What pain we should expect
On February 10, 2022, I had some business in Kyiv. Specifically, I had to meet with the poet B., one of my publishers, and almost my peer. He collected some money from selling my books, which is already customary to call the nice Western word „royalties.“
Entering B.’s office, I noticed my old friend’s somewhat agitated, not to mention perplexed look.
„Do you think he’ll attack?“ he asked.
It was unnecessary to name the subject: in those days, everyone by default understood that the subject’s name was Putin. Well, or Russia, which, in the end, is the same thing.
„Very likely,“ I answered. „As far as I’m concerned, it’s about to happen.“
I really believed that the abscess of threats and unambiguous military preparations was ripe to burst.
B. became even more agitated and complained about his terrible prospects: to lose the country, freedom, and a relatively solid business, hard-earned over several decades of phenomenal publishing work—the loss of everything.
“My work has hit a bump in the road,” complained B., “I can’t concentrate on anything. Sales have dropped significantly, if not entirely. Why do people need books when he can strike at any moment?”
I had no soothing words. More precisely, I had, but in my thoughts. Not for him, but for myself: how good it is that I don’t have a business, not even in publishing. One does not envy poor B. in this situation.
Shortly after, he got his act together and traditionally invited me to lunch. This time we went to a plaza near the publishing house. On the way, B. drew my attention to how dramatically the number of cars and pedestrians has decreased here, in the center of the capital. According to him, people had been leaving Kyiv en masse over the past few weeks. Some rushed to Lviv, some to the mountains, and some even further. The latter could mean abroad.
But gangs of looters were already forming in the city, which tracked down houses abandoned by their owners. I couldn’t find out how B. knew about it.
Then he took up the subject once more. In his opinion, only some exceptional mystical manifestation could stop Putin, since Putin himself is a mystic, moreover, with obvious mental deviations. So far, he was being held back by the Winter Olympics in China, said B., and was still being determined whether it would be better for us that the Russians win, for example, in hockey, or that they lose. In both the first and second options, Putin could read a mystical encouragement to war.
“We would have to act in an unusual and preemptive manner,” B. shared his ideas. “Let’s say, destroy the Kerch bridge with missiles. Or hit the navy in Sevastopol. This can be a shock and he will stop.”
I liked it. Non-standard actions were more to my taste. Playing ahead was the smartest thing to do, especially when it comes to the Kremlin monstrosity.
The Italian restaurant we visited served the best cheesecake in Kyiv. This, judging by the name, is not exactly an Italian dessert, but it was at this Italian restaurant you could find the best offering. At least that’s what B.’s wife thought.
“She often comes here for the cheesecake,” he shared confidentially.
I’m mostly indifferent to sweets, but somehow I remembered this detail.
The fact that the place was expensive was evidenced by the presence of young and very beautiful, model-looking women in the restaurant’s interior. They quantitatively (and, of course, qualitatively) outweighed all other visitors, including us. I thought involuntarily that they might as well leave Ukraine for some safer place. Reports of rape were not yet known then, but the memory of past rapes lurked in the subcortex, that is, their inevitability when dealing with Russians.
The comfortable atmosphere and good food calmed my friend down quite a bit. He even abstracted a little from his catastrophic premonitions and began to talk about his plans to republish Hermann Hesse.
However, anxiety soon returned to its place inside B.
“The tip would be twice as much,” he told the waiter, “if you switched to Ukrainian at least once out of courtesy.”
“Well, I’m also against the Muscovites,“ retorted the waiter. „Despite the fact that I am from Crimea, I’m also on Ukraine’s side.”
The tip amount seemed to have increased.
When we got out on the boulevard again and began to say our goodbyes, I tried to find a few more frank phrases. It could have been the last time we saw each other.
„You know, I’m not afraid,“ I assured him. „We just have to remember our youth, all that Soviet crap. How lucky we are to have lived in Ukraine! What to say about life? That it turned out to be long! Our lives have been fantastically successful, and now it’s possible that… It’s not scary at all, not at all.“
„Well, if they just killed us!“ objected B. „The problem is that they will mock our pain. Torture! They are so fancy about it. We have no idea what kind of pain to expect from them. That’s what I’m afraid of.“
And he added:
“We are all on their lists. People like you and I are probably in the first thousand.”
“So low? I’m probably the second on the list,” I tried to joke.
The following weeks confirmed everything with regard to the lists. British (or, after all, American?) intelligence did not exaggerate, intimidate, or invent anything. The Russians had been working on blacklists of Ukrainians for years or even decades. Actually, they never stopped working on them. Even at the time of the collapse of the USSR, they updated and supplemented them–not to mention in later times.
Why? What is the meaning of all this?
A particularly valuable type of hostage? Intellectual, ideological, civic, leadership? Psychological (through physical) processing for the purpose of converting “repentant sinners” to the Russian world? An update of Eastern European practices of the second half of the 1940s? Another act of mind enslavement?
I believe it involves a little bit of everything. The most important is the last one, because, in addition to the conquest of territories, the Russian invasion is about the conquest of minds.
This war, this “special operation,” stems from the past. This is not even some historical continuity, but something worse – a reversal of time.
I am writing these lines today, on the 240th day of the great Russian invasion. The epithet I just used did not come easily to me: I don’t want to call anything Russian “great.” Well, except for this continuous, massive, wild, Dostoevskyian crime, for which an even greater punishment is inevitable.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan