NONFICTION: Juxtaposing the ordinary and extraordinary, a Ukrainian woman documents the unimaginable effects of war in words and photos.
“War Diary” by Yevgenia Belorusets, translated from German by Greg Nissan; New Directions (128 pages, $16.95)
Thirty-three days after the Russian invasion, Ukrainian writer Yevgenia Belorusets types the following words into a public diary she’d been keeping for the German newspaper Der Spiegel since the start of the war: “My previous entry was an eternity ago. At least that is how I perceive it.”
From her apartment in the center of Kyiv, not far from where the 2014 Maidan Revolution toppled a pro-Russian leader, Belorusets observes the surreal distortions of war, echoing the words of other Ukrainians. Time, the philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko also writes, “is an unpredictable sequence of plains and abysses.”
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This sequence of unpredictability — both oppressively real and imagined — dominates the pages of “War Diary,” a compilation of Belorusets’ photographs and roughly 41 entries, which were translated from German by Greg Nissan. It must be said that by including a photograph of ordinary city scenes with each entry, Belorusets achieves a profound kind of juxtaposition, one that overlays the ordinary with the extraordinary realities of war.
It all started that Thursday morning with a barrage of missed calls on Belorusets’ cellphone. Fearing for her safety, family and friends tried to reach her because of shocking news — Kyiv had been shelled and the war had begun. But in her entry that day, Belorusets is quick to clarify: “I have never been able to imagine the beginning of a war.”
Her reasoning is simple, her insight damning. Since 2014, the Russians had been waging war in that “foggy opaque zone of violence,” the Donbas region of Ukraine.
As a photographer, Belorusets spent time in the Donbas coal-mining region and wrote “Lucky Breaks,” a collection of absurdist short stories, mostly featuring women whose lives are interrupted by war. This familiarity with war, along with Belorusets’ immersive documentational skills, make for a uniquely powerful read in “War Diary.”
We read how, despite the terror-inducing probability of air raids and blaring sirens, Belorusets ventures out into the streets to run errands, almost always food-related, to take pictures and to interact with people. At one point, she inquires about train tickets for her eventual return to Berlin. Her entries, written in the cloaked darkness of her apartment, convey not only the mood of a besieged city but also the spirit of its undeterred inhabitants.
In one entry, she notes that Kyiv, with its streets eerily emptied, resembled a city that is “yet to be inhabited, a city without a present, with only a past.” Of the people, she observes that “time and again I watched [them] hug each other.” In war, there is destruction and death, and suffering and despair, yet we are reminded that it does not, as Ukrainian poet Kateryna Kalytko asserts, “abolish the power of tenderness and love.”
And if, at the end of many entries, personal moments slide briskly into directives for the “genocidal” war to end, who can blame Belorusets? “Every day at war is like a deadly disease that needs to be cured with urgency,” she writes on the 34th day, already one more unpredictable, harrowing day too many.
Angela Ajayi is a Nigerian-Ukrainian critic and writer living in Minneapolis.