave. And below: “I love you.”
Often the crosses have a simple inscription “Unknown”.
If a person was shot in a car and nothing was known about them, then the car registration number is nailed to the cross.
Huge pieces of paper are hung around Mariupol, covered with inscriptions – relatives looking for relatives. People looking for people.
“Your son is alive!!! He is at his godfather's!!!”
“Mom, I'm at home. Your house didn't burn down! I'm waiting. If I leave, Aunt Nina has the keys. Your daughter.”
“Yura, come home. Mom is very worried. Dad”.
At the end of April information is being spread about the village of Yagidne near Chernihiv, liberated from the occupiers.
360 villagers spent 25 days in the unheated basement of the school without electricity.
The floor area is 76 square meters.
The oldest woman in the cellar is 93 years old.
The youngest child is 3 months old.
The strongest men, there were about 30 of them, slept standing up. Every night they tied themselves with scarves to the wooden-paneled wall to take up less space and make room for the sick and weak.
The Russians did not allow the bodies of the dead to be buried. For some time they were still among the living.
On the entrance door of the basement, which the occupiers kept closed, people scrawled a calendar, and on the walls on both sides of the door two columns of dates and surnames were scratched with charcoal.
Right column – ten names of those who died due to living conditions in the basement.
Left column – seven names of those killed by the Russians.
The last entry on the calendar on the basement walls reads “Our own have come.”
The language of war is the words of goodbyes.
A message arrives from a friend of mine who has joined the Armed Forces.
He is going on a mission from which not everyone will return alive. He asks me to pass his words of love to his wife and children, and tell them that if something happens to him, then these actions of his have not been a mistake. He is aware of the danger he faces, but all this is not in vain. All this makes sense.
He loves music. Communicates with music. He sends a link to the track to the sound of which he will go into battle.
As I write these lines, this track is playing on the loop. “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC.
I will be listening to it until I hear from him again.
“Alive”. Or at least “+”, “++”.
Month eight of the invasion draws to a close. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I was able to start reading again. It’s like learning to walk anew.
During the full-scale Russian invasion, I find it hard to believe in artistic fiction. I don’t believe in the possibility of escaping into a fictional world when the only reality of your only life is ablaze.
Art, of course, can provide consolation.
However, these days art has a daily purpose – to be a chronicler. To ruthlessly record every criminal step, every act of the Russian occupiers.
Reality of nonfiction, a documentary in which there can be neither editing nor even color correction.
We must survive in order to testify and not let Russia’s crimes be forgotten.
The more of us they kill, the more of us will bear witness to their evil.
Our position on total rejection of Russian content and Russian culture, including the classics, is considered too radical by other countries. Festival organizers strive to unite Ukrainian and Russian artists in the same panels, discussions, anthologies. Festival organizers do not understand that Russia for us is a cannibal, a terrorist and a rapist.
Russia is a war criminal; unable to wage war against the Armed Forces, it fights against civilians. They don’t have a strategy. Instead, they have ammunition prohibited by international conventions and rockets flying to kill civilians.
Just this week, Russia has once again held meaningless referendums, declared mobilization, and thousands of Russians – who did not protest against the tens of thousands of murdered Ukrainians, the destroyed cities and the unprovoked war, so conveniently referred to as a “special operation” – are now trying to avoid mobilization. And the world’s interpretation of Russians who support the annexation of Crimea, who consider the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic to be Russian territories and have silently observed the formation of totalitarian racism for decades? They are now perceived as “victims of war”, “forced migrants”, “victims of the regime” – this is equating victims with perpetrators. Leveling the tragedy of the Ukrainian people, caused by the actions of totalitarian Russia.
As I am writing these lines, Ukrainian refugees in a Finnish refuge center asking for help because some Russian men who fled mobilization will now live with Ukrainian women and children in one center. Apparently, authorities see no problem in asking them to live together. This is the reality of “re-traumatization” that we will have to endure for decades.
At the bottom of our emergency backpack, Olena puts a practical guide on how to rebuild civilization after the apocalypse. How to set up water production at home, how to create electricity, find food.
Every day brings more and more talk about the possibility of Russian use of nuclear weapons.
It seems that we have passed the stage of acceptance; ok, so this horror may happen. We cannot prevent this menace of the manic empire on our own. We keep on living.
I keep asking my friends who are interested in this issue: what is a nuclear strike like? How big is it? Is it one city? Is it a district? Would it destroy a district of Kyiv such as Obolon or Troyeshchyna? Or a regional center like Zhytomyr or Ternopil?
I read about the aftermath of Hiroshima. And no matter how much I have had to learn about human evil, every time I freeze in bewilderment. I can’t get used to the idea that there is life after Auschwitz, after Nagasaki, after Hiroshima, after Bucha, Izyum and Mariupol.
No matter how this life might be.
I cannot believe that human mind can contain such evil.
Meanwhile, volunteers we know start buying special iodine tablets; they must be taken immediately after a nuclear strike.
If there is a lesson that I’ve learned during this invasion it sounds like this: no matter how pessimistic you are, Russia will do something even worse.
Well, if the backpack survives, then we have a piece of nonfiction with instructions for restoring life.
Somewhere out there, after nuclear winter, nuclear spring will come.
The more of us they kill, the more of us will bear witness to their evil. Because there is evil that should never be forgotten.
What is existing in the full-scale invasion like?
It's a daily forging of the path through hell. It is a loss of your most beloved ones. It’s mourning for the dead, whom you never knew, but who feel like family. Because we are all one.
Being in the middle of the full-scale invasion means waiting for messages from relatives every day.
Like in those weeks, when day after day we were waiting for text messages from my parents in occupied Bucha. And finally, one short word appeared: “Alive”.
And like now when I’m waiting for messages from my brothers-in-arms. Just one small symbol that means life.
The occupied territories will be free. Russia will be punished. And evil will not be forgotten.
Glory to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine.
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