The Archeology of War

Read in Ukrainian | Читати українською | Read in Russian | Читать по-русски

I was born in 1961, sixteen years after the end of the Second World War, in which one of my grandfathers died; the other survived. Throughout my childhood, I played War with friends. We tried to divide into groups: us and “the Germans.” Nobody ever wanted to be “the Germans,” so we drew lots, and someone was forced to be “German” for the duration of the game. It was clear that “the Germans” had to lose. We ran around with makeshift wooden Kalashnikovs, ambushed our enemies and “shooted” at them, shouting “rat-tat-tat-tat” to imitate the sound of machine-gun fire.

When, in fourth grade, we were allowed to choose a foreign language to study at school, I flatly refused to learn German. “They killed my grandfather Alexei!,” I said, and no one tried to change my mind. I studied English. The British had been our allies in the war. Now the British are still our allies, but the concept of “our” has changed: then it meant Soviet, now Ukrainian.

I am sad to think that, after the war, when children are given the option to study Russian at school, they will flatly refuse and say, “The Russians killed my grandfather!” or “The Russians killed my little sister!” It will surely happen. And it will happen in a country where a third of the population speaks mostly Russian at home, where there are several million ethnic Russians like me.

Putin is destroying not only Ukraine but Russia, too, and he is destroying the Russian language. During this terrible war, at a time when the Russians are bombing schools, universities, and hospitals, the Russian language is one of the least significant victims. Many times over, I have been ashamed of my Russian origins, of the fact that my native language is Russian. I have come up with different ways of explaining that the language is not to blame. That Putin does not own the Russian language. That many defenders of Ukraine are Russian-speaking, that many civilian victims in the south and east of Ukraine are also Russian-speaking and ethnic Russians. But now I just want to be quiet. I speak Ukrainian fluently. It is easy for me to move in conversation from one language to the other.

I already see the near future of the Russian language in Ukraine. Just as some Russian citizens are tearing up their passports and refusing to consider themselves Russian, so many Ukrainians are giving up everything Russian, including the language, the culture, their very thoughts about Russia. My wife is from the United Kingdom, and my children have two native languages: Russian and English. When they speak to one another now, they use only English. They still speak Russian to me, but they have no interest in Russian culture. Though, no—from time to time, my daughter Gabriella sends me links to statements by Russian rappers and rockers who oppose Putin. Apparently, she wants to support me in this way, to show me that she knows that not all Russians love Putin and are ready to kill Ukrainians.

I know it, too. Among my Russian writer friends and acquaintances, there is a small group that is not afraid to declare support for Ukraine. This group includes Vladimir Sorokin, Boris Akunin, and Mikhail Shishkin. They have long been living in exile and have long been opposed to the Kremlin. There are also a few in this group who live in Russia, though they are likely to have to emigrate, as well. I am grateful to them and put them on my white list of honest and decent people. I want them to remain in history and in world culture, to be read and listened to. Not all of Russia is a collective Putin! But the unfortunate truth is that there is no collective anti-Putin in Russia. Even Alexey Navalny was not ready to endorse the immediate return of illegally annexed Crimea!

All these thoughts regularly make me want to take refuge in the memories of childhood.

As a boy, I loved to travel to a village called Tarasivka near Kyiv, to the battlefields of the Second World War. We journeyed by train, with my best friend, Sasha Solovyov. We took with us folding “sapper” shovels to dig in the hills near the village. There you could easily find bullets and shells from machine guns and rifles. There were also fragments of grenades and buttons from uniforms. Metal from the Second World War still lies in the ground around Kyiv—and not only around Kyiv but throughout Ukraine. Around the village of Lazarivka, in the Zhytomyr region, where we have a summer house, there are local residents who have long been engaged in treasure hunting. They have expensive metal detectors that can search the ground to a depth of a metre. And in their free time they walk with them through the fields and forests. Two years ago, Slava, a tractor driver who lives near my house, found and dug up part of the barrel of a German tank. For a long time, he could not decide what to do with this barrel. He sold his small finds on the Internet, but a piece of a barrel—about two metres long and weighing more than fifty kilograms—is not a very popular item, even for collectors of military memorabilia. I don’t know what he did with the barrel in the end. Most likely sold it for scrap. It lay in his yard for several months, and I think that his wife expressed her dissatisfaction. Then the barrel disappeared, and I did not ask where it had gone. But, after this war, he will again take a metal detector through the fields. I expect many new finds will await him there.

There are now thousands of tons of Russian military scrap metal both on Ukrainian soil and in the ground. After the war, Ukraine will probably sell all this metal to China or somewhere else. But, for now, wrecked tanks and burned-out armored personnel carriers are accumulating on our roads and fields. And the inhabitants of cities not captured by the Russian Army are digging trenches and building fortifications. Many civilians have become specialists in fortifications. They already know what the “first line of defense” and the “second line” and the “third line” are. They are digging trenches, day and night, waiting for the advance of Russian tanks and infantry. And, while they dig those trenches, completely unexpected discoveries occur—not military but archeological. Already ancient artifacts from the Bronze Age have been found. The Union of Archaeologists of Ukraine issued instructions advising everybody who comes across an archeological site to memorize the location, mark it on a map, and leave it for further study and excavation after the war.

After the war, of course, the ancient cultural layer will mix with the current one, or, more precisely, with a modern layer of “Russian culture.” But archeologists will find it easy to sort the artifacts. At least the finds with real value will not have the stamp “Made in the Russian Federation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *