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Kyiv

THE WAR DIARY OF
YEVGENIA BELORUSETS

Yevgenia Belorusets has been one of the great documentarians of Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014, winning the International Literature Prize for her work. She began keeping a diary on the first day of the 2022 Russian attack on Ukraine. Entries were released almost daily for the first forty days of the war.

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WHO MAY SPEAK

In early November, when I started to write this piece, the streets around my house in Berlin were subdued.

I had tried in vain to call some of my friends in Kyiv, who had been, day to day, without light or water for hours at a time. Three Mondays in a row, critical infrastructure in many cities, not just Kyiv, had been attacked again and again in the early morning.

Unable to reach my friends, I came up with the title for a piece, “Who May Speak,” which I saw as an opportunity to explore silence. But as I considered the title further, an uneasy feeling came over me: that I was not actually allowed to speak—or that I was, but not at that moment, maybe later, another time. My thoughts circled the war over and over, and I wondered whether I should write about my own language, about self-censorship, about how language contorts itself in an attempt to ease the pain of reality but always more or less fails. At the same time, this all seemed quite beside the point.

Since the start of the war, I have seen various requests made of “others”—to disappear from view, to remain silent. In the first weeks, such a request was made of an entity as vague as the “Russian cultural community.” There were statements calling for those in the “Russian cultural community” to not appear in public and to keep silent about their own misfortune in the face of Russia’s genocidal crimes, violations of international law, and disregard for human rights.

Cultural communities naturally have ambiguous borders, and the Ukrainians who had remained in the occupied territories—and, for various reasons, not expressed their political positions clearly—were implicated.

It was as if there were a competition of suffering and those closer to the epicenter of the crime had less of a right to the collective sympathy that otherwise grew day by day. On the contrary, these people in the “Russian cultural community” were expected to somehow see and acknowledge their own shared responsibility for Russia’s actions. A large part of this responsibility, the request seemed to imply, entailed remaining silent and abandoning certain “Russian” cultural practices that are firmly engrained.

The limits of such a responsibility are too tenuous to be defined precisely. As is the collective sympathy that finds a form, and can be withdrawn, in the media and on social networks—an assessment, a scattered pointillist formation of opinions, so different from the repressive mechanisms of the state, that manifests itself as a wave of brief authorized statements. It arrives under the guise of anonymous common sense and successfully creates an illusion of being supported by the whole of society or a country at large.

But as I reflect on this call to silence, I wonder to whom it’s really addressed. What are the boundaries of a cultural community? Can they really be defined by language, as the Russian state has claimed since 2014?

Can one decide one’s own affiliation even if it contradicts collective opinion? In the case of this war, to which political field are Russian-speaking Ukrainians assigned? I myself belong to this minority, and I notice how my language continues to be used for the purposes of propaganda. Not only the Ukrainian territories are occupied, I myself feel occupied by the perceived political meaning of my language. Russian state media operate with the idea that language determines cultural affiliation. And that same idea, unfortunately, is shared by large parts of the Ukrainian cultural community.

Further questions arise: How does a speech stage itself, fill space? How does a silence?

In this case, as in many others, the silence is noticeable only when it somehow shows itself.

I was in Kyiv when the war began. As usual, voices from many countries mingled in my Facebook feed. Nadezhda Plungian, editor of the Moscow art magazine Colta, wrote in March (I quote her from memory): “My Facebook is getting worse and worse. The government has blocked it, and my attempts to bypass the block are criticized. Colta is banned and ceases to exist. I don’t want to write anymore. I will disappear into silence and I doubt that I will be available here anytime soon. I take my leave.”

In those days, I watched angrily as the normalcy of my world collapsed. Kyiv was surrounded, and I didn’t know what the next hour might bring, but when I read Nadia’s message, I felt a deep sadness. As if I myself had asked Nadia not to speak, not to show herself, and, in the face of war, to withdraw from public, or even more radically—to disappear.

I wanted to write to her, to convince her that I had always enjoyed reading her posts and would like to continue reading them. At the same time, I wasn’t sure if it would be too risky for her to express her opinion freely while living in Moscow.

The divide between our countries made the idea of sharing a virtual community seem ridiculous. The other country, the neighboring country, had long been inaccessible, even to me, but after February 24 this gap manifested itself in a new way. I can’t remember if I found a few words for Nadia that evening, if I replied to her post. I think I held back because I couldn’t decide among different statements and their implications.

Earlier this evening I talked on the phone with a Ukrainian soldier. He is younger than me and stationed in the south of the country, in Mykolaiv, where his grandmother lives. Mykolaiv is one of the cities that has come under the heaviest rocket fire—all the university buildings and almost all the schools have been destroyed during nine months of war. With a particular sadness, he spoke of the Pylyp Orlyk International Classical University, from which he himself had graduated. “This beautiful university, one of the best in the country, is in ruins,” he said. “All the rooms that I know, that I spent years in, have been turned inside out.”

I wanted to ask him about his daily experiences. He has been on the front for several months already.

But he began to talk about the war, the origin of which he sees in a thousand-year conflict between Russia and Ukraine that flares up again and again. “That’s the only way,” he says bitterly, “that you can can explain it all. Our biggest mistake was that we forgot about all those years of conflict and trusted them again.” At this I was silent for a while. Then I asked him what he sees around him. I wanted to know how this lazy, slow, melancholic southern city deals with the constant rocket fire. He said, as if answering a completely different question, that war is terrible and not romantic, that no book he has ever read has described what is happening there now. The war does not encourage heroism—there is nothing heroic—it just breaks people. “I’m a pessimist,” he said. But in some ways life in Mykolaiv has remained as it was. The people are just as melancholic and slow as they were before the attack. They try, as they did before, to enjoy their days somewhat sullenly. His grandmother, he said, gets up every morning at five, goes to the cellar, waits for an hour, and then goes back to sleep. The shelling takes place early in the morning almost every day.

In the photos of Mykolaiv on my Telegram channels, I see destroyed apartment buildings and bus stops. “Everyone goes back to sleep after the shelling,” he said. “And no one seems too concerned that sometimes the shelling continues even though residential buildings are being attacked. After all, people here are trying to move from the third, fourth, and fifth floors to the bottom two. This is the only serious precautionary measure.” The war in Mykolaiv has become “everyday sorrow.” In market halls and at bus stops, people talk about the houses that were hit. “Most often the shelling happens in total darkness, and then once the sun is up you look for people in the rubble,” he said. “Only eight times have we seen open bus stops hit in daylight. Only eight times during this war. We’ll talk about that later or not at all.”

I write down his words, but I cannot comment on them. I don’t know how to respond. I just imagine someone else’s response.

This man, I learned, was supposed to become a sociologist and translator after graduating from university, but over the course of the war he has become a professional soldier.

Today it was dark in Kyiv, with no electricity and no water in many districts. Then there was light again, but only for a few hours. The absolutely dark, almost black streets, as I experienced them in the early days of the war, look like an extension of the city, an initiation into a new unknown architecture. One discovers how strongly nighttime lighting shapes and sustains the familiarity of our surroundings.

“They came and said, ‘Kill us! Or we will kill you. Not just kill—destroy houses and towns, rob and rape you. And you—what will you decide? It’s your choice. In any case, we have already begun.’ ”

That’s how my friend the historian Kyrylo Tkachenko half-jokingly put it, as if the invaders were offering a hypothetical. In fact, it is a real question, with nothing theoretical about it, that has been addressed to Ukrainians at large.

This level of practical violence—a violence that engulfs life in Ukraine and makes millions of people eyewitnesses to war crimes—is theoretically justified by the aggressor again and again in new ways, enabling and exonerating at once. Alongside it arises an Everest of propaganda—irrational, fanciful descriptions of why this war was so necessary and so inevitable for Russia, why one should just die, be murdered and watch as everything one has loved and cherished since childhood is destroyed, or kill oneself and thereby protect oneself from the suffering.

So one wants to separate oneself from this question—to kill or be killed—in theory, even if there seems to be almost no choice in practice.

Identities, “cultural communities,” are created before our eyes, the aim of which is not to describe but to exclude, to define through negation. Many Ukrainians switch languages to avoid being defined as “Russian” by Russian propaganda. There is too little understanding for the grey areas of society, for the political indecision in the occupied territories, for the regions of Ukraine that used to even be admired for their multiculturalism.

This tendency, I think, mostly goes in the wrong direction. It is not the perpetrators or their enablers who get caught in the web of desperate and radical accusations. The ones caught in the web are almost always those who already feel a sense of guilt, who perhaps have lived with this guilt for a long time and have themselves fought in vain against the same crimes.

A security camera installed by my friend the Ukrainian curator Dmytro Chepurny recorded how his uncle’s house in Luhansk Oblast was broken into. The uncle had left Luhansk in February. He loved his house, his memories, his surroundings so much that he had stayed in Luhansk during the occupation in 2014, trying to get by on his small pension.

In the footage, a pair of soldiers break through a high wrought iron gate, they walk through the yard, they look around, they smile a little cheekily, as if to encourage each other to do such a small thing, in the face of more serious war crimes, as looting a house. The camera, which is motion-activated, captures their repeated comings and goings, as if they have found something of significance there. A day passes. Then the camera is on again: thirty Russian soldiers are stationed in this family house. A car drives up to the fence. Boxes are carried inside. The shot is black-and-white, the resolution is poor, the men look like ghosts, like a living quote from another era. A quote that should not remain in this text because it does not belong. You can see that these ghosts are joking around and trying to show off their snotty attitudes. Finally, one of the soldiers notices the camera. I see his hand approaching. The recording breaks off.

This is how the owners of the house discovered these strange gunmen, who appeared briefly when they moved in and then disappeared from view again. Maybe they are there now, in the house, drinking from cups that stood in the old cupboard, that could reveal many a thing about the history of my friend’s family. They have not asked anyone for permission, and so far no legal remedy has been found to force them to leave this house that does not belong to them.

In such incidents and countless others, I see that this war is intended to teach my society that all previous rules of life have been suspended, that there is no law anymore. The values, the world order we knew, carefully taught to us from childhood, first slowly, through fairy tales and games, no longer exist. And in place of this great absence—for which there is no serious explanation—there is only delusion, propaganda. It works like a procession of empty spaces that are randomly and reactively filled with new concepts, words, and radical emotions.

My father, a German-language literary translator, calls this void “dead empire.” An empire that no longer lives, and cannot live, strikes, kills in the name of its impossible return.

Behind this conception is not just a collective without borders, to be described and condemned from the outside, but an idea that, to all appearances, has no clear form. Still, those who support the dead empire can be spotted. Like the soldiers in my friend’s recording, they show up one way or another. With such evidence, we don’t have to imagine a community to understand whom we are fighting, who is giving us a choice: to protect ourselves, to murder—or to be murdered ourselves.

And yet, again and again, in this war I observe how something speaks, testifies, exposes, and condemns—and becomes much louder than a human voice.

Listen: you can hear it in the tattoos on the body. If a resident of Mariupol wants to go to Russia to get his estranged children, he has to go through a filtration camp, where he is forced to undress and have his body examined again and again for signs that he might support Ukraine.

The choral songs—people in the occupied territories are forced, again and again, to sing the anthems of Russia and its separatist republics. They are filmed and come under suspicion throughout Ukraine.

The language itself—colleagues in Ukraine write that the Russian language carries within itself the propaganda and crimes of contemporary Russia, and that whoever speaks and writes it is infected, involuntarily and inevitably. In turn, the Ukrainian language in the occupied territories becomes a pretext for torture and death sentences.

A nationality—in this war, a person’s citizenship often speaks more convincingly, more loudly, than their actions and beliefs.

The history of society, of literature, reinterpreted through the facts of this war, as if nineteenth-century authors were taking part in the combat.

Even in this small enumeration, one sees a huge discrepancy in the dimensions of violence. The place of birth, previous places of life, education, body, pronunciation—these seem to fix the speaker in a particular identity with such expressive force that their actual language and speech almost lose meaning.

Through the grids of fixed aggressive perception, I see lost opportunities in many languages and voices that I miss.

Tuesday, August 23
DAY 181
I GO TO SLEEP EVERY NIGHT SCARED TO DEATH

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IN PLACE OF A FINAL NOTE

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Tuesday, April 5
DAY 41
FROM KYIV TO WARSAW

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Sunday, April 3
DAY 39
A CITY DROWNS IN BLOOD

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Saturday, April 2
DAY 38
LAUGHTER RETURNS TO KYIV

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Friday, April 1
DAY 37
A CHANGED CITY

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Wednesday, March 30
DAY 35
IN THE NERVE CENTER OF CATASTROPHE

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Tuesday, March 29
DAY 34
ISLANDS OF TEMPORARY CALM

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Monday, March 28
DAY 33
ENDLESS CANNONADES

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Saturday, March 26
DAY 31
A GAP IN THE WINDOW

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Friday, March 25
DAY 30

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Thursday, March 24
DAY 29
The Smell of Burning Forests

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Wednesday, March 23
DAY 28
Risk of Injury!

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Tuesday, March 22
DAY 27
The Houses That Disappeared

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Monday, March 21
DAY 26
Kyiv Will Be As Clean As Berlin!

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Sunday, March 20
DAY 25
Drones over Kyiv

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Saturday, March 19
DAY 24
Deceptive Illusion

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Friday, March 18
DAY 23
The Picture of the Man with the Cat

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Thursday, March 17
DAY 22

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Wednesday, March 16
DAY 21
Tactical Retreat

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Tuesday, March 15
DAY 20
In War, One Thinks Almost Only of War

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Monday, March 14
DAY 19
Rockets Over Kyiv

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Sunday, March 13
DAY 18
An Unexpected Gift

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Sunday, March 12
DAY 17
Too Tired For The Shelter

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Friday, March 11
DAY 16
Music

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Thursday, March 10
DAY 15
Illusions

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Wednesday, March 9
DAY 14
A Flaw in the Landscape

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Tuesday, March 8
DAY 13
The night is still young

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Monday, March 7
DAY 12
A way of life that swallows everything

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Sunday, March 6
DAY 11
IT'S 3:30PM AND WE'RE STILL ALIVE

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Saturday, March 5
Day 10
A Great Beauty

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Friday, March 4
Day 9
Follow Me On Instagram

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Thursday, March 3
Day 8
Alienation

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Wednesday, March 2
Day 7
Time to be brave

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Tuesday, March 1
Day 6
Not a minute more of this war!

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Monday, February 28
Day 5
The new vulnerability

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Sunday, February 27
Day 4
an extinguished city

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Saturday, February 26
Day 3

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Friday, February 25
Day 2
Night: tense silence

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Friday, February 25
Day 2
air alert

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Thursday, February 24
Day 1
the beginning

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Edited by ISOLARII with translations by Greg Nissan



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