Essays On War

Oksana Zabuzhko. When War Was Very Young

When War Was Very Young

A father will not kill his son,

His own child…

Taras Shevchenko, “To Gogol”


For Marina Abelskaya 

Long before it manifested itself clearly in 2014, the war had shown itself to me dozens of times. It was a little like the way medieval chronicles mention calamity, such as plague or cholera—they write of it as of a living being which, before devastating a land, would appear in public places, on the roads or in the market, in the guise of a woman dressed in white, a lost little girl, or a giant haystack that moved of its own volition… Now I know: these were no myths or fairy tales. Large-scale catastrophes—the outsized ones that make death a mass phenomenon, transforming it from tragedy to statistics (to numbers in official reports)—do bear signs of their own individual existence, and cannot be reduced to the sum of the human wills involved in them. And every individual existence, obviously, has its own biography: something is born, grows, fills out, stands on its own two feet (girl, woman, haystack—these are merely phases of maturity), and becomes “visible to everyone” at the point when, fully mature, it sets out into the world.

Before that moment come the warnings. The warnings always, always come: before making its entrance—with the shot fired in Sarajevo, an attack on Poland, an invasion of Ukraine—war learns, plays, goes to school, changes teachers… It might cry like a child in the empty street at night (“Come on, it’s just the cats!”—“Fine, it’s cats, but where are they all hiding that you can’t see a single one?”); might petrify you for several seconds with the sight of a vaguely menacing billboard above the crowd (“SHE WORKS” in large red letters like an admonition to all of those below, still alive); might flash its teeth at you from under a biker’s helmet when it comes from nowhere to tear down a forest road as if with the single intent of speeding, with a crunch, over the only snail in that road (I can still hear that crunch and my own scream of “NO!”—in English, for some reason, as if in a stupid Hollywood horror movie; the scene was pure Hollywood, and yet I knew that very moment it was war that had sped past me…); might flicker at you with short, one-time rehearsals as if checking if it will fit us (Amsterdam’s Schiphol, blocked by the whim of a distant volcano in 2010, the dead arrival-and-departure boards, the crowd of thousands of people suddenly arrested into immobility, and men in Armani  blazers, white with rage, who kicked apart bunches of dark-haired children crowded underfoot as they made their way to the exit—in the spring of 2022, during the evacuation at the Kyiv railway station, the territorial defense pulled such men aside and taught them a lesson)… Or it might manifest itself at its full height, like a tree hidden in a bud, in all of its inescapable predestination, in a conversation overheard by accident, like a radio play, and the voices that were speaking.

(The voices, of course, that was the point: it was the voices that made me instinctively tune in—that drew me in with their intonations.)

It was the summer of 2013, on the island of Crete, where my husband and I, tired of working like horses (we were opening our own publishing house that summer—at the peak of the Russian book expansion into Ukraine!), escaped to “catch a breath of the sea” literally at the last minute, so we were prepared to find the place overrun with Russians (finding someplace “not as popular with Russian tourists” would have required, at the time, a lot more planning!) and determined simply “not to hear” it when the Russian language was being spoken. We were sitting in the packed sea-side restaurant, eating-drinking-talking-laughing, when suddenly I felt a jolt and, making “scary eyes” at my husband across the table, began listening to the voices behind my back.

A family from Moscow was dining there (a few phrases made it clear they were from Moscow), four souls—Dad, Mom, a teenage son and a younger girl, a character as yet without lines (she only asked for something out of her mother’s plate occasionally; the women, generally, were playing the back-vocals in the drama—the soliloquies belong to the men). The boy, gasping with excitement, bragged to his parents about how he and his friends at school “beat up the armyashki”in their class—there’s the root, I thought in passing, of their ‘homies‘ fights’ in the military—but my attention was captured by the voice of the boy’s father: I recognized his measured, Socratic intonation, the one commonly adopted in cultivated families when addressing a delinquent offspring with the goal of leading them to realize what stupid things they had done and arrive at the determination “not to do it again” on their own—as a child, I had been spoken to the same way where heavy moral subjects were concerned. The calm, elenctic tone bode nothing good (certainly not the praise and a cookie the child expected), and I instantly began rooting for the Dad, listening with such razor-sharp focus that the rest of the restaurant noise retreated to the deep background.

“Look here,” the Dad started. “You say ‚they‘ and you say ‚we‘. And you call them ‚armyashki‘. Why ‚armyashki‘ and not Armenians?”

“Fine, Armenians…”

“No, not ‚fine,‘ this is important. You are proud of the fact that you are Russian, am I understanding you correctly?”

“Yes! I’m proud of it!” the boy answered with defiance in his voice: either he, just like me, could sense the trap being laid by his father, or this was not the first conversation they’d had on the topic, and the previous rounds did not end in an agreement.

“Then why don’t you recognize they have the same right to be proud of being Armenian?”

The boy mumbled something I could not hear, face down into his plate.

“So you must believe, then, that only Russians can be proud of who they are, is that right? And Americans can’t be proud of being American? Or, say, Georgians—of being Georgian?.. And if they are proud, you’re going to beat them up too?..”

To my surprise, this argument did not disarm the boy (and my grasp of the psychological terrain told me it should have: the boy did not seem stupid, the family was stable and loving, the parents adequate, and the child trusted them—what else do you need for a successful teaching moment?..) The boy had trouble choosing his words—he clearly did not want to repeat the formulas he had gotten used to hearing from his peers—but the upshot of his objections inevitably drifted in the direction of ‚Russians‘ being better than anybody else. And here the Dad would make his decisive move and catch the fish on the hook of the single incontrovertible argument in the Russian culture of moral absolutes, the absolute zero of the unerring moral scale:

“You realize, don’t you, that the Nazis in Germany used to make the same arguments you are making now?”

This was his golden ticket, his argument nec plus ultra—and he returned to it again and again, expertly, making the boy face the direct analogy (he must have been a professor, I thought, as I greeted his particularly apt passages with the lively pantomime of a soccer fan—to the delight of my husband, who could not hear the Russians from where he sat, but could enjoy, like the tourist in the joke about a bordello, “watching the person watching”). The longer the conversation went on, however, the more I frowned and the less I enjoyed it: it was as if there were a wall behind the boy, and his father’s rhetoric could not penetrate it. At a certain point, the boy mumbled something—rather irrelevant, it seemed to me—to the effect that “Russians defeated the Nazis.” I only grasped the true meaning of this line much later, after “Russians” annexed our Crimea and came to rule over Donbas: the meaning of the word “Nazi” was in the young man’s vocabulary completely different from that in his father’s. “Nazis” were not proponents of the ideology that segregated nations into “better” and “worse”, with practical consequences regarding each kind’s entitlement to lebensraum (some were entitled to none at all, and it was better to remove them from the picture entirely)—no, “Nazis” were a purely mythological concept, like devils in medieval frescoes or the Aliens in Ridley Scott’s films: they were a priori horrible (capable of the most horrific crimes) non-human beasts, about whom it was sufficient to know that “Russians defeated” them in the Great War.

This binary opposition—Good/Evil, Light/Darkness, Up/Down, “Russians”/”Nazis”—held up the boy’s entire universe, one in which, therefore, any analogy between “Russians” and “Nazis” (the kind the Dad keep leading his son to, all but on a leash!) was essentially impossible: how could a “Russian” be in any way like a “Nazi”, when a “Nazi” is, by assumption, an antithesis to a “Russian”, even, you could say (and this would be the most precise definition: through negation, as the Blessed Augustine would have it of Evil)—an “antirussian”?

(When Putin declared that Ukraine “is turning into an anti-Russia”, it meant, in the language of the new Russian myth, it was “turning Nazi”—and that is exactly how the statement was heard by the millions of the myth’s carriers who could from that moment on believe news of any kind of horrifying thing from the designated territory: that Ukraine “is bombing its own Donbas”, that there is a “crucified boy”, or legal cannibalism—anything you could possibly imagine, because all these terrors will have been already verified, in advance, as a package, and “the denazification of Ukraine” as the reprise of Germany-1945 will emerge as the only logical conclusion to be drawn. When there are Nazis next door, that means a Russian must go “defeat” them, and which part of this do you not understand?.. It is a fundamental mistake to analyze Putin’s warmongering speeches from the point of view of the historical science, something on which an army of historians, foreign and domestic, already wasted a tremendous amount of time: to deconstruct these texts you need, to put it metaphorically, not Snyder but Frazer—a cultural anthropologist instead of a historian, because these texts are mythological, and not historical, and it is as myth that they reveal their internal logic and function: to ensure, if not a massive mobilization of the populace to the “holy war against Nazism” then at least broad passive support for such a war.)

All of this is clear to see and easy to write—today. Nine years ago, however, picking at my octopus in the Cretan fishing village restaurant and listening—not just with my ears—with every inch of the skin on my back, every little raised hair, to the drama unfolding behind me, it took me a while to realize there would be no happy end, and the grown-up “good Russian” (as we’d call him today) would not be able to reclaim his child, already recruited by the new Hitlerjugend, and I kept waiting (as half the world waited, Ukrainians included, for the “good Russians” to come out into the streets and topple Putin in the spring of 2022) for the father to find another approach, find another moral imperative in the Russian culture, another working argument that could get him through to the child and shake the boy awake from the charms of the evil myth—because the man worked very, very hard to do it, he threw himself against it like a fish against the ice, the world clearly depended on it for him, and I went numb with pity when he, sensing his defeat yet again (they did have this conversation before!), lost his self-possession for an instant and burst out with a cry of the powerless, the cry of supplication and despair,

“Please, I ask you, just don’t say ‚they‘! Just don’t say it, that’s exactly how the Nazis started!”

That’s when his wife came to his aid—up until then she did not interfere, quietly busying herself with their daughter (“Here, have some more fish…”), and the first sound of her full voice made it clear where the boy got his stubbornness—she had spent all this time boiling very slowly, silently, with disapproval of her son, and her tacit determination had powered her husband’s didactic zeal.

“When I was a student at the institute,” she dropped the words as angrily as if she’d banged the kid with a spoon on his forehead, “back in the eighties, it was still Soviet Union,” and here, an unconsciously  reverent note softened her tone for an instant, “there were more than twenty nationalities in our dorm—and everyone lived together as friends!”

“Oh dear Lord!” I exhaled.

“What’s happening?” mimed my husband from his side of the table, concerned about the sudden change in my mood.

We asked for the check.

Later, we went down to the dark beach, and stood there, at the line of the rustling pebbles, as if on the border between two worlds, cloaked, on one side, in the lights-noise-and-music of the beachfront establishments and on the other—in the presence of the immeasurably deep and unknowable sea, like the dark future; I smoked, and I remember clearly that my hands shook: everything inside me shook as if I stood not in the middle of a Mediterranean July night but in the basement of someplace like the Donetsk “Isolation” factory a year later… I recounted the conversation I had overheard to my husband, but I could find no way to tell him about the war I had heard—I don’t know if it’s possible to tell such things at all—and he could not understand why I all of a sudden cared this much about the fate of some random Muscovites whom I barely even laid eyes on, once we were on our way out, and would not recognize if we ran into them again, “Don’t worry so much about them, what’s gotten into you?”

“You don’t understand!” I cried, in time with the heavy thumps of the waves. “I just witnessed a fascist society rob decent people of their own child—and they could not do a thing to stop it! I know how hard it is when a child gets older and starts testing the parents against the environment where everyone’s already a rhinoceros, like in Ionesco—I was that child, forty years ago, and I know what it cost my parents to win that war, but they did it! They won, they found a way to convince me that truth was on their side, even though they didn’t have a single resource other than that truth—it was enough that they taught me Ukrainian history, and I made the right choice! And the Russians don’t have anything to lean on—don’t have an antidote to being turned fascist! The only thing these people—and they were educated people, mind you—could scrape together from their culture to throw a lifeline to their child, already in over his head, was the same old Soviet soup kit: the Great Patriotic war and the friendship of all peoples! That’s it!! Just think—the late Soviet days for them are still a cause for nostalgia, a bright patch, a kingdom of good and justice, in comparison to what they’ve got hatched now! And actually, if you look at it from the Russian point of you, in fact, back then, in Moscow, you could get a severe reprimand from the Komsomol for “beating up the armyashki” or a “homie fight” in the military, meaning, at least theoretically, there was some kind of punishment for the extreme forms of fascism, Russian nationalists were considered dissidents… And that’s over now. Have fun, Vanya, there’s no God! And the mom did not have anything more to protect her child than “we all lived as friends in the USSR”—and that’s a lie! They have nothing else, in their entire culture, and Russia has no chance, none, zero point zero chance, do you understand how terrible this is?”

The waves thumped. My companion stood there as a dark shape against the beachfront lights and said nothing. Moscow’s hybrid attack on Ukraine—the assault on the students on the Maidan square by unknown men in Berkut uniforms on November 30—would come four months later.

I think of that boy often: he was twelve or thirteen back then, so now he should be twenty-one or -two, the perfect mobilization age. Still, I doubt he is fighting in the ranks of the Russian army in Ukraine: Moscow boys of his class have generally been able to avoid the draft. But even if he is studying somewhere in the West or eating his dinner in a similar seaside restaurant in Georgia—this is his war. He is one of its cells, and during all these years the war grew and matured together with him. That night on Crete, I witnessed “the good Russia’s” inability to stop the war it had brought into the world.

Flesh of its flesh. Blood of its blood. Ashes of its ashes.


Wroclaw, January 2023.

Translated by Nina Murray