Essays On War

Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta. The Sense of the Moment

The Sense of the Moment

Following the Russian invasion in February 2022, as the initial shock settled heavily in our consciousness and the days seemed to continuously blend together, memories started to resurface from the depths of my psyche. These recollections surfaced in both long strings and separate episodes.

Vivid memories from my past resurfaced, such as when I was a little girl sitting on my grandmother’s windowsill while my dad was smoking sausage in a large barrel in the corner of the yard. The air was cold and damp, the leaves on the trees had not yet bloomed, and the sky was filled with gray rain clouds. I remember knowing that the smoked meat was being prepared for Easter. Dad came to the window, opened it from the outside, and secretly offered me a piece of freshly-made sausage to try. It was a shared moment between the two of us, as my mom would not have approved.

Another memory that surfaced was unexpected yet enlightening. It was a warm spring day in late April when I was returning from the park where we used to search for newts, small dragon-like creatures that lived in burrows. These days, there’s a bustling Southern market where there used to be forests filled with yellow dandelions and streams. Despite the change, we still refer to it as a park due to its paths and the central lane that remain. Looking back, I noticed my mother sitting on a bench near our yard. It was unusual as my mother always worked and rarely took breaks outside. It was also surprising that she wasn’t wearing tights, considering the weather was too cold to dress lightly. At that moment, I realized one could dress according to the weather, not only the season.

Another memory comes to mind from the winter season, sometime between St. Nicholas Day and New Year’s. My parents were out visiting someone, and my aunt, who had come all the way from Drohobych, was staying with us. We had an entire refrigerator stocked with oranges, and we spent the afternoon running back and forth to the kitchen to peel them into beautiful flower shapes. Later, we drew a vase of tulips in the living room while my aunt, with folded palms, explained how to draw both closed and blooming flower heads.

On a summer evening, my sister and I sat in the grass on the side of a country road. The earth gave off the warmth of the day, intermingled with the scents of the meadows, and the air was filled with the fragrance of thyme. My sister suggested that we listen to the birds singing, insisting that it was the chirping of a nightingale. As I looked into the distance, I saw a sprawling tree growing amid tall weeds before us. The weeds swayed slightly in bloom while other lower vegetation grew around the tree. From afar, it appeared to be a green island in the middle of pink waves.

These memories surface one after another, and I find myself basking in them for extended periods of time. I recount them to my loved ones, relishing in remembering even the most minor details, such as the temperature of the air or the quality of light. Living on the outskirts of Kyiv, besieged by the Russians and waking up to the sounds of explosions or missiles flying nearby, my consciousness might have pushed these events to the background; but instead, it immerses itself in these almost tangible memories.

Perhaps this is exactly what happens to a person when they reach old age, as they gradually move away from reality and sink into their own lost world. Our psyche might react this way to a borderline experience, as it did in my case with the shocking reality of war and the constant threat of death. In old age, this reaction may occur during a prolonged transition into non-existence. At some point, you find yourself swimming in the soft fog of your memories, a world that has passed and lost its sharpness, becoming friendly and similar to a grayish pain-relieving substance. This is how we cope as we approach the edge of the unknown. You don’t know what will happen next and can’t control the passage of time. When you sit down in the evening to plan out the next day, requests from foreign colleagues to organize a meeting next week or a conference at the end of the month may feel like they are proposing a trip to the moon. In such moments, your consciousness provides you with a place where you can feel something more tangible – after all, it has already passed, it is over, and you know what happens next; therefore, it is under your control. It’s that lifeline you grasp onto to keep yourself stable. For some, friendly conversations might help; for others, it’s religious faith, but for me, memories are what help me cope.

As the Russians lost the battle for Kyiv and retreated, the memories that had occupied my mind began to fade away. The world around me then began to expand gradually. First, stories surfaced from those we could not contact during the siege. Then came observations and generalizations about what we had just experienced and what was still ongoing. Daily duties were no longer just about making it to tomorrow but making plans for the future. The consequences of the Russian occupation on the outskirts of Kyiv, including the mass murder and torture of civilians, were unfortunately not surprising. It all fits well with our relatives‘ memories and the secret stories passed down in the family. Everything was reminiscent of the Soviet subjugation of Galicia and Transcarpathia after the Second World War, or the Executed Renaissance, an entire generation of Ukrainian writers subject to arrests and executions during the Stalinist purges.

At that moment, my feelings shifted as I felt like I was at the epicenter of history, which had been unfolding for several generations. As a result, any invitation to leave Ukraine, be it for a conference, exhibition, or even a performance, seemed unthinkable and even extravagant. It felt strange to leave the historical scene during the climax. My mind then suddenly shifted and focused passionately on the present moment.

As I write these lines at the end of 2022, the sense of the moment’s intensity still lingers, but the need to imagine the future is growing. It’s been buzzing at the bottom of my consciousness throughout the year, and many bright minds have been discussing it since the first weeks of the invasion. Initially, it was a purely rational mental exercise that helped me withstand the chaos. However, it now feels like we have made progress and can see the safe shore beyond the raging mudflow. I don’t know if this view is realistic or if vivid memories will again flood my thoughts. Nonetheless, I hope for it with all the longing and passion of a person who is destined to live on the cutting edge of history.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan