“Words and Bullets” is a project launched by the Ukrainian independent publisher Chytomo and PEN Ukraine with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It is a series of interviews with authors and journalists who became soldiers or volunteers following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chytomo’s editorial team remains in Ukraine, with no stable electricity and internet connection, as the country is attacked—all to keep informing the world about what is happening in Ukraine.
What follows is an edited selection from Chytomo’s interviews with writers on how they are coping with the invasion. You can read the full interviews on Chytomo’s website.
–Iryna Baturevych, editor, Chytomo
Halyna Kruk (poet, translator, and literary critic)
Does poetry provide salvation during war? Is trying to convince Western skeptics worth the effort? When will dialogue with “old friends from the Russian federation” be possible and what things will the world be forced to reconsider after the war in Ukraine? Poet, translator, literary critic and professor Halyna Kruk answers these questions.
In Denmark, I performed at one of the largest music festivals in Europe: Roskilde, which is kind of like Woodstock in the US. Some 120,000–30,000 people attend the festival each year. They organize a very important stage where they discuss socially important information that aims in one way or another to change something in the public consciousness. This year it was information about the war in Ukraine, and I’m very glad that I was able to speak at this event.
When I got to the festival, I felt a large dissonance with what’s happening in Ukraine. I saw young, carefree people listening to music, having fun, celebrating life. It’s not that I was jealous that they have all this while young people in Ukraine are dying. It was just too strong a contrast; it was emotionally difficult. I understood that it was going to be very hard to explain to them the fragility of this world, the fragility of peace, which until now we also thought was absolute and irreversible. There was even a point when I started to doubt whether there was any point in talking about war here. But once I started reading my poems, suddenly there was silence, and there was a lot of attention in this silence.
Then, I had a personal meeting with Danish Culture Minister Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen about the humanitarian issues Ukraine faces because of the war: the war is ruining people’s lives, destroying material and non-material culture. I tried to show the human dimension of war. These types of stories are a good way to complement dry reports and statistics and help to focus on the most sensitive aspects of war.
My key message was that every day Ukraine is losing many of its best people. I tried to explain that the Ukrainian army isn’t a professional army of specially trained fighters. These are people from various spheres of life who have gone to defend their country: journalists, writers, lawyers, professors, economists, engineers. This war is costing us our future. What we lose in this war will create a huge gap that will take a long time to fill.
This is a very important message for the Western audience, which is used to distancing itself from the army and military things, as if it’s a completely different world separate from culture, education, art and science. I remember how in the beginning, Western writers would donate money and say that it was only for humanitarian purposes, not military. Everywhere you go, you have to explain that our army is made up of people that yesterday were engaged in culture and science and today have been forced to defend their country. Helping them do this is no less humane.
When I go abroad at the invitation of some organization, I have one categorical demand: I immediately ask that there be no Russian participants. There were situations when the organizers didn’t understand why I will perform only without Russian participants. They told me: “It’s a shame that you won’t be there. We value Russian authors who are against the war, we will stand with them in support of you, even without you there.” People couldn’t understand that we don’t need Russian support, that it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t affect anything.
Another important thing that I realized with horror at some point was that for the civilized, unthreatened world it’s easier to understand the discomfort of the Russians regarding sanctions than to imagine the suffering of people who are hiding from shelling in the metro in basement, or burying their loved ones in the yard because they can’t get to the cemetery because of shooting. Because the human mind can’t imagine such distant things, the conscience doesn’t accept that such horrors are possible in the real world.
Artem Chapeye (novelist)
Writer Artem Chapeye decided to enlist on the first day of the war when he heard the first explosions outside his window. Now, he’s guarding strategic facilities for the Ukrainian forces. Chapeye is the author of the books Father on Paternity Leave, The Ukraine, and Weathering.
A friend recently quoted his mom. In January she said: “But Russians and Ukrainians are one people.” In April, she said: “Can women just under 60 join the Territorial Defense?”
It just so happens that Ukrainians quarrel a lot. But in certain moments, the power of solidarity comes out of nowhere. Still, it can’t last forever. Because one cannot live on alert all the time. Russians are a traumatized nation. Even if Putin dies, hypothetical Navalny won’t save the imperial nation. …
Ukraine is the opposite of Russia. For example, our army largely functions from the bottom up. Here it’s not, “You’re the boss and I’m an idiot.” Our nation is built from the bottom up. Zelensky is only a representative of our collective strength at this moment. He is a conditional hero because he didn’t run away. But the “hetman will be gone” if he stops reflecting the will of the people.
Putin exemplifies Russia’s current imperialism. His relationship with the people is different: in Russia everything goes from top to bottom. In the glory of the father tsar, the worst sin is regicide, even symbolic. These are two fundamentally different models of building society.
