About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)
They bring in droves of drunken russians from over the border by bus and have them hoist mutant two-headed eagles on every flagpole. The russians bully their way into the heart of the city and proclaim themselves the heroes of a ‘great patriotic war’ from long ago. They swear this city – which they have never set foot in before – has always been their city. They say it always will be; that they have returned from exile to reunite your city with them like a lost child with its mother.
Then the russians hand in their tracksuits and football tops for military fatigues. Instead of the russians tri-colour and the ribbon of Saint George, they now have small arms and artillery. They look like boys playing a game of soldiers, dressing up in their fathers’ clothes to try look like men. They belch cologne and slur grand proclamations about a country that never existed. This country is as real to them in their drunken stupor as a desert mirage and, to breathe life into it, they have to capture buildings, abduct and torture your neighbours. What they can’t rape or kill, they eat or steal.
The streets you grew up on become a smuggler’s cove; the fields you wandered, a haunted graveyard. A curfew is imposed, and at night the drunks sing songs from a war they never fought. They wear insignia and icons and toast heroes from a country they can’t remember living in. This city of strangers, they swear, is the same as the one you were raised in. These strangers were always your neighbours.
Your father took you and your mother away from the city and to your family dacha just outside of Luhansk, where the steppe opens up and only the flocks of birds stencilled into the sky keep time from coming to a complete standstill. From there, you spent your sixteenth birthday feeling the tremble of the earth beneath your feet. You watched the dull illumination of mortars and the eerie glow of tracer fire in the distance. Friends and their families disappeared to Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv. Their shelled and empty homes looked like lanterns with the candles burnt out after All Saints’ Day.
Your mother begged your father to follow the others, but all he could say (after swilling the sediments from the wine in his mouth) was Why should we leave?
Although you felt your mother’s fear in your own blood, you shared your father’s sentiment. This, after all, was still Luhansk. Your Luhansk. Who had the right to tell you which country it was or wasn’t? Who could sweep borders across the land like breadcrumbs across the table?
You looked just like your mother when she was a girl, but you inherited your father’s shining black eyes and deep, solitary attachment to the place where you were raised. Like your father did when he was as a boy, you preferred to spend all your time outside of class wandering the wild fields. You loved to stand under the noon sun and look across them, feeling like the horizons touched the very ends of the earth. You loved to study maps and languages and learn the mysteries of ancient empires, but curious as you were, you felt no desire to leave Donbas. You were open to the world, but wherever your thoughts drifted, they always came back home to Luhansk. Faraway places, with their legends and unpronounceable names, were something like curiosities and no more. Like stones and leaves you’d find in the fields, you’d handle and inspect them, turn them over just to feel how they rested in your palm, before you’d discard them and walk on.
It was the same for your father. Unlike many of the drunks recruited by russia to steal the city, he could actually remember the Soviet Union with clear eyes, the toil it demanded of a person. His twenties were lost in its honour to a dreary military service on the top of the world in Murmansk, where he kept his thoughts to himself and plotted and yearned to return to Luhansk and never leave again. His resolve to do so was so strong it pressed its shadow into you, his daughter.
Apart from making wine, your father’s great passion was fishing. You once told him about a boyfriend from school and his first question was Does he fish? You told him no and he replied Tell him not to waste another second! He doesn’t know what he’s missing! On the weekends you and your mother – the people your father called his best friends – accompanied him for lazy picnics by the river. These car trips took you further out of the oblast and showed you tributaries of the Luhan and the Mius. In an old photograph now lost, your father faces away from his wife’s camera, the lens catching only the edge of his smile as he perches on the riverbank. But you face your mother, your eyes sparkling in the shade of your father’s contentment as you proudly hold up his catch in your hands.
Your mother dressed the house in flowers and nurtured you under ferns. The bitterness of wine contrasted the sweetness of lilies and peonies. The house was full of books, both in russian and Ukrainian, and you loved to read in both languages. But rather than sneaking books to bed at night to read with a torch under the covers, you took paper and pencils. You drew by torchlight as your parents lay asleep in each other’s arms in the next room. You made diagrams of your mother’s plants and sketched your father’s rivers. You bathed in the warmth of your parents’ love. They never argued, your father never swore. Although his wine was his pride, you never once saw him drunk.
Now the city became starved by drunks who sang dead men’s songs and flew the flag of a fictitious place. But at the refuge of your dacha, facts would remain facts. The fields, uninterrupted by buildings, would still welcome you, and Ukraine would stay Ukraine. Your father still had to go into Luhansk to work. He’d see the skids of tank tracks in the streets, portraits of Lenin and Stalin like undead risen from their tombs. The drunks guarded checkpoints, clinging to their guns. Their charcoal silhouettes haunting the roads looked like scarecrows come to life to wander in from the fields in search of a brain.
You turned eighteen and your parents moved back into Luhansk, so your father could keep an eye on the garage he owned and guard it from looters. A stray cat moved in with you at the dacha and your neighbours regarded you and it as something like a witch in her covenstead. This strange girl who lived alone, who never thought about marriage or children, and didn’t eat meat. The cat watched you as you scarred the frying pan in your efforts to cook. It hunted mice and saw you endure an intermittent water supply and faltering electricity. The sparse furnishings of the dacha calmed your artist’s eye. It was no longer possible to even transact with a local bank or post office without collaborating with the enemy, so you made a living freelancing online as a graphic artist. In the evenings you read Ukrainian poetry to yourself in a faint whisper.
You were hidden from the world.
Your art was a hymn to these remote suburbs. Removed from the militarised city, it was sometimes possible – if only for fleeting moments – to pretend you were free. The images you rendered were smooth and rounded and warm. With your hands you brought to life scenes from the city outskirts. A bumblebee visiting a barefooted girl sat among wild flowers. A bike ride. A young boy sailing away in a daydream boat down the Krynka to reach the sea. A kitchen table where a cup of coffee steams next to a bowl of three beaten eggs, a fork resting on the side. Years passed and your artwork became more vivid and insular. It protected you from what was happening inside the city, where russians staggered among the ruins, delirious with alcohol poisoning.
You turned nineteen; you turned twenty. At New Year, your parents refused to toast at midnight, waiting instead until 1am so as to not celebrate at the same time as Moscow. And the safety of the world depicted in your art became evermore disconnected with Luhansk as it had become. You noticed birds of prey hunting in the trees surrounding the dacha and taking off with something weak and helpless. In a nearby village, a wolf dragged away a little boy. Every now and then a forgotten landmine, left somewhere in a drunken blackout, took someone’s life or leg. Your father’s rivers were now desiccated or bled a polluted rusty red. You still felt like you lived in a fairy-tale, but now with only the dark, sinister elements left in.
Ever since the russians shelled your street in the city and forced you and your parents to leave for the dacha, you swore to yourself you’d never worry again about anything less than life and death. You knew what could happen to a body. Bodies failed; bodies could be ripped apart. Where once there was a person, a consciousness, there is now something unrecognisable; a prop in a horror film. A bullet or a shell erased a person and all of the memories and love contained within them. That’s why in your sixteenth year you made a silent vow to yourself to never get close to anyone or anything that could be stolen from you.
But now in the silence of the dacha something was changing inside you. When you fell asleep your mind showed you images, textures, played fugue notes that collaged into a feeling. The feeling then grew hands and breathed and became a body of its own, touching you and loving you and holding you until the morning as your nails traced its back. Then it would dissolve upon awakening, and you’d sit up alone in bed, feeling like the dacha was haunted. An echo, an absence, lingered in the air. The scent of someone who was never there.
During the days too you dreamed of other things. Public parks bustling with happy families. Flags of blue and yellow. Crowds staying out late. Everyone safe, speaking their minds. These daydreams buzzed with chatter in Ukrainian and Surzhyk. To think of yourself separated from Luhansk was to imagine yourself in a vacuum. But now you felt at last the need to leave, to follow the whisperings of sleep and feel the things you saw and touched in dreams.
You stood in line with the pensioners at Stanytsia Luhanska, feeling like you were about to cross the river Styx to go back into the world of the living. The russians at the crossing asked if you had a boyfriend and looked at you like you were an item in a warrior’s harem. They were so beguiled by you in their boredom they neglected to search your bags. You wondered if all it took was a smile for you to be able to smuggle bombs for the resistance and copies of Kobzar back across the demarcation line undetected.
You followed your friends to Kharkiv and enrolled at university, where for four years of total freedom you jumped at every loud noise and lay awake at night worried for your parents. Then the russians decided Kharkiv was also their city. So once again, just like the day they shelled your street back in Luhansk at the start of it all, you crouched for the last time in fear of the murderous sky.
Kris Michalowicz won the Creative Future bronze prize for fiction in 2018. In 2022, he was a writing resident with the Ukrainian Institute London. He lives and volunteers in Ukraine.
Please note: since Russia’s full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians and supporters have refused to capitalise the name of the aggressor state and its people. This piece uses lower case in accordance with the author’s preference.