Highly-acclaimed Russian-born Ukrainian novelist known for his unwavering criticism of Vladimir Putin who reported on the situation on the ground in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, Andrey Kurkov, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.
Do I have the right to be tired of this war? No, I don’t.
I am not in the trenches. I am not driving a tank to the frontline. I am just a slightly displaced civilian – much less drastically affected than millions of others. And yet, I regularly feel as though I am homeless. I am not, of course. My house in the village is safe. It was the neighboring village of Stavysche that was partially destroyed by Russian shelling.
It was in Bucha, Borodianka, and dozens of other towns that saw thousands of civilians killed, where women were raped, whole families with children burned in their cars as they tried to escape Russian atrocities. I saw the burned-out family minivans that did not make it to Western Ukraine – that were not able to carry their passengers far enough away from the merciless aggressors.
We made it. We left Kyiv on the second day of the new invasion. With the sound of artillery fire ringing in our ears, we joined the traffic jam that stretched from Kyiv to the western border, 800 kilometers.
We have learned what it means to be displaced persons and what it means to be refugees. You cannot completely understand what it is until you have experienced it yourself – leaving your home, knowing that, perhaps, you would never return, but hoping that you would be able to – perhaps in just a few days. The hope was strongest.
Millions of Ukrainians were caught between hope and reality in February 2022. Fifteen months have passed since the day Ukraine was woken up by missile explosions and I have not returned home. I have visited, yes. I went to my home in the same way that I visit my parent’s grave – like re-visiting your past in your thoughts.
My colleague, Volodymyr Vakulenko, an author of children’s books, decided not to leave his home near Kharkiv. He could not imagine becoming a displaced person or a refugee, travelling who-knows-where with his son who has a learning disability. As soon as his village was occupied, he was taken for interrogation. He returned home, but several days later the Russian military came for him again. This time he did not return. His body was identified only in November. Two bullets from a Makarov pistol were extracted from his body. He was executed in the beginning of March and his body was put into a forest grave alongside those of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians from in and around the town of Izyum.
When I think of him and his violent death, I cannot help but reflect on the entire history of Russian-Ukrainian relations – on the mass deportations of Ukrainian peasants to Siberia in the 1920s, the generation of Ukrainian writers and poets sent to the Gulag and there executed between 1937-1938, the deportation of Crimean Tatars from their homes on the Crimean Peninsula, in 1943, and the ban on their return to their motherland which was lifted only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now we are all dealing with a Russian Empire that kills those who want to stay free and independent. We are dealing with a Russian Empire that imprisons Crimean Tatar activists and journalists on fabricated charges, that bans other Crimean Tatars from returning home to their homeland that has once more been stolen from them.
Thinking about what Russia has done to Ukraine is painful and tiring. Writing about it is even more painful and tiring, but this is what writers and journalists should do. And it is what we must do.
Volodymyr Vakulenko wrote a diary. Before he was taken away by Russian troops for the last time, he buried it under a cherry tree in his garden. His elderly parents knew about this. Once his village was liberated, the diary was dug up. This is his last contribution to Ukrainian literature. It is, indeed, his testament.
I have no right to complain about being a displaced person or refugee. I did not need to hide my diary. I left my papers at home in Kyiv and Kyiv was defended by the Ukrainian Army. My diary travels with me. I make entries in it most of days and I look back at the recent times because it is easier than trying to look ahead. My future and the future of Ukraine depend on the Ukrainian Army and the receipt of military and humanitarian help from our allies and partners.
Ukraine is documenting crimes committed on Ukrainian soil by illegal occupiers. More than 80 thousand war crimes have already been registered, but this is far from the final number. Ukrainian writers are also engaged in documenting war crimes. They are tracing the whereabouts of thousands of Ukrainian children that were kidnapped and taken to Russia and trying to find out what happened to the thousands of civilians that went missing in Mariupol, Marjinka, Druzhkivka and dozens of other towns and hundreds of villages which have been erased from the surface of the earth by Russian artillery and missiles.
Millions of Ukrainians are still displaced. Millions are still living as refugees in Europe and America, and even in Iceland and Japan. They are all victims of Putin’s Russia. Like me, they have no vision of their future. We will not be able to envisage our future until the war is over and Ukraine is free.
I would like to read a small extract from “The Diary of Invasion” (page 153) – a small reminder of what life for a displaced person is like – written by this displaced person.
A couple of days ago, I cooked a proper dinner for the first time since the start of the war. We had guests – my publisher from Kharkiv, Alexander and his driver Ivan. They were actually guests of guests and I probably should have informed the owner of the apartment that others would be staying a couple of nights with us, but, to be honest, these are not the first extra guests we have had here. A week or so ago forty-six-year-old Vladimir spent the night with us. We do not know anything about him except that he was being evacuated from Ukraine along with other people who need regular kidney dialysis. The border guards had not let him out of the country because, as a man of conscription age, he lacked the right documentation from the military enlistment office. It was already late afternoon when he was turned back at the border and Vladimir had nowhere to go. Our son, who was helping at the border crossing, brought him to our place for the night. Vladimir spent most of the next day at the military enlistment office. He managed eventually to get a certificate stating that he was not liable for military service and so could go abroad. That evening our son saw him across the border. Vladimir is already in Germany and has caught up with neighbours from his Ukrainian hospital ward.
Vladimir had slept on an air mattress on our floor and that is where my publisher and his driver slept too. We had a very good time during that dinner.
We sat around the small kitchen table talking until one in the morning. From time to time, Alexander called his wife. She is almost twelve hundred kilometres away in Dnipro, looking after her elderly parents. It is still relatively safe there, but it would be difficult for them to leave Dnipro if it did become unsafe. Their sons and their sons’ families are in other cities, scattered across the country like dandelion seeds.
Our family has also been torn apart. There are just three of us now: me, my wife and our older son. We continue to keep in touch with the rest of our family.
It was still daylight when my publisher called his friend, who lives in the most dangerous district of Kharkiv where every third building has already been damaged or destroyed. The telephone connection was not very good. Alexander’s friend went out onto his balcony to try and get a better connection and immediately Alexander could hear on the telephone the sounds of distant cannonade of artillery fire. “Yes,” said the friend in Kharkiv, “the shelling goes on continuously and yet there are still children playing in the yard”.
We called our friends in Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk. “How are you?” Sounds like a stupid question, but you have to ask it. Everyone is still alive – at least the ones we could get through to.
My publisher and his driver have since left for their village, in the direction of Chernivtsi. I hope they were able to relax a bit with us. Now we have a friend of my older son sleeping on the floor. He was living in a refugee centre 20 kilometres from us, but it was cold and the conditions were Spartan. I do not know how long he will stay with us, nor do I know how long we will continue to live in this small but cosy apartment. Nobody is rushing us. Our hostess, who now lives with her daughter, has not once asked us how long we intend to stay.
Last night I was awoken three times by air raid warnings. I now understand how these warnings are activated for the different regions of Ukraine. As soon as a ballistic or other missile takes off from the Black Sea, Russia or Belarus, Ukrainian electronic intelligence stations determine the direction of the flight and turn on sirens along the entire “flight path” of the missile. Nobody knows where it will fall, but all the villages and towns along its entire trajectory will hear sirens.
Do I have a right to be tired of writing about the war and the lives of Ukrainians at this time? No, I will have no such right to that until the war is over, until the last Russian soldier has left Ukrainian soil.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023