Essays On War

Serhii Martyniuk. Another Сountry

Another Сountry

A few days before the full-scale invasion, we stood in a remote field at least sixty kilometers from Sumy and changed a punctured tire in the car, cursing the bad Ukrainian roads. Our hands were frozen, our voices hoarse, our bodies numb with cold, and our thoughts wandered aimlessly, leaving us with a hollow feeling inside. There was also a hint of unusual anxiety mixed in.

Something similar happens to me every time on the final leg of a tour – after daily concerts, meetings with people, hugs mixed with words of gratitude and applause, everything abruptly stops. It’s like an entire life has ended, and you must rebuild yourself from scratch to find new meanings and forms of self-expression, to grope your way forward as if in darkness, and to improvise. As it turned out later, those reflections were not so abstract after all.

A few days before that night in the field in Sumy, we were enthusiastically riding east and I remember every detail of the trip, including our urgent meetings in hotel rooms after concerts, silly jokes in the dressing rooms, phone calls from our moms, isolation on stage, endless discussions about news and event developments, confused people being taken from Donbas to Russia, and conversations with local fans who switched to a calming tone and smiled, convincing us that there would be no major war. They said that Western intelligence agencies were exaggerating and that Putin was only trying to consolidate his power in the captured territories.

We agreed with them and continued onward to the next city – but in reality, none of us believed in the possibility of a major war or confrontation on such a scale. We had too many plans for 2022 and perhaps that’s why we ignored the obvious. The fluidity of life and self-centeredness over the past eight years had dulled the geopolitical vigilance of most people. We had just begun to climb out of the COVID-19 pit to enter another.

Kharkiv was the second-to-last city on the tour. A sunny February morning, red brick, Soviet constructivism, an extensive central square, dazzling church domes, a concert the night before, a book presentation with Poleshchuk, and my wife beside me, who was dealing with current affairs on her phone. She was seven months pregnant, and I constantly thought about how our daughter had joined us on the tour before she was born.

„Katya, put down your phone for a bit and look at this beautiful city! It’s your first time here!“ Those words, along with the sunny wheat of the morning, still flicker in my mind with the dim light of mournful memories of a city that no longer exists.

Yes, Kharkiv survived. It didn’t break, surrender, betray or sell itself, as if to spite all those who claimed that there was no longer any scent of Ukraine on those Russian-speaking territories. But the bright and strikingly colorful city, rich in its microcosms of people with a significant literary history, which I began to discover for myself in the early 2010s together with the Dnipro River, is no more. In its place stands a fortress damaged by rockets.

There is no former Ukraine, nor are there former us within it. We outlasted time, history, wartime and economic conditions, expert forecasts, and imperial myths when we didn’t fall within a week, half a year, or almost a year under the pressure of the second world army. But at the same time, we irreversibly lost ourselves – the vaguely mocking, irreparable optimists, proud revolutionaries-romantics with our perpetual youthful rebellion and unwillingness to choose the lesser of two evils. I want to believe this much more because there is a great and natural historical sense to it. After enduring so many statistical deaths, we have finally gained our unspoken identity and the right to be heard.

That’s how trauma works, especially collective trauma.

Our daughter, as expected, was born in a different country. A country of persistent anxieties, missile strikes, blackouts, explosions that make the walls tremble, and where the children’s playgrounds are replaced with bomb shelters in the subway, bridges are closed, and there are long lines for gas stations. Pale, concentrated faces are glued to phone screens. On the third day of her life, Eva set out on her first trip from Lutsk, where she was born, to Kyiv, home, along the way of which rusty ridges of burned tanks and bombed-out houses stood. Of course, she didn’t understand anything yet, but we understood everything very well.

Her nine-year-old elder sister, who is still the only Ukrainian-speaking girl in the class in the left-bank Osokorky school, was born and took her first steps in a country that she doesn’t know anything about, the country where her parents traveled on concert tours from Uzhhorod to Kharkiv, released albums with books, organized festivals, opened up the world, and made confident plans for the future. She will only learn about that country from a scattered collection of unspoken family photos and videos on social media. And, probably, we will gladly tell her more about it later.

Maybe it’s something funny from the past, like our pre-war trip to Egypt when I spent almost the entire vacation sick in the room. But I managed to read a record number of books for that time. Or maybe it’s about her uncle, my brother from Zdolbuniv, who is now fighting in Azov. I taught him to play football when he was little; now, he can teach me how to use a gun. It could also be about the music that brought my mother and me together.

And perhaps I will tell Eva from an early age about how language is not just a technical function of social interaction but also a part of identity that people are killed for. I will also talk about how there should always be a canister of gasoline and a portable gas stove with a spare gas supply on the balcony and in the pantry, just in case. For every case.

Her childhood country may differ, but I’m no longer looking that far ahead. I’m slowly getting used to living in my other, new country.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan