I taped up my window with scotch tape, the strips resembling a makeshift Christmas star. Will it protect me from the deadly explosions of Russian missiles? I cover the window with stacks of books that I collected over the years, including those purchased with my meager salary during the Soviet regime. I remember the feeling of joy when I could get my hands on the half-banned works of Akhmatova, Gippius, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam under-the-counter – my capital, my wealth!
This is what the Silver Age of Russian culture aspired to achieve at the start of the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine! Along with other Russians, even Pushkin is involved in this mayhem.
What do you say to us, Ukrainians, who once held Russian culture in high regard? Is this the „exalting deception“ that you spoke of?
We are exhuming the corpses of tortured children, uncovering mass graves on playgrounds in Mariupol, in the forest near Izium, and all across Ukraine. Thousands of innocent victims have lost their lives.
Do you see the deaths of Ukrainian children from heaven, Fyodor Mikhailovich? Do you recall your words about the value of „a child’s tear“? On October 10, an innocent child was killed by a Russian rocket while still in their mother’s womb here in Kyiv, on Zhylianska Street. For what reason?!
This is Europe in the twenty-second year of the twenty-first century, and this is Ukraine, a land ravaged by war and tragedy.
The earth opened up
Blood flows from the crater
Shot into the baby’s eye
Was blown to pieces
Roll up into a poppy seed
Escape miles from nowhere
There is no more world
And only shadow and fire and smoke
And a baby
Which did not save
An air raid siren pierces the air, its wail so frequent that it prompts me to associate it with the sound of hyenas. But the comparison falls short; a hyena is a predator, whereas the siren warns of incoming danger, like a missile strike. The connotations are vastly different.
Today, I found myself on the subway for three hours, trapped underground as the air raid alarm blared outside. Meanwhile, my godson Taras fights in the trenches of eastern Ukraine, with missiles flying overhead constantly threatening his life and those of his fellow soldiers.
It is the Russians who force us into hiding, driving us to take shelter in trenches, basements, and bomb shelters – into nothingness. They wish to erase our existence from the land that has been ours for generations.
As we cower in fear, our knives grow sharper, fueled by determination and bloodshed.
Today, I made the decision to visit the house where journalist Vira Hyrych was tragically killed in a Russian missile attack. The newly constructed building stands before me, its empty windows like gaping wounds. The walls are now reduced to blackened ruins with exposed, twisted armature.
As I make my way towards „my“ Pechersky bridge, I encounter roadblocks with towering sandbags and iron anti-tank hedgehogs scattered on both sides. These distorted Christmas stars serve as a reminder of the harrowing reality we face each day. Survival is a mere hope, a wish to make it to Christmas.
Planning anything from morning to evening is futile amidst the thick black siren that shatters our lives apart. On February 24, I was forced to flee Kyiv to my parents‘ home, covering a grueling sixty-five kilometers over almost a full day. Along the way, we encountered silent and alert villages surrounded by cold fields, with explosions and missile strikes not far behind. Seeking refuge in a dark, damp cellar, we found ourselves surrounded by streams of condensation on the walls. Our jokes are now tinged with sadness, forced optimism and pained faith the only things keeping us going.
It’s bitterly cold, and the thought of this endless war makes me physically ill. I long to expel it from my system, to spew it out and be done with it.
I find myself thinking how fortunate it is that those who departed to eternity before the war are unaware of its horrors. If they knew they would suffer a second death.
Death looms high in the sky above our land, with burned hearts and ravaged earth below. Our fallen hold up the sky like air defenses hold the ground.
The groans of our land, dotted with ravines, echo in our ears. „Run away! Run far away!“ screams the howling siren, urging us to flee. „The risk of dying in Kyiv is very high,“ warns our mayor. But is it only here? We are all targets in this never-ending war.
Filled with determination, I decide to run away, seeking refuge at the metro station near the monument to the „Friendship of Peoples.“ A child once asked me why it was called that way, what does the „Friendship of Peoples“ mean? It was clear the child was still grappling with the complexities and twisted history of our people. „Friendship of Peoples means when people don’t kill each other,“ I explained. The child struggled to understand, and truthfully, I did not fully comprehend it myself. Perhaps, it was just a euphemism, a „compulsion to friendship“ – love me, or I will kill you. I will wipe your land clean of existence.
We have also learned to love passionately! This is not „hate speech,“ but rather an adequate response to the constant threats we face.
The phrase „Friendship of Peoples“ now drips with irony. Those who have not lived here, who do not know our history, cannot understand the true meaning behind these words.
Desperate for refuge, I fled to Vinnytsia, a bright and peaceful city that always inspired me with its calm. I absorbed that peace and tucked it away for future use, driving it under my skin, rubbing it into my hair, and stowing it in my backpack. I stocked up on this peace, knowing it may be my only solace.
But as I arrived back at the Kyiv railway station, the siren howled like a hyena, piercing my ears. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people like me in an underground tunnel, my legs and back aching from the weight of exhaustion. The ceramic cladding tiles dripped with condensation, and I couldn’t help but think about the British neurosurgeon and writer Henry Marsh and journalist Rachel Clarke, who were caught in a similar air raid while here. Maybe they felt a sense of déjà vu, a painful memory of the 57-day bombing of London during the Blitz.
Finally, I made it home and began unpacking my backpack, savoring the peace I had brought with me from Vinnytsia. But my fleeting moment of tranquility was shattered when the news broke that Vinnytsia had been hit with cruise missiles. I had passed through the city center countless times before, never imagining the innocent lives that would be lost, including that of four-year-old Liza.
A hyena-like siren wails, a haunting sound that reminds me of Gehenna’s fiery landscape. Blood, ash, death – the trifecta of despair.
I recall the day we bid farewell to Roman Ratushnyi. As we stood on Independence Square, another siren echoed through the air, loud and merciless.
My heart heavy with grief, I sought solace in Protasiv Yar, Roman’s cherished sanctuary. Despite the green canopy of trees, the siren’s presence was suffocating, fueling a fiery rage within me.
Even in the still of night, the howling of the hyena-like siren rouses me from slumber. And then, the photo of a woman’s hand from Bucha, the red nails contrasting with her convulsing grip on her beloved homeland.
Another image flashes before me, that of the exhumed soldier’s hand from Izium, adorned with a blue-yellow bracelet on his wrist.
As I write these words, the siren wails once again, prompting me to seek cover. And yet, a new rhyme emerges in my mind: Siena, the siren’s namesake city in Tuscany.
I resolve to visit it after our ultimate Victory, to embrace the whole world and revel in our resilience. We remain alive and unbowed, even though they sought to extinguish us.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan