During air raids, Tetyana Strelchenko took shelter in a tiny apartment corridor in Dnipro and started recording her feelings and impressions in a series of short pieces. They are a diary of the hopes, dreams and fears of Ukrainian civilians living through the first year of the Russian invasion.
In college, one of my passions was world literature. I still remember “Aristotelian rules,” also known as three classical principles in a dramatic tragedy: unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.
In a real tragedy, there are no rules or principles whatsoever. Life is always stranger than fiction. Let me tell you why.
During the war, the concept of place disappears. There is no ground under your feet. Everything is volatile, unsteady, and hazy.
My world has shrunk to the size of the corridor. The light is dim here. I have plenty of time to stare at the ceiling, to notice ornaments on the blanket or tiny stains on the walls. In Kyiv, the sirens were loud and dreadful like the howling of the Hound of the Baskervilles. In Dnipro, they are quiet and sinister as if a restless spirit of a dead child sobs somewhere in the street, lonely and lost between the worlds. I often wake up five minutes prior to the air-raid alert, my heart throbbing, hands trembling. It is quiet outside, but my body knows: it’s coming. Russian missiles are already flying over the sky with the only purpose: to destroy my city, to kill people like me. Then I get notification on my mobile app. It’s the strangest combination of pre-historic barbarism and contemporary high-tech innovation.
My world has shrunk, yet my heart has extended to the size of Ukraine.
It aches everywhere.
It aches in Chernihiv where 68-year-old American educator Jimmy was shot by Russian shelling while waiting in an evacuation line. A defenseless elderly person was killed in an evacuation line in the twenty-first century! Nothing makes sense to me in this sentence, not a single word. Jimmy was a well-known language volunteer and education enthusiast in Kyiv. He spent many years teaching and supporting Ukrainian youth with free classes and clubs. For many Ukrainian students, he was more than a mere teacher, he was a fatherly figure and life coach.
He came to Chernihiv right before the war to support his partner during medical treatment and got stuck in the town where he was brutally killed. I first met Jimmy about 10 years ago. We were not close, but his death feels very personal, and the pain is real.
My heart aches when I think about besieged Mariupol, where my family members, colleagues, and friends have been blocked by the Russian Army for weeks. Civilians are left without water, food, electricity, gas, and mobile connection. My 75-year-old aunt, my cousin, his wife, and their two cats survived the siege. For more than two weeks, they kindled fires in their urban yard to cook meals; they melted snow to get water; and they hid in a shelter from nonstop air-raids and missile attacks.
After spending those two weeks in the hottest war spot, my relatives and their cats managed to escape to a safer place. It’s nothing less than a pure miracle. When the war started, I promised myself to stand strong and not cry until our victory. I broke my own promise and burst into tears when I heard they were alive and safe. Those tears were healing. After leaving Kyiv, I felt like a tree that was re-planted into a patched ground, and finally, it was watered.
Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Right now, thousands of people and children are slowly dying of starvation, dehydration, and Russian bomb-shelling in Mariupol. Sunny squares lost their colors and turned into black and ash-grey copies of themselves. Beautiful old-fashioned buildings are burnt and crashed to pieces, they stare with their hollow eyes exposing their inner pain and wounds to the world. There are hundreds of dead bodies in the streets and on balconies and the sea-salty fresh air smells like death.
My heart aches when I think about every Ukrainian who goes through this hell in our time.
During the war, I’ve lost my perception of time. Sometimes days pass quicker than minutes and often seconds last longer than eternity. Instead, time has texture; it’s thick and viscid as fog above water. If you recall your worst nightmare… one where you couldn’t breathe or move… you will understand what I mean. Since February 24, we, Ukrainian civilians, have been stuck in a gray zone, in a huge temporal loop. Day after day, we repeat identical actions.
First, we check on our family and friends in different Ukrainian cities and sigh with relief: safe, they are safe! Sadly, there are places where mobile and Internet connections have been lost, and many of my friends haven’t heard from their families for ten days or longer.
Then, you watch President Zelensky’s daily speech, and you feel relieved too: he is alive! He is continuing our fight!
Most likely there will be air-raids during the day and most certainly during the night. You build your life around those. You volunteer, you answer your work emails and zoom calls (again, only if you are lucky to have work!), and you try to run errands knowing that your activities could be disrupted by a siren at any moment.
A few years ago (which now feels like a lifetime ago), I watched a movie about World War II. The female character, played by gorgeous Keira Nightly, hid frequently from air-raids in the London metro. I remember the horrific feeling when I saw the moment of bomb-shelling. Beasts! How could they do that to innocent people?! Why?
Now, I’ve turned into that movie character myself, only let’s be honest my hair doesn’t look that pretty and I have no time for makeup at all! I am not heroic like her. My dreams are very simple these days. I just want to wake up from this apocalyptical nightmare and celebrate our victory.
THE PRINCIPLE OF VICTORY
Ironically, the recipe for how to escape from the temporal loop was demonstrated in a comedy, not in a tragedy. It was a character in the film “Groundhog Day” who showed us how: you stop thinking about yourself and focus your attention on helping others.
In Ukraine, it’s happening everywhere.
Ukrainian civilians are even more furious than the military: they protest, stop Russian tanks with their bare hands, and fight Kremlin propaganda with fact-checking tools. Online battles are as hot as real ones!
Ukrainian and international volunteers work non-stop to support our army and people in need. An American chef whom I briefly met a few years ago in Kyiv, is renting apartments in Poland so that Ukrainian refugees could live in good conditions free of charge. My Ukrainian friends are purchasing online tickets to the Mykolaiv Zoo to feed animals during the war. There are so many cute memes already! We joke that our volunteers can find anything you need – ammunition, a couple of dragons, or a future husband, just ask!
I remember how my friend called me a couple of weeks ago from London: his Ukrainian uncle was ill with cancer and needed urgent surgery in Germany. Due to the war, his chances of getting to the medical center were close to zero. In just thirty minutes, through a tiny post on social media, we received support from numerous volunteers and almost immediately arranged special transportation for the ill man and his caretaker to cross the border into Poland.
Indeed, the real tragedy of war knows no principles: there is no unity of place, time, or action. However, victory does have one principle and it always works.
It is unity among people.
In Ukraine, we stand tall, even if we are hiding in our basements or sitting on the cold floor of our corridors.
Our spirit remains unbroken, even if our churches, theaters, and art schools are destroyed by Russian shelling.
We stand united.
March 22, 2022
TETYANA STRELCHENKO is a writer from Kyiv, Ukraine. She has a degree in English, Spanish, and World Literature, and her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in publications in Ukraine, Sweden, and the USA, including The Threepenny Review and The North American Review.