Maxim Butchenko was born and raised in Rovenki, a mining town in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and worked as a collier in the nineties. The working conditions were far more dangerous than those in a western coal mine. He saw the corpses of some of his colleagues being carried out of the pit on an almost weekly basis, draped under a sheet to preserve their dignity. The miners frequently drank litres of vodka, almost as soon as they had rinsed the coal dust from their bodies. Many of them developed silicosis: huge stones formed from coal dust grew in their lungs.
Maxim, second from the right, in his mining days
He was in Kyiv, working as a journalist, in March 2014 when Russian special services, pretending to be separatists, seized public buildings in the Donbas. Russia then staged a fake revolt and seized as much of the area as possible, hoping to trigger a wave of pro-Russian revolutions across South and East Ukraine. However, pro-Russian revolts in cities such as Kharkiv either failed to happen or were successfully defeated. Russia was only able to cling on to a section of the Donbas where the population had been heavily “Sovietised” after World War Two. Maxim, however, saw his birthplace torn away from his country and many of the people he knew were poisoned by Russian propaganda. He has written about his experience in “The War Artist” which tells the tale of two brothers divided by the conflict. The book is a work of “faction” in which real people such as Motorola, the car thief turned Russian war lord, appear alongside fictional characters.
I asked him how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had affected his relationships with friends and family. “I’m in touch with relatives and friends who live in the occupied area. Their views have changed since the beginning of the war. There is now less hate and aggression and, by contrast, nostalgia for the Ukraine they have lost. This doesn’t mean that they have become Ukrainian patriots. It reflects the harshness of their lives now. They yearn for that calm and relatively comfortable period. This will create a wonderful opportunity for reconciliation when Russian troops leave the Donbas.”
He argues that Russia launched the war “to sow division among Ukrainians and to exploit the wounds in society for political purposes. To sow chaos with the aim of destroying the state.” Maxim notes that Russia’s strategy was modelled on the Bolshevik’s invasion of Ukraine, an event which the west has neglected to its own severe cost: “these were exactly the methods implemented by the Red Army in 1918-1919, present day Russia uses the same approach.”
Maxim has not participated in the conflict and notes that its main impact in his case was psychological. “I went to Kyiv not long before the occupation of Donbas and Crimea. My relatives in the occupied zone turned their backs on me, regarding me as a ‘Fascist’ and ‘Banderite’*. However, I was never affiliated with any nationalist political party. I only believed in a united, independent Ukraine. My story is a striking example of how propaganda tears apart even the strongest family ties.”
Maxim grew up in a Russian speaking area of Ukraine but is descended from Ukrainians who were dispossessed of the land during the Soviet collectivisation. However, as regards the development of Ukrainian language culture, he argues that “we have crossed the Rubicon. I believe that we will see an even more widespread use of Ukrainian because this is a normal evolutionary process. You can’t force everyone to speak Ukrainian in a day but you can increase the use of the language gradually, with quotas on radio and TV, dubbing films etc., so that Ukrainian covers more and more of the cultural space.”
He views a writer as “a herald. The author talks about themselves, about people, trying to see the war from different sides. The role of the author is to become the soul of the people. The soul that will help us heal our wounds.”
I ask him about reconciliation between the occupied Donbas and Ukraine. “It will happen the day after Russia withdraws its troops. Many people will come out with Ukrainian flags to welcome the return of Ukrainian sovereignty over the area. There will be problems with the hostility among some who suffered during the war. However, most people realise they were deceived. The standard of living under occupation isn’t great; there is no stability and no future. The territory is now a grey zone. When Ukraine returns there its people will finally be able to become citizens of the world rather than outcasts.”
*Banderite: follower of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera
From “The War Artist”: Anton Nedelkov, the book’s protagonist (whose nom de guerre is ‘Artist’) arrives at Donbas airport where a ferocious battle is taking place between the Russian army with its collaborators (the militia) and the defenders of the airport, known as Cyborgs for their superhuman powers of resistance, who have held out against Putin’s numerically far superior troops for several months. This siege will, in the longer perspective, be seen as a modern day battle of Thermopylae. It gave the west and the transatlantic community time to regroup and develop a response to Russia.
At five in the morning, a group of militia moved along the approaches to the airport, together with fresh forces from the Russian military, comprising four hundred troops in total. A number of trucks halted on the approach to the old terminal. Troops dressed in light-brown camouflage jumped from under the cloth covering the trucks and dispersed slowly in different directions. They had decided to attack from various areas of the airport. Artist was in the first wave. They would draw fire from the defenders while the other attackers moved in from the flanks. Three dozen of the troops gathered at the corner of a single-storey building, which gave a view of the location of the Ukrainian forces. The young man Artist had noted on the previous evening was among their number. He stared forwards, as if wanting to peer within the ragged fissures of the ruined terminal held by the foe.
Artist turned to him and asked, “What’s in there, can we see anything?”
“They’re hiding and we’ll smoke them out. Our reconnaissance says they have no armoured vehicles, they were recently pulled out,” the young militant replied confidently.
Artist wanted to say that this was too presumptuous, but Motorola butted in. He said that in a couple of minutes Grad and Uragan artillery located in Makiivka would bombard the airport. After the artillery barrage, the reconnaissance forces would move in. After had he finished speaking they heard the distinctive fizzing sound of Grad missiles launching, and soon the other artillery joined the chorus. The thunder of the exploding missiles shook the terminal building. It was as if the earth’s crust beneath them had broken clamorously in two. There was five minutes of infernal deafening noise. Artist’s mind filed with images of the bloodied corpses of the Ukropi, some with severed limbs. They twisted in the agonies of death. All that was required now was to go in and finish them off. A group of tanks roared nearby. The first two vehicles would accompany Artist’s unit. They were attacking the enemy straight from the front.
“C’mon motherfuckers, get the ball rolling,” Motorola screamed, pushing fighters towards the corner that faced the terminal.
The first three militiamen ducked and darted into the area before the Ukrainians’ positions. Artist dashed around the corner with the second group, firing a few rounds from his AK towards the enemy. The gunshots soothed the soul of this inhabitant of Rovenky. He advanced hurriedly alongside one of the tanks; its carcass lumbered over the ground, as if dissatisfied with being woken at the crack of dawn, and moved slowly in its sleepiness. Artist kept close to its armoured hulk, shooting occasionally and trying to see the Ukrainian soldiers. A young man was running towards the terminal nearby. As the building they had set off from receded, they emerged into an empty area of the airport and saw the twisted remains of the new terminal. Its scorched and dilapidated carcass resembled the backdrop to a post-apocalyptic film. The broken windows were like an old man’s toothless jawbone among the crumpled panels and naked skeletal frames. The ladder by the arrival terminal’s docking station was bullet riddled and torn.
The tank fired at the front of the terminal and the boom was followed by the chime of shattering glass and a wall of smoke. Artist moved slightly to the side. In front of him a dark recess, the crater left by shelling, gaped and he needed to get around it. After he took a few steps he was suddenly flung to one side by an explosion. The Ukrainians were firing directly at the tank, probably with a powerful anti-tank weapon. The vehicle’s turret was flung into the air by the blast. It hovered between the sky and the earth for a second, then assumed a slight angle and fell, covering the young man. The air itself broke apart from the sound of explosions and firing. The death cry of the militiaman and the noise of his bones cracking under the turret were dissolved within an inconceivable engulfing sound. Artist fell, slumped face-down on the ground for a moment. He raised his head to see what was happening. A burning man climbed out of the gaping aperture in the tank where the turret had been. His sickening scream filled the airfield. While the air engulfed his cries, the next wave of militants advanced and occasionally fired their automatic weapons. A second explosion sounded. The other tank, which had covered their advance, was now ablaze. A heavy stream of fire poured from the terminal. Artist rolled into the crater and all he could hear was the whistle of bullets, which persisted unceasingly for five minutes. Mortars boomed, their shells raking the attacking militiamen on the open area before the terminal. They were lined up like targets in a shooting range. Artist tried to raise his head above the crater, but a sniper’s bullet nearly did for him and raised a small cloud of brown dust nearby. He pressed closer to the ground. Stalemate. He could not climb out of the crater, but he was still a danger to the enemy. The exploding mortars reminded him of a woman’s footsteps as she approached with a scythe.
The shooting subsided but rose again with overwhelming waves of sound. Two more tanks had advanced to help the militants, along with an armoured vehicle and a truck with anti-aircraft guns. The fire from these quashed the Ukrainian snipers. Several troops rose from the ground and, crouching, headed for the approaching armoured vehicles. Artist could have joined them but decided to linger in his crater. The troops reached the tank and hid behind its armour.
“Well, it’s time, as they say, to show that I’m a real man,” said Artist, raising himself.
Suddenly, there was a powerful explosion, swiftly followed by another equally powerful blast; and then a third. He threw himself into the crater. Chunks of earth, dust, and even fragments of clothing showered on his head. The Ukrainian artillery was shelling them with Howitzers located in the nearby village of Pisky. The tanks blazed like ignited paper. In the overpowering roar few noticed how the Ukrainian snipers took out the more careless militiamen. The more experienced among them had flopped on to the ground and rolled into a crater or taken cover behind the scorched remnants of armoured vehicles. There was a minute’s interval before the Howitzers boomed again. The armoured vehicle turned back and roared away swiftly towards the refuge of the one-storey building. The truck with the anti-aircraft guns attempted to reverse, but a direct hit flipped both its cabin and gun around.
The first wave of attack had been drowned in blood and it was unclear how many had survived. Time dilated and it seemed as if Artist had been lain in the crater for a whole day. In reality only one hour had passed. The longer he lay there, the more he tried to be conscious of this moment, the automatic in his hands, the dirty camouflage fatigues, and his position in the open expanse of the airport strewn with corpses. How could hecapture the moment wherein he was transfixed like some ancientinsect within a drop of amber? Where was he located now on thelinear trajectory of life?
At eleven o’clock the characteristic hum of approaching tanks became audible as the second wave of attack approached. Artist sighed with relief. He turned his head and counted six tanks. They lumbered forward slowly, like vast dark tortoises, over the desiccated ground of the airport. Approximately one hundred soldiers scurried alongside the humming armoured vehicles. A stream of fire poured from the terminal, like drops sprayed from a shower head. The shooting intensified and the tanks replied with the occasional volley of shells. The men lying on the ground slowly crept towards the terminal to link up with those who had preceded them. Artist similarly stretched out on the ground and started to snake away from the crater, but then changed his mind and writhed back. He would wait for the reinforcements to get closer.
The building defended by the Ukrainian troops seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The sound of shattering glass formed an invisible wall in front of its façade. The second attack was larger and more effective than the first wave. If the pressure was sustained, the militia would be able to draw as close as possible to the building and then take it by storm.
Artist tensed. The line of attacking soldiers was approaching and he needed to join them. He heard the roar of attack engines and the calls of the militants to his rear. Then something incredible happened. When the nearest tank was thirty metres away, a short and piercing whistle was heard. It was followed by a rumble that shook the earth. The Ukrainian air force was attacking with high precision missiles. They fired from a distance without entering the airspace above the battle zone. The pilots targeted the tanks and the groups of militants. The screams of wounded soldiers mingled with the explosions, the racket of shrapnel and whistle of missiles. They formed a cloud of sounds covering the field. A crater was blasted open near the first tank, due to an inaccurate missile, but the next projectile was right on target. The tank flipped a little sideways and flopped partially into a crater where some soldiers were ensconced. It crushed them instantly. Artist looked out once and saw the metal torso of the tank weighing down on their bodies. Two demented voices wailed, adding to the cacophony of battle. He had no way out. Going back meant certain death.
Artist crawled to the terminal where he had seen the remains of an observation booth behind which he might hide. As he approached, he suddenly saw a dugout excavated by Ukrainian volunteers. He rolled into it. Aircraft continued to ‘iron out’ the open area behind him and fire streamed from the terminal in reply. Artist later found out that all the militia’s armoured vehicles had been hit. The cries of wounded men filled the air, but no one could reach them. Over one hundred corpses were strewn over the battlefield. After fifteen more minutes had passed, silence fell abruptly; its advent was so sudden that his ears rang. Artist lay in the dugout and counted off all the saints he knew. He spoke to a higher presence which hovered above this earthly hell. He asked for help, like a child asks its parents for help with the pain after it has hurt itself. He sat up and peered out of the dugout. The battlefield resembled a scene from a war film; twisted bodies, burning tanks and severed limbs were like the backdrop to an epic set on the eastern front. His radio squealed. He had forgotten about it.
“Calling base, are you receiving, Artist?” he said dully leaning back against the wall of the dugout. There was only white noise in response. No one replied. After a few minutes he repeated his call. The radio crackled into life.
“It’s Motorola, how are you Artist, are you wounded?”
He breathed a sigh of relief, all was not lost, he might get out somehow. “What should I do? There are a lot of wounded on the field,” he reported.
“The hell with them, we can’t help, even if we wanted to,” said Motorola before pouring out a stream of every foul expletive he knew at the Ukropi.
But really who were these Ukropi* and why did they put up such fierce defence? If their fascist ideology contained such hate for the inhabitants of Donbas, why were they fighting and dying here? Was it not suicide? Holding on to the airport for so many months, holding out in a half-ruined building and living while continuously under fire. Were they so brainwashed that they were ready to become suicidal warriors in the name of the ‘Kyiv Junta’? Artist reflected and could not find a logical response to thequestion of the identity of his enemy or what moved them towish his destruction.
At one o’clock in the afternoon he heard the roar of approaching tanks. The Russian military had arrived with almost three dozen, newly modernised T 72 tanks. Russian paratroopers were their advance guard. They dispersed into their individual positions and approached the terminal. They unleashed all their weapons against the airport buildings. The paratroopers had reached the old terminal when Ukrainian Grad and Uragan missiles showered down on them, but this did not halt the attack. Russian troops occupied the old terminal building and the adjoining hotel and garage. They strengthened their position and continued moving towards the new terminal not far from the dugout where Artist lay. Russian tanks remorselessly approached and shelled the building. There were so many troops and armoured vehicles it seemed like the battle of the Kursk Salient. This was a turning point in the skirmish.
Artist looked around and the tanks were gasping not far behind him. However, as the second Ukrainian Air Force commenced its bombardment, the racket, which could tear the eardrum, was concentrated in one place, at one point. Even the sound of one of these explosions alone seemed enough to flip a person inside out. Some tanks turned to the right and away from the terminal, a couple were ablaze, but some still advanced.
Artist ran a few steps and joined the advancing paratroopers. Almost all the armoured vehicles remained to the rear, but a couple of Russian tanks were providing cover through the crannies between the concrete plates to the front of the terminal. In front of him a paratrooper fired through a shell hole in the building, preventing the Ukrainians from firing back through it.
A large group, supported by the tank shelling, penetrated the first floor of the new terminal. Artist was only fifty metres away from the building. He darted onwards, stooped, then ran forward, attacking randomly. The Ukrainian military fired the odd round close to him, but the trajectory of the bullets somehow shifted a little to the side of his course. He reached a gaping hole in the building, which was crammed with fragments of concrete, missiles and glass, and pressed against the adjacent wall. He dared not peer inside the structure. He now had a view of the battlefield in front of the terminal. The picture pierced his imagination: he saw the smoke from shattered tanks penetrated the sky in heavy, dark furls of fabric and the twisted carcasses of trucks, between which T 72s weaved and soldiers darted forwards. Someone dropped like a tin can in a firing range; here and there a shell fired by the Ukrainian Howitzers in Pisky exploded.
Artist bowed his head and looked into the hole in the wall near him. He shunted his way cautiously forward through the debris. Inside, the floor was littered with broken glass and there was a barricade of chairs reinforced with sandbags, and beyond that a shop; its products were scattered along the floor, together with fragments of the ceiling. Smoke belched from the next aperture in the wall to his left. It was unclear what was going on there. He heard shooting. It was simply hell. The paratroopers penetrated the opening, one man at a time, covering each other. Then they were sprayed with machine gun fire from the second floor and the interior barricades. Here and there they managed to advance and strengthen their positions.
Artist rushed to take cover behind a fragment from a fallen concrete block. He was relatively safe for a few seconds. He raised his automatic and fired a few rounds at the second floor. A second later he looked around the block to inspect his situation. That took only three seconds, just three seconds, but the picture that presented itself before him seemed to stretch through time. There was an opening in the sandbag barricade inside the building. Someone had been felled by the blast from a grenade launcher and some of the sacks were pushed aside to create a passage. Two paratroopers rushed towards the opening, trying to make it to the centre of the building, but a Ukrainian soldier lay in the torn, shredded aperture in the barrier. The explosion from a grenade had wounded him and he was motionless, as if dead. The first paratrooper ran to the gap in the barricade and fired through it. The second approached from the direction of the concrete block concealing Artist. Then a third joined them to provide cover fire. Artist was still looking when the explosion happened. Three seconds. The Ukrainian volunteer had blown himself up, along with the three paratroopers, without any cries of Slava Ukraiini or anything similar. Perhaps he could have stayed alive and been captured, but he had chosen to sacrifice himself. The blast wave, mixed with blood, shook the concrete around him. Artist ducked instinctively. Plaster and fragments of sandbags showered him. A bloodied hand flopped to the ground nearby.
During just a few months of war Artist had seen so much: intestines, human entrails, blood, and a severed head, but he had never seen someone sacrifice their life like that. Forwhat? Is it possible that having a chance to live you would opt toblow yourself apart? What sense was there in it, what were the lastthoughts flickering through the Ukrainian volunteer’s mind? Was itperhaps an ideal, something stronger than the fear of death or desirefor a future? Or the thirst for revenge? What?
While the smoke rose to the middle of the first floor, Artist rushed from the building, gulping down the fresh air. Suddenly he felt a fatal sense of fatigue. Today had squeezed him dry. He wanted to flee somewhere where he would not hear shots and explosions.
“Artist, respond,” the radio squealed with Motorola’s voice.
“I am in the terminal,” he muttered in reply.
“Run back to where I am, motherfucker,” the commander ordered.
Ukropi- derogatory term for Ukrainians
Extract from “The War Artist” by Maxim Butchenko, translated by Steve Komarnyckyj. The book, which was published by Kalyna Language Press in 2017, is available from amazon.co.uk here and amazon.com here
This piece is the second of a series of articles about Ukrainian authors that will be included in an anthology entitled “Welcome to the Occupation” and published by Kalyna Language Press in 2018
Steve Komarnyckyj is a PEN award winning literary translator and poet whose work is published by Kalyna Language Press and features on the PEN World Bookshelf. You can e mail him on komarnyckyj.steve(at)gmail.com