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Post from the editor: So what’s it like? The psychology of war

Post from the editor: So what’s it like? The psychology of war

Comfortable life in uncomfortable times, as seen by a college student from Kyiv. 


So, what’s it like? is the question I have been hearing in some form or other, some language or other, for the past… oh, I don’t know, six months? Honestly, it’s all a blur at this point – one huge, messy, political, bloody blur.

The funny thing is that life goes on. When we read about war in textbooks, or historical novels, or even on the pages of The Economist, we imagine this massive military something, something huge and incomprehensible, something with a black gaping mouth and rotten teeth that consumes every aspect of civilian life, and regurgitates blood and destruction.

This might have been the case in the previous centuries, this might be the case in the east of Ukraine now, but the problem is that when we think of, say, ‘war in Ukraine,’ we imagine all of Ukraine engulfed in turmoil. In reality, the battles are very much localised. So when people from outside the country ask me, so, what’s it like?, my response will probably not satisfy them, as I cannot tell tales of how I single-handedly saved a soldier’s life, or how I wake up every morning to the sound of bullets shattering my bedroom window. This is not my story.

My story is waking up every morning to a cup of coffee and the news. Oh, the news. It’s interesting how mere words have so much impact on our lives. The news determine my mood for the rest of the day, maybe even the rest of the week. Oh, but they have to be good news. And not in the sense that they should make me happy. They have to be news that will shock me, shake me, break me out of this numb state of ‘I’ve heard it all before’ that I have been in since… February?, or maybe even earlier. Because even death blood army kill gets old. And that’s what’s really frightening about the whole situation: we have become insensitive.

Before, any news of, say, a shooting in the city centre, would have evoked weeks of conversation and discussion over morning coffee and wine at dinner. Now it’s more of, “Oh, another thirty separatists dead?… Pity it wasn’t more. Pass the salt.” This indifference is spreading to the paradigm of our soldiers as well – though not as rapidly. My mother still gasps when she hears news of helicopters having been shot down or tanks attacking a Ukrainian roadblock. I don’t. I never did, really. What I feel in that moment is either nothing, a whooshing, gaping black hole of what, again?, or an even blacker emotion – rage. Hot. Angry. Sticky. Like tar or oil (which seems to be the reason for all the evils in this world), it bursts out from my heart (?) like a fountain and pours into my nose and mouth until I can’t breathe. It covers my eyes with a sticky film, which distorts everything, and suddenly a long-time Russian friend on Facebook looks like mini-Putin.

And Putin himself. He is perhaps one of the few figures that elicit strong emotion yet. A destructive passionate battle cry. A primal desire to draw a knife, or a jagged jawbone of an ancient animal, and rip his throat open again and again, and stab stab stab

We don’t do it, of course. We have to remind ourselves of our humanity, and what is worse, of our weakness. We cannot reach him. We cannot take him. We cannot break him. So we read the news again. We let the black hatred eat us up from the inside, burning away at our hearts, so we can’t feel; our lungs, so we can’t breathe; our intestines, so that a single piece of dinner over the news feels like sacrilege. How dare we?

Another thing that spoils my dinner is utter disgust. The pinch of hypocrisy every statement from our ‘friends’ adds to my stew makes it so much harder for it to go down. The sludge of we’re so concerned slides down my throat like a disease. Thank you very much for your concern. Thank you for your European values. Thank you for thanking us for dying for them. Thank you for giving those Mistral ships to Putin. Thank you for South Stream. Thank you for threatening third-level sanctions and never actually going through with them. God bless you, Western World. One should hope that Donbas will be the Heimlich to save you from choking on your own benevolence.

Do you believe in Poroshenko, our lord and saviour? Because I don’t. No, I never voted for him. And when I see his Thank you for your trust posters plastered all over the big boards inside and outside of the city, I hiss and spit at him like an angry cat. That’s the thing, politics makes you into an animal, as ironic as it is, considering it is an entirely human invention. I don’t want his thanks. I want him to realise the burden he has been given, weighed down by the blood of those who died on Kyiv’s Maidan, in other cities, those who are dying in the east now. I want him to be responsible. Every single bit as responsible as his job necessitates – and more. He is not a normal President. He was elected in a situation when people needed hope. He is Hope. Was Hope. We will see.

Despite all this, everyday life goes on. Breakfast, shower, work, dinner… All of it still happening, it is simply diluted with blood and gore that pours in from television and computer screens. I got a cold. My dog’s tooth fell out. My grandmother needs new glasses. Things still happen outside of the battlefield, and they now seem more shocking than the rest of it – the brief bursts of normality are suddenly a miracle, and event, something to look forward to, in a way. Perhaps this is only from where I’m sitting. I’m pretty sure the east doesn’t get to enjoy this normal side of life as much as we do back here, comfortably lounging in the capital and sipping our evening tea. The east might be fighting for Ukraine. The east might be fighting for Russia.

On a purely human level, few care about the east. It’s not about the east anymore.

Let the east go. Let them go far, far away, let them join Russia, China, Rwanda, for all I care. Just stop the murders. Stop the battles. Before it’s too late. Before we all go so numb we start denying social norms. Before we kill our neighbour just because their dog barks too loudly. Before we start robbing banks just because we don’t have spare change. Stop it. Now.

Help us regain our humanity. Because this is what we need. Not European values. Not the Russian world. We need to feel like people again. Not subjects. Not objects. Not actors or agents. People.

Mariya Shcherbinina

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