In a recurring dream, I discover that my apartment has a room I’ve never noticed before. It’s fully decorated, mysteriously forgotten. Depending on my mood that night, it’s either heaped in dust or sparkling clean. Delight collides with regret. How could I overlook an entire room? How did I neglect so much extra space? The astonishment has been especially piquant when in waking life I lived in a studio apartment. This is a dream about possibility, but also about the fear of missing what’s close enough to touch—of overlooking what rightfully belongs to you, at least until your lease is up. Only recently did I learn that this is a standard-issue dream, part of the universal template for the human psyche.
The nightmare inverse of this dream is a reality of war. While you’re sleeping, your tidy, lovingly decorated rooms explode into heaps of concrete and ash, your furniture left broken and smoldering. Or you wake up to find that your apartment’s exterior wall has been blown away, exposing the tender innards of your domestic life to the elements, and to public view. The ruins of your home are now a stage, and photographers will soon immortalize this intrusion. Since February 2022 photos from Ukraine have shown such brutal cross sections: wardrobes and stoves and sofas staring out from the open wounds of high-rises, carefully tended homes charred and roofless. The images have swept across newspapers and social media, hard evidence of Russian sadism.
By 2022 many readers of newspapers had forgotten that this war had started almost a decade before, after the Maidan protests in Kyiv drove out then president Viktor Yanukovych. There was a brief flare of interest in Ukraine’s plight, and then other, more dramatic wars replaced Ukraine in the headlines. But homes continued to be broken open in Ukraine’s eastern region, the Donbas, itself split by the new, shifting border with the separatist “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In 2016 in Popasna, a city of about 22,000 on the edge of Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk, I visited an apartment whose garish wallpaper was embedded with shrapnel. The building’s façade was pitted by shells, like a face damaged by smallpox. “Those are the scars of war,” said Vitya, the apartment’s owner. He was lying on the couch in his underwear, his bushy black eyebrows surprising below his full head of gray hair. Many of his neighbors, elderly people unable or unwilling to leave, had lived without windows all winter and spring. In unoccupied apartments, the wallpaper had been blackened and peeled by the weather, like frostbitten skin. The pensioners showed me the basement where they had sheltered. Even in the heat of summer it was chilly, damp, and fetid.
It wasn’t only buildings that had been dismembered by the war. A local NGO was collecting bottle caps in the hope that they could be melted into prosthetic limbs. I interviewed a man named Nikolai who had once owned a decorative plant nursery in nearby Stanytsia Luhanska, an old Cossack settlement. He was a juniper specialist. But in 2014 the front line of the war sliced through his nursery. He sent his family out of the region and began making trips to rescue his plants and equipment. On his last run, his car hit a mine. His mother-in-law was killed, and his legs were badly burned; he had to drag himself three kilometers through the forest. Now he wore special boots to allow him to stand upright. His feet had no soles, and his toes had been amputated. His arms and knees were pebbled by burn scars. He could only stand for about two hours a day, but he was already running a new nursery in Starobilsk, far enough from the front line to be safe.
A former teacher named Olga had been talking on the phone when her house was hit by large pieces of shrapnel. Her spine was injured, her jaw and arm broken. “I died clinically three times,” she said, sounding almost proud. She showed us her flower garden, where her friend Baba Yulia had been killed during the shelling. But you couldn’t tell that it had been hit; the beds were even, the flowers bright with the glory of summer on the steppe. With a regal gesture, Olga announced that she would tell my fortune: “Help will come to you from an unexpected place.” Assistance from a charitable group entitled her to the reconstruction of only one room in her house. Broken windowpanes in another room, not eligible for repair, were covered with a giant sticker depicting a window and a sunny day.
In 2016 Ukrainians in the eastern regions were working hard to rebuild their homes, or to transplant their homes and nurseries and gardens to safer places. They were salvaging greenhouses, replacing windows, repairing walls and roofs, and doing their best to find substitutes for missing limbs. In 2022 the windows in Popasna were blown out again, walls sheared away and entire neighborhoods reduced to smoking detritus, during a battle that lasted from March to May. It ended when the city was taken by Russian forces. Popasna is just twenty miles from Bakhmut, the city Ukraine has been fighting to take back despite enormous losses. Ukrainian troops spent months struggling through a single mile-long stretch of dead forest, among trees reduced to singed matchsticks, incapable of providing any protection from drones. Every burned, deserted town and village, every field and meadow made lethal with mines, every forest set alight by the fighting, is another room destroyed in the Ukrainian home.
The Ukrainian writer and artist Yevgenia Belorusets’s War Diary was one of the first works of literature to emerge from the 2022 invasion. The entries, which began on February 24, when the first missiles hit Kyiv, appeared as regular dispatches in the German newspaper Der Spiegel. (They were written in German—since 2004, she has held a number of artist’s fellowships in Germany and Austria.) The diary entries were quickly translated into English and posted on the websites of Isolarii, a small publisher, and Artforum. In March 2023 they were released as a book.
There is a gap between Belorusets’s entries from April, when she left Ukraine for Berlin, and July, when the entries end. The missing months are represented by a white page with a single line, laconic yet full of grief: “This diary cannot be completed, it can only be interrupted.” When she resumes, still in Berlin, she describes the experience of refugees who cannot give up the habits of war. A Ukrainian woman in Riga, Latvia, still has an app on her phone that goes off when there’s an air raid in her hometown. When it wakes her in the night, she rushes to the reception desk at her hotel and asks to be taken to the bomb shelter.
The diary ends abruptly after just two July entries. Belorusets knew even in the summer of 2022 that there would be no neat ending to this story, which had already stretched on for eight painful years. She has a longer and a deeper view than many observers of the conflict. Another war diary published earlier this year, by the Ukrainian novelist and public intellectual Andrey Kurkov, also stops in July 2022. The hasty release of her diary and Kurkov’s was perhaps a symptom of the mistaken belief of the publishers, as of the European and American public, that this would be a brief war. Or perhaps it reflected a canny understanding in the publishing world that passionate interest in Ukraine (or any foreign war zone) would not be sustained for long.
In entries from the first weeks and months of the invasion, Belorusets worries that the world will look on the war with indifference and decline to intervene, as with the Donbas war—the subject of her first book, a collection of stories called Lucky Breaks (published in Ukraine in 2018 and in English in March 2022). The 2022 invasion has instead become one of the most publicized wars in history, with social media allowing minute by minute updates and a steady supply of photos, slogans, and memes. Europe and the US responded with a remarkable outpouring of public and diplomatic support, intelligence sharing, and weapons deliveries. This support has allowed the Ukrainians to keep Russia, a far larger, richer, and better-equipped country, at bay for almost two years. But all fantasies of swift victory have now dissipated. Ukraine is begging the West for new anti-aircraft missiles and ammunition; Western backers have chided the Ukrainians, unfairly, for failing to achieve quick, telegenic victories in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles.
European and American enthusiasm for the Ukrainian war effort, so rigorously consolidated in the first year, was faltering even before October 7. Then came Hamas’s attack on Israeli military outposts and massacre of civilians, and Israel’s retaliation against over two million captive Palestinians: a barrage of bombs and shells, including some loaded with incendiary white phosphorus. Now Ukraine must compete with Israel for American artillery shells and anti-aircraft missiles, and the charred, dismembered apartment buildings on the front page are in Gaza, not the Donbas.
Belorusets hopes, in early diary entries that have already become historical, that Ukraine’s supporters will come to the rescue and “close the sky”—impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine from outside—a common Ukrainian entreaty in those first months of war. A scrupulously independent thinker, she is mostly allergic to the patriotic memes that went viral during those days, but this one resonates with her. On March 14, 2022, she writes:
I think the attack on Kyiv was a signal, a sign that no one in Ukraine can go to sleep thinking that they are safe in their house or apartment. The rockets breach the walls of the houses like the skin of the body. The whole idea of a house, of shelter and protection, is called into question.
A country needs a closed sky like a house needs a roof; it is unfathomable that missiles can rain down on you at home, just as it is absurd to imagine snow falling in your bedroom. But to “close the sky” would have been to risk open war with nuclear-armed Russia, and Europe and the US declined.
Kurkov’s wide-ranging, chatty diary intersperses reflections on Ukrainian politics, culture, and history with exhortations to victory; War Diary of the Ukrainian Resistance, recently issued by the English-language newspaper The Kyiv Independent, collects reporting and personal accounts from the newspaper’s journalists. Belorusets’s book, by contrast, is rigorous in its focus on interior life. She experiences the war from her apartment in the center of Kyiv, in a neighborhood of lavishly balconied turn-of-the-century pastel buildings. In her early forties, she lives alone, but her parents are nearby. Her chronicle asks what it means to be at home during a war. At night, when she must keep her windows covered and light to a minimum, she mops and tidies as a way of coping. This is, after all, her “vulnerable refuge, my own apartment, where I always feel so good. Even now! Even now!”
She knows that every apartment destroyed is an annihilation not only of a domestic past, a family memory, but also of the potential of home—its still-undiscovered dream rooms. Of another shelling in Kyiv, she writes, “The apartments in the building, with their small, private, hidden worlds, no longer exist.” The next day: “I miss all the walls, all the houses of this city that I still haven’t seen, that I never photographed, that have already been destroyed.” But the residents of Kyiv are meticulous housekeepers. After an attack they sweep the streets with handmade brooms and pick up the broken glass.
War Diary traces the movement of war closer and closer to the writer. At first it was in the east, a distant place one rarely visited from Kyiv. Belorusets describes driving there in 2014 with a friend, without much thought about the danger. Then she saw a wall of flames along the road, a scorched car, and realized that she and her friend could be killed. As they drove farther east, her own distinctive characteristics, her interests, talents, personality seemed to recede: “My biography contracted to the fragile assertion of my existence.” She realized that “there is a chasm between those who have never experienced such a state and those who live in it, who have no say in the matter, who are expected to go on with their lives.” In 2022 she contemplates a ruined building in Kyiv. The sight of such fresh destruction is terrifying, destabilizing. But it can fill the witness with a fierce relief at the fact that she is still alive.
Many of the Ukrainians who fled the war in 2022 have now returned. To be away from home can also be a kind of nonexistence. Some exiles feel that they have traded physical danger for the safety of a ghost, often in countries where they do not speak the language and are wrested from the sense of community that makes wartime bearable. The threat of death remains, especially in the east, but to return is to insist on being fully alive, and to be part of a project greater than oneself.
In her diary Belorusets considers the story of a grandmother who refused to evacuate from her home in Irpin, a Kyiv suburb where civilians were brutally attacked in the first weeks of the invasion. She couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her beautiful house and the garden that she had tended for so long. Later, Belorusets visits a village near Bucha that was almost destroyed during the Russian occupation. On “scorched streets,” behind “blackened remains of walls,” she sees women tending their gardens, which are restored more easily than houses. In summer there is little need for shelter, and the women make do living in their basements. There is no plan for the cold winter, when the rest of the house will become indispensable.
In Lucky Breaks, Belorusets wrote beautiful, fable-like meditations on eastern Ukrainians affected by the war. Many of the people who remained in the occupied or frontline territories then were elderly, disabled, or too poor to have any choice. She wrote about such people with sympathy, but some Ukrainians were vocal in their criticism of easterners who remained (or even those who had left). Had they invited the Russians in? Why didn’t they fight the invader? With characteristic thoughtfulness, Belorusets suggests that it was too hard to believe that war had come to Ukraine, so some people in Kyiv decided that easterners, Putin sympathizers, had ushered it in. This is a fairy-tale trust in thresholds and hearths, a conviction that unclean spirits can enter the homes only of those foolish enough to ask them in. But these home invaders knew how to blow away roofs and shatter walls even in the heart of Ukraine, where surely no one had summoned them.
During her travels in the Donbas for her first book, Belorusets felt guilty for being “a guest in a catastrophe, a guest who could leave at will.” This was her country, but it wasn’t her home. She had the privilege of returning to her pretty apartment in central Kyiv, where it was quite easy to forget that easterners were still being shelled. By February and March 2022, when the whole capital has been mobilized for self-defense, the war suffuses every moment of daily life.
When she is not writing her diary at home in her apartment, Belorusets is roaming her neighborhood, photographing street life and passersby. She is often interrupted. Armed men jump out of a car and take her cell phone, search her bag, ask who she works for. There are fears that she might be a Russian agent, and later that her photos might contain information valuable to the Russian army, which is using Ukrainian social media posts to guide its attacks. An elderly couple “arrests” her on suspicion of spying and takes her to a checkpoint. Still she goes on taking photos, even though many of her subjects—especially soldiers—ask her to delete them afterward. “The catastrophe must be represented,” she argues, because “only as part of a narrative can it be recognized as catastrophic.”
There are many ways of shaping this narrative, and the intensity of global attention to the invasion means that there is an overabundance of would-be narrators. Belorusets is distressed by an encounter with a foreign war photographer and her entourage, who need help in a local grocery store. The war photographer has several guards with her, but no one, it seems, who has the language skills necessary to decode the labels in the shop. As they buy up all the laundry detergent on the shelves, they exude “enthusiasm, humor, and inspiration.”
For an international war reporter, Kyiv is the new place to be, the center of world news. One of the entourage proudly asks Belorusets, “Do you know who stands next to you? This is one of the best photographers in the world!” The famous photographer invites Belorusets to follow her on Instagram. Since this early encounter, Kyiv—safe enough that the risk of death approaches zero but still dangerous enough to impart a martial glamour—has become a favorite destination for disaster tourists, who trumpet their solidarity via selfies on social media. How often is there a major war on European territory, a mere train ride away from Warsaw or Berlin?
Belorusets is the antithesis of the hardened war reporter or the boastful tourist. Her diary is animated by a simple and sincere disbelief that anything as cruel and senseless as war can exist anywhere. At the same time, the book is full of her struggles with herself. The billowing rhetoric of Ukrainian public opinion, the language of social media and its millions of likes, encroaches on her thoughts as she broods alone in her dark bedroom. Even when she adopts it herself, we sense a certain reluctance. “I know that slowly the world is waking up and beginning to see that it’s not just about Kyiv and Ukraine. It’s about every house, every door—it’s about every life in Europe that is threatened as of today.”
Elsewhere she asks, “What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble in the twenty-first century?” Here she is echoing language that has been widespread in discussions of this particular war. Ukraine’s status as a white, Christian, European country, a place close and recognizable rather than far away and easily forgotten, has been used to set this conflict apart from those that kill people elswehere, often in far higher numbers than in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Turkey and Kurdistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Israel and Palestine are neighbors, too.
This rhetoric of exceptionality has been rightly criticized for suggesting that a war that crosses Europe’s threshold is more outrageous, more painful, more threatening to humankind than any other. But Belorusets’s struggle to make sense of the violence that has entered her city is an eloquent reminder that missiles falling at home are always unfathomable. In this sense she is speaking for everyone whose life has been interrupted by war, no matter where they live, no matter what their country’s position in the geopolitical landscape. As her diary ends, she still wonders whether this war is real, whether she’ll awake from the nightmare. It’s a pity that not every victim of war is heard as clearly as Ukrainians have been.