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. Her diary provides the news from a different vantage.
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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. Her diary provides the news from a different vantage.
[photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Tuesday, August 23
DAY 181 I GO TO SLEEP EVERY NIGHT SCARED TO DEATH
In Kyiv, in the narrow borderland between night and day, the war seems to disappear completely, as long as no unexpected noise intrudes. That relief doesn’t come often. The war is for the most part present, with no escape from its daily persistence.
In the first weeks of the Russian invasion, I was still convinced that it would quickly come to an end, within hours or even days. Like a greeting from that initial phase of the war, I feel the fear rise within me during every air raid alarm.
I’m back in Kyiv after a long hiatus, and the wailing sirens wake me at half past three in the morning. For a few minutes I feel I must take the warning seriously. But in this violent phase of the war it’s a strange idea to go into a shelter in the middle of the night and try to find refuge from any possible danger. I smile at my restlessness, at the fact that during my stay in Berlin I had gotten out of the melancholy and fatalistic habit of maintaining my daily routines in the face of danger. Instead of going to the bunker, I shuffle with weary steps to the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. The air raid alarm fades and a nocturnal silence settles over Kyiv, seeming to suppress the danger.
Today’s messages on the Telegram channels of Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv warn that the coming days will be especially dangerous. We, the Ukrainian readers, should beware. “We ask you to please take shelter if you hear the warning signals in the next few days”—it sounds like the writer is in the middle of a debate, trying to convince recalcitrant citizens with ever-new arguments.
To back up these claims, we were told that the sound of the alarm will change starting today. Church bells will chime for chemical attacks, and storm bells will ring if the threat is radioactive.
The reason for these measures is the growing tension on the front, as well as the coming holidays, especially Independence Day tomorrow, August 24. Before the war this holiday would give rise to a festive mood that lasted for days. In Kyiv today there’s chatter about the coming holiday, but much less has been said about the war’s anniversary—the war turns exactly six months old on Independence Day.
The farther you are from the war, the clearer the procession of time becomes, and you think half a year of conflict needs a special approach, a rational analysis or a case history like the ones for sick patients, in the hope of a speedy recovery.
But here in Kyiv, the symbolism of this round number crumbles when the people involved in the war—almost every Ukrainian, in one way or another—cannot afford any distance from the conflict.
Today I visited a Kyiv museum that has been converted into a shelter where volunteers make camouflage netting. Women come here every day to fasten small cloth rags to solid nylon, one knot at a time. Sometimes the volunteers’ children and their friends come and work with them. You can also spend the night here on the folding beds that rest in a single corner. One of the women shows me on her cell phone how her little granddaughter sleeps comfortably on the camouflage netting. There’s a twelve-year-old boy here whose reputation as a knotting virtuoso is growing. He ties the nets together with such speed and mastery that he’s won the admiration of the other volunteers.
Soldiers of all ranks and positions on the front come here to place their orders. Sometimes they drink tea, enjoy the company, talk and listen. Then the women visit the front line to see which nets are in particular demand. In the next room, medicine is collected and sorted for the front.
The relatives of these women—their husbands, brothers, and friends, their sisters and daughters—are at the front. I know someone who works here named Katerina, and in the mornings she also sees patients as a pediatrician in her practice near the museum. Every day, when she joins her colleagues in the museum offices, she searches the faces of others. If she sees no tears in their eyes nor any deep despair, she concludes that there is no awful news from the front and that fortunately everyone is still alive.
“Sometimes I think,” another volunteer tells me, “it would be better not to know a single person at the front. I go to sleep every night scared to death. There is no peaceful morning, no peaceful hour in my life.”
As we say goodbye, another seamstress, Natalia, begins to complain about the people in Kyiv: “Many are living as if there is no war. They do too little. They want to forget. They distract themselves and ignore the constant threat of death.” She believes that the residents of Kharkiv, in the east of the country, are thinking more clearly. She visited the city recently. “Everyone in Kharkiv knows about the death and danger, but they stay in the city. They want to save everything there is to save.”
She witnessed a rocket attack during her visit to Kharkiv, and in a somewhat dreamy manner she recounts it: “After the attack, the paramedics and neighbors and rescue services all come running, without crying, without cursing, without looking for culprits. They cover the dead with sheets, they rush the injured to hospitals, they start searching the rubble.” If they weren’t being attacked every day, if new buildings weren’t being bombed and people murdered all the time—these people would have long since rebuilt Kharkiv. She suggests that’s how incredibly brave and helpful they are.
I keep hearing that the farther away you get from the war, the easier it is to think it hardly affects anyone.
A soldier who’s an acquaintance of mine came to Kyiv from the Donbas for a couple of weeks to take a breath before returning to the front. Before the war, he worked as a programmer and wrote poetry. When we met up, he said little. I, on the other hand, told him that my friends in the small town of Toretsk, in Donetsk Oblast, have had no electricity for a week and no water since March. They’ve been fetching water from wells ever since. They wanted to flee the city long ago, but they are the only ones who can get humanitarian aid and distribute food and medicine to the people of Toretsk. Every day they postpone their departure.
The Russian attacks tend to begin at night in pitch black. The ground trembles underfoot; people begin to fear that their small houses with the narrow cellars they hide in will be destroyed any minute. During the shelling, they can’t switch on a single light, there’s no cell service, and they have to wait a long time, perhaps till the next day, before they can call someone to make sure their friends and relatives are still alive. As I explain this to him, the soldier nods in understanding. For months he’s been living surrounded by explosions with the feeling of an endless quaking around him.
In little picturesque villages, ruins line the street. Yet again the nights are like invitations for crime. The villagers are reluctant to speak of the coming winter, partly because water and electricity lines in the Donbas have been destroyed.
On Kyiv’s Telegram channels I read about Russia’s plans to attack civilian infrastructure in the coming days. The nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia is in danger. The American embassy warns U.S. citizens to evacuate Ukraine at once—the same warning it sent out half a year ago.
I wonder how it can be that global knowledge of these anticipated crimes—against international law, human rights, and the environment—does not help to stop them but instead becomes a pretext for new warnings.
My favorite time in the hot summer days of Kyiv is the narrow window between day and night—this threshold when the night air streams through the bright streets. I’m here and I’m enjoying every hour these days when city life marches on with all its everyday nuance.
IN PLACE OF A FINAL NOTE+
When the war started, I had no set plans to remain in Kyiv, but I quickly became the hostage of my own diary. At the very beginning, it struck me as important to witness what was happening. I decided to write a short text every day about events in the city. I set upon this work—which turned out to be hard—because I expected the war to only last for a few days. This war was so unthinkable, such a blatant violation of global security and human rights, that it seemed the world would quickly find a way to stop the aggressor.
As the attacks unfolded, I was shocked that, although the crimes were continuing, they were met almost exclusively with economic sanctions, which, however effective and lethal, still came without any active show of force on the part of the friendly powers. I realized that the diary was helping me to endure the storm of events that were in fact unbearable, and that it enabled me to describe something I really couldn’t find the words for.
I had previously been to Debaltseve in the Donbas, at a time when the city was being regularly shelled by Grad rockets. That was when I first experienced horror in the face of war and in the face of how artillery could be used against a civilian population. I saw with my own eyes the consequences of shelling. I met people who hated Ukraine or Russia out of impotence—out of not knowing where to place the hatred that suffocated them—because of the pain they had lived through.
When the new phase of the war began and attacks reached Kyiv, my body memory kicked in. But it didn’t make it easier for me to bear the events. In fact, knowing what happens to a person in a situation of such extreme and senseless violence, I experienced grief day after day. And my grief was much stronger than my fear. Fear came to me later—much more recently, when it seemed that Kyiv was returning to life, when Kyiv felt safe, especially the city center.
Sometimes I would speak to people who stayed in the Donbas, near Mariupol, or even people who had been in Mariupol, near the border with the occupied regions or near Kyiv, in Bucha or in Irpin. After each conversation, nightmares came to me, fear came to me, which sent me wandering around my apartment at night, sleeping on the floor in the entryway between two walls during the air raids. I couldn’t fall asleep in the bed. Instead, I experience real horror, remembering meetings, phone conversations, and my previous trips to the Donbas.
A lot of people are unable to cry. But at times something comes over me, and I start crying. I myself find this state strange. At one point, I even decided to try to record the sound of my crying. It may seem ridiculous, but I thought that everything happening with my body needed to be used in some way, so that it could be talked about later. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had become my own working material. But every time I tried to make a recording of my state, the feeling would instantly vanish.
I can’t say that the tears bring me relief. They are just one reaction to coming into contact with something new—with the events that are opening up to me.
I think everyone has the right to think and talk about the war. It is our common pain, the common pain of all humanity. The whole world is, in a sense, responsible for what is happening. This is an act of violence, bloodshed, brutality, and genocide. Anyone, anywhere in the world, must connect with this. If somebody has traveled out of Ukraine for whatever reason, but feels it necessary to talk about it, let her speak.
I subscribe to many Telegram channels, where I see photos of the aggressor-country’s soldiers lying dead on the ground. Never before could I have imagined feeling such indifference when looking at images of men who had been killed. But now, it would be hard for me to live with the idea that the criminals—who shoot up apartment buildings, who attack old people and children—would go unpunished. Yet, on the other hand, I realize there is no punishment appropriate to the crime. We must have a trial! It is as necessary as air and it will definitely take place. But there is no resurrection of the dead, no restoration of broken worlds. There must be trials to try and prevent similar crimes in the future, there must be punishment for the guilty. But punishment isn’t redemptive—it will not change what we have lost.
A key condition for us to preserve who we are is to preserve our diversity. We must carry out the work of accepting different worldviews, different points of view within our country. Then we will survive. Crimes must be punished, but anything that is an opinion rather than a crime, even if it is an intolerable opinion, we must try to accept.
As somebody who works with photography, I have always been struck by the fact that Kyiv, like the rest of Ukraine, has a hard time holding onto memories of its own history. Its history is constantly starting anew, and traces of the past are easily erased. Usually they are erased because of great tragedies or some external circumstances that drive the city to change. And now, something is once again forcing Kyiv to create its history afresh. This moment made me feel a rising desire to save some of that city that didn’t know war was possible. Maybe that is why I constantly walked around Kyiv, photographing windows, walls of buildings, random corners, and fragments, without composition or meaning. It felt as if I were trying to save something connected with the past, something endangered, something that might be destroyed.
This is my desire—I don’t want to call it a dream, just a very powerful desire: to somehow interrupt the flow of this particular, unbearable story. This desire is what allowed me to remain in Kyiv for so long, and it is what allows me to go on presuming that dreams are still possible in principle.
Adapted from an interview by Olga Serdyuk for NV, a Ukrainian online magazine
Tuesday, April 5
FROM KYIV TO WARSAW
The day passed at an accelerated pace. I left Kyiv, traveling for the first time since the war began. In the train car I heard Russian and Ukrainian. The direct route from Kyiv to Warsaw has existed for exactly one month—created to help evacuate those seeking shelter. At first, the tickets were free, and people slept not only in small compartments each with three narrow beds, but also on the floor of the corridor.
The tickets aren’t free anymore. Everyone has a little bed, and nobody has to sleep on the floor between bags and suitcases. Not too many people take the train in this direction now, and panic no longer reigns at the Kyiv station. The platforms were emptier than they had been a week ago.
My parents stayed behind in Kyiv. They wanted me to take the journey first and see if it would be feasible for them to do so. I went with my cousin and her friend, who had been waiting for an opportunity to make the trip with company.
At some point along the way, I forced myself to take a picture of the landscape through the dusty train car window so that I wouldn’t forget what I was going through at that very moment. But it was in vain. All these experiences and memories seem impossible to contain. The app on my phone that reports the latest air raid warnings in Kyiv went off several times throughout the night. Like many other Ukrainians who have left the country, I didn’t want to turn off the alerts.
I almost didn’t get the chance to write because I wanted to spend time with the people in my compartment. I couldn’t fall asleep either, busy listening to the faint, strange voices in the train car, each telling a story. These tales connected the travelers to the places they left behind—farther and farther behind with each passing minute—like a thread that stretches but does not seem to snap.
“Why so much stuff—a giant suitcase and four big, hefty bags just for you?” one woman asked her neighbor, a younger woman named Dascha.
“Oh! I wanted to take so much with me, my whole apartment,” Dascha replied. “Now I can hardly lift this suitcase. Unfortunately, I left two of my favorite cups in Kyiv! But instead I packed my straw hat with a red bow and my red velvet shoes, suitable for work as well as the theater.”
Yet Dascha, who spoke with a dreamy voice, had no offers for work, let alone plans to go to the theater anytime soon. In Russian and Ukrainian, as well as in German and English, the area Dascha left is called the “theater of war.” One rarely wears red velvet shoes to such a theater. Dascha lived on the outskirts of Kyiv, on the twentieth floor of an apartment building. In the first weeks of the war, she spent the night with her two cats in the bathtub because that was the only place she could fall asleep.
A few weeks into the war, Dascha’s friend called and invited her to share a room in a hotel that catered to pilgrims on religious journeys. This hotel was part of Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra, a well-known cave monastery. The family of Dascha’s friend lived in a picturesque area near Chernihiv. They, along with two young relatives who came to stay before the war, had been living under Russian occupation for the previous few weeks. There was no water or electricity in their area, and food supplies were gradually running out. Every three or four days, they would go to their neighbors’ house to charge their phones on a generator. Then they would call their daughter briefly before disappearing again.
Dascha described moving into her friend’s small hotel room at Lavra, a “city unto itself,” as she said. Life at Lavra followed a strict church schedule, with long morning services. No one thought it was necessary to go to the shelters during the air raids. The pilgrim hotel and the monastery’s huge residences were filled with people seeking shelter.
Another cave monastery, which has served as a residence for refugees since 2014 and is one of the most important Ukrainian Orthodox shrines, is located in Donbas, in the small town of Sviatohirsk. Dascha had visited the site on a pilgrimage in October. She met families from Donetsk who had been living in the monastery since the beginning of the Donbas War—they were familiar with the area and refused to move to western or central Ukraine. Now the monastery in Sviatohirsk is once again overcrowded because of a new influx of refugees.
Sviatohirsk is only thirty kilometers from Slavyansk, which has been declared the next target of Russian attacks, and it is not clear how successful an evacuation will be—or whether one can take place at all. When Sviatohirsk’s neighboring towns were under heavy shelling from 2014 to 2016, the faithful would travel to the monastery despite the danger—partly because its atmosphere, shaped by the Orthodox daily routine, held something untouched by war. Three weeks ago, however, the monastery came under fire, with significant damage to the buildings where refugees were sheltering.
On the train, Dascha suddenly got some good news. Her friend’s family, who had been out of touch for a full week, had apparently survived the occupation! In an emphatic voice, Dascha explained how a Russian soldier had once helped a woman in the family visit her sickly friends who lived far away. She said the soldier accompanied her. Then, almost with no transition, Dascha became sad. Another friend had recently fled to Kyiv from Irpin, and Dascha suspects this friend may have been sexually assaulted. “She is a special woman, a talented photographer with a very soft voice. She’s a gentle person,” Dascha told me. “She almost can’t talk about it. She’s in such great shock that I hardly recognize her. Over these past weeks, she has grown so much older. She didn’t say anything, but it was clear to me what she must have gone through.”
Shortly after arriving in Warsaw, I walked through the city, which I perceived as sad and restless. I could not believe that there was no war here, and I saw in some faces the same worries present in the faces of Kyiv. Perhaps I simply kept seeing the people of my own country, walking the streets just like me.
I saw a group of men in blue, official uniforms having a chat. I noticed with amazement that they carried no weapons. “So unprotected,” I thought. “How could that be?” Then I realized once again the great fortune—that there is no war here in Warsaw.
The air in Warsaw is cool, as it was in Kyiv. I will probably spend the night in a part of the city without many pedestrians. In each empty stretch of street I see a familiar and understandable emptiness. In my mind I compare these streets with those in Kyiv, once full of people before the war, but now remarkably empty.
In Kyiv of late, everyday life seemed confined to a hiding place. Real life sheltered behind courtyard gates and the doors of volunteer centers, in hospitals, bunkers, and apartments.
Gripped by waves of hope and despair for weeks on end, many Kyiv residents wavered between grief for their injured or deceased friends, and an almost feverish preoccupation with the acute necessities of war. At the same time, many had no idea that in Bucha, Irpin, Vorzel, and Borodyanka, something unspeakable was happening. We lived in a torn cocoon of grief, news constantly arriving through the cracks. I met refugees from Bucha and from Irpin, and they told me their stories, but the whole picture remained blurry and unimaginable until the last few days.
When I started this diary, I was convinced that I would keep it up for only a day or two. My faith in the impossibility of such a senseless war was strong. Now I travel onward, moving kilometers farther from the ongoing violence, while looking out the window of the train at another country’s sprawling landscape—and suddenly find myself fearing for this place as well.
The surroundings of Kyiv, a solemn, beautiful landscape where I once dreamed of having a small house, transform before our eyes into a giant memorial. Russia publishes manifestos in the state media to justify the mass murder of us all. The world considers what to do next. Some international experts play soothsayers and suggest that the war may last for years. In this manner, it seems to me, mass murder is indirectly legitimized. Every day of this war is one too many.
Sunday, April 3
A CITY DROWNS IN BLOOD
A young man suffering from bipolar disorder, who lived all his life with his grandmother in Bucha—a town northwest of Kyiv—walked to the capital after his grandmother was shot by Russian soldiers in front of the entrance to her house. He completely lost his sense of time and doesn’t remember how long he was on the road. For a few days he lived in Kyiv at the train station, where he met a policeman who took him to a volunteer center in the city where an acquaintance of mine works.
For days on end, a woman would not evacuate Irpin. She stopped responding to calls from her daughter, who was abroad. Her friends tried in vain to persuade the woman to leave. Power in her apartment had already gone out and there was no water, but the woman stayed. Her neighbors refused to leave their high-rise as well. They tried to care for the pets left behind and help other remaining residents. But the situation in the city became unbearable. In one of the last evacuation efforts, the neighbors were finally planning to leave and take the woman with them. But when they reached her apartment, the door was locked. She talked to the neighbors through the closed door, but she could not be persuaded. Fortunately, she survived the occupation of the city.
The father of a good friend of mine lives with his wife in Kharkiv. When the war began, they started a volunteer initiative to distribute medicine. My friend kept asking them to leave the city. But they remained and helped many people. When the shelling and bombardment became more intense, my friend’s father disappeared all of a sudden. He was not found until days later. He’d had a paranoid episode in which he saw himself in the midst of only enemies, death, and destruction. He couldn’t trust his wife, his children, or his friends. In this intoxicated state of suspicion, he reached the Russian military posts, where he was wounded. Two or three bullets were removed from his body. He will survive.
Now I sometimes hear the casual phrase, “this person or that person was wounded.” When it comes to possible health issues, gunshots and war wounds have nearly become a legitimized form of harm in the collective imagination. Somewhere on the fringes of my childhood memories, I see children playing at being wounded soldiers. I myself liked to pretend that I was wounded. There always came a moment when I begged my friends in an unmistakably suffering voice, “leave me on the battlefield! I’m too much of a burden for you. Go on without me!”
Bucha is drowning in blood. When you hear that someone has survived there, it is a miracle. The dictator claims that we are not simply related peoples, we are in fact “one people.” But when you see what the Russian army is doing here—dead women who have been raped lying on the side of the road in Bucha and Irpin, dead children as well—you understand immediately: this is a genocide of those who have been dehumanized.
Today, the streets of Kyiv were especially silent. The joy of return––quite small, but still palpable just yesterday––was gone. The city mourned by being motionless and deserted of people. Sometimes I heard words said very softly: “communal graves, mass graves.”
Saturday, April 2
LAUGHTER RETURNS TO KYIV
A friend sent me a photo. In it was her husband’s hand, which was pierced by small pieces of wave-shaped metal. Next to it she wrote: “This is Grad.” Grad is the name of one of Russia’s most lethal missile-launching systems. The tender palm in the photo had a light pink tinge, and when I looked at it, I thought of the family of this friend, an artist I know rather well. Her name is Alevtina Kakhidze. Her mother died a few years ago on the border between the occupied parts of Donbas and the areas under Ukrainian control. Like many elderly people at that time, she had to undertake an exhausting and humiliating hours-long journey across the new border in order to collect her pension on Ukrainian soil. She did not survive her last trip through the checkpoints.
Alevtina’s mother lived in the town of Zhdanovka. She did not want to leave, on account of her garden. When she was still alive, she would regale her daughter with stories about life under occupation, and her daughter would transform these words into drawings. Little was said officially about the town after 2014, however, once the Russian occupation began.
When I saw the hand in the photograph, I was troubled by the memory of another small town, Toretsk. It is in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbas, which I visited several times while working on a photo series of a Roma family there. I only ever knew this town in wartime—it is the last Ukrainian-controlled town before the border with the occupied territories. On the other side of the border lies Horlivka, a somewhat larger and livelier city, which was very closely connected with Toretsk before the war. Many people used to live in Toretsk and work in Horlivka.
Strange trees grow in Toretsk. Either they stand there, somewhat crudely and oddly trimmed so that long skinny branches stick up from from the tall chopped trunk; or they are younger and thinner trees that, despite the geometry of the streets, grow at a radical slant, as if they are trying to overtake the street with the help of the earth’s rotation. The members of the Roma community of Toretsk live close together, in nice little houses on the edge of town. Whenever I visited them, I felt a ceremony in the air. Danger was always around the corner, and yet many of them listened to music and laughed as they worked. The distant explosions of the ongoing battles dissipated in their laughter. I was so curious and even happy in Toretsk that the nearby violence of war was never a source of great fear.
One of the community leaders there is Kristina Belous. She has a background in law and is the mother of five children—two of her own and three adopted. To this day, she has remained in Toretsk with her entire family. We talked on the phone recently, and she told me that the village of Verkhnotoretske in Upper Toretsk was no more than a ruin now. At the beginning of February she started getting messages from the people who lived in this village, but there was nothing she could do. Since 2014, the village has belonged to the grey zone of the conflict: it is not controlled by either side.
Her friend’s sixteen-year-old daughter lived in that village with her grandparents. A week ago, this girl set out and walked for days through forests, swamps, and fields in order to avoid the Russian checkpoints. She had no possessions with her, and she spent the night alone in the cold darkness somewhere along the way, listening to artillery grumbling nonstop. She reported that no house in her village had fully survived the shelling, nor does she know if anyone is still alive. The girl is so shocked that she can hardly speak. All the telephone numbers of Verkhnotoretske are silent. You simply can’t get in touch with the people of this village anymore.
I have never been to Upper Toretsk, and I can hardly imagine this settlement. Same with the many towns and villages in eastern Ukraine, whose names are hardly mentioned in the news. Most of the people there speak Russian and Ukrainian all at once. War crimes have taken place in the occupied territories since 2014, and now the towns on the Ukrainian side of the Donbas find themselves in fresh danger. Russia claims that they want to concentrate their energy there. For their next crimes, the attackers choose the parts of the country that have already suffered so much.
In the evenings in Kyiv, you can hear laughter in the streets again. But rockets are still fired at the city every day. As I edit this entry, the air raid alarm has just begun to sound again.
It is much worse when it’s not just rockets, but also artillery fire as the Russian army invades. In Bucha, next to Kyiv, in a village that has just been liberated, the corpses of the residents are lying in the streets. A mass grave with 280 bodies has just been discovered.
I ask my readers, I ask all those who are keeping us in their thoughts, to commit to memory the names of these unknown places in Ukraine. These are towns and villages where nobody could imagine a catastrophe at such a scale. All that has not yet been attacked must be saved. We must prevent any further destruction. This machine of annihilation threatens the whole world, and it is time to stop it. The sky over Ukraine must be closed. And if international politicians and heads of state are too cautious to do it, they can at least provide us with the means to do it ourselves.
Friday, April 1
A CHANGED CITY
It’s getting harder and harder to write with regularity. The day of my departure draws near, and this entry could be my last before I leave Kyiv. I’ll be leaving to arrange housing somewhere else for my relatives, and to prepare this diary and my photographs for a group exhibition.
After that I would like to return. I try not to scrutinize the purpose of my departure over and over again. I’ve already changed my plans twice and stayed in Kyiv, despite having bought tickets in advance.
When I walk through the city, I notice big changes. Every day a new door opens—a new coffee shop, a new bakery or grocery store. “New” means reopened in this case, but in my mind the city’s former life has been cut short, and so everything coming back into existence starts from the beginning—its shop windows and opened doors facing an absolutely different reality.
It’s as if the whole city, with its streets, trams, curves, and worries, were shuttled to another location, and most of the pedestrians and passersby had gotten off at a previous station. And now that this great collective journey has taken place, it’s especially hard for me to go somewhere else. Besides, things become safer here with each passing day—at least, I try to convince myself with this thought.
Yesterday evening I tried to choose a photo from my files for a short radio report. I had planned to tell the story of a small volunteer center, founded by three women, which I had visited. But I couldn’t find so much as one serviceable picture. The three women—friends of a friend of mine—were packing baskets and plastic bags full of food and hygiene products. Their names are Olga, Katia, and Yevgenia, and when they work, their graceful movements are so lightning fast that to capture their labor in a photograph is unfeasible. Olga taught dance before the war. She founded a flamenco school in Kyiv.
The volunteer center operates out of a bomb shelter, the walls of which are painted a garish blue. I was moved by this shrill blue framed by walls and doorsteps, and I tried to take a photo as I was leaving. But then Olga spun around quickly, unintentionally but unavoidably it seemed, so the picture held only her movement.
Several times Olga repeated the sentences: “Now there are volunteer centers like this one in every Kyiv courtyard! The idea is that some of them will continue to operate after the war.” Many people who remained in Kyiv would hardly have survived wartime without such initiatives: mothers with small children who can’t escape alone; lonely elderly people who hardly leave their homes but require medication. All this work is coordinated on Telegram channels, where requests for help are posted.
I myself joined such Telegram channels and know how difficult it has been at times to deliver medicine between the right and left banks of the Dnieper. Over the course of the war, the whole city has assumed a different form, whose distances must constantly be measured anew and reinterpreted.
Fog, I noticed today, is the continuation of night: its darkness in the day. The light turns white and dense, prolonging the past. I felt today as if I were standing with one foot stuck in yesterday.
On my way to the grocery store earlier, a car filled with bulletproof vests emerged from the fog. The vests were brought to town for the Ukrainian army by another volunteer initiative. They were made by a woman who herself had fled. From her new residence, she organizes the production of these vests. A group of her friends and acquaintances have helped to deliver them to Kyiv and the surrounding area.
My thoughts glide along these encounters and then fall into a chasm. A young education student named Anastasia, who was only nineteen, tried to get to Chernihiv yesterday morning with food. Chernihiv is close to Kyiv and is one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine, with cathedrals and monasteries, some dating back to the eleventh century. Now, in many of its districts there is no electricity, no food supply, and no water. Anastasia had loaded a small bus with bread and medicine. It was obviously a civilian vehicle, but it was shot at on the way. Anastasia died. Along with her, the classmate of a good friend of mine lost his life. Later I saw the photographs: the small, once-white bus stood buckled in the middle of the road, black from fire, pierced with bullet holes.
Wednesday, March 30
IN THE NERVE CENTER OF CATASTROPHE
The room I grew up in no longer corresponds to the life I lead—the life that is unfolding outside the window. Looking around, it feels like a child’s room that was abandoned a long time ago. And now I have to spend the night here again. The room tells a story of peace that I can’t take seriously anymore as an “adult.” On the shelf there are books in Russian, German, Ukrainian, and English. They seem to belong to another era. Since the war started, I have rarely opened a book, and when I do, I read no more than two or three pages.
The word “war” is even less comprehensible during wartime than in peacetime, when it’s used quite differently. What is happening around me right now—the constant shelling and the warnings I hear—this is what “war” should mean. But this word seems meaningless, because in war reality breaks into parts, islands, pieces.
Next to the Kyiv apartment of an acquaintance of mine, buildings and houses are constantly damaged. In her own building, many window frames are empty of the glass that has been shattered by waves of detonations. It is dangerous to visit her neighborhood. Not only are there damaged houses and cars, but mines and explosives strewn throughout small parks. Then again, virtually nothing reaches this level of destruction in my neighborhood. I can think of only two or three routes that would lead to a dangerous zone if you were to walk for more than thirty minutes.
Another friend of mine from Kyiv hasn’t slept at night since the war began. The strikes are too near and she feels that her house could be damaged at any moment. She gets panic attacks and suffers heartache, but she stays in the city, independently distributing medicine and aid. By contrast, I am often out in the street during the air raid alarms and always fall asleep at some point during the night.
The disjointedness of these experiences demonstrates that war and catastrophe have a local nervous system here in Kyiv. It is difficult for me to comprehend what is happening elsewhere, beyond the borders of the district I so rarely leave.
Lysychansk is a city in eastern Ukraine, a small town bordering Sievierodonetsk. After the occupation of Luhansk, Sievierodonetsk became the new administrative center of the whole Luhansk Oblast. Lysychansk remained an almost invisible little town, its existence mostly tied up with a coal industry in its death throes. I visited this town several times in the past few years to work on a photo series about the mines in the area. In my mind, I named this place “The City of the Fox” because you can hear the Ukrainian word for fox, “Lyssa,” very clearly in its name.
When I was on the road there, all of Lysychansk seemed traumatized by the war that began in 2014. Many people told me stories of miraculous rescues, each with a variation on a singular inner voice that helped them escape death while they were under fire.
The war was terrible and it filled the city with fear. For the Lysychansk residents I met, any form of protest became unimaginable, even though the right to protest belongs to the political culture of Ukraine and has a long history among miners. I stayed in the only private hotel in this city and there, in my room, I experienced my first great episode of fear about Grad systems and rockets—despite the fact that I had already been to many cities in the Donbas.
It was a late evening in 2015. While talking to the receptionist, who told me how she shielded her granddaughter with her own body for several hours during an attack, I approached the window of my room and heard a wide but distinct roar. It was like a long rush of wind carrying metallic sounds. It seemed to be approaching us. The receptionist explained that this was the sound of missiles, and that one could not simply hide when an attack happened. At that moment, I felt an uncanny, almost panicky urge to leave this city right away. Eventually I was able to calm down and convince myself to continue conducting my interviews.
Now I learn that the City of the Fox is under fire. Early in the morning, prefab buildings were shelled, collapsing like houses of cards. I hear a confirmed update about a family there: two small children were so badly injured that no one knows whether they can be saved. Legs may have to be amputated. The parents have been injured, but they will survive. The shelling endures as I write these words.
Almost none of my friends has ever been to this town, which is a hermetically sealed world of miners and their everyday culture. My Facebook timeline is silent about the bombardment of Lysychansk.
After the negotiations with Russia, it was reported that acts of war would be confined to the Donbas region. For me this means that cities are being attacked which hardly anyone visits or knows much about, and which have already long suffered from the Russian invasion.
Tuesday, March 29
ISLANDS OF TEMPORARY CALM
When I began this diary, I didn’t plan to pursue it for too long because I assumed the war would last only a few days. “It’s really impossible,” I thought, “that such a war won’t come to an end at once. It’s not doing anyone any good! The casualties are much greater than people think.” The losses for Ukraine, Russia, and the entire world were already enormous on the very first day; every additional hour felt unreasonable and unnecessary.
The most important thing is to not turn around and reevaluate our previous experiences from our current vantage. Every day at war is like a deadly disease that needs to be cured urgently. When I wake up, I watch the news with hungry curiosity, expecting something to shift, expecting the values of the days before the war to be restored and validated at last. It can’t be, I think, that the world simply watches as the residents of Mariupol are deported or brought to death in bomb shelters; as the people of Chernihiv are left to fend for themselves for days without food deliveries; as there is so much death, rape, plunder, and death again.
The tenderness of life is preserved on islands of temporary calm. And today I find that a rather daring, albeit inexplicable, thought. Even the soldiers I meet in the center of Kyiv seem to feel their former occupations within them—despite their weapons, despite having already been to the front. “What were you before the war?” I ask and hear in reply: a lawyer, a mechanic. When I take their pictures, they ask me to delete the photographs. I always do. After the war, my files will contain almost no pictures of soldiers or ruins.
In the early evening, on Khreshchatyk Street, I met an elderly lady who was walking slowly because her small shopping bag was too heavy. We had been walking in the same direction for sometime when she spoke to me. “Have you heard about the negotiations?” she asked. Despite the old lady’s stark and hurried tone, she seemed much younger than her bent posture suggested. She meant the talks in Turkey between representatives of Russia and Ukraine. “How can we believe the Russians? Do you think that lives can be saved? After a hiatus they will surely attack us again.” She uttered the last sentence with such disappointment, but I also noticed a trace of hope in her voice. She belonged to those who still believe that this war is unthinkable and will promptly disappear, like a dream.
Today began with a report from Mykolayiv in the south of Ukraine. The city hall had been shelled. A giant hole gaped in a house. A projectile tore something out of the middle of two connected buildings, as if a destructive force were on the hunt for an organ that could put an end to urban life. Why do these images spread so easily? They convey something inhuman, a magnitude of destruction that demonstrates what is happening and, in the dimensions of abstraction, makes clear this alien pain. Only in the evening did it surface that twelve people have already died under the rubble. The search continues.
Toward the end of the negotiations, I was euphoric for an instant. I thought, this is a step in the right direction, some cities will be safer, including Kyiv. It means more lives will be saved.
As the negotiations went on, air raid sirens could be heard over and over again. On the street, I passed by groups of people who did not dare to leave the stores where they were shopping. They waited until the alarm was finished.
I write and I hear the sirens howling.
The day before yesterday I met an elderly woman who used to organize and lead something rather exotic for Kyiv: a fashion show. She was breathing heavily, walking behind me and talking as I kept turning to face her. Every day she walks five kilometers to a construction site, where she feeds animals whose owners have left the city. Several dogs and cats are hiding together there. They were left behind in Kyiv in panic and haste, and now they await the people they lived with, who miss them.
The lady explained how at the beginning of the war she saw a car loaded with suitcases and bags drive away, leaving a dog behind. A little boy cried and begged his mother to take the animal. But she sternly refused. The dog, which had a golden coat, ran beside the car for a long time to catch up with it. Having witnessed this scene, the lady decided to provide food for the street animals of Kyiv.
