Essays On War

Konstyantyn Moskalets. Black on black

Black on black

If I survive, what will I say about this war? Which memory will be the most vivid, or perhaps the darkest, blinding like the flash of an explosion, bottomless like a portal leading to the hell of human pain and suffering inflicted by war? Does it lead out of the darkness into the light? Memories flow through me like black beads on a rosary. I do not know where to stop, where to find a criterion to give preference to this particular picture of memory painted exclusively with black paint, black on black. Bucha? Hostomel? Civilians killed with their hands tied behind their backs? Twisted bodies of soldiers in Okhtyrka hit by Grad missiles? Raped children? Kharkiv? Mariupol? What exactly, where exactly, if black is everywhere and everywhere it is bloody?

As for whether everything – even the gruesome and brutal nature of war – can only be portrayed in dark and somber tones, a poet friend commented on my Facebook reflections, stating, „We laugh; that’s the only way we save ourselves.“ He has been tirelessly fighting against the Russian aggressors since the beginning of the war. But despite the deaths of pregnant women and hundreds of innocent children, have we not left even a glimmer of hope in our parched souls after a year of conflict? My wife and I are often jolted awake by explosions that leave us unable to sleep. We seek refuge in narrow corridors far from windows that now bear hundreds of sharp, deadly shards of shattered peaceful life, a grim reminder of the hopelessness and suffering caused by war.

And there are these dreams, increasingly ominous, dreams in which the cannonades echo and black lights of death flicker, dreams with nuclear mushroom clouds over Kyiv, from which we hide in ruined houses in Irpin and abandoned hospitals with bloodied bandages on the floor, with the limbs of anonymous soldiers in zinc coffins. Are these dreams better than reality? Or worse? Better or worse? Where to find a criterion? With the beginning of the war, good and evil swapped places.

For some reason, perhaps as an echo or answer to dozens of melancholy questions, I recall a story from my late aunt who survived World War II despite having every chance to perish. She was an eight-year-old girl whose father was shot by the fascists. One of the favorite pastimes of rural children was her grandfather’s „klunya.“ Klunya was a barn made of woven willow branches plastered with clay mixed with cow dung. The fascists kept Jews in the klunya. When the Soviet troops retreated, they blew up the bridge across the Seim. To restore it, the Germans brought in several dozen Jewish master artisans from the concentration camp, whom they forced to work on the bridge daily. At night, they locked them up in the klunya, guarded by Hungarian collaborators. (When I see Orban on TV, I feel like his father was among those guards. Of course, I may be mistaken.) Hungarian assistants knew Ukrainian well. Some of the Jews did too. Sitting in the klunya after a hard day’s work, they talked to the children. They even told them fairy tales through a hole carved in the wall. „What will you do with the Jews when they build the bridge?“ asked the girl. „We’ll kill them!“ the Hungarians replied with a laugh.

The orphan could easily imagine how the Hungarian fascists would do it. They had already seen many dead bodies. They imagined how Jewish eight-year-old girls and boys would also become orphans in faraway Transylvania, and they cried bitterly, sneaking apples and the crust of her orphaned bread into the crack in the wall. „Early in the morning, just as the sun rose,“ Auntie recounted, „they gathered in front of that crack in the wall that faced the east and prayed. They prayed fervently for salvation. Then they were driven to work. Eventually, the Jews built a bridge and were all killed.“ In this story, good and evil were in their proper places. We mourned the Jews; we lamented their deaths, as we always mourn the death of a person. However, when the Russian oppressors came to our land, we began to rejoice in death, and, even better – in their deaths. I will never forget the celebration on Facebook when the number of dead Russian occupiers reached one hundred thousand. And I already know which memory will become my main and symbolic one. At that time, Chernihiv region was cut off from the rest of Ukraine. Trains did not run, post offices and shops did not work, and the city slowly consumed its reserves. ATMs did not work, roads were mined, and one could easily run into a group of occupiers and lose their life because the Russians did not take the time to figure out who you were and why you were on the road.

A stray Russian tank column stopped on the outskirts. Their food rations had long since run out, and the stores were empty, so they had nothing to eat. They had gone without food for several days because their commanders hoped for a lightning victory and had not provided them with provisions. The tankers rushed into homes, grabbing bread, lard, and anything else they could find. They behaved exactly like the German fascists in Soviet propaganda films, probably without realizing the similarity („Mother, do you have eggs and milk? Heil Hitler, give them here!“). They were in a hurry and didn’t have time to shoot anyone, and none of the frightened pensioners dared to resist them in any way. Eating Ukrainian bread as they went, they drove down the highway towards Baturyn. That’s where ours caught up with them and burned them, along with the loot they had taken. 

Seeing them driving down an empty road with burnt Russian equipment scattered on the sidelines was a cruel, furious, but joyful sight. Those who unjustifiably called themselves our fraternal people for centuries repeated the same script of the Baturyn massacre and rape. (I will never forget those children’s skulls that were unearthed during the restoration of the Baturyn citadel.) This time they couldn’t bring their favorite scenario to life. This time they were engulfed in death. And they will be consumed repeatedly until they crawl back into their stinking swamps. This is the scene, the vision, on which we can focus our gaze. Black charred tanks, black corpses with Ukrainian bread stuck in their throats. Black March fields from which the snow has already melted. A new history is beginning. Black on black, from which new wheat and new life grow, without their hateful neighbors, just as the first spark of invincible light is born in the east. And I hope to live with all of you, my dear Ukrainian brothers and sisters, until the day when our victory is born out of the darkness, filth, and seeming hopelessness. Bright and pure like the white world, like the first snow.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan