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Harriman Magazine
Remains of a burnt car in the middle of the road.
2024 Issue | Ukrainian Culture
The Second Beginning
by Nikita Grigorov, translated from the Russian by Masha Udensiva-Brenner

As I gathered from the conversation fragments around me, there was a military unit in Hostomel. I’ve never been interested in military units, airports, trench systems or fortified areas. And the view from my kitchen window—Russian helicopters piercing through thick clouds of gray-black smoke somewhere far up ahead—was big news to me. Three months later, Masha would write: many times, I rode in the same train car as a guy from the Hostomel garrison. He suggested we exchange numbers. Today he connected via messenger: Alive. I’m happy.

But back then, on the first day of our new lives, it was impossible to imagine anyone could survive that huge, faraway cloud of smoke, the pulse of the crimson flame in its belly, the rain of those muscular killers pelting from the sky. My imagination, polluted by American thrillers, easily overcame the few miles between myself and the battlefield, filling in the gaps missing from my personal life experience. Images of bodies dancing under machine gun fire, blood black as pine resin, the brilliant whites of the eyes—dead or alive—emerging through the pixels. Meanwhile, behind me, in the depths of the apartment, my mother’s frightened voice addressed the back of my head, reading from her Facebook feed the first obituaries of Ukrainian soldiers killed defending Kyiv oblast from the invaders.

“It was impossible to imagine anyone could survive that huge, faraway cloud of smoke, the pulse of the crimson flame in its belly, the rain of those muscular killers pelting from the sky.”

Everything around me had changed in an instant. Archaic structures, imprinted for decades into the dust of peaceful life, had resurrected from it, imprisoning all of us in their one-way tunnels. As a man, your only option was to move upward on the scale of your abilities to defend yourself and your family—nothing else mattered back then. If you didn’t move, you instantly lost relevance, which, in the conditions of this improbable intensification of military life, was extremely dangerous. Every one of us elected the strategy best suited for his internal makeup. Within the first hours of the invasion the best, bravest, dynamic young guys and the stocky, house-proud, real men, dug out all the portable firearms from the Irpin warehouse, curiosity and rousing humor intact. Others dodged, cheated and conjectured. They had to leave. But where to? Which way? No one understood what was really happening on the newly-formed frontlines, and one of the most common misperceptions was—get away from Kyiv, away from the big cities. It was assumed that the small towns and suburbs wouldn’t be interesting to the Russians, and you could wait out the war there. Kyiv, this huge, dirty anthill, crisscrossed by endless lines of lifeless traffic—people were trying to get out at all costs, and the thick, dense forests of Kyiv Oblast pulled them under their canopies, toward the Russian tanks and infantry columns.

Women followed a very different behavioral model. If men moved upward on their abilities scale, toward action and battle, women, in contrast—and unlike in peaceful times—had to attract as little attention as possible; make themselves unattractive. Intuitively, nearly everyone understood what this was about, and mothers and grandmothers would catch their men glancing at them with relief. Young women were nervous. Inviting a young, single female friend into your family in order to wait out the first shock of the war together was a kind of heroic act. This heroism had a distinctly pathetic and vile aftertaste (weighing the probabilities, calculating the consequences), but from then on, this aftertaste and the daily smattering of minor existential choices would be our pestilent companions, our eternal wounds. Yet, in February 2022, far from everyone understood the real scale of the danger and tragedy that awaited us. Those who did understand were in the minority. I understood it quite clearly; I’d already faced Russian soldiers in 2014 Donetsk. I was actively involved in literary and social activism and there was talk in our circles of special kill lists compiled by Russians so that they could “purge” the new territories of socially active citizens. I believed these rumors instantly.

Many Ukrainians had treated the “problem of Donbas” as some sort of toll, a sacrifice to the dark gods that allowed them to go on with their small and peaceful lives. And now, sitting in these huge, multi-mile traffic jams, looking frightfully through their apartment windows, the ballistic rocket explosions and the distant firefights pulling them toward the glass, people were still in some sort of dreamlike, half-comprehensive state. And they could easily be excused the fate of Donbas, complicated, contradictory, and poorly integrated into the governmental body of the region, was of little concern, and the probability of a grand and cruel war in a world of McDonaldses, iPhones, and greatly decreased testosterone levels, seemed fantastical.

But here it was—a real war of pure evil falling on us from the old Soviet films and the protruding eyes of Russian historiographers. And it was difficult to find a person better equipped to deliver this simple idea to the masses than the Lawyer, a tall, black-haired man in black jeans and wheat-colored sweater with quick, nervous movements and anxious, glistening eyes. This is why he joined the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (PFVMH)—he simply couldn’t endure the rush of events and pain in isolation. Each morning meeting, when the volunteers decided who would join the combat crews that day and which route they would take, the Lawyer started with the most general matters: I downloaded a video from the internet today, he would say, that demonstrates the effect of glass shards on a human face. There was a photograph of a woman—before the explosion, and another one of her, after. This is utter horror, impossible to watch! And the Lawyer would wrap his hands around his black-haired head. Gena,¹ what should we do? We will go crazy here. Gena would always respond with irony and restraint.

“But here it was—a real war of pure evil falling on us from the old Soviet films and the protruding eyes of Russian historiographers.”

The Lawyer was of course, by profession, a lawyer. He and Gena became friends based on common professional interests. He joined [what was left of] the hospital team immediately, in the first days of the full-scale invasion. During the pandemic the hospital had fallen into a soporific state, practically ended its existence, and at the end of 2021 Gena finally decided to dissolve it. The project of redesigning the Ukrainian constitution, which Gena had worked on during the two COVID years, had completely consumed him. So, in February, on a semi- secret base in Khmelnytsky, which they had spontaneously created on the second day of the invasion, they only had three cars and six crew members. On February 23, Gena called each of his friends and warned them that the invasion would start that night. On the 24th, before sunrise, alongside the first explosions of Russian bombs in and around Kyiv, he made toward Khmelnytsky in order to lay the bricks of the new iteration of the First Volunteer Medical Hospital named after Mykola Pirogov. On the first or second of March, three ambulances, filled to the brim with medicines, entered Kyiv against the grain of  the departing masses.

The spring 2022 blueprint for PFVMH was relatively simple. Resources were scarce—particularly if you accounted for the scale of the military operations around Kyiv—and there were two primary objectives: firstly, evacuating the injured from the battlefield. And secondly, the accumulation of medicine and gasoline “for a rainy day.” It was assumed that Kyiv could meet the same fate as Mariupol—with rumors circulating among soldiers and volunteers about the state of affairs in the latter. None of us knew the details, but there weren’t any doubts about the fact that something terrifying and unprecedented was happening there. The Lawyer was particularly fond of this parallel. He fulfilled the role of ambulance driver and in parallel developed a plan for the possibility of a retreat from the city. “We must not allow ourselves to be surrounded, the way it happened in Marik,” he liked to repeat. Looking at the women on the hospital team—Irina the young nurse, Svitlana the experienced doctor and manager, Victoria the paramedic—the Lawyer would address Gena in a loud whisper: “We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of working with women here. You know what happened in Hostomel? Eh, Gena? The women have to leave immediately. This is our work. They have to leave right now.” No one knew exactly what had happened in Hostomel. But the women refused point-blank to leave. And who am I kidding? Everyone knew. It hung in the air.

The Pilgrim dissolved silently into the darkness every night, and every morning he entered Gena’s office, grim and cold. They spoke alone for a long time, sometimes inviting Tkach to join them. The Pilgrim—a spy, an officer of the Special Operations Forces (SSOs). In the spring of 2022 he was working in Kyiv Oblast, deep in the tail of the Russian army. Tanks were burning. Soldiers choking on their own blood during sleep. Artillery stockpiles blown into the air. And the rumors were taking form.

This story emerged as if by itself, out of thin air. Everyone was retelling it to each other. For a moment, you even felt lighter for it. Our guys, the SSOs, had found and punished everyone. Played soccer with their severed heads. This was, after all, the year of Europe’s soccer championship, right? And all of us had missed it. A twinge of satisfaction.

But the truth of it is, that heads don’t make very good balls. And playing soccer with them won’t work.

The PFVMH cars drove every day to the exploded bridge that connected Irpin to Kyiv, picking up civilians, picking up animals, picking up everyone and everything they could reach. Soldiers carried their wounded brothers-in-arms to the medics and again disappeared into the dead ruins, the white smoke. A bit farther, straight after Irpin, directly on the frontline, was Hostomel, and in it, next to the airport, was a military unit. The unit was seized on the first day of the invasion. Among others, it included women. They wore military uniforms.

Featured photo (at the top): Photo: ©Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy United

Headshot of Nikita GrigorovNikita Grigorov is a Ukrainian writer, journalist, and  editor who was the Harriman Institute’s 2022 Paul Klebnikov Fellow and resident in Paris. The following is an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, which he worked on during his Harriman residency. It spans the period from 2014, when he fled Donetsk with his family as a 19-year-old university student after the start of Russia’s first invasion, and the period following Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, when Grigorov fled his parents’ apartment in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that was briefly occupied by Russians and decimated at the start of the war. This never-before translated excerpt describes Grigorov’s experiences during the first days of Russia’s 2022 invasion, when he volunteered as a copywriter and security guard for the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (PFVMH). PFVMH was founded in 2014 to provide medical aid to the Joint Forces Operation Zone—formerly Anti Terrorist Operation Zone—within the occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and reinvigorated during the full-scale invasion.

The works linked below are from the other three of Harriman’s four 2023 Ukrainian residents in Paris, who participated in Art in Time of War and then continued their artistic residencies at Reid Hall, Columbia Global Centers in Paris.


By Natalka Bilotserkivets, an award-winning Ukrainian poet. Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella (MARS-REERS ’14) and Ukrainian-American poet and translator Dzvinia Orlowksy. Read now >>

To See Beauty Again

By Anna Stavychenko, Ukrainian musicologist, former executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, and mission head of the Philharmonie de Paris project that helps Ukrainian musicians exiled in France. Translated by Masha Udensiva-Brenner. Read now >>

The Smell of Mariupol

By Zoya Laktionova, Ukrainian documentary filmmaker. Read now >>