Essays On War

Haska Shyyan. We – You – They

We – You – They

The full-scale war found me at home.

Home is where I am, but at that time, I wasn’t in Ukraine. This circumstance gave me two extra precious days with my daughter, who resided in the vulnerable and illusory world that Russia has forever shattered beneath our feet. The days of confusion and uncertainty following the start of the invasion led me to one conclusion: it’s impossible to predict how someone will react in a dangerous situation. Despite my upbringing under Soviet propaganda and the simulated drills of „surviving enemy attacks,“ I never truly believed such a situation would materialize.

It was quite predictable for me to oscillate between the urge to freeze or run. In fact, the concluding scenes of both Melancholia and Don’t Look Up were reminiscent of my innermost thoughts – I had no doubt about that.

I’m not one to get nostalgic often, so it came as a surprise to me when I was overtaken by an intense and illogical longing to be in Ukraine during those early days of the full-scale invasion; the direness of the situation would likely have resulted in my fleeing to where I already am. I think this desire stemmed from my need to verify the truth of what was happening on my phone screen, which I carefully concealed from my child, pretending to be idly watching something while at work.

At one point, it felt like cures for cancer and AIDS were on the horizon, and we would soon be able to live to 120 years old, traveling the world with ease and utilizing every last bit of the human body’s resources. However, the start of the 2020s has been a nonstop shock to the system. These fanciful illusions were shattered first by the pandemic and then by the outbreak of war.

Ironically, the massive invasion has finally made Ukrainians visible and garnered increased attention towards us. It’s prompted us to examine what kind of „other Russians“ we are. Following a surge of genuine sympathy and support accompanied by tears and embraces, a deluge of bewildering inquiries has been directed our way.

„Why should brotherhood be a problem? Being called ‚younger brother‘ is even touching!“ / „Why don’t you engage in a public discussion with your Russian colleagues about putting an end to the CRISIS?“ / „Maybe you’ll have to accept that in order to resolve this CONFLICT you’ll need to give up some territories?“ / „So, your President is a Russian-speaking Jew. What does that signify?“ / „But you and the Russian liberals are opposing the same evil together!“ / „Perhaps it’s time to find a way to put an end to all this? You’ve been separated for 15 years. Maybe that’s long enough. After all, the price of oil has skyrocketed. You’ve always been one country, right?!“ / „Isn’t it outrageous that the streets named after prominent Russian poets are being renamed in honor of Nazis?!“ / „Perhaps it’s worth translating and publishing Ukrainian books in Russia? Russians would read them and it would bring about change, wouldn’t it?“ / „How are you dealing with racism in Ukraine?“ / „Do you also think that your President is a messenger from God? Because we do!“

The list is endless. I am constantly keeping track of the most absurd requests, criticisms, and comments, which can appear out of nowhere, lurking in the most unexpected places. For instance, while standing at the cash register of a supermarket, I sympathized with the cashier who had bumped his knee, and he politely asked where my accent was from, and then expressed his own surprise that I was from Ukraine –according to him, it was „COOL.“ At a festival of new-wave arthouse porn, a random Bulgarian persistently tried to switch to Russian with me, and then excused himself by saying that „in general, Bulgaria is the cradle of the Slavic world.“ I joked that if that were the case, the Bulgarians should go and burn the Kremlin, and we would have less work to do. And then there are instances like when I was at a discothèque, and some guys on the dance floor reacted to hearing I’m from Ukraine by imitating machine gun fire.

I make sure to be mindful of the language my interlocutors use. While the term „war“ is not something I’m used to, I encourage others to use it instead of softer terms like „conflict“ or „crisis.“ Whenever possible, I emphasize that the full-scale invasion on February 24th is a continuation of the war that began in 2014. I also caution against comparing Ukrainian authors to Chekhov and explain that staging The Queen of Spades now can be seen as supporting propaganda.

In order to be taken seriously, I realize that I need to have well-thought-out and balanced responses to the questions listed above, rather than just relying on my intuition. Simply being viewed as an exotic curiosity is not enough.

Sensuality and physicality have always been more comprehensible to me than geopolitics. 

Now, for instance, I understand even more why women put on lipstick, redecorate their homes, and overfeed their children. 

I frequently envision how many men aren’t enjoying cakes in quaint cafes these days and how many infants aren’t being burped on their shoulders.

I also have a strong feeling that the Russians have managed to extinguish the childlike joy in all of us. 

I watch how those 10-15 years younger than me are rapidly aging, and it’s even more noticeable in my own generation.

Looking at my friends‘ photos, I see old pictures from albums that used to evoke memories of laughter, raising children, flirting, studying, building, business development, restaurants, and even war. 

But now, it seems like everything is unraveling before our eyes.

One of those unexpected biochemical reactions of the female body is feeling uncontrollable joy at the sight of every newborn. The answer to how the children of my grandmother’s generation could be born during previous wars is not formulated in my head, but somewhere deep in my gut.

When I see Ukrainian farmers working hard to save their crops, I see them as demigods, even though bucolic agro-romance has never been my thing. 

The world around me has become a sharp mixture of tenderness and anger.

I can’t help but go crazy when I overhear the monologue of a Russian writer in exile, who speaks in a dull, monotonous voice about feeling at home in Yerevan because „all the Russians gathered there and cried.“

I become angry when I am approached on the street by Red Cross volunteers trying to sign me up for a regular contribution program, or when people invite me to participate in the „Language of Peace“ event (yes, in quotes) with an absurd disclaimer:

  Not to politicize the content of the materials produced (videos and texts);

  Not to use the names or symbols of any country, region, person, or event;

  To avoid showing or displaying any image, footage, item, map, flag, music, or wording, which may directly or indirectly point to a specific event, country, or person.

I wanted to ask them whether „specific event“ and „special operation“ were not, by strange coincidence, the same thing. 

Despite my efforts to promote peace, the most I can do is talk about non-war, which ultimately still refers to war. It feels like trying to scoop out tar with teaspoons or strain out sediment through cheesecloth. Peace is shaped by the dream of a wedding in Donetsk on a burnt-out Russian tank, where everyone will feast on Kherson watermelons, drink Crimean brut, savor corn and tomatoes, and sprinkle Artemsil salt on their wrists. Before, I had no particular attachment to these places or foods.

I realize that many of the people around me have not had the same experiences. They lack personal or property ties to Ukraine, and still hold onto the belief that the most terrible, irrational, and senseless kind of evil exists only in cartoons and possesses a one-dimensional core. They believe that all this is about to come to an end. While I wish I could hold onto that belief as well, I know that I cannot.

Sometimes I can hardly restrain myself from saying, „I know it sounds like a replica of a stupid school joke, but Pushkin is responsible for another woman in my circle becoming a widow, and another child becoming an orphan. If you want, I can show you their photos, as well as the billboard with Aleksandr Sergeyevich in Kherson.“ 

The most terrible thing is that you begin to forget the names of the first losses, and you become overwhelmed by the avalanche of new ones, unable to comprehend how many have gone unnamed.

As I reflect on everything I experienced up until February 24th, I can’t help but recall the faintly audible mantra from generations past, constantly repeating the question, „Well, when, if not now?!“ Despite moments of ennui and exhaustion with my contented existence, I now realize that all those experiences have become my invaluable treasure.

I realize that it’s impossible to know when we’ll be able to once again enjoy the luxury of simply existing without the fear of the world collapsing around us. Who knows when international literary festivals will cease being a battlefield and return to being about flirting and drinking? However, for now, I am grateful that my own timidity and indecision can coexist because of the courage and perseverance of others.

I’m taking small steps towards decolonization, like transforming Ivan from the Urals into Solomia from the Carpathians in my daughter’s school play. Fortunately, a magical wand made the transition possible and everyone was delighted with the change.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan