Essays On War

Artem Chapeye. Who’s got our back?

Who’s got our back?

Intellectuals, hipsters, artists, “successful people,” and journalists in the army spark the greatest interest among their fellow intellectuals, hipsters, artists, “successful people,” and journalists. These “extraordinary” soldiers are interviewed – they write essays, shoot video messages, reflect, describe their experiences, and represent the reality of war. But all of them/we are only a tiny minority of soldiers currently serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The absolute majority of the military remains, as always, unrepresented, mute, and deprived of their voices.

Sanya was rotated out of the frontline for the first time in six months. He’d spent half a year there and only talked to me because we were both in uniform. I can’t recount everything he says until the war is over to avoid causing “damage to the image of the Armed Forces,” as it’s written in the Doctrine of Public Communication. Sanya is fifty years old, thin, with a square beard. He was working in Europe and returned home to join the Territorial Defense Forces immediately after the start of the Russian invasion “so that those bastards don’t get far.” Sanya has a physical disability, but in the chaotic days of February, of course, no one checked, and he, of course, did not report it. Soon after, he was sent to the first lines of contact with the enemy. Other soldiers carried his body armor for him because he couldn’t lift heavy things.

“The hardest thing is shooting at a person the first time. Up close. He kisses the ground in front of you, gnaws at it, cries that he did not want to fight, that he agrees with everything, just to stay alive…”

“Did you have to kill a lot of men?” and then I bite my tongue.

“Stupid question…”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stupid question. Sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry…” His eyes filled with tears.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry… Never ask such a question. No one will tell you.”

I want to tell him that I would like to kill a certain someone, but I realize that it would be even more stupid. It’s just your imagination, I tell myself. You don’t know anything about it. But he knows.

“I didn’t sleep for a month. A month… God, forgive me for being a sinner… I see his eyes the moment I fall asleep. Even now… a kitten appears and I’ll flinch.. There are people like us…” he sobs again. “They threw them on us, as if they’re dogs… I was gnawing at the ground, making the sign of the cross, and praying… And if it wasn’t me who’d kill him, then what? Will the other guys have to? And then you arrive and ask ‘Did you have to kill a lot of men?’”


“Some people think that I’m just crazy. And there are others,” he grits his teeth, “who say I am just a wage earner. A wage earner! Change places with me! I will give you all my money, everything I have, absolutely everything, including what I earned back in Germany. Change places with me.”

You understand during such moments that you’re sitting across from a man who has killed people. Not a murderer, no – a man who had to kill. Here he is, half a meter away from you. And you know that he killed, and you love him, you love him so much that you feel a rush of hormones, oxytocin, or whatever it is. You feel the flow of energy that goes from you to him, and you want to hug him. Still, you’re afraid; you’re afraid to touch him – even a kitten makes him flinch. You are afraid to touch him because you are men. You are afraid to hug him because it will seem even more ridiculous.

“The boys were already going stir-crazy there. Let them go home for a while! Don’t let me go; I’m old, but let the young ones go. We have a guy, well, a musclehead. We made him a pullup bar to vent his emotions through sport. And he says: ‘I pull myself up and see Halya! There’s Halya in front of me! I go down – there’s no Halya. I pull myself up – there’s Halya again!’ The neighboring squadron had a blowup doll. And we barely had enough water. Only one and a half liters a day to drink, wash, brush your teeth, and clean your socks and pants. They said they’d hand it over, no money necessary – wash up after yourself, so nobody contracts gonorrhea, they said. And the boys took it! But one of them was againt it: ‘Disgusting. Am I stupid, or what? I’d rather head over to the bushes, jack off twice, and I’m all set.”

Sanya is just one among many – they all have their own story, each unique. However, every story has been replicated countless times, with thousands upon tens of thousands of people sharing similar experiences. These people won’t be featured in interviews; they won’t say much if they attempt to speak. Or they’ll remain silent, thinking that civilians won’t comprehend their experiences and emotions. Their feelings will not be expressed with positive words, nor will they write an essay. 

We tend to empathize more readily with those similar to us, which is why we often see “hipsters, IT professionals, and intellectuals at war” in articles and interviews. However, the reality is that the vast majority of soldiers come from a range of backgrounds, including villagers, construction workers, drivers, supermarket guards, waiters, combine harvesters, miners, plumbers, and market traders, depending on the region, but roughly so. 

Many of these individuals are not used to expressing themselves. I have a habit of writing a three-page essay primarily about my motivation to join the army upon request. But half a year later, in the same squadron, as if I am one of them, I ask my brothers-in-arms the same thing and write it down verbatim, receiving only concise answers:

“I just couldn’t stay abroad. The Czechs told me that Ukraine would be crushed in two weeks. And when I said that we would win, they asked what I was smoking.”

“How could I face other people’s children or my own with a clear conscience? My country is at war, what was I supposed to do?”

Or simply:

“I didn’t have anything better to do,” he shrugs his shoulders, and laughs at himself. (At the same time, the latter tries with all his might to transfer from the rear to the front).

One soldier lied to his wife, telling her that he was responding to a summons, but in reality, he decided on his own to go to the military recruitment office. Another joined the army to escape his personal issues. Then there are those who refuse mandatory vaccinations due to their belief in conspiracy theories, while others struggle to get along with their commanders. A soldier can be your run-of-the-mill homophobe (let’s remember the term the military primarily uses to refer to Russians). Another hates the government and cannot explain what motivates him, but he took a stand anyway. He took a stand. All of these people took a stand. 

It’s mainly all these non-intellectuals, non-artists, quite ordinary and unique personalities who do not express themselves publicly that have Ukraine’s back. 

And they might even shape the future of the world.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan