Oleg Mikhailov is a Russian-Ukrainian playwright. He was born in Yekaterinburg (Russia) in 1975 and has lived in Kharkiv since 2009, where he has been living during the entirety of the war, despite fierce Russian attacks on the city. His wartime journal from the first forty-one has been translated as part of a larger effort to highlight contemporary Ukrainian drama. This was initiated in March by the Malmö-based playwright Keren Klimovsky, and will in 2022 and 2023 work toward translating and introducing Ukrainian drama in different Swedish contexts – as well as arranging residencies and workshops for Ukrainian playwrights. The project will be based at the art gallery Rikstolvan outside Simrishamn. As the first outcome of the project's work, Dramaten arranged a reading of "Voices from Ukraine" on May 10 – a programme in Ukrainian, Russian and Swedish with texts by five playwrights and two poets.
For the record: we woke up at 5 AM from the sounds of shellfire.
Murphy’s Law at work, we ran out of drinking water and cigarettes. I went outside. Dog people walking their pets were throwing judgmental looks at people with suitcases. And they’ve got a point, cause there’s basically nowhere to run. Currency exchangers are closed, there are lines next to ATMs and water stands. I popped into a supermarket, but the line spanned the length of the entire store. I recalled there was an alcohol and cigarettes kiosk hidden somewhere in the neighboring back yards. Nobody’s there… Ahead of me, a young woman with a pocket sized dog melancholically bought Heets and coffee. I purchased cigs and water. I’ve still got some coffee at home. Neither of us is going to flee the city. This is our home.
Since the barbershop didn’t cancel my appointment, I obviously dragged myself there to trim my beard. Alas, I was greeted by a closed door. The prospect of ending up in a war zone with an unkempt beard was, honestly speaking, not inspiring. I needed coffee badly. Out of all local coffee shops only “Good Neighbors” turned out to be truly good neighbors. The owner made the decision to stay open no matter what. And even though, she claims the last time she made coffee herself was before the war (meaning 8 years ago), she didn’t charge for it.
Thanks for the tasty coffee!
Heavy fighting outside Kharkiv. Four Russian tanks were destroyed on the Beltway, where we used to ride our bikes last summer. From time to time you can hear the air defense systems at work.
Yesterday’s list of funny plans for today:
Cutting my hair
Rehearsal at the Philharmonic
Exhibition at the Municipal Gallery
Going to bed earlier
I keep getting messages on my dating app. That’s surprising in itself. People still want dating and sex. I’m forced to answer:
– Let’s pick it up after Victory. Our Victory.
If you think about it, being in the subway is actually kind of cool. Fancy drinking fountains are set up. Trains are standing by the stations, kids are playing inside. You can pet any dog you want or peek into a pet-carrier to check out a cat…
This is going to be a long night. But the dark will clear away.
No doubt about it.
We decided to spend the night at home, since, considering our fucking zoo (5 cats and a dog), heading out to the subway is not realistic.
The night was calm. If Kharkiv were to have been taken yesterday, right off the bat, that would have had a catastrophic demoralizing effect. But we didn’t even panic. We were frightened, lost, but not more than that. And no one prepared any bread and salt for the occupants (my God, I’m actually writing this word). Only salt, motherfuckers!
(I’ve got salt, so my task for today is buying bread, new ear plugs and paper towels.)
Well, apparently the enemy is not too interested in us at the moment, taking us would be a long and joyless endeavor. That’s why tonight they chose to thrash Kyiv. Many people I know spent the day traveling there from Kharkiv to be reunited with their families. Now all of them are under the gun.
War. Day two. It’s snowing hard in Kharkiv.
I have something to say to all of those wet dreamers who earlier in the morning posted maps of Kharkiv pincered and surrounded: like hell you’d get Kharkiv!
Olezha wrote about wet dreamers, and they started shelling the holy fuck out of us! Very close.
You still believe Putin’s words about the civil population being safe?
The most reassuring thing in this day and age are – irony aside – photos of aunties in green down parkas cleaning snow in Sarzhin Yar, photos of functioning transport…
Yesterday I witnessed another idyllic scene. The grannies who tend to occupy the benches next to the building entrance disappeared. They were replaced by three gorgeous fairies (35-40) – sitting on the bench, smoking and drinking champagne. And laughing, laughing loudly like mermaids…
I went to get some bread. But as it turns out, the lines in the supermarket are too long, and the people standing in them are too stern, so I made my mind to go for shops that trade in sillier kinds of food. As a result, I’ve got no bread, but I’ve got cupcakes!
Time for a bedtime story. The blackout measures at our apartment turned out to be a funny thing. The building is situated in such a way that in the mornings the sun shines right through the windows making sleep impossible. And in the summertime it’s incredibly hot in Kharkiv, just unbearably hot. So, a few years back we got so cooked we ordered blackout roller-blinds. As it turned out, the roller-blinds on the balcony and bedroom windows make for a double defense. Same goes for the living room. The freaking kitchen, on the other hand, is only covered by light Roman blinds. However! During the war, this is actually a big advantage. No night walks to the kitchen to get a bite.
There’s already a line next to the grocery store. People are standing in line for bread despite the air-raid alert.
I’m googling easy bread and flatbread recipes. I’ve got a bit of flour left.
Kiev is holding up. Life isn’t so bad!
God’s my witness, who would have thought that our Bubochka’s puffed up mug against the background of the house with chimeras in Kyiv could bring me to tears. The favorite house is intact. So is the president.
Well, as all of you know (or so I hope), there was not a lot left of Kharkiv after World War II. The people of Kharkiv spent ages rebuilding and repairing their home. Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while are probably aware I’ve climbed all over the city’s center (and much more), and that I can point at every single house in constructivist style (that’s my thing), and that I love this city dearly, and that it hurts to notice its flaws… So now I’m looking at pictures of buildings damaged by shelling, and here’s what I’m thinking. We’re gonna repair the buildings, no question about it. And you – god damn you!
In times of peace a question about my “artistic prospects” would make me puke, but yesterday I happened to be the one asking it. What are your artistic prospects, Olezha? For a long time now, I’ve been conceiving a play about the Kharkiv zoo inhabitants who became involuntary and speechless witnesses to what was happening to the city and to its people. I already had two stories. One was about the painter Zinaida Serebryakova who buried her beloved husband in the years of Civil War and – in order not to lose her mind grieving – started painting the zoo’s flamingoes. The other one was about a giraffe (everyone’s darling) that – once the zoo was bombed in the early part of the war – found shelter at an entrance hall of Salamander House. It was shot by a fascist soldier. And the third story… Yesterday the Russian military bombed Feldman’s wildlife reserve at the city’s outskirts. Some of the animals died. This is what the third story will be about. The most dreadful one.
The line at the pharmacy turned out to be long. Not as long as the supermarket line, but still long. People are providing not only for themselves, but for relatives and friends. So anyway, as soon as I opened my mouth to announce my list, the shelling began. The pharmacist breathed out and continued working. And I went down to the subway.
A fun moment. I go out of the subway to have a smoke, and I hear a cannon hammer someplace close. A powerful one. I look up: a line next to one of the stores just scattered away. I storm in there, looking around. I feel like a raider: I don’t know where to look first, what to grab. Bread comes to mind, but it’s gone. In the end I just grab whatever comes to hand and run to the register. Over there a woman is set on torturing the cashier: “And those little cheeses – are they on sale?” Fuuuck!
Well, it turned out I forgot to buy butter and sour cream. As for the bread, I got it from yesterday’s aunties at “Kulinichi”. One of them asked me to deliver the following message: “If we were panicking here in Kharkiv, no fucking chance I’d be selling you bread now!”
So, basically, I try not to worry my mom, cause she’s not allowed to worry. I’m not allowed to either, I’ve already had one heart attack. So we just don’t worry each other. We spare each other’s feelings, that’s what I mean. And so, we’re sitting and talking on the phone, I’m telling the kinds of tales I usually tell you, guys, but censuring the scary parts… And suddenly it starts banging. And it’s so fucking loud that even my deaf mom in Ekaterinburg hears it. And understands everything. I feel so bad about lying to her. Damn.
“I don’t remember the date. The devil knows what month it was.” Indeed: to figure out the date and the day of the week you need to check your phone. I checked, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s been only 4 days. Yesterday I looked into the mirror and saw an old, gray-haired man looking back at me. We didn’t recognize each other.
My buddy wrote about tonight’s shelling and about being at the basement since 3 AM. Just as he went back up to his apartment – the alarm sounded, the firing resumed, and down he went again. That’s the kind of fucking exercise we get.
They used Grads to pound the shit out of the city’s northern outskirts – viciously and meanly. Intentionally targeting residential areas where in that hour of the day people stand in lines to get groceries, water and medicine. That’s something you do in powerless rage, when you can’t take the city and (instead) destroy the people. Sons of bitches!
– Pineapple? That’s what you bought – a pineapple?! Oleg, you need to buy essentials – flour, grains spaghetti and stuff like that. Not a freaking pineapple!
– I couldn’t forsake it. It looked very lonely surrounded by rotten clementines. And there was nothing basic left anyway.
Our building’s basement, where we should supposedly be hiding from Russian (yes, I’m gonna fucking stress that again) bombs and shells, is inhabited by homeless cats. They’re regularly fed by two local aunties. Even now, when the situation with groceries in town is up shit creek. I’ve got no way to help them, since at the moment money doesn’t solve anything. My only hope is that those aunties, well trained by Soviet life, stocked up on supplies.
The residents of neighboring buildings have their own protégés. I’m mostly worried about a fat ginger cat that shamelessly stuffed himself silly to the extent that his caretakers were forced to write a warning on the wall: “Do not feed the cats!” I’m worried about everyone – the ones who can speak and the ones who are speechless.
A nocturnal dialogue:
– We should probably call Alla. (That’s our cleaning lady). To ask her how she’s doing.
– What – now?
– So? It’s not like she’s sleeping.
Falling asleep is scary, but waking up is pure joy. We’re alive. Day number 7.
Haven’t read the news yet. I’m observing the rubbish pickup at the building across the street. This is more important.
I wanted to write in detail about our, frankly speaking, scarce supplies, which are obviously lacking protein for a balanced diet, but at a certain point I just physically felt like I was turning into Lev Nikolaev – this is the most famous chronicler of the fascist occupation of Kharkiv. Two weeks after the Germans’ invasion he killed and ate the neighbor’s cat. So, no, I won’t be talking about food, hell with it. Same goes for the airplane that just dropped a bomb. But let me tell you this. We’re sitting here under fire not because we like it. It’s just that if we give up and let the “Russian world” invade us, life will lose its meaning altogether.
Watching the things you love being destroyed is unbearable. But you gotta do it, because you must never forget.
Matvei the cat just attempted to climb onto me with his entire hundredweight of red-furred joy. And he pressed something on my phone, which made the phone scream in a female voice: “No! We don’t expect any rains in Kharkiv over the weekend!” And my first thought: is that a good or a bad thing for the defense?
Every day, going to the store or taking the dog out, I stop by the elevator and press the call-button without thinking. Then I realize the elevators are disconnected. They say you need 21 days to form a habit. I don’t want that. The dog’s an oldie, going up the stairs is hard on him.
A voice message in our building’s chat-group:
A female voice (with tragic undertones): Dear Ukrainian women! (Pause) Tomorrow… On March third… At 2:30… PM… ukrainian time… (Pause). The moon will come into conjunction with Neptune…
I couldn’t go on listening. I was cracking up with laughter.
So, I’m sitting in the bathroom, smoking-and-shaking, and suddenly I hear this scary screeching sound from the hallway. Well, you can imagine my state of mind… Turns out that Kazimir Olegovich, who used to freak out at every noise during peaceful times, got an urge to take a dump. I thought: if a cat is not afraid of explosions, I won’t be either. I cleaned up the shit and returned to the living room. Now we’re lying down, the cat and me, sternly listening to silence.
Oh well, the question of evacuating our long-tailed band got resolved on its own. The pet store ran out of pet-carriers.
We’re not going. We never meant to anyway.
I just went out for a smoke at the balcony. It’s so silent, as if nothing ever happened. Only dripping and dogs woofing at a distance. And suddenly I hear a faraway sound of church bells ringing. And there’s an immediate alarm in my brain. Nowadays we use churches for air raid alert. I check my phone right away – nothing! Must have imagined it.
The human is a strange animal after all. We’re scared under fire. We’re anxious in complete silence. We’re never at peace.
No-no-no, till there’s a giant wall with minefields between Ukraine and Russian Federation (as an alternative – a ditch filled with crocodiles, but I do feel sorry for the animals), there will always be pet food supplies in my house. I also plan on buying weaponry. And even learning to use it. Because fuck you!
Today’s bedtime story is about red wolves. We know them as “red dogs” from the Jungle Book. When Feldman Wildlife Reserve was bombed out, a pair of red wolves escaped into the wild. They were later seen at different places, but nobody actually tried to capture them. Interesting animals. Mostly herbivores in summertime, they’re not big fans of winter, so they do their best to keep away from it. Well, bad luck for them – Kharkiv is covered in snow. Red wolves live and hunt in packs: they have their own special rituals and tactics. Bad luck again: not much to hunt at the moment. But! They don’t really mind carrion. And that’s what the outskirts of Kharkiv can offer in abundance.
This is pretty much the story that will make the third part of the play about Kharkiv’s animals.
My bud writes about climbing the stairs up to the seventh floor without wheezing. Same here – tried to convince myself to walk upstairs for years. Now life’s making me do it, so to speak. At least by the end of the war I’m gonna have the most handsome and firm ass amongst playwrights.
I tried to avoid writing this, but I’m in heavy artillery mood today. Kharkiv and Belgorod have always been tied to each other. Now, too, we live on the same schedule. You hear a fire-shot, and in a short while an explosion in Kharkiv kills one of us.
Are you awake, suckers? I know you are.
We’ve got a new addition to the family – the cats Nicolai and Sanjok.
My buddy provided me with some dry cat food. I fought my way to get canned food and litter at the store. The cats are going to have their bellies full and will be able to poo comfortably.
The city is on the move. Passenger cars are aligned in packs. Our neighbor got picked up by her eldest son. She took the younger one and her sister, and drove away, leaving two cars behind.
Broken yellow roses lie on the ground next to the driveway. The blue sky is above them. We’ll stick it out!
Just for the record: for all of those days I didn’t feel like getting wasted – not even once.
A story that goes around: this one guy was patiently sitting in the subway with his family – for 9 days. On the 10th day, he made up his mind to get evacuated. As it turned out, his lover lost her nerve. And off they went: the guy, the wife, the kids, the cat and the lover.
Every day I learn something new about Russian weaponry. All of those things drive, fly, shoot at us and kill us. And then they burn on the roads and fields of Ukraine, destroyed by the Ukrainian military. But Jesus fucking Christ, those are actually unbuilt Russian roads burning, houses with warm johns, schools, hospitals, research centers. Theaters too.
All of that burns and turns into ashes.
18.36. The building is shaking.
Uh huh. Once the bombs started coming, the neighbors suddenly remembered about keeping blackout. There’s only one dumbass who left the light on. But, most likely, he just leaped into the bathroom and forgot to turn the light off.
But look how bright the stars are!
As a child, reading war books and watching war films, I kept thinking: how horrible it is not to get to live till Victory day. How horrible it is dying on the last day of war. Or just after the war’s end. Now I’m a grown up, and I’ve got only one thought: how horrible it is to die at war.
Gosh, where did they get so many shells?! 21 days.
– How’s the situation?
– Oh well, a bit of shelling now and then.
I like this expression “a bit of shelling now and then”. It’s like – yes, somebody fires at someone somewhere sometime, but it’s not like this actually concerns you.
Here’s a female hand adjusting a handwritten sign that says “children” to the back window of a passenger car.
Another sign on the pet store door says: “No pet carriers”.
A paper sheet on an iron door reads: “The keys to the basement are in apartment XX.”
And here’s a car with a front window sign – it says “Bread”.
The city has been communicating with the help of those short notes that contained nothing but anxiety and fear.
That was in the first days.
Today, reading another handwritten message, left on a butchered little Zhiguli car, I laughed out loud. “Galja Baluvanna store is now open.”
We’re definitely going to win!
“My first goal after Victory will be to lose some weight.”
That was the first thought of the 21st day.
I keep on telling you stories. But I really want you to know and to understand that the shelling of Kharkiv goes on. The shelling of Mariupol and of other cities goes on. They’re killing us! Every single minute.
My buddy has a he-cat and a she-cat. The she-cat is young and nosey, she’s curious about everything. When shellfire begins, she’s already on the windowsill, observing what’s flying in which direction. My bud calls her kitty-air-defense-gritty. The he-cat is, on the contrary, old. He was already old when he entered the house. He’s had a challenging life, and we hoped he’d get to spend the rest of it in peace and safety. But, as they say, like fuck he does. Shellfire makes the cat nervous. My buddy told me the old guy used to lead him to the wardrobe as if signaling that this was a good hiding place. Basically, the cat’s scared of being in the crib.
