Silence expands, it soaks up the darkness, grows larger. So night comes, even in broad daylight.
I’m between the ages of three and four and I’m supposed to get some sleep during the day. I don’t want to sleep, don’t want to fall asleep, and I’m willing to sacrifice everything in order to strike a bargain—don’t force me to fall asleep during the day. Falling asleep is disturbing, you wake up changed. I believe that in this way I’ll have to say goodbye to myself, and how I was that day, forever.
My loneliness hurts me, every day I begin to befriend the objects around me, the big armchair in the kitchen, which with its bent legs is the first in the room to greet me. The light of day is friendly, it casts bright shadows on the caramel-colored patterns of the linoleum floor. The adults are far away, they’re busy, but they want to take it all away from me. These new connections dissolve in my sleep.
Accompanied by my grandma Tsylja, I cross the long corridor of our two-room apartment, which seemed huge and unfathomable.
It’s a weekend, a Saturday, I woke up free, no obligation to go to kindergarten. But I can hardly feel this freedom because the day seems to me a singular and eternal phenomenon. The midmorning will never end and yesterday hardly existed. I don’t want to interrupt this peaceful eternity, and I promise myself I’ll do everything I can not to fall asleep.
The one option arrives: to close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. My grandma, as attentive and suspicious as she may be, will fail to notice the subtle difference between sleep and wakefulness. This is the one way I can win, there’s no other escape.
I prepared my argument in advance, worked over the objections for a very long time, and spoke with a number of adults. They were all good to me, they all listened, but the verdict was delivered and could not be changed even slightly: I had to get some sleep, and not less than an hour.
Just entering the room and lying down was unbearable. My grandma, a bit disappointed that I wasn’t yet independent, accompanied me to the bedroom. She, a delicate and hazy shape, and her quiet kind voice gave me a sense of security that nothing could happen to me.
The bedroom also served as a study for my father, and at night I shared it with both my parents, who slept diagonally across from me, though they went to sleep much later than I did. In the mornings when I was awoken, they’d long since gotten up and their beds were already made.
My grandmother slept in the other room. That was her world, so different from ours.
When our room transformed into my father’s study—which didn’t happen often because my father worked every day in a factory as a civil engineer and only translated poetry at his desk in the evenings—my parents’ bed disappeared from view. With the eyes of my memory I see only a sofa, a desk, and two large old bookshelves standing against the wall. Behind the glass I can see the matte colored spines of books, enigmatic and untouchable, quietly addressing me. It would never have occurred to me to pull the books off the shelf and play with them under the gaze of my grandmother, who watched over my playtime at home. I saw them more as a protective display, the sight of which could reassure me.
When the study turned back into the bedroom, the desk and the bookshelves disappeared from my view, but I saw the dark green rug hanging on the wall above my parents’ bed. Dozens of thin orange and reddish lines ran toward one another in the green wool, and I could—if I just lay down on the bed for a moment—walk the paths of those lines with my gaze over and over.
On that bright day, Grandma Tsylja led me by the hand into the room, where in the seemingly gigantic emptiness a covered sofa stood, an alluring and at the same time threatening destination.
My decision not to fall asleep stood firm, I knew that this time I could succeed. My grandma sat down on an armchair so close to the sofa that I could touch her knee while lying down. She wore a dress, like every weekend, and her feet were hidden under the flowery soft fabric in such a way that I was absolutely certain that the body had the shape of the dress, that the dress, as with figures made of stone, was the body itself.
After I lay down, soon covered by a blanket, I was supposed to close my eyes, that was the demand I’d been given. So it was even more peaceful and calming to observe her figure, the curves of her body, her skin and her dress, all through the narrow opening of my eyes, through my lashes.
But I was not allowed to move, I was getting bored. I counted the seconds and considered if I should fall asleep for a few minutes, but suddenly I was torn from my thoughts, startled and frozen in fear: beyond my feet, where the sofa ended, the earth opened up, and a huge figure, which I thought was a dragon or a devil, grabbed me by the feet and tried to pull me with him into the abyss. His eyes were big, he showed me no mercy.
Panicked, unable to cry out, I looked to my grandma. But she was sitting beside the bed with the same calm, peaceful face, her tired eyes half-closed, a gentle smile on her lips. She had to have seen what was happening, but she didn’t change her attitude one bit. I wouldn’t get any help from her. The dragon laughed, mocking my attempt to draw Grandma’s attention to what was happening. His pawing hands became more and more terrifying, he pulled me in his direction with even more menacing force.
I gathered all my strength and with one final powerful shove, I resisted. The next moment I found myself awake in the empty room. And Grandma? The armchair next to my bed was empty. Nothing seemed to bear witness to this terrible event.
Only a second ago, in the middle of a brutal attack, Grandma was still here. In a hurry I put on my slippers and ran out of the room to the kitchen.
They were all gathered there chatting, I heard rushing voices, the melody of my grandparents’ typical conversations, I think I would still recognize that melody, I still miss it.
“Did you wake up?” A question I was asked very often after sleep.
“But I was not asleep at all. You were there the whole time!” I said to my grandma.
“You fell asleep very quickly, and when I noticed, I left the room, I was here, with everyone.”
“That’s impossible! It’s only been a few minutes. And so much has happened!” I waited for an answer, an explanation that could provide some kind of order to these events.
“Zheniechka, you were sleeping for more than an hour,” my grandmother said softly and pointed with her hand in the direction of the round clock that hung on the wall, ticking very loudly.
I sensed how each coming second measured the separation between dream and waking life. The dragon did not belong to my grandmother’s world, although she was right beside me, watching indifferently and motionlessly as I struggled with the last of my strength. The quiet voices around me would never be able to understand what had happened in the meantime. I was to keep it to myself. And already I was sitting among them, under the melodies of their speech as under a dome over my head.
FEAR OF SHELLING
It is January 9, 2023. My day begins with the news that the Ukrainian front was breached today in Donetsk Oblast, near Bakhmut, in the town of Soledar. Reading it makes me dizzy. I try to control myself and quickly close the news I don’t want to keep reading. From the title it’s already clear what’s going on. The city of Soledar is said to be completely destroyed in some parts and occupied by Russian forces in others. In this case, further fighting will take place right in the city, a city where elderly people are still living, where mothers with the smallest children in strollers can sometimes be seen on otherwise empty streets. Hardly any journalist will reach this city in which no house or apartment offers shelter, a city of which so few are even aware.
Some photos will be taken by the war reporters who are also soldiers in the Ukrainian army. Others will be satellite shots of the ruins.
In recent years I was often in the Donbas and saw how many inhabitants decided to stay in their own towns and villages, despite the fact that they were so close to the demarcation line, where shooting took place sometimes here, sometimes there.
When one learns of such events from a distance, or even when one is on the ground, an escape zone exists within the war, a “recreation area.” It is war geography enlivened by descriptions, and war analysis where countries or even national associations are what matters, not people. Ukraine is “heroic” and it “fights for its freedom,” “it sees itself protecting the whole of Europe.” The experts I sometimes listen to while falling asleep often call themselves “friends of Ukraine.”
In order to forget today and Soledar’s shot-up streets for a little while, I listen again and again to descriptions of how heroically Ukraine is fighting. This phrase carries me away to a reality where it’s not just a small, Russian-speaking, depressed industrial city that loses its existence, but where a humongous subject—in which I myself am a small inconspicuous particle—acts and makes decisions, shows its good side to the world, is praised and almost becomes immortal.
The perception of the boundary lines becomes imbued with more motion. The front line “runs,” it can “illustrate” something, for example, a semicircle, a curve, a figure. It is fought over, so that it can survive.
Outside the war, the “front line” is a rather dead word from history textbooks. But inside the war it becomes a kind of skin that convinces you even more thoroughly that you belong to a collective body. When the skin is broken, blood always flows from the wound. Although the front line, if you think for a minute longer, is actually a constantly bleeding wound, in the news as well as in your own war mythology, it appears as something whole, protective, which might even sometimes move or be broken through, but only when it’s the front line of the enemy.
Now that the outbreak of war has already lasted so long, I can’t remember when I first heard gunfire, artillery, and rockets this year. Probably it was the first day of the war, the 24th of February, 2022.
On that day, as in subsequent weeks, the shelling became a constant backdrop to city life. Sometimes it completely replaced the usual sounds of the street.
I heard this drumming and banging during the night, I heard it in the morning, once it even sounded almost melodious, accompanying a sunset. Although some buildings in my district had been damaged and unfortunately struck again and again, during the battle for Kyiv the front line was never so ruptured that I felt an urgent need to leave the city.
With the first news of the attack, the idea was born that something both familiar and foreign, hostile and destructive, is very near and getting closer, an army that will mindlessly, almost automatically annihilate my life and my society as soon as it gets here.
The shelling was and is only the harbinger, an indication of a decision that for this neighboring country—for “the enemy”—the work that brings about a city, a street, a life together, indeed life itself, no longer counts.
This life—built with so much care and strength, surviving with difficulty or barely at all in a state of war—will finally reach its end when the front line is broken, when the city is occupied.
The concept of re-education (“denazification,” “demilitarization”) disseminated by Russian war propaganda is a post-mortem vision, something that’s meant to happen under the supervision of “the educators” with people who are already dead.
I spent the first night of the war in my parents’ apartment, in my former room, surrounded by my youth’s world of objects. The books I’d bought at some moment or other looked at me hauntingly. The traces of everything that had happened in those days when such a war was hardly possible. The pictures of my old friends on the walls seemed more present or realistic than all the old publications. They were speechless in a way, and ready to absorb new meanings.
This peaceful past, one’s own experience from the time when war was unimaginable, revealed itself that day as an unprotected territory, as something unstable, which, like the future, could be decided anew.
Memories can be occupied just as cities can. But for the most part they do not possess the modern defensive weapons that Ukraine asks for again and again.
The fear of losing one’s past in a present act of violence is perhaps the only fear I can clearly picture in writing this text.
Memory, it’s difficult to write it all down, the sentences seem to want to separate from themselves. And yet I feel, as I write, that the events of my childhood, surrounded by war, begin to exist outside the all-encompassing front line.