Olena Stiazhkina
April 2015

Country, War, Love: Excerpts from the Donetsk Diary

Donetsk, March 1, 2014 

Can you fall in love at a precise, predetermined time?  For example, on Saturday, at 7:22PM?1

I used to think that the time of birth written on babies’ hospital bracelets was some sort of medical formality.  But then a friend told me that it’s important for horoscopes.  The hours and minutes, not just the day and month.  A staggering amount of variation comes from this.  A person’s fate depends on whether the sun is ascendant or descendant.

To go crazy - in a good way - you have to give birth.

Those numbers on the bracelet mark the precise time when love will come to you.

Probably not for everyone.  But many people remember it, know it.

You take the little one in your arms, you look into its eyes - and you fall for it.  You sink.  With no resistance, you sink and sail away into happiness that knows no bounds.

Then, after – all those grown-up thoughts about how children mean problems and constant tiredness, how they don’t grow up how you want, how they won’t show you any gratitude and there’s no point waiting for it, how between the diapers and the antiseptics you might not notice how life is passing by and old age is creeping in, how there’s not even a glass of water or a crust of bread, how children are traitors and how if they’re going to love someone unconditionally, that will only be their children, our grandchildren…

Then, after - almost all the predictions come true, but the hopes do not.  They almost don’t come true.  Later nothing will be as sharp, as clear, as pure as that first time.  But you won’t lose that.

“It’s oxytocin, all a matter of hormones,” says my doctor friend. “Everything is different for men.”

That’s a good thing, that things are different for them.  That’s why they go crazy over Napoleons and Batmans.

Although my current megalomania is on a grander scale.

On Saturday, at 7:22PM, I took Ukraine in my arms. It was a long labor, 23 years.  It almost seemed that it wouldn’t make it.

I took her in my arms, looked into her eyes, and fell in love.  My dear little one, my sweetheart, my poor little thing, my one-and-only… My stupid happiness… Joy…

The diapers, tiredness, and anger are already over.  Sometimes she behaves badly.  But if we put every disobedient, shrieking child up for adoption, then why live at all?

So I kiss the crown of her head, breathe in her scent.  I love her.  Sometimes she even lets me sleep.

Your homeland is your child.  Not your mother.

Something like that…


May 16, 2014

The play Titus Andronicus is considered Shakespeare’s worst work.  It’s so bad that people even doubt if he was the author.

In this play there’s too much senseless evil, and there’s almost no logic to it.  Titus takes revenge on the queen of the Goths, Tamora.  The queen of the Goths takes revenge on him.  Aleksander Anikst counted it up: “fourteen killings, thirty four bodies, three severed hands, one severed tongue…” And then there’s the rape and the murder of children and even babies.

And it seems like all of this is for nothing.  Empty artifice, where every step only multiplies the volume of blood.  And at a certain moment, that blood, drunk on itself, takes over.  Blood and death for the sake of blood and death.  And for the sake of a roar of laughter from the temporary victor.  Senseless laughter...

Even for the 17th century this bacchanalia of horrors seemed ostentatious.

But no…

There’s nothing ostentatious about it.  Titus Andronicus is being acted out on the stages of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk, Horlivka, Luhansk.

Set design by Hieronymus Bosch.  A ship sailing to hell.  And a live tree in place of a mast, and a plump goose tied to it, and a broken branch for the wheel.  Going nowhere and for no reason.  And a church, yes.  A church.  Playing the lute.  To hell.  Sailing to hell and dragging to hell.  And the faces…faces which don’t exist, which can’t exist.  The feverish imagination of the artist.  Grotesque, you think?

He simply saw them.  Faces whose existence can’t be believed.  Civilization hides them and hides from them.  Hides from them; they’re all the same, as if they were rubbed out with a dirty eraser, with mouths not meant for speaking, only for wailing.  It takes centuries of faith to sympathize, commiserate with, understand these people…

For us, now, everything is all Shakespeare and Bosch.

Existence is difficult for people.  In choosing it, you have to consent to suffering.  “To be or not to be” – it’s a question for every day, every moment.  Freedom is an unbearable burden, where the endless “you” bears responsibility for the endless world.  It’s probably this weight that makes us say and write so much.  It’s the roll-call of the universe: “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here…”

It seems that non-existence is easier.

Maybe.  But that means death.  That’s death calling out, “Hear the Donbas.” These people don’t exist.  They don’t exist among themselves.  And all these years never happened.

Yanukovych, in reality, is their president.  It was through him that they multiplied their emptiness and magnified their personal non-existence in the world.  We are like him, he is like us.  He is ours.  He is us.  Not me.

There is no “I” here.  It hasn’t been cultivated, fostered, recognized as possible.

Collective coalescence above the abyss.  One more step and you’re gone – maybe you weren’t conscious, but you were alive.  Every living thing knows of its own death.  Somehow in the first or last fiber of its being.  And death cackles, weeps, and cries out: “Listen!  I’m here.  I’ve come for you.”

Yanukovych’s place was filled by Russia and Putin.  Not by itself.

To be is a burden.  Not to be is hell.

On the road to an invented, non-existent Russia, they were given weapons.  They saw it and prized it.  And through those weapons they entered reality.

The eternal nobody, the eternal zero, picked up an AK and became a soldier.  Then an officer, a commander.  That wailing death has become incarnate.  It has begun to act…

No one attacks them, but they sleep with a machine gun.  Because an AK has a voice.  It has its own intonation, even meaning. They, in contrast, they can only wail, with the pain of poverty, bad schools, the impossibility of living like someone’s son.

They are not sons, friends, brothers.  But there have never been any other means of social mobility in the Donbas, and there still aren’t.

Plundered and cast away.  Forgotten in cities that could be the sets for movies about any given war or any man-made catastrophe…forgotten in their homes, where half of the windows are busted.  Forgotten in their beds, which can’t even remember sheets or blankets.

They are twenty, forty, sixty.  They are women, and they are men. 

In their collective “we” there is weeping for justice, for incompleteness, for the impossibility of living like this.  And for ignorance there is weeping: what does it mean to live?  What does it mean to be?  As ourselves?

They need someone in charge.  A chieftain or a leader, it’s all the same.  They wander in cold darkness and cuddle up in whatever arms seem kindred.

The USSR was their Golden Age country.

The West has never felt such an acute desire to go “backwards.”  The last image of “backwards” was painted by Hesiod, and over time that has come to be taken as a fairy tale.

But fairy tales are cruel.  They are talismans for the naked, who try to crane their feeble necks for the sake of the past.  Tom Thumb in the woods, because parents can’t feed their children.  Little Red Riding Hood eaten by the wolf.  And if it hadn’t been for the woodsmen…An evil mirror in the hands of a stepmother.  Kai, turned to ice on the whims of the Snow Queen.

The past is dangerous, dear children.  Things are worse in the past than they are now.  Even if you have a fire starter, there’s no guarantee you will win.

The USSR is an eternal fairy tale.   A lure.  A trap.  An invented country calls out like a siren to come back and fall asleep.  To die.

Russia does not exist.  It has dissolved into a past that deceives it itself, just as it deceives these weak ones.

It is impossible to hear death.  But you can listen to it:  the cries of those killed, the machine gun fire, the salvos.  The conquering laughter.  The clicking of camera lenses.  Capturing another’s death for posterity.  To be precise: another’s, and yours.

Titus Andronicus on the deck of the Ship of Fools.


May 19, 2014

Franz Boas noted that in a single society at any given time there can be several chronological paradigms at work.  To put it more simply, people live in different historical eras, even though everyone’s calendar reads the 21st century.  Its fourteenth year.

Foraging as a way of life is one of the most widespread approaches in the Donbas.  It only seems that there’s nothing useful in the abandoned mines and torn-up asphalt.  But there is.  For example, there’s metal – both colorful and black.  There are manholes, the remnants of equipment, railroad tracks overgrown with grass but still made of solid cast-iron.

If you break them off or saw them off, if you steal or filch them out from under your neighbors’ noses, you can turn them in at the scrap yard.  Get some money.  Live off of it.

Stealing is not good.  But stealing means taking from your own kind.  And a manhole cover is just part of nature.

Nature belongs to everyone.  And gives to everyone.

The local policeman might not agree with this.  But not because he is upset over the loss of state property, but because he’s in charge.  The head honcho.  You have to share with the head honcho.  And then your hunt for manhole covers, for graveyard fences, for railroad ties will be successful.

The head honcho has connections “at the top.” Somewhere up there, in the sky, live the gods, with whom he must share.  They’re called Procurator, Judge, Mayor…

For your hunt to be successful, the gods have to be satiated and smiling.  And they do smile: from election campaign posters, on television.

And people understand: the gods are satisfied.  Our hunt will be successful…

Not only iron and metal.  There are also kopankas, little illegal coalmines.  Often deep.  But with no light, no insurance, without any equipment…Well, a pick, I guess.  It’s dark.  Scary.  And this is also nature.  Nature gives some people fish and bananas.  Others get coal.  A bit of coal.  It’s pulled out of the kopankas in buckets.  And carried in them.  Not home.  You can’t eat coal.  They take it to working mines.  The director is also a head honcho.  You have to share with him.  He doesn’t pay much, but he records the coal as belonging to the mine.

A foraging economy has no “tomorrow.” The future is unclear, fluid, and dangerous.  The future is a threat.  And no one is equipped to deal with it.  Every day of these new Ukrainian years was worse than the last.

That’s why there is a “great yesterday.” A golden age.  These people who are stealing manhole covers were once metallurgists or miners.  They got paid a salary.  The head honcho sat in the Kremlin.  He was just and strict.  Very strict.  Under his rule, the previous ruler, no one would have stolen.

And there was enough, things were predictable.  It was good.

Cash advances and salaries.  A lunch break.  If you were late, you got a stern talking-to…Chronic absenteeism would lead to being fired.  And maybe even prison.  But in prison they feed you.  And there’s a daily schedule.  And penal labor.  No one is afraid of labor.  Not prison, either.

Not everyone remembers the “great yesterday” anymore.  A new generation has grown up, and they know it only through pictures and stories.

This generation is the one that is hopelessly stealing manhole covers and climbing down into the “hole” at twelve years old.  And together with their fathers and grandfathers, they dream of going back.  Looking out of an airplane window, the plain of the Donbas looks like the surface of the moon.  Craters like kopankas.  Kopankas like craters.  And nothing more.  Adam and Eve.  Expulsion from paradise.

But these people don’t know what sin they’ve committed.  They think that the past was simply taken from them…By some enemy of the human race, someone evil, merciless.

Not someone from here.  Someone else.

Longing.  Such longing…


May 20, 2014

Did you know that tribes that forage don’t have bad gods?

Angry, irate, wrathful.  But not bad.

If a god is out of sorts, the people are at fault.  They did something wrong.  And that’s why you have bad luck while hunting, and your firstborn is a girl, and there’s no rain…

You have to placate your god.  And listen to him.  Intuit his moods, his intonations.  Give.  Give away.  Sacrifice.  And meekly wait: will it be accepted?  Will he take it?  Will he deign to?

Your own gods are never bad.

Only other people’s.

Other people’s gods are always bad.  They’re the ones who stole, deceived, mocked, destroyed.

Other people’s gods seem stronger than your own.  More wrathful and more ignoble, with a tendency towards betrayal and quick reprisals.

Compared to them, your own gods are children.  And children have to be defended.  People vote for their own, to save them.  They are their gods.  Otherwise there will be no hunting.  The rail ties won’t buckle and the coal from the holes in the ground will stay in its buckets.  And there won’t be anything to eat.

We know little about contemporary industrial paganism.  We deny it with some strange sort of haughtiness.

But what if your god was killed, died, or was driven away by others – how do you live?


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