War diaries: part one

A stray cat observes the aftermath of an explosion of a self-propelled artillery shell in the village of Zoria, Kyiv region, March 22, 2022 / Photo: Vsevolod Andrievskiy

In January 2022, he wrote a science fiction story.

The plot was: around Valentine’s Day, a war broke out in Ukraine. And at the same time, there is a parallel reality, where life goes on as usual, the russian dictator just flexed his muscles and moved his troops away from the border, proving something that he only knew to the American president.

(in Ukraine, we specifically spell “Putin” and “Russia” in lowercase starting February 24, 2022. These are the ways to show our contempt for the aggressors.)

The protagonist of the story observes as if through a glass window of his reality, filled with anxious sirens and bombings, the peaceful, prosperous life that could be going on right here and right now. He observes peaceful, thriving cities with lights and dancing and children. He reaches out but cannot penetrate the invisible wall.

…As he finishes the story, he decides to watch a movie at bedtime to distract himself from the heavy anxiety. For a couple of years, an American action horror film with a science fiction twist was downloaded to his laptop. He starts watching and turns the movie off, exclaiming, “What a load of crap!”: the russians are attacking the United States; meanwhile, a branch of hell opens up on an international orbital station. The movie turned out to be too topical.

Right around Valentine’s Day, he gets sick with COVID-19 (it is symbolic that, a year ago, he also got sick on another holiday, March 8, and missed the feminist march in Kyiv). He goes to the clinic, gets tested, and lies down at home for a week. While he recovers, he creates a brand new, disturbing musical theme on his synthesizers.  

Some people on social media call for the creation of “go bags,” one of his friends shares an exclusive list of go bag’s contents.

He, as if in prostration, prepares nothing. Only the room gets covered in musical stuff wires, branching out around the mixing desk.

A girl from his past life, whom he met during his time in the ATO (anti-terrorist operation, an official Ukrainian name of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014-2018), writes to him out of the blue.

(For foreign readers: a massive problem of recognizing the war by Ukrainian society was the official naming of the Russo-Ukrainian war. From 2014 to 2018, it was called “ATO”. From April 30, 2018, until February 24, 2022, it was called “Joint Forces Operation”. Ukrainian officials seemed very hypocritical doing this naming, maybe for some diplomatic and international law reasons. Anyway, thousands of people died and were injured not because of “total war” in Donetsk and Luhansk regions but because of some unclear phenomenon called “ATO.”. This is why feelings of mistrust for Ukrainian officials were widespread in society – until the beginning of the total war in 2022).  

January 22, 2022, 10:59 PM

Him: “Here in Kyiv, everybody behaves like nothing is happening close to the borders. Honestly, I’m more frustrated that I don’t have a job at the moment than because of the new circle of putin’s eternal information war.”

Her: “I know you were thinking about leaving Ukraine. Are you planning to stay or still considering it?”

Him: “Tough question because I don’t know how to live and get money outside Ukraine. I’ve told you some of my childhood dreams, but I have no place to escape to. In the era of “digital nomads,” I’m not part of this happy kind of people :)”

She: “If there’s ever anything I can do to help, please let me know, e.g., help with an English CV, etc. Or just exchange book recommendations. We might as well read good books while we watch the world end, right? And I really enjoyed Roadside Picnic and Red Mars. I still need to read The Dispossessed, though…”

“It looks like I’m moving back to Kyiv [from Germany] in the next month or two,” the girl promises.

She makes good on her promise.

***

One day, he dreams that the war has begun.

Some days he does things that take his mind off the news, organizing the space around him: prepares trash for sorting at “Ukraine without trash” NGO; prepares and plays a concert; helps to feed, vaccinate, and heal 120 stray cats in the Cat Town at the Kyiv Zoo; orders three germicidal lamps for the animals lodges and vaccines with delivery for February 25 for the same volunteer project.

