Essays On War

Serhiy Zhadan. Let this be a text not about war

Let this be a text not about war

His hands are black from labor–the grease has sunk into his skin and hardened under his fingernails. People with such hands usually know how to work and enjoy doing it. It all depends on what precisely their work consists of. He is short, quiet, and preoccupied, standing, explaining the situation at the front, his brigade, and the equipment on which he, the driver of one of the units, has to operate. Suddenly he decides on something, and says:

“You’re volunteers. Buy us a refrigerator.”

“Why do you need a refrigerator at the front?” We don’t understand. “If you want, let’s go to the supermarket. Pick out whatever you want, and we’ll buy it.”

“No,” he explains. “You don’t get it. I need a vehicle with large cold storage. A refrigerator to transport the dead. We find bodies that have been lying in the sun for more than a month, take them out by minibus, and it’s impossible to breathe.”

He talks about the dead like he does about his work–calmly and measuredly, without bravado, but also without hysteria. We exchange contacts. Within a week, we’d find a refrigerator in Lithuania and drive it to Kharkiv. He and his soldiers arrive as a whole team, solemnly accept the car, and take pictures with us for our report to donors. This time our acquaintance is wearing clean clothes and carrying a weapon. Although his hands, if you look closely, are just as black–his work is daily, hard, and his hands are the best evidence of this.

What does war fundamentally alter? A sense of time and a sense of place. One’s perception of time and space changes rapidly. In war, people avoid making plans and dwelling on what the world will look like in the future. Only what occurs in the present and with those who will still be by your side tomorrow morning holds any significance–if you survive to see another day. Survival is the primary objective, making it through to the next day. Only later will it become clear how to act, who to rely on, and what to push back against in this new reality. This applies to military personnel and, to a large extent, civilians who find themselves in the encroaching zone of death. It’s the feeling that haunts you from the first day of the great war, the shattered sense of time, instability, and compressed reality where it becomes difficult to breathe because this new reality wants to push you to the other side of life, to the other side of what’s visible. The pressure of events and emotions, the absorption into a thick, bloody flow of violence, is why the reality of war is vastly different from peace. Despite this, speaking remains necessary–even in war, especially in war.

War undoubtedly changes  language, its architecture, and its way of  functioning, too.  Thus, speaking a fragmented language, the ants are desperately trying to mend the broken structure to bring back the order they are familiar with. In the end, everything falls into place, but the inability to express their anger, pain, and hope through previous peaceful constructions, is unbearable. This is especially true if they had previously relied on the seemingly limitless possibilities of language. But it turns out that the limitations of language are exposed in the face of new circumstances and the death-filled landscape. Each ant’s task is to rebuild the coherence of their shared speech, understanding, and communication. Who is the writer in this situation? The same ant, just as bewildered as the rest. Since the start of the war, we are all reclaiming our impaired ability to speak coherently, trying to explain ourselves, our truth, and the extent of our brokenness and trauma. Literature may have a better chance in this case as it is closely related to all previous language breakdowns and disasters.

How can we talk about war? How do we handle the inflections that hold so much hopelessness, anger, and frustration, but at the same time, determination and resolve not to give up what’s yours, not to surrender? I don’t think it’s just us who have trouble speaking the truth. The world that hears us also struggles to grasp a simple fact: we speak on different levels of emotional intensity, linguistic tension, and openness. Ukrainians should not apologize for their emotions but try to explain them. Why? At least so that they don’t keep all this pain and anger bottled up inside. We will be able to make ourselves understood, and we will be able to discuss everything that has happened to us and will happen again. But be prepared, it will be a challenging conversation. Nonetheless, it needs to start today.

