With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, poet and dramatist Liubov Iakymchuk writes for PEN Atlas in an exclusive dispatch about saboteurs, families divided, Russia’s exporting of fear, and the new resolve of the people.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Steve Komarnyckyj

Here, in Ukraine, we follow the latest forecasts of the provocations from Russia as closely as we used to follow the weather reports. We’ve given up watching TV series and just look at the news, which has become like a dystopian novel. Every day here feels like a year, but we are getting smarter as well as older. We have learned to be vigilant and all our attention is focused on the border. At last we have realised that the boundary between us and Russia exists.

There is one weird thing in all of this. If you cross the Eastern border of Ukraine, which is brimming with plantations of apricot trees, and enter Russia, you notice that there are far fewer apricot trees in the country that you are entering. The apricot trees define the territory more clearly than any border guards or crossing points, separating our own from foreign ground. It is as if they show us that this border takes us to another world, where there is only a weak connection between people and reality. Where people believe the television when it says that everyone loves Putin. However, in Angela Merkel’s words, the Russian President has lost his grip on reality.

They don’t let every Ukrainian across this ‘apricot’ border now, especially not journalists. At best, those rash and brave enough to cross might be interrogated for five hours or more and then released, like in the case of the journalists from the Ukrainian TV station 5 Kanal. In the worst case scenario, those who make this crossing might simply disappear. At least that’s the fear spreading throughout these border areas.

On the other side, where there are no apricots, the Russians have established military encampments and field hospitals, 50 km from the border. A huge Russian military force is gathered there; they reconfigure them occasionally and the numbers of personnel vary, but not by much. There are no exact figures but it’s rumoured that there are hundreds of thousands.

Ukrainian citizens live on this side of the border with its abundance of budding apricot trees. People are compelled to live with the daily fear of the ‘contagion’ of military personnel on the border, this abscess which grows daily, which might push through the boundary and turn into war. All normal people here want to avoid this, of course. Even here in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, where there was always a low level of civic activism, people go to anti-war protests in bigger numbers than during the Euromaidan. The common enemy has compelled a usually passive population to rise up and we probably need to thank our foe for that.

My mother’s cousin, who lives near the Russian side of the border, asked my parents, who live close to the border on the Ukrainian side, ‘Isn’t it time you fled Ukraine?’ My parents found these words laughable, a consequence of the hatred for Ukrainians that is preached in Russia. The result of this cultivated antipathy is that three quarters of Russians would support the Kremlin in the event of a war breaking out with Ukraine. Perhaps our Russian relatives are ready to support this war too, perhaps they will be delighted when bombs drop on Ukraine where they were born. This cultivated fear is meant to divert the attention of Ukrainians and allow Russia to send troupes of provocateurs into the east of Ukraine. These people arrange skirmishes, support their own self-proclaimed governors, and ultimately try to amputate this part of Ukraine. The Russian army is massing by the border and the men in green who may be Russian intelligence troops or local militia have begun appearing in the streets of east Ukrainian towns.

A war with Ukraine is supported by 74% of the people in Russia. The awareness of such a statistic is enough to drive you mad, and many people have gone mad, including those on the Ukrainian side, and their symptoms are distinctly Putinesque. The Donetsk separatists, who are instructed by the leading Kremlin political scientist, Aleksandr Dugin, have already noted down what they need to do to make sure Donbass becomes Russian. The key points of their plan are as follows: don’t go to work, disrupt the Ukrainian presidential elections, take up arms, seize power locally, and open the eastern borders. This is so Russians can ‘save’ Ukrainians from themselves and restore the dictator Yanukovych to power. So the Kremlin trains separatists via Skype and, I suspect, terrorists as well. Neither European nor American sanctions will affect the pace of events; they will only reinforce the creation of an image within Russia of America and Europe as foes.

One of the worst things about this is that family relationships are being ruined on different sides of the ‘apricot’ border. This may be endured and healed over in time. The worst aspect of the situation is that the Russian aggressor, who has for long enough held their fellow citizens in fear, is managing to extend this terror to Ukrainians. Fear and terror, the satellites of the Russian empire, grow like tumours, longing to occupy all the space that can be occupied, and transform everything into a cancerous growth. The most pervasive fears on the Ukrainian border within the Russian-speaking population are the fear that the Russian language may be prohibited, the fear of the mythical ‘banderites’ (Ukrainian nationalists who form a fictitious internal enemy) and the fear that there may be a Maidan tax (but no one really knows what this might be). These fears are ruining people’s ability to consider things right.

However, fear can affect other people differently, sometimes even positively. It summons up a feeling of unity with one’s people against an external enemy. Even though the east of Ukraine has been relatively passive in the past, it is not without hope and action now. The fear of war provokes not only the usual chat in the kitchen but also draws people out to demonstrate in city streets and squares, becoming visible like the blossoming apricot trees on the Ukrainian border.



Liubov Iakymchuk is a Ukrainian poet and dramatist who was born in Pervomaysk, Luhansk Province in 1985. After graduating from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy she worked as a radio broadcaster, screenwriter, and independent journalist. She is the author of such collections of poetry as U Chotyrokh Stinakh (Within Four Walls) and ​Yak MODA (How FASHION). She has won several poetry prizes notably the international Slovyanska poetychna premiya (Slavic poetry prize). The Anglo-Ukrainian music project Afrodita was created on the basis of her verses: http://www.olesyazdorovetska.com/index.php/ensembles/78-aphrodite