An earlier version of this essay first appeared in German in Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 18, 2023. It was translated from the original Polish by Sean Gasper Bye.
“I hate Donbas,” the Ukrainian officer told me. He had the look of an El Greco painting; tall, slim, with a dark complexion and stubble that a sixteenth-century Spanish hidalgo could have worn.
He was stationed three kilometers from the Russian border, was my age, came from Kharkiv, had been fighting since 2014, had spent a year as a captive in Donetsk. In a leather holster at his belt he carried an old Soviet Stechkin, and at his shoulder an American M4 carbine with a silencer and a modern ACOG scope. We were talking over lunch at a restaurant in Kharkiv.
He was an experienced commander; in February 2023, when we met, he was leading a Territorial Defense unit, which he was trying to turn into a military force. I don’t know if he’ll succeed. I’ve seen the people he’s found himself commanding, and prison has wept for some of them, as they say here of blatni with prison tattoos on their faces and fingers.
“Donbas is like cancer,” he said. “And like cancer, we needed to either treat Donbas or cut it out. We didn’t do either. So we’ve got what we’ve got.”
I’ve brought him a fifteen-year-old pickup truck that I purchased with money from a public fundraiser and which I’ve equipped with all-terrain tires, a snorkel and skid plates, and which I’ve colored muddy green using matte polyurethane paint, so that it can at least imitate a military vehicle.
Kharkiv was the last stop on my second trip delivering aid for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (known by the Ukrainian acronym ZSU). Afterward, the officer dropped me off at the train station, where I got on a 22-hour train to Przemyśl, Poland, and returned to my ordinary life.
“And once we’ve taken back all of Donbas and Luhansk region, what then?” he continued in the restaurant, where he wouldn’t be able to buy a beer because alcohol isn’t sold to soldiers in Ukraine. I could only buy one after showing my Polish passport; my coyote-brown “tactical” clothing was enough to make the waitress worry.
“I mean, the kids there who were five when the war started are grown up now. And they were raised to hate Ukrainians and our government. Once we’ve recaptured all of Donbas and Luhansk region, we’re going to have to separate them off with an internal border. So that the cancer doesn’t spread all over Ukraine.”
He was tired when he said this. I haven’t met anyone at the front who wouldn’t be tired with that special type of fatigue. I’d call it deathly fatigue if war and death weren’t too simplistic an association, but this exhaustion was somewhere close to that. Tired from sleep deprivation, stress, fear, tension that never abates, tired of how many brothers, friends, comrades had been lost. This fatigue results—at least among the Ukrainian soldiers I’ve met—in a particular kind of abandonment of hope that things will get better, combined at the same time with the un-weakening conviction that things will definitely get better. Whatever it takes to win. The hope for Ukraine’s victory melds inside them with serene acceptance that the cost of this victory will be their own final, personal defeat. Many are convinced that they simply won’t live to see victory, and the arithmetic of the front rather substantiates this fatalistic conviction. Many are aware that the wounds on their bodies and souls will never heal; many are aware of the price they will pay for the war, won or otherwise, yet at the same time they all do not so much believe in absolute victory as are convinced of it.
The officer from the El Greco painting had all of this inside him at once. I grew to like him because he had no military polish, although he came from a military family. His father had been a colonel in the Soviet armed forces, and he himself was born on a Soviet military base outside Szczecin, Poland. He’d been a Russian speaker since childhood, and didn’t start speaking Ukrainian until 2014, when the war broke out. In captivity he wrote a volume of poetry. He said it was nothing special, more just some thoughts than poems, even. I keep waiting for him to send them to me on WhatsApp, like he promised.
We hugged in front of Kharkiv station, I went home, and he went back to fight. War has settled into my imagination and doesn’t want to leave. Maybe it has always been there.
I heard the war for the first time when, a month earlier, I went to pee outside a hut in Donbas that had sunk into the mud, the faint red glow of a headlamp illuminating the ground in front of me. I heard it in the distant and then ever-closer thunder of artillery, and as shots rolled across the obscenely starry sky in the darkness over Donbas.
This was the first hut in Donbas that I’d slept in, and it was so small I couldn’t take it seriously. It was sunk deeply and crookedly into the mud, its meager interior lit by two weak bulbs, and the door closed on a staple.
Inside the hut it was dirty and cold. At that moment there was also no electricity. Inside there were also two Ukrainian soldiers, and both were named Dmytro; also inside was the Queen of Donbas, and I was there too, moved, amazed, tense as a bow whose arrow the archer will not release.
Inside the hut there was no water or toilet, nor practically any furniture, though there were mostly pointless conversations over a bottle of whiskey conducted in a blended Polish-Ukrainian patois that I was only starting to learn; there was my tension, which embarrassed me and which I unsuccessfully tried to conceal; there was the Queen of Donbas’s posing, which didn’t embarrass her, and there was also the soldiers’ tremendous fatigue. We were all sitting with our phones in our hands, because we had just managed to boot up Starlink. We were drinking whiskey from little jars we’d found in the main room next to us, and which we had collectively rinsed out with detergent-less water. It ran off gray.
I drank a little, sipped some water from a bottle, then finally went out to piss, and that was when I heard the war.
I didn’t know how to tell if arta prykhodyt’ or vykhodyt’—if the artillery is coming or going, as they say in Ukraine to describe whether they’re shooting at us or our boys are shooting at them—but it was thundering and thundering in the sky and flashing here and there on the horizon, lighting up the low clouds from below and making them burn with yellow and pink flames, a prelude to the thunder.
The Dmytros came outside, the lamps on their heads like brake lights in the fog. I zipped up my fly. The soldiers lit cigarettes. We listened to the air together, they knew how to, I didn’t.
When I first heard that neither-advice-nor-salutation, “listen to the air,” I thought it was a poetic metaphor. Only later did I see there was no poetry in it at all—you listen to the air to know what is flying from where and to where. You listen to the air in order to live.
One of the Dmytros was a 35-year-old soldier in the marine infantry, formerly a volunteer in the Donbas Battalion, from 2014. He’d spent four months in Russian internment after getting captured in Ilovaisk; he’d been back at war for a year. That night he asked me in Polish if I hated Donbas. I said no, without conviction.
We went back inside and then the house’s owner arrived, a sullen vatnyk whom Dmytro paid off to keep his house available for billeting, like we were doing. The vatnyk was holding a ten-liter can of water, one of the soldiers asked him to light the stove, he muttered a refusal and left.
“He hates Ukrainians, but he took the money for the house,” Dmytro said.
Then their artillery died down, then so did the Ukrainian artillery, which I had quickly learned to think of as “ours,” because what else was I supposed to think, since one was shooting toward me and the other one wasn’t, and I didn’t understand what the silence meant, and then the rotten floor that was probably old enough to remember Tsar Nicholas collapsed under me and I almost landed in the cellar; there was a lot of laughter that the vatnyk must’ve laid a trap for us. Then I lay down to sleep on the floorboards of the second main room, carefully zipping up my sleeping bag and listening to the artillery as I fell asleep.
“It’s our boys,” I said to myself.
Do I have the right to think that? Our boys?
Do I have a reason to think that? I don’t know.
Another time I was peeing at the station of some drone pilots in the 72nd Brigade. The pair of them lived in a dirt bunker, with a vault of wooden beams overhead. A short corridor led into it from a trench, and the space itself was two meters high and maybe six meters square. I walked out precisely to pee, night was falling, and then a tank started to fire into the area of the bunker. One of the soldiers stuck his head out and shouted at me—an idiot—couldn’t I see that pidary po nas khuiariat’? That the fucking Russians were fucking shooting at us? So I finished up nervously and returned to the bunker with piss on my pant legs.
I didn’t say anything, but something irked me about the universal practice of referring to the Russians as “pidary,” meaning “faggots”—though only until I found that openly gay soldiers in the ZSU said it too. Then it stopped bothering me.
The tank fired at us for another two hours until our artillery chased it away, so I sat in the bunker, because we couldn’t leave. I felt pretty squeezed in by the claustrophobic space, full of Mavic batteries blinking in their chargers, thermobaric grenades and 3D-printed safety pins that would break when a grenade dropped from a drone hit the ground. The pilot had put colorful Post-it notes on an AK-74 rifle hanging on the wall.
The tank kept firing. The shots made the ground shake and dust rained from the walls and ceiling. I felt a little nauseous and I asked the boys how long they’d been stationed there. A few months, they said. They’ve been sleeping, working, eating and living underground, four hundred meters from Russian positions, nonstop for five months. Twice a week they each got a turn to drive to the rear and take a shower. Their latrine was a hole in the ground covered with camouflage netting. Food got delivered when conditions were calmer. They had internet—from Starlink, of course, like everywhere—so they had no shortage of entertainment, as they said with a laugh.
When the tank finally stopped shooting, I helped them secure a thermobaric grenade to the underside of a drone, and then I watched on the screen as the pilot dropped it into a Russian trench, after receiving an order on Signal. The whole Ukrainian army, he said, functions and communicates exclusively thanks to Starlink and Signal, but I was thinking about that grenade that I’d helped them tie onto a fishing line attached to the drone.
I thought an impartial journalist would lose all credibility if he helped secure a grenade onto a drone to then be dropped into an enemy trench, but I am not a journalist. I’m not impartial because I’m on the side of the invaded, not the invaders, and I don’t care about credibility. I’m a writer.
As a memento, the pilot gave me a badge with his nom de guerre and the caption in English “Army of Drones.” I left after dark, not without relief. The pilot and his assistant stayed in their burrow.
This war has three things in abundance: darkness, mud and gossip.
