This is an essay by prominent Ukrainian writer Yuriy Andrukhovych, dedicated to Ukrainian officer Mykhailo Zhuk who fell in combat in eastern Ukraine fighting against Russian-backed militants in January 2015. It is part of the Plus 1 project created to memorialize the fallen defenders of Ukraine.
HE’S HERE, CLOSE BY
by Yuriy Andrukhovych
I don’t know what to do and how to help out.
I won’t be able to help out, but I’ll try to write about it.
But, I need to find the right intonation. I mustn’t fall prey to patriotic lies, or speak with bellicose fervour. In front of me is a living person.
She’s come a long way to tell me her story. She travelled from another city far beyond the mountains. She believes that her story needs to be told. Talking about him is bringing him back to life. Talking about him is giving him the opportunity to be here. He is alive when we talk about him… especially when she talks about him.
All that is required of me is to listen, to listen very carefully and not interrupt her flow of memories with an inappropriate statement… and, interrupt her with questions or clarifications only when it’s really necessary.
(Damn it! How can I know what’s really needed here?!).
She speaks, and she’s with him somewhere over there, where he’s still alive.
“She” is Olena, the wife of professional soldier Mykola Zhuk, Captain in the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Zakarpattia Brigade of the Ground Forces of Ukraine. They lived together for 16 years; they have a daughter Nastia and a warm, happy home, where everyone loves each other. No, not home in the sense of “house”. Unfortunately, not. In this respect, it’s not so good: a military dormitory in Mukachevo.
What I mean by “home” refers to the family, a close-knit family; the hearth and home. In Mykola Zhuk’s family, the home fires have always glowed brightly and surely.
They met in Berehove, where Mykola, the son of an Afghan war veteran, was studying after graduating from the Sumy Higher Artillery Command School in 1998. Her family is from Russia, Mykola’s from Zhytomyr Oblast. They’re not native “Zakarpatsi” (Transcarpathians), except for Nastia, who was born there. In 2003, Mykola was officially transferred to Mukachevo. The “Iron Brigade”, now called the “Zakarpattia Brigade”, formerly the Turkestan Division, with a taste of bygone imperial exoticism, is a legendary division of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Mykola’s transfer to Mukachevo offered him better opportunities for professional growth and career advancement.
Needless to say, in our post-Maidan era, everyone knew what was happening then – cuts of military personnel, gross waste of funds, theft and complete degradation of military resources. As a matter of fact, I myself served in the Soviet army during the so-called trouble-free period of Dmitry Ustinov (Soviet Minister of Defence 1976-1984-Ed), and even then we clearly saw signs of impending decline – a terribly low morale, idiots in command, oppression within the military, intra-national conflicts coupled with theft and money squandering, as mentioned above. Therefore, everything that happened within the Ukrainian army during the first two decades of independence can be considered a continuation of an inevitable destructive process, the beginnings of which are somewhere in the murky depths of Soviet stagnation.
It was during those years that Mykola Zhuk decided to become an officer. Against the background of this decline, it was quite possible to wave it all goodbye, join the reserves, resign and start a business, engage in racketeering activities, or work as a security guard, firefighter, etc. Or, find some nefarious activities for personal gain and enrichment in an environment of crime and bribery so prevalent in those years. Indeed! Citizens are the reflection of the state! Because what the hell! What kind of state refuses to feed its own army?
But Mykola chose the honourable way and always remained observant of his oath and the law. Time will pass, and I hope that we will one day appreciate the civic duty of such people as Mykola Zhuk, young (and junior) officers, whose honest resistance and dedicated service to our country in these troubled times of Russian military aggression prevailed and remained fast despite the ill-equipped state of our armed forces.
As of spring 2014, Mykola was rarely home. In fact, he lived in field conditions on military training grounds. After all, the order to transfer his unit to the war zone might come any day.
It finally happened in late summer. On September 1, Mykola Zhuk led his anti-tank battery to the front lines. The journey took the unit to Poltava, where the men underwent combat coordination training.
That first day of September was their last; Olena and Nastia would never see him again. As commander, he had the opportunity to go home on leave and spend time with his family. But, Captain Mykola Zhuk decided that he would go on leave only after all his fighters had had a chance to see their families.
Olena remembers how in mid-August (Mykola spent his days and nights at the training grounds), a serviceman brought her a bouquet of flowers for her birthday. He said that it was from Mykola, who had bought it himself, and had asked his friend to give it to his wife. Maybe Mykola wanted her to feel that he was here, close by. This scheme failed; the bouquet delivered by Mykola’s friend was flashy and garish. Mykola would never have bought this; he knew his wife’s tastes, but forgot to tell his friend.
Olena tells this story with a hidden smile. He was attentive to his family and knew how worried they were. The least he wanted was for his loved ones to fear for his life. In their telephone conversations, he assured them that everything was fine and peaceful. There was nothing to say about the war, because nothing was happening, he said. The most important event was when a homeless kitten wandered into their dugout. That kitten was the main topic of his tales.
When on the phone, Olena and Nastia often heard something like distant gunfire. Instantly, he would stop talking and hang up. On January 24, on the eve of his death, Olena distinctly heard the sound of shelling. The situation around Debaltseve was becoming increasingly tense. On January 25, Olena tried calling him again and again. Well, at least once every two hours…
Mykola’s most precious item was a letter from his daughter, which he carried close to his heart, and with which he never parted. In any case, he had it in his breast pocket when he died. The letter was written on a double page of a student notebook; it has several dark reddish spots on it. This is Mykola’s blood. A single word at the top of the letter: “For Dad”.
Two pages in a child’s handwriting. On the third page, the same handwriting with a large hand-drawn picture – a full-page tryzub (trident) and a caption “Freedom!!!!” The fourth page is blank.
I try to read more deeply into the lines that are barely legible; some places are spattered with blood.
“Time is passing by so quickly; but, you’re not here. I’m waiting for the day when you come home and say: “I’m back, I’m alive”. I pray to God to see you here alive, healthy, with no scratches. I’m waiting for your return so that we can welcome you back to our warm and loving home. To some wafer and rich cream cakes. It will be a modest welcome with no loud exclamations: “Our Heroes!” You’ve always been, are and will be our hero. I don’t want you to read this letter under gunfire. It may not be a very poetic letter and it probably has a whole bunch of mistakes. But, it’s written from the heart and it’s from me. Instead of listening to what the teacher’s saying, I’m writing to you…
I want to write more so that you’ll listen and return home. I understand you must keep your reputation intact. You’re a wonderful person; you’re doing such a great job! Well, […] says his dad didn’t go to war, and I say he did well and his dad is a good guy. Or, they say the soldiers have only themselves to blame… they thought they’d be sitting on their asses all day; others say soldiers should be the first to go to the front! But, the Constitution says that all [illegible] are equal when the integrity of Ukraine must be protected.
I made you a bracelet. May this letter and this bracelet, into which I’ve woven my heart and soul, be your LUCKY CHARM!
Come back alive!”
Her last cry lingers in the air. The fourth page is blank. When making photocopies, we held onto the letter with all our might so that some damn gust of wind wouldn’t tear it out of our hands and carry it away.
Captain Mykola Zhuk was killed on January 25, 2015 in the vicinity of Debaltseve – Novohryhorivka. If ever there was Hell on Earth, it was then. The Lord took the best.
Eternal Memory to Mykola Zhuk, an officer with a sense of honour and duty, a defender, husband, father and friend.
We are left with a poignant innocent message in Nastia’s letter:
“You’ve always been, are and will be our hero!”
The project is built around 22 individual exhibition stands. In iconic and powerful moments captured by a photographer’s camera – Youry Bilak, a Frenchman of Ukrainian descent – Ukrainian families tell the stories of their loved ones – Ukrainian soldiers who perished in the war. Each narrative, each individual is but one small grain, one tiny unit of a module in a living organism. By telling his story, we bring him back to life.
Each family chose an object that most reminds them of their departed: a father’s jacket, a guitar, a suit of medieval armour, a book. These family artifacts reflect a living continuation of the departed loved one. Ukrainian artists, intellectuals, and journalists were invited to create original texts about each soldier.