A Great Beauty
Tenth day of the war. I learned how to darken the windows of my apartment with the thin blankets I have, so that inside there is a soft, muted light. I remember the first morning of the war. Everything was as usual—I woke up a little late, at nine, and saw a series of messages on my cell phone from friends and acquaintances: “Please, answer the phone!” Again and again the same message.
The catastrophe needs to be represented: only as part of a story can it be recognized as a catastrophe. Communication can also be a way out—the hope is that once everything is reported and communicated, one of the addressees can end the catastrophe.
Our skies are still open to military planes and bombs. That is why our cities with men, women, children, homes, and museums are still accessible to artillery. This morning I read that in Bila Tserkva, one of the most beautiful towns in Kyiv Oblast, twenty residential houses were destroyed by an air strike. Bila Tserkva means “White Church” in English. The number of victims is still being clarified. Fortunately, a timely evacuation was organized.
A friend from Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine, called me and excitedly told me that humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine was finally being delivered to Mariupol. His neighbor heard from supposedly reliable sources that this war will be over as early as mid-March. Laughing, I said goodbye.
I remember an elegant lady I saw earlier today. She was wearing a long black coat with fur, high boots, and a hat, and was waiting in line in front of a pharmacy. My mother had also waited, for five hours, in this line. The air was cold, so my mother walked around to warm up. At some point I joined her and we decided to go for a little walk. No one in line, including my mom and I, looked particularly fancy. Businesslike, but dressed somewhat casually. So the lady in the fur coat stood out a little. Her eyes looked worried, but for me, at that moment, she was a kind of beacon. One that reminded me, and perhaps the others in line, of a bygone Kyiv.
On the way back, I met a young man in front of my house and spoke with him. He said his name was Kirill. He apparently was part of the Kyiv nightclub scene, which has developed very rapidly in recent years. Now, nearly every day, he makes an almost unimaginable trek from the eastern bank of the Dnieper across to the western bank, to cook food in the kitchen of a restaurant for people in bomb shelters and the Kyiv Territorial Defense. When his time permits, he engages in art, music, and shamanism. Our conversation was a little strange.
“It has become very difficult to have faith in others,” he said. “As it turns out, they can suddenly throw bombs at other people and think they're right about it, too.” He looked directly at me. “Do you happen to be a journalist who could write about me?” I replied that maybe I could write about our meeting, in this diary. “Then I want to say,” he seemed very passionate now, “that everything that is happening at the moment is a great beauty. I don’t want to hide. Feel free to take my picture if you like.”
I must have looked at him in amazement because he launched into an explanation. “People are acting better than usual right now, and our country…” His thought trailed off. Then he said, “Everything is changing, even internationally.” His good humor mixed with my bitterness. I began to laugh.
When I got home that evening, I learned that the food and medicine that was supposed to go to Mariupol did not reach the city. The humanitarian corridor did not work and was closed because of continuous shelling. Two people from my circle of friends, an artist and an art historian who live outside Mariupol, have been unreachable for four days. The messages on the Telegram channels from Mariupol are becoming less frequent.
I know from a close friend that the village of Horynka, near the forest of Pushcha, was badly damaged. The number of victims is unknown, and my friend’s uncle is currently hiding in a basement. We are looking for evacuation routes for him.
It is difficult for me to finish this text. The war continues, but the fear of the aggressor—the respect for him—must finally stop. I get letters from my German friends, who write: “Save yourself! Putin does not tolerate any losses. He has a reputation for destroying everything.” I wonder what they mean by that. How did he get such a reputation? What does it mean that he doesn’t want to lose? What does it mean for the whole world?
The windows in my little room are darkened with duvet covers. There is a light on and it’s reasonably comfortable. An app on my phone announces “the air-raid alarm is over” in a woman’s voice. It’s one of those moments when I think I’ve discovered something fundamental: I understand what photography is for. I’ve occupied myself with photography for a long time, but I have never understood it as practically as I do now.
Only with the help of photos and pictures can I remember the course of today’s walk. In the daily life of war, only something like photography—unfamiliar, auxiliary, almost mechanical—is capable of holding together sequences and memories.
When I went for a walk, my thoughts were still on the morning news and I hardly paid attention to the street. With a deep sadness, I had to admit to myself the possibility that we might eventually be forced to leave Kyiv. I’d known all along it might come to that, of course, but today the possibility really struck me again.
Then I thought, at least I’m still in Kyiv for now, I must cherish every minute and look around—to see the city, the streets, the people. That was somewhat naive, however, and I quickly sank back into my thoughts, hardly noticing what was going on around me.
The soldiers of the Territorial Defense were warming their hands. I saw the beautiful faces of two young women who laughingly told me that they belonged to the “Volunteer Army of Ukraine.” They gave me their phone numbers. What that meant was: maybe we will meet again.
To my surprise, a little later I heard music. I was walking through the sculpture park, along Landscape Avenue. From a distance I heard drums, a melodic whistling, and bells. The music came from the hills. I listened very carefully as the playing got a little louder with every step. Then I saw a small group of men and women playing musical instruments in the distance. What a combination of different fragments, tones, and pauses. I listened, enchanted. They approached me, passing me by with friendly glances. I was so impressed by having seen and heard these musicians that I cannot remember what happened afterwards.
But thanks to the photographs, which I continue to try to take, another important scene comes to mind. The municipal workers of Kyiv were out in the city, using spray paint to cover over tourist maps of the city center, which can be seen on boards all around that area. The workers were accompanied by armed members of the Territorial Defense. I was allowed to take photos on the condition that no face could be recognized in the images.
Now my memory jumps to another episode that has something to do with music: on March 8, International Women’s Day, I went to the pharmacy with my mother. On the way, we met an elderly woman carrying a rose. My mother approached her. They chatted and exchanged contact information so they cold help each other in case of emergency.
Then the woman began to recite a poem she had written in Russian during the war. It was about dictatorship, about war, and at the end there was a promise that this absolute senselessness, this evil, could never win. The woman wore a headscarf, looking modest, but the melody of her verses sounded musical and to the point.
The boards with tourist maps were painted over so that the saboteurs, who are constantly trying to enter Kyiv and other cities, will not be able to use the maps for orientation. Rumor has it that they often do not have smartphones and get lost in the settlements and streets.
Today’s news was excruciating. I think of the songs the people sing here anyway, I think of the music.
The air-raid alert sounds again. I wait and I hope that the sky will soon be closed.
Drones over Kyiv
I am trying to write, but cannot start. The air-raid alarm has been going for two hours. It is echoed by the sirens, as if within one warning a second is possible.
I see on Telegram the headline “KYIV IS BURNING!” Accompanying videos show rows of blazing houses—not just a single house, but an entire apartment block on fire.
Ten minutes ago, I heard a loud explosion. Just before the explosion, I had thought that I should finally sit down to write, but first I picked up my phone to make sure my parents and friends were safe.
An hour ago, my mother called me to report that she had been watching the sky when a plane started firing at targets. We all heard gunfire; it was unclear where it was coming from. Then I read some reassuring news: enemy drones had been successfully eliminated. But almost immediately after that, I looked out the window and saw two drones flying over our house. One stopped above the building that houses the nearby shelter. The drones flew high in the sky. They looked like they were being shot at.
My headache from the previous sleepless night had disappeared, and I felt cold, fearful, and determined (for what?). I called the police to pass on the coordinates of the drones. Then my parents and I briefly discussed whether we should go downstairs to the ground floors of our buildings. I decided to stay in my apartment, and my parents decided to stay in theirs.
All the windows are blacked out and the lights are off, as in all the apartments I can see when I peek out my window. One tries to make oneself invisible, to hide one’s house and sink into the darkness of the night, so as not to become a target. Strange images come to mind: on the top floor of my apartment building, I feel like I’m standing atop a flower with a long, thin stem. I can understand the fear and anger an insect might feel when accidentally knocked from a flower’s petals.
In the meantime, high-definition videos of the attacks are being released. You can see the night being ripped apart by white flashes that grow taller than any skyscraper and blanket our houses below. When I try to tell myself that all this is happening right now to the people in my city—to those I meet every day on the streets, to passersby, doctors, vendors, artists, teachers—and that this deadly light threatens me at night too, I feel nausea and dizziness.
I can’t close my eyes, can’t find peace. That’s what I want to describe to you. Tomorrow morning I will read this text again. If I do, it will mean that we survived the night.
I was outside for only a short time today. I said goodbye to a friend, an artist, who is leaving Kyiv tomorrow, then I met a second friend, also an artist, who has returned to Kyiv to join the Territorial Defense as a paramedic.
An acquaintance sent me a letter from Melitopol, which is occupied by the Russian army. A friend of his was searching for escape routes. He, his wife, and a child are hiding in a small apartment, and they are slowly running out of food. The Russian secret service and military are arresting residents who have repeatedly demonstrated against the occupation. Demonstrators are shot in the legs. Nobody can find a way to help Melitopol now. There is no escape, and people are being kidnapped.
A friend today used the word genocide. This word penetrated deep into my mind. I still have a hard time using it. The term is the wrong size: like many such words, it is both a little too small and much too big, like someone else’s clothes. Still—and this surprises me—it does in part describe the situation of Ukraine.
The apartments in Kyiv look peaceful, even in the midst of war. Neighborhood balconies are blanketed in colorful sheets, which are supposed to conceal and protect residents. This is the kind of photo I wanted to choose for today’s entry, even though it might not fit: the sheets are nice and innocent, and they say little about death.
Is it possible to condemn me, my city, and the people of Mariupol, Melitopol, and other cities to death, to play with us in a game of annihilation, in front of the whole world? I keep asking myself this. What happened to us all that this became possible?
I think the answer to these questions will determine the future of a great many people. My cousin, a singer who is now in Kyiv, sings a lullaby for me. The burden of these past twenty-five days is great enough. This war is destroying everything that has been achieved since the nightmare of World War II. Putin and his unlawful armies must be stopped.
Yevgenia Belorusets' War Diaries are originally published at Isolarii. Link to the whole list here. Updates are published by ISOLARII at 4:00 PM EDT each day. To receive updates, sign up to Belorusets' diary.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Isolarii
Yevgenia Belorusets is a photographer and writer. She is the co-founder of “Prostory”, a journal for literature, art and politics, and a member of the interdisciplinary curatorial group “Hudrada”. Her works move at the intersection of art, literature, journalism and social activism, between document and fiction.
Her artistic method was established in her long-term projects such as “Gogol Street 32”, which portrayed the residents of a communal apartment building during their daily activities in a slowly decaying living environment. Оr in the project “Victories of the Defeated”, which included series of documentary photographs, texts and interviews and was dedicated to the coal miner communities, which continued to exist in Eastern Ukraine on the very edge of military conflict. To accomplish this work Yevgenia Belorusets visited between 2014 and 2017 cities near and in the war zon of Donbass Region in Ukraine.
In 2018 / 2019 she has published a book of stories called Lucky Breaks (Щасливі падіння) about women living in the shadow of the now-frozen, now-thawing conflict in the Donbass region, caused by Russian military intervention after the Kyiv Maidan of 2014. The publisher IST-Publishing issued the book in Ukraine in 2018, and the publishing housе Matthes & Seitz issued it in Germany in 2019. The book was awarded The International Literature Award Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2020.