The gradient of darkness grows as you approach “zero,” as the Ukrainians refer to the last line of defense, the line in direct contact with the Russian lines. The darkness is illuminated neither by streetlamps nor the orange squares of windows, that ancient, cozy sign that, look, someone lives here, a person, that their home has light and warmth. The windows of the huts the military is stationed in on the rear lines are boarded up, always from the outside, sometimes from within, and the houses are dark inside even during the day; they have to be, because in an artillery and missile strike, a shock wave coming through a window with shards of glass can kill just as effectively as shrapnel. So when you leave the hut, the darkness is absolute if the moon is new. You can’t see your hand in front of your face, you can’t see anything, just stars, the kind that can’t be seen in the light-flooded nights of a world swathed in peace. So all that cuts through the darkness at the front are dimmed white and red headlamps, the barely visible camouflage lights on those military vehicles whose drivers don’t have night-vision goggles, the stars, and the explosions lighting up the horizon. Tanks and all the heavy machinery move at night without any lights, for obvious reasons. And here is something else I had never experienced before: standing by the road in darkness as thick as mud and hearing the rumble of caterpillar tracks growing along with the quaking of the ground, leaping out of the way, turning on the red light of my headlamp and, in its dim glow, seeing the cube-covered reactive armor of a Ukrainian, but in that case Polish-made T-72, one and another behind it, as they tear through the mud into position; and at the level of the hatch on top, the tank commander turns to peer at me with the green eyes of helmet-mounted night-vision goggles. I raise a hand in silent greeting, maybe he replies with the same, but he’s already vanishing in the muddy dark, the other one behind him, and behind them the ground’s quaking disappears and only the mud remains.
Donbas mud is thick, slippery and sticky. It is what the ground turns into when it thaws and then, finally, is dried out by the sun. In July it apparently turns into dust, which I’ve never seen, but which I’ve read about in books about all the wars that have taken place here, on the western edge of the Great Steppe, on the Pontic Steppe, for thousands of years. The Donbas mud cakes onto your shoes in a lump that grows with every step and that is impossible to stand on stably. I’ve seen a Ukrainian MT-LB armored transport towing out a mud-bound Nissan Pathfinder—the heavy SUV’s wheels were so caked with mud that they didn’t even want to turn, and it was sliding in the muck like a sled.
A month later in that same spot, a pickup I was riding back from the drone pilots’ position in the rear got stuck in the mud. The driver tried to rock the truck back and forth to get it out of the deep, sloshy ruts, and I helped him by pushing, while smoke poured out from under the hood because of the overheated engine, the red headlight making it look so garish it was almost theatrical, while mortars thundered overhead, fairly far away; but all I had on my mind as I sank into mud up to my knees and higher was whether we’d manage to dig ourselves out before a Russian drone with a thermal camera found us—since in thermal imaging we could be seen clear as day, the cold mud and, on top of it, the blazing splotch of a hot engine wailing at high RPMs and myself, just as warm.
We got out in time. I tried to clean my hands using feminine hygiene wipes—because that’s what was on the truck’s dashboard—while the driver, driving the truck with one hand over the most difficult possible terrain and not stopping smoking for even a moment, talked about how he’d once served in another unit and what an idiot their kombat, or battalion commander, had been.
Because that’s something else there’s no shortage of in this war: gossip. If the military’s not sleeping, not eating and not fighting, then it’s gossiping about itself. It talks about who served with who, how they did, who is what kind of commander, and the reputations built in this gossip seemed to me more important to the soldiers than the ranks of the official hierarchy. At the front, no one wears their rank insignia on their uniforms anyway, no one salutes anyone, nor have I heard anyone address anyone else by rank. Respect is shown by addressing those older than you by their first name and patronymic, and no other indication of rank did I see. Gossip and the interpersonal relationships it sustains can determine who gets artillery support, Western equipment or supplies first, or who will plead for a HIMARS strike on a given location.
Gossip also builds the reputations of formations and units. A certain soldier, his face almost gray-white from fatigue, whose assignment had him flying back and forth to besieged Mariupol, told me that in that city he had seen the Azov Battalion with working refrigerators, full of meat and other food, while the other soldiers and civilians were starving. This soldier had recently lost several friends, was about to have a phone call with one of their wives and was not at all in the best mental condition. I didn’t try to verify this story, because I’m not interested in facts; I’m interested in people.
Another time a tall professional officer with a superb reputation told me that in February and March 2022, there were no Russian saboteurs in Kyiv, and all the shooting that occurred in the city at the time was because the armed Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) couldn’t tell Ukrainian vehicles from Russian ones and were shooting at everyone they thought was worth targeting, meaning at one another and at ZSU divisions.
When now, more than a year into the war, TDF veterans brag about destroying Russian tanks on the streets of Obolon, a right-bank district of Kyiv, furious ZSU soldiers reply that yes, they did destroy them and they did shoot, but at their own men. And they ask to document all these boasts—after the war they’ll make material for the district attorney.
“The ZSU didn’t let a single Moskal into Kyiv. It was all the fucking TDF. But we’ll sort it out after the war,” said the aforementioned professional officer, with a smile.
