A War Diary. Artem Chapeye
Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lives of PEN Ukraine members and its administrative team have changed. Some have exchanged a pen for weapons, some spend their days at volunteer coordination centers or help people who are fleeing the war at railway stations, and some securely support the information front. Our colleague, writer, translator, and reporter Artem Chapeye, who has identified himself as a pacifist his entire life, joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine to defend his country and his family. Under a special rubric "A War Diary," he documents his experiences and ruminates over the events of recent weeks. The material is constantly being updated.
This feeling when tears start streaming down as a response to the "actual place of residence" question in a form. But I got a Pfizer booster. If only there was a shot from a nuclear bomb – but only the security guards of the Ural bunker can administer that one.
Once at a meeting before guard duty, our Chief of Staff joked about my beard being messy. "We, the VSP, have to set an example." So for the first time in my life I went to a barbershop to cut my beard – the receipt would certify my neat beard. This is how the army turns a person into a hipster.
I got to the Elementary 2 level of German, and everything about the pandemic is in the past tense. I do hope that in Intermediate 1, the same will be about war.
The Russian regime is bonafide fascism, not exactly nazism, but the classic one. And "Bella Ciao" actually goes like "One day I woke up and saw an occupier."
Una mattina mi son svegliato
E ho trovato l'invasor
And that's all of us on the morning of February 24.
The cutest moment: a video appeared in the Telegram group of our company sent there by mistake (we usually post updates there). "Daddy's gonna come home, and we're gonna vroom vroom on the bike!"
So this is how code names come up sometimes: Vroom Vroom!
While in the army, I started to learn a new language on Duolingo. To hide it, even using headphones, is impossible: and headphones are not always a go. The app is convenient because you can study even for a minute of downtime, unlike a textbook or an audio class.
I thought they were gonna mock me – no. Now my company is plagued with learning foreign languages.
We have a guy here, who arrived in his own body armor, and a helmet, and he gets tactic goggles, gloves, knee protectors, and stuff as we go. We were taken to a field to see how sappers work just so we know, and the guys were laughing: "Watch out, he's gonna ask you for a couple of mines; the guy needs everything." But the funniest thing was in chess, a colleague of mine said:
"It's impossible to play with this guy! While I'm losing figures, he's getting two knights shipped from the Chech Republic!"
The worst kind of nightmare is not the waking-up-in-cold-sweats-if-only-it’s-just-a-dream kind of dream. It’s the one when I hold my children close and tell them "I hope it’s not a dream," realize that it is, and wake up from sadness.
Turns out that just our company includes the guy who purposefully came back from Helsinki, and another one, who returned from Barcelona when Russia had invaded.
And I don’t even know everyone, only those I cross paths with and chat with for a few minutes.
We also have "Judge Dread " with us – a real judge who volunteered to join the army, with the voice and intonations the sergeants in American movies usually have. So he got appointed as a Sergeant Major. And he’s a kind guy.
So from now children in school will study how to spell where the Russian warship was sent, and whether you need a comma in "to go fuck itself." They’ll write exams on this… College prep tests would include this question…
My close relatives lived under siege for almost a month.
Glory to the Armed Forces that managed to throw the Russians back a little. Glory to the volunteers who managed to evacuate my relatives (they have two small children.)
Camomile learned about the humanitarian corridor being opened from Tom Cooper’s report and had found those volunteers. Now Facebook limited Cooper’s account.
On the other note, Rostyslav Semkiv’s writing got translated. Read, it might help big time.
Good morning, and welcome to the "Musings After the Night Watch."
Since during and after wars societies inevitably incline to the right, I’m gonna tell you, preventatively, how to enlist in the army out of leftist-anarchist motives, when nobody even asked for you there. In 2014 I already had a near-death experience, and realized back then that to save dignity and live according to one’s values might be (not sure if it’s true for everyone) more important, than just living.
On the first day, a man was taken from the village; he hosted us for lunch before that. It became immediately clear that "patriotism" is just a word, and the common people, as it usually goes, will have to sacrifice their lives, while the privileged (like me and the majority of the people I know) will get away with serving mostly on the informational front.
Along with that, Putin’s blitzkrieg ended up being Ukraine’s informational blitzkrieg, and I didn’t see a point in remaining just a journalist, a blogger, or a public intellectual. After all, even in this surreal twofold reality I still give commentaries to BBC and NPR from my barrack. I was only asked not to speak English outside, so "someone won’t think it’s a NATO base and we won’t get a missile strike here."
To avoid sounding too showy, I have to mention that I was sent to a unit where my chances to die statistically are not much higher than those of the civilians around.
And to avoid looking like a leftist propagandist, I also have to mention that unexpectedly my best army buddy is a dedicated member of Svoboda, a Ukrainian right-wing party. Although I mainly listen to him, gently argue a little, and don’t declare my views.
If I were to talk not about the war, but the army – firstly, I have as much dislike for it as I had for the Ukrainian Security Service Academy 20 years ago. I haven’t changed.
Secondly, this, by definition hierarchical, structure confirmed for me one more time that I’m completely devoid of any sense of hierarchy and desire for power. I’m a private and when I look at officers, I keep remembering the phrase from "American Beauty" when Kevin Spacey downshifted and got a job as a cashier at some joint:
I’m looking for the smallest possible amount of responsibility.
Another musing from the night watch. In wartime, the literal meaning of the phrase "bouncing off the walls" is more understandable. A friend of mine came back from Germany, from what I gathered, to territorial defense and said that he wanted to get a machine gun, but they sent him to build fortifications.
I still think that it’s even more helpful. The Armed Forces have actually given me a machine gun – so what, if it sits next to me while I’m on the night watch here.
When in-between duties I’m taken to guard a strategic object, it seems "so what, I’m just walking back and forth pointlessly."
But maybe the point is exactly in this routine work. Not everyone has to shoot from a Javelin.
There are (false) rumors that the civilians like me are lawfully mobilized for only 90 days, and will be replaced with the people further down the line because theoretically, I get to keep my civilian job and salary. Who knows what the real picture’s gonna be, but it occurred to me to go to the mountains for a couple of days in case I do get released. Still, who knows if it’s even possible to ground yourself if the war is still on (and most likely, it will be.)
So the bouncing off the wall persists, the constant thought of not doing enough.
A cycle has been established: every certain number of days I’m on detail and have time to be "an introspective intellectual in the army" at night. This time I’ll give my reflections on Russians and Ukrainians.
It depresses me to read that, instead of his dictatorship wavering, after the invasion Putler’s support has grown.
On the other hand, it’s logical: psychological mobilization is going on too, not to mention the intensification of propaganda. Most likely, everyone against Putler will flee abroad, the Orwellian will intensify domestically, and the country will turn into the one described in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Day of the Oprichnik until the gas runs out. Because Putinism is mold on a gas pipe.
The collective responsibility of Russians for Putinism is the same as the collective responsibility of Germans for Nazism.
Not just ethnic Russians though. I have blood relatives in the Russian Federation, 100% ethnically Ukrainian, respectively, as much as the family knows. Some have moved there during Soviet times, others – to make some money after the fall of the USSR. And those Ukrainians not only do not fucking protest, they believe the propaganda.
The level of dumbheadedness: "Your nephew is hiding in a bomb shelter, right now" – "It’s all fake!" They answer. Well, people have already written articles about that.
Soldiers around me have already been to war. They’ve seen their friends die and are still ready to risk their lives. Meanwhile, in Russia many people are afraid of writing a tiny post on Facebook, not to mention going out to protest. Not just Russians, but many Ukrainian citizens, including some of the people I know, who moved there just a couple of years ago. I specifically go online to check.
It got me thinking. When you are a military or civilian person in Kherson, all you see around you is a bunch of the same kind of people ready to take a risk. When you live in Russia, you see a dozen people, and the FSB will pick you up one by one. I’m in the army now, so in my fantasy, had I been in Russia, I would become a guerilla or blow up the Lubyanka FSB headquarters up, but in reality – my balls aren’t big enough.
Being, as they say, defines consciousness.
Even though this was an attempt at psychological analysis, it doesn’t remove emotions. Contempt persists.
Welcome back to "Musings from the Night Watch." An air raid alarm is on, and something flies by, but we have yet to hear any explosions today. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons: in Kherson unarmed people are not afraid to shout right in the face of the armed shooting occupiers "You Russian soldier – are a fascist occupier," while many in Russia (including a Ukrainian friend) are afraid to even write a post.
As a materialist, I don’t think it’s a "personal" difference. It’s an issue of recent history. They are getting more and more terrorized to the point of "it’s honest to stay silent" (sic), here you can open your trap about whatever – but it’s not enough.
Some Russians are brave enough to get arrested – but we realize that sometimes "a peaceful protest" is not enough. Come on, damn, people threw punches at cops and thugs back in the days of anti-urban developer protests. So, until people in Russia start attacking cops ready to beat them, or even kill them, those protests are nothing to speak of. And I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because in the decades of terror everyone is disunited. And here in little occupied Chaplynka or Melitopol, there are more people than in Moscow with millions of people and a stronger sense of unity.
You can’t break a stick in a bundle, as they say.
And it’s not to offend or devalue those few in Russia who dance around holding hands. For them to do that is equivalent to us picking a fight with riot police. Right now we have more at stake, and in general, the tradition of "sticking in a bundle" has already been formed.
United we stand, divided we fall, as Pink Floyd used to sing. Or the same, el pueblo unido jamás será vencido.
When there’re twenty of you, of course, it’s scary. When you are the only one to write a post – you’ll get repressed. If you’re Dud’ or Oxxxymiron, it’s one thing, but what about a white-collar guy from Izhevsk?
Maybe that’s because I’m sleep-deprived, but suddenly we seem to find ourselves in a place and time when the future of this planet literally depends on us. Guardians of the Galaxy.
We cannot want someone else to risk or suffer instead of us because it might cause everything to go out of control and maybe put the entire life on the planet in danger. And we cannot give up, we have to exhaust the dictatorship with us – otherwise, the planet will become harder to live on, freedom will be diminished.
And, obviously, as soon as everything’s over, everyone in the "center of the world" will forget about this periphery, and their stories will focus on themselves, saving private Ryan. Oh well.
That might sound showy, but there’s nothing showy here. For example, at night I just guard people, who have more skills, so they can get enough sleep. I’m doing so under pretty comfortable conditions, in a space barricaded with bags, I’m way safer than a lot of civilians, and I have an electric kettle to boot. It’s nothing like operating an air defense system or a Bayraktar drone. Let’s imagine there are ten thousand people like me.
Guys from air defense drove past the other day. Kids that have seen death. The Rushists (Russian fascists) bombed their barracks, they say; one man’s hands were shaking, and they drove to another military unit.
And, by the way, no glitzy talks, besides swearing at the Rushists up and down. Some are glad they are on a waiting list to get an apartment, that their salary got bigger, that food is delicious today. The older guys pose with their grandchildren (not machine guns) for their profile pictures.
Stepan Vasylovych has described the potential risks best: "Not a single drowned man has ever hanged himself."
Among the guys who have been in the ATO eastern war zone and know some things, there’s nothing showy or especially "heroic" about them. Kids, mortgages. You do what you need to do, the closest circle’s opinion is important, they smile at those who "have already pissed in their pants, nothing’s even happened yet." So it goes.
In short, we just happened to be in such a place in such time. We can’t ask somebody to suffer for us: Americans would risk World War III, or Russians risk their lives, not just declarations, against the regime. We would not do that either, if we had a choice. It just happens.
Almost nothing can be written about in specific terms, let alone photographed.
Yesterday I had a lesson on extreme driving: I was towed on a rope, through potholes, and it is such a mindful meditation, you can’t get distracted even for a second. Ukrainian vehicles break down too – but we are at home, everyone will help us here.
Or in the morning, you stand after nighttime guard duty, hungry, sleep-deprived, and cold because of that. And here we have uncle Misha, nicknamed Google (because he knows everything better than the commanders). So, he looks at me all pathetic and says: ‘Vasylovych, why do you look like a Russian occupier? Someone will take a picture of you and say "Look, the poor thing got drafted." But. I ate something warm and homemade made by local women, and heard "Oh, now you look like a normal fascist-punisher."
Not just the hot meal warms you up: it was made willingly and with love. Meanwhile, the occupiers are despised.
By the way, what’s strange and very necessary, is the constant support from those near and dear in messenger apps. I think this support for the so-called "fighting spirit" now overcomes possible security risks (even though you do your best not to say anything besides overall emotional impressions).
The army creates a general impression of anarchic communism happening for real. Not a utopic one, but the people’s as it is: with the dehumanization of the enemy, with unavoidable gay jokes (at least this is invariable and hasn’t changed in the army since my times as a trainee in the nineties). But for a soldier, money stopped being an issue.
They got us a ride to go get a haircut, whoever wanted to. We happened to come not to an "all kinds of haircuts for 100 hryvnias" kind of place, but to a "beauty salon" where a rich lady was getting her nails done. Our hairdresser refused to take money: "I could, so I helped."
"So, I don’t get it," our lieutenant said when we came back. ‘If that was a beauty salon, how come you came out of there?’
А letter to a very old friend
I’m happy to hear from you and to learn that you’re OK. Congratulations on your marriage and future child!
I’m happily married to a wonderful woman, she has a Ph.D. in sociology and we have two boys, 7 and 9.
Luckily we evacuated kids when the bombing of Kyiv started, and I felt I needed to volunteer for the army although I’m still a pacifist. Somehow there was no other moral choice. I consider this included observation or whatever it’s called in sociology.
I felt it would be unfair for common people to fight and for us intellectuals only to talk, and I admire our people. No matter how this ends Ukrainians are so cool, like David vs Goliath.
We’re hoping to repel the invasion or for a revolution against Putin the dictator, it’s not about NATO or even patriotism, no one just wants to live under a dictator and occupation, and I don’t want my kids to flee abroad.
I’ve become a reasonably well-known Ukrainian author, and even have been translated into several languages.
So far I’m not on the frontline. Ukraine doesn’t send the inexperienced soldiers there, just the professionals.
I’m basically patrolling, etc. Hoping to become a better person after all this, not too traumatized. My kids and wife are in relative safety. We may lose our home at least temporarily but somehow it’s not critical. Interestingly, money stopped being an issue, too. This is something akin to temporary communism. I just really hope none of my personal friends and relatives die. It’s so sad to see all these millions of people suffering and at the same time, it’s uplifting to see how everyone is helping each other now.
Being connected is the most important thing right now. To lose a phone is as scary as to lose your documents or a machine gun.
Mornings can be difficult. I used to wake up and be like… ‘Jeez, it’s just a dream.’ I just had a dream of walking my kid to school. I woke up – and the war still on.
During the day the overwhelming feeling of unity makes everything easier, you feel a part of something great and on the side of good.
And I started to constantly say "I love you" to people regardless of their gender.
And, and everybody talks about it, there’s a multilayered survivor’s guilt. Volunteer? Not in the army. In the army? Not in Kyiv, even if in Kyiv, or Kharkiv, or Kherson, still something is wrong.
The feeling of being ineffective in a particular moment still shifts to understanding that, in general, everything in Brownian motion works out the way it should.
And every second is soaked with the desire for this "greatness" to stop.
My friend and I spoke the other day about Ukraine having already won an informational blitzkrieg – but still thought that remaining "a pensive soldier" won’t hurt. Even after my enlisting in the army, the feeling of certain shame that I’m not doing enough, that I was sent to a statistically safer place than civilians in Kharkiv are in, hasn’t gone away. People call it survivor’s guilt.
Such guilt can manifest itself in aggression toward others: the "why refugees are fleeing, not everyone is fighting" has already started. Please try to understand: the people who say that they are in a safer place than Kyiv or Kharkiv, and this is fear-induced aggression. It goes along with help.
Whoever is wherever, they should be there. You can’t go against tanks with Molotov cocktails but without any experience. And this is normal.
If someone in Halychyna (Galicia in Western Ukraine) would say something to you at the market, it’s about pain and survivor’s guilt, just without reflection.
Those things are inevitable, and we have to try to understand them. We are all in a deep perpetual state of what the fuck: unarmed people in Berdyansk tell armed occupiers to fuck off, women in the Romen region tell weirdohs suited up in armor to fuck off too.
Whoever can, does something.
We have a warrior here, even weirder than I am – a seminarian who has been studying to become a priest and came to the enlistment office on the first day. He’s very gentle and strong at the same time. He finds the power to help everyone in-between his duties.
I keep thinking about those books I’ve read, the anti-war books, from Remarque to Hemingway and WWII memoirs, Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22 – they turn out to be irrelevant after you have to haul kids away under shelling.
By the way, unlike on Facebook, there’re no showy proclamations here at the barracks, at all. One guy: "As they say, Glory to Ukraine"; but in general: "Slept enough – I’m happy already" – a conscript talks to his wife on the cell and discusses ear drops for his son. How to do laundry here, how to stay warm patrolling.
The seminarian shows me, where what is. I’m very unacclimated compared to everyone here: some guy used to be a conscript to avoid unemployment, another came back now after a civilian job. Those, who held weapons in their hands a long time ago, are needed here mostly to haul stuff. Nothing flashy, really.
I have been reading books about meditation for half a year, and here, already registered and in uniform, I unexpectedly have time to start practicing. We all have made a giant step out of our comfort zones and are becoming other people. The point is to become better people.
The last couple of days I love all of us a lot. We help each other. At a Privatbank branch, people offer you a chair and delicious coffee, and people have lined up at the table next to yours to register something to help the army. Buckets of fresh homemade food at the barracks: "Eat or it gets spoiled." And by the way, officers’ attitudes are way different from the one I remember in my youth, in peacetime: no fucking with your mind with statues, gentleness, humanity: "While you have time, rest up, here’s a blanket."
A guy next to me came as a civilian with no experience except conscription service – but the majority are professionals; some have many years of experience. Our sergeant’s son recently came back from work in western Europe, specifically to enlist.
On the first day, fleeing with my kids, I couldn’t find words. Words failed me. Now my kids are safe and I realized. That’s because it’s time for action.
To Russians: while their hands are full fighting us, strike your heart, free yourself. It’s better than being consigned to history as "Russian-fascist occupiers," isn’t it?
To friends: In Halychyna (Galicia), there was a huge line of volunteers in a regional enlistment office. A guy in front of me has two kids, too. In front of him – fellas who just moved their wives and children abroad and came to volunteer to go to war. Whatever happens in the coming days, we’ll win.
The enlistment office is even picky, exhausted: "Why are you here, you have no skills." But they took me. I can’t divulge details, of course, but I’m a military man now. If something suddenly comes up, I’ll ask for "Pacifist" as a code name.
I’ll be honest with you
I hate war in all its forms
Physical, psychological, spiritual
I hate war
And I hate having to struggle, I, I, I honestly do
Because I, I wish I had been born the into a world where it’s unnecessary
This context of struggle and being a warrior and being a struggler
Has been forced on me by oppression
Otherwise I would be a, a sculptor, or a gardener, a carpenter
You know, I would be free to be so much more
I guess part of me or a part of who I am, a part of what I do
Is being a warrior, a reluctant warrior, a reluctant struggler
But, I do it because I’m committed to life
We can’t avoid it, we can’t run away from it
Because to do that is cowardice
A short letter to some Western intellectuals and some people on the left. Please share it to whom it may concern.
I can’t write anything long because we’re still on the run with kids who are now right here next to me. So, this will be very short. Ukraine was not "dragged into" war, it was attacked. Without even a pretext similar to Hitler’s attack on Poland.
I know other countries have had their share of imperialism, right now you’re witnessing overt Russian imperialism.
I don’t want to make flawed historical comparisons here, but I’ll say that empires had lost wars against smaller peoples before, and in the end the Russian imperialist government must lose now.
When you’re being bombed, when you’re thinking of ways to evacuate your kids, it’s a different level of analysis than when you’re being smart and ironic, sitting in a safe academic office somewhere at MIT. Yes, Mr. Noam Chomsky, I’m looking at you, among others. I started as a volunteer translator of "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" into Ukrainian, so now I’m really pissed about how he mentions in one sentence the background: "and yes, Russia had to occupy Crimea eight years ago to protect its naval base." What if the U.S. occupied Baja, California? Be responsible, intellectuals.
Before "overthrowing capitalism sometime," think of ways for us here not to be slaughtered because "any war is bad."
If you’re on the left, listen to the local voices here on the periphery, not some sages at the core of this world system.
If you’re on the left, when analyzing, please start with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess. Start with the columns of refugees, people with their kids and the elderly and pets. Start with those kids in cancer hospital in Kyiv who are now in bomb shelters missing their chemotherapy.
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