Here, the nuances in our vocabulary carry great significance. It’s about different perspectives and views, but most importantly, it’s about language. At times, it seems like the world’s observation of the events in Eastern Europe over the past year uses language that no longer effectively explains the situation. What does the world (I understand the impermanence and abstractness of this term, but I will use it anyway) mean when it talks about the need for peace? For many, it’s about the war’s end, when artillery goes quiet, and silence prevails. You would think that these things would lead us to some mutual understanding. After all, what do we Ukrainians long for the most? An end to the war, of course. An end to the shelling. As someone who lives on the eighteenth floor in the center of Kharkiv, where you can see Russian rocket launches from the neighboring Russian city of Belgorod outside your window, I fervently long for an end to the missile attacks, an end to the war, a return to normality and the naturalness of existence. So why are we so often triggered when we hear statements from European intellectuals or politicians about the need for peace? It’s not because we deny the need for peace. We understand peace means more than just the aggressor laying down its arms. The peaceful populations of Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin did not have weapons, but that did not spare them from tragic deaths. The people of Kharkiv, who are regularly subjected to random missile attacks, don’t have weapons, and it’s unclear what the supporters of peace at any price believe they should do in the face of aggression. Where should the line be drawn for them between supporting peace and not supporting resistance?  In my view, the issue at hand is that some individuals are turning a blind eye to the fact that amidst the brutal war inflicted by Russia, there can be no peace without justice. The reality is that there are various forms of frozen conflict, occupied territories, and ticking time bombs disguised as political compromises. Yet, true peace, the kind that brings a sense of security and hope for the future, remains elusive. Criticizing the courage of Ukrainians who do not surrender as being militaristic and radical only shows the cowardice of a small but shamefully vocal group of Europeans. They choose to remain in their comfort zone and abandon their ethical principles for the sake of commerce and false pacifism. This is not just a problem for Ukrainians; it is a problem for the world and its willingness or unwillingness to accept evil for the sake of convenience.

Once again, some are attempting to avoid responsibility by blaming those who defend themselves and using manipulative slogans to shift the focus. The simple truth is that we support our army not because we desire war, but because we desperately want peace. The illusion of peace offered to us through surrender is not a path to a peaceful life and rebuilding our cities. Perhaps Ukraine’s capitulation might help Europeans save on energy costs, but will they eventually realize (and it’s impossible not to realize this) that the warmth of their homes is paid for by the destruction of the homes and lives of those who only wanted to live in a peaceful country?

Yes, language is key. It’s about how we choose to use words accurately and meaningfully, with the right tone when talking about being on the brink of life and death. Our previous vocabulary may no longer be enough to describe what hurts or gives us strength.  We all found ourselves at the point of speech from which we did not speak before. Accordingly, we have a different system of evaluations and perceptions, shifted coordinates of meaning, and boundaries of expediency. What may seem like discussions about death from the outside are often a frantic effort to hold on to the possibility, durability, and persistence of life. In this new fractured and displaced reality, where does the theme of war end and where does peace begin? Is a refrigerator with the bodies of the dead still about peace or war? What about the women you safely transport away from shelled areas? Is this support of a peaceful resolution of the conflict? Is the life-saving tourniquet you bought for a soldier still humanitarian aid, or aid to those who are fighting? And in general, is helping those who fight for you, for civilians in basements, for children in the subway, is outside the bounds of a decent conversation about kindness and empathy? Should we be reminded of our right to continue to exist in this world, or is this right self-evident and indisputable?

Many things, phenomena, and concepts today require not just an explanation but a new understanding, a fresh perspective, and a renewed acceptance. War often exposes what has been ignored for too long, forcing us to confront uncomfortable questions and face complicated answers. This war, started by the Russian army, brings to light a host of issues that go beyond just Russian-Ukrainian relations. In the years to come, we’ll have to tackle some sensitive topics, such as populism and double standards, irresponsibility and political conformity, and the ethics that have long since disappeared from the vocabulary of those who make crucial decisions in the world today. Although these topics are often tied to politics, they are merely a smokescreen, a way to avoid hard truths. We need to call things by their proper names–crimes, freedom, and evil as we see them. In times of war, such words carry more weight and meaning. Avoiding them without getting hurt is tough, but we cannot shy away from them.



It’s a sad and telling situation that we’re discussing a peace prize at a time when Europe is once again at war. It’s been raging not far from here for a while. Yet, throughout those years, the peace prize was still awarded. Of course, the prize itself isn’t the issue. The real question is to what extent Europe is now ready to face this new reality, a reality of destroyed cities with whom it was once possible to do business, mass graves filled with Ukrainian citizens who once shopped and visited museums in German cities, and filtration camps for those caught in the occupation. These terms–filtration camps, occupation, collaborators–are hardly used in the everyday language of Europeans. We must also consider how we will continue to live in this reality, with burned schools, destroyed books, and above all, the thousands of casualties who were living normal, peaceful lives just yesterday, making plans, solving their problems, and relying on their memories.