War has ruled my imagination since I was a child. As a ten-year-old, I loved books about tanks and warships, I was fascinated by the technical details of their construction, but at the same time I’ve never wanted to be a soldier because I’ve always harbored revulsion for hierarchical structures and was disgusted even by the Boy Scouts.
And yet war has not left me alone. It has fascinated and niggled at me even as an adult, it has been a constant theme of my reading, my intellectual work and my novels. I still don’t understand why. Is it a matter of inherited war trauma, which so tainted the men and women from whose bodies my body came? Did war organize my imagination because one of my aunts is a child born of Russian rape? Or because my grandmother was a silent witness to the massacre committed by Soviet soldiers in Przyszowice in January of 1945? She had been deeply affected by hunger in her youth during the war and, for the rest of her life, hoarded food. When I was a child she would hold my hand nightly and tell me war stories, again and again—whether to me or to the darkness lingering in the room and in her soul I did not know. And when the war came so close—I was practically ready for it, as if my whole life I’d been preparing for it, and it’s easy for me to think so, since it’s not my house that bombs are falling on.
I’m writing about this because, although I’ve been open since the start of the full-scale war about my unconditional support for Ukraine in its military effort, I still wonder why the Russian attack on Ukraine is so important to me, why I feel it’s my war, even though Ukraine has never fascinated me, has prompted cautious sympathy at most on the grounds of the Eastern European bond of historical experiences, or the sense of Eastern European identity that arises from that.
I thought about my own emotional investment in this war as I walked the streets of Bohorodychne, a village north of Sloviansk, recaptured by the Ukrainians in September 2022, and still nearly deserted, inhabited today by only a handful of residents and volunteer-fed dogs. I thought about this, deeply moved by the total collapse of the lives, so similar to mine, of the local middle-class people who lived in these houses: a car in a garage, crushed by the roof of a house, half of which is gone after a hit from a mortar shell; a burned-out infantry fighting vehicle in a garden, a car crushed by a tank, a burned-out church, a child’s bedroom with a painting on the wall, a jar of pickles on a shelf; Russian uniforms and empty food boxes in the mud, the graffito Путин бог мира (“Putin bokh mira”—Putin is God of the world, or, alternatively, of peace, as the word means both in Russian) on the wall inside someone’s house, half-painted, apparently by the hand of an old woman, who ran out of paint for “mira” but had enough for “Putin.”
As I walked the streets of Bohorodychne, I thought that this must be similar to what Przyszowice in Upper Silesia had looked like for a certain time after January 27, 1945; that what happened back then in Przyszowice was happening again, in Bucha and Irpin, no different today than nearly eighty years ago.
Why am I writing about Przyszowice and events of almost eight decades in the past? The crimes the Red Army committed in Przyszowice on January 27, 1945 directly affected the women in my family, my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Were there Ukrainians in the ranks of that army? Doubtless, yet it was a Russian army, fighting for Russia and in Russia’s name, even if the Russian empire of that time was called the Soviet Union. My grandfather was away at the time, forcibly drafted into the Wehrmacht; he was lucky enough to find himself on the Western front and end up in American captivity. Had it been the Russians who’d captured him, he would probably never have returned, just as his cousins and schoolmates never did.
No one was punished for these crimes, no one took responsibility, nor was responsibility ever even attributed to anyone, on the moral level at least. Left behind were mass graves, usually unrecorded; raped women; the children of those rapes; and men deported for years to the mines of Donetsk or Magadan. And the same thing is happening now, except 1,500 kilometers further to the east. So I have some unfinished family business with this bloody empire. This business—I feel—is now being settled by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, fighting for their freedom and their lives and their right not to rest in a mass grave, not to be raped, but in the process also fighting so that my sons don’t have to.
My family memory is the memory of helplessness in the face of Russian cruelty.
Does that take away my credibility?
The next hut I slept in was much larger than the one whose floor collapsed under me. It was made up of numerous extensions and an entrance hall, the interior topography of which didn’t correspond at all to the mass I saw outside, splayed over the mud in a maze of incomprehensible twists and turns.
Living in the hut was a platoon of soldiers specializing in anti-tank combat. The platoon had been living there for a long time, which is why the hut possessed a bathroom with a toilet, separated from the kitchen not by a door but a heavy curtain, a rare luxury here. In the kitchen, a huge, fat soldier cooked meals for the whole platoon—he must have weighed 180 kilos and I thought this is where truth and fiction diverge, because if I wrote in a fictional story that the cook was big and fat, that would be seen as an illustrative exaggeration and a cliché. The uniformed chef chopping vegetables for soup seemed completely untroubled by the clichéd conjunction of his corpulence and his function. Less clichéd was the fact that he had only been promoted to cook after being badly wounded; before, he’d been one of the hardest-fighting soldiers in the platoon, with his corpulence clearly not hindering him.
The main rooms were full of bunk beds, one bunk per every two soldiers, because half of the platoon is always in position. Between the bunks, hanging on nails hammered into the wooden walls were uniforms, guns, bulletproof vests (known here as broniky), helmets and everything else. Mattresses lay on the floor, and extension cords and tangled phone and computer chargers slithered in the narrow pathways between them; the charging lights on batteries blinked cheerfully and scattered piles held dozens of pairs of klapochky—plastic sliders, which everyone here, from colonel to private, puts on as soon as they cross the threshold of any kind of dwelling.