When I went home in the evening, I met a well-dressed woman carrying five dogs. She addressed them all with a jocular tone. She explained to me that these dogs, as well as the two cats waiting for her at home, were the only reason she had not left Kyiv. It’s not easy to travel with such a large party, she said. She looked happy.
Monday, March 28
My previous entry was an eternity ago. At least that’s how I perceive it. I may have missed only one day, but it feels like my German has slipped away and that I can no longer get used to expressing my thoughts in it. When I stop to reflect, Russian, Ukrainian, and English mingle to form the voice in my head.
Time sometimes runs too fast—days and hours seem to differ rapidly from one another. A feeling of security arises under the ongoing bombardment, and becomes unbearable: it seems to be cobbled together from counterfeit sensations.
An artist, the acquaintance of a good friend, lives on the outskirts of Kyiv. She says that the shelling sounds much louder in the forest than it does near me, in the center of town—as if there is fighting among the trees, someone on the hunt, shooting at someone else. Reflecting on the gunfire audio messages coming from all around her, she wondered: what if she lay down on a forest path and decided to accept her own death? She thinks this could be somewhat liberating.
Tomorrow, talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators will take place in Istanbul. Perhaps that’s why Kyiv has been shelled all day long. Early in the morning I heard endless cannonades, a composition of gunshots. My mother came by my apartment and we went for a walk. We told each other funny stories and imagined that all the explosions came from our air defenses protecting the city. But then we heard a long, deep, and rolling roar. A white line appeared like the trace of an airplane, but short and uneven. It was the trail of a missile. We heard the explosion.
The news was silent even an hour after impact. For several days, reports of attacks and strikes have become increasingly delayed—so as not to give the enemy any hint about whether they have injured us. As a consequence, you hardly know where you are anymore. Where and when does the feeling of security—even if fleeting—begin, and where does it end? There remain only the messages on Telegram channels: “Many Kyiv residents are reporting explosions. But we don’t want to write anything more specific about it now.”
You can learn more from talk around town. At the kiosk where you can get one of the best espressos in Kyiv (or anywhere), the young barista confided in me that high-rises had been damaged within a fifteen-minute walk of his house. He reported this with a touch of irony in his intonation, as if he were talking about bad weather.
A good friend and human rights activist is now in Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine. Her boyfriend, who fled Mariupol on foot, just arrived there. The residents of Mariupol are constantly trying to leave the city—without cars and packing only the bare necessities. They flee in the direction of Berdyansk, where they get picked up. Often news arrives that these pedestrians have been shot on the way. I can’t imagine how people can learn about such crimes and not at once do something to stop them. A collective psychosis is sweeping Russian media right now, combined with an obvious enjoyment of impunity and the ability to strike fear into the most powerful countries.
I was awakened by a phone call. It was a young woman who was practically a child in 2014 and who has been on the run since that very year. She cried as she explained that she really loves her new home, the city of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine, and never wants to leave it. She got my number from acquaintances in order to ask about possible escape routes. I heard her tender, high-pitched voice—utterly incompatible with the sounds of gunfire and air defenses that are muffled by my tightly closed windows, and that have become the background to my everyday life.
Saturday, March 26
A GAP IN THE WINDOW
This evening I couldn’t close the kitchen window. Some hidden metal piece had broken, and the window would not completely close. A gap remained, you could hear the wind blowing outside, and I feared that if there were another fire in the area, my apartment would fill with smoke. It was already evening and I wanted to darken the windows. To do this I always gather thick duvet covers, and, with such friendly and familiar blankets hanging over the windows, my kitchen becomes a safe place where I can spend the evening. The windows were darkened, the light almost extinguished, but air still penetrated through the gap. I decided to call my neighbor Andrij, a doctor, to ask him for help. But he was in a bomb shelter, where he spends almost every night offering medical assistance. Our phone conversation calmed me down somewhat, although it was a bit absurd.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “The oil repositories aren’t burning anymore and it’s going to rain. Thanks to the gap, you are going to finally get some fresh air at night!”
“When do you think this will come to an end?” I asked. It is, by this point, a rhetorical question, which has become typical.
“It’s becoming quite clear that soon they won’t be able to do anything. We’ll drive them out.”
“I heard Boyarka was shelled. How is your mother?” His mother lives in that village, just outside of Kyiv.
“Part of a missile hit close to her house. But she’s doing fine.” In the photos I could find from the area, the aftermath of this attack looked like someone had bitten off a piece of a wall as if it were an apple. It could have been a nightmarish illustration of the Grimm’s fairy tale about the gingerbread house.
“Can you imagine them running around Boyarka in small groups, firing at the commuter trains?” he asked. “That’s what the saboteur groups are busy with now.”
“But that’s not in the news at all,” I remarked.
“They just haven’t written about it yet, but my relatives from Boyarka reported it.”
Other relatives of Andrij live in the occupied villages near Chernihiv. They tell him that Russian soldiers raid homes and stores in search of alcohol. You can see them in the streets, often quite drunk. They gather to fire at apartment buildings or buses. They shell the trains that connect small towns. They keep breaking into the apartments and houses of the villagers, who, in talking to the soldiers, realize how little the occupiers know about the actual progress of the war. The soldiers’ smartphones have been taken away from them. Russian military officials claim that Kyiv is already half occupied and that Odessa has been under Russian control for a long time, with many other such successes. They ask about villages and use outdated national maps from 2015, when many places had different names. Then the soldiers try to take the cell phones of Andrij’s relatives and other villagers. They do this to sever people’s connection to the outside world, and perhaps to acquire some information themselves.
Andrij sounded chipper and ironic. His relatives keep calling him and reporting on all that’s going on in their village.
I forgot about the window. I remembered it only when I heard the air raid sirens during the night, with the stormy wind carrying the sound of distant explosions into my apartment.
I thought I had taken a lot of pictures today, but when I looked at the files, I realized how few there were. I was in one of the largest underpasses in Kyiv—in the city center, on Khreshchatyk Street, where I spent part of my childhood. All exits were monitored and the underpass, typically crowded with little shops and hurried pedestrians, stood empty, storing the sounds of war like a shell stores the sound of the sea. With trembling hands, I began to film part of the underpass. I thought that such a small video could say a lot about what was happening in the country. But I feared someone would misunderstand the reasons for my recording, and I counted every second I filmed.
I wanted to write more about Irina from Hirske, an acquaintance from the small, eastern town whom I started talking to yesterday. But I can’t find the words for it.
Irina’s sister-in-law worked as a doctor in the maternity ward of the hospital that was shelled. The shelling that made headlines around the world. One of her pregnant patients died. Her sister-in-law’s parents lived in Mariupol, across the street from the Dramatic Theater. Her mother collected old porcelain, jewelry, and trinkets. A few days later, after the shelling, bombs hit the cellar where her mother was hiding. Almost everyone in that cellar was killed, including her mother. Her father survived but he won’t leave Mariupol until he buries his wife. The shelling is so heavy, though, that a funeral is not possible. Almost nothing remains of a woman’s love for porcelain, or her memories. Only a story that is impossible to tell.
What is happening in Ukraine right now, what we are all experiencing, will define our existence forever. But not only ours. One must find the courage to stop the aggressor. The world will never forgive itself for these crimes.
Friday, March 25
Today’s goal: bring the train tickets I bought for my family and relatives back to the station so that someone else can use them. Online returns are not working right now.
Beginning of the day: a short and somewhat ironic conversation with a child psychologist, Irina, who lives in the small town of Hirske, not far from Lysychansk and Rubizhne, both the kind of small towns in Luhansk Oblast that journalists would typically never visit. They are under heavy artillery and rocket fire; the news reported that the day before yesterday phosphorus bombs were used in Rubizhne. Nevertheless, Irina remains on site, because every day she provides support to schoolchildren, little kids, and elderly people. Our conversation was interrupted when I had to go to the train station and Irina had to pick up the medicine delivered to her from another city. Pharmacies are no longer open in Hirske, and not a single ATM is working. Tomorrow we will continue our conversation.
As I was listening to Irina, I thought that it must be uncanny to remain in such a place. It was even harder to imagine that children, women, and elderly people go on living. Irina said that the school where she worked as a psychologist and art teacher was shelled by rockets this morning.
Maybe friends of mine who live outside of Ukraine have a similar difficulty imagining why we are still in Kyiv. What does it mean, really, to expose yourself to danger, even if only relative danger? From the outside, if viewed unkindly, it might even seem like a position that exudes ambiguity or indecision.
Russia exploited this ambiguity in 2014 to portray the people who did not flee the occupied territories of the Donbas as pro-Russian. Danger and inaccessibility functioned like a barrier at the time, so the media would report anything—probable or improbable—about the region.
My relatives want to leave Kyiv—we had already planned our exit. But as the day of departure ruthlessly approached, they had more and more complaints and objections.
Here in Kyiv, where every day you come across friends, acquaintances, and strangers you end up helping, you manage somehow to bear the unbearable news and events. The daily restlessness and the incessant air raid sirens structure your time, merging powerfully with your stream of consciousness, which might otherwise choose to linger on a painful thought as a passenger lingers at a bus stop.
My mother said to me today that she has not cried since the war began. But that my father almost cried when he learned that on March 20 in the small town of Kreminna—also in Luhansk Oblast, a little north of Hirske—a retirement home was shot to pieces by a tank. Almost all fifty-six residents were killed.
I listened to my mother and realized I somehow missed this inconceivable event, which made me feel ill. I felt anger rising within me and I too wanted to cry. At the same time, I couldn’t really grasp it. I pictured my father’s face as he read that news, and only through this image could I sense something burning and bleak.
We decided to postpone our departure for a few days, and perhaps to prepare a little better this time. And we resolved we would return to Kyiv as soon as possible.
On the way back from the train station, my mother and I met two people from the military who were sitting in front of a grocery store drinking coffee. They showed us a picture of a boy, who was only fourteen years old, posing in a uniform next to some soldiers.
“We are going to our military positions today to fetch him,” one of the soldiers explained. “He followed his father and wants to fight shoulder to shoulder with him, but he is too young. They have clearly lost everything—their house, their family—and now all he wants is to fight. We understand, of course, but cannot allow it.” They were obviously proud, both of this mission and also of the boy’s determination. They smiled with a little bit of tenderness, and their good mood even infected us.
Thursday, March 24
The Smell of Burning Forests
A little girl looked at me with a friendly expression. She was coloring the backrest of a wooden bench with a piece of chalk. She tried to tell me something, but she was interrupted by her grandfather, who seemed annoyed. “Listen here,” he said to me in a somewhat brazen voice, “I told my daughter, ‘Let’s buy the apartment in Kyiv.’ But she replied, ‘Nobody wants to live in Kyiv, with its stuffy big city air! We should get a nice apartment under the green trees of Bucha, outside of Kyiv.’ And, being the foolish person I am, I agreed!” He looked at me reproachfully, as if I were the one who had persuaded him to buy an apartment in a pleasant suburb now smothered in fire, rockets, and mortar shells.
I didn’t even want to talk to him at first, but he called out to me and asked me to walk a few steps in his direction. It was already evening, soon the curfew would begin. The little park I passed by was deserted, but it left an impression of being on guard.
The air raid alarm had just sounded and I thought I only had a few minutes for a little conversation. But then the man mentioned Bucha and, all of a sudden, I decided to spend as much time with them as they wanted. The girl, who was about six years old, told me in a serious voice, “For two weeks we lived in the basement! We were twenty-one adults and seven children.”
The grandfather still seemed angry with me. “I come from a city where most people speak Russian. I come from Dnipro. But part of our family lives here in Bucha and in Kyiv. Two weeks in the basement with only water, some food, almost no heating, and barely any electricity! Constant shelling, especially when we tried to sneak a little fresh air. And then they found us! The Russians came to us in the cellar and explained—no, they barked—that they had come to denazify us. ‘If I were not seventy years old,’ I answered them, ‘I would rather throw you out than talk to you! Don’t speak to me, not even for a second!’ But now I’m here with my granddaughter. And so then they tried to force us to leave the basement.”
He continued to recount what happened but the story unraveled. At the end he got so furious that he said to me, “You should go there. To Bucha! If you were there, you wouldn’t look at me like that, you would understand everything. And here, in Kyiv, nothing has been made clear!”
It is evening now, and I am sitting in my room. The air is slowly filling with a faint smell of burning. Somewhere far away, on the right bank of the Dnieper, the forests are in flames, after fierce rocket fire. Two large apartment blocks are reported to have been hit. It is not clear how many victims there are.
Today, my childhood friend lost his family home. A week and a half ago, he left it in a hurry and with great difficulty, along with his uncle, who resisted—he did not want to leave under any circumstances. Early in life I used to visit his house all the time. I try to remember the rooms. I recall the traditional living room of a small house with a low ceiling, a resplendent cabinet with old photos behind a glass shelf, and the meals my friend’s grandmother used to prepare for us. This memory is not accompanied by any feeling.
Perhaps it will rain during the night, and the smoke will disappear, hopefully quickly. One has to drink a lot of water right now. That’s what they recommend on the Telegram channels, where people share pictures of the fires.
A downtrodden salesman who lives in my building reminded me that the war started exactly a month ago, on February 24. Then we both decided to fixate no longer on such dates. The little girl I met, along with her grandfather, would have had much more to say, I presume. It’s good to fall asleep knowing that they were rescued, that they called me over and told me their story, ultimately asking where they could buy jeans in Kyiv. They had not taken a change of clothes with them when they left. In Kyiv, stores are slowly beginning to open again. The little girl and her grandfather will certainly be able to buy something soon.
Wednesday, March 23
Risk of Injury!
It was a day of contradictions, as if different realities were fighting one another. I woke up and saw white smoke outside. The air itself smelt burnt. The air raid alarm was sounding, in addition to a warning: “Do not approach your windows! There is a risk of injury!”
But a few hours later, around noon, the air was clean again. I had to do some shopping and was eager to leave the house after a long lockdown. But when I finally left my apartment, the sirens began to howl once more. I wanted to hurry home, but then I spotted two young people on a bench, in the middle of a peaceful conversation as if the alarm had never gone off.
They were two students, Nikolaj and Sonia. Sonia explained that she was studying law and had remained in Kyiv almost by accident. Twice she planned to leave, and each time it fell through for different reasons. Now they both try not to stray far from their neighboring apartments and, when they have time, to study on their own. They don’t want to be taught—they say it’s unimaginable under these circumstances. Teaching is an organized transmission of knowledge, work structured by others. That no longer makes sense. Nevertheless, they think that knowledge will continue to exist and remain important, so it seems reasonable to go on learning autonomously.
Together we tried to formulate this thought more clearly, but we didn’t quite succeed. They said that on April 4, depending on the circumstances, their formal education will start up again.
We talked about the air raid alarms that go off several times a day, which always portend new danger and new attacks. For every one you have to hope that nobody was injured. They both said they didn’t hear the last alarm, that’s why they were sitting in the park, talking and trying to enjoy this sunny day despite the fatigue of many sleepless nights.
Out in the streets, I saw young women and men who had gone for a jog, amid the shriek of sirens, on this first warm day of the year. Two florists had opened unexpectedly—I met a couple of pedestrians with bouquets in their hands. A woman who had just bought flowers was passing a recently reopened cafe on her way home after work. She stopped next to me and, in the middle of the street, we both read the news on her phone.
I wanted to tell her how brave she had been for staying and working in Kyiv. But she interrupted me and said that the really brave people were those who were gathering in the occupied cities of Kherson and Berdyansk to protest against the occupiers. People disappear there all the time, whether they’re arrested and deported to Russia, or injured and shot at during the protests.
She told me she has family near Berdyansk, in the small town of Polohy, which is occupied by the Russian army. She often loses contact with Polohy. The internet connection is unstable, the power goes out, and food is scarce. Her relatives are able to survive mainly due to a small bakery in the neighboring village that works to supply the whole district with bread. “Logistics can fail,” the woman opined. “Food warehouses can be blocked off. Yet sometimes there are people who keep it all running despite everything. At the moment, this bakery is saving lives.”
I was reminded of the news stories I keep reading: Russia is apparently attacking warehouses where provisions are stored. There are repeated attempts to cut off Kyiv from food supplies as well. The same thing is happening in Chernihiv, one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine, which has been shelled and where there is hardly any water to be found, not to mention electricity or heating.
I know an elderly woman who recently travelled to Chernihiv because she lived alone in Kyiv and wanted to escape her loneliness. In vain I tried to reach her by phone. The city is in such great danger that the bodies of those who died in the attacks lie in the streets—for days they cannot be transported and buried on account of the continuous artillery fire.
There were few pedestrians on the streets in my neighborhood today, but the ones I did see were spreading warmth. Time and again I watched people hug each other. Even in the grocery store amidst hurried customers, a man and woman stopped to hug. I probably stared at the scene a bit too obviously. At one point, the woman turned to me and said in an almost cheerful voice, “I haven’t seen him in two weeks. He’s back from the war, and he’s alive!”
Tuesday, March 22
The Houses That Disappeared
A day in lockdown, without being allowed to leave the house, alone with the news and conjectures about the future. The end of the war is continually announced like a weather forecast. Some experts express themselves in newspapers, others through long and reassuring video monologues. In this way, by leaping into a distant news stream, one can slowly accept what is happening to my country. At the same time, such a thought is unbearable. I push it away. Besides, I know that “my country” sounds abstract enough as an idea that one could be able to “accept” what is happening—but you can never understand how something so brutal can be done to people.
When I walk through Kyiv, I see men and women standing like little statues, looking at their phones; they don’t seem to want to know what’s happening in their immediate surroundings anymore. They read the news, because only there, it seems, are hidden the secret answers to these dark questions arising every day in new and uncertain ways. Many phone numbers have been disconnected. A humanitarian catastrophe is in full swing in all occupied territories. Hunger reigns, and people are kidnapped and arrested.
Perhaps the tight narratives of the news cycle only testify to something that is missing. What’s really missing right now are words. I’m in my apartment, I found some time to write—but I can barely develop a thought.
I watch video clips of the shelling on my phone. They are shared via Telegram channels, posted by residents of Kyiv. I see how silver streaks glow and then settle from the sky onto the rooftops. Someone claims that’s what phosphorus ammunition looks like, while others think it’s rocket fire from a Grad system, a multiple rocket launcher. A few of the districts of Kyiv, including mine, were shelled today.
Then I think for the first time that this footage could be a forgery, that it is a recording of another reality. It is not about Kyiv at all. Is it possible that right now—as I write this in my apartment while most of my neighbors spend the night in shelters—Grad missiles are flying through the air and white phosphorus is raining down on someone’s home, not so far from here, in my own city?
I miss all the walls, all the houses of this city that I haven’t seen yet, that I haven’t photographed, that have already disappeared and been destroyed, that have become unrecognizable, incinerated.
Around noon today a powerful strike could be felt throughout my house. The rules of news coverage are changing, so it is not clear right away what attacks are happening where. Only the body of the house and one’s own body sense the danger. For now they have become the most immediate sources of information.
A few hours ago, I spoke on the phone with Elena, an employee at a zoo outside Kharkiv, an area subject to constant onslaught. She is the director of a theater where children perform as actors together with dogs, mice, and rats. Time and again employees try to feed and evacuate the animals. But as soon as the Russian army sees cars, bullets begin to fly.
On March 7, Elena tried to reach the zoo one last time in order to bring food to the animals. On the phone she explained to me that many animals remain in their pens. “The deer were shot at. Some of them died. Others managed to escape through the ruined fence into the forest. When we arrived by bus, the shelling started. We ran out of the bus with the feed and made it to the pens. Some great apes had been shot. We ran through the damaged rooms trying to distribute as much of the feed as possible. Then we ran to the bus, but the driver was already dead. We tried to get another car to go back and transport his body to the city. Another colleague was fatally injured. Only one other colleague and I were able to escape.”
“I can’t cry,” she went on to say. “I can’t even believe it took place. Before my eyes I keep seeing the plastic display window where the monkeys were waiting for us. Many of them were standing there with babies pressed against their bodies. They were hoping for food, but we didn’t manage to feed them that day.” Elena has stopped going to the zoo for the moment, but other staff members are trying to reach the pens so that the animals, the ones still alive anyway, don’t die of hunger.
I don’t want to write a “last” sentence. Every day we encounter our choices.
Monday, March 21
Kyiv Will Be As Clean As Berlin!
A man was staring at me, pale with stress. He was an elderly gentleman with a large handtied broom, and he stood next to three big bags of trash from the street. He was a neighborhood building manager I hadn’t yet met. He noticed that I wanted to take his picture. After a while he approached and asked me if I was “working for the enemy.” I showed him my passport and my press credentials and asked him why he stayed in Kyiv. Satisfied with my documents, he leaned forward, his face growing large, as if in a close-up. Then he spoke to me confidentially, but also in the tone of an official announcement: “I am proud to be here in Kyiv in these difficult days, taking care of the cleanliness of our city!” He added, “Kyiv will be as clean as Berlin, just as clean! We will achieve it.”
He told me that for some time he had lived outside of Berlin, in Bernau, “a very nice little town that has seen so much history. It was even part of the GDR. Wonderful people!” I grew curious. Every day I see people taking care of Kyiv, cleaning up and working on repairs. Next to all the bullet-ridden doors and shattered windows, I see people using plywood to cover and preserve this heap of broken shells we call a city, so that one day we can install real glass panes, doors, and shop windows again.
The building manager wanted to say more about Berlin and Bernau, about the generosity of the people there and how much they would do for others. Then two members of the Territorial Defense approached us. They asked me to show my passport and credentials again. They looked anxiously at my camera and asked me several times to be careful when I publish any pictures.
Yesterday’s shelling, which terrified me, was apparently the result of a TikTok video that had revealed the location of Ukrainian tanks. The tanks, briefly visible in the background of the video, were long gone at the time of the bombing. But the aggressor sought to strike these tanks and, in the process, reduced a huge apartment building and a large shopping mall to burnt black skeletons. The apartments in the building, with their small, private, hidden worlds, no longer exist. People were injured and some lost their lives. The numbers that account for the losses change. One counts them again and again.
Pictures can be dangerous. They can reveal things without intending to. They transform the city into a military object just by existing, even though the documentation of one’s life through photos has become a modern habit that can help us process pain, fear, and danger. While language can be deceptive, a photograph seems to capture something irrevocably and at the same time speak for itself. One wants to give an account, not with words, but with the irrefutable image.
Today I wanted to write my diary entry earlier than usual. No longer did I want to join sentences together while shivering in the corridor when it’s dark outside, so late that Russia decides: Now is the time to shell residential buildings again. Experts claim that the attacks are taking place deep into the night because of the expectation that Ukrainian air defenses will not be as sharp then, due to exhaustion. A long lockdown has been announced for tomorrow. People will not be allowed to leave their homes. Despite the impending curfew, there were a few people in the streets today.
I went to the train station with my mother to see if we could get train tickets for ourselves and our relatives. We walked through the old city that my mother had once shown me, like a story one reads to a child. The train station was not as crowded as we had expected. All the shops had closed, and the only tickets available were for the evacuation trains. Several of these tickets were standing room only, and because some of my relatives have health concerns that keep them from standing, we decided to look for tickets again later.
At the station I saw a young woman with a baby. She asked me if I knew whether there was a train to Chernivtsi, in the south, not far from the Romanian border. She was from a village outside Kyiv and hoped to find safety in Chernivtsi. She smiled, and then her face became grave: “But my mother is still in our village. She didn’t want to leave! I want to go back! I want to go home!”
My mother and I walked back down the street and tried to cheer each other up with a few jokes. Then we saw little yellow buses with red crosses heading toward us in the direction of the train station. On each bus was written “Irpin,” a place north of Kyiv where so many artists and writers once lived and where now people die every day. Russia is annihilating this small town, block by block. In the dusty bus windows we saw the grey, tired faces of old people and children, all staring somewhere far away, into the distance. We stopped and looked. I could not take a photo.
In the evening I saw that train tickets were being sold again. Without much time to consider it, I bought six tickets for Friday. My parents still don’t want to leave Kyiv. I really don’t know what we should do. But there should be enough time before Friday to decide. After all, what is happening cannot last that long. This war can and should be interrupted at last. It must stop.
Sunday, March 20
Drones over Kyiv
I am trying to write, but cannot start. The air-raid alarm has been going for two hours. It is echoed by the sirens, as if within one warning a second is possible.
I see on Telegram the headline “KYIV IS BURNING!” Accompanying videos show rows of blazing houses—not just a single house, but an entire apartment block on fire.
Ten minutes ago, I heard a loud explosion. Just before the explosion, I had thought that I should finally sit down to write, but first I picked up my phone to make sure my parents and friends were safe.
An hour ago, my mother called me to report that she had been watching the sky when a plane started firing at targets. We all heard gunfire; it was unclear where it was coming from. Then I read some reassuring news: enemy drones had been successfully eliminated. But almost immediately after that, I looked out the window and saw two drones flying over our house. One stopped above the building that houses the nearby shelter. The drones flew high in the sky. They looked like they were being shot at.
My headache from the previous sleepless night had disappeared, and I felt cold, fearful, and determined (for what?). I called the police to pass on the coordinates of the drones. Then my parents and I briefly discussed whether we should go downstairs to the ground floors of our buildings. I decided to stay in my apartment, and my parents decided to stay in theirs.
All the windows are blacked out and the lights are off, as in all the apartments I can see when I peek out my window. One tries to make oneself invisible, to hide one’s house and sink into the darkness of the night, so as not to become a target. Strange images come to mind: on the top floor of my apartment building, I feel like I’m standing atop a flower with a long, thin stem. I can understand the fear and anger an insect might feel when accidentally knocked from a flower’s petals.
In the meantime, high-definition videos of the attacks are being released. You can see the night being ripped apart by white flashes that grow taller than any skyscraper and blanket our houses below. When I try to tell myself that all this is happening right now to the people in my city—to those I meet every day on the streets, to passersby, doctors, vendors, artists, teachers—and that this deadly light threatens me at night too, I feel nausea and dizziness.
I can’t close my eyes, can’t find peace. That’s what I want to describe to you. Tomorrow morning I will read this text again. If I do, it will mean that we survived the night.
I was outside for only a short time today. I said goodbye to a friend, an artist, who is leaving Kyiv tomorrow, then I met a second friend, also an artist, who has returned to Kyiv to join the Territorial Defense as a paramedic.
An acquaintance sent me a letter from Melitopol, which is occupied by the Russian army. A friend of his was searching for escape routes. He, his wife, and a child are hiding in a small apartment, and they are slowly running out of food. The Russian secret service and military are arresting residents who have repeatedly demonstrated against the occupation. Demonstrators are shot in the legs. Nobody can find a way to help Melitopol now. There is no escape, and people are being kidnapped.
A friend today used the word genocide. This word penetrated deep into my mind. I still have a hard time using it. The term is the wrong size: like many such words, it is both a little too small and much too big, like someone else’s clothes. Still—and this surprises me—it does in part describe the situation of Ukraine.
The apartments in Kyiv look peaceful, even in the midst of war. Neighborhood balconies are blanketed in colorful sheets, which are supposed to conceal and protect residents. This is the kind of photo I wanted to choose for today’s entry, even though it might not fit: the sheets are nice and innocent, and they say little about death.
Is it possible to condemn me, my city, and the people of Mariupol, Melitopol, and other cities to death, to play with us in a game of annihilation, in front of the whole world? I keep asking myself this. What happened to us all that this became possible?
I think the answer to these questions will determine the future of a great many people. My cousin, a singer who is now in Kyiv, sings a lullaby for me. The burden of these past twenty-five days is great enough. This war is destroying everything that has been achieved since the nightmare of World War II. Putin and his unlawful armies must be stopped.
Saturday, March 19
Today an old couple made their way through the wreckage on Sich Riflemen’s Road. They walked shakily past shards of broken glass and heaps of rubble.
The man, speaking to his wife, reproached an invisible enemy: “Look how many windows, how much glass has been smashed! Jesus. They haven’t thought about the fact that they’ll have to clean this up. All this chaos just to say, ‘The Russians did it to us!’” The man spoke desperately and with an honest sadness. The woman nodded and sighed.
This elderly pair, who have lived their lives amid undying declarations of love between Russians and Ukrainians, two brotherly peoples, did not want to believe that fratricide was in full swing. Apparently, they thought Ukraine was just staging the destruction, and that the war would spare the nations’ true love for each other, like untouched nature. They walked straight past me. I didn’t approach them; their whole world was in a state of ruin.
On the ground, pigeons pecked at bread crumbs among the shards of glass. Despite the damage, a woman had come to the marketplace, as she does every day, to feed the birds. It was sunny and awfully quiet, the streets felt free, and there was a deceptive illusion that a long walk was safe. In recent days, not two hours have passed without the sirens howling, but since 1:00 PM, they had been turned off.
In truth, caution and fear are in the air. People discuss the safest spots of apartments—where to sleep and where, under any circumstances, not to. These thoughts infect my own. Lately, I have been sleeping in my small study until the sirens start wailing between four and five in the morning, at which point I move to the corridor, where I have spread blankets out on the floor. I try to fall asleep again on this colder and harder foundation, which is a poor substitute for a mattress. The shelter where I spent the first nights of the war is overcrowded, and one can hardly find any room.
I was already asleep in the corridor when my mother woke me. “Something is burning. Can’t you smell it?” she asked in the low voice that she reserves for real danger.
With an uneasy feeling, I went to the window and saw white smoke drifting down the street. An acrid smell came through the window. I checked the news and there was none. The curfew was still in place and both of us, my mother and I, decided to go back to sleep. Half awake, I thought how good it was to be in the corridor, protected. Then I woke to the first news: a garbage dump outside Kyiv was burning and the wind was carrying the smoke into the city; a village had been attacked too—Novi Petrivtsi—but without apparent success.
Nobody was murdered, nobody died as a result of this smoke! So perhaps this mini-ecological crisis was a stroke of luck. Maybe the aggressor had wanted to fire on residential buildings but hit a pile of garbage instead.
Most of the shelling takes place in the morning between four and six. Upon waking again, Kyiv could almost be characterized as calm, lacking any dire concern. And yet anxiety grows with each day of war. Behind anything that used to be only a minor breach of normality, and provoked almost no thought—dusty or smoky air, a loud knock in the distance—now lies danger. Even a day without disturbance cannot be trusted. You assume the break in attacks is preparation for something worse.
At sunset, during the last rays of light, I met Lisa not far from my house. She is a designer, and she told me she feels safe in Kyiv currently. A flower store was giving away bouquets, and she carried two with her. She was planning to give one to someone else. On her phone, she pulled up a video of her town, Ochtyrka, in northeastern Ukraine, which has ceaselessly been in the news. Her father, a member of the Territorial Defense, is still there. At the start of the war, Lisa feared for his life and could not sleep, but now that Ochtyrka has been almost entirely destroyed, she told me she is strangely confident he will be fine. He has been saved repeatedly by coincidences and miracles, she said.
In the video, all I saw was scorched earth, burnt walls, and piles of black metal. “This was the center of our city,” Lisa explained in a calm voice. “This was our municipal administration, this was the arts-and-culture center, here was the school I attended.”
Friday, March 18
The Picture of the Man with the Cat
Thursday passed quickly, but I want to say something about it, even though I didn’t write anything then.
The air-raid alarm has just ended, so I have some time to concentrate and think about yesterday. Something important did in fact happen. I write for fifteen minutes, but the sirens with their threatening tone begin to howl again. So I have at least another twenty minutes, maybe even an hour, until I know if I am really in danger. This way I have the time to finish writing another section.
On the Internet and Telegram I look at photos of burning houses in Kyiv. I saved these pictures so as not to forget them, but I can’t even remember what day they are from—this morning, yesterday, or the day before yesterday.
It occurs to me that this morning I saw a photo of a man with old professor’s glasses standing in front of a multistory house. He wore a jacket that looked a little too big for him, and his face had a puzzled expression, although he did not appear sad. And yet with a desperate gesture, he pressed a beautiful long-haired cat to his chest. The cat clung to him, and in its look I read shock. Its nose was injured and bleeding. The man had saved the cat, and they both had survived.
A resident of a high-rise building in Podil died in an attack. Nineteen were injured, including four children. All this happened early in the morning. The man with professor glasses lost his home. He ran out of the burning apartment with his cat, but without a bag.
I remembered the couple I had met in the neighborhood a few days ago, the older people with the two small dogs. They were both eighty-five years old and had said, “We left our house as you see us now—without possessions. There was nothing we could take with us.”
Different scenes from Telegram channels race through my head. I wish I could concentrate, but instead a number pops into my head: 222. That’s how many people are said to have died in Kyiv since the war began. Among them, four children. Many more have been injured. I can’t do anything with this number. It is new and surprising. It includes not only civilians, but also members of the Territorial Defense in our city.
Yesterday was the second day of the Jewish holiday Purim. I went to Podil to pick something up from the post office, and I decided on my way back that I would visit the synagogue where my friends were celebrating.
To reach this old Kyiv district I went down Andriyivskyy Descent, a tourist street on which the writer and satirist Mikhail Bulgakov once lived and his museum now stands. The descent, in normal times one of the most popular streets in Kyiv, was absolutely deserted at noon. I noticed that in the midst of this desolation two cafes were open. I entered one of them, ordered an espresso, and learned that the owners were giving out free coffee to everyone. They wanted to reopen the cafe “so that the people of Kyiv could feel that peace is here after all and will soon return fully and irrevocably,” as one employee explained.
There was a line in front of the post office. My package, an order of various chargers, had not arrived. I looked around with the vague desire to buy something after all. There were a couple of options, but nothing really suited me. The air-raid alert started blaring. I wanted to stay a little longer with the other people in the store and noticed that I was not the only one ambling from shelf to shelf with searching, disappointed glances. It was more pleasant to stay together in this small space than to walk home alone through the bare and sunny streets.
Reluctantly, I made my way to the synagogue. Once there, I found a small group of revelers in a prayer room in the back. They were following the commandment that one must be so drunk on this day that one cannot tell a criminal from a saint. One member of the congregation is visually impaired and had been accompanied by his friend to the synagogue every day so that he could participate in prayer. My good friend, an artist, joined in the celebration. Everyone embraced several times, and someone even tried to run riot. But it was only a game.
My way home took me along the Andriyivskyy Descent again, since all other paths seemed unsafe.
On the way back I had the idea of photographing the most unspeakably banal views of Kyiv, replicating the photos that tourists always take when visiting the city for the first time. Following this idea, I came to the sculpture park, where a few parents with their children were walking among the dog owners. I was going to take a landscape photo, until suddenly I noticed purple-gray smoke drifting across the sky.
I couldn’t hear the impact! Was it just a cloud? But then other walkers came up to me with worried faces and said, “Did you see that? It was a rocket! Where did it fall? Was anyone injured, or were any houses hit? Let’s watch the news!” But the news provided nothing. For several days now, the media has not reported the damage immediately after impact, lest the aggressor correct his targets and fire again.
Angry and terrified, I stood there watching the smoke. I felt something else that I can’t even describe. What was happening in front of my eyes at that moment was a crime. The fire was so strong that the cloud of smoke continued to expand. I wanted to do something about this crime, though I couldn’t figure out what. But I knew action was necessary, and everything else could wait.
The walkers called for their children and quickly left. I went home, wanting to write a diary entry, but felt a great exhaustion that I couldn’t fight. I fell asleep without having written a word.
Thursday, March 17
Today there is no entry.
Wednesday, March 16
One does not speak to a ruin. One contemplates it, holds it in their mind. It is war’s silent witness in the middle of the city. Looking at a ruin gives the observer a certain distance from events.
What does this distance mean? It is in no way an emotional distance, but a detachment that gives strength and the feeling that you can control how close the war comes to you. As a giant trace of an inhuman force, a ruin devours everything human that makes up the street you’re standing on.
I keep thinking about what it means to observe the consequences of the bombardment in the city. It is something of a construction site—one that is not built, but dismantled.
In front of the ruins yesterday, among shattered glass, deformed scraps of metal, and pieces of the roof, I met a woman: an elderly lady who was looking for cigarettes. The kiosk where she bought them every day was so badly damaged that all the glass covering the windows and doors had been blown out. The salesmen themselves were no longer around; the cigarettes lay unprotected in the shop window. The lady was asking everyone where to get a pack nearby. I suggested she leave the money in the shop window and take the pack, as a kind of self-service. Then I asked her why she decided to stay in Kyiv during these uncertain times.
She told me that her mother, who turned 100 three months ago, died this past week. In the war’s early days, it was unimaginable that she and her husband would leave the city. Now she was simply here. Maybe she would stay. Her eyes were shining; she even looked a little happy.
She was a mathematician, a scientist who came to Kyiv from Murmansk as a child. With many quips, she told me the tangled story of her family, saved time and again from war, hunger, and Stalin’s repressions. She spoke melodically and with a delicate touch, as if the words of the narrative had bound themselves together beforehand, only wanting for a listener. Despite her age, there was something young about her face, and she moved quickly and gracefully among stones and splinters. Our conversation didn’t last long, but I keep thinking back to it. Sometimes in war you have the feeling that you don't want to lose other people, even after fleeting encounters. And now that I’ve described that meeting, I feel I did something to hold onto it.
The air-raid alarm doesn’t sound for the moment. We are safe. During the curfew, authorities recommend darkening the windows and turning on the lights as sparingly as possible. The streets are empty, and the houses look abandoned. It is a relief to think that at least these houses are not in danger right now as they try with all their might to mask the lives of their inhabitants, to make them invisible.
Urban life makes a tactical retreat during the lockdown, all the while hoping to return again tomorrow, when the street will be seen as a street rather than a source of danger.
Mariupol is undergoing something quite different. About 1,000 people whose houses had been destroyed found refuge in the Donetsk Regional Theater of Drama, a large building in the city center. In satellite images, you can see that next to the theater, the Russian word for “children” was written twice in chalk in capital letters. Perhaps this word was written on the ground at risk of death, in the hope that it would provide protection from the bombs and shelling.
The word looks like a warning, a dialogue with someone who could never imagine attacking such a place. A Kyiv friend of my mother’s who had worked as a theater director with Russian colleagues still insists that Russia is attacking only military infrastructure. When my mother objects, “But the apartment buildings are damaged,” he replies, “That was a mistake, and believe me, they will punish the responsible parties!”
When I read the word “children” in these photos, I can understand the belief that the unimaginable would never happen, even when the war has already become so ghastly.
Today the theater was bombed; we are talking about what has been called a “high-performance bomb.” What does that mean? It means that the building no longer exists. At the time of writing, because of the constant shelling, relief workers cannot approach the site to try to comb through the rubble for survivors.
I am safe, the air-raid alarm is silent, and theoretically one could even go to sleep. Tomorrow is the beginning of another day. New events will come, and tomorrow we will speak of them and contemplate them instead of the theater in Mariupol. I can’t imagine it. The days of the war should not draw to a close just like any other days in life. Someone has given this war permission. The world has deliberated, doubted, and still allowed it. It may be too late, but the sky over Mariupol must be closed at once!
The next morning I learn that rescue workers were able to reach the rubble of the theater after all. Out from the bunker underneath the theater, survivors are climbing out.
Tuesday, March 15
In War, One Thinks Almost Only of War
The people of Kyiv are returning. It is hard to believe, but it is so. A friend reported to me, “In our house, all the residents are back, in the evening there is a light in every window.”
I notice it myself. The street where I live is full of young faces, even though houses were shelled not far away yesterday. A kiosk with coffee and cake is open and, in front of the window, a small line has formed.
Many people are walking their dogs through the city, as if such walks are becoming normal again. It is sunny and warm, the cold wind subsided, and everyone is trying to savor their time before the curfew begins. Once again, a long lockdown has been announced for Kyiv, and no one will be able to leave their homes other than to go to a shelter.
I watched a video statement from an advisor to Volodymyr Zelensky, who usually delivers good news. He said Ukraine was winning the war, by and large, simply because Russia’s attempt to divide the country, attack civil society, and seize major cities has failed. The sanctions have had a strong effect, but we still need some time to win militarily. Until then, unfortunately, Russian missiles could still hit some residential buildings—an intentional strategy, he said. Other experts apparently have expressed similar views elsewhere, giving shape to a new reality.
In Mariupol, according to media reports, a hospital was captured by a Russian task force. The doctors are currently unable to leave; they are locked in its basement along with 400 residents from neighboring houses—all brought there by Russian soldiers. Many buildings around the hospital have been destroyed and fighting continues in the streets.
This casts a shadow on the news that I was so hoping for: today, 20,000 people from Mariupol are finally able to leave the city through a humanitarian corridor. This is what the relatives, friends, and loved ones of these people have been waiting on for weeks, watching with shudders the battle for Mariupol. Many people have now been freed from a place where life no longer seems possible—and yet, it seems, there are still some who stay. Some because they are trapped in occupied hospitals, others because of family reasons, or life’s general obligations.
An acquaintance of mine, a Ukrainian art scholar, fled from Irpin to Kyiv and on to Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. From there, she has written impeccably on Facebook about her grandmother, who lives in a beautiful little house in Irpin with a well-tended flower garden. I assumed she too had fled to Kyiv by now, and I wanted to inquire about her wellbeing and ask if she needed any help. I learned that she absolutely refused to leave her house in Irpin. She can’t imagine living anywhere else. My acquaintance tries to call her several times a day, but the number remains unreachable.
Is the celebratory mood in Kyiv today related to the humanitarian corridors that are finally open? Or is it the reassuring, almost hopeful thoughts about the outcome of the war expressed by these many experts?
The number of victims is already so high that it is difficult to comprehend. Again and again, I hear the air defense over Kyiv catching Russian shells mid-flight, thundering and popping. In war, one thinks almost only of war. The concepts of big politics—abstract discussions about the “theater of war,” about what belongs to “the West” and what to Russia and Ukraine—serve as mental refuges within war’s own intolerability. One recovers in the space of analytical thought, a space where these lofty, immaterial questions are discussed, where it is no longer about concrete human lives, but about states whose strategies are often described as self-destiny, manifestations of their national traits.
Before curfew, I wanted to see the subway station that was shelled last night. I had to pass through checkpoints and take detours to get a glimpse of the wreckage. Shards of glass lay in a shockingly large radius around the station. A roof had caved in, plastic doors were deformed by the blast wave; hundreds of broken windows stared blackly into the street. A circle of silence formed around this place, where several houses and dozens of smaller stores were damaged in one fell swoop.
The ruins formed an eerie scene. I saw some women standing in front of the damaged buildings for several minutes, looking at the destroyed section of the street, as if they wanted to memorize every crack, every broken windowpane, forever.
Monday, March 14
Rockets Over Kyiv
It is an endlessly long day. Sirens are constantly howling. By now, the residents of Kyiv have gotten used to the fact that the city is comparatively safe, at least for the moment. Even people from outside the city have fled here. Families from Irpin, from Bucha, from Vorsel come to Kyiv. In some villages there has been no food or water since the beginning of the war.
It’s a risky escape. Some families and groups of refugees have to walk long distances to reach safety. In some areas that are perpetually under fire, electricity has been down since the second day of the war. I heard from some acquaintances that a couple with five children were due to reach Kyiv yesterday. They had been on the road for days—not drinking fresh water, but thawing snow since February 25. Now, they could not be reached by phone.
This morning I talked with Sophia about fear. Sophia is eighteen years old. She’s a medical student and helps as a paramedic in the volunteer army. She is scared, she said, but still she is ready to go to war.
The gunfire grew louder and more threatening, but next to Sophia I felt strangely safe—as if her military uniform were a guarantee that nothing would happen to us. Her father, a businessman from the central Ukrainian town of Kropivnytski, where the airport was shelled the day before yesterday, was sent to the front in 2014. For this family, war, or even the idea of war, did not exist until eight years ago. But since that year, both daughter and father live with the thought of having to defend their country.
Sophia said this war was inevitable. “I’ve said it over and over again. Even four years ago I was sure we had to prepare for it.” I agreed with her, thinking how wise that would have been then. But I had also long believed the opposite, convinced that such a war was impossible. As we talked, I forgot that Sophia would have been fourteen when she began to mentally prepare herself for war. Her father was always at the front, so she could not stop seeing the reality of war. As recently as last summer, she herself had been to the Donbas, to the heavily shelled Avdiivka, a town north of Donetsk. She was there with the Ukrainian Hospitallers Medical Battalion.
“I remembered my father calling from Kyiv at that time. In a quiet voice he told me, ‘Two more of our soldiers were killed in the Donbas yesterday, and another house was shelled.’” That was always on Sophia’s mind. And yet, when I talked to her, I thought she was far away from the actual war. She laughed and joked around, her expression only turning serious again with the sound of gunfire and artillery.
“When I was in Avdiivka,” she recounted, “it was relatively quiet. I was lucky and was able to learn a lot in the hospital. Only two of our soldiers were injured when I was there. But then came darker times.” She paused. “Wait a second! I can’t hear the air defense, that means targets in Kyiv might have been hit!” We had to interrupt the conversation. On the way back home I read the news.
A missile had hit a high-rise building. Seventy people were evacuated, ten injured. One person was killed. At about the same time, a bus carrying refugees from the eastern Ukrainian town of Isum was shelled. No one knows if there are any survivors. This all happened in the morning hours when representatives of the Ukrainian government were negotiating with Russia.
I think that the attack on Kyiv was a signal, a sign that no one in Ukraine can go to sleep thinking that they are safe in their house or apartment. The rockets breach the walls of the houses like the skin of the body. The whole idea of a house, of shelter and protection, seems to be in question for our city right now.
When I write about the attacks and the violence, I use the word “war,” but it hardly describes the terror, the targeted murder of the defenseless. “War” does not cover the merciless attacks against homes and buses carrying refugees. Official, internationally recognized figures say that 2,357 people were killed in Mariupol, and in Kharkiv 600 residential houses were destroyed.
I wrote this text before falling asleep. Today, at five o’clock in the morning, my house shook with a strong explosion. I woke up with the feeling of cold spreading in my stomach. From the window I checked to see that everything was fine with the neighboring houses, as well as with my parents’ house. I thought about leaving, about the fact that at last I should make a plan to leave Kyiv.
How can the world put an end to this crime? It is not only a war, but also a continuous terrorist attack. And it looks like these crimes that subjugate and colonize the Ukrainian people are meant not only to intimidate us, but to terrify the whole world. Despair and fear help to make this terror possible.
Sunday, March 13
An Unexpected Gift
When dusk comes, I turn on as many lights as possible in the room in my apartment where I read. At this time of day, it is not yet dangerous to have lights on in the apartment. It is still somewhat bright outside, so the contrast with any light coming from my windows is not too extreme. I can only light my room this extremely for thirty or forty minutes—then comes the evening, which I spend in near-darkness.
Today, I want to write about two meetings. I went back to the street in Kyiv where I used to live for several years. With amazement I saw that welcoming lights were shining in a cozy cafe, which, like most cafes in the city, had been closed since the beginning of the war. I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.
It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.
The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone. This former employee’s name is Aleksej. It was his birthday today, but he did not celebrate. He said to me, “I wanted to do something, anything, so I thought it over and decided that the best thing to do was to open the cafe.”
He has nowhere else to go, he said, because he fled Luhansk Oblast after the Donbas war in 2014. He does not want to leave Kyiv now. He keeps thinking about his parents and sister, whom he hasn’t seen for years and who live somewhere near Luhansk in the occupied territories.
When I ask about his birthday, Aleksej says, “Everything has lost its former meaning. I only remembered yesterday that today is my birthday. Besides, it’s Sunday.” I said that maybe tomorrow, Monday, there would be more visitors to the cafe. Then we both had to laugh because it no longer makes any difference whether it is Sunday, Monday, or Friday. The breaks in the rhythm of life are determined differently during wartime and come without warning.
Then I met a couple with two small dogs. The woman’s name was the same as mine, Yevgenia. At first, they claimed to have escaped from Chernihiv. In reality, they went on to say, they escaped from a village on the left bank of the Dnieper, in Kyiv Oblast. They later said that they had not named their real town out of the caution demanded by the times.
Although their dogs couldn’t stand the rockets and explosions, they had stayed at home until the very last moment—and only then fled to Kyiv.
They are both eighty-five years old, and alongside four relatives, are refugees. They are all staying with their young grandchildren in a small apartment in Kyiv. They could not imagine going any further away from their village than this, the two said.
The man looked at me. He asked, “Do you at least have a place to live here?” I just nodded, I could hardly pronounce the “yes.”
Sunday, March 12
Too Tired For The Shelter
It was a sleepless night. The air-raid alarm, sounding its sirens over the city, kept me up all night. But I was too tired to go to the shelter. I heard explosions and hoped that no one was injured. Then I tried to find out what was going on, but on Telegram there were only reports from other places. They concerned the blockades that Russian units are forming around these cities, and the residents who spend day and night in the nightmare of a siege.
My plan for the day was to pick up my bulletproof vest, which had finally been delivered. Then I would visit a lady who, as a sort of concierge, watches over a house in the neighborhood and keeps an eye on the comings and goings. There are many such concierges in the city, but since the beginning of the war this lady has taken on an additional task—she must make sure that nothing is stolen from the abandoned apartments. Her name had a comforting ring to it that reminded me of childhood: Dussia.
Tonight, like every other other night, I was overcome with fear. The sirens with their long and melancholy trumpet notes made me uneasy. I imagined armed strangers invading Kyiv, bringing silence to every street and every house and every feature of this city, until everything vanishes. Again and again I told myself, it’s just a brief panic attack, it will be over soon.
When I called Dussia for the first time, I could sense in her voice both tenderness and restlessness. One of the residents from her building who had escaped had asked me to check in on her, which made her happy. Because she is alone, no one can relieve her of her watch. She also lives in the building where she works. She thought that I sounded suspicious at first, so she wanted to stay on the phone a while to convince herself that she could trust me—she is even afraid to go shopping.
I visited her in her small concierge room on the first floor. There was only space for a table and a sofa. The TV was on. She said, “So many people are escaping Kyiv, but I have nowhere to go. My relatives live outside Chernihiv and you know what happened there. Where should I go? Where can I go?”
In her face I saw helplessness, but she had made her decision to stay put. Fifteen families remained in the large apartment block she was looking after, and they wanted someone to rely on. I tried to lighten the mood with some not entirely clever jokes. I was happy that she smiled at me, and I decided to visit her again soon.
In the evening, a friend’s message arrived. She wrote that a group of women and children had tried to escape on foot today from an occupied village outside Kyiv. The village had a name from Soviet times: “Victory.” The group was fired on as they left the village. Seven women and one child died. My friend said that she understands why Ukrainians use the word “genocide” when describing this war. I don’t know if it is the right word to use. I just read this message again and again.
From time to time I look at the comments that readers post online about this diary, and I often see similar arguments. I recognize these sentences from analytical articles, where “experts,” who for years played the role of opponents to the Russian regime, express their allegedly independent opinions that just happen to always be the same: the Russian regime is inhumane and murderous, but also very dangerous and unpredictable. We cannot imagine what this ghastly person will do to the world if he loses the war in Ukraine. If he wins, however, then the world will gain a little time to prepare and to consider how to better understand the situation.
This kind of reasoning teaches the world that if you barely interfere then the suffering will not spread too widely. Fear continues to sell, with no sanctions imposed on it.
We are now living through the consequences of this thinking, which, like all the great crimes of the world, is spread in many languages by a thousand different voices. It is a question not only of history and suffering, which can be repeated over and over again, but also the habit of making sacrifices and satisfying monsters or perpetrators of violence.
And so, this monster flexes his strength by attacking women and children who leave “Victory” on foot and cannot protect themselves against his heavy weapons.
Friday, March 11
The windows in my little room are darkened with duvet covers. There is a light on and it’s reasonably comfortable. An app on my phone announces “the air-raid alarm is over” in a woman’s voice. It’s one of those moments when I think I’ve discovered something fundamental: I understand what photography is for. I’ve occupied myself with photography for a long time, but I have never understood it as practically as I do now.
Only with the help of photos and pictures can I remember the course of today’s walk. In the daily life of war, only something like photography—unfamiliar, auxiliary, almost mechanical—is capable of holding together sequences and memories.
When I went for a walk, my thoughts were still on the morning news and I hardly paid attention to the street. With a deep sadness, I had to admit to myself the possibility that we might eventually be forced to leave Kyiv. I’d known all along it might come to that, of course, but today the possibility really struck me again.
Then I thought, at least I’m still in Kyiv for now, I must cherish every minute and look around—to see the city, the streets, the people. That was somewhat naive, however, and I quickly sank back into my thoughts, hardly noticing what was going on around me.
The soldiers of the Territorial Defense were warming their hands. I saw the beautiful faces of two young women who laughingly told me that they belonged to the “Volunteer Army of Ukraine.” They gave me their phone numbers. What that meant was: maybe we will meet again.
To my surprise, a little later I heard music. I was walking through the sculpture park, along Landscape Avenue. From a distance I heard drums, a melodic whistling, and bells. The music came from the hills. I listened very carefully as the playing got a little louder with every step. Then I saw a small group of men and women playing musical instruments in the distance. What a combination of different fragments, tones, and pauses. I listened, enchanted. They approached me, passing me by with friendly glances. I was so impressed by having seen and heard these musicians that I cannot remember what happened afterwards.
But thanks to the photographs, which I continue to try to take, another important scene comes to mind. The municipal workers of Kyiv were out in the city, using spray paint to cover over tourist maps of the city center, which can be seen on boards all around that area. The workers were accompanied by armed members of the Territorial Defense. I was allowed to take photos on the condition that no face could be recognized in the images.
Now my memory jumps to another episode that has something to do with music: on March 8, International Women’s Day, I went to the pharmacy with my mother. On the way, we met an elderly woman carrying a rose. My mother approached her. They chatted and exchanged contact information so they cold help each other in case of emergency.
Then the woman began to recite a poem she had written in Russian during the war. It was about dictatorship, about war, and at the end there was a promise that this absolute senselessness, this evil, could never win. The woman wore a headscarf, looking modest, but the melody of her verses sounded musical and to the point.
The boards with tourist maps were painted over so that the saboteurs, who are constantly trying to enter Kyiv and other cities, will not be able to use the maps for orientation. Rumor has it that they often do not have smartphones and get lost in the settlements and streets.
Today’s news was excruciating. I think of the songs the people sing here anyway, I think of the music.
The air-raid alert sounds again. I wait and I hope that the sky will soon be closed.
Thursday, March 10
In a diary, a day feels like a self-contained unit. An entry feeds the illusion that conclusions can be drawn—the illusion of a logical narrative.
This war has many such illusions. For example, it had a preface that preceded the actual attacks: Russian divisions massed at the border of Ukraine, politicians spoke of war, and diplomats left the country. The war followed upon this expectation, this prediction, like a play whose plot is told in a preamble, or like a fulfilled prophecy.
I am still struggling to understand what happens when you learn in advance that a war is coming, a war whose cycle will terrorize peaceful cities with bombs and murder thousands of people. Today, the news in Ukraine said that civilian casualties are much higher than military casualties.
I suspect that, before the war started, even the politicians who predicted it did not believe it would happen and kept hoping that it could be avoided. Otherwise, the world would have done everything—or much more than “everything”—to prevent this abyss. The war was unrealistic, absurd, it could not be imagined. And when you wake up in the midst of war, it remains the same: still unimaginable.
At the political level, the unimaginable was compounded by the fear of a huge phantom—a phantom that a corrupt and aggressive dictatorship had spent years building with propaganda. This phantom even managed to convince itself, assuring itself that it was powerful enough to take Ukraine in just a few days with a blitzkrieg. It would be like a vacation for the soldiers—they would be greeted with flowers. A quick victory was certain.
Fear tied our hands and caution seemed the wisest option. Everyone waited until the catastrophe really began. Now, in Kyiv, and together with the whole world, I have to watch as houses, lives, and memories disappear in a huge fire.
And still, in the midst of war, in the midst of senseless dying, injuries, suffering, and losses, more crimes are predicted. Russia comes forward almost daily with old and new demands, which are always based on territorial claims. A new preface is being written into the war narrative once again. If its demands for more territories are rejected, Russia will announce even more war, even more death.
As I write, a friend calls to say that her mother, who still lives in Kharkiv, was out on the balcony when she spotted a man speaking in Russian. He was relaying the coordinates for a bombing on the street outside her house. He was apparently a “navodchik,” an antiquated word from another era, meaning a “gunner”—someone who decides where the next strike should be, someone who helps shell peaceful districts. The distribution of food was supposed to happen next to her house. Perhaps that is why the navodchik chose this spot.
The father of another friend stayed in Kharkiv because the employees of his small company could not escape the city. He wanted to help people on the ground. For days he survived the rocket and mortar attacks unharmed. But now my friend is trying to find psychological help for him, in this city under fire. Her father can no longer understand where he is or what is happening around him.
In Kharkiv, during the first days of the war, the animals in a small private zoo were injured. The zoo staff stayed in the city to care for them. Today, some of the staff were deliberately shot at on their way home from the zoo. Some were injured. Some died.
An acquaintance of mine spent twelve days in her basement in a small town outside Kyiv—without light, almost without food. She was rescued today.
I myself was detained today by an elderly couple on the street in Kyiv. They noticed that I was taking photos and suspected that I might be spying for Russia. They took me to a checkpoint in the hope that I would be disarmed. And all I wanted to do was take a hopeful photo of the city. I wanted to show that food delivery services were operating again, bringing food to elderly and sick people. The few remaining employees walk around the city to make deliveries! This means that those who need help but cannot shop for themselves will have a little more security and care.
Wednesday, March 9
A Flaw in the Landscape
Today I walked—finally with almost no fear—along Landscape Avenue, one of the most beautiful and busy streets in Kyiv. It is an avenue with a magnificent view of the left bank of the Dnieper River and the city’s residential districts. This avenue is also called Sculpture Park. It runs past old Kyiv houses and down to the History Museum. Since the beginning of the war, this avenue has been almost completely deserted on most days. It has seemingly become too anxiety-inducing because of how open and unprotected it is.
Nowadays, it is visited by those who stayed in Kyiv and live nearby or walk their dogs there. Although there are very few pedestrians, it is no longer completely empty, like it was at the start of the war.
The sirens announced an air raid, but I stopped anyway and enjoyed the view. Then I noticed a large white cloud of smoke in the distance. Something was burning somewhere. I searched on Telegram, but found no clue as to what it could be.
The landscape looked dreamy, and only that distant sign of fire indicated a flaw in it. Then I heard a sobbing male voice approaching me.
A man who seemed homeless was walking down the avenue with an old backpack. He had wrapped plastic bags around his shoes to warm his feet. In his hand, he carried a small, half-drunk vodka bottle. As he walked, he spoke very loudly into his cell phone, repeatedly asking how someone was doing. With each answer, he broke into sobs, like a child, over and over again. I understood through fragments that he was talking about an evacuation. I caught up with him and slipped him some money, which he accepted without interrupting the conversation.
Wherever I go, I see mostly polite, caring, calm faces. Grocery store employees, volunteers, soldiers, and members of the Territorial Defense. I also meet exhausted, sad people, especially doctors. But this was the first time I’d seen someone crying since the beginning of the war. At least, that’s how it felt to me at that moment.
I read on Telegram that some residents of the embattled city of Chernihiv fled on foot. Maybe acquaintances or friends of his were among them? They evacuated without waiting for transport and then they were shot at outside the city. Some of them were killed. In Mariupol, a children’s hospital and a maternity clinic were destroyed by an airstrike. People in Mariupol still don’t have electricity, water, food, and medicine, and many have died because of the attacks. Such events from today stand dimly before the doors of my memory.
I went to the city center, where a small outdoor concert was taking place. I still heard the loud sobbing of the homeless man in my ears. Here in Kyiv, I thought, you get used to watching the unending days of war with tearless eyes—trying to do something every hour, every minute, to organize something, to help someone. For example, a small store next to my house, where bread and eggs are sold almost every day, remains open now only because an employee decided to spend the nights there.
A doctor told me today that she came to work on February 24 and has not gone home since. For the Kyiv residents who continue to stand at grocery store checkouts or care for the sick, driving to work has become too risky and unsafe. Whatever is still functioning in this city of three million people is only there because someone doesn’t sleep in their own bed for days on end and is helping others almost around the clock.
Tuesday, March 8
The night is still young
When I entered today’s date into my Word document, it looked suspicious and unnatural. Time goes on—one day after another, the sequence is assured, after brightness comes the night. At the same time, almost everything that happens is contrary to the state of living—I don't want to say, “contrary to normality.” I search for a more appropriate word, but cannot find it. The word should describe a total destruction, but at the same time keep open the possibility that much can still be saved.
Today I gave an interview to a journalist. I was a little late, but then we talked. Some questions were uncomfortable, but I couldn’t stop answering them. The journalist said to me: “When I hear you, everything around you seems to be functioning normally, you talk about the people in the streets… How do you even realize that the war is really there?”
The question tormented me. As I searched for an answer, I felt how I began to justify myself, how I tried to prove the catastrophe by describing the war—as if there could still be a doubt that the war is happening. But you can hardly describe the catastrophe at this scale, all you can do is stop it. It is the only thing you can do.
When I tell the people I meet that I am writing a public diary, most of them say to me, “The world has to help us close the sky over Ukraine. Can you pass this on?”
With my own eyes, I see the masked faces of Russian pilots who were lucky enough to survive their planes being shot down and were then arrested. There were video clips on Telegram of parts of their interrogation. They said, “We don’t know who we drop the bombs on, we just get the coordinates for the air strikes and then we follow the orders.”
A friend who was evacuated from a small town outside Kyiv told me that peaceful people are being taken prisoner in the parts of the city controlled by Putin’s army. The Russian army breaks into private homes and takes entire families away. How often does this happen? How many have already been captured in this barbaric way? Where are these people now?
The occupied neighborhoods, villages, and small towns are often the least visible. They sink in the deluge of news. Rarely is there electricity anymore, and so it is hard to keep in contact with these areas. Other voices report other plights and are heard much louder. And you want to listen to them because they are easier to hear, because you can help immediately—or at least hope to help.
Putin demands recognition of the occupied territories in Donbas and Luhansk Oblast. All the villages and towns that are left to his power will be silenced by the occupiers. Even under the circumstances of terror that Ukraine is experiencing right now, it is unimaginable to allow this further swallowing of villages and towns.
When I left my apartment today, I saw an empty street. No cars, no pedestrians. At such moments, Kyiv seems like a city that has yet to be inhabited—a city without a present, with only a past and a future. A few steps further along, I saw two pedestrians, both holding flowers in their hands. This is one tradition that has broken through the cold wall of war: on March 8, International Women's Day, women are given flowers. Outside the pharmacy, I spotted many women with flowers, prepared for a long wait in the cold. A car had stopped at the pharmacy, and someone had gotten out and handed flowers to those in line.
This big city lives on. Somewhere there are still flowers. In the closed restaurants, food is being cooked for the defense of Kyiv. The elderly ladies and gentlemen who were actors in a theater group for seniors stay together. A few years ago, my mother took over as the director of this self-organized theater group, which is called “The Night is Still Young.”
Now these senior actors and actresses help with the territorial defense of Kyiv. They don’t want to leave the city. I must add that these talented people know hundreds of poems by heart and sing beautifully. They sometimes also write the scripts for their productions—even if some of them find it difficult to step onto the stage. Now they don’t just want to help, they want to join the Territorial Defense. I try to imagine this and suddenly think: with defenders like this, nothing can happen to our city.
Monday, March 7
A way of life that swallows everything
I’m having a hard time concentrating today and getting an overview of what’s happening. The war is ongoing and I am somewhere in the midst of the events that are developing chaotically around me. Peacetime seems unattainably far away. New laws and a new reality are unfolding.
I receive a utility bill for my Kyiv apartment. It is accompanied by a Telegram message that sounds like an apology: “We are writing to you with a request. If your financial means allow under the circumstances, please pay the utilities. Many Kyiv utility workers joined the Ukrainian army and are now fighting for our freedom. However, it is still important to pay the bills.”
The same text was posted on the Kyiv Utilities website. I remembered the faces of the employees of these companies—which are so incompatible with the war. Wherever I look, everywhere, I see war. It has become a total, all-encompassing way of life that swallows everything.
During the day I met an old friend, an historian and sociologist who lives far away on the other side of the city. Early in the morning he went to the city center to help a friend’s mother evacuate.
The mother waited at the station with four small bags and a suitcase, even though my friend asked her to bring just one. I heard her voice on the phone, crying as she described the difficulties of boarding the crowded train, then crying again as she explained she had made it onto a train car and found a spot.
My friend can’t find peace. Yesterday, he helped his uncle evacuate from a partially burned-out village near Kyiv and now he is looking for the phone numbers of those who are still there. In this quaint little village, called Horenka, the pharmacy was shelled and destroyed on February 28. Then, at the beginning of March, Horenka was repeatedly shelled again with Grad rockets.
Only a few load-bearing walls remain from most of the houses. I have visited several times in the past, but now I do not recognize anything from the pictures of the ruins.
In Zaporizhzhya Oblast, two postal workers were shot dead in their mail truck while trying to deliver pensions to elderly people who could no longer collect the money themselves. I can picture this kind of Ukrainian mail truck very well—several times when I was young, I saw postal workers deliver my grandma’s pension to her. She was weak and could not leave the apartment, but she was very proud when the small pension, which was rapidly devaluing due to inflation, was handed to her personally. She was almost friends with one of the postal workers. They always shared a little polite chat and, in my memory, they both looked happy while doing so. Two women who gave each other the gift of their presence and support.
The delivery of the pension was a symbol of care, it was a human gesture—more than simply welfare from the corrupt state. I can picture a mail truck, but picturing how such a truck could be shot at is beyond my imagination.
I wish that everyone who delivers something, who cares for someone, reaches their destinations safely tomorrow. That's what I'm hoping for this March 8. I will be remembering those who, despite the danger to their lives, continue to take care of the people of this country and try to reach someone.
Sunday, March 6
IT'S 3:30PM AND WE'RE STILL ALIVE
Sometimes, these days, it’s hard to grasp tomorrow. Tomorrow seems an eternity away, as if it were happening on another planet. One can imagine tomorrow in theory, but not as a moment in one’s own passage of time—only as a story one tells oneself.
I woke up with the feeling that it’s good I am in Kyiv, and that I have not left the city. I wanted to go out on the streets right away, but I couldn’t because I still had lots to do. After all, it was a special day. I had arranged to see a colleague of mine, Polina Veller, a young artist and designer from Kyiv, whom I met recently in a grocery store.
Polina is staying in Kyiv with her husband and young daughter, who can’t tolerate long trips and needs to stay in a crib. When the war began, Polina started using plastic cable ties in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to make masks that look like strange veils. We decided to meet midway between our apartments and play at fashion photography. We were concerned with the absurdity of our activity, with the absurdity of basically any activity in the face of current events. And with the idea that you keep going despite it all.
A man approached and said that he’d noticed me looking at the street through the viewfinder of my camera. “I’d like to warn you,” he said, “in these times you can get shot in the head for that!” I replied in amazement that I was just doing my job as a journalist. Then he said, “In that case, maybe it’s alright.” Only when he was gone did I realize that he had threatened me. Tension grows in the city. A camera symbolizes an eye that can be aimed at anyone. Photography becomes even more suspicious than usual.
A few pedestrians watched with undisguised surprise as Polina posed with her mask for my pictures.
I walked back home. My little camera, which I like to carry with me, suddenly felt like a shield protecting me against vague suspicion. I thought about the power of the photographic image—a power that can be used to testify to what has happened, but which is also feared precisely for this reason.
On the way back, I saw many young faces. A group of volunteers were busy collecting food that they would distribute over the next few weeks. Can you believe that just two weeks ago, everything in Kyiv was functioning as usual—cafes, restaurants, shops, and grocery stores? People walked the streets, sometimes without a destination, just strolling to familiar or popular places.
One peculiarity of war is this new, purposeful walking. To go out, you have to have something important in mind—you reach your destination and then you go straight back. And almost all destinations are linked to food or medicine in some way.