So my bud made up his mind to move the cat to the basement, disregarding the dust and dirt. Disregarding it was a foreign, unfamiliar space, filled with strangers and intimidating smells. To help the cat adapt, my buddy dragged the bathroom footcloth down to the basement – it used to be the cat’s favorite sleeping place before the war. And this little scrap of home, this tiny island of peace amidst the war – it is very important. Not just for the old cat. For each and every one of us. Even if there’s nothing left of either home or peace.
I don’t reread that, which I have lived out.
Only today exists.
There was a bang in the living room. My heart skipped a beat. Turned out this douchebag of a cat threw the pet carrier off to the floor. And climbed inside. When I heard another bang, my first thought was about the pet carrier and about a conceivable cat-murder in the heat of passion. But no, this time it was a rocket flying into our hood. It was very loud.
For all of those past four weeks, I kept thinking I’m imagining it. I blamed my weak heart, my high blood pressure, my chronic sleep deprivation and stress, and whatever fucking else… But no. I must admit it. I can feel the building vibrating under shellfire. Even if at that moment I don’t hear any explosions. Somewhere far away missiles and rockets are biting into the city’s body. And the vibration of the earth sends messages about it to great distances. And my house feels it. And I feel it too. With all of my body. Even when I don’t hear it.
No luck catching up on sleep today. The shelling began at 5 AM. It was a smoky morning. Just like in the fall, when leaves are being burnt. Only those are not leaves, those are lives being burnt.
Kharkiv’s inhabitants let their guard down. No, really. This afternoon I took a walk around the city center, which is the most ruined area, and I went back through a small children’s park in our neighborhood. When I entered it, a flak cannon bang started. Two grannies sitting on a bench didn’t even interrupt their conversation. The dog walkers didn’t stop, and the dogs didn’t bark. I came up to my buddy’s place, he came down, and we hung out by the building, drinking the coffee I brought. The cannon flaks went on firing away. We heard an airplane sound. But the sirens didn’t go off. “They’re probably taking a drone down,” – my buddy said. Then he looked at the door leading to the basement. But we didn’t go down to the basement. We finished off the coffee, and I went home. There I found out that this very same airplane killed 7 people on Odesskaya. And in front of my eyes I see the image of two grannies lying next to the bench. They probably didn’t even bat an eye hearing the cannon flaks.
Those things are hard to write about. But the events of the past few weeks are so tightly overlapped, that emotions remain buried under the layers. I can’t remember a single thing. The other day I was asked to read fragments from my diaries on the Finnish national radio, and I didn’t recognize my own texts. I didn’t recognize them and broke down crying…
So, anyways. Within the very first days of war, all milk in town was gone. Humanitarian aid was being handed out, but milk was reserved for families with children. And suddenly – simply a miracle! – our neighbor brought in a whole bucket of sour cream and shared it with us. Next, my couch ringed and said there was some kind of kefir or yogurt handed out right outside his house. The next day milk reappeared. The supplier was our own, Kharkiv-based, Agromol. And I somehow immediately remembered my gastroenterologist who criticized this company for the cheapness of its products. Meaning you can’t get anything of high quality for that money. But it wasn’t like we had a choice. I went out and bought milk. A pack of six bottles. I took one of them to my bud, and the rest of the milk lasted for quite a long time, and when I ran out of it, it turned out Agromol no longer existed. The shop next to my couch’s place was closed. It never reopened. Just recently we found out Agromol no longer exists in the most literal and frightening sense. Their farms in Kutuzovka were destroyed by the Russian army. Horrible footage of dead cows and calves. Hundreds of animals. They were machine-gunned right at the cowshed. But why? So that we don’t have any milk. That’s why.
I see the flashes.
I hear the explosions.
I count the seconds in-between.
About 2 kilometers away from us.
I forgot to mention:
This morning, leaving the apartment, I pressed on the elevator button again.
I didn’t form the habit.
I can’t get used to it.
I’m wondering: when did people realize that World War II was going to last?
Kharkiv, 09.04. 2022