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Artem Chapeye on Defending Ukraine


You wrote this story, “The Ukraine,” several years ago—in 2018, I think. What inspired it at the time? Had you been travelling around Ukraine in the way that your characters do?

“The Ukraine” was one of these stories writers love: it came into my mind as one whole piece. It was November, 2017. I was travelling back from a distant village in the mountains, and travelling meant changing buses and marshrutkas, the minibuses used for public transportation. Maybe it was the foggy November weather and the sleep deprivation. The dreamlike, surreal surroundings made me listen to bits of conversations, take in every sensory aspect, and I felt this aching, acute love for everyone and everything around, all the obvious imperfections included.

When I finally got back home, I had the mood and the details ready, and the plot was also ready. Basically, I wrote the story down in one long sitting, and all that was needed afterward was polishing.

I do love travelling to non-touristic places in Ukraine, like random small towns or industrial cities or villages near borders, although this happens less often than I’d like.

In fact, there was a Ukrainian wandering philosopher of the eighteenth century, Hryhoriy Skovoroda, who’s an inspiration. 2022 is the three hundredth anniversary of his birth, and I was planning to travel even more this year, but Russia attacked and all plans were shattered.

In the story, “the Ukraine”—with the definite article—becomes code for the gritty reality of the country. At the same time, the story is a kind of love letter to that gritty reality, what you call “the romance of decline.” Why does that kind of decline make us nostalgic?

The “the” article is considered politically incorrect, a reference to the times when Ukraine was part of the tsarist Russian Empire. I used it as code for the “real” Ukraine, as opposed to the façade. In fact, this idea comes from English literature—D. H. Lawrence’s phrase “the England that was really England,” in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

This “the Ukraine,” which lies beyond the façade of tourism (including domestic tourism), feels like the raw reality of the country. I think it causes longing because it’s the Ukraine we locals all know from our parents and grandparents, from our childhood (mine was in the nineties, which in Ukraine were the years with frequent water and electricity outages): we were poor but, somehow, often quite happy.

And only now do I realize that this story may be a poetic explanation for why most of us are so willing to defend this imperfection, why we feel this painfully acute love for things that aren’t usually valued much. I’m especially impressed by the people who went abroad to look for economic opportunities but are now coming back to defend this “romance of decline,” and to rebuild it for a renewed and better version in the future.

Which brings us to where you are right now, on March 10, 2022: serving in the defense force in Kyiv.

I’m in the Army, but not in Kyiv at the moment. We’re warned not to name locations.

What can you tell me about what you’ve been experiencing?

So.

This is quite surreal. In one reality, you’re a private (the lowest rank) in the Army. In another, you’re answering questions for The New Yorker. And these realities just don’t intersect; like, I’m somehow ashamed to brag about The New Yorker to my comrades here, where what really matters is that I don’t lose vigilance while guarding them, and that we fix a truck malfunction, etc.

The funny thing is: I was always a pacifist, a fan of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and so on.

On the first morning of the Russian invasion, my wife, Oksana, and I were woken up by the sound of bombs. We woke up our kids and started moving as far from the border as we could. Luckily, we had grab packs ready, as advised.

In Ukraine, I think I’m best known for a bittersweet story about a dad of a baby and a toddler who takes a paternal leave to be the main caregiver for his kids, in a rather patriarchal society. But, by the time we had finished evacuating, I knew I had to leave Oksana and our kids and join the Army. My once-hated previous experience as a drafted soldier (when I was a teen-ager) now unexpectedly became useful. Because not everyone is accepted—there are too many volunteers, which is amazing. There’s this bitter joke ascribed to the draft officer: “You were all sick (i.e., evading) when you had to serve in the Army, but now you’re all suddenly healthy when it’s time to fight.”

So I was lucky to obtain even the lowest-rank position. As someone who’s not a professional soldier, I don’t do anything special. I am basically just an armed guard, once for a convoy, sometimes patrolling, driving when needed, etc.

Psychologically, I think it was important to turn myself from a “victim” civilian into an “agent” resisting the oppression.

As an intellectual, I see this experience as a chance to be embedded in and observe the society beyond my bubble; as a left-wing person, I experience this euphoric sense of being “with the people,” but, when it comes to my usefulness, I’m rather envious of people who have special skills and can do more than just patrol. Then again, everyone is needed, and it’s good to know that we have an excess of people ready to resist the invaders.

What’s most amazing, I think, is that most of us didn’t even expect so much resistance and solidarity from ourselves. That came as a surprise, and it’s self-supporting.

Can you, from where you are now, see a possible positive end to the invasion? Can you imagine a return to “normal” life—a time when you are a writer, only, and not a private? Do you think your writing will be changed?

Many people, including myself, have noticed that the Army is now the most optimistic part of this society. I can’t say how realistic the optimism is, but soldiers seem to feed into one another’s morale, or whatever it’s called. I’m not a military expert, but we remember how even smaller Finland fought off the huge U.S.S.R.



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