On one mattress, a soldier was lying on his stomach and playing Battlefield 1 on a gaming laptop; he was killing virtual enemies and wanted to be ignorant of the world, cutting himself off from it with headphones and a screen. Another one was on a bunk, talking with his girlfriend on Skype.
The hut stood in a village near Vuhledar. The platoon garrisoned in it had positions outside Vuhledar.
Commanding the platoon was a legendary soldier, whose nom de guerre, let’s say, was Cossack. This wasn’t actually his call sign, but for obvious reasons we’ll call our commander here Cossack.
Cossack was a professional soldier-legend, renowned for dozens of operations and fighting since 2014. Everyone wanted to serve with Cossack. Yet only a few months before, Cossack had been wounded and lost two close friends, and everything changed. A tank fired at them—apparently neither of the fallen spilled a drop of blood, they were killed by the shock wave. Cossack survived, though something inside him seemingly had died, and he didn’t want to fight anymore.
As commander, Cossack had his own room in the hut where the platoon was garrisoned and he left it only reluctantly. He no longer went out into positions at all. What did he do in his room? No one knew. Supposedly he mainly watched porn, but that was only soldiers’ gossip. Maybe he cried? Maybe he didn’t do anything? Maybe he just didn’t want to die? Or maybe he did and just didn’t know how? No one knew.
But they did know that he wasn’t commanding the platoon, which apart from him had four experienced soldiers, while the rest were, to put it delicately, amateurs in warcraft. When I showed one of them how to mount a red-dot sight on a rifle, it turned out he didn’t know how to reassemble a Kalashnikov. I did it for him. I asked how long he’d been in the military—he said six months. I couldn’t believe that in that time he hadn’t learned how to service a rifle. He shrugged and said he’d never been ordered to. He didn’t get the red-dot sight.
To the quarters of the platoon fighting at Vuhledar we brought American receiver covers with integrated rails, installed in place of an ordinary receiver cover for an AKM or AK-74 rifle, which nonetheless requires disassembling the standard open sight—instead, you mount an aperture sight on the rear of the new cover. We spent all evening at the table discussing whether a lack of mechanical sighting equipment was acceptable on the battlefield, since modern red-dot sights work for such a long time on one battery; is an aperture sight better than an open sight, is it better to aim with one eye, or with both open?
This last issue was elucidated by one of the four experienced soldiers, a strapping fortysomething with a bald head and a booming voice, who drove trucks in civilian life:
“All this blah blah blah about one eye closed or both, but when I’m shooting I just shut ’em both, especially if the pidary are shooting at us.” He added in English: “Somali-style.”
Everyone laughed, but they all knew it was true.
The one who was most interested in mounting a red-dot sight on a rifle was a young sergeant, a starshina in Ukrainian, a native of Lysychansk. He was 27 years old, had the face of a blond Cupid, cheerful blue eyes and a strong, exercise-sculpted body. He didn’t neglect his workouts even at the front—dumbbells lay in the Donbas mud in front of the hut, and they made weights on site.
His name was what it was, he had the nickname that he had, but here he will be Max. Since Cossack’s abdication, Max had been the platoon’s de facto commander, and soldiers twenty or thirty years his senior would turn to Max for advice and support. In position, as soon as the Russians started shooting, someone would run to wake up Max. “Max, Max, the pidary are fucking coming in, get up, you’ve got to shoot them!” they’d shout.
“Haven’t you guys got guns, bliad’?” Max would rage, then he’d go out and shoot at the Russians, and the rest of the platoon would wait until he’d killed them all or driven them away.
He was happy as a little kid when he finally installed the rail and red-dot sight that I’d brought him on his gun. I recorded a short video for the 2,500 people who’d donated to my fundraiser for vehicles and equipment for Ukrainian soldiers. In it, Max says he’s incredibly grateful for the red-dot sight, which will make it easier for him to kill the Russians who invaded his country.
The military was everything to him. Max only started speaking Ukrainian in the military, like many if not most of the soldiers I got to talk to in Donbas. When he joined the ZSU, his mother told him she didn’t have a son anymore, because she didn’t give birth to a Banderite. Maybe that’s why the military was everything to Max.
But how far can you get in the military serving in a platoon without a commander?
Spetsnaz—the special forces—were interested in Max, and the Spetsnaz was where he wanted to serve. It was hard to imagine a better candidate—a battle-hardened soldier, experienced, young and physically fit.
As we were sitting at the table and talking about red-dot sights, Cossack came out of his room, dressed only in dark long johns and an undershirt; as he looked at the equipment laid out on the table he asked what we’d brought him.
“Nothing. You don’t need a red-dot sight to jerk off,” replied the Queen of Donbas.
Then Cossack took offense and, seeing how Max and the Queen were on such intimate terms, ordered Max to write a long report, so he wouldn’t be sitting at the table with us. Max was much worse at writing reports than killing Russians, but what could he do. He went to write and poked at the keyboard with two fingers, while Cossack went back to his room, latching the door behind him.
Max asked from the computer if I’d like to go shooting with him the next day; I replied there was no need, I’d done enough shooting in my life, then Max slyly asked if I’d ever fired an RPG. I said I hadn’t. “Do you want to?” he continued. Of course I did.
Max should get over to Spetsnaz already, he’s wasted here, said the Queen of Donbas, interrupting our scheduling for RPG shooting.
Sure, but who will we have left if Max is gone? asked the former truck driver rhetorically, aiming at the wall with his rifle with the new red-dot sight, closing only one eye as he did so. Cossack? He’s already dead inside and he’s as much good to the platoon as a dead body.
We have to get him sorted out, said the Queen of Donbas. Then the artillery started thundering again, yet no one jumped up from their conversations, just calmly repeated: vykhodyt’—it’s our boys. After a while, a nearby explosion preceded over a dozen smaller ones, the walls of the hut shook, debris rained from the ceiling.
“Clusters! Not our boys!” laughed the soldiers, but they went out in front of the hut to listen to the air and see if anything was still flying overhead. They came back after a while, calm.
Max kept writing his report.
I invented the Queen of Donbas’s nickname myself. No one calls her that, they all address her by her first name. She’s thirty years old, she comes from another Eastern European country; she came to Ukraine in 2014 for Euromaidan and knew nothing about Ukraine. She told me she got off the train in Lviv because she thought Lviv was the capital.
After nine years of war, the Queen of Donbas lives in Kyiv and speaks Ukrainian, and it appears to me that Ukraine and the war are her whole life. When the war in Donbas started in 2014, she was a war correspondent. After that, she did less and less journalism. She stayed in Ukraine for reasons I won’t write about here, but they were more important reasons than any other.
Now she supports the Ukrainian military’s war efforts full-time. She lives among soldiers and for soldiers, she often says she doesn’t like women, and she says a lot in general, as if she found silence as deadly as motionlessness for a shark, as if she can only breathe by talking.
Her language is military—she doesn’t ask, she doesn’t suggest, she just gives blunt orders and expects them to be carried out. She uses military slang, plus, plus-plus, minus—that’s military confirmation and contradiction—oh-seven, cargo two hundred or three hundred. While she’s acting, organizing, her sentences are brief, precise, and if conditional, then according to a clear algorithm. She is intelligent, successful, focused on results. She doesn’t lose her cool. Simple soldiers follow her orders as if she were an officer. She doesn’t respect civilians—when she talks about “civvies,” she excludes herself from that set.
One evening, when she declared she wasn’t going somewhere-or-other with two civvies (including me), a certain major reacted:
“Hang on, aren’t you a civvy?” he laughed.
“Me? I’m something else,” replied the Queen of Donbas, and the major felt foolish, because I’d just brought him three generators, including one heavy-duty, eleven-kilowatt diesel model, and he wouldn’t have gotten his hands on them without her.
Yes, the Queen of Donbas is something else. She knows everyone in the military and everyone knows her. She talks to colonels and majors as her equals, she’s accompanied some soldiers on the path of war since they were minors, and now they’re over twenty and still fighting. I said earlier that she lives in Kyiv, but really she just rents an apartment in Kyiv and lives in Donbas with the military, welcomed everywhere as, well, a queen.
Contrary to popular superstition, the vivandières in the Napoleonic Wars did not work as prostitutes, but rather were responsible to a great extent for providing supplies to ordinary fighters. They usually carried the colors of the regiment they were tending to. Similarly, apart from her always-flawless makeup, seemingly intended to emphasize her undoubted femininity, on the front the Queen of Donbas wears tactical gear, though without insignia. I, following her recommendation, did the same. The belief that a badge reading press might stop the Russians from killing a journalist seems to me fairly eccentric, and everything indicates that it’s better simply not to stand out amid the military masses populating the hinterlands of the front, because the Russians have a predilection for hunting for foreign volunteers and reporters.
The Queen of Donbas enjoyed telling stories from the front, not hesitating to present her own superiorities: her own bravery, wisdom, knowledge of wartime conditions, her own experience and familiarity with battle. Initially I thought she might be confabulating, exaggerating—but reality verified each of her stories. She often exaggerated the difficulty of simple issues—as if wanting to appear indispensable, as if afraid something might happen without her involvement—and then she would easily resolve the most difficult issues.
She was more battle-hardened than many soldiers I met, although she herself consistently refused offers to enlist in the ZSU. The last time the Russians bombarded her with a mortar was when she and a young woman driving her vehicle—for the Queen of Donbas does not drive—had stopped for a moment at a cemetery. She laughed that at least it wouldn’t have been far to a grave.
I asked her what she was doing in a place where they could bombard her.
“What d’you mean? I was rescuing cats,” she replied.
She’s almost as concerned for the cats of Donbas as she is for the soldiers. Though when I showed her this article she was offended at me writing about her at all, she corrected that she wasn’t rescuing cats at that time, and that she only rescued cats at all when the opportunity arose, which is surely true. But it’s also true that, as she drove up and down the front on her errands, she brought along two large bags of pet food to feed the dogs and cats left behind by owners who’d fled the war.
She moved within the complex and crisscrossing official hierarchies of the web of interpersonal ties as if she’d woven it herself. She phoned the commander of a unit where a young man she looked after like a younger brother was serving, and did not ask but demanded that support be sent to that unit.
On the other end of the line, I didn’t hear laughter but nervous explanation—the commander making excuses to the Queen of Donbas about why right now that wasn’t possible.
A moment later she was speaking to the mother of a missing soldier, talking over with her the shrinking odds that he was captive somewhere and explaining, her voice suddenly altered, that it was perhaps time to accept that Ivanko wouldn’t come back, wouldn’t come back anymore. I didn’t ask for details.
“Szczepan, why don’t you smoke?” This she asked another time, herself working her way through one thin cigarette after another and smoking them by flicking her wrist and throwing her head back in a studied gesture. She didn’t listen to my explanation: asthma, and exercise, and so on.
“I don’t trust people who don’t smoke, because they probably want to live longer. Good thing you drink, at least,” she said, then phoned someone, some high-ranking officer again, and told him, “We have to talk about Cossack, because he’s stopped commanding his platoon and something had to be done about it.”
Then we stopped at a hut for the night, with a unit that got three generators, including one heavy-duty one. We sat at the table and were served food from the major’s kitchen. Attentive Andriush lit the stove for us and took the opportunity to show us the day’s spoils—a few captured PKM automatic rifles, including one modern Pecheneg, RPG launchers, a muddy AK-74.
The pidary dropped all this when we started blasting the shit out of them with caesars, said Andriush, spooning pilaf onto our plastic plates.
The Queen of Donbas meanwhile was carefully dumping her clothes and other junk out of her three large, amorphous bags onto the floor. Then she formed them into a pile, lay down on this pile and lit a cigarette, at the same time tapping urgently on one of her two phones.
I glanced questioningly at an acquaintance of the Queen’s, who was with us at the time.
She’s always like that, she said with a shrug. It’s safest on the floor if the pidary start fucking with us.
War, like the black earth of the steppe, is fertile soil for inwardly agitated characters who seek out extreme situations the way sunflowers turn toward the sun. We can of course dismiss this and call it “adrenaline addiction,” but I see it rather as a need for contact with reality’s true nature, which in civilian, peacetime life is hidden somewhere beneath many layers of illusion. War dissolves these illusions. After life at war, people of war find it hard to believe in peace.
I hope the Queen someday manages to, despite her declarations that she wants to die young.
The day after Cossack ordered Max to write a long report, the young man and I drove to the shooting range together and he taught me how to use an RPG.
It’s not hard.
You have to screw an elongated charge full of explosive powder onto the rocket warhead, put the whole thing into the launcher tube, cock it like a revolver on the front grip, switch off the safety, set the sight at the distance you’ll be shooting, line up the bead and rear sight with the target and pull the trigger. It’s also worth considering the wind—a heavy RPG warhead moves slowly, and a side wind can push it off target.
Then I also helped Max and his platoon comrades install and calibrate the new sights; I recorded the video I mentioned earlier, then we hugged, said goodbye and agreed to get together again as soon as I was back in Donbas. Then the Queen of Donbas and I drove on to deliver the pickup truck to the commander of the 77th Brigade, fighting at Soledar. I did return to Donbas, but I didn’t see Max, because a week later Max was dead.
I was home when I got the news of his death; I was just buying yet another pickup truck for the Ukrainian military.
The Queen of Donbas texted me on Signal: “Max 200.” The number was an old Russian code for a dead body in transport dating back to the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s that is now widely used by both Russian and Ukrainian fighters.
Now we wouldn’t go back to the shooting range, though we had said we would.
Max was almost twenty years younger than me. I looked at him the way I’d look at my own child. He was killed in a trench, just as he was taking a break from combat to have some coffee. A tank fired, shrapnel tore through his carotid artery. He died quickly, almost immediately, he was killed defending his Ukraine, his chosen homeland. A fighting nation believes that such a death has meaning—and, true enough, it has to.
Yet I see only the death of a brave, sweet 27-year-old, and I see no meaning in it, though I know that thanks to his sacrifice and tens of thousands of sacrifices like it, I won’t have to fight Russian tanks, nor will my sons or millions of boys their age in Poland, Romania, Lithuania or Germany.
I used the money I raised to buy a large Matrice 300 RTK drone; I bought a thermal-imaging camera for it and drove it to the second battalion of the 72nd Brigade. I thought I’d name it Max, in his memory. I wrote his name on the drone in white marker. I don’t completely understand the point of this gesture, but not long after the battalion’s commander sent me a video of burning Russian tanks, recorded through the camera eye of the drone I brought, and I felt satisfaction, though after all it doesn’t matter to Max anymore whether the tank burning was the one whose shot killed him.
Out of gratitude, the Ukrainian soldier I brought the truck to gave me a belt with the emblem of the marine infantry, which I will never wear, but which I quite enjoy having alongside the other mementos I’ve been given, for instance a captured Russian Azart radio with an encryption system, or the helmet of a Russian paratrooper with a bullet hole in it.
I met the aforementioned Ukrainian soldier in Kyiv. He was on a pass, or a short leave, and we drank a liqueur called horodivka, very dry and infused with roast peppers, potatoes, onions and garlic, which tasted like Ukrainian borscht. We talked the way people talk at night over alcohol, loudly, mostly pointlessly, but with that strange, fleeting intimacy. In civilian life, the officer was a television director. After a dozen or so rounds, he told me in all sincerity:
“To us you’re already a bit Ukrainian!”
I protested. I’m not Ukrainian. I’m Silesian.
“Aren’t you a bit Ukrainian? Then why the fuck did you come here?” he replied, offended.
I, also hurt, explained that I just think you guys are waging a just war, defending your country, and I think we ought to support you—and besides, I have old, unfinished family business with Russia and I feel that by helping the ZSU I’m sorting that business out a little. But, look, that doesn’t change my ethnic identity, which was a stupid thing to say, of course, and all I can say in my defense was that we’d drunk a dozen or so rounds together.
I went on and on, but he didn’t listen, because he was pissed off.
And that got me pissed off too.
The atmosphere had grown tense, yet at that moment the Queen of Donbas intervened, scoldingly calling us little kids, because we had started behaving like little kids, so before long we gave one another a warm hug. I’m sure we’ll never meet again. I hope that pickup truck I brought him will bring him to the end of the war, like all of them.
I don’t know who I am in this war, which is simultaneously mine and not, which affects me and doesn’t, is for my sake and not.
It’s yet another of the wars that for thousands of years have rolled across this section of the Pontic Steppe. The mud churned up by the all-terrain tires of the trucks I’ve brought to Ukrainian soldiers was once traversed by the wheels of chariots, when from this bastion of the Indo-Europeans some of our distant shepherd-ancestors set off to conquer agricultural Europe, India or today’s Iran. Then it was crossed by the Scythians and Sarmatians, the Alans, the Huns, the Turkic and Hungarian peoples, the Varangians and the Rus’ forces of terrible Princess Olga, the Tatars, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the Swedes, the Don and Kuban Cossacks, the Whites and the Reds, Petliura’s forces, then the Germans (and in the ranks of the German army, Silesians as well, including my relatives) and the Romanians and the Russians again.
Is that relevant to this war? I don’t know.
Everything I saw in Donbas seems to me painfully real, as if the truth of the world manifested itself most fully in this kinetic confrontation between two different concepts of what people’s lives should be like on the western frontiers of the former Great Steppe.
Naked force, 155 and 152 mm shells slicing through the air, is also naked truth. Here is the world, here is the human condition—and at the same time, all this is completely unreal. Super-real. Surreal. Old Soviet Ural trucks, alongside them the white squares of Starlink antennas sometimes camouflaged with trash so they don’t shine too much on drone cameras, or sometimes hidden in ruins, but they have to see the sky, cars covered in a layer of mud so thick that you can see cracks in it, Donbas huts sinking into the mud, inside them, dozens of soldiers’ iPhones and tangled charging cables, large, medium and small drones, plundered Pokémon, as they call PKM machine guns here, and the tracks of anti-tank grenade launchers, soldiers exhausted by a year, or for others nine years, of war, in their obligatory klapochky, talking on video chat to families by burzhuiky stoves, burning coal, wood or whatever they can.
I am not a journalist, a war correspondent, and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be impartial and I’m not interested in providing information. I want to help the Ukrainians in their military effort, on the small scale that’s available to me, not because I identify with them, but because I believe that their cause is right. I want to be a witness—not of great events, spectacular breakthroughs. I don’t care about a scoop, I want to be a witness of the day-to-day of war, of soldiering life, but not because I think that this witnessing of mine has some objective value. I feel, I simply believe, that as a writer I should be this witness, an engaged witness. That is my duty to my family history, to myself and to literature.
But is that the whole truth?
One evening a friend of the Queen of Donbas asked me:
“Since you’ve come here, why don’t you just enlist? You’d be useful in our military. We need people so badly.”
I spontaneously replied that it’s not my war, I’m not Ukrainian after all, that I just want to help them, and I kept on repeating platitudes.
“If it wasn’t your war, you wouldn’t be here,” she said, interrupting me.
“But I’m not a soldier. I don’t know anything about war,” I defended myself.
“Not many people here were before the war started. You know enough now.”
So I said I have two sons who need their father.
“Everyone here has someone who needs them,” she immediately replied.
I had no more answers, apart from one, of which I am ashamed.
Photo credit: Szczepan Twardoch.