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.
FOUGHT THE CULTURE, WOKE UP IN DIRT
“It’s impossible to accurately recount the horrors of wartime because when you narrate it, you add a logic that often doesn’t exist during war.”
from THE MINING BOYS
From books on the craft of writing, I know the plot structure that will be interesting to most people. All you need for this is the juxtaposition of opposites. You need to demonstrate how a character ends up on the side of the one they fought against in the beginning. For example, a concentration camp victim encounters a guard and falls in love with them. Interesting? Indeed, but much more interesting is observing something that is not an individual but an entire country.
At the beginning of the war, Ukraine tried its best to show that Ukrainians and Russians not only are not fraternal peoples but also have nothing in common at all. This led to the cancellation of Russian culture in Ukraine. By cancelling the culture, we legitimized ignorance and now find ourselves akin to Russia not in a love for the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky but in harsh mobilization measures, the suppression of freedom of speech, and dissent. Despite Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on morality, Ukrainian military surpassed him in this — in Odessa, soldiers beat a man in front of his tiny child because he refused to take a military draft notice.
Even if Ukraine wins the war, the Ukraine I lived in no longer exists. If at the beginning of the war, Russia claimed that it came to save the Russian-speaking population from discrimination by Ukrainian authorities, it sounded absurd. As a Russian-speaking resident of Ukraine, I’ll say that before the war, there was little discrimination, but now it has appeared – the mayor of Kharkiv was fined for giving an interview in Russian.
But now a Russian-speaking Ukrainian cannot claim discrimination on a linguistic basis because, in doing so, he would indirectly confirm Russia’s statement and thus take the side of the aggressor. But I don’t support Russian aggression. Nevertheless, I say that the Russian language is my native language, not Ukrainian. Even in my Ukrainian passport, my name is written in both Russian and Ukrainian. The fact that the contemporary authorities exclude the Russian language everywhere, considering that half of Ukraine’s population is Russian-speaking, is a monstrous violation of rights. And it’s not just about minority rights. Even in this, Ukraine is still closer to Russia than to Europe, where such discrimination seems at least inappropriate.
The media depicts Ukraine as a country fighting for democratic values and freedom. However, at the same time, Ukraine has cancelled human rights. War justifies everything. The ban on men leaving the country has been in effect since the first day of the war. Today, a man in Ukraine cannot get a job, go to the hospital, buy or sell real estate without the involvement of the military commissariat. Police and military beat, humiliate, and detain any guy they encounter on their way to forcibly send them to war. Draft notices are often used as a method of punishing citizens for not looking the way they should, speaking the wrong language, or simply not liking a specific representative of authority.
At the beginning of the war, I followed the events not through news sites but through videos on TikTok, where ordinary people posted videos of shelling and explosions. TikTok app turned to the territory of free news but it has ended by now. Anyway, it was obvious who the enemy was. Pretty soon these videos were mixed with recordings of different kinds of crimes — military personnel forcibly taking young men right off the streets. Try entering keywords like “мобилизация Украине”, “Украина повестки”, “Украина призыв” in the TikTok search field, and you’ll witness the scale of how Ukraine destroys, intimidates, and humiliates its own citizens. But these videos are quickly deleted. Similar videos can be found on Russian TikTok with one difference — in Russia, mobilization happens periodically, while in Ukraine, it has been continuous for a year and a half.
The top leadership of Ukraine declares its readiness to continue the war at any cost and intends to achieve victory no matter what. But what is the price of such a victory? The price is me. My life. The lives of my friends. If the state has decided it’s ready to pay such a price, it doesn’t mean I’ve made the same decision. The cunning of the system is that it merges with the citizen when it’s convenient, under the guise of patriotism, and separates itself the rest of the time.
Yes, the cancellation of Russian culture in Ukraine succeeded. Today, it’s easier to buy a collection of poems by Joseph Brodsky in Lisbon than in Kyiv, but who became poorer because of it? Now Russia and Ukraine are united by cruelty justified by the desire to seize or reclaim territory, expand borders, or simply maintain existence, at the cost of young men from poor families who don’t have $10,000 to buy a pass for their son to leave the country.
Regardless of the motives, a crime should remain a crime. If people in Russia are silent out of fear, in Ukraine, they are silent due to a logical trap set by propaganda. If you defend Russian culture and the native language, it means you justify the aggressor. It’s uncompromising and effective.
But why attack culture at all? O-o-oh, that’s beneficial to both sides. A reflective person won’t just pull the trigger so easily.
“I don’t want to die because of
two or three kings whom
I’ve never even looked in the eyes.”
by Joseph Brodsky
Culture will make people doubt the expediency of aggression. Culture knows how to show that the world is not divided into black and white, into strangers and our own, that the world is much more complex. Therefore, even if Ukraine wins the war, the Ukraine I lived in no longer exists, and there is no going back. My goal is not to allow them to do the same with culture.
PRICE LIST FOR HEROISM
“Amazing feeling. Once I read a story about how a hand rebelled against its owner. I would not have believed that I would find myself in a similar situation with the language, and yet I ended up…”
Ukraine actively breeds heroes. Firstly, by declaring the entire Ukrainian nation as a nation of heroes. Then, by singling out heroes individually among the military and politicians. Following literary cleverness, I would assume that each such hero has an increased chance of becoming the opposite of what we are used to considering a hero.
Heroization is the sealing of a person at the moment of the highest manifestation of nobility. It’s the peak. After the peak, there will inevitably be a descent; the Portuguese hills leave me no doubt about that. Yesterday the media wrote “Glory to the Ukrainian army,” and today I see an article with the text: “In Kryvyi Rih town, a group of veterans of the Armed Forces of Ukraine beat participants of a bike ride, accusing the young people of not going to defend their homeland.”
On the Internet, it is easy to find information from sociological studies that tell, through examples, how embittered people return from war, how strongly traumatic events of this kind affect the psyche. These people need special treatment, but having lived in Ukraine all my life, I’m more than sure that the state will not be able to organize this special treatment. The war has not yet ended, and I already see such news – in Zaporizhia city, a military man was not allowed into a cafe because he was in military uniform. Not receiving due respect and care but faced with indifference and injustice of the capitalist world, a former soldier will undoubtedly begin to seek an outlet in the antisocial dimension. Being a marginal, a rebel, a Russian-speaking author in a Ukrainian-centric dictatorship, a gay man in a patriarchal society, some manifestations of the antisocial dimension are well known to me, but in my case, it does not involve violence.
In the case of participants in military actions, violence is unlikely to remain only on the battlefield because sometimes even a school teacher finds it hard to leave thoughts about work in the classroom, let alone a soldier. Aggression, intolerance, PTSD. Professional deformation is a phenomenon that is not so easy to get rid of. Therefore, I am not surprised by news like this – in Kyiv, a court fined a soldier who beat a designer near a club due to homophobia. He was fined $45.
If $45 is the price set by the state for beating, then in Ukraine, you can easily open a business where, at a fixed price, you can buy boys for beating. Voiceless and silent boys. Powerless, and therefore unprotected.
One day the war will end. The heroes will return home. The poor country will become even poorer. I remind you that the minimum wage in Ukraine is only $212, and the pension is $70. The cost of a single beating is $45. The Apple Pencil, with which I take notes for my texts, costs as much as 2 Ukrainian pensions or 3 beatings. Will you place an order, sir?