This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson
In Kiev it’s warm, and this year the chestnuts and lilacs have come into bloom ten days early. Kiev is especially beautiful in May and at this time of year the city brims with tourists. At the moment there are fewer people around than usual; the tourists are wary, concerned about their safety. After all, the east of the country is at war. And although Russian tanks have not crossed the Ukrainian border, the events in Donetsk, Luhansk and to some extent Kharkiv constitute war in every sense, crippling the country’s economy and damaging the people’s psyche.
The physical consequences of war can be effaced: fortifications dismantled, minefields cleared, cities and industry restored. But the psychological wounds take generations to heal and even then will never completely disappear. The 23 years of Ukraine’s independence were a peaceful time, the break-up of the Soviet Union occurring here without armed conflict. Throughout these years Russia was fighting in the Caucasus – Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia – and its troops were deployed in civil confrontations in Central Asia and Transnistria. Independent Ukraine is short on war in its history; however it’s also short an army.
In the early 90s, Ukraine’s army was 700,000 strong; its armaments included 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 2,600 tactical nuclear weapons. By surrendering its nuclear arsenal, Ukraine gained guarantees of its territorial integrity from the United States, Great Britain and Russia. What need does a country have of powerful armed forces when its security is guaranteed by the three biggest nuclear powers in the world? Who would even think of attacking such a country? Over the course of two decades, Ukraine reduced the size of its army nearly tenfold. Its combat-ready weaponry was used chiefly for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. No one could have imagined that one of its guarantor states would turn into an aggressor and annex part of Ukraine’s territory.
Ukraine can now confidently be described as a state without an army. The Berkut special police force and Ukrainian security service might have been up to the task of easing the tensions in the country’s eastern provinces. While dismantling the army, the Yanukovych regime had taken care to build up the special services as its mainstay and defence should the country experience an outbreak of discontent. It was the Berkut that Yanukovych sent to put down the Maidan protest during the winter of 2014. But after protesters were fired upon on 18-20 February, after hundreds were killed and thousands injured, the Berkut was disbanded and the remaining services completely demoralised. Consequently, today’s Ukraine is a state without an army and without a police force.
There may be no forces of law and order in the country, but neither is there chaos. On the outside, Kievans’ daily lives look about the same as usual. The annual marathon was run in late April. Just a few days earlier, Russian PEN and the Khodorkovsky Foundation held a conference that was attended by writers, journalists and human rights activists from both Russia and Ukraine. And there is a major poetry festival coming up in the middle of May – the Kiev Lavry, or Laurels. In the evenings, jazz can be heard on the streets and every seat in the street cafés is taken, even if the café in question is located between the first and second lines of the Maidan barricades. The Maidan could disperse, now that it has achieved its primary objective – the removal of Yanukovych from office – but it hasn’t dispersed. The people aren’t too sure about the new Government; they’re unhappy with its actions in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Maidan, noticeably less peopled, stands as a reminder of whose will the Ukrainian authorities must answer to.
The warm Kiev evenings and lyrical jazz melodies of the street musicians create an almost perfect illusion of peaceful life. But however much the war may recede into the back of our minds, we’re never completely free of it. It’s always with us. And it’s not just the bad news that comes each day from the east. Putin’s quiet war is depriving each of us of a part of our past. We can no longer go back to the Crimea that used to be, that we are all connected to in some way; and Crimea will never again be what it was. Widespread violence has radically transformed the small towns in the north of Donetsk province, destroying the people’s accustomed way of life and blurring the boundary between the thinkable and the unthinkable. Like a slowly moving conflagration, the war is creeping from east to west, turning to ash the peaceful life of a great people. The war is distancing us from the past, emphasising its unattainability, and making the future insubstantial and surreal. Is it even worth thinking about the future when at any moment it could all disappear? The war leaves us only with the present – the laidback moments of these warm spring evenings and the fluid jazz on the Kiev streets. The evenings linger slow and unhurried, yet passing by swiftly and for ever.