From A Radical Guide. This is a guest post series from the writer Ilya Kharkōw. Ilya reached out to A Radical Guide to share his story about being a Ukrainian war refugee.
Ilya Kharkōw is a writer whose journey and perspective are as compelling as they are unique. Originating from Ukraine, he has faced significant challenges due to their stance against military conscription, which unfortunately led to criminalization in their homeland. Amidst a backdrop of forced mobilization, which has seen many Ukrainian men persecuted, Ilya has made the difficult decision to seek refuge in Europe.
His story is not just one of escape but of resilience and defiance. Ukrainian authorities have pursued their deportation, and they face animosity from those who support the war. Compounding their struggles, their native town now lies under Russian occupation. Despite these harrowing experiences and the daily trials of emigration, he finds a silver lining in their writing.
What sets this writer apart is his desire not to be pigeonholed as a ‘Ukrainian writer.’ Their identity and work transcend geographical and political boundaries, offering a universal appeal that resonates with a global audience.
HOW I BECAME A TRAITOR
by Ilya Kharkow
BENEFITS OF BEING MARGINAL
“I was not a human being here. Not a visitor. I was a refugee. A victim. And they didn’t care that I was also a hunter. A real sadist. I was hunting for my robber. But they only saw me in one dimension.” from THE MINING BOYS
I must to admit, in the novel THE MINING BOYS, I embellished some moments. For instance, in the scene where I am beaten by a Ukrainian military while trying to reach the border, I wrote that he was hitting me and simultaneously singing the Ukrainian anthem. In reality, he wasn’t singing but was swearing loudly. The anthem seemed to me a more expressive way to convey the absurdity of what was happening—the character seeks protection but ends up trapped by the very person he sought protection from. Nevertheless, the essence remained unchanged—an unlawful beating, malicious and ugly, perfectly illustrating what Ukraine was like in the early days of the war, while on TV, they spoke of unity.
I allowed such distortions because, in writing the novel, my goal was to create a work of fiction, not a documentary text. In writing this essay, my goal is different—to show reality without embellishments, the reality that is not spoken about.
Why is it not spoken about? Because speaking the truth is unpatriotic. Because, in war, you must support your country, no matter what crimes it commits. Otherwise, you become an eccentric outcast. Because patriarchal society demands that all guys want to fight, or else guys will be deprived of the crucial right to be called guys. Because they’ll beat you and make you apologize publicly in the end.
So why can I say what others can’t? It’s because I’m gay, and Ukrainian society is so homophobic that it mentally aligns much more closely with Russia than with Europe. Having lived 30 years in a homophobic country, I fully experienced what it’s like to be a marginal and an outcast, so such a perspective is not only not frightening but even familiar to me. Moreover, I am guided by the words of Max Stirner, who wrote about the human limit: “I have the right to everything I can get hold of. And I cannot grasp what is beyond my reach.” Since I can write, I will write and turn the word into an elegant revolver with ink bullets.
The state metamorphosis amuses me – for 30 years, society insisted I was abnormal just because I like guys. Now, suddenly, it demands that I defend it. The victim defending the offender is a Slavic trait, especially prevalent in Russian literature. However, as great as that literature may be, this phenomenon is far from common sense. Much of what is happening today in Ukraine and Russia is far from common sense.
Through this text, I want to lift the veil of propaganda through which the world receives information about the Russo-Ukrainian war. Propaganda claims Ukraine is fighting for democracy, yet human rights are being revoked within Ukraine. It says collective responsibility exists, meaning every Russian is guilty of the war, yet it doesn’t apply this principle to itself. Propaganda says killing is normal, that every Ukrainian should know how to kill. I consider any killing just that – killing, and nothing more. Just as I consider any rape – rape, regardless of the context. It’s a curious question: if forced love is called rape, why don’t we call forced defense a crime? Forced mobilization in Ukraine seems to have peaked, but it shows no signs of stopping. That’s what I want to talk about.
You see, this damn marginal is loading the revolver with ink bullets. Politicians come and go; political regimes eventually weaken. The power of a writer resurrects every time someone reads their works. Care to guess whom the writer’s revolver is aimed at now?
DAMN GRILLE OF INDIFFERENCE
“Adults cry louder than their children. Children grow up after every loud explosion. Jazz, that’s what kept me from going crazy. Yeah, people literally went crazy. Once on the street I saw a couple. The girl kisses the boy, and she cries. The boy laughs, and therefore she kisses not even his lips, kisses his gums. He laughs. Then the doctors push him to the ambulance’’ from HOLES IN THE SHAPE OF HUMANS
I’m writing this text in Portugal, in the cozy Biblioteca Municipal Almeida Garrett. Due to renovation work, the main entrance of the library is closed, so I had to bypass the building through Parque da Quinta da Macieirinha. To do this, I descended from the hill and ascended on the same hill from the west side on slippery cobblestones. I walked along a stone wall with occasional openings fenced with an iron grille.
Behind one of these grilles stood a guy around 30. In one hand, he held a cigarette, and in the other, a paper cup of coffee. Due to recent rain, it’s no wonder I slipped on the cobblestones and fell. I fell right at the feet of this guy. He waved his hands, causing his coffee to spill on the floor. It immediately became clear that, due to the presence of the grille, he couldn’t help me in any way. All he could do was watch. I saw how he resigned himself to this. Amazing transformation. I got up, shook myself off, and walked away.
I don’t feel like a stranger inside this Portuguese library because, besides the tanned Portuguese, there are many lively Brazilians, energetic Africans, a couple of Russians, a group of Americans with accents straight out of English language audio textbooks, and a funny six-year-old Filipino who accidentally called me “Daddy.” One might assume that I would feel just as comfortable throughout Europe. But that’s not the case.
Most Europeans – especially guys – often ask me the question: “Why didn’t I want to fight for my country?” There’s no sympathy in this question. No solidarity. Just curiosity. Just like in the situation with my fall and the iron grille. The same invisible grille appears in every interaction with Europeans. NATO gives them a sense of security. In Portugal, war feels impossible, so communication with a refugee from Ukraine is met with a coldness contrasting with the Portuguese warmth.
In Portugal, I am an eccentric exhibit, someone who gained useless life experience during wartime. The Portuguese are too far from Ukraine to understand that the enemy is not Russia or Ukraine but the system. And even if war feels impossible in Portugal, it doesn’t make the country safe from the potential harm the system can inflict. The funniest part of the Portuguese situation is that relatively recently, in historical terms, Portugal had the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, while neighbouring Spain had the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. But even this doesn’t help the locals wake up to see something more significant behind the war in Ukraine, threatening not only Slavs but everyone.
Indifference is the danger of our era. Indifference from satiation. From illusory safety. Whether it’s a TV screen, a computer monitor, or the iron grille of a Portuguese library — we are all hostages to the state system. No matter how non-systemic you consider yourself, whether a marginal, an outcast, or anything else, the state still views you as its resource. While a girl demands not to be objectified by guys in a bar, guys are objectified by the state. Ukraine easily turned its male population into a mobilization reserve. Now, Ukrainian authorities officially state that they will seek the deportation of all guys with Ukrainian citizenship from abroad, forcing them to choose between prison or war. I don’t accept such a choice. What would you choose?
It’s remarkable how a state threatening its citizens with death also uses the manipulation of revoking citizenship as a lever. I won’t waste time discussing how absurd it is to take pride in something bestowed upon you by chance rather than earned by your efforts. I’ll just say that losing citizenship of a country that threatens you is not disgraceful; it’s an honour and a privilege. It’s the same honour as being labelled a foreign agent in Russia in the current realities. In general, any attempt by the state to stigmatize you, viewed from a historical perspective, appears as an honourable award, although in the present moment, it looks like a catastrophe.
Not all Russians are bad. Not all Ukrainians are heroes. There’s no reason to trust Russian statistics because even before the war, we knew that statistical institutions in Russia are under the regime’s control. Also, it’s naive to trust Ukrainian statistics, but for some reason, this is not so obvious to many. Both sides tarnish people, turning yesterday’s relative into a target for artillery.
But is a person inherently evil? For example, the initial reaction of the guy behind the iron grille of the library was noble — to help someone who fell. However, because of the presence of the grille, all he actually did was spill coffee on the fallen me. People are inherently more inclined to goodness than to wickedness, but conditions created by the system, such as this grille, turn an average person into a scoundrel. How does this happen? The system provides people with justification. Justification seemingly grants the right to indifference. Indifference leads to inaction. And an individual’s inaction allows the system to commit crimes and remain unpunished.