A lot happened today. In the evening I learned that a friend of mine was evacuated from the small town of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv. On the way, she lost her dog, who was frightened by the explosions and ran off in panic. She saw with her own eyes how women with children were being targeted as they tried to get on an evacuation bus. Then something heavy crashed to the ground not far from them, a bomb perhaps, and everyone on the bus was knocked over. My friend told me, “I want to survive so I can describe this evacuation in The Hague.” A photographer friend of mine was also evacuated from Irpin. For some incomprehensible reason, he was shot at, along with others who were trying to get on the bus. A bullet hit him in the upper arm.
Some were murdered during the evacuation. The estimate so far is six women and children, but the exact number of victims and injured is still being clarified. A poet friend of my parents stayed in Irpin with his wife, as they are caring for his elderly mother who can no longer get up. When my parents called them, the wife started to scream. A few hours later they get a text message from her: “It's 3:30pm and we are still alive.”
Humanitarian aid still has not reached Mariupol in the south. We don’t know how many victims the city has to mourn. The people there still don’t have medicine, food, water, or electricity. They are shelled every day. The head of the municipal council of Hostomel, an embattled village northwest of Kyiv, was deliberately killed because, despite the danger, he continued distributing bread and medicine to his community. Hostomel is partially occupied. As of today, Putin has announced further attacks throughout the country. He intends to bomb military infrastructure, which is often next to houses and residential settlements. Some people cannot leave because they are caring for their relatives who cannot, or will not, flee.
These crimes are happening before the eyes of the whole world. People even say in advance who will be killed tomorrow—like in a prison where everyone is already sentenced to the death penalty. But this is only the vision of a petty dictator. We are fighting back. We are trying to help each other and not allow these senseless deaths.
But the global, larger world seems to be watching these criminal proclamations with a strange patience. There is still an international fear of the dictator. Perhaps some still think that if they don’t challenge or provoke him, he won’t do anything worse. This caution has already cost so much, and it is getting more expensive every minute. We are all victims, but we are also all partly responsible. We cannot wait any longer! Stop this violence!
Saturday, March 5
A Great Beauty
Tenth day of the war. I learned how to darken the windows of my apartment with the thin blankets I have, so that inside there is a soft, muted light. I remember the first morning of the war. Everything was as usual—I woke up a little late, at nine, and saw a series of messages on my cell phone from friends and acquaintances: “Please, answer the phone!” Again and again the same message.
The catastrophe needs to be represented: only as part of a story can it be recognized as a catastrophe. Communication can also be a way out—the hope is that once everything is reported and communicated, one of the addressees can end the catastrophe.
Our skies are still open to military planes and bombs. That is why our cities with men, women, children, homes, and museums are still accessible to artillery. This morning I read that in Bila Tserkva, one of the most beautiful towns in Kyiv Oblast, twenty residential houses were destroyed by an air strike. Bila Tserkva means “White Church” in English. The number of victims is still being clarified. Fortunately, a timely evacuation was organized.
A friend from Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine, called me and excitedly told me that humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine was finally being delivered to Mariupol. His neighbor heard from supposedly reliable sources that this war will be over as early as mid-March. Laughing, I said goodbye.
I remember an elegant lady I saw earlier today. She was wearing a long black coat with fur, high boots, and a hat, and was waiting in line in front of a pharmacy. My mother had also waited, for five hours, in this line. The air was cold, so my mother walked around to warm up. At some point I joined her and we decided to go for a little walk. No one in line, including my mom and I, looked particularly fancy. Businesslike, but dressed somewhat casually. So the lady in the fur coat stood out a little. Her eyes looked worried, but for me, at that moment, she was a kind of beacon. One that reminded me, and perhaps the others in line, of a bygone Kyiv.
On the way back, I met a young man in front of my house and spoke with him. He said his name was Kirill. He apparently was part of the Kyiv nightclub scene, which has developed very rapidly in recent years. Now, nearly every day, he makes an almost unimaginable trek from the eastern bank of the Dnieper across to the western bank, to cook food in the kitchen of a restaurant for people in bomb shelters and the Kyiv Territorial Defense. When his time permits, he engages in art, music, and shamanism. Our conversation was a little strange.
“It has become very difficult to have faith in others,” he said. “As it turns out, they can suddenly throw bombs at other people and think they're right about it, too.” He looked directly at me. “Do you happen to be a journalist who could write about me?” I replied that maybe I could write about our meeting, in this diary. “Then I want to say,” he seemed very passionate now, “that everything that is happening at the moment is a great beauty. I don’t want to hide. Feel free to take my picture if you like.”
I must have looked at him in amazement because he launched into an explanation. “People are acting better than usual right now, and our country…” His thought trailed off. Then he said, “Everything is changing, even internationally.” His good humor mixed with my bitterness. I began to laugh.
When I got home that evening, I learned that the food and medicine that was supposed to go to Mariupol did not reach the city. The humanitarian corridor did not work and was closed because of continuous shelling. Two people from my circle of friends, an artist and an art historian who live outside Mariupol, have been unreachable for four days. The messages on the Telegram channels from Mariupol are becoming less frequent.
I know from a close friend that the village of Horynka, near the forest of Pushcha, was badly damaged. The number of victims is unknown, and my friend’s uncle is currently hiding in a basement. We are looking for evacuation routes for him.
It is difficult for me to finish this text. The war continues, but the fear of the aggressor—the respect for him—must finally stop. I get letters from my German friends, who write: “Save yourself! Putin does not tolerate any losses. He has a reputation for destroying everything.” I wonder what they mean by that. How did he get such a reputation? What does it mean that he doesn’t want to lose? What does it mean for the whole world?
Friday, March 4
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During the night I read that in the city of Enerhodar the nuclear power plant was attacked. I slept fitfully. There were wounded employees who could not be evacuated for hours and bled to death. The fire department was shot at. Three employees died, and in the morning the wounded were evacuated. The nuclear power plant in Chernobyl is occupied, and for ten days the employees have not been able to go home. It is very dangerous to stay there for so long. The news was unbearable. I fell asleep again.
The next morning I woke up quite early in a bright mood and with the feeling that this sunny day had something to offer me. I wanted to get out on the street earlier than I did yesterday, to see what was happening in the city. Little was left of the melancholy I felt yesterday. Then I discovered the reason for this change: I no longer believe in the war! It simply can’t be, I thought. It isn’t true. What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble, in the twenty-first century?
The invaders have no political plan, they have no ability to come to power here permanently. You can’t occupy this country. It is unrealistic. The war is a dream, a dictator’s fantasy.
I wanted to see if the little store next to our house still had bread. I have not been able to get bread since the third day of the war—it is usually sold out.
The store was full. With some amazement, I discovered a group who I took to be representatives of the international military. They spoke English and needed help translating. Then I realized that they were not soldiers, but unarmed, if well-protected, escorts of a war photographer who was also shopping in the store. I tried to help her choose a detergent. The small group exuded enthusiasm, humor, and inspiration. My mood suddenly darkened. One of the three escorts proudly said to me, “Do you know who you are standing with? This is one of the best photographers in the world!”
The photographer laughed and shrugged it off. “Please," she said, "I'm embarrassed.” Then she told me her name. I can’t remember the name. I’ve been having a hard time concentrating lately. Then she said, “You can follow me on Instagram.” The group bought a lot of detergent, almost everything in the store. I told them, “Good to have you with us,” and said goodbye. But quickly an uneasiness came over me. I realized that it is not a good sign when a well-known war photographer sets up shop here with a group of escorts.
In a side street I discovered a bakery that used to be quite expensive before the war. It was open for business. Nice white bread was on the shelves, and they also had coffee. It was a miracle. My first real cup of coffee from a cafe. Men and women stood there drinking cappuccinos and discussing whether or not to stay in town. One older man, who looked like a geography professor, said he would not leave the city until he had to spend every day and night in the shelter. The bystanders tried to convince him that it would never come to that. Kyiv was a holy city after all. The city would never permit it!
Afterwards, I went to an empty street to take a photo. As I took the camera out of my pocket, a car stopped next to me. Four armed men jumped out. They took my cell phone, searched my bag, then asked who I worked for. It took a few minutes. Then they excused themselves, all four of them looking nervous and tired.
One of them said, “I understand it’s your job, but please don’t take pictures! You can see what they’re doing.” He meant the attackers. “They are shelling the residential buildings now, they are using everything as a target. It seemed unimaginable, but it is happening. There are 840 injured children.”
My photos are harmless, I thought. I’m being careful, after all. Besides, our city is photographed all the time anyway. But maybe I need to be even more careful.
I thought about that number: 840 injured children. Our sky must be protected! The news repeated that number, but it’s hard to really grasp it.
I am sure that the world will not continue to just watch this—I can’t watch it anymore either. Do not be afraid of this criminal, he acts without logic. If you protect the sky here, you save so much!
At home I got a message that a friend of mine is looking for her acquaintance, an artist who lives with his wife and two small children in Mariupol and has been unreachable for three days. The last message from him was, “If you know anyone who works for Western media, tell them: We are here almost without water, without food, without medicine, and now the electricity is cut off. They are destroying our town. Sartana, a village, keeps getting shelled. I don't know if there is anything left. So many victims.” I know that Mariupol—a Russian-speaking town in the Donbas, with beautiful little houses from the nineteenth century—is in darkness, without electricity.
840. This is no longer war, this is mass murder of the defenseless. The Ukrainian army is protecting us, but the Russian tanks, artillery, and rifles are aiming at peaceful people, women and children, at residential houses! It is time to stop being afraid and close the sky.
In Russia, independent media are either shut down or censored; what remains is the opposition newspaper Republic, which is trying to survive despite censorship. One headline read, “Russia is trying to restore the Soviet Empire. But there is little chance of that.” That's what some Russian oppositionists fear: they believe there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that the empire will be restored. In reality, there is no chance at all.
Thursday, March 3
It is the evening of the eighth day of the war, and I am looking at photos of empty streets taken on my cell phone or my small digital camera. When I take photos on the streets, I try not to show faces. I feel that anything that has a face, anything that could be identifiable, wants to stay in the shadows.
A week has passed since the invasion began. No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember any particular news or event from that first day, even though I’ve been carefully writing down important news in a notebook. Have I become accustomed to these events? Today, a sense of alienation came over me: I felt at a strange remove from everything. I try to place the moment when this strange state began, and I find it.
In the morning, when I was still in bed, I saw a video clip of a Russian soldier operating a Grad system: a multiple-rocket launcher that the Russian army has been using to attack peaceful districts in Ukrainian cities. The soldier in the video was crying. He said he wanted to apologize to his young daughter because he may be guilty of killing children in Ukraine.
Then he addressed other members of the military and asked them to disobey orders and not to come to Ukraine. I watched him cry again and again. Then I saw pictures of the destroyed apartment buildings in Chernihiv. These two pieces of news merged in my perception. Many friends of my mother live in Chernihiv. They were always proud of this small and clean city. I know that now, as I write this, the city is being shelled. An oil depot has been set on fire, and the small town, which was a favorite vacation destination for many of my acquaintances, is now threatened with ecological disaster. The danger comes from the sky, the houses are bombed. One begins to count the victims.
Over the past few days, I have been wondering how obedience works. The soldier in the video cried only after he had obeyed his orders. That was too late. This war can be ended if the orders to shell homes are ignored—by soldiers, even by generals. I know that sounds naive. But on such a day, naivety is the best shelter. The walls are not very thick, but it is deep enough.
So far, thirty-three dead residents have been found in the rubble of Chernihiv. Today feels particularly ominous. Almost every half hour an explosion can be heard outside on the streets.
A young woman living in the house next door is trying to rescue pets that were left behind. Perhaps the owners could not take them when they fled. She finds them comfortable, warm places and gives them food. An elderly lady who lives across the street goes shopping several times throughout the day so that her neighbors can stay home in safety.
A well-known teacher, eighty-six years old, spends most nights in the basement of a school that is next to her house. Today she recorded a video. In a distinct, almost forgotten, and noble Kyiv accent, she addressed the women of Russia: they should not let their sons go to war.
It is snowing, the air is damp and cold, and it seems to me that I can no longer get close to my own city, the place where I live, whose events I witness. I resist the violence more than I used to, I resist acknowledging that the war is going on, that it is allowed, that it has been allowed.
I can try to accept it. I can try to face reality. But then I ask myself: how will we all be able to live with the thought that these war crimes took place, every day, on our doorsteps? At some point we will have to forgive ourselves that this inhumanity was even possible. But to really be able to do that, you have to protect the skies in my country. The bombing of homes must finally stop.
Wednesday, March 2
Time to be brave
The city is sinking into spring fog, but it is still cold. Since yesterday, here, in the center of Kyiv, you can tell a story about the war on every street corner. Almost every intersection is guarded day and night by armed members of the Territorial Defense. There are more groups of saboteurs in the city, more violence. I look with relief into the eyes of the men and women of the defense. In one of the faces yesterday I recognized with amazement a barista who was popular in our neighborhood because he painted particularly beautiful swans on the milk foam of the coffees.
Outside, I hear another explosion. At such times, fear overtakes me, and I think about how to save myself and the people I love from this situation. It is always a chain of relationships that I think about, it is not only my father and mother, but also my aunt who is lying at home sick and weak. And not only my aunt, but also her whole family, and then I see other connections that are hard to break.
The answer is to keep everyone safe, not just individuals. Now is the time to act bravely and find strong, effective means against the aggressor. In my imagination, a hundred variants are already playing out for how all this can stop, how the war will end, at this specific moment. Then I imagine us dancing in the streets.
My day has been long and feels like it has several days locked up in it. The images of the empty streets filled with droning silence are still before my eyes. I have experienced and seen a lot today, I even visited an exhibition.
The artist Nikita Kadan, a friend of mine, has moved to a small private gallery located in a basement. Really, it's not a gallery anymore, but a space that serves as a shelter and apartment for artists and their friends. Yesterday Nikita called me and invited me to a group show he was putting together from the gallery's collection. I was about to go meet him, but then the sirens howled once again, and I had to stay inside.
So the exhibition "opened" yesterday without visitors and was supposed to close the same day. But then he decided that it would stay open for me to visit today. I would be unspeakably happy about such an honor in peacetime, and even now, when the air over the city becomes more sinister, I notice the traces of joy that this feeling leaves on the sandy bottom of my restlessness. The exhibition is called “Fear.”
There was another air alert, and when I was finally about to leave this afternoon, my father called me and asked me to take him along. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. And then the three of us went! My father, my mother, and me.
Our way was long, the city seemed strange. We must have walked more than half an hour—it was my longest walk since the beginning of the war.
The way back was shorter, short like a jump.
I enjoyed the exhibition very much. I am still thinking about the pictures and this incredible opportunity to look at them in the midst of the war and include them in my memory.
What can art do? What can a single voice do? What can the courage of resistance do and what is the point of resistance in the first place? I keep getting emails and messages telling me to be pacifist. Ukrainians have never provoked a war, never wanted or supported a war. The values of pacifism are among the most important values of my country. I grew up with a saying: The most important thing is that there be no war (лишь бы не было войны). The shuddering memories of the Second World War, some of which took place on Ukrainian soil, are still very much alive.
However, there are values much bigger than Ukraine that need to be defended. There are situations where resistance means salvation. And it is not about self-help, it is about rescue from a much greater violence, from a much more terrible war. I hope that every day more people understand this, wake up, and put an end to this violence.
Tuesday, March 1
Not a minute more of this war!
Russia has announced that it will bomb the area around St. Sophia Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not the St. Sophia Cathedral itself, but a secret service building that is in the immediate vicinity. If they do that, the cathedral will certainly be affected as well.
My parents and I live next to St. Sophia. I had decided to spend the nightly curfew at their place today. Meanwhile, our worried neighbors went to the shelters. Everyone has long since chosen a shelter for themselves; they try to do everything they can to feel comfortable there.
I am in an absurdly good mood. But this good mood is of little use, superimposed as it is on a deep anxiety and sadness. Our apartment is darkened. I learn that the western bank of the Dnieper River in Kyiv is under fire, including Zhulany Airport, which is on the eastern bank fairly close to the city center. The number of casualties is unclear.
However, all my thoughts are with Kharkiv. I see videos of burning streets on Twitter and Telegram, and I know from acquaintances in the city that people there have been staying in shelters for days. The well-known economics professor Oleh Amosov, head of the Department of Economic Theory and Public Finance at the Kharkiv Regional Institute of Public Administration, died of injuries after an attack. This is the second day the city has been bombed. My next thoughts are for two cities in the Luhansk and Donetsk districts: Severodonetsk and Volnovakha.
I was often on the road around Severodonetsk. Even in 2014 to 2016, during wartime, this city looked cheerful. Cafes and restaurants were open almost all night, and the mixed crowd there always amused me: Western-dressed and sometimes haughty representatives of the international press mingled with exotic, spoiled young women from Donetsk, who had decided to spend a few months in their home region on the escape route to central Ukraine.
Now, Severodonetsk and Volnovakha are being destroyed. There is no more electricity, no water, Russian mortar shells are falling from the sky. All those who try to provide themselves and their family with food or water are dying in the streets.
I would like to scream. Save these people! Journalists who have experienced wartime in Donbas and lived in the mostly peaceful Severodonetsk, get outraged! We need humanitarian corridors and zones where men, women, and children can save themselves. Put even more pressure on Russia. Putin has sentenced these cities to death, Russia is destroying the Donbas. No, that sounds wrong. “Donbas” is just a word, and this word says little. You have to save the inhabitants of these cities. Actually, you have to save everything, the whole country. Urgently.
Now I’m trying to understand where my good mood comes from.
It is the sixth day of the war, which I feel has already lasted fifty years. Today I drank a cappuccino for the first time since the invasion began.
I went for a walk to breathe some fresh air on this first day of spring and maybe do some shopping. Knowing that many supermarket shelves were already empty, I decided to visit a larger department store that had recently opened not far from us. How pleasant it was to be there! The shopping hall is deep underground, everyone felt safe and walked past the shelves with a slowness that has not been seen in Kyiv for six days.
An elderly lady stood next to the coffee machine. Her shopping bag was small and half empty. Then suddenly I saw a young, fashionably dressed woman approach the lady and press a bill into her hand. The lady was surprised and said, “But I didn't ask for anything, I have everything!” A young man came up to her; he also slipped her a bill. The elderly lady resisted at first, but then she seemed happy and grateful.
On the way back, I took a picture of an old man sitting alone on a bench in a park. He wanted to talk to me. His wife was ill, he told me, and he was taking care of her. He wanted to take care of her until tomorrow—then he will join the Kyiv Territorial Defense. He and his wife are sixty-six years old.
In his youth he served in the military. He said he no longer wanted to just watch our city suffer from this constant shelling. I started thanking him—I couldn’t stop. I used all kinds of words and phrases of thanks, but I wanted to add more to these expressions, as if that would prevent this elderly man who is caring for his sick wife from risking his life.
I expect a solution. The solution must be discovered, worked out, and implemented. The aggression must stop. Not one more minute of war!
The sirens are wailing again. My father sits in the next room learning English vocabulary. A good friend of mine calls and says that perhaps the last evacuation bus will leave from a Kyiv synagogue tomorrow. Maybe I can try to convince my parents to leave the city after all. In vain I try to talk to them about it. We are needed here more, they say, it is not the time to leave Kyiv. I agree and try to sleep a few more hours. We’ll stay and see what happens.
Monday, February 28
The new vulnerability
It's a sunny spring day that, like the last three, ends in darkness. I sit in the darkened apartment. Some lights burn, but those lights are dim and hidden. I read the news that Mariupol is bravely resisting Russian troops, but is also largely in darkness. Russia is attacking infrastructure as planned, putting people in the city under artillery fire, without electricity. Fighting around Kyiv continues.
But my thoughts are with Kharkiv. I see the images of apartment blocks destroyed by rockets and mortar shells and know that today Putin's army murdered nine people, including three children, in this Russian-speaking city that is resisting occupation. Thirty-seven people are injured, eighty-seven apartment buildings ruined. I live in Kyiv in a similar building—a vulnerable refuge, my own apartment, where I always feel so good. Even now! Even now!
This war is demonstrating a new level of vulnerability to the world. Almost all pharmacies are closed. Electricity, water, and heating are under constant threat of failure. The wounds are getting bigger. But there is a whisper constantly repeating in my ear, even if it is sometimes almost silent: they keep fighting, we keep fighting—then the wounds heal faster.
The public spaces, squares, streets in the city are empty. The horizon is suddenly closer, the Kyiv hills, the asphalt, the courtyards of the buildings, everything seems to be invited and involved in the war.
At noon I decided to go for a walk: on the fifth day of the war, when the curfew lifted, I accompanied a German friend, who could not stay in Kyiv, to the railway depot. We were going to take the subway first. Inspired and almost drunk by the idea that the subway in Kyiv was working again, we walked to the "Golden Gate” station. Then, at the entrance, we learned that this station could only be used as a shelter.
(As I write this, sirens shatter the silence. It is 2:30 in the night and I decide to stay where I am and finish this diary entry).
So we had to walk to the railway depot. A journey of twenty-five minutes, which for me was a walk into another vast reality. Since the beginning of the war, I have not visited Shevchenko Boulevard, a wide street leading down to the depot. We walked along the street and every house, every intersection carried something new, a new language, a new narrative about our shared reality. The city looked peaceful, the sun's rays made this image even more jarring. We quickly said goodbye, and I strolled back alone.
I wanted to cross the street, so I could overlook the old botanical garden. Suddenly I saw a pile of metal on the side of the road—a shot up, deformed car—then a second one nearby, plus a broken advertising sign—shattered glass, metal, and plastic on the ground. The botanical garden was wiped from my mind. What remained was the unbearable realization that this war, this unimaginable, illogical, criminal war, was still going on after all.
At about the same time, peaceful residents of the city of Berdyansk in the south of the country gathered in front of their local government building, which was occupied by Putin's army and guarded by armed soldiers. The women shouted at the soldiers in Russian, "How can you look your mothers in the face? You brought war and slaughter to our land! Shame on you!" Old people were also in the crowd, they were not afraid. The soldiers looked demoralized, they replied: “We came to protect you!”
The women resisted, they continued to protest, "We were never in danger here. There was no threat to us here before you came. Now, with you, because of you, we are in the greatest danger." Then came cursed insults, which have a very great richness in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.
This ability of the residents of Berdyansk to fight on and on, to approach the soldiers unarmed and shout the truth in their faces, even when the city has almost fallen into Putin's hands, promises a lot. It is hope itself.
Sunday, February 27
an extinguished city
Normally, the many brightly lit windows in Kyiv warm the city’s cold February days. The lights have something secret, private, but at the same time cozy about them. But now the city has gone out. People are afraid of Russian missiles and artillery fire. I have taped my windows shut in case of shelling, so that they won't shatter. I go out on the balcony to check if my apartment is dark enough. I put only one lamp in each room—they hardly give any light and are on the floor. It is difficult for me to find my way around the apartment, but I try to discover a new form of coziness.
The sirens that warn of air strikes wail with a long signal, somewhat reminiscent of the playful sounds that elephants use to communicate. In Kyiv, the wailing of sirens is also a form of communication, but the message is always the same: hide, hide well!
When dawn came, for some reason I decided to clean my apartment. I thought: right now you have to stick to the plans, to the usual routines. From the outside, my apartment is almost black, with its empty, dark windows greeting all the other apartments in the city, which are also empty and dark.
The darkness is frightening, but at the same time I sense that the city has decided to defend itself. On official Telegram channels, I read about so-called "diversionary groups," Russian units moving into Kyiv as a vanguard. Like terrorists. Their goal is to destabilize the city, carry out attacks on politicians, and ultimately take Kyiv. One such group appears to have shot at the car of two women who had decided to flee the city with their children this morning. The women and their children died.
My thoughts become as dark as the windows of my apartment. While cleaning, I thought that when I write this diary, I should make a joke about housekeeping during war. My tip would be: "Cleanliness is a must in a dark room with taped windows—if you were going to do it earlier and are almost crying now, go ahead and mop your apartment anyway. True, you will not see anything. And the apartment may not get much cleaner, but following procedures and implementing plans is more important."
The fourth day of the war is over. Half the city is fighting against the normalization of violence that is knocking on every door. War also tests us to see if we have even a touch of compassion for those sent here to murder. Since the war began, 16 children have been killed across the country. In my town, nine “civilians" (I hate that word more and more) have died so far and 47 have been injured, including three children.
The destruction of the small town of Shchastye, "Happiness," in northeastern Ukraine began with an electrical station being shelled. At some point it was destroyed, the light went out, the water, the heating. In distress, people, especially elderly residents, went outside to get water or food. Then the soldiers attacked, with artillery and rockets. A bus with fleeing people was fired upon. No journalists work in this area at the moment, no one counts the injured, the dead. Who will describe what Putin has done to the Donbas since the beginning of the war, since his operation to "Protect of the People of Donbas from Ukrainian Fascists"?
By occupying these territories and waging information warfare, Putin has managed to isolate this region from the world. Human rights organizations have not been able to freely operate there since 2014, and now the Russian army is once again showing how little it values the lives of its people.
From the news I learn that in the settlement of Ivankiv in Kyiv Oblast, the Regional History Museum was destroyed. In it were the works of Maria Primachenko, one of the most famous twentieth century artists in Ukraine. A joint exhibition of my photography and her painting had been planned for the fall, which is a great honor for me. I am sure that, somehow, somewhere, this exhibition will take place.
Saturday, February 26
My first night in a bomb shelter. The Telegram channels of the Kyiv government warn that it will be a heavy night and that the Russian military will attack the city. But here in the shelter it's pretty much empty. Many are trying to stay at home, in hope that nothing will happen. As of Saturday night, there is an almost thirty-hour curfew in the city. It probably won’t be possible to leave the room on Sunday.
Our small bomb shelter is located in the center of Kyiv, not far from the Golden Gate. It is one and a half floors deep underground, to be precise—a network of corridors and corridors. They are clean, comfortable, and warm. I like this place because it provides shelter for more than 100 people. There is drinking water, everyone brings something, there is also enough food. Everyone who can't stand the sirens and the thunder of the artillery and rocket fire is allowed to come here. There are also some families who are here most of the time.
At the dark entrance to our basement, I see the silhouettes of residents scurrying past each other. You can overhear their occasional, petty arguments.
Two older shadows pass by two younger ones:
"Good evening!" "But the evening is not good!" the younger ones protest. "We wish you a good evening anyway," the older ones say in a triumphant tone, "because we mean well. And we will continue to wish it, to you and to the others!" The shadows disappear into the depths of the cellar.
I orient myself in the present because the days offer little structure. At some point I visited my parents, both of them are not ready to leave Kyiv. They want to stay here until the moment of "our victory," as they say.
My father is a translator, he translates German poetry into Russian. Thanks to his translations of Paul Celan, I fell in love with this poet when I was still a student. For years, since the Maidan Revolution, he has published his translations almost exclusively in Ukraine.
He took part in protests back then, I remember calling him from Berlin and finding out that he was standing with the demonstrators at the parliament building. Then I heard an explosion; luckily he wasn't hurt. Now he is in Kyiv. He feels quite weak after a long cold and cannot go to the shelter. Maybe he doesn't want to either. Every day I see how he continues to work on his translations. Despite the rocket attacks, despite the danger, or maybe because of it.
As I write, it occurs to me that during the day I saw many smiling people. For example, a woman who was sitting in the park on a bench next to two big shopping bags. She spoke to me in an absurdly happy voice, saying that she was waiting for her nephew to help her carry the bags home. "I'm so happy to have you standing next to me now, talking to me. When there are two of us, I'm less afraid of the artillery.”
She used to work as a museum guide at St. Sophia Cathedral, she said, and now she's a pensioner. She told me she is convinced that Ukraine will defeat the Russian invaders. "When I think about the frescoes of St. Sophia, I believe that Ukraine will be protected by the whole world.” She smiled, tears standing in her eyes. "We will win," she said. I didn't know if she was crying more or laughing more, but I felt her courage and admired her.
Is today only the third day of the war? Mariupol: fifty-eight civilians wounded. Kyiv: thirty-five people, including two children. This is far from a complete list. It feels strange to find myself in this broad, unarmed, almost delicate category: "civilians." For war, a category of people is created who live "outside the game." They are shelled, they have to endure the shelling, they are injured, but they do not seem to be able to give an adequate response to it.
I don't believe this to be the case. There is something hidden in the smiles that I saw several times today. A secret weapon, a sinister one. I must try to sleep at last and reach my apartment in the morning. Having breakfast in your own kitchen—that would be an enormous pleasure!
Friday, February 25
Night: tense silence
The night has suddenly become silent. Just an hour ago, around midnight, sirens could be heard, then distant thunder, perhaps rocket or artillery hits. And now—a tense silence.
We should be in the shelter by now, but I've already been there twice today. My parents are tired and I'm staying in the apartment with them for the night. The idea was that you can rest up here, if only a little bit. We are ready to leave the apartment on a minute’s notice and take shelter in the basement of the house.
I find it difficult to collect my thoughts. Different experiences of today crumble into the sensation of many days, more or less the same, standing grey one next to the other. The space in the city is changing. The walk from my house to the nearest grocery store, which usually took no more than ten minutes, stretches out, the distance becoming a longer trek.
The fact that the store was open at all was a miracle. I bought apples, vegetables, and buckwheat—but when I returned to the area an hour later, I saw the disappointed faces of two women now standing in front of a closed door. Someone said there was another grocery store 500 meters away, down the same street. But it wasn't good news for the two women—500 meters on foot? The sirens are wailing, and fewer and fewer people are in the streets.
Time is also changing. On the way back from the grocery store, I found out that a kindergarten near the city of Sumy, in the north-east of the country, was shelled today. A kindergarten and a shelter. 17 children injured, two seriously. I stopped and leaned against a wall of a house. The day suddenly became infinitely long. Can this war be endured one more minute? Why doesn't the world put an end to this happening?
It was a spring day, the sunspots played on the walls of the houses and the white walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral. The sirens wailed again—the signal to go to the shelter. A good friend of mine, the artist Nikita Kadan, had lost his credit card and the two of us walked the streets to find a working ATM.
One journalist had a backpack with him, with everything he might need in the coming days. We saw some passers-by and reporters standing in front of one of the big hotels with their cameras, reporting. The second day of the war, as it turns out, is a step already taken in a repeating sequence.
In the evening I learned that a town in the Luhansk region had been 80 percent destroyed by the Russian army, a beautiful little town that was in Ukrainian-controlled territory. It was called Shchastye, meaning “Happiness.” The husband of a friend, who was already safe, managed to escape. He left town without a toothbrush, socks, or suitcase.
A car picked him up on the road. He told my friend that as he drove along, he saw the corpses of people lying next to their houses, doors, and the small cellars where many Ukrainians store potatoes for the winter. So these were "the people of the Donbas" that Putin claimed he was saving from "genocide."
Happiness no longer exists. I was there a few years ago and photographed streets, also admiring a hill that dominates the landscape. In the city people spoke Russian and Ukrainian—I wrote about them and about their strange and funny homemade playgrounds.
Then I fall asleep in this black night after all.
Friday, February 25
I wake up at seven in the morning to the sirens warning of air raids. My mother is convinced that Russia will not dare to shell the thousand-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral in the city. She believes that our house, which is in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral, is safe. That's why she decides not to go to the shelters. My father is sleeping.
I think if a UNESCO monument would actually stop the Russian army from shelling, this war wouldn't have started in the first place. My head is throbbing with thoughts: Kyiv under fire, abandoned by the whole world, which is just ready to sacrifice Ukraine in the hope that it will feed and satiate the aggressor for some time.
Kyiv is being shelled, for the first time after the Second World War.
I am struggling with myself. I know slowly the world is waking up and starting to see that it's not just about Kyiv and Ukraine after all. It's about every house, every door, it's about every life in Europe that is threatened as of today.
Thursday, February 24
Today I woke up early in the morning to see eight unanswered calls on my cell phone. It was my parents and some friends. At first I thought something had happened to my family and that my friends were trying to reach me because for some reason my parents had alerted them first. Then my imagination went in another direction and I thought of an accident, a dangerous situation in the center of Kyiv, something to warn your friends about. I felt a cold uneasiness. I called my cousin, because her beautiful voice always has a calming effect on me, brave and rational. She just said: Kyiv has been shelled. A war has broken out.
Many things have a beginning. When I think about the beginning, I imagine a line drawn very clearly through a white space. The eye observes the simplicity of this trail of movement—one that is sure to begin somewhere and end somewhere. But I have never been able to imagine the beginning of a war. Strange. I was in the Donbas when war with Russia broke out in 2014. But I had entered the war then, entered into a foggy, unclear zone of violence. I still remember the intense guilt I felt about being a guest in a catastrophe, a guest who was allowed to leave at will because I lived somewhere else.
The war was already there, an intruder, something strange, foreign and insane, which had no justification to happen in that place and at that time. Back then, I kept asking people in the Donbas how all this could start, and always got different answers.
I think that the beginning of this war in the Donbas was one of the most mythologized moments for the people of Kyiv, precisely because it remained incomprehensible how such an event is born. At that time, in 2014, people in Kyiv said, "People from Donbas, those Ukrainian Putin-sympathizers, invited the war to our country." This alleged "invitation" has for some time been considered an explanation for how the absolutely impossible—war with Russia—suddenly became possible after all.
After I finished the phone call with my cousin, I paced around my apartment for a while. My head was absolutely blank, I had no idea what to do now. Then my phone rang again. One call followed the next, friends came forward with plans to escape, some called to make sure we were still alive. I quickly grew tired. I talked a lot, constantly repeating the words "the war." In between, I would look out the window and listen to see if the explosions were approaching. The view from the window was ordinary, but the sounds of the city were strangely muffled—no children yelling, no voices in the air.
Later, I went out and discovered an entirely new environment, an emptiness that I had never seen here, even on the most dangerous days of the Maidan protests.
Sometime later I heard that two children died from shelling in Kherson Oblast, in the south of the country, and that a total of 57 people died in the war today. The numbers turned into something very concrete, as if I had already lost someone myself. I felt angry at the whole world. I thought, this has been allowed to happen, it is a crime against everything human, against a great common space where we live and hope for a future.
I'm staying with my parents tonight. I've visited a bomb shelter next to the house, so I know where we'll all go when the shelling comes later.
The war has begun. It is after midnight. I will hardly be able to fall asleep, and there is no point in enumerating what has changed forever.
Edited by ISOLARII with translations by Greg Nissan
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