A Marathon of Russian Roulette, a documentary play by Kateryna Penkova

Translated by Helena Kernan.

In the morning the planes started flying.
How can that be?
Well, I thought, they’ll fly around a bit and that’ll be it. We’ve got school in two hours, work.
The first strike came at half past four in the morning, nearby.
We legged it to the school to hide.
I looked at the building’s panels – they’d crumble quick as a flash and we’d be crushed.
We went back home.
Nightmarish shelling. A sea of soldiers setting up equipment. They were already asking some people to leave their homes.
But for some reason I was certain that they’d shell for a bit then stop. This was Mariupol, after all. We’d seen it all back in 2014.

I left Donetsk when it started there. Escaped with my two children. My ex-husband’s on the other side.
I was just very afraid. He’s so domineering. He’s so high up in Donetsk that he could have killed me and got off scot-free. All the guns were pointing at me. He used to threaten me and kick me out and keep me in the cellar.

So, there we sat. Waiting for it all to end. Planes were flying. So low they were right above your head. The building was shaking. Terrifying. We had no more electricity, water or gas. Bitterly cold. We all slept in the corridor in puffer jackets.

My friend rang – ‘Come over and charge your phones, we have electricity’.
So we went.
Everything was screeching, booming, flashing, exploding.
We shouted to each other but couldn’t hear a thing.
My friend’s street was much quieter. Like a whole different world.
There was water and electricity. We charged everything: power banks, phones.
She put us up – ‘Stay the night’. We put the kids in a room, a closet with no windows.
A small one, the walls are thick there.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The little one fell asleep at last.
We calmed down almost immediately – water, light, warmth – we could relax.
Everyone had bedded down and I was lying there on my phone.
They say that if you hear a whistle the shell isn’t coming for you, it’ll pass by.
But there was silence.
I looked up and like in The Matrix…
A shell burst straight into the flat… through the window.
Slowly, for me it happened slowly.
Shards of glass, chunks of plaster, so much dust, so much everything.
It seemed to me that the building swelled up then deflated again.
The shell flew in and I thought that I could stop it, grab it, catch it with my bare hands. Because it was flying towards… Towards the room where my child was.
I jumped up and ran.
I looked, she was whimpering, concrete on her head, you couldn’t see shit, there was a cloud of dust. I had only one thought – please let her head be intact. At home she used to sleep with her pillow over her ear. And that saved her. I looked – phew, seems it’s in one piece. Then my elder daughter said, ‘Mum, her legs’.

What do I remember about bleeding?
There are two types: venous and arterial.
Venous is a stream of dark blood.
Arterial is a fountain and bright red.
For venous bleeding you need to use a compression bandage and raise the limb. For arterial you need a tourniquet a bit higher up, and then what? Then you pray.
Because while you’re figuring out how to apply the damn tourniquet, the fountain will… run dry.

I bandaged her legs as best I could.
No signal. Shock. What to do?
We got dressed quickly, got ready as best we could.
We ran to another building. Somehow found internet connection. I messaged all the group chats.
I messaged Typical Mariupol, gave them the address – a child is wounded.

The police came, giving each other the jitters. They nearly shot us because it was dark, who knows who could have been there.
‘A child is wounded,’ I shouted.
Then they came closer, looked at us – ‘We’ll take her.’
‘She’s eight years old. Where will you take her? My elder daughter’s still in the basement.’
‘Either stay with the elder one or come with the younger one.’

I went with the little one, of course. And my eldest stayed put. We dashed through horrific shelling. We got to one hospital – they didn’t open the door. Either no-one was there or they didn’t hear us. One of the policemen shouted into a loudspeaker. The door stayed shut. We went to the emergency hospital. They took her. What’s going on? I just don’t understand. Soldiers were hugging me. They surrounded me:
‘Oh no, it’s a child.’
‘Stay strong, Mama.’
I don’t understand, I don’t understand anything.
Out came a doctor. I was shaking, my hands trembling. It was agony to look at him. I was so afraid of his face…
And he said, ‘People don’t survive wounds like that. At least they don’t walk away with both legs intact. We removed this. It was a millimetre away from an artery. A little curved cone. It’s not shrapnel. It’s the tip of an artillery shell. Maybe a ricochet. I don’t know. It went through one leg and got lodged in the other. Here in the soft tissue. I don’t know how that’s possible. We just got very lucky.’

After the operation they took us to Hospital No. 3, to the trauma unit. And we slept soundly until morning.
That was 8 March. When it all started.

Sound of an aerial bomb falling.

The shockwave was just… It knocked me off my feet, even though we were quite a way from where it landed. But the shockwave got us.
The drywall shook, the windows were blown out. I grabbed the little one, twisting round so she wouldn’t get hit. She had stitches, tubes, all of that.
I dropped to the ground, turned over, shielded her. A man was running, shouting, ‘My child’s on the first floor!’
Soldiers, doctors… everyone was shouting.
‘Everybody to the bunker!’
It wasn’t far. You could see it from the window. But I went to pick her up and had no strength to lift her. And I needed to take the bags and her bed-pan. Because how else could we stay in that bunker? It was cold and dark. Such fear, such adrenaline. A soldier dashed up, grabbed her and ran. I snatched the bags and followed.
I looked and saw wounded pregnant women running. A sea of crying children.

We ended up there. The hospital was destroyed. But they set up an emergency unit. And people were arriving amid the shelling.
They simply threw some people out on the street, because they knew that they would die. There was absolutely no way to help. If there was nothing left. Barely a head left. No arms or legs. Nothing left at all. Just a stump lying there. I didn’t think people could walk or live with those kinds of wounds. They were crying, begging, ‘Please don’t abandon us.’ They crawled out of that hospital. It was just a horror film.
It turned out that the only doctors with us were two trauma surgeons. And that was it.

There was one 15 year-old boy called Sashka.
The doctor shouted to me,
‘Hold the torch! Shine it into the wound!’
I couldn’t watch them cutting into a person… a child.
I knew that I had to help. But I couldn’t. The smell, the blood, the flesh.
They gave the torch to a guy and – bam – he fainted.
I watched and thought, Jesus, he’s only 15. Same as my eldest.
He was looking at me, going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
I grabbed the torch, my hands were shaking but I held it and said,
‘Of course. Of course you’ll survive. Don’t go anywhere.’
We couldn’t even count the holes in him. They were poking around for four hours.
We turned him over, he was a mess. You could have stuck two fingers into his neck. My whole hand would have fitted into his leg. And he was still going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
He so wanted to live. They got everything out, bandaged him up.

There was one woman with two children, Anya. ‘I don’t know where my third child is, a newborn,’ she said. ‘He got left behind somewhere in the hospital.’
The doctors conferred privately. There’s no-one in the hospital. The hospital’s gone. All the children died. Should we tell her, not tell her?
‘We’re searching,’ they said. They were covered in burns. She and the children. ‘We’re searching.’ She kept hoping.
I believe in God. There were no non-believers left in the bunker. I don’t know how to pray, so I just talked,
‘Lord, you saved my life. I’m in a bunker. Why did my elder daughter… where is she? Huh?! Why did this happen? How can I understand it?’
God said nothing. He was probably offended that I’d never come to him before.
We were on the Right Bank and she was on the Left Bank. Separated by Azovstal. Not a chance you could get there.

We started treating people, somehow I pulled myself together.
I got used to that smell. I began to recognise what was clean, what was infected, what needed to be done.
If I didn’t know, I’d shout, ‘What should I do?’ The doctors would reply.
We divided up the wounded – you take those ones, I’ll take these. And we worked like that.

There was a different sensation in the bunker. It would sink into the ground after a blast. The sensation that it was right there, striking the bunker head-on. I just cannot believe that I’m still alive after blasts like that. Before the war it was used for storage. And we were very lucky, because we found surgical lights there. We found operating tables, surgical film. We marked out an area, made it as sterile as possible.

One night someone came and banged on the iron door.
People were screaming involuntarily in pain. Children. You can’t explain to a child that they need to be quiet because someone’s at the door.
They tried to break it down.

Sound of machine gun fire.

It was terrifying.
It was as if the Transformers were on the move. I couldn’t make out any other sounds. As if everything made of metal was shaking, screeching, clanking, trying to get you, hunt you down.
We consulted with each other. Decided that we needed to make our presence known.
We drew red crosses on pieces of film with felt-tip pens.
But how to hang them up? We’d have to go out there. And you realise that out there are bullets and grenades and grenade launchers, equipment.
It was a genuine feat going out there. Because we had to fasten the signs. And that takes time. We rushed out in short bursts and attached them.
Then it seemed to subside. We decided to see if it would last or not.
We crawled out of the bunker. And there was the blackened city. Smoke as thick as fog, only black. It was as if the bunker had been dug out of the ground. Masses of crows all around. Our crosses riddled with machine gun bullets.

That’s when it dawned on us that we were there for the long run. We had to do something.
Our food was running out. We had no drinking water. We’d been collecting snow and rainwater, but it was dirty.
We needed everything. Food, water, clothing, medicine, a generator.
So we walked through the ruined hospital. Battered down the doors. We couldn’t find any food, but there was medicine. I grabbed everything I could see.
The doctor said, ‘That’s for chemotherapy. What use is it to us?’
‘Let’s take it. Who knows? Maybe we can exchange it. Maybe someone will need it. We need everything, because people… From plaster casts to simple aspirin.’
So I crammed everything into my pockets, into my trousers, just to take as much as possible.
I wasn’t a looter. I was a medical professional.

Sound of shelling.

Jesus, it was a kids’ hospital. Not just a trauma unit – a kids’ trauma unit, a maternity hospital, a cancer ward. No military targets in sight.
What do you bastards want here?
We have no water, the kids have fuck all to eat! Kill us already, go on. Grad missiles, mortar bombs, shells, tanks… What else have you got there? Bring it all! Kill us! Go on! Just do it now. And kill us all. Anything but a slow death. From starvation or dehydration. Seeing my child dying in agony… It’s more than I can bear.

And then… we found a large barrel. A huge tank of water, about 400 litres.

Something thuds.

It was March and -12 in Mariupol. So it was 400 kilograms of pure ice inside an iron barrel.
We had to roll it towards the bunker. But how? There were mines, you know.
We stood like Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga. The self-appointed de-miners went ahead. The others rolled. We managed to find some humour in the midst of all this, because it was so unbelievably absurd. We cracked jokes, because otherwise we couldn’t have carried on. What else could we do?

We left the barrel to thaw – we’d keep it as sterile water.
We had to dash outside to cook food and light the campfire.
One person would dash out and throw salt in the pot. The next would run out and throw in the food. The next would run out with a spoon to stir it. A marathon of Russian roulette.
We had to cook something at least. Just something hot to eat. That’s how frozen stiff we were. We warmed each other up, took off our coats and huddled together. Because there was nothing. Nothing to warm us up.

And I searched for my elder daughter. I drove everyone up the wall. I went into every basement, every alleyway I could. I met people, described my child, showed them pictures. I couldn’t find her anywhere. I hoped against hope. She knew we were at the hospital. I hoped she would somehow start moving towards us. Because I couldn’t. The little one couldn’t walk.

We went to a bombed-out military base. We found duvets, there was food there, thank God. We brought back bread for the kids – they sniffed it. We didn’t give them the whole thing. We cut it into morsels. Gave them the morsels. The little one only ate the soft part. Then she slept. It was awful to watch. I used to cook up all kinds of things for them. They were fussy eaters at home. Soups pureed in the blender. And here, you see, my child was eating everything. Porridge, vermicelli. A spoon could stand up vertically in that vermicelli made with dirty water. We cut it off in chunks.
And she ate a little bit of that bread. Put the rest in a plastic bag in her pocket.
The kids constantly needed new dressings. Complications, haematomas. The wounds seemed to be healing but they were covered with huge lumps.
We had to operate on Sashka with no anaesthetic, awake. We looked for some but at that point there was none. ‘It’s fine, I can bear it,’ he said.
And that doctor of ours. He just loved rummaging around. Apparently he had to. ‘Stop, that’s enough,’ I said. ‘No, wait a second, he can bear it a bit longer. I’m nearly done, nearly done.’ There were scissors, he did everything, dissecting, squeezing, opening him up. Then there were the dressings. The dressings had to be opened up constantly too and antibiotics slipped inside. Every day, every day.
But Sashka did so well – he stayed strong.

Then somehow I heard about a well near the Drama Theatre.
Anya and I set off. We always needed more water. Then came the shell. We fell to the ground. Tried to stand up. And she said, ‘I can’t walk. I can’t look, I’m afraid. Please can you look and see what’s there?’ I looked – and there was no heel, no knee, it had just been blown off. I don’t know what it was clinging onto – skin, flesh, muscle…
‘Don’t look,’ I said. ‘Let’s go back’. ‘No,’ she said, ‘let’s get the water, for the kids.’ And she used me as a support. We went there. Got those bloody 10 litres. Dragged them back. Ran into the bunker. I dragged her in. We ran so fast down those stairs together. My legs turned to rubber from fear. The others even gave us surgical spirit to drink.

We had no clothing. I fashioned a pair of leggings from a jumper for my child.
There was a kids’ shop next door. But I couldn’t go in. I knew that I had to clothe my child. People were taking, taking everything. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought everything would calm down very soon and get back to normal. We’d all go home.
Oi! Why, people? What do you need that for? What even is it? A cot with a changing table, a digital baby monitor, balance bikes, scooters, mini electric cars. Where are you dragging all of that? Is this what it’s come to? What’s going on?

Things got blacker and blacker. Nothing at all was left standing in our district.
Dogs came to us for shelter. We took them in and fed them. I took in a yard dog. You could talk to her, she understood.
‘What is it, doggie? Where are your owners? Did they leave? It’s a good thing if they left. Don’t be angry at them. You’re such a clever thing. Clever girl. You understand me, don’t you? You should be happy if they’ve left. They say some buses are leaving from the cash and carry.’

Then something else started happening. People started coming. A constant stream of people. People were dying standing in line.
Some people brought others in their own cars.
‘Please take at least one person, take him.’
‘Who is he?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. I threw him in the boot and drove him here. He has no documents, nothing.’
We went to look in one car and it was just… Are they even alive?
One had no shoulder left. The doctor with us said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
‘But look, he’s talking, asking for help…’
‘It’s possible, would be possible to save him, but not with what we’ve got.’

And every day, every day it carried on like that. They just kept on bringing people. ‘It’s too late for an injection. We’ll have to operate.’ And people endured it, watched, wanted to live.

‘I went out to drink some tea and a shell hit. Everyone died. I was standing alone in that kitchen and only my leg was injured. That’s it. My son, his fiancée, my grandson, my wife. They were sitting there smiling just a minute ago. And now there’s no-one left. They’re all dead.’

‘My husband and I lived on the fifth floor. The middle floor. We have a daughter and a one-year-old son. My husband grabbed our daughter and I grabbed our son. We pressed ourselves against the wall. I turned around, and only my husband’s head was left on my shoulder. My son survived, he’s got a broken hip.’

‘I tried to dig my sister out of the rubble at the Drama Theatre. For several hours. She was sitting almost directly under the chandelier. The chandelier fell. There were so many people there when we arrived. With kids, babies. And when I came out, it was just… We couldn’t reach them. The walls had collapsed. From the whole section where there were 200 people, let’s say, we dug out three alive. And that’s it.’

We went out every so often to see who was there. If someone was more seriously injured we took them. I saw a guy standing there in a T-shirt in the freezing cold. With both hands bandaged.
‘What’s wrong with your hands?’ I asked.
‘I can wait a bit longer. I’ll queue.’
There were women and children. So he stood and waited.
Forty minutes passed. He was still queuing.
I asked again, ‘What’s wrong with your hands?’
‘A shell exploded. I fell to the ground,’ he said.
What do people usually do? Cover their heads. But in panic he’d splayed out his fingers like a rooster’s comb.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I bandaged them up. I don’t even know what’s underneath.’
When he opened it up and we took a look – Jesus. We had to amputate. But with what? You can’t just saw off seven fingers with a knife.
We found something, knew there were some secateurs. We cleaned him up. Got to work, one finger at a time. They gave me the secateurs and said, ‘Do it like this, so the skin gets pinched together afterwards. Make sure the bones don’t stick out sharply.’ And I sat there as if I was using nail clippers.
‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘I can bear it, it’s fine.’ But he was shaking. He did really well. He had shrapnel in his back and those fingers. He came back again to change his dressings. Then they decided to flee as a family, they didn’t stay with us.

There was a woman called Zhanna. A very beautiful woman. Her husband brought her, said their child had died – 4 years old. She had a wounded hand, something beneath her breast, a broken hip, a huge haematoma. Huge. She was so beautiful, we were in awe. She didn’t open her eyes, she had amazing eyelashes, beautiful skin. And we knew that she would die. Because she needed an operation on her head. And we couldn’t do it. We took such care of her. She came to. Told us her name and surname. And that was it. She didn’t regain consciousness, didn’t move.
She started breathing with her stomach. She changed, her breathing changed. Her sweat was sticky. It was clear that it was the end. She died the next morning.
It took us three days to take her outside. We couldn’t carry her under the shelling. We tried to carry her, attached a piece of film to her body saying who she was. We’d try to carry her, the shelling would start, we’d go back. But we couldn’t just leave her. We had to move her. There was a kitchen in the grounds. A separate building. The kitchen got hit by a shell too. But at least the walls stayed standing. The roof was gone. We carried the bodies there. Because there were so many corpses.
Amputated arms went there too.
When it quietened down again, we went outside and there were just masses of corpses. Small children. I looked and saw a child with no head. I got fixated on it. I really wanted to find the head. But I couldn’t. So we wrapped her up. A stranger. Because of course we didn’t know who she was. There were so many like that.

We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Anya’s knee. It just wasn’t healing. A decent amount of time had passed and it wouldn’t heal. In the end it turned out a piece of shrapnel was stuck in there. When it came to the surface and we got it out, the wound more or less started to heal. She’d given up hope of finding her child, it seemed. I guess she’d come to terms with it. But we’d hoarded so many nappies, so much formula.
‘Why the hell do we need formula?’
‘It’ll come in useful, everything will,’ I said. People came and took it with them.
In the end – can you believe it? ¬– some people came for formula. And told us that there was a newborn without a mother in another basement. They brought the child – ‘Is he yours?’ ‘Yes, he’s mine’. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘how is that possible? How?’ Not knowing whose child it was, someone had simply grabbed him. A newborn. Miracles do happen… But rarely.

After that it was so good. People came to have their dressings changed and brought things with them. A guy came and brought a fish. Ohhh, he’d only just caught it. ‘I’ll go and clean it,’ I said. We lit a big campfire and had a feast. Fried fish, fish soup. Everyone was so happy.

We worked like triage in A&E. Recorded everyone’s details. Asked where they’d been injured, under which circumstances, their home address, surname, first name. When they’d arrived and when they’d need their dressings changed.

Young Sashka started getting better. I helped him through. If he needed an injection, he’d go, ‘Hold my hand, please’.
His collarbone was shattered and he was covered in holes, the poor thing. But he so wanted to live. He started sitting up. He started eating.

His dad came and said, ‘I’m taking him.’
‘Don’t, don’t go. There’ll be shelling in a minute.’
We already knew what time it started.
The shelling started around half past five and ended around half past three. It was constant. Only a short break for lunch. So you could travel around lunchtime, at least for two hours. And we knew that they wouldn’t shell our side then. I mean, you could catch a stray bullet anytime. But it wasn’t like when there was shelling.

Sashka’s dad took him. Put him in a wheelchair. They walked about 60 metres from the bunker…. Then the shelling started. Shrapnel slashed through Sashka. Black smoke and white stuffing from his puffer jacket.

Sound of a dog howling. Scrabbling.

Our yard dog howled for a really long time. Then she left us. For good. The most horrifying thing was that we couldn’t go out there. We couldn’t go and get him. He sat there in that wheelchair for a week. His father ran away. There was nobody at all with Sashka.

Then it quietened down. People stopped coming. Nobody thought there was anyone left in our district. The soldiers wouldn’t let them through. People would say, ‘They’re there, they’re treating people.’ ‘No.’ And that was it. Well, power had changed hands. We realised that we needed to make contact with them somehow. We needed to send people away, evacuate them. Get them treatment.
And I needed to find my daughter. I hadn’t had any contact with her for those one and a half months. None at all. The things that went through my head.
‘Why would they bring her in wounded?’ the doctors asked.
‘What am I supposed to think when all this is going on?’
Just imagine – they brought in a girl. And she was covered up, curls like my daughter’s, the same colour hair. I looked at her in the half-light: her legs, they looked like mine. Her head rolled to the side and I saw – the child had no face, it was gone. She wasn’t even bleeding. Nothing in a horror film could compare. Just white flesh. I could see everything: teeth, muscles. I nearly lost my mind.
The doctors said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not her. Her mother’s with her.’ But I didn’t believe them. Maybe they just don’t want to tell me, they’re trying to calm me down. Maybe this woman just said she was the mother so they would take her. I walked up to her and sat down. Asked her daughter’s name.
My hair nearly turned white. She’s mine, my child’s called Karina.
‘Are you really her mum?’
She didn’t even seem to hear the question.
‘I was sitting next to her. Why did nothing happen to me but my child has no face?’

Then I went to see those Russian soldiers. I planned to ask them. Because I’d heard there were some kind of lists. Of the living and the dead.
They pointed me towards the man with the lists. He was imposing, obviously there for a reason. One of the high-ups.
Well, what could I do? I went up to him. Asked about my daughter – nothing. She was nowhere to be found. Not among the living, not among the dead.
I wondered whether I should mention my ex-husband or not. I just knew that he’d kill me. I needed to find my child. He had connections, he could find her. I threw caution to the wind. I said his name.
And it turned out I had stumbled upon someone who knew my ex-husband.
Can you imagine? Just like that.
And he said, ‘They’re looking for you. At the morgues, everywhere. Let’s go.’
‘I’m not going anywhere without my elder daughter,’ I said. ‘Until I know that she’s alive.’
‘At least let us know where to find you. Write a note so he’ll believe that you’re alive.’
I wrote the note.

He came by in the evening. I knew that he was coming for me and that it was definitely about my daughter. Once again I was afraid to look at his face. I was terrified. I stood up so tentatively and thought, I can’t even go up to him. I’ll run away. I went outside and he said, ‘Your daughter’s alive.’
‘Is she in one piece? Where is she?’
‘In Donetsk. It’s safe there. She’s okay.’

It turned out that my elder daughter had escaped after a month. They’d seen that there were kids there, five of them. And crammed them into a car. They waited there for 13 days. In a field. The road, the field, the shelling. The fields were mined. The sole of her foot was burnt in her trainers.

I was so happy. I can’t express it in words. It was a miracle. Just a miracle. For some reason I had got very lucky once again.

‘I’ll go to hell and back now, I don’t care,’ I said.
They evacuated a lot of people. Because there was no time to lose – they needed medical attention. The only ones who stayed were the families of the two doctors and people who didn’t want to leave. The two possible destinations were Donetsk or Russia. There were no other routes. People tried to leave on foot. Can you imagine? Going to Zaporizhzhia on foot – that’s 200 kilometres. We only found out when they crossed the border and made it alive.

Well, I left too. They took me to Donetsk. My ex-husband met me.
They say that people don’t change. Now I think that it depends on the circumstances. It turned out he didn’t know we were in Mariupol. He thought we were with my brother in Lviv. He suddenly realised when he lost contact. With all of us. ‘It’s like I could sense it,’ he said. He saw a video of an eight-year-old girl dying. They were driving her to the hospital. He got so obsessed, kept saying, ‘That’s my younger daughter. I can see her. That’s my daughter.’ He searched everywhere. At the morgues, everywhere. He found the doctor from the video. And the nurse. Tracked them all down. Turned everything upside down. Not a trace. Mentally he buried his children.

He was a shadow of his former self. I even managed to raise my voice at him. I said that we would not under any circumstances stay in Donetsk. And he agreed. ‘Go,’ he said.

When I was praying in the bunker… well, talking, not praying, I wondered, why did we get separated? And then it hit me – if there’d been three of us, one of us would have died. Because it’s Russian roulette.

According to official data, 87,000 people died in Mariupol. But how many more are still unidentified, disappeared without a trace, buried under the rubble of apartment blocks?
Before 24 February, 430,000 lived in the city. Which means that approximately every fifth person died.

September 2022, Warsaw

Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. She is a graduate of the Kyiv State Academy of Performance and Circus Arts with a degree in acting. Her texts explore the topics of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, violence and sexual harassment, postcolonialism, gender and politics. Her plays have frequently been shortlisted for the Drama.UA festival in Lviv and the Week of Contemporary Plays festival in Kyiv.

Her play ‘Pork’ was among the winners of the 2020 ‘Transmission.UA: Drama on the Move’ playwriting competition organized by the Ukrainian Institute (Kyiv). Kateryna is a co-founder of Ukraine’s Theatre and Playwrights and is currently based in Warsaw.

Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Kateryna Penkova.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.


Narrating the War, a documentary play by Anastasiia Kosodii

Translated by Helena Kernan.

Scene 0 – A definition of war porn

How did you decide to flee the country? How does a person make that decision?

Are your parents still in Ukraine? How are they? Are they afraid?

Where are your friends now? Are you still in touch with them?

How has the Russian war against Ukraine influenced your work?

(he wrote ‘the war in Ukraine’ of course)

you have to tell people about it because
you’re here to put words together and pronounce them
dig words out of the soil where Russian rockets land and place them in the ears of people who live on soil where not a single rocket has landed since 1945 if you pick good enough words
these people will say
you are a good storyteller
well done
well done
and as a token of their gratitude
they’ll give you
heavy weapons
ultraheavy weapons
weapons heavy enough
to wipe the country of Pushkins and Dostoevskys from the face of the earth
to protect you and your parents and your friends and your lovers from their great culture
to leave their ‘confused’ boys lying in the green grass with jaws blown apart guts hanging out
brains spilling out
severed cocks
grinning teeth
as they deserve

now we’ll do a trial blood-letting and as a foreword
I’ll tell you about
the waves of sirens in the Kyiv sky in the second month of winter
the sound rises up and falls
danger above low-hanging clouds
fighter planes cruise missiles aerial bombs and

you go downstairs
using the stairs
the lift is too dangerous
from the ninth floor to the first you go into the yard and ask the bewildered parents of small children where the shelter is
they point to the basement
in the basement
small children stamp on concrete dust it’s hard for them to sit still for long in the shelter the grown-ups discuss how to build a toilet
you read the news
you scroll through social media feeds
you think
that you’re late

what are you planning to do writes a man who
I don’t know
a man who
a man that
who you

what are you planning to do
I think I’ll go to Lviv you answer
he replies
and how do you feel right now what do you feel right now
you feel like
that you’re late
for everything

Scene 1 – I really envy you all

holidays by the sea
planning to have kids
health insurance
no heart palpitations when an unknown number calls you early in the morning or late at night
or even a number you do know
choosing a new sofa
your own flat
your own rented flat
a house
pictures on the walls
flowers in pots you’ve grown from seed
being able to get a dog
photo albums
the freedom to not message your relatives and not feel guilty about it
the freedom to travel
the freedom to not read the news
the freedom to get your nails done and not hate yourself for it
not hate yourself for everything

Scene 2 – The balcony equation

I’m standing at the Fizkultura stop waiting for the trolleybus
in Kyiv it’s mid-December freezing cold -15 degrees
the time 11pm on the app the little triangle of the trolleybus moves from Olimpiiska station to Palats Sportu station (terminus), the driver will take a cigarette break there then start to drive in my direction
if he can get past all the snow heaped
on the roads
I’m waiting for the trolleybus I
don’t value myself enough to call a taxi I
look at the snow
think about summer last year
when I got off the metro at Palats Sportu walked to the synagogue went into the courtyards to look for the balcony of an old woman
who was evacuated from Kyiv in 1942 with her aunt the rest of the family stayed they were all shot at Babyn Yar

she wanted to come to Kyiv one last time to see the flat
the balcony
in the building next to the synagogue
she couldn’t because of COVID
she asked me to take a photo
‘go into the inner courtyard there’s a small balcony there the first balcony in Kyiv’
so I did
not because of that woman let’s be honest I didn’t go for her rather
was helping others with telling their story

it was a typical Ukrainian summer unbearable 34 degrees
(I’m inventing all this I don’t remember anything)
I went into the courtyard and asked a local woman if she knew of a balcony here that was the first in Kyiv the woman looked at me wearily
but she pointed at something and I took a photo of something
a balcony that looked like it might be the oldest and the first
it was actually the right one
but maybe that’s just what Rachel wanted to believe
(does she remember her balcony would she recognise it nowadays?)

she said
when her father put her on the evacuation train he knew it would be the last time they
saw each other
she didn’t

I waited until the trolleybus came
it took me up one of Kyiv’s hills covered in snow to a flat with
two balconies this whole story is about the fact that
those were my balconies in the flat I rented and I’m not there
and I know that I did everything right
and I know that I was afraid
and I know that I carry with me the sum of two balconies which have changed in my absence
reality minus your presence plus time equals
a different reality
for the balconies
you’re the one who’s missing

Scene 3 – The most realistic dialogue ever (I feel nothing)

Your driver Roman is arriving.

Roman the driver sends a message:
Ich bin angekommen
Hinter dem Bus

ROMAN: Bist du spät dran?
ME: Sorry I don’t speak German that well.
ROMAN: Are you running late or something?
ME: No. U-Bahn is broken, so I decided to take a cab.
ROMAN: I see. Are you from the UK?
ME: No.
ME: Ukraine.
ME: And you?
ROMAN: Russian. I’m Russian.
ME: Oh.
ROMAN: (In Russian) When did you get here?
ME: (In Ukrainian) 2 March.
ME: (In Ukrainian) I came here on 2 March.
ROMAN: Sorry, probably better to speak in English. I don’t understand a word of Ukrainian.
ME: Second of March.
ROMAN: And do you like Berlin?
ME: I mean, I’ve been here a lot.

ME: And you?
ME: Been here a lot?
ROMAN: Since the first grade, almost… almost 20 years.
ME: I see.

ME: Do you consider yourself German?
ROMAN: I mean, I consider myself a human being.
ME: Okay.
ROMAN: Haha. Well, I’m Russian, of course. I’m Russian, but I’m not the government.

ROMAN: And you know, it’s good that people here see these things in a good way… I have many Ukrainian friends, we had no fights with them.

ROMAN: Do you need help with…
ME: Yes, to open the trunk. ROMAN: (In Russian) Have a good evening.
ME: (In English) Have a good evening.

Scene 4 – Obviously I wish death on all Russians

the small village where I spent the months from June to August as a child is now occupied by Russians
according to my grandmother
the witch who lived in the cottage next door on the right
cursed the village back in the 70s
it never rained there
or rather it rained very rarely
deep down the soil was salty
so the water in the wells was salty nobody watered their gardens with it and when they brewed tea it had a skin on the surface
at night you could see the entire milky way above the village

do the Russians notice the milky way
what does the water taste like to them
the fuzzy apricots hanging above the road between villages
the cherries that should be ripe by now
the plums that are still ripening
red grapes and green grapes
redcurrants and blackcurrants more than we could pick in our garden
does the lack of rain bother the Russians how deep is their tan from sunbathing
do the Russians listen to the crickets and grasshoppers in the long grass at night do they smell the scent of wild orchids
do they say to each other look there’s the big dipper overhead

fruit pits will sprout into fruit trees and berry seeds will grow into fruit-bearing bushes
a vine grown from grape seeds will embrace the walls of the buildings and the sun will warm it and the trees and the bushes
the stars
will give the trees and bushes a breather to drink the dew and Russian bones will lie in the earth which naturally will accept them even though it has no use for them because what does the earth need with composted Russian flesh on Russian bones but what can you do if those bones decided to come here from their cold, far-flung cities the land
will give the Russians the land that they wanted it will give
work to future archaeologists future historians when they come
when they dig up
the bones of Russians

Scene 5 – The Russians have stolen summer nights from us

the sun hangs in the sky for hours covers your hair exposes your legs so they match your white dress
when it finally goes down
everyone checks how long until curfew
half an hour or less
they wonder how fast they’re prepared to walk
ask their friends if they’ve been late before and what kind of checks there were
eventually they get up to say goodbye leaving their unfinished beer lighting a cigarette on the way
they walk through the old town touching the pavement with the soles of their trainers looking at the angels wrapped in protective fabric in front of the cathedrals wondering what that fabric will actually protect them from
they realise it’s probably just
to keep the debris in one place
they meet three girls one of them shouts
I never want to leave Lviv!
another shouts
Yana stop pissing around it’s nine minutes until curfew please can we go already

the city is getting ready to fall asleep
the patrols aren’t looking at passersby yet
the loudspeakers at the city hall are silent
buskers finish up their last songs
plucking their guitar strings
pushing their luck for ten or fifteen minutes more
playing songs like Imagine
I hope the stone angels wrapped up in fabric will hear them and think
there’s a certain irony to it

the stone angels have the time and
someone has to

Scene 6 – I hate waiting

some air raid alerts have no all-clear
at first the siren sounds from the phone app, half a minute later all the loudspeakers in
the city join in
you get out of bed
citizens are asked to proceed to the shelters
on messaging services the local authorities write
Warning! Air raid alert!

the sound rises up falls down and repeats

sitting in the shelter or the corridor the bathroom a room with no windows and thick walls
you open the map of air raid alerts
Kyiv region – 25 minutes
Kharkiv region – 41 minutes
Lviv region – 4 minutes
Luhansk region – 114 days 2 hours 4 minutes and counting

war is waiting an activity filled with nothing a non-existent period a duration
you just have to survive it then it will be over
over over

if that’s hard for you to live with
you can pretend there are time limits
make predictions omit the word maybe imbue your words with the power of genuine prescience
we’re not going to buy winter clothes say a mother and daughter who escaped the occupied territories
why would we stay in Kyiv so long?
we’re not going to stay long
Ukraine will be a better place when we win says another woman
she’s travelling from Denmark to see her husband in Kyiv her daughter’s still in Europe
only the people who really want to live here and rebuild will return
lie by a wall where there’s no windows says my mum it’s an old building from the 18th century
walls half a metre thick
it’ll protect us from shrapnel as long as the rocket doesn’t land directly here of course

we’ll go and eat watermelons in Kherson
corn on the cob on the beaches of Berdyansk
cherries in Melitopol

the siren sounds again for the all-clear
a voice says
citizens you have the all-clear you may leave the shelters
be prepared for future alerts the enemy is insidious

in the shower at the shopping centre on the main square at an appointment with the urologist at breakfast again and again and again
until the waiting ends and its absence begins real time begins and it’s over
over over

Scene 7 – Narrating the war

war is a multitude
of things that exist separately and they don’t all describe war you know them

time that’s not enough and too much
sleep deprivation
the practice of digging trenches
cowardice that’s bravery and vice versa
that phrase from Doctor Who when the Doctor tells Clara that everyone gets stuck
somewhere eventually on the planet Trenzalore i.e. death

writing this
I gaze at the list of things and think about how all together they can sum up war even though they’re equally distributed across the whole world

the morning of 25 February I thought that I’d read too many books about war to be unafraid of dying because I know how people can die I’ve been lucky a lot of people haven’t
and when I think about these people I think about the
long long train to Mariupol the grey Sea of Azov with the silhouette of the steelworks on the right
the minibus to Irpin the pine forest there the patisserie with overpriced eclairs
the Twin Peaks restaurant in Kherson

memory is the ability to tell stories
in spite of Russian rockets and Russian soldiers
a tragic ending won’t define these stories

like war Russian soldiers are a multitude
we all know that stories about the multitude don’t exist
now it doesn’t seem so important
it will become clear afterwards

in short

time that moves as it wishes
how are you? and
everything’s calm here
even the smallest donations make a difference
all the balconies we’ve left behind
our exhaustion
dawn at 5am
sirens that protect us
brave people who are also afraid
stories about them
that we are yet to narrate
now and when it ends
to you

Anastasiia Kosodii is a Ukrainian playwright, director, and one of the co-founders of Theater of Playwrights in Kyiv. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, Kosodii often worked with NGOs in eastern Ukraine in towns on the front line. Her international work includes projects at the Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin) and Münchner Kammerspiele Theater (Munich) and the Royal Court Theatre (London).
Anastasiia Kosodii. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Anastasiia Kosodii.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.

Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.

Interview: Sasha Dovzhyk

An interview with Saha Dovzhyk, from the Ukraine Lab project.
Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.
Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.

What is your background?

I was born in Zaporizhzhia, the industrial city in the south-east of Ukraine which has been popping up in the news because of Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, and daily bombings of residential areas which have started more recently. This is not the way I would prefer the world to learn about the place I am from, but I can’t say I didn’t see this was coming. Zaporizhzhia – with its industrial complex, transport connections, and the largest nuclear power station in Europe – has been close to the frontline since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

2014 is also the year when I started my PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Birkbeck. I came to London after taking part in the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv and witnessing the beginning of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. At that time and during the next eight years, I felt there was very little understanding of what Ukraine was, what our fight against Russia’s invasion meant, and what implications it had for the world. I designed Ukraine Lab to address this lacuna in understanding.

How did Ukraine Lab come about?

By 2021, I was confident that Ukraine was a blindspot on the western map of the world and that this fact was detrimental to our ability to tackle global issues. To think about the climate crisis or global security meant taking into account the looming possibility of Russia, the world’s third largest oil producer, setting on fire Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. And yet, Ukrainian perspectives were underrepresented in the public sphere. Moreover, those people who could help us reimagine these conversations often struggled with precarity and gatekeeping.

At the Ukrainian Institute London, we were keen on addressing both issues by running a paid residency for emerging writers who would explore global challenges through the prism of Ukraine. It was crucial for us to recruit writers from Ukraine and the UK so that they learn from each other. We wanted their pieces to possess Ukrainian experiential knowledge while speaking to a global audience. With the team of the Ukrainian Institute London, we developed the Ukraine Lab project, established partnerships with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv who helped us select Ukrainian participants, and secured funding from the British Council as part of their UK/UA Season of Culture.

Who are the main people within the organisation?

Initially, the educational programme of the residence was shaped around three thematic seminars on Ukrainian responses to global challenges: war (led by the writer, theatre maker, and director of the Ukrainian Institute London Olesya Khromeychuk), disinformation (led by the author and researcher Peter Pomerantsev), and environmental crises (led by the literary scholar Tamara Hundorova).

The curator of Slavonic and East-European Collections at the British Library, Katie McElvanney, has introduced the participants to some of their Ukrainian treasures.

The creative part of the residence included workshops on writing about Ukraine from abroad (led by the poet Iryna Shuvalova), on empathy (led by the writer and lecturer David Savill), on nonverbal representations of Ukraine Lab themes (led by the psychodynamic therapist Khobir Wiseman-Goldstein), and on creative nonfiction (led by the writer and lecturer, who is no stranger to MIR, Julia Bell). Another indispensable part of the project is the award-winning translator Nina Murray, who has worked on the English versions of Ukrainian texts and vice versa. But the core of the project are the writers themselves: three of them are based in the UK, three are either based in Ukraine or displaced by the war. The residency was held online for security reasons but all the UK-based writers did travel to Ukraine on their own. They are deeply committed to the cause of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion.

How did the collaboration with Birkbeck come about?

Birkbeck is my alma mater and I’ve been reading the Mechanics Institute Review for years. MIR addresses the audience that the Ukraine Lab also wants to engage: diverse, politically active readers interested in exciting new writing, with no obligatory prerequisite knowledge of Ukraine.

When I realised that the most fitting genre for Ukraine Lab pieces would be creative nonfiction, I immediately thought of Julia Bell. She is one of the most inspiring authors writing and teaching creative nonfiction, who also happens to be the project lead of MIR. From the very start, her response to Ukraine Lab was very enthusiastic. Our message about the existential urgency of learning the lessons of Ukrainian resistance for the rest of the world has resonated with her. Julia not only supported the publication of Ukraine Lab pieces but also taught two incredible workshops on creative nonfiction for the six participants of the residence and for twelve shortlisted applicants who had not entered the final selection.

What goals do you have for the future of Ukraine Lab?

Currently the pieces have been published across six platforms in English and Ukrainian. The next step is to issue them under one cover in the bilingual Ukraine Lab anthology. This will allow the readers to absorb all the texts as well as their visual interpretations created by the brilliant photographer Mstyslav Chernov. Mstyslav has been documenting Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine since 2014 and has been at the very frontline since the full-scale invasion. He reworked some of his award-winning photos in response to the pieces produced by the participants of Ukraine Lab. It has been an honour to work with Mstyslav on this project.

We will present Ukraine Lab at an online event held collaboratively by the Ukrainian Institute London and the British Library on 9 November. We invite everyone to join us!

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects’ curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, UCL. She has curated Ukraine Lab.
Mstyslav Chernov, Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022

Ukraine Lab: Lessons from the Frontlines

Ukraine has been often called a laboratory when it comes to global challenges in the spheres of environment, information, and security. The site of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, the first target of the Kremlin’s troll farms and disinformation campaigns, the country to spark the collapse of the Soviet Union and to stand up to its neo-imperialist successor: Ukraine has been the first to face and, at times, set in motion, processes that have worldwide consequences.

Russia’s all-out attack became a wake-up call for the international community. The world was first shocked by the sheer brutality of the invasion, then by its own ignorance about the country invaded. It turned out Ukrainians were not ready to surrender to the seemingly superior military power: neither in 72 hours, as was predicted by many western intel agencies, nor seven months into the full-scale war. It turned out Ukrainians were defiant. It turned out their defiance had a history of which the world knew nothing. It turned out the outsiders’ perceptions of Ukraine were shaped by Russia’s imperialist narratives.

Today, the value of Ukrainian knowledge and experience can no longer be dismissed. The urgency to learn from Ukraine is now existential for the rest of the world.

Ukraine Lab is an online writing residency for emerging writers from Ukraine and the UK tasked with exploring global challenges through the prism of Ukraine. The thematic focus of the creative nonfiction pieces by Kris Michalowicz and Sofia Cheliak is war. ‘Luhansk, Stolen’ reminds us that Russia’s war of aggression did not start on 24 February 2022 but has been raging on for eight years. ‘Ukrainian Lottery’ takes a look at those surprising Ukrainians who reject the ready-made model of victimhood and resist the enemy with a sense of humour and a sense of purpose.

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture 2022. You can read ‘Luhansk, Stolen’ and ‘Ukrainian Lottery’ in Ukrainian here [link to the Ukrainian publication]. Ukraine Lab pieces focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects’ curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, UCL. She has curated Ukraine Lab.

Mstyslav Chernov, Visual interpretation of Ukraine Lab war theme, Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022
Mstyslav Chernov: Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
Mstyslav Chernov, Birds fly over the residential building in Kostyantynivka, eastern Ukraine, February 8, 2022

Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen: Ukraine Lab

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture. You can read the pieces in Ukrainian in Тиждень. Ukraine Lab pieces by Kateryna Iakovlenko and Jonathon Turnbull, focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.
About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)
Mstyslav Chernov: Birds fly over the residential building in Kostyantynivka, eastern Ukraine, February 8, 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
This is how they steal your hometown from you. This is what they did to your Luhansk.

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.

Mstyslav Chernov_soldier_burning

Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery: Ukraine Lab

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture. You can read the pieces in Ukrainian in Тиждень. Ukraine Lab pieces by Kateryna Iakovlenko and Jonathon Turnbull focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.

About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)

Mstyslav Chernov, A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
Mstyslav Chernov: A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022

War-time Lodgings
The small 900-square-foot apartment, built to accommodate one person, now housed five people: all had moved in here to free up their own homes to accommodate those who were forced to abandon theirs and flee into uncertainty. This was not an exception: divorced couples moved in together, long-estranged paramours did the same, relatives that had seen each other once before shared homes, and cats, dogs, and fish all got along just fine. People slept on mattresses, in sleeping-bags, on a couch, three to a double bed. But that was nothing: Ira had taken reservations for the spots on the floor of her apartment.
Anna looks up from her zoom meeting and gives me a hug that has become routine—the hug that says, “I am so happy that you exist and you are here right now.”
Maksym gives me the same hug and says, “Sofia, do a dance. We have a bottle of wine. Ira’s friend from Poland, the reporter, brought it.”
I sit down in the red armchair under the window, light up a cigarette, and realize that things are almost as they have always been. We’re about to have dinner, just like we used to, we can stop working for a bit, and perhaps, for the first time since it all began, speak in sentences longer than, “I’ve got three families from Donetsk, and I can house two, can you find room for the third?” We will have some illegal wine.

Please, Just Leave Us Alone
This was before the shortage of petrol, but after the ban on alcohol sales. Maksym picked me up from my office in his car an hour before curfew. He had heard that my guests from the East did not make it.
Maksym works in alternative education. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he has been helping teachers and students set up learning in evacuation. He also takes humanitarian aid to the regions near the front. His car was shot at multiple times. It took him forever to find replacement glass, and for a while his very expensive vehicle sported a large hole taped over with scotch-tape. He has a deferment from the military service, but he is getting himself ready to go to the front. A saint.
During those days, the highway from Kyiv to Lviv was one single traffic jam. The family with a small child who were supposed to stay with me for three days decided to spend the night in a hotel hallway. They were lucky there was room for them in the hallway. To be alone in the beginning of the war meant two things: one, that you had an apartment (which was good), and two, that you were putting yourself in danger (not so good).
Alone, you might not hear the air-raid siren and die in a rocket strike.
Nothing had hit the city yet, but you were getting used to the idea that you were mortal. And that every day you were still alive was like winning a lottery: you got lucky.
The city would empty out about an hour ahead of curfew (at 22:00); during the day, it acquired the look of an impregnable bastion, ready to take the hit—sandbags and check-points everywhere. The boot of our car was like a mobile supply depot of a military unit. We had three bullet-proof vests, four helmets, pain-killers of various strength, chemical protection suits, tourniquets, Israeli bandages, a dozen of first-aid kits, two boxes of canned food, three canisters of petrol, and a ton of various smaller bits and pieces. The following day, all this was supposed to go to Kharkiv. All this was pulled together in half-a-day, as soon as my friend heard folks were leaving the next morning. You could get anything necessary on the front-lines in the city in those days. Our city became the main sorting point for equipment and humanitarian aid that flowed into Ukraine, while Ukrainians all over Europe were raising money and buying up gear. In a few days, you would not find a single bullet-proof vest or a tourniquet in Poland, and a week later Germany was similarly cleaned out. In this manner, zig-zagging between check-points and wiring money to the military, we moved toward our Ukrainian dream: to be finally left alone, so we could just live our own life as an independent country.

Feminism in Ukraine Has Won
“It is official: Feminism has won. The girls are saving the country, and we are making dinner,” says my friend, Andriy.
He works in IT, and the war caught him on a business trip abroad. On the morning of February 24, the air space above Ukraine was closed and all flights canceled. Andriy traveled thousands of miles to get back, and finally crossed the border on foot. Men are prohibited from leaving the country until the end of the war. Andriy knew this but could not fathom not coming back. As soon as he returned, he went to the enlistment office, but was turned away.
“Someone has to make money to buy the drones,” they said. “We’ll call you if we need you.”
So: the three guys are making dinner while we are finishing work. Anna is negotiating with a group of international lawyers—we keep hearing the word ‘tribunal’ but politely ignore the conversation. Anna is a lawyer; one of the youngest to make partner at her firm. Before the war, she worked with business clients, but began taking on human rights cases in 2014. In most of these, she represented, usually pro bono, victims of political persecution, and she lobbied tirelessly for the release of Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Anna began collecting evidence of war crimes–the evidence that will eventually help take russia to court for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Ira is on the phone all the time. “Yes, we have a home for you in Krakow, Witek will pick you up at the border… There’s a family waiting for you in Rzeczow, they are happy to put you up for three days, until we can arrange transport for you to Vienna or Prague, wherever you want…” Before this invasion, Ira was an art curator: she organised exhibits of Ukrainian art in Europe and brought the work of European artists to Ukraine. Over years, she amassed a vast network of contacts all over the world which was now very helpful in evacuating women, children, and the elderly away from the russian bombs and occupation.
I am prepping for my next broadcast. I call a young, successful and intelligent writer to invite him to join a national marathon tomorrow: a shared broadcast by the country’s biggest channels that would run for 24 hours. He holds a pause and then says, “The intellectuals can all fuck off, I’m going to the front, I won’t be here to talk,” and laughs confidently.
I know it is himself and his previous life he is telling to fuck off as he prepares to take up arms. I laugh hard back at him. Ira interrupts her flow of phone calls.
“It’s so funny, I now talk to the air-raid sirens like I talk to my alarm clock. I make a deal and go back to sleep.”
“Got it. We’ll wake you up.”
“Can’t I just sleep?”
“We won’t sleep, so you won’t get to sleep either.”
“Either that, or we’ll get hit, and that’ll be the end of us. It’s a lottery.”
An air-raid siren wails, and we go to the basement.

The Dreamers
The raid lasted just under an hour. We returned to the apartment. We are six: three girls and three guys. In our previous lives, we worked, went on Tinder dates, flew to Berlin for parties, and bought art. We were the generation who had no memory of the Soviet Union. We were practically children when we got involved in the Revolution of Dignity in 2013, when our nation’s leadership did something unacceptable: used force against unarmed protesters. At the cost of those first lost lives and our collective grief, we won the right to determine our own destiny—until the russian regime interfered, annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine’s East. It was some time then that we grew up.
With no experience but learning quickly, we became part of the Ukrainian Youthquake. We were into fashion and art, and spoke several languages. By the age twenty, we had mastered wine pairings and gone to the world’s most important art museums. In 2014, when war began in our country, we realised we were mortal—and fell deeper in love with life. We had successful careers in creative industries that we built fairly, from the ground up, on merit and with faith in the future of our country.
And now our greatest joy is a chance to have dinner together. The guys started the water for the pasta, mixed up the sauce, and washed the vegetables for the salad, (we are the bourgeoisie who eat fresh vegetables even during a war).
The dinner was ready. We poured out our one priceless bottle of wine. It came out to about six sips for each of us.

Miss Ukraine 2022
Andriy was still on the phone, and we decided to start eating with him. Most of us remembered we had not eaten for two or three days—and not because there was no food. On the contrary, a hoarder instinct awoke in all of us, the genetic memory of previous wars and Holodomor, and ever since the first news of the possibility of a full-scale invasion started coming last autumn, we all put an extra can or two into our shopping carts on each trip. We did not eat because our bodies pumped out so much adrenaline they could only function on coffee and cigarettes. The only time you remembered about food was when someone put a cooked meal right in front of you.
Ira spoke first.
“You know, I got out of the bath this morning and saw myself in the mirror for the first time since it started. I mean, I had looked before, but just to make sure I didn’t have toothpaste all over my face. This time, I actually looked at myself. I’m all ribs.”
“Don’t catastrophise things. After we win, ours will be the land of the models, the way they looked in the 90s—“heroin”, pardon me, “war-time” chic. We’ve got our very own time machine here.”
“Listen, I never believed it when women in the movies about the Second World War had these nice tidy hair-dos, and wore dresses, and red lipstick—but look at Sofia now: full make-up and perfect hair. It’s like there’s no war,” Maksym teases me.
I realise I had not washed my face since the broadcast, so I look like I’m dolled up for a party. When I became a broadcaster, I hated that slick hair, the heels, the make-up. Now I feel like I’m one of about ten women left in the city who wear make-up. I usually wash my face and pull my hair into a bun before I leave the office; I feel very embarrassed to walk down the streets with my face all painted. Today, I forgot to do that, too. But that’s his fault: he distracted me with his talk.

Hedonism Days
“They keep bombing Kyiv,” Ivan says. He is an artist, and thanks to Ira, his work is known around the world. His pieces can be found in institutional collections all over Europe. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he designs interiors for the newly built shelters that house temporarily displaced people.
“Just think, less than a month ago, a few days before the full-scale invasion, I was dancing in a bar in Kyiv. Against the backdrop of the alarming news, we were joking that those were our last days of hedonism. I mean, it sort of turned out like that, but it was all in a previous life.”
A long silence as we open and scroll through the news. We read about the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and Anna starts talking to fill the silence.
“I went and bought myself a piece of gold jewelry. I tell myself I could trade it for a loaf of bread, if it comes to that.” “Ha-ha! And if it doesn’t, how are you going to explain it to the children you will have after the war? The fact that you bought it during the war?” “Right, they’ll think you did it in between digging a trench and running around with a machine gun.” “And next to her, Sofia, with her perfect curls, flitted from one trench to the next and wished her viewers a very good day…” “I made a manicure appointment for next month: this is the only thing I managed to plan that far.” Anna at some point remembered the value of sustainable development, and determined to make plans not just for the day or the week, like everybody else, but for a month. We looked at her as if she were a mad prophetess. The war turned out to be different from what we had imagined. We would hide in bomb-shelters—but then go to a newly opened restaurant whose owner kept buying automobiles for the front. We would buy clothes from Ukrainian designers—and know that, while making the profit they needed to keep funding their businesses, they would donate a portion of the proceeds to the military. We could make a manicure appointment—thus providing employment for a woman who had arrived on the previous evacuation train from the East. Our former lives with parties and receptions to be attended in cocktail dresses felt very distant, but everything we brought back we did for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and our victory.
“We’ll cancel it for you if we have to,” Maksym jokes. He means in case a random rocket hits the building where we are. We roar with laughter. Anna has just raised the stakes in the lottery.

Basic Instinct
“Well, my friends, I have had calls from all my exes. Every one of them. They worry about me, bless them,” Andriy says, with a touch of pride.
“Calling is nothing,” Ira laughs. “Mine was coming from the safety of Europe to rescue me out of Ukraine.”
“Well, shit! What did you tell him?”
“Told him to fuck off at first. Then I told him if he was coming anyway, our shelter needed some basic drugs. And that I was not going anywhere: this is my country, this is my home, and I’ll die here if I have to,” Ira says.
“Hey, Andriy, did you tell your exes how crappy your libido gets under air-raids?”
Even here, far away from the front-lines, we had forgotten about sex and sexuality. We put on the same clothes day after day because making a different choice required an effort. The chats on our phones exploded with messages. We wrote “How are you?” to friends from the cities that russians hit what felt like every minute. Certain words lost their significance. We knew we had to tell our friends, of all genders, “I love you” if that’s how we really felt. Love for one’s own, and hatred of the enemy—this is what helped us get out of bed in the morning (on those exceptional mornings when the air-raid sirens did not do it).
“I feel the opposite,” Anna says. “I really want to have sex with those guys in uniform and to have their babies. Only how am I supposed to have babies in the world where they won’t close the sky and children get used to sleeping in shelters, and all their games are about war?” She raises her eyes at us.
“I miss my son. I keep thinking of the day I put them on the train. My son and my wife left the country, and I won’t be able to see them any time soon. I cried on my way from the station. But they will live,” Ivan blurts.
Most people left because of the children. Women bundled infants in their warmest clothes and took them to the other side of the border. They crossed an imaginary line beyond which the sky was secured by NATO and wept at the despair of having left their homes. We don’t know who has it worse: we who had stayed or those who had left. To be on the other side of the border, near or far, is to live in a normal world, but without losing touch with our broken one. When you are ostensibly safe on the other side of that line, you feel every piece of news even more acutely. The women who left put their children above their own interests or mental health. They are alone in a foreign country where they cannot afford a nanny, and do not have their parents or a partner who could watch the kid while they go for a walk alone. Their lives revolve around their children and the news of casualties in their native cities. But to remain in Ukraine would have meant to put one’s child in danger. Most do not wish their children to play the lottery.

Adrenaline Roller-coaster Park
“If you are going to spread pessimism, I’ll kick you out of the apartment. Better let me show this video of how our nice Bayraktars blow up russian tanks. Look, there was a column of tanks—and now there is not.”
I look up with tears in my eyes.
“But what if we lose Kyiv? What if we never get Mariupol and Kharkiv back?”
The waves of adrenaline that made us capable of working two or three jobs and volunteer in-between would give way to deep pits of despair. Whenever that happened, the most important job was to support the person, to pull them out as quickly as possible. And then to keep working, working, leaving no opportunity for another fall.
“Even if they take them, we’ll get them back. Look, look: a nice little Bayraktar is flying through the sky… and there are fields below it, pretty summer fields…”
“Feel better? If not, I’ll give you my wine. These six sips are not going to make a difference.”
“Thank you, a little better. I can’t take your wine.”
We watched a lot of russian content, too, to understand what people there were concerned about. It made us sick, but we could not stop. All of us at least read russian, and this gave us the tool to, let’s be frank about it, locate some hope that their society would organise, would protest, that they would begin fighting the regime from inside while we battled it at the front. Our hopes were in vain. Instead, we saw Instagram stories about the pain of sanctions (are you serious?) and threats to our President.
We grew up very early, just like the majority of our compatriots. While people of our age out in the West spent time wondering where they would apply for college after a few gap years, we were managing enormous projects and founding successful businesses. After the Revolution of Dignity, we learned very well that we needed to live life to the fullest and take responsibility for our every action.
We finished the food and the wine. It was a few minutes before midnight—we went to bed.

The Ukrainian Dream
The other day a well-known writer asked me whether I knew how to build my life from now on.
I realised I did not. I cannot plan or dream; I don’t know whether I will be alive tomorrow. But we are all certain that none of this is in vain. We are not afraid at all. We, young, beautiful, and accomplished, slept three to a bed that night. Yes, we just slept. We spent all our savings on assistance to the Ukrainian military. We worked twelve-hour days for our Ukrainian dream. Each of us, curiously, had something unique in mind, but this did not matter. We wanted one thing: for the russians to leave us alone so we could go on developing our careers, starting families, and renovating our homes not as a means of dealing with obsession but because we were confident no enemy rocket would strike it the next day. All of this is yet to come—when russia finally leaves us alone. In the early hours of the morning, the air-raid siren sounded, but we decided to ignore it. Rockets did not hit Lviv that day; we survived, and we had one more day to be young.

Translated by Nina Murray


Sofia Cheliak is programme director of Lviv BookForum as well as a TV host, cultural manager, translator from Czech into Ukrainian, and PEN-Ukraine member.


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.