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Life in Wartime Ukraine: Two Essays by Andrei Krasniashikh

Translated by Tanya Paperny, with Katya Kompaneyets

Versions of these essays—translated here by Tanya Paperny, with Katya Kompaneyets—originally appeared in Ukrayinska Pravda. A previous installment in the translation of this series appeared at Circumference.

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In the frame

Borodin writes: “How’s your sense of humor?” It’s there but more wary. Father jokes though. And dumps cold water on himself.

Mom prays. Father stays quiet so he won’t bother her. When I’m not looking, he prays too. I scroll through my feed to avoid thinking about what could happen, but I still think and picture it.

On the pickled vegetables we got from volunteers, it says: “Give this jar back to grandma Ulyana after the war. I don’t want to hear anything about it.” Then the name of the village.

I’m reading obituaries for Russian officers. They write “alot” without a space. “Yesterday we bury four lieutenant colonels.” I read our reports—in Russian—and not one mistake. Plus I like the writing style.

The Russians seriously think that Stepan Bandera is alive. Our zoo renamed the panther Stepan. Stepan Panthera.

There’s apparently a lot we didn’t know about our own—Reznikov, Podolyak, Arestovych. Kim, Synyehubov. About Zelenskyy, who he really is. It’s nice to think I voted for him.

In the Telegram channel “TPYXA,” there’s a video of someone who decided to shake out their rugs amidst the shelling. Doesn’t show how it ended.

I’m the only one masked in the supermarket. They pay attention but not really. They’ve already seen saboteurs and marauders. And dead people.

“At first, we went down to the cellar for every air-raid siren. It was me, grandma, mom, my aunt, great-aunt and second cousin. And sometimes their cat. Days passed.”

I have no problem pronouncing “palianytsia.” As a kid, I went caroling in Poltava. With grandma and grandpa over winter break. “Carol, carol, caroling. Our bread is good with honey, but without it not at all. Auntie auntie, gimme a penny.” That was the only Ukrainian rhyme I knew since I skipped Ukrainian language and literature, voc-ed, P.E. and basic military training due to my eyesight. Turns out it’s the most important rhyme to know. Was back then too.

Nadya drew them all running down to the cellar after an air-raid siren. Her caption:

“In a hurry, mom mixed up her boots with her mitts
and grandma put a pot on top of her head!
And I —
dressed normally.”

A whole poem.

When the blasts rattle our apartment windows, father says: our Air Defense is doing its job. I don’t stop to consider whether these words are calming for mom. Or if she’s just acting like they are.

Mom doesn’t hear well. But the explosions she hears. Even when there are none.

When there are no sirens and no blasts, we do what you’re not supposed to: make plans. How we’ll go to Figurovka. Figurovka, outside Chuhuiv—it’s been destroyed already.

An update in the “Lightning” Telegram channel: “Zaporizhzhia—alert!” “Kremenchuk—alert!” “Naples—alert!” Something’s off. Came back. “Nikopol—alert!”

Nadya doesn’t finish her food, leaves it on the plate. Forces it on my wife. Even feeds her. “Don’t want it.” “Just a little bite.” “I don’t want it.” “Come on, come on. So Putin dies.” “Where’d you hear that?” “I made it up.” Doesn’t even matter, everyone is thinking it now.

That he’d fall asleep and never wake up. Instead of us.

There’s no heart medication in the pharmacies. Or in storage. They’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel. Not even Valerian. My sister says it’s the same in Poltava.

Oleg tells us. He was walking along the water. At an entryway, two people were waiting, trying to get in. Came to fix the internet, they said. They even showed some documents. He didn’t believe them—looked like hooligans. So he messaged the building chat. No one said they were expecting repairmen. He didn’t let them in. Half an hour later in the chat: “That’s for us.”

School started back up. Remotely. Essay prompt: “How my life has changed since the war.” If it’s not too painful to write about.

“The evening of February 23rd, I did my homework and went to bed as usual. But when I woke up in the morning, I realized that I had a good night’s sleep and my alarm never went off. I usually get up at 6:30 to catch the school bus, which comes at 8:15. When I woke up, it was already 8:00. I looked at the clock and freaked out.”

My wife, staying in a single-family home, heard machine-gun fire. Bullets landed in the neighbor Oleg’s place—a hole where there used to be an apartment.

“At first, we went down to the cellar for every air-raid siren. It was me, grandma, mom, my aunt, great-aunt and second cousin. And sometimes their cat. Days passed. Soon we stopped going to the cellar and just turned off the lights when there was a siren.”

Before meeting up with my wife, I picked a book for the kid. Robinson Crusoe.

For the new year, we got tickets to Odessa. We didn’t go—I got sick. We didn’t go to Baturyn on my birthday.

We had tickets for Brody on March 5. Galician Jerusalem. Near Olesko Castle. And Pidhirtsi. We already planned the itinerary.

Now my job is to read reports. To know everything. As if knowing everything will help. Plugged-in-edness.

A notification went off on my phone. Got louder. Even though earlier a woman’s voice said: “Siren canceled.” And now Arestovych’s voice: “Siren canceled. You can go back to normal. Everything will be fine.”

My phone updated the wallpaper options. My screensaver is gone: Fort Tarakanivskyy. Where we went in the fall. “Ancient” ruins of the 19th century. I tried to find the picture to switch it back. Now Kharkiv looks just like it. Instead I put up Nadya’s drawing where she’s smiling and surrounded by cats.

We’re driving. Mom looks out at the destroyed city and says: “Like in the movies. And we’re in the frame.”

My wife, staying in a single-family home, heard machine-gun fire. Bullets landed in the neighbor Oleg’s place—a hole where there used to be an apartment. Our department assistant saw the saboteurs.

Anyway the enemy saboteur guys came.

Evidence: short guy, my height but skinnier, black eyes, typical bandit look, in a black vest that looked bulletproof but wasn’t actually bulletproof, and a black hat. The other was tall, athletic build, light hair, light eyes, blueish gray, dark blue jacket.

The shorter one tried to grab my phone.

There are so many kids in here.

For the first time in my life, I’m happy I’m not a mother.

They said: We support Ukraine. Our guys wouldn’t say it that way.

They asked: Which language is easier for you? We immediately became wary. Them: We need to get onto the roof. We sent them to the management office. Them: You wanna keep sitting in the basement, go ahead. They asked for the roof key, we wanted to snap a picture of them, they immediately took out their Makarov pistols and threatened us. Anyway, we kicked them out, ran into the basement and locked the door. Our TerroDefense said: “Stay in a locked basement. Do not initiate contact. TerroDefense is clearing the area.”

It sounded strange at first but I really like the Ukrainian “hang on!” instead of “bye!” Now “hang in there” is a normal goodbye phrase even in Russian.

 

Kharkivites

“The enemy continues to blockade the city of Kharkiv via Slobozhanske.”

Statement hasn’t changed for thirty days.

It can be read three ways. “Trying to block.” “Blocked completely,” or partially. From two or three sides.

Driving into Kharkiv when we were kids, there was the building with the big letters, “Kharkiv—worker city, scholar city,” something else and the coat of arms. Today on the drive in, half that building is gone. Now you see how people inside lived. Photographs on the walls. A rug.

Terekhov[1] says one-third has fled. Among my friends it’s higher. Yura to Uman. Lyudochka to Drohobych. Vazik to Ivano-Frankivsk. Neighbors to Korotich. Department colleagues to Dnipro, Kropyvnytskyi, Lviv, Chernivtsi.

Terekhov starts and ends each day with a mantra: “We are together. We are Kharkivites.”

Now Kharkiv is all of Ukraine.

Trouble spotter. To avoid becoming one, you never say which neighborhood you’re in. Out of superstition. And [you] don’t ask either.

But you understand: “all day in the basement” means northern Saltivka. Rohan’. Kharkiv Tractor Factory. “Went to the store” means Pavlove Pole. Cold Mountain. “Escaped” means Novi Domy.

No one writes from Horizon, it doesn’t exist anymore.

Dobkin on the third day of the war: “I’m in Kharkiv. Up until the last minute, I couldn’t believe Russia would attack Ukraine. For me, it’s all a terrible nightmare. I am burnt out hollow.”

Sapronov: “I went to volunteer as a driver. There’s bread but no one to bring it to. I went to Kulinichi.” His golf club is in bombed-out Piatykhatky, where they’re not bringing any food. “We have a basement. There’s water. Hot food. We can host people.”

Geese saved Rome. Cats and dogs saved Kharkiv. Especially its children.

In the Telegram channel “TRYXA”: “My father was standing in line at ‘Nova Poshta,’ there were about 50 people. A black Range Rover drove up, Oleksandr Feldman got out, opened the trunk, silently handed out groceries and left.” Yaroslavskyi from London a week after the war started: “I will spare no effort nor money.” Two days later: he’s selling his yacht.

Please complete this form to list all building damage after the shelling of Kharkiv.

Neighborhood
Select street address
Window damaged
Yes
No
Entry door damaged
Yes
No
Roof damaged
Yes
No
Wall damaged
Yes
No
Building completely destroyed
Yes
No
Send.

Igor called. His father is elderly, ailing. His aunt too. They don’t want to leave.

Eastern Saltivka. To drown out the blasts, he puts on headphones. “I re-listened to Queen’s live show in Kharkiv. Do you like Jethro Tull?” We talked about Vilnius, he lived there for a month, he had an exhibition, he’s a photographer. And an Actionist performance artist. Celebrates Bloomsday every year. One time, about twelve years ago, we celebrated together. “Let’s come up with something again this year.” Sadness in his voice. Bloomsday is June 16th.

“‘’…on the side of the goose?’ Thank you for everything, Andrei Petrovich. See you in the next life.”

“On the side of the goose” is from Malaparte. Most terrifying novel about World War II. Ivan wrote about it for the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, I was his advisor. “Ivan, where and how are you?” “I’m in Kharkiv. My grandmother is here. So I’m not going anywhere.”

“In the next life” we’ll continue the work. Soon the Kyiv chapter. “Ivan, how are you?” “Fine. It’s so quiet here today. Silent all night. Stressful.”

“If only we lived on the 7th floor! We’ve got 16 floors. When it’s really bad, grandmother goes down to the 14th. We’re on the 5th near the elevators. And we spend the night on the 5th. We decided it’s safest there.”

He sent me a photo: him with coffee. “Coff-aine. We’ve been drinking for a week already. You forget about the booming completely.”

In the department group chat. “Landed on our building, in the entry near ours there’s a fire. And at my parents’ too. And many other homes nearby.”

“Landed on ours too. And my parents’…”

“This is my home from the yard.” In the foreground, a completely destroyed university building.

Kids have had to mature. But pets matured first. Lyudochka says that five minutes before an air-raid siren, her dog rounds them all up. Herds them into a safer room.

Their dog was found in a dumpster. Her husband picked it up as a puppy. Refused to be on a leash. Walked without it. When they evacuated, she came up herself, stuck her face through the leash. For two whole days in transit, she wore it. Everyone brings their one thing when evacuating. Not the most necessary thing, but their thing.

“We fled Kharkiv in the morning. Cats in tow, we ran the length of six stops. You can’t drive out here anymore.”

A cat slideshow in the department group chat. Everyone’s posting theirs. Turns out everyone has one. Or a dog. They’re all Kharkivites too.

“I’m smiling for the first time in days!”

Geese saved Rome. Cats and dogs saved Kharkiv. Especially its children. Nadya had withdrawn completely, wouldn’t speak to anyone. If she spoke, she fought. At night she screamed. Refused to go down to the cellar.

In a good mood, she’d draw. Every drawing had Lotte the cat. Always next to her. We used to just call this catpetting.

“I walk to work and pray that I’ll make it.” Overheard in line.

Terekhov: “After the war we’ll make a monument to the city sanitation workers.”

Photo in a Telegram channel: a janitor in red coveralls drags a rocket to the dumpster. A heavy one. I hope it was already exploded.

One janitor. Maybe two. But over here there are ten standing around near a playground. Fighting. Arguing loudly. It’s so nice. Like old times.

“It’s bad—they said to leave today. It’ll start at night. Do you have the phone number at Poltava? I’m looking for a car to take the cats.”

Two hours later: “Lenochka, they’re retreating from Kharkiv—Vereshchuk misspoke. Synyehubov said there’s no evacuation.”

In the morning she walks around and takes pictures of the first blooms. Buttercups and violets. Sends me the pictures.

“Leave.” In the next building over there’s a hole. Instead of an apartment. Holes in the school nearby where the kids went. His daughter is in Switzerland with her Swiss husband. The other is with family in the Netherlands. Has been for a long time. His wife went to visit just one day before the war started. The son took their one-year-old grandchild out of Kharkiv to Zakarpattia. So they sent a package via Nova Poshta. He didn’t pick it up that day. The next day that location was hit by a rocket. Six dead. Fifteen injured.

“Without the cat, I’d have lost my mind.” Chatty cat. Through the phone I can hear it talking. Hear it booming and rumbling. “C’mon, leave.”

There’s no gas. In his whole neighborhood. Gas lines are broken. Power goes out for a day or two. Internet cuts out. The whole city hasn’t had hot water for a long time.

“Leave.” He’s on the 12th floor, and his wife’s sister is on the 11th. His legs hurt, almost never goes out. Has three cats. Elevators have been off since day one of the war.

Ancient Greek. Professor of ancient Greek, that is. During the sirens he reads The Magus by Fowles. In the Ukrainian translation. He’s already read it in Russian and in ancient Greek.

April 4: “Enemy forces’ primary energy is directed towards preparation for the resumption of offensive actions to surround and seize the city of Kharkiv.”

[1] Mayor Ihor Oleksandrovych

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Tanya Paperny is a writer, editor, translator, educator and community builder in Washington, DC and winner of the 2021 Hazel Rowley Prize from Biographers International Organization. More at tpaperny.com.

Andrei Krasniashikh
Andrei Krasniashikh
Andrei Krasniashikh is a professor of literature at Kharkiv National University. He is co-founder of the literary journal Writers Union and author of several books, including the short story collection The Park of Culture and Relaxation. He was named a Cultural Hero in 2002 at the Ukrainian National Festival of Contemporary Art. English-language translations of his work have appeared in The Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, VICE, Words Without Borders and Circumference.





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