February 21 is a wonderful evening: many people, familiar and not, come to the opening of his photo exhibition and concert; he improvises enthusiastically with a female electronic musician and male guitarist. For the first time in many years of trial and error, there is a full house at his event, and he feels that the evening is a perfect success.

At the same time, on the same evening, putin recognizes the independence of the terrorist entities “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Then, during the three days from February 21, when the countdown is getting heavier and heavier, he already knows 99% of what will happen because he follows the news. However, he doesn’t pack a “go bag,” he doesn’t upload valuable files to the cloud, he doesn’t buy dollars or euros.

At work in Kyiv Youth Library, he joked darkly at the informal-looking employee, a poet who served his term in the Armed Forces of Ukraine six years ago: “Are you prepared for a new term of service?”

On February 23, he goes to the Mala Opera House with his girlfriend to pick up his things from a past concert. He sees a poster for the “Mumiy Troll” (russian rock music band) concert in Kyiv and says to himself that this concert will definitely be canceled.

He goes to bed in a warm bed in a house with heating, and now he no longer remembers what he had planned for tomorrow.

Tomorrow the war started.

(I quoted the title of the movie with that phrase. Tomorrow Was the War (Russian: “Завтра была война”) is a 1987 Soviet drama film directed by Yuri Kara based on the eponymous novella by Boris Vasilyev.)

***

February 24, 2022, morning. The first day of the war.

He notes an unaccustomed feeling of dry mouth starting at 6 am.

When he leaves the apartment, he leaves food and water for his cat to last three days. Luckily, after three days, the cat was evacuated by his neighbors to his mother, who lived temporarily near city outside of Kyiv.

He comes to Bila Tserkva (a town where the 72nd brigade of the Ukrainian army is located) from Teremky (a suburb region of Kyiv) by taxi. Then he’s looking for a place to make a copy of the key to send to his girlfriend. In the end, he sends the original key by Nova Poshta (a popular private post service), which then travels to the capital for the next long month. (For the first month of the war, Nova Poshta could not deliver anything from the suburbs of Kyiv to Kyiv itself.)

He realizes that if he enters the territory of the unit and puts on a uniform, he is unlikely to leave today off-duty. As a member of the Operational reserve of the first stage with an officer’s rank, he is allowed into the unit. 

(The operational reserve of the first stage (OR-1) is made up of former military personnel who participated in the Anti-Terrorist Operation and the Joint Forces Operation (JFO). The OR-1 also includes servicemen or conscripts who have signed a contract to serve in the reserve. The OR-1s are those who arrived at their place of deployment and took up their combat positions before February 24, 2022, upon a call from their military unit commander. They met and destroyed enemy columns in the first days of the invasion.)

In a few seconds, he passes the medical examination (“Are you healthy?” “Yes, I am”), then a short dialog with the officer (reminiscent of face control at the entrance to a club) at the entrance of the personnel department of the 72nd brigade. There, an officer he knows from the ATO immediately assigns him to the N battalion, the N company.

Standing in the line at the service which provides uniform; jokes from the newly drafted soldiers from the “operational reserve of the first alarm” (reservists sarcastically quoted proverbs about the army dating back, perhaps, to Soviet times: “When you’re in the army, you don’t have to think. The army thinks instead of you”). Trying new uniforms on, exchanging the ones that didn’t fit, filling out the documents. Waiting in the brigade club’s concert hall.

Again, eight years later, he is wearing the Ukrainian army pixel uniform. However, he is afraid to take a selfie for social media that day, his vanity is limited to a text post on Facebook claiming that he’s already serving. And, after hours of waiting, he lines up in front of the “Bohdan” brand buses (the most widespread in Ukraine type of route cab of distinctive yellow color), which just yesterday were working as local transport.

A female military psychologist takes photos of the soldiers’ documents in front of the lineup. They load up in buses, cramming the bus with bags. They set off.

His first trip during the full-scale war begins.

***

When I was first drafted into the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) on February 13, 2015, one of the thoughts that came to my mind was, “It’s terrible, now I’ll have to celebrate my 30th birthday in a dugout.”

That time, I did celebrate my thirtieth birthday in a cozy, warm room in Kyiv as a civilian because the new law on full-time teachers gave me the opportunity to leave the AFU early.

On the morning of February 24, 2022, when I was driving to the unit from Kyiv, I had no idea where I would celebrate my 37th birthday. Just as it was finally clear that my place after the start of the invasion was among the defenders of Kyiv. I have no regrets about my choice that morning.

I understand why the army, which burst into my cozy life a year after the Maidan, caused such dissonance in 2015. All my music rehearsals, photography, and partying life contradicted being in the “ATO zone.” And, back then, there was still the choice of “going or not going.”

Fate then gave me seven years for self-development and comprehension of life when I was allowed to return to civilian life.

And I remember this period between the ages of 29 and 37 with a sense of partially fulfilled plans. Back then, at the headquarters in the town of Volnovakha in the spring of 2015, I promised myself a lot of things, and I generally kept those promises. I had been putting off photography all my life, and I finally took it up.

Before the full-scale invasion started, I had been releasing music albums and had visited wonderful natural reserves like Dzarylhach Island.

The fact that, in 2022, I celebrated my birthday in the military camp near the front line was my conscious choice.

Even before the war, I was asked, “What will you do when the full-scale war begins?” I answered, “I do not know where to escape. I will join the army”.

And so it happened.

We all have no place to step back. For so many years, I went with the flow. Now, I go forward.

And so, the world has changed drastically, and the changes are only accelerating.

***

We stand on the turn to the village Hora on the Boryspil highway to the east of Kyiv. My smartphone is completely empty; we moved through a massive traffic jam on the way in and out of Kyiv in the village of Chabany.

Now we stop at the ATB shop, I buy a few eco-bags to hold the bulky clothes that I was given in the brigade.

We continue to move on some local roads. On the evening of February 24, we arrived in a village, which is called Hoholeve. In a former Soviet retirement home, we fill out paper forms and get into a ZIL military vehicle [heavy Soviet car; the name is the acronym of ‘Zavod imeni Likhachova,’ or ‘Plant named for Likhachov’], filled almost to the brim with Javelins. One soldier pulls out a bottle of vodka, offers it to everyone. The soldiers refuse. He starts chugging right in the car.

We move and, finally, we are at the newborn frontline. This is the village of Zorya in the Brovary district of Kyiv region. I am introduced to the company commander, and I say, in a tired and exhausted but ironic way, “I’ve arrived; now you’ll be happy.” I receive a riffle, a first-aid kit, a helmet, body armor, a sleeping bag, and a mat. The foreman grumbles at the already drunk soldier not to lose the company property. A guy with a call sign Joker drives me around in the private car and shows me the positions (three platoon strongholds and a company observation post), but I can’t get anything in the dark (it’s about 2:00 a.m.), I just say hello to the men.

The company commander talks as if heavily stoned.

By morning, I am the only one who falls asleep in the chipboard hut, which could be easily punctured by shrapnel in the wartimes. Like eight years ago, there is a personal rifle nearby. The cabin’s neighbor, a petty officer, talks in his sleep and on one of the following nights, drunkenly walks out through the window instead of the door.

***

The company commander assigns me to be on duty near the “walkie-talkie,” along with the petty officer and the female company medic. (In general, the only women in the 72nd brigade are medics and psychologists. This is a common situation for the Ukrainian army, which prefers not to hire women for combat positions. Perhaps this is the command’s way of preventing rape. Sergeants and officers in the military don’t want to take responsibility for harassment and rape and aggressive bouts of jealousy that are possible whether their subordinates are drunk or sober.) 

