Anatoliy Dnistrovy: "russia’s war against Ukraine is its last cry in the desert"
Ukrainian essayist, poet and artist Anatoly Dnistrovy went to the recruitment office in the first days of the full-scale war. Now, he’s doing informational and analytical work for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. As a part of the joint project of Chytomo and PEN Ukraine Words and Bullets, we’ve talked with him about accumulating of new experience that is later transformed into texts, whether it is possible to live as we used to in our new reality, what makes us humans even under the desperate conditions and when the world will finally cease seeing us through the lens of russia.
– You’ve registered for service in Khmelnytskyi region where you moved your family from Kyiv. How did you make that decision? Were you ready that you might need to defend your Motherland with arms?
– My situation is a bit more complicated. The law on mobilization was passed due to which all men had to register for service. And so I did. Since I used to work for National Institute for Strategic Studies and deal with human security and cultural development issues, I was out of commission. After I returned to Kyiv, I resumed my registration and joined the army. Currently, I’m writing analytics for Armed Forces of Ukraine. It’s a creative and intellectual task.
All of my colleagues are educated and experienced people. The company is quite sophisticated and noble, I would say. If you look at army outside the actual military block, it is a huge meta-structure that covers a variety of professions: writers, journalists, analysts, cooks, drivers, engineers, not to mention the military professions.
– Tell us more about the atmosphere there. Do you feel the spirit of fraternity? Do you discuss things that are out of your professional scope? Do you see these people as potential prototype for your fictional characters?
– The first thing that amazes me is that it is an army of a different breed. It has nothing to do with the army we had in Soviet times, nor the army we had 20 years ago. There is no rigid hierarchy, you hardly feel the difference between a soldier, a colonel or a major. We can easily go and grab some coffee with the colonels, talk about life with them. We have our inside jokes, army irony and slang. One of my colonel friends has a joke: "Do you know the difference between a colonel and a professor? Professor knows one special topic and can talk a lot about it. And colonel knows a little but still has to do it".
There are a lot of human stories, each one is unique. The war has taken a lot from people, interrupted something in their lives. Somebody had to end their career. For instance, Vlad who’s working in my department, used to organize children’s camp in peaceful times. Kids would be engaged in creative and technical activities. And during russian invasion their warehouse in Makariv was completely destroyed by shelling. This is an immense tragedy for this person, cause decades of efforts and hard work were ruined. This is one of the stories that struck me.
Regarding the fictional characters, I have no idea what it would be like. I mean the literary modeling is a long and elaborate process. Rilke said about it in his Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: "For poetry, the consciousness needs to be absorbing the reality for quite a while, and then at a certain point it will make a hit".
– You claim that in wartime Ukrainians need the literature of facts, not pure fiction. Why do you think so?
– I hear it quite often that reading (novels and fiction in particular) doesn’t resonate with people. It feels like this type of literature is from some distant place, like from Mars or something. So, it seems to me that now is the time we’ll get authors who need to speak up. Maybe it will be someone not from my generation, someone from post-war generation. Someone who was a kid or a teen during this war. And these authors will need to talk away.
Polish antimetaphorical poetry made a breakthrough in the world, but let’s not forget where this idea came from. As Różewicz said: "I’m 24 and I’ve just witnessed butchery…". They just realized that all the metaphors and various adornments of the text won’t work after all the atrocities of war. They won’t just hit the target.
It seems to me that Ukrainian literature will go through this stage as well. Authors will feel the need to get things that shook them off their chest, the need to talk about the inexplicable grief in a new unpolished language. So, new words will appear – adequate and accurate in their meaning. No metonymic and metaphorical over-sophistication and figures of speech. That is, "how" will quite likely give ground to "what", as formalists used to say. Getting back to entertaining literature will take time, maybe even the whole generation.
– I know that you’re now working on a documentary and analytical book about the war. Is it the format you’re most comfortable working in right now?
– Originally, it was a journal. I’ve been writing in journals ever since I was 20. Yet at the beginning of 2022, I realized that it got different, more anxious. I felt the threat of russian invasion, understood that it was inevitable. I was talking about it with my friends back in summer of 2021, but very few believed the threat was real. And then I decided to write a documentary. I took on it around January 10, but it was more of an overture, it contained more anxiety and premonition than facts. Now, I’m trying writing consistently.
I quote experts, journalists, writers and ordinary people who kept their diaries in occupation, under constant bombing, while hiding in basements. I also add the voices of our authors, such as Halyna Kruk, Andriy Lyubka, Andriy Bondar, Oleksandr Mykhed, Anatoliy Yermolenko, Vitaly Portnikov, Volodymyr Yermolenko and others by including their quotes in my texts. I want this book to become an orchestra of our intellectual community’s voices. Since I’m currently working with large flows of information, it is important for me to show the war on different levels: the global meaning, the international context, and local stories. Thus, the book will be multi-format, it will cover various levels.
– How long will it take the world to stop seeing Ukraine – historically, politically, culturally and mentally – through the lens of russia? When will we be able to talk about ourselves as about a self-sufficient state, outside russian context? Not as an opposition, comparison or negation but as a separate comprehensive constant?
– The problem here is that Ukraine has never presented itself on foreign markets. And 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 the European society for centuries. And as a result, they have their metastatic lesions – their outlets – in different countries. Even Johnson’s resignation is, tentatively speaking, the work of russian secret services and media. In the UK, they have control over several popular editions. And through those media they influence the population. 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 efforts in order to keep them engaged. And it has to be a composite story that will be told on many levels: by public, by cultural and intellectual community and, what is most important, 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. Political elite saw ordinary Ukrainians as aborigines of sort who had no interest in this. So now, accelerated promoting of Ukraine needs to be a consistent and continuous work. The state as an institution, as a huge mechanism has to bear responsibility for this as well. And we, for our part, have to demand carrying out of these functions from it, we have to press all the branches of power to promote Ukraine as a brand on international arena: our culture, heritage, history and art. For this, we need to get expert assessments and formulate very clear messages of distinction: that we are not russians, that we have a completely different history. And this work should be sustainable and uninterrupted like a reflex, like drinking morning coffee.
– One of the videos on your YouTube channel from the cycle Holzwege is named "Humanity tim". In it, you point out that Ukrainians under current conditions show a great level of humanity. And that’s a huge contrast to what russian world brought to our country. In your mind, what allows us to remain humans even in these gruesome times?
– I used to explain it with certain psychological peculiarities. And a good friend of mine, philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko defined a very simple formula: we are prone to empathy. And it is alien to russians. That is why everyone is so shocked by their cruelty, this barbaric, medieval behavior. Western psychological culture is prone to empathy, and we do fit in this model. And in this despotic and cruel world where there is no place for empathy, we do not fit and we do not belong there.
Someone from russian so-called opposition had conducted some secret polls before the war. And they’d shown that the most terrible things that could happen to a russian military are homosexuality and cheating. Those are their red lines. The rape of a child or the murder of a civilian is nothing to their current anthropology. This is what makes them different from us. I even had a suggestion to hit those red lines, their weak spots. For example, take information about the thugs who have got spotted in Ukraine, let’s say, Chechens or Dagestanis, and create their accounts on homosexual sites, and on dating apps for their women. That is, to destroy their society according to their "terrible" markers from the inside. Because it is necessary to fight them in various ways. That includes surgical strikes with informational diversions so that they’d nag at each other.
– On the calendar in your apartment, it is February 23 still, and you confessed that you do not dare to turn the page. Many Ukrainians also got stuck in that day: our winter hasn’t changed into long-anticipated spring nor into summer. For how long do you think a person can put their life on hold? How long will this endless winter last in our minds?
– At first, they tried to fool us that it is for two weeks. Then that it’ll last two months. From the very beginning, I understood those estimates and predictions were unreasonable, to put it mildly. Earlier, I assumed it will last till the end of the year at the very best. Now I realize it will drag on. Even if there is an operational rest or exhaustion, the war won’t end officially.
I am convinced that the hot phase will happen somewhere around the heating season (October-November), and the next will take place early in spring. Unfortunately, russia still has resources, no need to underestimate it. Maybe, the situation with human resources is more difficult. The mobilization in russia is still on, but it is a so-called "quiet mobilization". Anyway, they still can recruit 1,500 and more "cannon fodder" per week. And it would be a big mistake on our part to underestimate their technical and weapon potential.
So, illusions aside, this whole situation may last till late 2023, maybe even early 2024. This is my humble prediction. But I don’t claim it to be the ultimate truth. I might be wrong. But so far, everything points that this will last long.
– How, under these circumstances, one can find a way to live their ordinary life, the life we used to have in peaceful times?
– We are now living in a new reality. The turbulent one. The first couple months people found it hard to comprehend. But now, many go back to socializing, to their old habits. For instance, I’ve attended a recital recently. It was a presentation of the military poetic anthology Poetry Uncovered. There were around 50 people. And I think that’s a great success for such event in wartime.
People do want this life back, and it has to go on. There should be literary events, the creative processes have to keep running, the pictures should be drawn, the books have to be published. Remember what Churchill said: "What are we fighting for?" Well, we are fighting for our culture among other things.
– What inspires you?
– First of all, I understand that everything going on around – globally and from the point of view of our enemy’s motivation – is a last cry in the desert, the last attempt at rebuilding the imperia complex. Yet this desire is atavistic, outdated, and barbaric by nature. This is terribly medieval. And common sense tells me this is bullshit.
What inspires me is faith: I believe in our truth, and the truth is on our side. Ukrainian society, Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian state inspire me. 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.
And as ex-Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir said there can be no compromise between life and death, when they want you dead. We have no choice. We are who we are. And as everyone we have a right to live. This is what moves us and what gives sense to everything we are doing. This is what inspires us every day.
– One of your first war poems was "I dreamt of Chernihiv…". How do you see Ukrainian cities after the war? How are we to return to our favorite places, see all the ruins and find the strength to rebuild them?
– That’s quite a grim question. It so happened that I made an analytical material on this issue. I don’t think this war will end very soon. And even if it does, it still can repeat itself in the next 5-7-10 years. I even think it may have serial nature.
Thus, a lot of factors, both economic and social, will affect the process. Some towns in Donetsk region are leveled to the ground: Popasna, Kreminna, Volnovakha. Those places are literally banished from existence. When we recover those towns, the inevitable question will arise: who will rebuild them and for whom? I doubt people will go back there. I suspect this territory might turn into new Wild Fields where the potential for human, urbanistic and economic development is undermined for decades to come. Another thing is the cities such as Chernihiv and Kharkiv. They are more settled; thus, I think there is more potential for rebuild and revival – urbanistic and architectural. We are heavily wounded, but we will revive.
Words and Bullets is a special project of Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists who after the start of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine or became volunteers. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapons that the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the ones they were forced to take up after the start of the full-scale war with Russia. This special project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
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