Speech at Mårbacka
Speech at Mårbacka was performed during the Literature Festival at Mårbacka on July 30, 2022. Like many people in Ukraine after February 2022, the author of the speech, Olena Stepanenko, writes russia in lower case.
Olena Stepanenko was born in 1974 and lives in Bucha outside Kyiv. She is a poet and because of the war she is currently in the UK.
So my name is Olena, and I’m from Ukraine, from Bucha. I’m from a country that has been in a state of war for the past eight years. In October of 2013, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych announced changing course and turning towards russia instead of euro-integration, and we came out into the streets in peaceful protests – just like in Belarus. But when security agents started killing and torturing the protesters, they gave a decent fight back. About 100 people died on the Maidan. And on February 22nd, 2014, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today we know that Russian snipers have been shooting down our Maidan protesters since January 2014. The russian special force agents beat up, cut up, stole and tortured Ukrainian activists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the spring of 2014 to create an impression that people of Donbas welcomed russian liberators. The same happened in Crimea – the fake referendum attested not to the volition of the local population, but to the accomplishments of the russian secret agencies’ longterm work on the peninsula.
russian tanks entered the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in June of 2014, supported by heavy artillery and aviation, and in a short time the russian federation’s army had 70 percent of the region’s territory under its control. Only fierce resistance of the nearly disarmed Ukrainian army, which to a great extent consisted of volunteers – former artists, IT specialists, teachers and farmers – combined with the unbending will of a society tempered by Maidan have allowed us not only to persevere, but to gradually push out the world’s second best army to the borders of the full-scale invasion of February 24th, 2022. I remember what it was like to see photos of helicopters overloaded with wounded and soaked with blood puddles and the posts of volunteer doctors: “Help us, the hospital is out of meds.”
Back then my friend and I have organized a volunteer artistic initiative “War and Word”: we made jewelry and sold it in auctions, we organized charity readings to provide our army with basic necessities. Pain killers, army boots, helmets. And food, lots of food. Because the traitor-president has taken all of the money out of the country. There were plenty of those volunteer communities – because it was our country, those were our defenders. Back then there was a ban on selling weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. If we would have had the same support from Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty countries as we have today, we could have avoided the sacrifice of mass casualties. russia has shown its true face at the occupied territories: mass murders, rape, looting and pillaging. All of that, which horrifies the world nowadays – we’ve witnessed it already then. But in the European consciousness cheap russian gas and beautiful russian ballet overweigh the 10,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers and the thousands of murdered civilians. Let alone more than a million of my compatriots who have lost their homes in Donbas.
In those 8 years my country learned to wage war. I’m proud of my army and of each and every one of the defenders as I’ve never been proud of any of my personal achievements. We knew that russia was not going to leave us alone. We knew that a full-scale invasion was just a matter of time. We knew it, and we were polishing our skills: I became an investigative reporter, my poet friend Olena Herasimiuk became a combat paramedic. Another friend Borys Humeniuk – a poet and a visual artist – has been in combat since 2014. All the same, war started suddenly and simply – under my very own windows. And I’m still unable to completely recollect myself after two weeks under occupation. In a stranger’s apartment, with no meds or warm clothes, with no water, gas or light. I haven’t been home ever since.
I know how my dead neighbors smell after lying under the open skies for a few days. Ever since then I no longer feel hunger. Our neighborhood was relatively safe: it was not captured by the russians, shells seemed to fly to all other directions but ours - the neighboring blocks were ruined to the ground, while our two lines of houses remained standing. And yet this experience continues to destroy me even now: I have problems with memory and concentration, and crying is much easier than smiling. The only worse thing is hearing my son saying he wants to go home and be with his dad and with our cat. And most importantly – the news are bad.
Everyday. The other day the russians put out a video of torturing a Ukrainian soldier. He was castrated on camera. Such blood loss could only lead to death. So this was, in fact, the captive’s execution. Yesterday it became known that russians blew up barracks with approximately two hundred Azovstal defenders. Those are Ukrainian soldiers who have surrendered against guarantees of the UN and the international Red Cross. They’ve agreed to do that in order to save the lives of the civilians hiding in the underground of the Azovstal plant. It is known that about 50 of our soldiers are dead, while another 70 are wounded. Some suggest that in this way the russians wanted to cover up signs of torture and violent murder of the Azovstal defenders. But another probable reason is embezzlement of funds during the building of those barracks for war prisoners. Just think about it – blowing up 200 people because of money.
russia has basically wiped the city of Mariupol off the map: by the most careful estimates about 22 thousand civilians have died there. Just in Bucha, Hostomel and Borodyanka – Kyiv’s suburbs – about 400 civilians were killed by russia. I’ve read the witness account of a Ukrainian tractor driver from the occupied territories: a russian officer made him bury his killed and wounded soldiers. The tractor driver was crying, since he could hear some people who were still alive moaning from under the ground. The russian officer who gave this order remained calm. This is not the war of russia against Ukraine. This is the war of barbarity against civilization. The war of death against life. And in case you think russia will stop after winning over Ukraine, you’re wrong. Nothing is ever enough for hell. You cannot negotiate with hell or sign peace treaties with it. We’ve received guarantees from russia already in 1991, when signing the Budapest memorandum. That was when Ukraine agreed to destroy its nuclear arsenal in exchange for safety guarantees. Where are they now? At the same place where the debased Minsk treaties and “a russian officer’s word of honor” were as our soldiers were leaving the encirclement of the battle of Ilovaisk. This was when the russians shot a few hundreds of Ukrainian defenders at point blank range. All of Ukraine’s history is the history of russia’s transgressions of international law. And now, when the scales have finally tipped in our favor – at the expense of thousands of lives of my countrypeople – I beseech you, everyone who is listening to me right now: help Ukraine win. Support Ukraine in every way you can – with arms, money, kind words or prayers. Because russia is hell, and we’re the only thing standing between you and this hell. Ukrainian women – difficult, disoriented, bereft of home, carrying suitcases and noisy children. And the Ukrainian army – exhausted, wounded and worn out in the course of those endless eight years. But the only one in the world that is capable of overcoming hell. Unconquerable and unbroken – because it’s backed up by truth.
Mårbacka, 30 juli 2022
Mårbacka is in the Swedish province of Värmland, former home of the writer Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940).