This diary will be updated daily and is copublished with Isolarii press.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28 (DAY 5): THE NEW VULNERABILITY
IT’S A SUNNY SPRING DAY that, like the last three, ends in darkness. I sit in the darkened apartment. Some lights burn, but those lights are dim and hidden. I read the news that Mariupol is bravely resisting Russian troops, but is also largely in darkness. Russia is attacking infrastructure as planned, putting people in the city under artillery fire, without electricity. Fighting around Kyiv continues.
But my thoughts are with Kharkiv. I see the images of apartment blocks destroyed by rockets and mortar shells and know that today Putin’s army murdered nine people, including three children, in this Russian-speaking city that is resisting occupation. Thirty-seven people are injured, eighty-seven apartment buildings ruined. I live in Kyiv in a similar building—a vulnerable refuge, my own apartment, where I always feel so good. Even now! Even now!
This war is demonstrating a new level of vulnerability to the world. Almost all pharmacies are closed. Electricity, water, and heating are under constant threat of failure. The wounds are getting bigger. But there is a whisper constantly repeating in my ear, even if it is sometimes almost silent: They keep fighting, we keep fighting—then the wounds heal faster.
The public spaces, squares, streets in the city are empty. The horizon is suddenly closer, the Kyiv hills, the asphalt, the courtyards of the buildings; everything seems to be invited and involved in the war.
At noon I decided to go for a walk: On the fifth day of the war, when the curfew lifted, I accompanied a German friend, who could not stay in Kyiv, to the railway depot. We were going to take the subway first. Inspired and almost drunk by the idea that the subway in Kyiv was working again, we walked to the Golden Gate station. Then, at the entrance, we learned that this station could only be used as a shelter.
(As I write this, sirens shatter the silence. It is 2:30 in the night and I decide to stay where I am and finish this diary entry.)
So we had to walk to the railway depot. A journey of twenty-five minutes, which for me was a walk into another vast reality. Since the beginning of the war, I have not visited Shevchenko Boulevard, a wide street leading down to the depot. We walked along the street and every house. Every intersection carried something new, a new language, a new narrative about our shared reality. The city looked peaceful; the sun’s rays made this image even more jarring. We quickly said goodbye, and I strolled back alone.
I wanted to cross the street so I could overlook the old botanical garden. Suddenly I saw a pile of metal on the side of the road—a shot up, deformed car—then a second one nearby, plus a broken advertising sign—shattered glass, metal, and plastic on the ground. The botanical garden was wiped from my mind. What remained was the unbearable realization that this war, this unimaginable, illogical, criminal war, was still going on after all.
At about the same time, peaceful residents of the city of Berdyansk in the south of the country gathered in front of their local government building, which was occupied by Putin’s army and guarded by armed soldiers. The women shouted at the soldiers in Russian, “How can you look your mothers in the face? You brought war and slaughter to our land! Shame on you!” Old people were also in the crowd, they were not afraid. The soldiers looked demoralized; they replied, “We came to protect you!”
The women resisted. They continued to protest, “We were never in danger here. There was no threat to us here before you came. Now, with you, because of you, we are in the greatest danger.” Then came cursed insults, which have a very great richness in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.
This ability of the residents of Berdyansk to fight on and on, to approach the soldiers unarmed and shout the truth in their faces, even when the city has almost fallen into Putin’s hands, promises a lot. It is hope itself.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 27 (DAY 4): AN EXTINGUISHED CITY
NORMALLY, the many brightly lit windows in Kyiv warm the city’s cold February days. The lights have something secret, private, but at the same time cozy about them. But now the city has gone out. People are afraid of Russian missiles and artillery fire. I have taped my windows shut in case of shelling, so that they won’t shatter. I go out on the balcony to check if my apartment is dark enough. I put only one lamp in each room—they hardly give any light and are on the floor. It is difficult for me to find my way around the apartment, but I try to discover a new form of coziness.
The sirens that warn of air strikes wail with a long signal, somewhat reminiscent of the playful sounds that elephants use to communicate. In Kyiv, the wailing of sirens is also a form of communication, but the message is always the same: Hide, hide well!
When dawn came, for some reason I decided to clean my apartment. I thought: right now you have to stick to the plans, to the usual routines. From the outside, my apartment is almost black, with its empty, dark windows greeting all the other apartments in the city, which are also empty and dark.
The darkness is frightening, but at the same time I sense that the city has decided to defend itself. On official Telegram channels, I read about so-called “diversionary groups,” Russian units moving into Kyiv as a vanguard. Like terrorists. Their goal is to destabilize the city, carry out attacks on politicians, and ultimately take Kyiv. One such group appears to have shot at the car of two women who had decided to flee the city with their children this morning. The women and their children died.
My thoughts become as dark as the windows of my apartment. While cleaning, I thought that when I write this diary, I should make a joke about housekeeping during war. My tip would be: “Cleanliness is a must in a dark room with taped windows—if you were going to do it earlier and are almost crying now, go ahead and mop your apartment anyway. True, you will not see anything. And the apartment may not get much cleaner, but following procedures and implementing plans is more important.”
The fourth day of the war is over. Half the city is fighting against the normalization of violence that is knocking on every door. War also tests us to see if we have even a touch of compassion for those sent here to murder. Since the war began, sixteen children have been killed across the country. In my town, nine “civilians” (I hate that word more and more) have died so far and forty-seven have been injured, including three children.
The destruction of the small town of Shchastye, “Happiness,” in northeastern Ukraine began with an electrical station being shelled. At some point it was destroyed, the light went out, the water, the heating. In distress, people, especially elderly residents, went outside to get water or food. Then the soldiers attacked, with artillery and rockets. A bus with fleeing people was fired upon. No journalists work in this area at the moment, no one counts the injured, the dead. Who will describe what Putin has done to the Donbas since the beginning of the war, since his operation to “Protect of the People of Donbas from Ukrainian Fascists”?
By occupying these territories and waging information warfare, Putin has managed to isolate this region from the world. Human rights organizations have not been able to freely operate there since 2014, and now the Russian army is once again showing how little it values the lives of its people.
From the news I learn that in the settlement of Ivankiv in Kyiv Oblast, the Regional History Museum was destroyed. In it were the works of Maria Primachenko, one of the most famous twentieth century artists in Ukraine. A joint exhibition of my photography and her painting had been planned for the fall, which is a great honor for me. I am sure that, somehow, somewhere, this exhibition will take place.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 26 (DAY 3)
My first night in the shelter. The Telegram channels of the Kyiv government warn that it will be a heavy night and that the Russian military will attack the city. But here in the bunker it’s pretty much empty. Many are trying to stay at home, in hope that nothing will happen. As of Saturday night, there is an almost thirty-hour curfew in the city. It probably won’t be possible to leave the room on Sunday.
Our small bunker is located in the center of Kyiv, not far from the Golden Gate. It is one and a half floors deep underground, to be precise—a network of corridors and corridors. They are clean, comfortable, and warm. I like this place because it provides shelter for more than a hundred people. There is drinking water, everyone brings something, there is also enough food. Everyone who can’t stand the sirens and the thunder of the artillery and rocket fire is allowed to come here. There are also some families who are here most of the time.
At the dark entrance to our basement, I see the silhouettes of residents scurrying past each other. You can overhear their occasional, petty arguments.
Two older shadows pass by two younger ones:
“Good evening!” “But the evening is not good!” the younger ones protest. “We wish you a good evening anyway,” the older ones say in a triumphant tone, “because we mean well. And we will continue to wish it, to you and to the others!” The shadows disappear into the depths of the cellar.
I orient myself in the present because the days offer little structure. At some point I visited my parents, both of them are not ready to leave Kyiv. They want to stay here until the moment of “our victory,” as they say.
My father is a translator, he translates German poetry into Russian. Thanks to his translations of Paul Celan, I fell in love with this poet when I was still a student. For years, since the Maidan Revolution, he has published his translations almost exclusively in Ukraine.
He took part in protests back then, I remember calling him from Berlin and finding out that he was standing with the demonstrators at the parliament building. Then I heard an explosion; luckily he wasn’t hurt. Now he is in Kyiv. He feels quite weak after a long cold and cannot go to the shelter. Maybe he doesn’t want to either. Every day I see how he continues to work on his translations. Despite the rocket attacks, despite the danger, or maybe because of it.
As I write, it occurs to me that during the day I saw many smiling people. For example, a woman who was sitting in the park on a bench next to two big shopping bags. She spoke to me in an absurdly happy voice, saying that she was waiting for her nephew to help her carry the bags home. “I’m so happy to have you standing next to me now, talking to me. When there are two of us, I’m less afraid of the artillery.”
She used to work as a museum guide at St. Sophia Cathedral, she said, now she’s a pensioner. She is convinced, she said, that Ukraine will defeat the Russian invaders. “When I think about the frescoes of St. Sophia, I believe that Ukraine will be protected by the whole world.” She smiled, tears standing in her eyes. ”We will be victorious,” she said. I didn’t know if she was crying more or laughing more, but I felt her courage and admired her.
Is today only the third day of the war? Mariupol: fifty-eight civilians wounded. Kyiv: thirty-five people, including two children. This is far from a complete list. It feels strange to find myself in this broad, unarmed, almost delicate category: “civilians.” For war, a category of people is created who live “outside the game.” They are shelled; they have to endure the shelling; they are injured, but they do not seem to be able to give an adequate response to it.
I don’t believe this to be the case. There is something hidden in the smiles that I saw several times today. A secret weapon, a sinister one. I must try to sleep at last and reach my apartment in the morning. Having breakfast in your own kitchen—that would be an enormous pleasure!
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25 (DAY 2), NIGHT: TENSE SILENCE
The night has suddenly become silent. Just an hour ago, around midnight, sirens could be heard, then distant thunder, perhaps rocket or artillery hits. And now—a tense silence.
We should be in the shelter by now, but I’ve already been there twice today. My parents are tired and I’m staying in the apartment with them for the night. The idea was that you can rest up here, if only a little bit. We are ready to leave the apartment on a minute’s notice and take shelter in the basement of the house.
I find it difficult to collect my thoughts. Different experiences of today crumble into the sensation of many days, more or less the same, standing grey one next to the other. The space in the city is changing. The walk from my house to the nearest grocery store, which usually took no more than ten minutes, stretches out, the distance becoming a longer trek.
The fact that the store was open at all was a miracle. I bought apples, vegetables, and buckwheat—but when I returned to the area an hour later, I saw the disappointed faces of two women now standing in front of a closed door. Someone said there was another grocery store 500 meters away, down the same street. But it wasn’t good news for the two women—500 meters on foot? The sirens are wailing, and fewer and fewer people are in the streets.
Time is also changing. On the way back from the grocery store, I found out that a kindergarten near the city of Sumy, in the north-east of the country, was shelled today. A kindergarten and a shelter. Seventeen children injured, two seriously. I stopped and leaned against a wall of a house. The day suddenly became infinitely long. Can this war be endured one more minute? Why doesn’t the world put an end to this happening?
It was a spring day, the sunspots played on the walls of the houses and the white walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral. The sirens wailed again—the signal to go to the bunker. A good friend of mine, the artist Nikita Kadan, had lost his credit card and the two of us walked the streets to find a working ATM.
One journalist had a backpack with him, with everything he might need in the coming days. We saw some passers-by and reporters standing in front of one of the big hotels with their cameras, reporting. The second day of the war, as it turns out, is a step already taken in a repeating sequence.
In the evening I learned that a town in the Luhansk region had been 80 percent destroyed by the Russian army, a beautiful little town that was in Ukrainian-controlled territory. It was called Shchastye, meaning “Happiness.” The husband of a friend, who was already safe, managed to escape. He left town without a toothbrush, socks, or a suitcase.
A car picked him up on the road. He told my friend that as he drove along, he saw the corpses of people lying next to their houses, doors, and the small cellars where many Ukrainians store potatoes for the winter. So these were “the people of the Donbas” that Putin claimed he was saving from “genocide.”
Happiness no longer exists. I was there a few years ago and photographed streets, also admiring a hill that dominates the landscape. In the city people spoke Russian and Ukrainian—I wrote about them and about their strange and funny homemade playgrounds.
Then I fall asleep in this black night after all.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25 (DAY 2): AIR ALERT
I wake up at seven in the morning to the sirens warning of air raids. My mother is convinced that Russia will not dare to shell the thousand-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral in the city. She believes that our house, which is in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral, is safe. That’s why she decides not to go to the bunkers. My father is sleeping.
I think if a UNESCO monument would actually stop the Russian army from shelling, this war wouldn’t have started in the first place. My head is throbbing with thoughts: Kyiv under fire, abandoned by the whole world, which is just ready to sacrifice Ukraine in the hope that it will feed and satiate the aggressor for some time.
Kyiv is being shelled, for the first time after the Second World War.
I am struggling with myself. I know slowly the world is waking up and starting to see that it’s not just about Kyiv and Ukraine after all. It’s about every house, every door, it’s about every life in Europe that is threatened as of today.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 24 (DAY 1): THE BEGINNING
Today I woke up early in the morning to see eight unanswered calls on my cell phone. It was my parents and some friends. At first I thought something had happened to my family and that my friends were trying to reach me because for some reason my parents had alerted them first. Then my imagination went in another direction and I thought of an accident, a dangerous situation in the center of Kyiv, something to warn your friends about. I felt a cold uneasiness. I called my cousin, because her beautiful voice always has a calming effect on me, brave and rational. She just said: Kyiv has been shelled. A war has broken out.
Many things have a beginning. When I think about the beginning, I imagine a line drawn very clearly through a white space. The eye observes the simplicity of this trail of movement—one that is sure to begin somewhere and end somewhere. But I have never been able to imagine the beginning of a war. Strange. I was in the Donbas when war with Russia broke out in 2014. But I had entered the war then, entered into a foggy, unclear zone of violence. I still remember the intense guilt I felt about being a guest in a catastrophe, a guest who was allowed to leave at will because I lived somewhere else.
The war was already there, an intruder, something strange, foreign and insane, which had no justification to happen in that place and at that time. Back then, I kept asking people in the Donbas how all this could start, and always got different answers.
I think that the beginning of this war in the Donbas was one of the most mythologized moments for the people of Kyiv, precisely because it remained incomprehensible how such an event is born. At that time, in 2014, people in Kyiv said, “People from Donbas, those Ukrainian Putin-sympathizers, invited the war to our country.” This alleged “invitation” has for some time been considered an explanation for how the absolutely impossible—war with Russia—suddenly became possible after all.
After I finished the phone call with my cousin, I paced around my apartment for a while. My head was absolutely blank, I had no idea what to do now. Then my phone rang again. One call followed the next, friends came forward with plans to escape, some called to make sure we were still alive. I quickly grew tired. I talked a lot, constantly repeating the words “the war.” In between, I would look out the window and listen to see if the explosions were approaching. The view from the window was ordinary, but the sounds of the city were strangely muffled—no children yelling, no voices in the air.
Later, I went out and discovered an entirely new environment, an emptiness that I had never seen here, even on the most dangerous days of the Maidan protests.
Sometime later I heard that two children died from shelling in Kherson Oblast, in the south of the country, and that a total of fifty-seven people died in the war today. The numbers turned into something very concrete, as if I had already lost someone myself. I felt angry at the whole world. I thought, this has been allowed to happen, it is a crime against everything human, against a great common space where we live and hope for a future.
I’m staying with my parents tonight. I’ve visited a bunker next to the house, so I know where we’ll all go when the shelling comes later.
The war has begun. It is after midnight. I will hardly be able to fall asleep, and there is no point in enumerating what has changed forever.
Yevgenia Belorusets is a photojournalist and writer based in Kyiv. She is the author of Modern Animal (ISOLARII, 2021) and the forthcoming Lucky Breaks (New Directions, 2022).
ISOLARII has rereleased Modern Animal with 100 percent of profits donated to Ukrainian charities and causes. Copies and more information are available here.
This diary was originally published in German by Der Spiegel.