The importance of memory concerning war is also significant. War isn’t just a different experience, and to speak of it as such is to reduce it to the superficial, something that lies on the surface and describes a lot but explains little. War transforms our memory, filling it with painful recollections, deep traumas, and bitter conversations. You will not be able to get rid of these memories or fix the past. They will be a part of you from now on, and hardly the best part. The process of losing control of your emotions, catching your breath, experiencing silence, and finding a new language is just too much to bear, and you won’t be able to return to talking carelessly about the beautiful world outside your window afterward. Poetry after Bucha and Izyum is undoubtedly possible, and, what’s more, it is necessary. However, the shadow of Bucha and Izyum, their presence, will weigh heavily on this post-war poetry, essentially determining its content and tonality. It is a painful but necessary realization that from now on, mass graves and bombed neighborhoods set the context of poetry in your country. Of course, this realization does not fill you with optimism, but it adds to your understanding that language requires our daily commitment, constant contact, and involvement. After all, what do we have to express ourselves and make a point? It is our language and our memory.

Since the end of February, when this massacre began, time feels like it has lost its normal flow. It’s as if a winter river has frozen over, halting its flow and immobilizing those caught in its icy grip. We found ourselves in this frozen stillness, a cold timelessness. I vividly recall the sense of helplessness, the feeling of being lost, unable to see what lies ahead in the darkness and silence. Wartime is a disjointed panorama, a time of broken perspectives, with communication between the past and the future cut off. It’s a time when the present moment is acutely felt, and you’re consumed by the here and now. There’s a certain fatalism to it all. When you stop making plans and thinking about the future, you try to root yourself in the present. The unfolding sky above is the only reminder that time does pass. Days turn into nights, and spring will eventually give way to summer. Despite the overwhelming numbness of your feelings, life goes on, and it will not stop for anyone, carrying all our joys and fears, hopes and despairs. It’s just that the distance between you and reality has changed–it’s closer now, more frightening, but you have to live with it.

What else has changed for us besides language and memory? What will now set us apart in any crowd? Perhaps it’s the eyes. They have absorbed the outer fire and will forever bear its reflection. The gaze of a person who has glimpsed beyond the visible, gazed into the darkness, and even caught a glimpse of what lies within. This look is distinct, as it reflects periods of great difficulty.

In the spring, sometime in May, my band and I went to perform at a military base where soldiers from one unit were resting after long, hard battles. We have known some of the soldiers for a long time–we have regularly visited  and performed for them since 2014. A suburb of Kharkiv, fresh greenery, a football field, a small assembly hall. We know many of the fighters personally. Many of them are residents of Kharkiv and our old friends who went to fight this spring. It is unusual to see them in military uniform and with weapons in their hands. Their eyes are even more unusual, like frozen metal, or glass that reflects fire. It was the second month of the great war, and they had already been in the trenches under Russian fire. They are standing now, smiling, joking. And those eyes reflect two months of hell. “I already spent some time in the hospital,” one soldier says. “The Russians fired phosphorus projectiles, I got hit. But it’s fine, I’m safe and sound. Soon I’ll head back out to the front.” It’s one of those times when you’re at a loss for words. The language fails you, it’s not enough, and you’re searching for the right words. But they definitely will be found.

What will become of our language after the war? What will we need to explain it all to each other? First, we’ll need to pronounce the names of the dead out loud. They must be named. Otherwise, there will be a striking discontinuity of speech, a void between voices, and a fracture in memory. We will need a lot of strength and faith to speak about our fallen, because our dictionaries will be formed from their names. But we will need no less strength, confidence, and love to talk about the future, voice it, speak, and outline it. We will have to regain a sense of time, a sense of perspective, a sense of longing. We are doomed to the future. Moreover, we are responsible for it. It is currently being formed from our visions, convictions, and willingness to take responsibility. We will regain a sense of our future because too much is left in our memory that will require our involvement tomorrow. We are all connected by this flow that carries us, does not let go, and binds us together. We are all connected by our language. And even if its possibilities seem limited and insufficient to us at some moment, we will be forced to return to it. Because it gives us hope that there will be nothing unsaid or misunderstood between us in the future. Language sometimes seems weak, although it’s often a source of strength. It can retreat from you for a while but is incapable of cheating. This is the main determining factor.

As long as we have our language, we have the illusory chance to articulate our truth and make sense of our memories. Let’s speak out, even when the words hurt your throat–even when they make you feel lost and empty. Behind every voice, there’s the potential for truth, and it’s worth pursuing. It may be the most valuable thing that can happen to all of us.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan