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.
HUNTING UKRAINIAN BOYS
“Humanism is the defence of every individual. Fascism is an attempt to ‘protect’ a nation.”
from THE MINING BOYS
I find my own inconsistency surprising: I was just a nice guy, and now suddenly I’m part of the mobilization reserve. If at the beginning of the war there were indeed many volunteers, then after a couple of months, their numbers sharply decreased. New soldiers had to be forcibly taken from the streets. What an exciting game it is to run away from the military, who are supposed to protect you, and at night hear explosions from Russian missiles falling on our cities, allegedly for the sake of defense. Even a torn condom in an acid club is not as dangerous as the defense of Ukraine and Russia, the scars of which will be visible even from under the lid of my coffin.
On the first day of the war, my partner and I naively set off for Lviv to cross the border there. Only on the road, which took 33 hours instead of 6, did we learn that the president had signed a decree banning guys from leaving the country. Still, we decided to try to leave the country because this ban sounded so absurd that it seemed implausible. War. Closed borders. Ukrainian-speaking soldiers look at my passport, and seeing that I am from the eastern part of the country, immediately treat me with suspicion, as if I am a traitor and the cause of the war.
My hometown was occupied in the first days of the conflict. It is still occupied. My relatives called me and told me to go to them for salvation, not to Lviv. I thought they had gone mad from active shelling, staying in the basement, yes, in Ukraine, basements are called shelters, and even after a year and a half of war, real shelters are equipped in few places. This once again demonstrates that Ukraine is saving its borders, but not its citizens.
It turned out that when Ukraine closed all borders for guys, the Russian borders remained open. Therefore, it was possible to leave the occupied territories for Russia through Crimea, and from Russia to Georgia or Turkey, and from there to Europe. By the time I understood this scheme, it was already too late – we found ourselves in the Ukrainian-speaking Lviv, where everything Russian was despised, even us, because we speak Ukrainian with an accent.
For two and a half months, we lived in an office on the floor. We slept under the table in the conference room with glass walls. What could be more absurd than trying to hide for two and a half months in a room with transparent walls? I describe this period in the novel “THE MINING BOYS.”
From time to time, employees came to the office. I tried to keep communication to a minimum to avoid trouble. I didn’t trust anyone, especially those trying to gain trust. For two and a half months, we bathed in a bucket for floor cleaning and wiped ourselves with napkins. Two-and-a-half-damn-months! All because we were hiding in our own country from the Russian army and Ukrainian soldiers, while trying to contain a bout of paranoia. However, paranoia still doesn’t let me rest today.
An incredible situation unfolded with housing in western Ukraine, which is now showcased as an example for every true Ukrainian to follow. While many Europeans were letting Ukrainians into their homes for free, in Lviv, rental prices equaled those in Paris. The free shelters organized by the city authorities were scrutinized by the military, who took guys from there and sent them to their deaths. It was such a cheerful time.
Soon it became apparent that in Lviv, the police and the military were hunting boys on the streets. However, they targeted those who had come to Lviv from other regions. They particularly disliked Russian speakers because, in their opinion, the war started because of them. That’s what one of the guys who came to the office told me. I was afraid that any of the employees would report us to the cops just because they didn’t like my accent or my orientation. Recently, I watched a movie about how during World War II, a group of Jews spent several months in the Lviv sewer system, hiding from the Nazis. Were we any different from them? And the TV still talked about universal unity and imminent victory.
In some stores, they refused to serve me because of the language. I spent these 2 and a half months in previously unknown stress. This situation reached its peak on May 9. On this day, our countries celebrate the end of World War II. There were rumors that on this day, Russia would drop an atomic bomb on Kyiv. We were so tired of the tension in western Ukraine that on May 9, under the threat of atomic war, we went to its epicenter just to stop hearing the Ukrainian language, accusations of having an accent, blame for the start of the war, and so on.
What I wrote above is unacceptable in the conditions of a non-free but proud Ukraine. Official media talk about unity, the absence of language problems, and I feel like a Jew hiding in the sewers. I am Anne Frank. The insane pianist. And only by a miracle did I not end my own life.
Meanwhile, while Ukraine’s official rhetoric constructs a positive image of a country fighting for freedom, frozen in a half-step away from victory over a decaying empire, the nation is actually witnessing the festering growth of discriminatory practices, the impunity of authoritative structures, and the powerlessness of ordinary people. In such a period, writers should stand on the side of common sense. But what is happening in reality?
This is what’s happening: Ukraine’s most popular writer, Serhiy Zhadan, releases a music video in which two girls kiss for a couple of seconds. Part of the video is set in a church. Ukrainian society is outraged that lesbians are kissing in the same video where a church is shown. The priest who allowed the shooting is suspended from service in the church. The writer himself says nothing substantial on the matter and obediently removes the video from YouTube. In an interview, he only talks about how Russian-speaking writers in Ukraine are currently inappropriate. And they were inappropriate before. No struggle. No coverage of relevant issues. Only speeches consonant with the official rhetoric: Russia is the aggressor empire, and Ukraine is the heroic victim. But is this a struggle? A writer is made great by the words he writes; the same time not only an unfortunate word, but also something unspoken at the right time can make him miserable.
I don’t believe in Ukraine’s victory because at the moment, the interests of the Russian-speaking population, which is not a minority, are being suppressed. Just as the interests of the Ukrainian-speaking population were suppressed before. I don’t believe because Ukrainian soldiers have to buy their own uniforms, while corruption scandals erupt at the highest levels. I don’t believe because I see few differences between Ukrainian propaganda and Russian propaganda. Both are aimed at deceiving, substituting concepts, and suppressing freedoms.
The state is concerned only with survival at any cost. The state justifies it by any means necessary. As usual, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. But now their mouths are shut because expressing an opposing view to the official one is unpatriotic. In Odessa, a man was forcefully taken by the military and driven to the draft board. Later, the regional draft board admitted the excessive emotionality of their employees. That’s what they called it—excessive emotionality! You can’t object or speak out against it. It’s unpatriotic. This is the very case where I’m glad to be faggot—it gives me freedom.
THE BRIGHT FLAME OF FORCED MOBILIZATION
“What’s the point of politeness when they politely request nonsense?”
from THE MINING BOYS
To give one’s life for someone is a noble impulse. But if someone, in an office tone, prepares a plan for you on how you must give your life, it is a crime, and the owner of that office tone is a criminal. Somehow, not them but I became the criminal.
On TV, they scare me with the idea that they will take away my citizenship. On social media, they show videos of frightened guys apologizing on camera for daring to say something that contradicts the official rhetoric. Prison or war — I’m disgusted that I even have to make such a choice. Fortunately, Friedrich Nietzsche taught me to choose a third option from two. So here I am to tell you a story you won’t want to believe.
I realize that, on the one hand, they say Ukrainians are a nation of heroes. On the other hand, they declare that all Russians are bad, as they cannot get rid of their regime. The cancellation of Russian culture and the emergence of reactionary Ukrainian culture. Support for Ukraine by the American Congress. Support by European countries. However, the culture and politics of one country are often opposites. What Russian writers have skillfully and sharply written about Russia, criticizing it, no Ukrainian writer has managed.
The rejection of culture in Ukraine happened easily, indicating that culture was not essential for most Ukrainians. The reason is Maslow’s pyramid, and the fact that a Ukrainian, receiving his $212, is forced to think about survival rather than the problems described in the books of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Leonid Andreyev. Well, without culture, there is no human dignity, no values worth defending. Without culture, there are no meanings to uphold. Without culture, a person can be easily pushed towards war. It’s easy to say who the enemy is and who the friend is. It’s easy to divide the country based on language. It’s easy to fuel internal conflicts and manage divided and weakened groups.
I feel disgusted that war has interfered with my creativity. I would assign a higher value to any erotic scene than to war, because war comes from death, while the most depraved erotic scene comes from love. But at the same time, I cannot refrain from writing. I cannot, because if I don’t become someone who voices his opposition, the crimes will continue to multiply. In Europe, I received protection as a refugee, seeking refuge from Russian aggression, but few realize that I am equally seeking refuge here from Ukraine.
Anarchists surrounded me throughout my life. It happened because of my love for rock music and alternative literature, due to my interest in counterculture in general. I don’t consider myself an anarchist, but many principles of anarchism are close to me, as some religious principles are close to me, without making me a religious person. All of this falls into the realm of art, literature. I construct a territory of freedom in my books, and I don’t care how this freedom will be called later.
But for someone who has been associated with anarchists for a long time, I behaved foolishly. I allowed myself to forget that the state is an exploiter, and a person in it is expendable. If I hadn’t forgotten this, I would hardly have been surprised that Ukraine reclassified me from a human to a mobilization reserve.
At the beginning of the war, I expected my state to protect me, but it made a demand – give yourself to the war in my honor. Fill your pale body with bullets. Learn our slogans and forget your principles. All the time I spent in military Ukraine, for women and children, there was only one enemy – Russian missiles. For me, there were two enemies – Russian rockets and Ukrainian police who want to send me closer to the Russian missiles. In my own country, I, like many guys, was trapped. I couldn’t leave a place where staying was dangerous. Why forced mobilization did not remain a shameful fact of the past, like burning women at the stake for suspicion of witchcraft, is beyond my understanding.