The Central European Essay
The old way of life still endures here, where people do not set out on a journey without a specific reason. Instead, they prefer to stay at home and listen to the sounds of the world, as traveling was often associated with negative outcomes. They only ventured out for foreign wars, escaped before being drafted into the army, or fled due to necessity and hunger.
Therefore, Central Europe has never been known for producing great travelers. Its inhabitants tend to wander within their own borders. Going on a trip out of curiosity? Such a notion may only arise in the mind of someone who is confident in the safety and security of their home, without worrying about finding it in the same place upon their return.
Andrzej Stasiuk, „The Ship’s Diary“
I recall the slow passage of time during those days, and how the entire year seemed condensed into the first few weeks. I also found myself becoming curious about something that had previously never interested me. The days leading up to February 24 were spent primarily reading the news, as it became increasingly clear that the war was imminent. On February 23, two news headlines suggested that the war could start any moment: „Russia bought 45,000 body bags“ and „Russia will invade Ukraine within 48 hours.“
(To this day, I sometimes wonder for whom those 45,000 bags were intended – their soldiers or our civilians. I prefer not to know the answer and let this remain a metaphysical mystery for me.)
On the morning of February 24, my wife and I woke up with hangovers. We had entertained guests the night before, drinking wine and not discussing the war at all. We were jolted awake by a phone call just past eight o’clock: „How can you still be sleeping?! The war has begun!“ Our reaction mirrored that of Franz Kafka’s in his diary entry about the beginning of the First World War: „August 2. Germany declared war on Russia. Swimming lessons in the afternoon.“ We took a citramon tablet each and went back to sleep.
Actually, I only want to believe that we didn’t discuss the war that night. Despite the need for conversation, only fragmented and unrelated discussions lingered in my memory. I suspect that I might have even read the news about the body bags and the 48-hour invasion either on the day it started or later. By February 24, the news was already abuzz with reports of airstrikes, clashes with enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups, martial law and curfews, evacuation trains, and the formation of volunteer units for territorial defense. During those initial days, I witnessed time moving forward, as I sat motionless, observing how war forced individuals to either unite and fight or flee from the army, abandon their homes due to necessity and hunger. However, this time, it was different, as it was our war.
When I say „our“ war, I’m not merely referring to past wars that swept through Ukraine, where Ukrainians participated as a nation without a state, with the rudiments of statehood, or under occupation. Nor am I suggesting that, this time, Ukrainians were a sovereign target of attack. Rather, what I mean is that, on February 24, we began to function as a single organism, completely and wholly committed to the war effort.
Central Europe has a historical destiny of being caught between the Russians and the Germans. Throughout history, Central Europeans have alternated between two anxieties: either the Germans or the Russians will invade. Death in Central Europe is either imprisonment or internment in a concentration camp, often resulting in mass murder and extermination. As a result, traveling through Central Europe is often an escape, but from where and to where? Is it an escape from the Russians to the Germans, or from the Germans to the Russians? Fortunately, in such situations, America still exists as a refuge in the world.
Yuri Andrukhovych, „Central-Eastern Revision“
As the war began, America ceased to exist for me. Since 2015, I had stopped writing poems and focused solely on translation. Through immersing myself in the world of American poetry, I translated works by notable poets such as Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Robinson Jeffers. In the past, I knew that I could always escape to America and be safe there.
However, with the start of the war, my ability to translate vanished. Music and books no longer held my interest, and I found myself unable to listen to the echoes of the world. The world had come to an end, and everything had stopped. I stood by the window, listening for any signs of activity in the area, but only heard complete darkness and silence. Occasionally, the distant sound of loaded trains passing by provided the only indication of life.
I was afraid. Afraid that I would never be able to return to translation. Not because of what was happening to my country or the possibility of occupation, but simply because of my fear. I was frightened by the fear itself. Or, to put it another way, I was afraid of what I was afraid of. Even though there was nothing to fear, I could not shake this feeling.
But eventually, I stopped being afraid.
I recall a spring day when we went to the city center to meet Taras Prokhasko, and we didn’t talk about the war. Instead, our conversation revolved around Georges Perec, and Taras produced a small bottle of cognac from his jacket pocket, which we shared amongst ourselves. While we discussed how the Russian language was becoming more prevalent on the streets of Ivano-Frankivsk, we drank and mused over the fact that the bottle was not enough for four, too much for two, but just the right amount for the three of us.
During this time, I stopped being afraid, and yet, corpses of those who were shot by the Russians lay on the streets of Bucha. As we talked about Georges Perec and shared a bottle of cognac, residents of Mariupol were burying their loved ones who had been shot by the Russians. They were killed for no apparent reason other than the opportunity presented itself. Killing was not difficult, and sometimes, even pleasurable. In contrast, world philosophy and Russian literature, despite their profound complexity, seemed to pale in comparison. Murderers were often glorified and hailed as heroes in Russian literature, admired by readers around the globe.
If I were a writer, I would have named Russia Norma in one of my novels, but it seems that someone has already done so.
In the autumn of 1914, the residents of Ialivets came to the conclusion that this war was not meant for them. Being situated in Central Europe, they could not have any further vested interests. Unfortunately, it was in Central Europe where most of the battles took place, with the South fighting the North and the East fighting the West. The Carpathian Mountains and their surrounding rivers were all situated in Central Europe, making the region a major battleground.
Taras Prokhasko, „The Unsimple“
In 2013, Ukrainians took to the Maidan to defend their interests and assert their European identity. The leadership of Ukraine at the time had received instructions from Moscow that Ukraine could not be part of Europe, and the then president of Ukraine’s willingness to obey forced Ukrainians to go out and protest on the Maidan to defend their country’s future..
The shooting of protesters and the beginning of an undeclared war followed, with Russia unleashing a hybrid war by occupying Crimea and creating two quasi-states in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, taking advantage of what they saw as an opportunity. Their unforgivable crime was presented as “protecting” the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, although it should be noted that no one in the world has destroyed more of the Russian-speaking population than Russia itself. These events from nine years ago come to mind now because a question has been raised in public discourse: How do we categorize the part of the war that began on February 24? Is it separate from the war that started in Ukraine nine years ago?
The perpetual state of war on these lands has been a reality in various forms throughout history. As Ukrainians, it is crucial to ask ourselves the existential question: why does war always persist? In times of peace, we should have been learning what is useful for war. Our main interest is to protect and cultivate our land, with its breathtaking landscapes of rivers, mountains, steppes, forests, and well-maintained cities, towns, and villages. On the other hand, our enemies have no greater interest than to trample upon our land. This has always been the case. The only difference is that this time, the world is hearing us. After victory, one of our most significant tasks will be to spread our message and tell the world even more about ourselves.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan