‘I will not write about this war,’ says acclaimed Ukrainian writer-turned soldier


Artem Chekh. Photo provided by the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art

Translated from Ukrainian by Svitlana Bregman

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art thanks to a co-financing by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant by the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe. 

I’m not sure how long it will take to make sense of all that has taken root deep inside us during the long months of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine. You can’t even contemplate the making of an artistic or cultural product that is supposed to be born from experiencing this war. Our priorities are power generators, diesel fuel, axes… What kind of cultural product are you talking about? What kind of art? What we need is survival. We will make sense of this later. We will write about it later. We'll make movies. We'll have it all. Some day.

Art in the time of war is situational, a kind of immediate physiological reaction to stimuli. Oftentimes, it is poster art, cutting-edge, something that quickly loses its relevance. What we discussed yesterday is forgotten today; new stimuli activate new reactions, and one-hit cultural products emerge. Once there, then gone. Although, of course, some artists manage to cough up bloody clumps of concentrated pain which will remain as powerful artifacts of our bizarre era. Some heal wounds with humor, tenderness, and a talented stringing together of kind words and unforgettable images. We hold onto this thread and keep moving forward. But this is not about me. My thread got tangled and stuck somewhere around the next turn of the winding labyrinth.

It used to be different, though. My “debut war,” when I served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (2015—2016), gave me one very particular experience. Within ten months of being in the frontline zone, I managed to transform how I usually perceived the passage of time. It was the pleasure of its absence. So in moments between military duties, I indulged in watching movies, listening to music, and writing fiction. My writing flowed easily and generously, as if for the rest of my future life, my post-war life, post-discharge, post-death, I would not write anymore. Those were routine dramas. War was what I least wanted to write about. What I mean is that I didn’t want to write about it at all. At that time, I swore that I would never go back to the army but would rather devote myself exclusively to writing.

I did not keep my word, however, because last year I took up arms again. This time, a lot has changed. In fact, aside from carrying out my direct duties as a unit commander, I don’t have time for anything else. Nor do I want to do anything else. What can I write about? What storylines can I invent? Aside from the ability to create things, I suddenly lost the ability to appreciate art. During all these months of war, I haven’t read a single book. I haven’t taken an interest in any cultural event. I have not watched a single film…

And then there came the music. One might ask what could be more banal than music as an instrument of self-therapy and a source of joy for the withered soul. The whole world listens to music regardless of its circumstances: in the trenches of the First World War, on board the Titanic, in the interrogation rooms of the NKVD prisons, in the cramped quarters of the Warsaw Ghetto, in the humid forests of South Vietnam, at a rally by the Lincoln Memorial, in blood-stained Sarajevo, during the Orange Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity. Music has always been a companion to history and has guided entire nations, as well as individuals, amid their various emotional states.

For me, music has become my Mithril thread, strong and magical, connecting me with my life before the big war. It was a sweet time, accompanied by music from my collection of audio tapes. Hundreds of albums and playlists, from Chopin and Miles Davis to The Beatles, Tom Waits, and Run DMC. From Edith Piaf and Mylène Farmer to Blondie, Morcheeba and Billy Eilish. My music was highly varied, and I chose what to play in the evening depending on mood.

The war changed everything. It took me a long time before I could start listening to music again; it seemed sacrilegious. I forced myself to be cold and callous, focused on war and danger. Music, on the other hand, immersed me in those normal states that did not mesh with the feelings of irreversibility, shock, and black stiffness. Besides, I simply couldn’t get used to my inability to listen to music on physical media. The digital format, which was unusual to me, broke me. After the warm sound of the tape, the digital format felt prickly and sharp, like a frosty breath. And yet, you get used to everything, especially when you have no choice. Choice was one thing I didn’t have, and so I accepted music on my phone and even on streaming media. What’s more, at some point I realized that AirPods and Spotify became to me a replacement not only for analog listening, but also for conversations, friends, and even all the art that used to surround me before the war. Literature, painting, cinema disappeared as inappropriate and disturbing elements of a past life. Oddly enough, it was the music that stayed. It became an extension of me, an inspiration, and the reason to live through another day.

Every two weeks or so, the battalion psychologist has sessions with our military company. Recently, we worked on psychological practices to prevent burnout. About twenty soldiers from the company came to these sessions. They were mostly people that the organizers managed to catch and force to sit down at the table. The psychologist gave us different exercises. One was to say, “Never have I ever…” and then describe an activity we are interested in but have never tried. And then all of us, people who shoot, operate machine guns and grenade launchers, had to construct some kind of a goal to meet unfulfilled desires — and then take the time to work on making them real.

Out of twenty people, two men have never been dancers, three have never been singers, two have never been artists, and one has never been a pianist. Almost half of those asked, people with no connection to art and culture (except for me), had great reverence for the creative professions. Managers, lawyers, and car mechanics suddenly discovered the secret door to their true desires. Yet, I am certain that none of them will ever do anything to get closer to making these desires come true. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad. After the war, there may be those who will try their hand at various arts, but in 90 percent of cases, this will only have a therapeutic function. And two, five, or ten years from now, the cultural scene of Ukraine will have more or less the same people as before. If they survive, of course. They, or rather us, will broadcast the old, but reimagined meanings, in a new blood-black packaging. All of them, or rather us, will be invited to international festivals for another dozen years to come. They will be happy to see our trauma. They will give us money for film-making, theater, and literature. They will try to have us reconcile with our enemies. They will keep talking, all over again, about the healing ability of cultural products and art.

As for me, in that session, I said that I have never been a writer, which elicited a reaction of surprise. I said that I had never been the kind of writer who didn’t have to divide their time between writing and other occupations. Soldiers run around with machine guns while writers sit in leather chairs in their cozy studies and write. Or, they live on an island and, over a glass of rum, reminisce about their young days in Paris. I don’t want to be a soldier. I hate weapons. I hate romanticizing the military, the army system, and the war. I want to sit my ass down in a leather chair and feel the burning sweetness of rum on my tongue. And I’ve made it clear to myself for quite some time now that, should I be able to return to my former life, should I ever remember how words come together into sentences, and sentences into great novels, then I will not write about this war. I will write about love. And about music. For love is the only thing that keeps us, sinners, in this reality. And music is the only thing that turns this reality into a tolerable existence.

As for the war, there will be plenty of other authors to write about it. Soon enough, we are going to see hundreds of awkward heroic novels and conventional diaries full of nauseating pathos and some really strong texts documenting this time. At least, I want to believe that our literature will also see some talented pieces about this war and will not drown under an avalanche of identical, boring, pompous words. Art admits no compromises. As for the preferential treatment of those who came to victory through suffering, it is the social services, not culture, that should provide it.

I have no idea how long we need to make sense of all that is happening to us. And I really don't care, to be honest. Instead, I have something that makes me come alive. It is the endless world of music that’s always with me. At only five dollars a month.

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