Amid the continued attempts by Russia to bully Ukraine and its allies into submission, a recently published book by Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian and Director of Ukrainian Institute in London, serves as a timely reminder of the gigantic cost of war in general and of the war in the East of Ukraine in particular.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has been going on for almost 8 years now.
The news about soldiers that get killed or injured continues to arrive almost every day. Many Ukrainians instinctively try to shield themselves from such painful reports. Yet there is no way of doing that for the families and friends of the casualties.
Khromeychuk, who researches war professionally, shares a candid and nuanced story of trying to come to terms with the death of her brother Volodya at the hands of Russian-backed separatists on the frontline in Donbas.
The book invites its reader on a journey through the intense feeling of loss, yet also offers hope for finding peace.
The story of a loss
Khromeychuk was 16 when she moved to the UK with part of her family. Her brother, an authority to his sister, an effortless philosopher and polyglot, lived abroad for some time too. Yet eventually he came back to Ukraine and at some point enlisted into the Ukrainian Army, which was fighting the Russian and Russian-backed troops in Donbas.
This prompted the writer to start a hurried search for personal military equipment, clothes, anything else that Volodya might need and what the badly managed Ukrainian army was not able to provide to its troops at the time. Humorously, she mentions that Facebook algorithms must have thought she was ‘a woman of childbearing age, keen on theater and army outfits’ with ‘pretty big feet’.
The author is also very open here about her self-described ‘hypocrisy’. She recalls being ‘embarrassed about not being able to stick to my principle of holding the state accountable for its actions and ensuring it fulfilled its responsibilities’. Khromeychuk had believed that by helping volunteers supply the soldiers on the frontline with the basic necessities she would contribute to relieving the government of the pressure to do its job properly. However, her actions were now ‘driven by the fears of a sister’, not ‘the political views of an informed academic’.
Such an honest and unembellished view on complex, contradictory feelings is present throughout the whole book and makes it stand out.
In 2017, having spent almost two years at the front, Volodya dies from the enemy’s shelling. Khromeychuk flies to Ukraine to attend the funeral of her brother as well as to learn more about the last months of his life and try to understand him better.
After Khromeychuk arrives in Ukraine, she embarks on a run of meetings with volunteers, civil servants and even politicians. The funeral ceremony of a soldier involves certain public rituals, apart from bureaucracy, and is no longer a family affair.
The writer looks at how the life story of dead soldiers is distorted by attempts to make their death more ‘acceptable’. “Heroes never die” becomes a mantra that keeps the mourners from falling into despair.
Yet it is here that the real person often gives way to a heroic invention, Khromeychuk observes. The relatives of fallen soldiers do not recognize them in the newspaper articles or speeches by politicians. In the writer’s case, an obituary presents her brother as someone who left his supposedly comfortable life in Europe to protect his motherland and to later die in a heroic way.
Khromeychuk reminds instead that there is often little heroic about dying in war. According to the last person that talked to Volodya before he died, the last thing he said was “Suka! Bliad’!”. This is roughly translated as “Shit! Fuck!”, which is hardly something to put in an obituary or mention at the funeral.
It also turned out that Volodya died while trying to determine where the enemy fire was coming from. He was performing a task that drones could have done. If only the soldiers had had any at the time!
The writer further asks whether a death must be ‘interesting’ in any way to deserve an obituary. What do the ‘ordinary’ soldiers feel when they read about the heroic actions of other soldiers in an embellished report or obituary? What do the relatives of the soldier feel?
In other chapters, the writer describes her journey into the depths of shattering grief. She faces the fear of succumbing to the seeds of hatred toward ‘professional’ patriots, ‘balanced’ media and ‘deeply concerned’ international community.
She also fears losing impartiality that she sees as necessary for objective research and teaching.
However, she gradually finds out that her ‘personal vulnerability’ helps her analyze war better and turn the attention of her students towards the pain and loss behind the dry statistics.
“A Loss” as an honest companion and timely reminder of the cost of war
Olesya Khromeychuk has presented the story of her brother in a number of theater performances in the UK, building on her love of theater and the exploration of some of Volodya’s personal items such as the pictures he took with his smartphone on the frontline.
Writing “A Loss” is the next step in her personal journey. Khromeychuk describes it as an attempt to overcome grief, relieve herself of hatred, and try to move on. She also hopes that the book would help others who lost their close ones in a war.
The book reveals the complexity of the writer’s relations with Volodya, which was accentuated by the stress from his first-hand experience of the war. She is also very candid about the complex reactions and feelings caused by his death. This is something that does not come up too often in the public discussion of the deaths of soldiers in Ukraine, which adds another layer to the honesty with which the book is written.
This arguably makes the book even more helpful to those who feel lonely and hurt while coping with the death of a close one.
In order to not let her grief fuel the growth of the hatred towards the perpetrators and cynical bystanders of her brother’s death, Olesya Khromeychuk tries to create more space in her heart for the love she has always felt towards her brother. She writes that ‘mostly it works’.
Despite her ample knowledge of the topic, the writer does not look at the war in Ukraine from a professional point of view. Importantly though, she does remind the reader that despite the very real mutual stereotypes that existed among the various groups of Ukrainians, nobody could have predicted that the war would erupt. And it wouldn’t have, if only the Kremlin had not interfered.
The book’s arrival is especially timely amid the buildup of Russian troops at Ukraine’s border that has prompted fears that Russia could go for an even larger-scale invasion. Khromeychuk’s story underlines the huge cost of war, which is something that should have more prominence in the discussions about how the West should respond to the Kremlin’s actions towards Ukraine.
Olesya Khromeychuk. A Loss. The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister / Foreword by Andrei Kurkov / Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2021 – 122 p.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations