Who will this generation be after the war in Ukraine?


Men staying in line overnight outside a military conscription office in Ukraine, February 25, 2022. Screenshot from YouTube.

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

It's not that I didn't believe in the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to disrupt the regular course of my life. For me, there is nothing better than my daily rituals: morning workouts, daytime work on texts, an evening book with a glass of dry wine, conversations with my wife about creativity and raising our son, dear friends who come to visit and bring prosecco … But then it happened: the invasion. I did not want to experience cold, hunger, fear, or anger. An introverted homebody like me wasn't suited for such trials. I couldn't imagine anything worse than being forced to stay with a group of strangers, fighting as a soldier.

I have experienced this before. Forced socialization in adulthood is depressing when you are surrounded by people who are mostly not kindred spirits. And you certainly understand perfectly well that it is their natural right to be different. In war, you have to adapt to circumstances and find a common language with those who you would never associate with in civilian life, obey those who disgust you, and command those you distrust.

Yes, I had already experienced this before. In 2015, when I first joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine, when the war in the East started, I ⁠met the following people: a miner from the Dnipropetrovsk region who became like a brother to me; a criminal investigator from the Cherkasy region with whom I learned to find a common language; a flock of classical gopniks from the south who I initially avoided, although their fearlessness eventually earned my respect; guys from Podillya who taught me simple farmers’ philosophy and showed me how to love and notice subtle beauty such as birds singing, ice patterns on the car window, and the silence of the Donbas steppes. But all this came later, after weeks and even months of us clashing like metal rubbing against metal.

This time, during the full-scale war, other people came along. They turned out to be my kind of people. In theory, I could drink red Californian wine in my kitchen with them, even back before February 2022. My battalion is mostly made up of residents of the capital city, and despite our different social statuses, political views, and cultural backgrounds, we have more in common than not. After all, most of us are the vintage of the same year, and we were maturing in similar conditions. Kyiv's Syrets district of the 1990s did not differ much from my home district “D” in Cherkasy. Our general secondary education gave us fairly equal opportunities, although each of us chose our own path.

Well, as an author, I suppose I could distinguish myself from the general public, claiming that my choice is about the achievement of life goals in a way that is quite unusual for my current circle. But the essential point, such as the mental rooting of my generation in our country's historical context, is the same. There is much affinity between us. I — a writer — am not different from my brothers in arms: a trucker with the code name “Geographer,” a “Virus” IT guy, or an odd-jobber “Jet.” We are all different, but we share the same enemy and goal — not to pass this war down to our children. Because we were once children ourselves not too long ago. We are children of the unstable post-Soviet reality who have experienced a number of metamorphoses and have grown into a new and unexpectedly strong generation. We survived the Chernobyl disaster, the poverty of the 1990sperestroika, the dangerous temptations of the first years of independence, the revolution, and the emergence of ourselves as individuals in an era of continuous change. Now we are at war. This is no longer an era of change. This is a radical transition of another level, and my generation is bearing the brunt of this transition.

In December 2021, I interviewed many of my Kyiv acquaintances trying to understand how they were experiencing the emerging threat at the border. Under the guise of peace, there was anxiety and fear. Everyone was sick with fear about the imminent attack of Kyiv; many packed grab bags; they made plans in case of war. What steps should they take? Flee? Save their parents and children? Go to war? Or wait for someone else to act for you? What is happening, and is it worth planning new projects, books, or trips abroad for January and February?

Looking back at history, we should have predicted that the Kremlin would indeed again sacrifice hundreds of thousands of their citizens for the sake of their distorted utopian goals. We should have known that they would decimate residential neighborhoods with artillery and allow punitive units of murderers and marauders into the occupied cities. Russia has never cared for human resources, and it is unlikely that anything has changed in recent decades. There is only one question left: the cost. What sacrifices is Putin ready to make?

Ukrainian people had a lot of questions of their own. The most important question was, “Who of us will go to defend the land and the loved ones?” Eventually, some people stepped up. There are many very young soldiers, but the backbone of the army consists of us, 30–40-year-olds. A generation that has generally grown up on the same Russian culture, with a misguidedly concrete conviction of their own provincial second-classness and a quiet envy of civilized countries. Although we arrived at our patriotism for Ukrainian from different paths, we all realized we had a duty to protect our territories, our not-always-integral-identity, and our not-always-native-language, but we reached a common denominator. We are a generation of Ukrainians who united for the sake of victory.

I keep thinking about when I was 17 or 18. At that time, I was not at all interested in Ukrainian politics. The Orange Revolution that I was actively involved in during my student years had not come yet. Almost my whole childhood and adolescence unfolded under the poverty of Kuchma's stagnation era. It seemed like it would last forever. The nineties ended in a fun way, with drunken teenage shrieks and the taste of lipstick. A new life began in a hopelessly stagnant country. But I didn't think about it. I thought of something else. I⁠ thought of Ukraine being a periphery of Europe, a quiet swampy pond. It was not interested in anyone; no one was interested in it; and war was the least of its worries. Oddly enough, I had been thinking a lot about wars at that time. The Second Chechen War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. Something terrible was happening outside of my world, outside of common sense. The attacks could have occurred in Russia, Ireland, Spain, or in Muslim countries. Torture chambers were deployed in African countries. The only peak our conflicts reached was the protest campaign “Ukraine without Kuchma.” For me, it went almost unnoticed as, I say again, politics was the last thing I cared about back then.

And now I am sitting deep in the woods, wearing military pants and a National Guard jacket. I am 37, and I have a bunch of written books under my belt, also translations, depression, and a gun. My country is fighting a war. It is real, big, ruthless, and bloody. And I am a soldier in this war, one of those who took up arms. And my weapon kills. It kills my enemies. It all sounds simple and matter-of-fact — as if this has been the reality for all our lives. As if all of us, and me, especially myself, are a continuation of the war. The integral whole. The generation. All these adults who were children yesterday and grew up in adverse conditions unexpectedly found themselves on the threshold of a new experience, an experience that overshadows all previous experiences, that makes you forget prior roles and social statuses, that distorts reality so normal no longer looks normal so you cannot tell love from indifference, peace from fatigue, necessity from dreams.

I have never wished to disrupt the order of my life. I was comfortable in the world of my childhood memories, of a clear past, of warm comfort and comprehensible peace. My usual few glasses of dry wine after 7:00 p.m., my gym workouts, my collections of music and coins, my bike, my travels, and my peaceful and regular sleep. Not to mention my family and everything related. Indeed, I never sought to identify with any generation. But I became part of this generation. Of the people who are now fighting, who will come home afterward, and who will not know how to move on — because how do you live in the world after witnessing it collapse?

1 comment

  • Tedd

    “written by Ukrainian artists who __decided__ to stay inside Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine”: sorry, but you can’t name that “decision”, as all men are banned from crossing the border in case the gov’t needs to send them die.

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