At first, I don’t understand anything about transmitting conventional signals, she explains what to say, who to ask for the situation, where to pass the information to. A few days later, I ask about the coordinates that military people use here: “12” is the enemy ahead on the track, and everything that starts from 12 should be called according to the clock on the dial. It was many months later, that the battalion began to come up with a more elaborate coordinate system to keep the enemy from guessing. For now, we ask without circumlocution, “What’s the situation?” and command “Full combat readiness” if the enemy is approaching. This signal means to me personally that I have to put on a helmet and armor and stay in my place at the walkie-talkie.

Sitting at the walkie-talkie, while the medic is asleep, I look at her drawing on the magazine of the automatic rifle – a stylization of folk patterns. She is an artist, originally from the village of Boromlya in the Sumy region, and she carries a notebook, paints, and brushes with her.

On the morning of February 25, the company commander drives me through the village, and I see a crowd of local teenagers pouring Molotov cocktails. A large-scale conveyor belt is in full swing, finished “products” are stacked near our positions.

I remember with gratitude the advice of a left-wing Israeli military instructor who taught me two years ago: “Always keep your weapon with you. Even when you go to the bathroom.”

In terms of my feelings at the time, I remember the overwhelming anger and rage I held inside. It got to the point that when an acquaintance asked me where I was, I got angry at him as if he asked me for my exact coordinates. And when a foreign journalist asked me in a telephone interview what kind of weapons we were armed with (in this, he showed himself to be an unprofessional idiot, of course), I sharply replied that I forbade his publication.

In the first days of the war, the first “friendly fire” occurs. A woman, a combat medic from a neighboring unit, is killed at the checkpoint by the Territorial Defence [another branch of the Ukrainian army] fighters. As it turned out later, the same happened with a soldier of the 72nd brigade on the former moscow Bridge through the Dnipro River. Also, a year after the events, I am told how in March 2022, one unit of the Ukrainian army opened fire on another with grenade launchers very close to the center of Kyiv, near the Beresteyska metro station.

A “tombstone” to lukashenko and putin erected in March 2022 by residents of the village of Zoria, Kyiv region. / Photo: Vsevolod Andrievskyi

And the first rumors of rapes by russians were either in Velyka Dymerka village or in the village of Shevchenkovo, Brovary district, where a married couple was captured. The husband was killed by the russian aggressors, and the wife was raped. Such incidents made Ukrainians even more hateful in addition to the cold fact that the russians had, unprovoked, invaded Ukrainian territory.

(Later, opposition russian media described cases of rape in Velyka Dymerka and Bohdanivka.)

The company sergeant-in-chief joked sarcastically, trying to reassure one of the medics: “If we, men, are captured, the russians will just shoot us, and you will be fucked.” Needless to say, this phrase made the woman even more despondent.

In his darkly humorous tone, sergeant-in-chief explained why the russians would not take us by surprise in the village of Zorya: “The military scouts are standing in front of us, they are like a dick. And we stand behind them, that is, we are like men’s balls.”

The sounds of war are constantly heard around on the horizon, and the air defense system with its characteristic “ta-dam” sound (the rocket launches first and then its marching engine) is still operating. On the first days of the war, the sun shines, I bask in it, discovering this small part of the land on which I will spend, as it turns out, a month. We are on a farm, the second position is on the outskirts of the village, and the company soldiers are sleeping there in a house the owner gave to the army. Another position is ahead of the village. The third position is in the woods, which is a long walk away, and the company officer doesn’t take me there for his own reasons. I don’t take the initiative to go there either.

In general, my position, which is called “deputy commander for moral and psychological support (MPS),” has the reputation of cowards hiding from shelling. Graduates of such departments are openly called “faggots” by so-called combat officers. 

(As of 2024, the position of deputy commander for MPS in the Ukrainian army, the Ministry of Defense is going to be abolished.)

The company commander often repeats in conversations with me about the army: “Either chicks or faggots study to become deputy officers for MPS at military universities.” (The rhetoric is very sexist and homophobic, like almost everything in the military.) Officers like that usually do not leave the dugout and only do the paperwork. I subsequently proved to the commander that I was somewhat of an exception to the rule. Although I had a disgraceful episode when I fell asleep at the “walkie-talkie” next to the commander on combat duty, and he replaced me with another fighter. Also, during the first artillery shelling in my life, I hid in a dugout, although I had to sit near the “walkie-talkie,” risking my life.

One day, I hear shouting. It’s the commander yelling at a soldier because he didn’t put his automatic rifle on the safety and shot near the captain’s leg. A month later, that young, handsome soldier had an epileptic seizure because of drinking too much and was sent to the rear.

We move all the belongings, including my laptop, to the farm building. The Internet there is much better than at my home in Kyiv. 

We go to a neighboring position to take a bath when there’s hot water, and the village is not shelled by russians. I wash my laundry there and immediately dry it near the “blower” (a heater that blows warm air) – in a week or two, my ex-girlfriend will deliver me a new pack of clothes from Kyiv. In the center of the village, I find stray kittens, and eventually, when volunteers send me cat food, I start feeding them.

A stray cat eats canned food donated by volunteers, Zoria village, Kyiv region, March 2022. / Photo: Vsevolod Andrievskiy

I have quite a lot of time between my shifts on the “walkie-talkie.” In the first few months of the war, the paperwork didn’t hit me strongly (and I didn’t know exactly what my duties were), and I had time to observe people. (I mean, the army organization hasn’t been formalized in a new full-scale war reality, and  the bureaucracy hasn’t had time to catch up.) They are all different here. Some served on the frontline of the “hybrid war” called “Anti-terrorist operation” in Avdiivka city in 2017, some have already known each other from the time of the ATO. There are a husband and wife here, there are a bride and a groom – all of them are contract servicemen.

I also make the acquaintance of my second boss, a scowling man who I have to learn from all next year. He says things like, “I’ve been in the army for twenty years and served in Iraq with Nadia Savchenko,” a Ukrainian member of the parliament and prisoner of war.

(Ukraine began its involvement in the Iraq War on 5 June 2003, shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Throughout the conflict, Ukrainian troops were limited to a peacekeeping role as part of The Multi-National Force – Iraq, though they engaged in combat with Iraqi insurgents. On 9 December 2008, Ukraine formally withdrew its last forces from Iraq.)

Local volunteers actively bring us food in their private cars and actually provide us with all the support we need for the first weeks of the war. I take my first shower during the war visiting one of these families, I also catch the fast Internet at their home. Thanks to the volunteers, I had the first video conversation with my relatives using Viber.

By the way, during that exact time, we were all obliged to use WhatsApp as a messenger for work communication. In the summer of 2022, Signal was added to the mandatory ones. Viber was considered completely unprotected. In Telegram, only the company chat remained active, although it was believed that its owner Durov was Russian, and then this messenger was not protected. 

The first shelling of the village begins after a few days of full-scale war. These are shots from a tank and an SPA [Self-propelled artillery, also called locomotive artillery, equipped with its own propulsion system to move toward its firing position]. Russian air bombs destroy houses in the neighboring Hoholeve village and the suburbs of Brovary. One of the bombs destroys a warehouse with fish products. The petty officer finds slightly burnt cans of caviar among its ruins and takes them with him.

Subconsciously, having seen the fourth part of “Terminator,” you begin to expect the arrival of giant walking robots after such sounds, but for this war, they have not yet been invented.

In the early days of the war, the company commander tells us that Company N, which was sent to the Irpin River, was completely destroyed by the Russians. They didn’t dig any trenches and were overrun by the enemy’s air force. 

Simply put, if I had been a few hours late arriving at my brigade on February 24, I would have been assigned to Company N, and their fate would have befallen me.

Author: Vsevolod Andrievskiy

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