Signs of trouble, Signs of hope

Close to the contact line, Bakhmut direction. October 2023. Photo of Kostiantyn Liberov and Vlada Liberova. Source: @libkos

Originally appeared @Krytyka

By Kostiantyn Moskalets

It was a gloomy November 2021. There were more than enough signs of the trouble that was coming. Let’s just say that I surprised myself by setting aside all the books I was reading and, driven by an unknown impulse, or perhaps instinct, picked up Ernst Jünger’s Jahre der Okkupation. Among the astute and witty observations made by this former Wehrmacht captain who lived in the zone of American occupation, are a variety of sketches of everyday life with sometimes comical, sometimes alarming and dramatic details of the incursion of Soviet troops into defeated Germany, passing thoughts about something he’d just read or heard on the radio (news of Hitler’s suicide, for example). Nor does he sidestep descriptions of the horrors that happened farther east in territory occupied not by Americans, but by Russians. In anticipation of their inevitable arrival, entire families committed suicide to escape the brutal torture, rape, and spine-chilling varieties of violent death that the Russians have always been experts at inventing.

One episode Jünger describes struck a painful chord. A pack of Russian invaders raped the wife of a pastor from Pomerania with extreme cruelty. The woman couldn’t take it and she died. The pastor was sitting next to the body of his deceased wife and praying before a candle. One of the rapists entered and observed with sympathy, “Oh, frau kaputt.” He grabbed the candle and went, leaving the grieving man in total darkness.

I have always been above political and ideological conflicts. In times of peace, this is very easy. It has always taken me a lot of effort to distinguish between adherents of the left and right political spectra, believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives; with some I could not sympathize and I felt enmity to others given my lack of ideological convictions. I learned this from my beloved Hermann Hesse, that “anarchist” Jünger, and, last but not least, Sufi dervishes. According to one of them, souls, filtered by primary light, come here and recognize one another by their smell like horses. This is how I recognized my kith and kin — by their spirit.

Moreover, I knew about the prelude to the finale Jünger describes and knew it not so much from the lessons of mendacious Soviet history, as from our family’s stories. There was no repudiating these stories or the related traumas whose black shadow accompanied my parents, oppressing them their entire lives, and indirectly us, their children. No one back then had heard about family therapy, PTSD, or other things we understand today. My grandpa on my dad’s side was shot by German fascists in 1941 as soon as they occupied Ukraine. Execution threatened my fourteen-year-old future father as well for the anti-war and anti-fascist poems that he published in the local Baturyn newspaper. By some miracle he was left alone.

My other grandfather, my mother’s dad, was held by the Germans in the Darnytsia concentration camp for prisoners of war, where he disappeared without a trace. Most likely he was shot at Babyn Yar along with thousands of other Nazi victims: Jews, Romani, prisoners of war, Ukrainian nationalists. . . After the war when Grandma got married again, to Grandpa Fedio, another story was added to the family lore, no less spine-chilling. When they were clearing the partisans out of the forests in the Kyiv region, German fascists took all of Grandpa Fedio’s family hostage: his wife, daughter Maria, and two teenage sons. Maria managed to escape when they were taking her off to slave labor in Germany, but Grandpa’s wife and sons were shot and killed in that same Babyn Yar.

What I’m trying to say is that I thought I well knew what war was from childhood, not having seen it or experienced it for myself.

War is the death of our relatives, wickedly premature and unjust.

So after all these family stories, it would seem I shouldn’t have great sympathy for the victims on the enemy’s side, for the brothers and sisters of the executioners who destroyed my family and my people, as well as other families and peoples, before later getting their just deserts. However back in November 2021, I felt bad. The Germans were the Germans, but the atrocities were now so inhuman that it was utterly impossible to justify them. Maybe it was the events that would transpire in Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel, and other Ukrainian cities the Russians would occupy in a few months sending me warning rays. The rape of girls and children, executions without investigation or trial just for fun, torture and completely ungrounded cruelty — the whole arsenal of common practices for the Russians again repeated with macabre attention to detail, never mind that a few generations have passed since the time Jünger describes.

The Russians don’t change. They aren’t evolving any more than roaches or termites. Over the centuries they remain unjustified to the absurd, cruel like their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. It is a race of murderers and rapists deprived of elementary principles of ethics from birth. Wolves won’t kill their own, yet these people kill everyone in their way against common sense or even a semblance of expediency. Later they sincerely sympathize with the murdered, like in the story about the tortured pastor’s wife. Let’s hug, these psychopaths say, let’s make up. Give us a kiss!

Today the memory that 23 February was a holiday in the Soviet Union, the day of the Soviet army and navy, has receded farther into oblivion. Even fewer people know that, by an ironic twist of fate, that is my birthday. So I successfully celebrated my birthday and had plans to go to the post office the next day and mail off a signed contract to The Old Lion Publishing House for a new book of essays. But I was awakened by the deafening declaration of the start of a full-scale war by Russia and the intrusion of its troops into our territory. Russian missiles exploded in neighboring Konotop and Nizhyn, Iskander short-range ballistic missiles attacked Kyiv. My wife, who remained in the capital, hid from the shelling in a cellar, taping up the windows in the breaks between missile strikes so that a blast wave wouldn’t spray glass everywhere. The first horrible photographs of the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians cut down by Grad rocket launchers showed up online.

War is the dismemberment of people and territory.

More than once I have had to describe the reality of life under occupation. But these scenes flash before my eyes over and over like on the first days, causing an extremely complex mixture of feelings: total helplessness, rage mixed despair, responding with aggression that never found a proper outlet. These sinister pictures find me in my dreams, are activated by the wailing of the air-raid sirens that prophesy lethal danger, and perhaps this time or the next a bloody end — for myself or those nearest and dearest to me. Everyone has their own degree of endurance. Ernst Jünger, who saw his share of deaths and — there’s no beating around the bush — killed people left and right during World War One, lived to a rich 102. Yet his friend, who highly esteemed Jünger’s spiritual freedom and total personal independence, the Jew Joseph Wulf, who fell into the Gestapo’s hands in 1943 and landed in Auschwitz, survived a death march there, lost nearly his entire family and swore he’d do whatever it took to keep the world from forgetting the millions of lost Jews, did not have the same nerves of steel or endurance as Jünger. Grim pictures of anguish, execution, and torture pursued him relentlessly and he committed suicide in 1974. Ultimately, just like the brilliant poet Paul Celan and hundreds of other people, known and unknown to us…

Columns of Russian tanks rolled over my native land casually shooting everyone who crossed their path, or, on the contrary, defiantly came out to meet them: women and children on the Zhytomyr highway, a retired couple driving home in their old car from the bazaar in Chernihiv, two teenage boys who went out unarmed to block the invaders’ way. Were they not Grandpa Fedio’s sons! History is eerily repeating itself.

War is the repetition of the same old story. This story teaches us that it teaches us nothing.

The city council disappeared without a trace and I recalled one of Jünger’s comments, or yet another of his hidden prophecies: “Mostly likely, instead of a peaceful change of power, an anarchic interregnum awaits us initially.” The one and only policeman stood like an orphan near the precinct with an assault rifle older than me slung over his shoulder, smoking cigarettes like he was doomed. “They probably shot him too,” my neighbor, a former officer, impassively speculated when the first automatic salvo from the Russians sounded in the city. As we later found out, at that point they were still shooting into the air to break up a group of boys and girls who had gathered to block their way onto the main street.

Paying not attention to where I was going, I wandered around the city, a gnawing, unreal feeling eating at me that I was actually in an Andrei Tarkovsky film. In a matter of hours people’s body language and expressions had changed, all their normal behavior. They weren’t looking around like they had been even the day before. They raised their heads and froze in examination of the sky where cruise missiles whistled by. They came out of their houses and stood silently along my path in small groups: gloomy men and frightened women, sad, hushed children. The words “perplexed,” “uncertain,” “despairing,” and “helpless” best describe their behavior. Everyone probably remembers that brilliant scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice that shows people’s panic after a nuclear explosion at the start of World War Three. Six months later, right where the cameraperson was standing, a man shot and killed Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme. Now I was like that cameraman, trying to make sense out of the mise en scène. It frankly and unflinchingly refused to be made sense of. A drunk — or crazy — young man was coming toward me singing the Soviet military “Katiusha” at the top of his lungs. Hands clenched into fists, firefighters who’d come out of their station watched him walk by with open hatred. The start of the war was accompanied by an irrefutable feeling of unreality, a surrealist nightmare, a breakdown or failure in a dimension unknown to physics or experience. This couldn’t be happening; it had never happened in my life, except perhaps in a movie, Bosch painting, or private nightmare. But here it was, happening. Looming, advancing every hour, every minute, crushing the psyche with the unbearable weight of the impossible.

War is the denial of reality.

I walked on, still not knowing that coming behind me was a long column of Russian tanks and that these cheerless people had come out to meet it, not at all hiding their hatred, repudiation, radical condemnation, or reprobation.

We already knew about the first dozen deaths at their hands. And we sensed there would be a hundred times more deaths, injuries, and torture.

These scenes were later shown on all the world’s major television channels: how an elderly man, my peer and compatriot, went out by himself to try to stop a column of tanks, kneeling and trying to persuade the tank driver through the portal to turn around and go back to Russia. He himself was a former tank driver, so he knew perfectly well that no one would consider his arguments, that the invaders were carrying out orders and would do so to the end. But at least he tried. And we all breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that the tank’s tracks didn’t roll over him, nor did they shoot him on the spot. Even though pretty soon, they rolled over and shot everything else.

Our city changed before our eyes. First, the Fora grocery store closed, selling all their remaining stock at extremely low prices. Then the ATB market was shuttered. Now essentials could only be bought at the bazaar. We stood for hours in enormous, never-before-seen lines to get bread at the kiosk. There wasn’t enough for everyone. Some days it wasn’t delivered at all. People bought up all the bread they could and dried it into croutons; the same thing happened with oil. The ATMs were empty and off. You could only get cash at the bank, but no more than five hundred hryvnias at a time. Starting at four a.m. people lined up outside the bank, not in queues, but in whole columns. The banks closed at noon, so many of the people who had waited all night never got their cash. This was mostly retirees and women who needed money to buy food for their small children. There are countless examples of both noble and vile behavior. For example, a local farmer who couldn’t take the dangerous roads to drive his milk to Kyiv anymore, so he gave it away for free every morning since it had to go somewhere. At the same time, one clever dealer, one of those whose fingers are always crossed behind their backs, with no pangs of conscience (how could you feel what you don’t have?) filled up a few cans of this free milk from the farmer’s car and without batting an eye sold it right there at the nearby bazaar. To this day I’m thankful to Yurko, whom I’ve been buying tea from for years, for refusing to the last box to raise prices on tea and coffee despite the fact that the prices at his neighbors’ kiosks instantly skyrocketed and a jar of lousy instant coffee cost six hundred hryvnias instead of the former fifty.

War is the place for noble and vile acts.

The trains stopped running. A portion of the tracks we took apart ourselves; a portion the occupiers destroyed. The post office was closed. I never did send my contract to the publisher, though I continued writing columns for internet publications, more than once observing that the “liberators” would shoot me for some of them, or for my entire creative output. When she read one of my columns, my mom said, “Son, I’m afraid for you. They’re only twenty kilometers away. If someone denounces you, they’ll kill you.” “Mom,” I said, “they’re killing people who aren’t writing anything. They’re killing children who can’t yet read or write, and some of them can’t even talk yet. They’re killing us just because we exist, because we’re Ukrainian.” However, I later understood that if the invaders had stayed in the Chernihiv region longer, I could have easily met the same fate as Volodymyr Vakulenko, who was turned in by citizens of Ukraine who hated everything Ukrainian no less than the Russians.

But far more dangerous than the arrival of the eventual FSB commissars were the Russian missiles. They are still flying, those missiles, practically every day and night, just now Iranian drones have been added to the mix. The earth quakes from the explosions; columns of black smoke rise up beyond the forest. We often hide in underground passageways or in shelters if there’s one nearby. At the start of the full-scale war no one yet understood the danger of missiles. I will never forget the scenes from those first days of war when the air raid sirens were howling over the city, armed guys from the Territorial Defense Forces were running down the street, and an unmoving line stood near Oshchadbank, hoping to finally get their cherished five hundred hryvnias. It was only when an explosion sounded somewhere nearby that the line reluctantly and then faster and faster started to disperse, then scatter until the street was flooded with people running who knows where, but clearly toward life.

War is when it’s scary.

I have always been above political and ideological conflicts, professing individualism and belonging only to myself. Having formed an early hatred of the collectivist Soviet spirit, even in school I refused to go to demonstrations dedicated to whatever anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, join the Komsomol, march in formation, and so on. For me, a model attitude toward life was that of Henry David Thoreau, who left the city, built himself a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, and lived as he pleased, washing his mind every morning in the life-giving waters of the Bhagavad Gita and long meditations. “You’re our Thoreau,” my friends would tell me when they came to visit me in my tiny hut in the middle of the green Chernihiv woods not far from Baturyn. I lived this remote — and completely happy and pacifist — life for more than twenty summers and winters, never once concerning myself with politics, the economy, or much less the existence of some unwashed (as one of its best poets said) Russia. I had plenty of good books brought by those same friends, CDs of excellent classical music, especially Bach, but also Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. I still haven’t listened to all of their multivolume collected works, but I obstinately intend to finish.

But then on Easter 2022, which I celebrated in my Tea Rose Cell alone, something happened after which it became impossible to further cultivate this long seclusion and contemplative way of life. The day passed without incident, but in the evening the missiles began flying from the northeast with a frantic whistle. Missiles were flying low over the Tea Rose! On Easter, the most important Christian holiday, from a country that has with equal arrogance and baselessness crowned itself the last defender of the true Christian faith and traditional spiritual values! One, two, three. . . I wondered if the paunchy bearded priests in Moscow who tirelessly bless their tanks had consecrated these missiles as well. It was entirely possible. Over the small house where I had prayed and composed songs for years, over the beloved place where I was born, that had gifted me peace and tranquility, amazing insight and enlightenment, love for the world and humanity for so many years, flew instruments of death, visible expressions of satanic pride and hatred for everything truly human! Four, five, six. . . If it hadn’t been dark, I’d have seen them. They were so low I thought one of them would snag the Tea Rose’s chimney. These missiles were flying to Kyiv and to Lviv where my wife had taken shelter in a convent. For months now, I’d been unable to get to her to at least protect her from the missiles with my own body, because of the malicious, inhuman Russians who’d been running our roads like rabid dogs, because of Russia in general. Six. . . Seven. . . Eight. . .

Now over there, a few dozen kilometers from this safe place where I’m standing, my head desperately raised to the blind, senseless, treacherous, godless sky, deafening explosions ring out, fires flash up, children are burned alive, the walls of buildings and stone that had seemed so reliable crumble, where our calm, carefree lives were once filled with ordinary human joys and, as we now see, quite bearable troubles. Now death rages there and I can do absolutely nothing about it.

I thought of when I’d first settled there and recalled the appeal I made to this very sky in 1991: “Give me twenty years of peace so I can write my most important poems and songs, so the starlight of mystical enlightenment and revelation has time to reach me through fervent prayer and deep, focused reading.” This was in August during the Moscow coup. That was when the damned Soviet empire of evil that I was born and grew up in began falling apart. That was when the fatally wounded animal began convulsing and destroying everything alive in its path. A popular metaphor back then was the Titanic: when a gigantic ship starts to go down, the smaller boats must immediately leave the scene of the disaster or risk getting pulled down into the maelstrom created by the dying giant.

They could have launched those missiles back then. Back then the press wrote about the tens of thousands of handcuffs that had been ordered from factories after the start of the coup. Those handcuffs were intended for people like me, eternal dissidents and enemies of the communist state.

Back then, the sky listened to my request. I got my twenty-plus years of peacetime, of beholding the starry sky above the Tea Rose to my heart’s content, serving tea and new poems to friends, writing my most important works.

Will the convent walls in Lviv which now hide the greatest love of my life, its sense and fulfillment, withstand the hit? Is there any sense in remaining in solitude and sacred separation from the profane world when the enemy has come and begun to ruthlessly and methodically exterminate my people?

Now, sky, I ask you for one final thing: help us defeat our enemies.

War is the total transformation of your worldview, metanoia.

War demands engagement and involvement. You cannot be impartial, you must at least participate in fundraising for the Armed Forces, or by writing texts that tell the world about the calamity and call it to intervene. That Austrian singer, Toni Knittel, who asked permission to perform my song “Oh, My Dear Ukraine,” raised €14,000 at his concerts and gave it all to Ukrainian refugees. So you can fight with song! And poems and essays. You can even fight with prayer. Escapism, which I was a constant supporter and practitioner of for a long time, is unacceptable during war.

. . .At night the sky is aflame, incessant explosions rain down making our old Khrushchev-era apartment building tremble in terror. There are more tanks and soldiers in the city every day—our tanks and our soldiers. Their insignia are our signs of hope! There are endless convoys carrying heavy weapons. Our soldiers’ facial expressions, austere and solemn, attract our attention. They have seen many deaths. They are going to save Ukraine. Even at the cost of their own lives. The government is returning to the city. The first trucks with groceries for ATB and Fora arrive. The first funerals for the murdered and tortured boys from the territorial defenses are being held. I knew a few of them personally. We kneel to express our respect for those who have laid down their lives for our freedom. For the opportunity to talk, write, sing, and live in Ukrainian. We kneel only before our own. Before our enemies we will never kneel.

This war that Russia has unleashed against us is outright ethnocide. They are killing us in front of the whole world. They’re cocky and sadistic, beheading prisoners of war on camera and shooting people on live TV. They have crossed all conceivable and unconceivable boundaries, losing their semblance to humans. Were I younger and healthier, I would absolutely take up arms and go destroy this evil without the slightest pity. But now I can only pray for you, boys, and ask the sky to help. We must endure this. We cannot give into despair. Before my eyes is the figure of a young woman who sits sobbing at the fresh grave of her lover or brother in the Field of Mars in Lviv, talking to the soil flowing helplessly through her delicate fingers. This is our Ukraine, boys. It is she whom the butchers in Moscow want to wipe from the earth, and not for the first time. For her bitter suffering. For our children’s tears. For our fallen brothers and sisters, you must triumph, for you are our only and final hope.

Kostiantyn Moskalets
Poet, essayist, translator
Kyiv, Ukraine
Рoet, novelist, literary critic, essayist.

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.