45,000 body bags
I keep coming back to the number forty-five thousand. Forty-five thousand body bags–I just can’t stop thinking about it.
The news that the Russian Ministry of Defense purchased 45,000 body bags appeared in the Ukrainian mass media at noon on February 23. Then, less than a day before the invasion, it finally convinced me of the inevitability of a major war. I guess I was not the only one: the Russians were preparing for brutal battles and stocking up on body bags for their own soldiers who would die in those battles.
Soon after, the Russians entered Ukraine as if in a parade march, planning to take Kyiv in three days and hardly expecting significant losses. A hundred and a half dead at most. For several days, thoughts about 45 thousand body bags caused dissonance in my head. I could not figure out who they were for. Suppose the Russian army was preparing for a quick and victorious war. Why did they need so many body bags and mobile crematoria, which were transported to the border?
The dissonance, however, did not last long.
At the beginning of March, a journalist reported that in September 2021, Russia developed, and on February 1, 2022, put into effect a national standard for urgent and mass burial of corpses in wartime. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t see it sooner. It seems evident to the point of banality after what we’ve seen in Mariupol and Bucha: all those bags were meant for us. Kyiv conquered in three days, a parade on Khreshchatyk, Gazmanov’s concert, and then slaughter. The executions of politicians and civil servants, volunteers and veterans, journalists and bloggers. And then, probably, doctors, teachers, and scientists because 45,000 body bags might seem too many for activists alone.
Since then, I have not been able to get this thought out of my head: 45 thousand black body bags. For Ukrainians. Why? Simply because they are Ukrainians. At the same time, when humanity is preparing to return to the moon, nuclear fusion is being mastered, and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease is being successfully tested.
And another thought always follows. If I, having a good understanding of what the current Russia is, only later realized that those body bags were meant for Ukrainians, how much harder is it for my friends from the USA or Europe to believe in it? On March 18, I published a Facebook post in English, mainly addressed to foreigners. I wrote about my Russian relatives, most of whom strongly support what the West calls „Putin’s war.“ I tried to explain that they are no different from Putin. Instead of support and understanding, I received wary silence in response. Seriously: after the post was published, neither Jan, with whom I studied for two years in Stockholm nor Miguel, with whom I once lived in a student dormitory, wrote to me. No messages for more than half a year. Before the invasion, they regularly asked how I was doing and what was new in my life.
I don’t blame them, to be honest. It is easier for a Westerner brought up in a liberal environment to believe that I dehumanize my enemy in the midst of war than the fact that there is a nation in the 21st century that purposefully attempts to annihilate its neighbor. And this is not the first time. This innocent blindness, this irritating inability to recognize evil when it is right under your nose, existed before. The British historian Max Hastings wrote in the book All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 that few of his compatriots recognized the severity of the Holocaust following the Second World War. There were objective reasons for this: the Soviets, for example, hid the facts of the systematic extermination of Jews because, in their opinion, it contradicted the thesis about the USSR as the country most affected by the Nazis. Overall, the British knew about gas chambers, crematoria, and death camps like Auschwitz. They just refused to believe that the Germans–a civilized European nation–tortured millions of people in these camps.
I don’t blame my foreign friends, but all the same, it makes me angry. Despite everything, I’ll still have to find a way to communicate with them. Realizing how many times in the future we will have to explain seemingly obvious things and how painful an experience it will be is downright sad. I still can’t gather my thoughts and write about my mother’s friend who lived for two months under occupation in Kupyansk. To fully understand how bad it was, you need to listen to the admiration in her voice when she speaks about how wonderful the Kharkiv region is now. I tried three times to write a post about Volodymyr Vakulenko, a poet and children’s writer from Izyum, who the Russians kidnaped at the end of March and remains missing. We were not close, but we corresponded occasionally; he came in and out of my life. He once had a fight with me on social media, although I don’t remember the subject. Once he came to my book launch, and after it was over, he talked strenuously and for a long time about the book he was working on. The novel was about Indigo children. And I understand that I should have written about Volodymyr, as many of my colleagues have already done. Still, whenever I open my laptop, I struggle to squeeze out two or three long sentences. After that, I close my laptop. The right words slip out, but the apt phrases that seem to have held together a moment ago fall apart. It might take years to put them back together.
It isn’t easy. It’s sad. And it hurts.
Nevertheless, we must find the strength to speak despite the pain, insults, and anger. We must learn to put together the right words — both now and after the war. But especially after the war.
Eventually, the war will end. But the Russians‘ desire to fill 45,000 body bags will not.
Editor’s note: Since the writing of this text, the remains of Volodymyr Vakulenko were found in the liberated Kharkiv region.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan