Bearing witness to the war

Military operations near Bakhmut. October 2023. By David Guttenfelder Source: @dguttenfelder

Originally appeared @Krytyka

By Bohdana Matiyash

We’re talking about the war, we are telling ourselves and then the world about the crimes the Russians have perpetrated in our land with that faith that someday this long list will be reviewed in the Hague. We talk to refute, to strike out the narratives of Russian propaganda; we talk so that we and the world can know the truth about us in this war. It might seem unnecessary to emphasize the need to know the truth about ourselves.

When I look around at the more than nine years of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and especially at the last year and a half, I realize they are marked by a particular intensity not only of death, injury, destruction, and new experiences — evacuation, occupation, loss of homes, the obliteration of entire towns — but of narratives of everything we’ve survived, as well as of the experiences of those who can no longer tell their own stories. Some of us were already in the habit of recording the events of our individual and shared lives in diaries and reflecting on them in essays, but it is unlikely that as a nation we have ever documented our reality or discussed our traumas so intensively, not after the fact, but in the here and now. And never in my memory have they been as terrible.

We’re talking about the war. For many reasons we’re bearing witness to what we’ve done — and continue to do — throughout these unbearable months. We are telling ourselves and then the world about the crimes the Russians have perpetrated in our land with that faith that someday this long list will be reviewed in the Hague. We talk to refute, to strike out the narratives of Russian propaganda; we talk so that we and the world can know the truth about us in this war. It might seem unnecessary to emphasize the need to know the truth about ourselves. Yet this is indeed important in the Ukrainian context where the traumas of the twentieth century were mostly silenced — because of fear, because of the government’s total duplicity and conscious concealment and denial of its crimes, and, therefore, because of the sheer lack of information about them. In this context, attesting at the top of one’s lungs to the Holodomor, Stalin’s repressions, and crimes of the Soviet government only became possible many decades after they were committed. Until then, information had to be gathered in bits and pieces; not everything you heard could you repeat. Today’s storm of testimonies and documentation of the events and crimes of the Russo-Ukrainian War seems to me to be a product of this: the impossibility of knowing the truth about one’s past for decades and so many generations’ fear of speaking about it have induced us to testify louder and louder, even about the most horrible things we know. To listen to those who speak and record their testimony. To watch videos with the cruelest scenes of execution and torture. To publicize photographs of our tortured compatriots — even just a few years ago we probably couldn’t look at them, but now we study all the details and refuse to look away. To search for torture chambers and mass graves in liberated lands and tell the world about them. To share photos of homes, daycares, schools, museums, and other buildings deep in the rear shelled by Russian missiles, and to talk about our dead.

We must speak to know the truth and so no one is tempted to hide anything. Speak so as not to leave any chances for lies or propaganda. Speak so as not to forget. Ultimately, so we can go on living, so the traumas we’ve experienced don’t destroy us from the inside.

The monstrosity of evil

Each of us has something to say about the war, and each story is important, no matter how similar they might be. Could we forget the deluge of stories followed by written testimony and videos about evacuating from our cities, towns, and villages after the full-scale invasion? Most of them were identical. We all saw and heard the same things when leaving Kharkiv, Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, and Kramatorsk in February 2022, not knowing if we’d ever be able to return. Or if so, when or what would await us when we did. Our photos from overcrowded trains and stations were the same, and they called to mind the evacuations of Kyiv and Kharkiv during the Second World War. Most of us had just one backpack, and in the time we spent away from home, we learned to live with less. When we got back, the number of objects around us was startling, and for a long time felt excessive and superfluous.

We find ourselves in a reality we weren’t born for; for we are born to live, not to die. Yet war is always about death. The first days of the full-scale invasion were long and vicious. We felt total uncertainty about what was next and often felt paralyzed. What could we do? Our men went to the recruitment offices and stood in the long, snaking lines. They grouped into territorial defense forces and dug trenches in cities because none of our towns was prepared for a “big war,” as we often call it now, even though all possible intelligence sources warned us one after another: there will be a war. What else did we do? We shared medicine and food when the shops and pharmacies were empty or shuttered entirely. We begged the world to close the sky above us, and we prayed.

We met with evil. It was already among us, but we still held illusions about its nature. Reading in the news that the Russian military brought thousands of body bags and mobile crematoria, we naively thought they were meant for Russian soldiers, and wondered: have the Russians so lost their humanity that they don’t even intend to bury their own? The de-occupation of Bucha, Irpin, and the towns outside Kyiv and what came to light about the crimes committed there was our first encounter with the depths of evil. It turned out that in Europe in the twenty-first century, there could be execution lists, that you could be tortured, raped, and then murdered for being Ukrainian and loving your land. That the talk about concentration camps to be built to the west and east of Kyiv wasn’t delusional rambling, but judging from everything else, plans that fortunately didn’t come to pass. Could we have imagined such a thing was even possible in our day? Could we have thought, God forbid, that what our grandparents went through could happen again? That repressions, executions, and mass graves could become the reality of our century too?

I’m writing these words in July 2023 with the awareness that in the time that has passed since the first shock of Bucha, it seems we have unfortunately realized that anything is possible. And not just because we’ve learned so much about methods of torture the Russians are employing, about the cruelty our captured soldiers are treated with, or about the detention of civilians with express political positions in basements in occupied territory. Nor just because we’re used to tragic news: before our eyes dry from mourning one victim, we hear about the next loss, and we don’t know when this will end. But because we have been face-to-face with evil, its demonic might and monstrosity, and we realize that, unpunished decade after decade, it grew in strength and became capable of literally anything.

What’s happening in Ukraine today is possible not in the least because all the crimes of the Soviets went unpunished: those that took place on the territory of Ukraine, certainly up to the Chornobyl catastrophe, but also those that happened elsewhere. And now, after the dotted line of Bucha-Mariupol-Izium-Kherson-Bakhmut-Kakhovka, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages between them, each with its own story of occupation, missile strikes, flooding, murder by starvation, and so on, when we see the whole specter of what Russians are capable of today, I’m surprised not that they are willing to do anything, but rather that, knowing the history of the twentieth century, we did not realize this and a genocide of Ukrainians in the twenty-first century took us by surprise. For where would all the “hard work” of Stalin’s regime and the KGB have disappeared to or why, if it never lost its relevance in Russia? Ultimately, we already knew about Izoliatsiia, the torture chambers that turned up in Donetsk in 2014; we knew about the volunteers shot and killed in eastern Ukraine for supporting the Ukrainian army, displaying Ukrainian symbols, or refusing to speak Russian. Why didn’t we think about the fact that wherever Russians go similar torture chambers appear and the occupiers would continue to practice the same methods of retribution they’ve relied on since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War?

Contemporary torture chambers differ little from the ones our grandparents and great-grandparents went through. I suspect the mass graves on the occupied territories are also similar to the graves of the repressed in Bykivnia or tortured in Solovki. The so-called “solution to the Ukrainian question” that Putin suddenly began talking about in 2022, the very wording he chose, should trigger us: we know this expression and it portends nothing good. It means physical destruction.

It is impossible for someone who doesn’t live by the laws of evil to comprehend its logic or anticipate its scope. The human in us is trying to convince us: a full-scale war in the heart of Europe is impossible today, much less a genocide of Ukrainians. Truly, in many ways we are like the Jews, who at the start of the Holocaust also struggled to believe what was coming. But as an old woman who survived the concentration camps but whose name we do not know said, “If someone promises to kill you, believe them.”

A new executed renaissance

Time passes and we are increasingly adapting to how to live amid a war. It has changed us, added to our traumas — both ones we are conscious of and ones we are not. We have all lost someone dear to this war, to say nothing of all the friends of friends of friends who have died. We know mothers who have lost their sons and daughters; women whose husbands disappeared without a trace and who are hoping without hope for at least some information; we know widows and orphans; people who were executed or who perished during shelling. We are trying to tell the world about the ones we love so their memory lives on. This is our obligation to them. So, I will also tell.

About my aunt Oleksandra, who died on 6 March 2022 in Mariupol (I’m withholding her last name to protect her family, part of which is still in this suffering city). She was bedridden after a stroke and didn’t understand everything, but knew there was a war happening and, at the sound of missiles, would say, “Sca-a-a-ary . . .” in a drawn-out way. I don’t know the circumstances of her death because I couldn’t muster the strength to ask when I finally got in touch with my relatives after not having service for a long time and not knowing how or where they were. I suspect her heart couldn’t hold out. She lived only about a mile away from Azovstal, and they could not bury her due to the constant shelling. They just carried her body to the nearby preschool, laid it on the ground, and covered it with rocks. . . Her remains lay there for over a month until they were apparently buried in a mass grave somewhere on the outskirts of the city. None of her relatives will ever know where she lies in eternal rest, and even when Mariupol is liberated, we won’t be able to visit her grave to simply pray by her.

About the writer Volodymyr Vakulenko from the village of Kapytolivka outside Izium in the Kharkiv region, who was killed by the occupiers with two shots from a pistol. He had a clear pro-Ukrainian position, so he expected the locals would surrender him when the Russians arrived. That’s what happened. About culturologist and translator Yevhen Hulevych from Kalush, sarcastic yet laconic, a gentle man not inclined to fight. It seems no one suspected he would volunteer to go to war in the first days of the full-scale invasion. He’d more likely continue diligently translating Shakespeare’s sonnets and Lorca’s poetry, commenting on Ortega y Gasset or editing his colleagues’ texts — he was quite brilliant at it. Instead, he died near Bakh,mut. I want to tell you about Victoria Amelina from Lviv who died from injuries sustained in Kramatorsk during a shelling of the pizzeria where she was eating with a delegation of colleagues from Colombia. From practically the start of the full-scale invasion, she had been documenting Russians’ crimes, and, when Izium and Kapytolivka were liberated, it was Amelina who dug up the diary that Vakulenko kept during the occupation and managed to bury in his orchard before he was abducted. The diary was deciphered and published with an introduction by Victoria, which contains these spine-chilling words: “My worst fear has been realized: I’m in the middle of a new Executed Renaissance.” A few days after the diary was presented, these words took on new meaning, now directly concerning Amelina herself. Her name will forever be inscribed in our list of lost authors.

Of course, they’re not just killing writers. Members of all professions and vocations are dying — there’s no enumerating them. But we in the writing community have begun this new count of losses for our literature, in which every new loss, every new name means unwritten and untranslated books, new lacunae in every genre, in brief: a new wound, a new cavity in the body of culture.

Ultimately, these cavities have markedly increased since the beginning of the war, and I’m not only talking about those killed in action. Literature in the time of a full-scale war has changed drastically. Some of us writers have lost the ability to write about anything but the reality of war. Or even write at all. Sure, the first months of the full-scale invasion were marked by a surge of poetic activity, very painful, written in a tear, and published immediately on social media; these were the first and most natural emotional reactions to the war. Right away, a number of these texts were placed in various poetic anthologies published abroad — another manifestation of support for and solidarity with Ukraine. Later some children’s books were published that were supposed to help kids adapt to the new reality: support them as they were far from home and family, survive the loss of friends or their home, tell about people who gave their lives so we could live, tell about the legendary Mriya airplane or the dog Patron, and so on. Later there came a wave of essays and columns focused on the reality of war. Here and there new books by Ukrainian authors come out that don’t mention the war at all, but they are few and far in between. Sometimes I think that we are unlearning how to write the way we used to. We are plain forgetting how it works.

Today it is not possible to write like, say, Oleh Lysheha did — diving headfirst into the natural elements, practically dissolving in them. If he were alive, would he be able to disengage himself from everything happening around him and write something his own, beyond war, beyond time? Not likely. . . Back during the Revolution of Dignity he was on the Maidan and said that if he had to, he would go to war.

The war negates words and forces us to keep silent. The books we wrote long ago come up short, at least some of them. In a certain sense, the war nullifies us as writers, and we, the living, also become collections of unwritten poems and novels, essays and children’s books. Each of us had our own interesting writerly language, but at least some part of our own authorial style, our language is lost. Paradoxically, we can’t take anyone’s complaints about this too seriously. When someone overly despairs over the loss of their writerly language, you think, “Next to someone who lost a leg or two, an arm or an eye, a house or family, that’s nothing.” Although in truth, for a writer, the loss of written language is somewhat akin to losing one’s home. Moving into a new house, the house of silence. Not writing what you once wanted to but now no longer can. You haven’t the words.

Nor can we read today like we used to. I remember my friends telling me over and over last year, “I can’t read anything.” Initially I, too, couldn’t read anything except for texts for work. But then I gradually started flipping through novels about. . . the Holocaust. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Lilac Girls, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz, and the like filled my e-reader, and in reading them, I recognized the realities of my world. I compared them. The plots that used to be only historical began to be reflected in reality. I also felt the need to reread Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil in order to more clearly comprehend the reality we found ourselves in. I often recalled the books of Edith Eger, which I’d read earlier, and followed her posts on Facebook. The knowledge that despite all the horrors of the concentration camps this brave woman experienced, she had survived and found fulfillment as a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother and was a source of great support for me. That evil didn’t win. That in her, life defeated death, no, that it triumphed in her. Today Eger is 95 and her older sister, who she was in the concentration camp with, recently died at the age of 100. At the moments when the most horrible news of the war came, I remembered them both and thought that the prisoners of Auschwitz probably also saw no end to the daily horror of life in the camp. But it did end, and then came the long road to oneself, to overcoming one’s traumas, and to life.

Not long before the full-scale invasion, in September 2021, there was an online conversation with Edith Eger and a presentation of her book The Choice as part of the BookForum in Lviv. The war in Ukraine had been going on for many years and Eger had words of support for Ukrainian readers. This conversation, a recording of which is available on the BookForum site, was led by Victoria Amelina. Now that Victoria is no longer with us, I have often thought that for Eger, who went through Auschwitz, the news of Victoria, who didn’t make it to the end of the war, was probably just as painful as it was for us, for it always hurts when evil wins.

Saying goodbye to Russian culture

At the start of the full-scale war, we were actively tracking how Russians were reacting to the war, and even trying to appeal to the consciences of our so-called “apolitical” friends in Belarus and Russia. I recall my only phone conversation in the last year and a half with relatives from Belarus, in which they were trying to convince me that no missiles were being launched on Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. Later they called another relative to tell her they were beginning to worry about us. At the time, this was annoying and evoked many emotions, but now most of us, it seems, are generally indifferent to what people across our northern and eastern borders think. If you’re not with us, you’re against us — what’s not to understand?

Recently, poet and essayist Ostap Slyvynsky was surprised that Russian intellectuals today don’t mention the war. They live and write as though it didn’t exist. Citing the Facebook posts of one Russian poet, he noted that everything that has happened since February 24, 2022, he calls the “flow of events,” not a single word about war slipping in. It is also telling how Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya — some of whose books I used to like — reacted to the full-scale invasion. During a presentation in Berlin that took place after the full-scale invasion, she said, “I lived an enormous, happy portion of my life when there were no great wars. Small, localized wars were always happening somewhere on the fringes for us in Russia. But there was always hope that there’d be no great war. Today there is no certainty in this. I would like for this threat to pass us by.” When the moderator pointed out that a great war was already happening, the writer said, “But I’d like to call it little for now.”

Her words are part of a conscious choice, also a testimony. About a decision to remain impartial, which is actually unbelievably easy to do while the war is far from you, while your friends and family aren’t fighting in it, while you don’t know what an air raid signal is and can’t hear sirens. You can not notice it as long as missiles and Iranian drones aren’t flying over your home, there’s no artillery fire or planes in your town, and you don’t hear the sounds of anti-aircraft systems and explosions. You can just disengage. Live your relatively peaceful life. Develop your talents, do what makes you happy. Unfortunately, before 2022, quite a few Ukrainians also lived like that, as though there was no war in Ukraine. The pity isn’t that the war didn’t reach everyone, but that not all of us were able to express the solidarity that those who were forced to flee their homes nine years ago needed.

Ultimately, there are still quite a few people in Ukraine who count the start of the war only from February 24, 2022, as well as those who try to abstract from it and “just live” to the extent that it is possible. This is easier for the ones who’ve left, but even among those who remain there are many people who believe this is “not their war” and that they can hide from it. And while Russians’ silence doesn’t surprise me, I cannot comprehend this position among Ukrainians. I have to remind myself that it is very human. That it’s always been like this. That during World War II, some people hid Jews and others turned them in; there are always people who take an active position and people who try to just ride out the difficult times, for this is all they have the capacity for. Some people just have no fear or learn to overcome it, act despite it, while others are unbearably scared and can do nothing about it. In Ukrainian society today there is a great temptation to judge the latter, but as a community we have to learn to reduce the degree of conflict this gives rise to, remembering that it is our enemies and traitors who deserve our condemnation.

Against the background of war, it is surprising that today in Ukraine there are still people who are rather tenaciously trying to hold on to the right to speak Russian, raise their children on Russian products (I can’t twist my tongue enough to say “cultural”), read Russian literature, and defend the right to use Russian in the workplace. At a time when Russian fascists in occupied Ukrainian land are destroying Ukrainian books in libraries en masse, still not everyone in the rear understands why we are recycling Russian literature for the paper and why it can no longer serve us. All these people complain that Russian is their native language and that Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy have nothing to do with the current war. The majority of them aren’t even aware that though their parents and grandparents spoke Russian, there’s a high probability that their great-great-grandparents’ native language was Ukrainian. Russification took its toll. As for the Russian writers they purport to honor, few of their apologists know these authors’ works well enough to grasp the imperial context of their texts.

However, despite the efforts of various segments of the population to protest the farewell to Russian culture, it is obvious that the war has catalyzed our departure from it. It is actually quite natural. Whereas today’s forty-somethings and older are still rooted in the Russian context well enough to get their bearings, the thirty-somethings have numerous gaps in their understanding of Russian culture, history, and reality, and quite a few twenty-somethings can’t even speak Russian. We don’t need to be involved in the Russian context. We are tearing ourselves away from its colonialist essence, for it is foreign to us; ultimately, because we recognize our own self-worth. We are letting ourselves say at the top of our lungs that we have wonderful music, literature, cinema, and brilliant artists who have something to say to the world. The time has come to attest to this, too. To introduce the world to works that were forgotten or repressed, to forbid it from calling Ukrainian artists Russian, as is still commonly practiced in some countries, to tell the true history of Ukraine and not the imperial version in you-know-who’s “vintage.” Culture is also our weapon, which we can — and should — use to seize our freedom.

The main thing is not to keep silent so that our enemy speaks for us and about us. Therefore, even though today’s reality is often unbearable, terrible, and savage, we cannot stop bearing witness to it. Let’s say, as Victoria Amelina does in one of her poems:


in this strange city only women testify
one tells me about a missing child
two talk about those tortured in a basement
three say they haven’t heard about rapes and look away
four talk about the screams from the commandant’s office
five about those shot in the yards
six talk, but I can’t make anything out
seven are still listing their food stores out loud
eight say I’m lying and there is no justice
nine speak among themselves on their way to the cemetery

I’m also going, for I now know everyone here

and all their dead are my dead

and all their living are my sisters

ten speak of a man who survived
he was also taken away
he could be a witness

I knock on his door, but a neighbor comes out
she speaks for him:

it only seems he survived —
go, talk to the women

or as I do in one of mine:


we’re running in between drops of rain this spring
unable to either talk or keep silent
so much inside each one of us ­is burned
so many tears cried so many words caught in throats

explosions again hearing explosions one after another
is there still a world without them? hard to believe

is there still a corner of the world with peace
where water sloshes where swans swim
where mountain peaks are covered with shiny snow
our loved ones are nearby
lists of the dead don’t hit like a hammer
against a coffin
name after name ten after ten hundred after hundred

is there still a world where no one flees their homeland
has the honor to live in it love it defend their children and women
a world with no young widows often so tender
still utterly girls a world with no orphans with no war or pain

hard to believe hard to believe it’s out there
maybe only in dreams
not even in poems

poems have gone rancid, rancid all the words you speak
that you don’t speak the thought that everything passes and this too heals
quiet embraces heal a gentle touch heals
on shoulders and hands

rain heals the flower that bloomed after the rain heals
silence heals

as well as hundreds of other ways. And even when we don’t say anything, all our choices and attitudes silently testify about us one way or another.

Bohdana Matiyash
writer, translator, editor
Kyiv, Ukraine

Literary editor of Krytyka journal. Expert of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Graduated from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy with a degree in Philology: History, Literary Theory and Comparative Studies (2004).

She debuted with poetry book Undeveloped Photos (Kyiv: Smoloskyp, 2005), and gained recognition with the next poetry collection conversations with God (Lviv: Staryi Lev Publishing House, 2007). She has participated in residencies for writers and translators in Poland, Austria, Latvia, Germany, and Ukraine, as well as in numerous international literary festivals. Bohdana translates from Polish, Belarusian, and English. In particular, she has translated books by Leszek Kolakowski, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Andrzej Stasiuk, Mariusz Szczygiel, and other authors. She was awarded with a number of awards, including the Ukrainian American Women’s Union Award (2010), and the Honorary Award “Meritorious for Polish Culture” (2014).

Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella

The “War Is… Ukrainian Writers on Living Through Catastrophe” essay project is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.