Time does not pay attention to people. It is people who pay attention to time — trying to see how much is left, whether it’s enough to fulfil your plans. I used to pay a lot of attention to time, using it as effectively as possible. But that has changed. Now I pay attention to the war that has been going on for 100 days and one week. I cannot see when or how it will end.
Soon it will be two months since we started living in someone else’s apartment. The place has become almost like home to us. I know where to find a medium-sized pot or pilaf spices in the kitchen. I know where the iron is and where the ironing board is hidden. I know where the hostess has clean bath towels. I am also already on nodding terms with several vendors at the local market, and I know a man who sells bad potatoes. I asked him twice: “Are your potatoes OK?” And he assured me both times that his potatoes were excellent. But then half had to be thrown away — inside they were black, rotten. He sells them already packaged in 2kg bags. That’s what all the merchants do. You buy potatoes like a pig in a poke. I don’t buy potatoes from him any more, but I greet him when I walk through the bazaar.
During this time, I have discovered 15 acquaintances temporarily settled near us. “Near” doesn’t mean next door. Here in Transcarpathia, on the western side of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains, if someone lives 50km away from you, it is nearby. Sixty kilometres from us, in a spacious apartment on the ground floor of a two-storey house in the town of Berehove, our close Kyiv friends have been living for two months now — Irina, the widow of my first publisher, her daughter Alena, grandson Artem and three other acquaintances. They don’t pay rent. They live according to the official rules for refugees and “internally displaced persons”. They have registered as IDPs and received certificates proving their status, and with these they can receive humanitarian assistance.
There are several humanitarian hubs in Berehove. Each hub has its own schedule, but no one knows exactly where and when, and what kind of help will be made available. IDPs make regular circuits of the town centre, walking from one hub to another, and if they see a line of people, they immediately join it — most likely it means that food has been brought. Food aid now appears irregularly. Irina refuses to stand in the queues. “I look too good to be taking handouts!” she said. “I am ashamed to do it.” But she asked Alena to go and get whatever was on offer. It’s usually sunflower oil, canned fish, buckwheat and other cereals.
Alena goes along to the handout points happily. She enjoys interacting with the other folk in the queue. Last time she stood in line for an hour for a box of hygiene products. She brought home 12 rolls of toilet paper, 10 bars of soap, 3kg of laundry detergent, five toothbrushes, three tubes of toothpaste and five disposable razors. All this was packed in a cardboard box with the inscription “hygiene kit for a family of five for one month”. It was also indicated that this set was from the Austrian Red Cross. To get it, Alena had to show her IDP registration certificate.
Not far from the hygiene kit distribution point there is a kiosk where you can always get free, warm, fresh bread without a certificate. A little further along there is a disused shop with two rooms full of free clothes collected by the residents of the town and nearby villages. In the makeshift changing rooms, you can get dressed in the outfit you have selected and off you go. The only problem is that there are no “humanitarian” shoes. Fortunately, refugees did not come here barefoot.
Very often, it is the elderly women who stand in line for humanitarian aid. They also like to communicate with each other and to find out who fled from where and what they left behind. Generally, these are “urban” grandmothers. They are well dressed, with professional haircuts. “Rural” grandmothers are easy to recognise by their clothes and their gait. All their lives, in addition to their main work, they have worked in their gardens. They are bent over and almost always have back problems.
Yesterday, after reading the latest news, I had a strong desire to introduce two elderly Ukrainian women to each other. It’s impossible, of course. I don’t know either of them, but I can imagine the conversation they would have. These two grandmothers have greatly surprised me. One of them, an 85-year-old resident of the village of Gorenka, which can be reached by tram from the centre of Kyiv, made paska — special sweet bread for Easter — in a partially destroyed stove that, until recently, was used to cook food and heat her house. The house was destroyed by Russian artillery, but the stove, originally built into the wall of the building, almost survived. You can still cook food in it, only there are no walls or windows around it, and there is no roof over the stove. This grandmother, who now lives in the ruins of her home, has baked almost a dozen such loaves in the oven, and no doubt took them along to the church to be blessed at Easter. That is if the church survived Russian bombing.
Morning motivation from an old Ukrainian lady who was baking Easter bread in the rubble of her house in Horenka, near Bucha. Her village was heavily affected by war. Basically, it’s Ukraine today. Photo- @zn_ua pic.twitter.com/kAmO2yQ8ac
— Iryna Matviyishyn (@IMatviyishyn) May 1, 2022
The second grandmother, Nadezhda Radionova, an 80-year-old pensioner from Vinnytsia, has been much more fortunate. Her apartment has not been damaged by any bombs. But, perhaps influenced by her granddaughter, who is a professional tattoo artist, she decided to get a patriotic tattoo on her leg: the trident from Ukraine’s coat of arms and ears of wheat, a symbol of Ukraine.
For an adult, choosing a tattoo is always a very significant decision. Especially if the tattoo is in a conspicuous place. The Russian aggression has shown that having a patriotic tattoo can even cost you your life. Wherever they can, but especially at checkpoints, the Russian military undress men to look for patriotic tattoos. If they find any, the Ukrainian is immediately recorded as a “Nazi” or “fascist” and taken away for interrogation. The Russians have forced Ukrainian military prisoners to “erase” patriotic tattoos along with their skin by rubbing them with stones. Among the bodies of murdered Ukrainians, there were many whose tattoos had been cut from their arms, shoulders or legs, along with skin and flesh.
If grandmother Nadezhda Radionova falls into the hands of the Russian military with her new tattoo, will she be shown any mercy? Many Russians do not understand or accept anyone else’s patriotism. For them, tattoos of Stalin and Putin are still in fashion, along with a whole set of tattoos based on criminal prison stories, about which entire encyclopedias have already been published!
It would seem logical for the grandmother with the tattoo to invite the other grandmother, who has been left with her outdoor stove, to her place for a while. But I understand what attachment to one’s home is, even when the house is destroyed. The stove is the heart of a traditional Ukrainian home. In winter, children would have slept on the stove in which the grandmother from Gorenka baked her Easter bread. This was the warmest place in the house. I can imagine the thoughts of this grandmother. She most likely thinks that the main thing is that the stove survived only slightly damaged. The house around it and the roof above it can be rebuilt.
In the Ukrainian language and in Ukrainian tradition there is a word toloka. It means community work for the common good or for the benefit of a particular person or a particular family. In this tradition, neighbours and fellow villagers will help to build a new home for those whose house has burnt down, or help lonely elderly people to harvest crops from their allotments. I imagine that after the war there will be a lot of community work parties like this, organised to help those who have been left without housing.
Not so long ago, toloka gained a new sense: that of “volunteer”. This concept, which involves helping people you do not know, is relatively new to Ukraine. The family of my cousin Kostya went as volunteers to clean up the ruins of Bucha after the withdrawal of the Russian army. They drove there, cleaned the streets from morning to evening, sorting through the rubble from destroyed houses, informing the military when they found unexploded bombs or grenades.
This huge work would not have been possible without volunteers. The army is fighting at the front, and those military units that defend Kyiv and other cities cannot simultaneously be engaged in the restoration of destroyed villages and roads. This work is done by volunteers. And, of course, the Russian military has no respect for them. Volunteers also bring humanitarian aid to the residents of frontline villages and cities left without supplies. Volunteers are trying to evacuate residents from the occupied territory, and this is always associated with a risk to life. More than one volunteer has been killed by the Russian military or died under shelling from artillery or tanks. But volunteers still continue to offer their services, believing that without their help, victory will not be achieved, that those who could be saved will be lost.
By chance, or rather because of a photograph taken by Christopher Occhicone for the Wall Street Journal, a young resident of the infamous Irpin became one of the most famous Ukrainian volunteers. Her name is Nastya and she managed to evacuate about 14 disabled dogs from the city during Russian occupation. There are thousands of volunteers helping refugees and the military, and most remain anonymous and prefer it that way. Nastya, by the way, did not want to become a star either. She did not even give her last name to journalists and did not say where she was taking the disabled dogs.
In western Ukraine, where my family and I temporarily live, the volunteer movement is also very active, and interestingly, as well as seeking to relieve basic needs, volunteer organisations here aim to support IDPs emotionally and psychologically. There are a lot of refugees from other regions, many of them women with children. Some live for free in schools and hostels, others rent rooms and apartments. Those of working age would like to be able to work, but there are few jobs in Transcarpathia, Bukovina or the Lviv region. It’s good that there are free canteens and cafés, and it’s good that there are humanitarian aid centres in every larger settlement, but it is psychologically difficult to live in a foreign region without work.
To keep both adult refugees and their children busy, volunteers have organised a variety of courses, from traditional sewing and dressmaking to acting and animation. In many cities and towns, there are free foreign language courses. In Berehove on the Hungarian border, Alena and her new refugee friends attend Hungarian language courses. Each lesson lasts three hours and those who have signed up for the course take it as seriously as if they were preparing for an exam.
“What is the teacher’s name?” I asked Alena when she left the university building at 8pm. I expected to hear a Hungarian name in response because there are a lot of ethnic Hungarians in this city.
“Angelica,” answered Alena.
“How does she teach? Is she cheerful?” I asked.
“She doesn’t have the strength to smile. She holds three classes a day for three groups of three hours each. But she tries very hard.”
Alena already has a favourite phrase in Hungarian. Jó reggelt kivanok! “Good morning!” It sounds a little funny to Ukrainians because it reminds us of the Ukrainian words for “hedgehog under the sofa”.
Hungarian language teacher Angelica is not exactly a volunteer. She is paid for her work, but she works a lot more than she needs to — nine hours a day teaching Hungarian to refugees. This is her contribution to the life of Ukrainian society, to its psychological stability.
Can war be a time for self-improvement, for self-education? Of course it can. At any age and in any situation, even in wartime, you can discover new aspects of life, new knowledge and new opportunities. You can learn to bake Easter bread in a damaged stove. You can get a tattoo for the first time in your life at the age of 80. You can start learning Hungarian or Polish. You can even start learning Ukrainian if you didn’t know it before. Now free Ukrainian language courses are on offer in western Ukraine and refugees from eastern (mostly Russian-speaking) Ukraine willingly start studying it. They understand now that knowing only Russian is dangerous! After all, Putin might decide that you need “protection” as a Russian speaker. He might order the Russian army not only to “protect” you but also to “liberate” you from your house or apartment, from your former happy life. Language matters, especially if your life suddenly depends on what language you speak.
Andrey Kurkov’s most recent novel is ‘Grey Bees’
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