Soldier Artem Chapeye: 'If I hadn’t gone the first day, I would have gone a week later'
Writer Artem Chapeye decided to enlist the first day of the war, when he heard the first explosions outside his window. The army "matched" him to the position of press officer, wanted to send him to work in the kitchen, and tried his skills as a clerk. Now he’s guarding strategic facilities and says this is the perfect fit.
As part Words and Bullets, a joint project of Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, Artem Chapeye – the author of the books Father on Paternity Leave, The Ukraine, Weathering – explains how he feels closer to the current environment than the literary one, what it’s like to be a writer in the army, and what really helps Ukrainians live through the horrors of war.
— Artem, what was it like going from writer to soldier? Does your previous experience matter during war? Does your background as a writer personally interfere during war?
— My experience as a writer helps me, because at times it can be psychologically trying. I think of my current experience as direct observation. I try to spot details, at times I write things in my phone so that I don’t forget them – such as funny or interesting phrases. The experience of being a writer helps me psychologically.
As for previous [military] experience, it’s certainly difficult without it. There is a major clash between expectations and reality. For example, you can be criticized for your appearance, which is more about being in the arm than at war. But professionalism matters: when I got here, I didn’t even which way to hold a machine gun on your shoulder – pointed up or down?
You can tell who previously served in the ATO – these are people we look up to. There are some who have already served several rotations in the east since 2014. They know a lot more and they help others prepare morally.
— Who are you right now: a writer or a soldier?
— Sometimes I’ll still say to one of the officers: "But I’m a civilian". And they’ll reply: "No, you’re no longer a civilian". But I still consider myself a civilian. I understand that I am only in the army until demobilization. I have no other plans, and I want this all to end as soon as possible with our victory. I’m not itching to go into a dangerous situation, and I did breathe a sigh of relief when I realized where I had been assigned. Although this is no guarantee. For example, our neighbors from another military unit are already on the front line. As I tell myself: "The unconfessed ways of the military commissariats".
— You’re outside your usual bubble. Do you feel comfortable in your new environment?
— I’ve always understood that I was part of society and am not very different from others. Nobody here really knows that I’m a writer, except for our special services curator. Everyone else knows that I’m some kind of journalist. Nobody really reads – they mostly watch TikTok.
As for the team, this one is better than the previous [literary] one. There’s less snobbery, more kindness and mutual support. Maybe I lucked out with the unit, but the psychological atmosphere here is very healthy. It could also be that psychologists choose who goes to my unit. The people here are psychologically stronger than I imagined. There is no unhealthy competition. If they see that you’re not doing well, they’ll help you.
For example, I was having a very hard time on my son’s birthday. My child is ten years old and there’s 2,000 kilometers between us. A guy with a machine gun came up to me and gave me a hug. It was unexpected – it’s not what you expect from a masculine team.
Maybe there’s none of that machismo because the average age of the soldiers here is 40. And I think this is right – people with formed personalities, not young people, should be fighting. 18-year-old conscripts bend very easily when they’re first separated from their parents. And this isn’t right, because they don’t always understand where they’re going. The people here are motivated. For example, many of the people here are volunteers. The others, even if they were mobilized, are people who didn’t run away and skirt their duty. That is, these are people who now why they’re here.
— You wrote on Facebook in 2016 that you had no intention of enlisting. And you half joked with your friend about where you’d escape to if Putin attacked. What’s changed since then that in 2022 you instantly decided to go to war?
— I was talking with Lyubko Deresh and we were joking that sometimes novelists have a hard time understanding themselves. I still think about this. Maybe if I was in Lviv or Ivano-Frankivsk when this all started, I would done differently. But when you wake up to the building rumbling and your children can be hit, the decision is made on some animalistic level: I have to protect my children.
— Reality has changed for all of us. What is it now for you? What is your day like?
— We live in a former gym and sleep on mattresses. Every other day we go on a day-long tour. You are constantly in a drunken state. One day you’re on duty, and the next day you have free time until the evening inspection. For example, right now I’m on leave.
Obviously, what’s changed drastically is that I am without my family. All these months I miss my wife and children most. Maybe it’d be different if we were together. We’ve been married 14 years and now our relationship is via Zoom. I give my children Ukrainian lessons online – 30 minutes twice a day – so that they don’t forget how to write in their native language because right now they’re abroad. We do some multiplication tables, Ukrainian language. I remind them that bud laska ("please") is two words.
— Does military romanticism really exist or is it just a part of artistic reality?
— If I were single and on my own right now, then there’d be something to it. I also realize that once this is all over, there are aspects that I will miss. What they call "brotherhood" really does exist. The people I’m with right now are psychologically closer to me than many of my civilian friends. This "bubble" has become much more comfortable for me. There is more solidarity and mutual support, because we are all in the same boat, we have the same existence.
Although the people here are very different. There is a great guy who can’t write two words in the group chat without a mistake, but he’s one of the best here. There is a sense of trust among us. I really lucked out ending up here with these people.
— Is there someone among your military brothers who could become a character of yours in the future?
— Today every other Ukrainian is a unique character and personality. Characters in novels should be collective images – you take a phrase from someone, a gesture from someone else. I’ve been with the same people for months and I realize that I still don’t know them that well. Someone who at first seemed dark is actually a good person, and the other way around – someone in the group who seemed sincere turned out to be cunning. As a novelist, you can only imagine what’s really going on inside a person’s soul.
— Some of your books are about Ukrainians and Ukraine. What did you learn about Ukrainians after the Russian invasion and being with the military? What, for example, didn’t you know when writing Travels with Mamayota: In Search of Ukraine or The Ukraine?
— I now understand that The Ukraine was written too precisely. People are imperfect but beautiful. The last sentence of the book is "People are beautiful, even if they don’t realize it". I see all the same things now, but under different circumstances and in different situations, the circumstances are much more tragic. Everyone is becoming legendary in their own way.
What we’re doing right now is amazing. Nobody expected this. We didn’t even expect this from ourselves.
— You found out that the English translation of your book The Ukraine would be published in the US and Great Britain "with a machine gun over your shoulder and four cartridges of ammo". You’re at war, but your writing career continues to develop. How do you reassess your past writing now that you – a pacifist – are holding a machine gun in your hands? And how do you think this will affect your writing in the future?
— Some things apply to a former reality. And it’s not that they’ll lose relevance, but they’ll already be historical events. That is, what was a realistic social novel has now become an historical social novel because it describes a reality that no longer exists. And not just in Ukraine – I think the whole world has changed.
I’ve stated exploring new genres. I used to hate fantasy. These days I think that maybe fantasy is best to describe what’s happening now – all these orcs swarming in while someone in the Kremlin is rotting alive and wants to "capture another country and take it with him in his coffin", if to rephrase Shevchenko. There’s too much blood and guts to be described realistically. That’s why you need a different genre, a kind of philosophizing. But at the moment these are just thoughts. All this needs to end, because as Hegel said, "The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk". You can write about a big event once it’s over. The most concrete plan I have right now is to survive.
When Gabriel García Márquez was writing 100 Years of Solitude, he said there is a romantic notion that for a novelist the worse, the better. But that’s not true. To write you have to be in good psychological and physical shape. I’m in no shape now to write.
— Lots of books have been written about war, but none of them has helped prevent war. Why should people read literature about war?
— When in the first weeks of the war one of the book chains gave free access to its e-library, the first books I started reading were about war, and the worst things about war: genocide, concentration camps. It was a way to understand the irrationality and senselessness of what’s going on.
I was on leave recently in May. The world is beautiful, but at the same time there are people in this world like Putin who start wars in which tens of thousands of people die. And books about war, oddly enough, and their descriptions of horror provide psychological support. It’s a way to make sense of and "philosophize" what’s happening.
What helps us the most psychologically right now? From my observations, it’s three things. First, a sense of humor, particularly dark humor. Second, curses and phrases like "Russian warship, go fuck yourself" and everything else. Third, mythologizing and philosophizing. For example, about villagers stealing a tank. This became a legend around the world. These are symbols that give us strength.
— Is there "material" in war that can’t be converted into text? Or is literature much broader than the horrors of war?
— You can conceptualize everything, but not everything should be translated into literature. For example, there is the Afghani writer Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the book The Kite Runner. In it, he describes in detail several times how a boy is raped. I’m not sure such sensationalism is necessary. It’s like when human rights ombudsman Denisova was criticized for releasing details about what the Russians did to underage girls. This has to be remembered, but you have to be careful when converting this into literature, otherwise it can become exploitation of someone else’s pain.
There’s another reason I think about fantasy. Because it is possible to collect all the horrors happening right now and to write about them. But is it necessary? I’m not sure of the ethical aspect of transforming someone else’s suffering into text. Because after all, text is just text. And if you do this to gain fame, then it’s disgusting.
— Did you have a change in values after February 24?
— Wars are different. Some of them have to be fought. If we were to give up right now, it would be a disaster for the whole world. If you compare WWI and WWII, these were also very different situations – in WWII Hitler had to be defeated.
I also realized that there’s something more valuable to me than my own life – the lives of other people, at least certain people.
— This is a very personal question, but we’ll ask it anyway: do you ever regret your decision? Are there moments when you lose hope and how do you overcome them?
— I won’t hide the fact that there are moments when my decision torments me. But at the same time, I understand that I couldn’t have done otherwise. There is the banal saying that character is destiny.
First of all, I surprised myself by going to the recruitment office. My wife and I "went to the city for a stroll." When I told my mother where, she said: "I knew you’d do that." Much later, when I was talking to my wife on Zoom, trying to partly justify my decision, she said: "Well, you couldn’t have not gone." I was surprised. "What do you mean I couldn’t have? I’m in the fourth wave of mobilization." "No, that’s not what I meant. You could have not gone, but it would have eaten away at you."
Sometimes your loved ones understand you better than you understand yourself.
Most likely, if I hadn’t gone to the recruitment office that first day, I would have gone a week later. Or a month later. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s better not to hesitate: jump from the cliff into the river and then swim.
— You said that Putin created an "anti-Russia" for himself, and as paradoxical as it may seem, his actions united Ukrainians. So, despite the high price that we are now paying, we’re solidifying our own identity as they’re trying to destroy it?
— 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?"
In Ukraine this "unity" is a sign of a people, but it’s not an ethnic trait. For example, we have an officer that is half Russian, but he’s one of ours. In contrast to him, my uncle, who was born in Ukraine, moved to Russia and in his head became Russian.
I was born 36 years after WWII, and in kindergarten I drew fascist planes burning. With time, my children’s grandkids will think of Russia the same way I thought about the Nazis as a child. Putin created an anti-Russia, and not just in Ukraine.
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. But 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 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.
— What is at the heart of the difference between Russians and Ukrainians? After all, we did spend a chunk of history together?
— We were colonized, we weren’t together. It wasn’t a "togetherness" like in a family. It was colonization. I feel bad for the Dagestanis that are dying right now. It’d be better if instead of this they thought about how to gain freedom. I feel bad for the Buryats, who were also colonized and are now being taken on tanks to colonize another people.
The song Oy U Luzi Chervona Kalyna which has become a symbol, is 100 years old. The second verse goes:
Marching forward, our fellow volunteers, into a bloody fray,
For to free our brother Ukrainians from the shackles of Moscow.
Or take Makhno’s army of peasants who crushed both the Reds and the Whites. Yes, they later joined the Reds, because at the time they were political closer to them and nobody knew what would happen next. But the idea of building strength from the bottom up is nothing new for us.
When you walk around the city in military uniform and a stranger’s child gives you a drawing, you feel how much everyone loves you.
All this is historical and was formed much earlier than 30 years ago. And now, it’s becoming more obvious how important the role was of the war in 1917-20, the Central Council of Ukraine, West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Makhovists, and so forth.
— As someone who’s currently defending his country, what would you say about the NYT op-ed saying that Ukraine should give up part of its territory for peace with Russia?
— It’s none of their bloody business.
— Despite the high price we’re having to pay, is this war an historical chance for Ukrainians?
— Regardless of the outcome of this war, this is the creation of the legend of the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, there may be different scenarios. In worst case, this legendary people could become completely scattered like the Jews. However, for example, by destroying the Skovoroda Museum, Russia made his "the world tried to catch me, but didn’t succeed" even more powerful. Similarly, regardless of the outcome of this war, Putin is helping the Ukrainian people become legendary.
And besides the worst case scenarios, there are lots of better case scenarios. For example, legendary free Ukraine and its de-fascist neighbor that repented and paid reparations, like Hitler’s Germany once did.
And between these extremes are lots of realistic middle case scenarios.
Words and Bullets is the special project from Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined army or started volunteering when russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the project symbolizes the weapon the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the one they had to swap it for after the full-scale invasion. The special project is realized with the support of National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.
Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.