Even if Russia becomes democratic and non-fascist in the coming years, this war will be remembered for a long time. If the world doesn’t turn towards autocracy and remains more or less democratic, Russia will for a long time be treated as a country that created horror.
Victoria Amelina (writer)
How can writers talk about the war without glorifying tragedy? Why is it important for Ukrainians not only to win, but also to restore justice and fairness? What should be conveyed to foreigners now, and when will the de-occupation of the future become possible? All this was discussed with Victoria Amelina, a writer and founder of the New York Literary Festival in Donetsk region.
I am trying to create a diary that through people’s stories and through my own, too, would reflect the situation on the front of proving Russian international crimes. There is a word, “justice,” in English. The working title of my diary is “The War and Justice Diary.” In Ukrainian there are two words [for justice]: spravedlyvist (justice, fairness) and pravosuddia (justice as the system of judgement), and this is a difference that gives food for thought. Quite often, these two notions would not correspond. Yet, in order to build the country we’re dreaming of after the victory, we need to reach the point where these two concepts would be the closest to each other, in terms of their meaning. …
If we win, but are not able to prove the war crimes and punish the guilty ones, this story won’t be over. There are people working towards this far-off justice. On the other hand, for this justice to be reached in the future, other people are fighting at the frontline right now. And if these people lose, there won’t be any justice. But they will win; they are already winning. The price of this victory is already so high that we must tackle both the courts and public opinion on the nature of Russian empire. (By the way, I don’t want to call it a federation. How is it a federation? It’s delusional to think that the Buryat Republic or Tatarstan really has a say in what is happening in this “federation.” Russia is an empire.)If we don’t restore justice now, the Western world will change, too.
On the one hand, it is important to understand how it all is going to end. But I have no idea when the war will end. Because our war with Russia has been dragging on for centuries, with occasional breaks. Yet, my motivation is to keep documenting this fight for justice. The story of the fight on the battlefield will be better told by the veterans. What I want is to make a record of the less-popular side of this fight—to talk about those who, since 2014, have been gathering the proofs of Russian involvement and Russian war crimes (now we can surely say that those were even crimes against humanity) and those working, sometimes hopelessly, for the idea of justice.
Because it is also a war of values. It is a fight of democracy against an authoritarian regime. It is a war for the rule of law. Putin is trying to prove that all international institutions and international law do not matter and what matters is power. So, we have not only to defeat Russia, but to restore faith in international law.
If Europe becomes a territory where people don’t believe in the rule of law, why would we join it? If we don’t restore justice now, the Western world will change, too. If Europe swallows the fact that the crimes against humanity might go unpunished, this will irrevocably change Europe itself.
And no matter how bold it sounds, we have to protect Europe, not only on the battlefield but also in terms of its values: if European institutions don’t work and cannot break the cycle of an aggressor’s impunity, then Ukraine has to help change these institutions and redefine international law. The lawyers that got their degree in Lviv, such as Raphael Lemkin [a Polish, Jewish, and American lawyer who was the first to implement the term “genocide” in legal practice] and Hersch Lauterpacht [an Austrian, Jewish, and English lawyer who specialized in international law] once did it.
Anatoly Dnistrovy (writer and artist)
Ukrainian essayist, poet, and artist Anatoly Dnistrovy went to the Ukrainian army’s recruitment office in the first days of the invasion. In a conversation, he talked about turning experiences into writing, whether it is possible to live as we used to in our new reality, and when the world will finally cease seeing Ukraine through the lens of Russia.
The problem here is that Ukraine has never presented itself to foreign markets. Russia, on the other hand, put great efforts into it: they’ve been tirelessly retailing their messages all over the world and feeding their narratives to European society for centuries. And as a result, they have their metastatic lesions—their outlets—in different countries. … Those are huge resources that, among other things, work on making Ukraine seen by Western countries as something insignificant in the shadow of “great” Russian civilization.
These days, we’ve set a precedent: our fight and resilience against this wild and huge Russian beast has impressed the world. But we have to understand that the audience will cool off soon. Unfortunately, it is a proven phenomenon. That means we need to put tremendous effort into keeping them engaged. And it has to be a composite story that will be told on many levels: by the public, by the cultural and intellectual community, and, most importantly, by state institutions.
Unfortunately, Ukraine has been paying attention to this aspect only in a few recent years, since around 2015, I suppose. Before, nobody had cared of it. …
What inspires me is faith: I believe in our truth, and the truth is on our side. We develop and work on important transformation. We are not fighting for some ancient and barbaric values. We don’t believe in them. We are in sync with the civilized world in terms of development. That is our truth, and it will win.
Top image by Jorge Franganillo.