“War is normal for my son. He was four years old when it started. Now he’s ten and for the whole of his conscious life he has lived with the awareness that the Russian occupation is a running sore for Ukraine. Does it bother him? He simply doesn’t know that it could be otherwise,” says the Ukrainian writer Artem Chekh, author of Absolute Zero.
Łukasz Saturczak: You’re off to join the army. You are meant to go to war. You get on the train and… what next?
Artem Chekh: I spent the four months before I left for the front at the military training grounds near Crimea, in Kherson District, and this time allowed me to ‘come to terms’ with the war. I was already carrying my weapon quite well. I had friends and had shrugged off the fear that had been troubling me during the first couple of weeks, which was due to my lack of experience. When we arrived by train at the front, I think I was ready for any and all difficulties. I remember that Donbas was eerily silent when we got there; as it turned out, our first weeks were suspiciously peaceful. I think we were quite simply given a psychological advantage and, before the shelling got going, we were already morally adapted to being at war. During this time, I ticked off many firsts: my first time in a military training ground, my first time on post and my first time at combat readiness. Each first makes you feel equally lost. You check out the terrain; you sigh deeply but, in the end, you get on with the job.
Absolute Zero begins with your arrival at the military training camp. We know very little about your life before the war. You were living in Kyiv, had a wife and, for years, had dreamt that they would call you up to the army, which is precisely what happened. You write: “I’ll either be a hero or a coward.” So where were the doubts? Didn’t you want to run away when you got the letter? Weren’t you afraid?
I learnt about my call-up from my father-in-law. He told me about it calmly, when we were resting at our dacha: “You know, I thought I might not tell you, but your call-up papers came.” Of course, I could have pretended that nothing had happened. I could have decided not to sign up and continued my life in Kyiv – finished my book, gone to the office and worked on boring advertising texts. Of course, I thought about not going to war. I was afraid. I was frightened by the uncertainty. It was going to be a year spent goodness knows where, with goodness knows whom. I had never held a gun in my life, let alone aimed one at someone. Why would I have? Is that what I was born to do? Was this my destiny? To die at 30 on the steppes of eastern Ukraine? Yet, on the other hand, the war had lasted a year already and that whole time I had had this nagging feeling that I should be there, serving my country and defending its territorial integrity. I was particularly troubled by the period when there were flare-ups at the front: Ilovais’k, the airport [in Donetsk] and Debal’tseve. You could watch the war online; sit in your office and watch it on YouTube. To be precise, you snatch glimpses of it fearfully through your fingers, because you are not there and the only reason you’re not there is your own fear and laziness. If you don’t go, will you ever be able to forgive yourself? From the perspective of my own experience and the historical facts, today I wouldn’t torture myself with such emotional and edgy thoughts.
You write: “I was one of the few boys who, when reading War and Peace, skipped the bits about war.” When you got to the training camp, on the one hand, you noticed that you were among recruits whom you didn’t know (there was no-one similar to you – no employees from a Kyiv advertising agency) but, on the other hand, you quickly realized that you were all in the same predicament and that you were all equal from then on. Did this teach you humility?
It took around two months before I understood that we were all equal; that we were all in the same boat and that therefore we must all look after each other. I remember, during my training, that from the entire detachment of over 100 people, only two had no previous military experience. They trained us up, starting from the assumption that we all knew how to assemble and take apart an assault rifle and that we knew the basics of military reality. And I couldn’t do anything – I knew nothing. So, the boys had to help me. They taught me how to assemble my rifle, lace my boots correctly, and avoid trench foot and blisters. They called me ‘The Journalist’ and ‘Charlie’ (after the French satirical weekly magazine). By the time we got to the front, there was no great difference between us. Despite this, I often heard them refer to me jokingly as ‘city kid’, or ‘hack’, but I never felt disparaged for my lack of military experience. And as for humility? It’s not about me.
You were also treated with suspicion. You write: “It really irritates them that I’m digging about in my phone, that I’m always smoking and drinking coffee, that I speak in proper, literary Ukrainian. That is called suspiciousness between the classes. But this all disappears after the first 50 grammes [of vodka] and of course the potatoes with pork fat. Pork fat brings people together.” I wonder where that mutual sizing each other up comes from? You had recently all stood together on Maidan Square in Kyiv [the site of the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014, which led to the ousting of the elected president Viktor Yanukovych and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government – ed. note]; company CEOs and people from the lower rungs of society, young and old, people from the east and the west of the country, and all under banners with the slogan ‘One Ukraine’.
I wouldn’t compare the war to Maidan. I used to go to there with my friends; the same type of corporate rats as me, and in the evenings I went home. I didn’t have to share my ‘last crumb of bread’ with a visiting Hutsul [an ethnic group from western Ukraine – ed. note] or a Siverian pensioner [an ethnic group from northern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – ed. note]. I knew I had somewhere to run away to; somewhere to hide. Until the very last moment, we believed that no-one would actually fire on civilians in a European capital city… However, at war you have nowhere to run away to; nowhere to hide. You cannot say: OK, I’m done. I’m off home. There is an order and you have a duty. Now you have to stand alongside those who you’ve been thrown together with by fate. You have no choice. You can change detachment, but there aren’t going to be any philosophy doctoral students there, more likely miners and farmers. Yet on the other hand, it was a fabulous opportunity to get to know my compatriots who don’t fit my usual social bubble.
You write in your reportage that you met very few people in the war who had taken part in Maidan. Why do you think that is?
It’s very simple. There weren’t many active participants from Maidan at the front. The majority of those who went to the front from Maidan were mobilized before 2015. Some of them died. I served alongside a lot of people from eastern and southern Ukraine; i.e. the regions where, delicately speaking, the ideals of Maidan were never popular. Instead, what was popular was the defence of one’s homeland. We never talked about it, but we all knew that what had led us all to the trenches was an external aggressor and not a common internal enemy.
From the first pages of Absolute Zero the reader feels more in the world of Catch-22 than All Quiet on the Western Front. Was the humour an attempt to put the whole situation into perspective, or was it that returning home and writing about it allowed you to find that perspective? Did you not get some grief for being too flippant about the subject?
More than half of Absolute Zero was written while I was still serving and there was much more comedy than I could ever manage to put in the book. The whole military lifestyle was much more akin to Yossarian’s adventures than the valiant actions of Paul Bäumer and Stanislaus Katczinsky. In the early months, I found it difficult to accept everyday army life, but I didn’t lose the ability to mix it up with comedy or the absurd. To a great extent, this harked back to the Soviet legacy which, despite the new trends, has left its mark on the Ukrainian army. I was steeped in this all the time.
I’m standing in Staff HQ, in front of the Colonel, the battalion commander, who is giving me a dressing down about an inconvenient truth I posted about on Facebook. At the same moment, a Deputy Minister calls me and starts quizzing me about this inconvenient truth. And when I explain myself to the Colonel, he eventually gives me a kilo of cheese and asks me not to write any more, but I cannot make him any promises. I go back to my military post and realize that, while I was away, our food rations had come; one kilogram of cheese per person. Now, what am I supposed to do with two kilos? Similar stories can be told over and over, because they happened for as long as I was serving. When the book came out, it didn’t occur to anybody to complain about its content or structure. Everyone understood it. Sometimes I had to explain that I hadn’t described many things because I didn’t want to discredit the Ukrainian army. Pluralism and free speech in Ukraine have reached a very high level in the last five years.
And everybody was writing stuff. You have a piece in the book where you point out that, apart from the war at the front, there was also a sort of information war going on. Someone slandered or praised someone else in a blog and that went out into the world. That’s not particularly helpful in battle. It’s demotivating. Or am I perhaps mistaken and it was some form of therapy? Or maybe a way of breaking the feeling of powerlessness, because as the war goes on and on, and no-one knows when it will finish, people should at least find out what it looks like from my perspective; let them learn the truth straight from the front and not from newspapers and television.
There were information detachments in the army. Their duties included preventing the army being discredited. It is an important task. I naively wanted to let people know that it was not me discrediting the army, but the officers who were stealing and cooperating with the enemy; those who were sabotaging the mobilization, recruiting the wrong people into the army: alcoholics or ex-prisoners (although I must admit that there were many decent and motivated people among them). My actions changed our daily reality for the better, because the army command didn’t particularly want to get into a fight with ‘that’ journalist, but I was unable to make changes on a wider scale because, among the legions of military ‘bloggers’, my voice couldn’t be heard. In the end, I concentrated on describing our everyday lives and making military sketches.
Your reportage is peppered with contrasts; you write about how you went back to Kyiv on leave. You write about it as your city, but simultaneously you point out how much it has changed, how you don’t understand why people are not mobilizing for the fight, why they aren’t carrying rifles, why they are so relaxed and normal when there’s a war going on. Since the book was published, none of this has really changed, has it? There are growing numbers of Donbas veterans and each of them finds it hard to settle into this new world, to return to ‘normality’, to understand that, in spite of the war, those in Kyiv and the rest of the country are getting on with their own lives and many people are not interested in the conflict.
Everything has changed for me; to such an extent that the ongoing war has stopped having any meaning for me. I rarely read the news about events at the front. I don’t really follow what’s going on in the east and I avoid meeting up with veterans. I understand that it was a valuable and important experience, but it’s over now. I don’t want to sanctify that time. My life goes on and I don’t necessarily have to look to the past every time and remind others and myself that I went to war. But then, when I was in service and got some leave, I thought that the whole country, the whole civilized world, ought to revolve around events in Donbass. The enemy was (and still is) so obvious that the whole of Europe should throw everything at it in order to defeat it. We know how the Munich Agreement ended: once Czechoslovakia had been annexed, the two dictatorships started to carve Poland up between them. I wanted to scream. Despite the presence of death, I only felt truly alive there, in Donbass. But that is a psychological factor.
As we’ve been talking, I am even more struck by the fact that, in essence, you wrote a book about loneliness: an abandoned country, a war of which everyone has had enough, lost soldiers who can’t settle back into reality, a lack of communication. You write, of course, about comrades in arms, relationships, and about the fact that you help each other and can count on each other but, ultimately, you are left alone with your trauma, alone in a place that you understand less, alone with the book you are writing.
I can’t tell you any longer whether I felt lonely or not. Other emotions were stronger; the animal instinct of self-defence; the military nesting – where you are constantly trying to create normal everyday life; the sense of fear – theoretically, you have become inured to it, but it never quite leaves you. Maybe loneliness was also hiding in among all those emotions. During my military service there were moments, particularly at the start, when I felt lonely. But it always passed and something else came to the forefront. It was probably loneliness at an existential level, when individuality prevails over the sense of community, but that sort of loneliness rarely struck me. The army is a community and you can feel it at the level of thoughts and emotions. You wake up with the boys all in the same mood.
We read in Absolute Zero: “Write about all this lunacy, ‘Kaco’ tells me. Write it down now because later you’ll forget it. You’ll lose the urge and you’ll only remember the good bits.” Is that how it is in reality? After several years, do you only remember the good things?
I have a good memory. Now I have the whole picture and, hypothetically, I can choose what to write about and what to leave out; I can pick and choose what I think is worth including. ‘Kaco’ said this to me in the third month, when I still had another 12 months to go. During that time, I saw things which made a deep impression on me. I saw, I absorbed, I analysed. For every writer, war makes fantastic material, but it would be better not to have it.
During the conflict, quite a lot of important literature was written; apart from Absolute Zero Point, the poetry collection Abrykosy Donbassu [The Apricots of Donbas] by Lyubov Yakymchuk was published. Serhiy Zhadan wrote the excellent Boarding School, and there was an influx of new Ukrainian writers from the east of the country, not to mention the multitude of reportage that was made across the whole country. These are just a handful of examples. Do you think that this explosion of literature is being driven by the awareness, or sensitization, of people to what is going on in the east? Or are you sceptical and the Kyiv that you saw on leave, full of people with no interest in the war, is still the same today?
Hanna Skorina, author of the project #Books_about_the_war (#Книги_про_війну) is creating a catalogue of books on the subject. If I am not mistaken, there are already over 600. These books have been written not just by writers and journalists, but also by volunteer soldiers and charity workers; people who had never written anything before. I don’t want to discuss the quality of this literature, because I haven’t read much of it. It is certainly very valuable material for Ukrainian history, including facts from the trenches, shot out directly from the line of fire. For many of the authors, their books were a form of therapy. By publishing a volume of poetry or a novel about the war, these writers can understand and become aware of their own significance: I was there, I saw, I wrote, I published.
The war itself provokes lively curiosity in society when the situation at the front heats up, above all in that part of society that I can see from my bubble. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. In theory, everyone has got used to events in Donbas. They are accustomed to the bad news: a soldier was killed, three more died. These people are just numbers; they are no different from the statistics about road deaths, or deaths from influenza. A friend recently remarked that the current situation at the front is good, compared to what could be happening if the Russian army had occupied half of Ukraine’s territory. That’s why it would be better for the current status to be maintained. For my son, war is normal. He was four years old when it began. Now he’s 10 and he has lived through his entire conscious life knowing that the Russian occupation is a running sore for Ukraine. Does it bother him? He simply doesn’t know that it could be otherwise.
Do you see anything positive in this tragic situation? I have the impression that the war has brought Ukrainians closer together, not just under an anti-Russian flag, but it has enabled them to get to know each other. For many years, Ukrainians lived in their own enclaves, not travelling to other towns, because what was the point of going from Kharkiv to Chernivtsi, or from Odessa to Lutsk. This built up a mutual antipathy; people from Lviv referred to those from Donetsk as ‘zombies’, and they retorted by calling them ‘Banderites’ [after the far-right nationalist squads who fought on after World War II – ed. note]. Today, during the era of great emigration, these people have to coexist. They must live alongside each other and get to know each other.
You’re right, but I don’t know to what extent that integration is actually taking place in Ukraine. Obviously, some people from the east understand that it’s not worth calling everyone who lives west of Poltava a ‘Banderite’. Some people from western Ukraine started to look at the good-hearted miners from Donbas in a new light, but on what scale this is happening, I don’t know. Up to now, I have watched the malice and prejudice flow from both sides, and I give in to stereotypes myself, but at the same time I don’t see anything bad in them. From the historical point of view, the identity of the inhabitants of each region developed separately, very often in response to the imperial mechanisms deployed by neighbouring states. For example, in the first half of the 20th century, Russia tried to wipe out the Ukrainians, they were transported to the north and the empty Ukrainian lands were settled by Russians. The children of these Russians are drawn to everything Russian. The same can be said about eastern Galicia or Zakarpatska… Here you can see Polish and Hungarian influences, and the people who live there have a Central European mentality. The stereotypes are justified. Weaker individuals succumb to them more easily. Despite its unity, Ukraine is so divided that the only thing which integrates it is great danger. Although this, too, is open for discussion, because this particular danger was brought on us by a specific, unstable part of Ukraine that morbidly believes in the promise of easy and free benefits, that pathologically rejects Western values, which, according to them, lead to same-sex marriages and Protestant ethics. Can these different mentalities ever reach agreement? They might be able to come to a mutual understanding, but I don’t know if they will be able to carve out a common direction for political and social development.
Towards the end of the book, we read that many things during your military service were worthwhile experiences; even if someone cheated or stole from you. Having finished your military service, what really was an experience for you and what new things did you learn about your country as a result of learning to live alongside and accepting people who were strangers to you before the war?
Military service itself was an endless discovery of a world to which I had previously had no access because of my love of home life. I could mention hundreds of significant and thousands of tiny things that my experience of military service brought me; from becoming accustomed to living in a closed and problematic collective, to thinking about (and even becoming aware of) the concepts of life and death. I know that sounds pretty grandiose, but you can’t avoid it. It may seem unimportant, but to spend 14 months with an automatic rifle, which was with me all the time apart from my three short bouts of leave, is also part of that experience. Not sleeping several days on the trot, not washing for two weeks, feeling the brotherly love and the brotherly indifference. Living and limiting ourselves to what is at hand. Missing our loved ones desperately. Living in the ground. Shooting. Feeling animal fear. Not all of these experiences are beneficial; sometimes they are damaging. But they all happened to me and I cannot just run away from them.
Do you regard Absolute Zero as a record of that particular time? I have the impression that even if you did your military service today, the book wouldn’t be all that different from the one you have given the reader.
If I were to do my military service now and simultaneously write a book, I’m sure the book wouldn’t be all that different from the one I published. But if I were to start to write now about my military service, I would put the emphasis elsewhere and focus on different aspects. There would be less haranguing of the commanders and less about everyday military life, and more stories about people. That’s why I haven’t entirely ruled out writing a sequel to Absolute Zero. Now I could write with more confidence. When I was working on the text, my memory was fresh. I felt their breath on my collar. Too often, I got telephone calls asking after the health of my family… They don’t call me any longer, because I ignored their calls.
Do you still dream about the army?
Sometimes I dream about the war. Sometimes I am dying, sometimes fighting. It’s good that they are not nightmares. They are normal dreams, like those about relaxing at the dacha, or about old school friends.
Artem Chekh (real name Artem Cherednyk):
Ukrainian writer born in 1985. Author of, among others, You Won’t Find This on Yandex (2007), Artist (2008), Doc 1 (2009), Pink Syrups (2012), A History of Motorsports in Ukraine (2013) and co-author of Awesome Ukraine. Interesting Things You Need To Know (2017). Editor-in-chief of the documentary projects: 94 Days: Euromaidan Through the Eyes of TSN [Television News Service] (2014) and War Through the Eyes of TSN (2015). From May 2015 to July 2016 he performed military service in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. His experiences from this period became the basis for his non-fiction book Absolute Zero (2017), which was shortlisted for the Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage. His latest book, District <<D>> (Район «Д»), was published in Ukraine in 2019.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
A high five for “Przekrój”? Or maybe a ten? By supporting PRZEKRÓJ Foundation, you support humour, reliability and charm.
Choose your donation