In August of 2016, I was filling my hands with mattress in an apartment overlooking a position 300 meters to the southwest across an open field. Russian-backed separatists were knocking at it with large caliber mortars. The position, an abandoned industrial building connected I think with grain collection, was, I learned later, the Headquarters of the Battalion-sized mechanized infantry unit dug in about 500 meters to my east. Tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery on both sides conversed with each other, while I conversed with a God I’d forgotten existed.
How to describe an exchange? Terror at each loud, bone-rattling bang! that cracked the evening, in groups of five or seven or more. Terror when the Ukrainian Army fired back, scratching the night’s heavy quiet like nails dragged down a chalkboard during a test. Terror at the machinegun fire on both sides. A general sense of growing anxiety when silence dragged on too long—a minute or two meant something really furious was about to start. Pondering the extraordinary, like, “why have humans developed such destructive power, when outer space remains unexplored,” hoping that holding such thoughts might insulate me from madness. This particular fight went on for a couple hours, then intermittently flared up after. I’d never heard anything like it for so long, not even during two tours in Afghanistan.
The next morning, I, an interpreter, and a humanitarian aid volunteer—our host—took us to survey the damage. The morning wasn’t hot; I remember a whiff of autumn in the air, which had disappeared by noon. Another thing I remember was widespread and conspicuous superficial damage—destroyed buildings, fires, unrepaired roofs. We arrived at an apartment that had a chunk blasted out of its master bedroom. The lucky inhabitants (away for the evening) had returned to take stock of the damage. They let us in and strolled around, flabbergasted at their bad and good fortune, as catastrophe victims who live often do. There wasn’t much for me there; I heard their story and recorded it, but couldn’t actually fix anything. If I could have, besides, what difference would it have made?
Standing in the bedroom, looking out the hole, I did notice that it was impossible to determine the shell’s origin. Had an errant round fallen short, was this an episode of friendly fire? Or is that how the round had impacted, travelling at some obscure angle from the east? I wasn’t trained in post-blast or crater analysis, so I didn’t know. So much of the conflict in Ukraine is unknowable to the casual observer, and trying to sift through the misinformation, bias, and layers of historical propaganda and get at something approaching a truth is the work of years.
Why I decided to go to Ukraine of all places
Ukrainian patriots may excuse my ignorance of their country. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s there was never any compelling reason to learn about anything happening east of the Alps. Recent history was either finished and therefore an uninteresting abstraction, or so inchoate as not to be worth learning, as I thought as a sheltered young man. I doubt I knew of Ukraine’s existence until the mid-1990s, when an angry Ukrainian interrupted Kramer and Newman’s game of Risk on an episode of Seinfeld. I was vapid and insular.
Rumors of Ukrainian Mi-6 pilots flying provisions out to our distant Forward Operating Base during my first deployment to Afghanistan, with the 173rd Airborne, helped open me to the history eastern Europe. By then I was generally aware of Ukraine’s role in the world—another post-Soviet state muddling halfheartedly toward capitalism, stuck somewhere in the late 19th century model of plutarchy.
When Euromaidan started, I tried to travel there during my spring break at Columbia Journalism School, in February/March of 2014, and report on the revolution. There was a photo of Ukrainian Red Army veterans of Afghanistan protecting student protesters that fired my imagination; I wanted to talk to these people, to trade stories about Afghanistan, meet people with whom I’d shared a geographic if not temporal overlap. People who’d seen Afghanistan’s mountains from different vehicles, in the context of international communist revolution. I ended up working on my master’s thesis about systemic racism in the VA instead, in New York City.
But Ukraine stayed with me, the images of Euromaidan, of long-haired grizzled Soviet veterans of Afghanistan (whom Svetlana Alexievich called Afghantsi), the cheering yellow-and-blue cheeked youth, the overmatched army fighting a desperate defensive war against Russian aggression. I read vociferously about the place, and imagined my reception as an ally and friend.
Things didn’t work out at all how I thought. The first Afghantsi I met thought I worked for the CIA, and I was not able to shake this suspicion. I had unusual access as a result of people assuming a freelance journalist was actually working for The Agency—at least as far as the first meeting would go—and then, when people realized I really was simply a freelance journalist, they’d lose interest in working with me further.
Following opportunity, I embedded with a U.S. Army training mission in Ukraine’s West, and wrote about what I observed there. That piece went viral, and opened up reporting possibilities that had previously been closed to me; I traveled along with a group of journalists and freelancers to Mariupol, and then to Lviv and to Odesa, to do more sociological and cultural research. The longer I stayed, the more questions I had about the country and its people.
All told, I stayed about two months, cutting short my trip by a few weeks when I severely injured my left foot (a fracture of my left calcaneus that took years to heal properly). Two months was long enough to realize how much more I had to learn about the country—long enough to feel the rhythm of a foreign but intuitively familiar song. Long enough to see in the mysterious interplay between the town and the city a connection that I’d forgotten, echoes of a way of life that was ending in the United States just as I was being born.
Why I decided to go to back
Although it was clear to me by the fall of 2015 that Russia would not be pushing further in Ukraine, that the truly dangerous phase of the war was over, the alien-ness of the place still haunted me. Understanding a people about whom I knew so little, understanding a place that had witnessed so much history, and communicating that back to friends and countrymen felt like something important I could do on behalf of my own culture. I assumed, probably naively, that my writing abilities were sufficient to do Ukraine some justice. Given the relative lack of written material about Ukraine at the time, and even to a certain extent to this day, I also assumed that anything of sufficient quality would be better than nothing.
I traveled back to Ukraine in the winter of 2015-16 to write, and then again in the summer of 2016 to do a project for a non-profit organization (Center for Civilians in Conflict or CIVIC) reporting on harm being done to civilians living in the kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between Ukrainian and separatist-held territories. I ended up staying in Ukraine with a few breaks until September of 2017.
While there, it was possible to take a closer look at Kyiv’s monumental buildings, the wide boulevards, the public housing works thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s when Ukraine’s population kept booming upwards and outwards, and the battlefields (so many battlefields) of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.
The following two essays explain what I saw in Ukraine, and draw some conclusions about what is likely to occur there in the nearest future. From my home in Connecticut today, it all seems impossibly distant. Nevertheless, the photos of me with various people whose lives became entangled with my own, and mine with theirs, I feel obliged to attempt the task.