April 13 – May 8, 2022
If you do not know Russian or if you just focus on the voice’s timbre and the rhythm of this brief conversation, it feels comforting. You’d immediately sense this young woman and man are attracted to one another. They definitely have a bond and, possibly, even a passion. You can also guess that this moment they share on phone is important to both of them; they must have been waiting for it. Her voice is nice, sexy even. It tickles your ear, especially when, by the end of the chat, her voice mixes with her chuckles. When the audio stops, after only thirty-two seconds, you’d probably want to listen to it again, since it ends quite abruptly and all too fast.
But if you know Russian and start paying attention to the words, you will hear the following: “Go ahead and rape those Ukrainian women, but don’t tell me, got it?” she says. “I can rape them without telling you, right?” he asks. “Yes, so I do not know anything,” she says and giggles. “Can I?” he asks, laughing. “Yes, you’re allowed,” she says, flirtingly. They laugh, together. “Just use contraception,” she asks and giggles, again. “Okay,” he says.
This audio belongs to the series of interceptions posted on YouTube by the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU). In times of a total information war, you’d be right to have your doubts about credibility of everything you encounter online. I have numerous concerns about how this documentation is produced and published: some of the posted audios, assuming they are indeed intercepted conversations of Russian soldiers, which I believe they are, are also decontextualized fragments, picked so that they could be very easily sensationalized, which, in my view, undermines their value as evidence of war crimes. I want to believe the full versions of these intercepted audios are carefully archived and these long and boring exchanges between Russian soldiers and their relatives where they reveal, once again, a banality of evil, this time, in a form of blunt and shameless disclosers of their most shocking crimes mixed with the proud reports about the goods they lifted from Ukrainian households — washing machines, TVs, sport shoes, jewelry, and clothing — will find their way to the Hague’s International Criminal Court, uncut.
When I listen to these fragments of intercepted calls, it is not for obtaining answers, but rather, to keep the questions directed to the invaders getting off on torture and sexual violence – “who are you?” and “what are you?” – always pulsating in my mind so they block my impulse of understanding the causes – social, political, subjective – of such a grand collapse of morals and human values. On the other hand, instead of simply dismissing these soldiers as “monstrous rapists and murderers,” these questions help me see those who exercise their perverse, horrifying fantasies, as profoundly human, in the sense that, among all animals, only humans seem to be capable of such extreme violence towards their own species. After Ukrainian journalists of the investigative group Skhemy, identified the couple on tape, called them, and confirmed their voices, to many, it was still hard to accept the realness of this conversation. When I talked about it with two journalists from Germany who said, “they must have been joking, of course, in that most stupid, horrible way”. “No,” I said, “they were not. It was sex talk. They were serious, despite the giggles, it was about the limits of their sexual fantasy unfolding in the realm of war where such limits vanish after one suddenly obtains the power over human lives.” On April 18th, Putin officially congratulates the troops of the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade that worked in Bucha and, with the words about their “great heroism and courage,” he awards them the title of “Guards” for “protecting Russia’s sovereignty.” The line of Russia’s sovereignty seems to be going through the insides of our bodies.
My experience of participation in panels and roundtables with colleagues from the Western universities over last three weeks started showing the growing gap between us. We used to share a common language, I remember, but now it feels I have drifted away and disappeared from the view in what seems from Canada and the U.S. as a total fog of war. In all cases, of course, I recognize the effort to comprehend our situation and I am grateful for the words of support from my colleagues, always; but as this bloody war continues, the more tragic, hopeless, and insignificant these words become. This part of the panel discussions when we, the experts, are asked “what should be done?” is the most depressing. When my turn comes, I usually say, without any uneasiness I may have had two months ago, “we need a no-fly zone.” The answer my international colleagues usually give is “we hope the war will be resolved by diplomatic means.” And while I wonder whether such answer is a result of self-censorship, misunderstanding of the political realities, or mere indifference, I also recognize how strongly your location determines your choice of words and your rationale.
On the 64th day of the full-scale invasion, I am at the hospital with my mother. Her hip joint gave up. We could have, of course, replaced it last summer along with her hip joint, following the doctor’s recommendation, but she refused. My mother only agrees to medical treatments when it comes to a radical pain. Last year, for example, when her destroyed by osteoporosis spine cracked, she walked with a broken spine for more than a day before letting me know that “something happened” and “she cannot take it any longer” and she faded. When at the emergency room, the surgeon checked her, he could not believe it, but I could. And for the same reason, now we’ve got into a similar situation, where instead of an easy surgery for a joint replacement, on April 27th, her bones literally fell apart in the surgeon’s hands, and her entire hip had to be braced and reconstructed with medical cement and screws. Long months of recovering are now ahead of us. I will have to become again a full-time nurse until mid-summer if things go well.
While my mother is at the hospital, I only spend five hours per day with her, but when I will take her home, in about a week, I am guessing, my nursing shift will grow to 12 hours a day at best, that is if my father does not become bedridden too. Yesterday, on May 7th, and today, he is doing so bad, I had to call medical emergency so he could get an injection to make his heart keep run. He called me last night to say that he locked the apartment using only the upper lock, so I do not need to break the door in the morning if he dies at night. He almost lost all his vision and hearing. He suffers a constant pain in his back, his legs are barely moving, he cannot breathe, and, I know that, he is so tired of life that only his faith keeps him from committing a suicide.
To get my mother to the hospital on Monday, April 25th, I had to call a medical emergency service. It took more than two hours for them to arrive because it is probably the only service in town that still obeys the air raid sirens by stopping the rides until the alert is cancelled. The hospital is on the outskirts of our town, near the polygon, where the military training is happening every day. The soundscape there is ongoing explosions, many of them throughout the day. Wounded soldiers arrive there daily. Surgeries run from the morning and, on some days, until midnight.
Due to the hospital stress over the past two weeks, I completely missed the disturbing news, from April 27th, about Russian troops building up in Transnistria, that are put in full combat readiness today. To get here from Transnistria takes less than an hour by a helicopter. The news brings me back to the reality of war, shakes my emotions, for the first time in a really long time. I think I might be afraid. I do not want to become a person who’s drawn by fear. I try to imagine how it would feel when this emotion occupies me. Will I leave my parents and run if the town is occupied? Is there a way to resist fear? I do not want to encounter the enemy troops whose wives bless and encourage their rape urge and whose commander-in-chief gives them honorary titles for that. But Chomsky seems to think we should surrender. In his interview with Current Affairs, published two weeks after the world discovered the overwhelming evidence of genocide in Bucha and other towns and villages, which demonstrated the conditions and costs of living under the Russian occupation, the words of the American public intellectual sounded particularly insensitive, unethical, and seriously problematic, wrapped in the most ridiculous whataboutism. Strangely thought that the genocidal discourse of “neutralization” of the Ukrainian people did not deserve his comment; instead, this process seems already irreversible to him. “We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine, and recognizing that, like it or not, Crimea is not on the table. You may not like it, you may not like the fact that there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow, but you can’t stop it by saying, “I don’t like hurricanes,” or “I don’t recognize hurricanes.” That doesn’t do any good. And the fact of the matter is, every rational analyst knows that Crimea is, for now, off the table. That’s the alternative to the destruction of Ukraine and nuclear war. You can make heroic statements, if you’d like, about not liking hurricanes, or not liking the solution. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”
We do recognize hurricanes, Mr. Chomsky, much better than you can imagine on a safe distance. But we are not going to start liking them just because that is “the reality of the world” according to your theory, which is all you find impotent to defend now… A new thing in the cascade of things turning upside down during last several months: a philosopher who made his reputation on targeting the power apparatuses of manufacturing consent is advising the country fighting fascism to consent to it.
On April 17th, Asia came to stay with me in Kamyanets-Podilsky. Natalka introduced me to a friend who has a permit to drive after the curfew time, and we head to the train station at midnight to wait for her. The train is forty minutes late. As we sit in the car, Maksym tells me about his involvement with a fantastic group Khashchi that produced videos about cultural and eco-tourism in Ukraine before the full-out war and now they are focused on collecting the war-crime evidence. The train from Kyiv arrives, and I see Asia getting off the carriage number eight, crossing the rails, we hug. We talk till four in the morning about a colossal devastation of our land by this war. Pessimists like we are, we do not see a future. The land that has been known for its fertility is poisoned, mined, warped – raped by rockets and bombs. It will take ages to recover. Asia recalls Atlantis, a 2019 film by Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych, which she also brings up in her essay for e-flux, that is almost provisionally set in Eastern Ukraine in the years after the war, which offers the viewers an apocalyptic vision of surviving humans, while the land itself is no longer suitable for life. I really think this is where we are heading. This Apocalypse will be local, and it will be turned into a resource—as capitalism always does. Will this land become an abandoned dead surface, only good to install German solar batteries after Europe finally overcomes its dependency on Russian gas and oil?
On the evening of May 3rd, while the air raid siren is wailing, Asia and I are standing on my balcony and listening to what Asia thinks are the flying-rockets sound. We do not see the rockets, but the sound is loud and clear. It must be that there are many of them, heading somewhere above us towards Lviv and Ternopil, as the sound is growing and then fading – again and again and again – at least five times. Some people on the street look up, like us, others are walking without paying attention. It continues for about ten minutes. Then we read on Telegram channels where the hits were.
Asia is leaving to Kyiv tomorrow, but tonight, with all that horrifying background noise, we each sit on a separate sofa in my living room, eat dinner and drink wine that is available again at stores since Easter, even in Kamyanets-Podilsky. Ozark is playing on TV, I am editing my interview for The Correspondent, Asia is with her phone at hand, her attention is split between watching TV and checking on where the rockets hit.
In the morning of May 4th, I read that 18 rockets were reportedly launched to target the facilities of the infrastructure in Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovograd, Lviv, Vinnytsia, Kiev, and Transcarpathian regions. But when we saw Natalka that day for our last walk in a botanical garden, she told us it was the Ukrainian plane circling above the town last night – for quite a while. She says her friend saw it. And all the perfect sense we made of yesterday’s event crashes and our understanding of what was going on is suspended again.
These weeks, I tried setting different routines. I started planning things again and tried following my plans. Before leaving for the hospital to care for my mother, I started jogging. But then my father’s health needed attention too, so I had to visit him before the hospital and instead of jogging. Since then, I must come every morning, sit, and talk with him as he is losing his mind in solitude and then again, after five hours at the hospital with my mother, I stop at his place to check on him. I started finally watching TV, but I can only do the easy shows or weird shit, such as a live broadcast of a celebrity defamation trial – as a dischage. Films, especially, sophisticated works, are too painful to watch for now. I miss the reading groups I ran before February 24th immensely but reading philosophical texts itself is disorienting at this moment as it takes up my attention and energy needed for reading and writing about Irpin or Mariupol and from talking to witnesses of the Russian fascists’ practices at the filtration camps and to people in Orane after the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Chernobyl Zone.
Last night I went to see new friends that I met quite suddenly when I, driven by curiosity on a town walk with my friend from Bucha, decided to get inside the yard of Count Potocki’s mansion, where the artists’ residences are located and where my new friends now hide as in a bomb shelter, which they consider better suited for that than their apartment in town near an infrastructural object that is a potential target for the rocket strikes. They say they have been staying there for two months, even when it was very cold there without heat in February and March. Closer to 11 pm, the curfew time, I called the taxi for me and my friend, but before we reached it waiting for us on the central square, some people rudely stole it just in front our eyes. Since it was late to call another one at that hour, we had to split and walk to our homes separately and fast to avoid the interaction with the police. On my way, I walked only on the dark side of the road, hiding in the shadows, but the streets were eerily empty anyway. I recalled, passing by one old house that always attracted my attention as a child, how Asia pointed to it on one of our walks, surprized that its delicate porch window survived so well over the years. I snapped a picture of it for her, but later I noticed the photo turned out about something else – my rushed walk, this shady street, and my phone camera lacking the night vision
It’s close to midnight of May 8th, as I write this, and May 9th, if you are still paying attention to our war, is the day of its imminent end, as we have been told for some time, until it was assumed that the war would last for some years. But I think I better send this dispatch to my publisher now, despite that I have still so much to add, because, you know, who knows…
As I go through my emails before I give my dispatch a final read, I see one from a university professor speaking about democracy and all that, with a Washington Post columnist’s interview in attachment, whose patronizing discourse about Ukraine demonstrates a grotesque mix of the Western and the Russian imperialisms so beautifully fitting one another that you’d wonder – are these entities really at war?! And the sender concludes by suggesting that we should all be “reminding ourselves of Chomsky’s claim that it takes more courage to challenge rather than join your own state’s ideological bandwagon.” As I read this paralyzing email from a parallel reality, I imagine a colourful crazy bandwagon, like those in circus parades. Please, someone, send it for me, I need to get out of here.