Am I panicking enough?
This article, written and published on January 18 in German by the Ukrainian author and publisher Kateryna Mischenko, is a prologue to PEN/Opp's upcoming Ukraine issue, which will be launched in ten days.
Kateryna Mischenko grapples with the prospects of a Russian invasion. She, like all Ukrainians, has been living alongside the looming presence of war for eight years. But this is different. To read her text today, as prickling fear and premonition turn into harsh reality - with Ukraine in flames - is almost unbearable. Until just a few days ago, Mischenko was dead set on staying in Kiev. Then the situation became untenable. She managed to flee the city together with her five-year-old son and is now in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine.The article was published on January 18 in Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Kateryna Mishchenko, born in 1984 in Poltava, Ukraine, is an essayist and publisher. She has also translated, among others, Teodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Mischenko has been the editor of the journal Prostory and curated exhibitions at, among others, the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (GfZK) and the Visual Culture Research Center Kyiv (VCRC). Together with Miron Zovnir she has published the book Ukrainische Nacht.
Signed Carl Henrik Fredriksson who translated Mischenko's text from German into Swedish.
The writer Kateryna Mishchenko has been living with the war in Ukraine for six years. Nevertheless, she is not ready for a Russian invasion. A report from Kyiv on the mood.
Around the end of the year, I was talking with my friends, mostly from culture and media circles, about the film “Don’t Look Up” by Adam McKay. This satirical account of political and economic greed for profit, the absurdity of the world being destroyed by a giant meteor that no one wants to acknowledge was well received by us. The film has many parallels and keywords that we recognize from discussions of the threat of a Russian war against Ukraine and its geopolitical background. And it reminds us of the insight of the past eight years: that the truth can be dispensable.
During the Maidan protests, lies about sociopolitical processes in Ukraine were spread systematically. Trolls, bots, and other digital mercenaries misled professional journalists with their attacks. All of that was discussed later in the German media; The world of the trolls was studied and illuminated. In Ukraine, however, the—not just Ukrainian but global—knowledge of the “superfluous” truth is associated with a specific empire. I remember very well how astonishingly different what was happening to people in the center of Kyiv was from the account of the protest in the propaganda. At the time I perceived this distortion of political goals as painful and dangerous. Today, the distortion of the truth is at least equally horrible, above all because we are all threatened physically.
For eight years we have been living under conditions of radical political violence, we are living in war. That is the reality, which may perhaps seem abstract or incomprehensible to people in peaceful countries. I would like to be mistaken, but it seems to me that war remains unfathomable. How else can you explain the fact that it lasts eight years and that everything possible and impossible was not done to end it?
With this rhetorical question and several days of self-reflection on the grotesque realism of “Don’t Look Up,” we enter the new year. Two weeks later, the Christmas trees are in the trash containers, and the Russian troops are still there on our border. Hundreds of thousands of trees would, of course, be more desirable. But that is not our normal normality. The emphasis of reporting on a possible attack in recent months astonishes and frightens me. It makes me feel even more vulnerable and the social situation seem even more unstable. I ask myself whether I am panicking enough. Another question that remains unanswered.
Officially, that is, on the level of government, a politics of nonpanic is being pursued. That is understandable, since we cannot afford panic, neither economically nor politically, or, better, psychopolitically. When my thoughts move away from the Russian and Belarus borders, I soon find myself thinking about the financial limits of my small publishing house, because paper costs twice as much this year that previously. Other products will certainly soon become more expensive as well when energy prices increase. That only makes it all the more difficult, and all the more important, not to lose the “optimism of the will” in the face of the “pessimism of the intellect,” Antonio Gramsci expressed it. The danger of war makes all these plans and considerations irrelevant. And yet they are a distraction, an exercise in optimism. We may not repress the war but independently of that we have to strengthen our society and our country inwardly. The logic of war should not be allowed to occupy our being.
Yesterday I talked to my father on the phone. In a kind of self-examination, I asked him how his friends were perceiving the escalation. He told me it was being discussed calmly. My father lives in Poltava, closer than Kyiv to the Ukrainian-Russian border. He is over sixty and in the case of Russian aggression would volunteer to assist technically with the Ukrainian Army’s communication. Ostensibly, he has a plan, I don’t.
Would the partisans be an option? Would we flee? Save others?
Calm discussions describe very well our daily life in the shadow of the attack. The end of the war has long since been a subject of celebrations and parties. On ordinary days I speak with my family and my friends about that this existential threat means to us, whether the partisan movement would be an option, whether we would save others, whether we would flee. A permanent ethnic conflict. The word “flee” has acquired a new nuance. Even today it is still connected with the reaction to economic pressure in Ukraine but increasingly also with the danger to bare life.
Before falling asleep I sometimes imagine packing my suitcase to flee. What should I put in it? Every time I am clueless and design that I don’t want to flee. Am I a bad manager of my own life and of my family? A good manager would surely have packed a long time ago, and very probably she would be long since gone. The Ukrainian word for a luggage to flee sounds almost poetic; literally translated it means “suitcase of fear.” The headlines and TikTok videos about the movements of the Russian military to the west and the cyberattacks on the websites of Ukrainian ministries prevent closing this suitcase of fear. For years now anxiety and fear have contributed—not only in Ukraine—to the figure of Putin seeming increasingly demonic and omnipotent. Anxiety and fear follow so many Ukrainians on the paths of their lives and conquer more and more space in our imagination. The big war is more dominant in our thinking than peace.
I am confused by the subjunctive, for example, sentences like “If the attack on Ukraine were to occur, the USA and the EU would cause the Kremlin pain.” This construction is not good news for Ukraine. A country with forty million people is transformed into a subordinate clause and becomes a side effect. This linguistic framing worries me.
In front of the Parliament in Kyiv, a “Nutcracker” mood reigns: festive and beautiful.
Perhaps this is a good moment to analyze the past subjunctive and question one’s own political positions. What would the post-Soviet landscape look like today if the annexation of Crimea had not been permitted at the time? Could the Russian occupation of the Donbas have been avoided? The shooting down of the MH17 passenger jet, the quelling of protests in Belarus, the destruction of Russian civil society?
I am writing this text in the reading room of the National Library on European Square in Kyiv. The library building looks like a palace and is located at one of the focal points of the Maidan protests. At the entrance hangs a banner with portraits of 107 Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Georgian citizens who were shot to death. Their physical presence reminds me that we in Ukraine are experiencing the final democratic upheaval in the post-Soviet realm. These sometimes almost unconscious mechanics of post-Maidan life closes off inside us against co-optation, closes off inside us against any war machine.
My way home leads past the still-calm government district. Soon the winter vacation of civil servants and members of parliament will end. The political season officially beings on January 25. Two young guards are standing in front of parliament. Their uniforms are festively beautiful. A large Christmas tree lends the image a “Nutcracker” mood. The beauty of daily life gives people strength. My thoughts wander to the most interesting films of last year. Rather than the pleasurable powerlessness at the end of the world in “Don’t Look Up,” I prefer the exhaustion of Cold War fantasies, the latest James Bond. And, of course, the best title of all: “No Time to Die.”