Speaking in ruins: “War Diary” by Yevgenia Belorusets4 min read
How can words capture the experience of war? In her latest work, War Diary, the Ukrainian poet and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets explores the possibility of comprehending the incomprehensible, mixing acute observations with intimate introspections. Her work effectively conveys the experience of war and presents a powerful testimony of the courage of the Ukrainian people.
Yevgenia Belorusets began her War Diary on 24 February 2022, the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Over the following 40 days, Belorusets continued to chronicle the changing face of Kyiv and the effects of the war on her own thinking, her family, and friends. Initially, the diary entries were published daily to great acclaim by the German newspaper Der Spiegel and in English by ISOLARII. The new edition published by Pushkin Press allows readers to read the diary in its entirety in a new English translation.
In its formal composition, the diary reads like a fugue, interweaving multiple recurring themes and layers of reflection and observation. Against the backdrop of the unfolding calamities and atrocities, Belorusets explores the limits of language, her changing psyche, and the shifting patterns of social interaction in wartime. A dominant theme is the constant struggle to find the right words and means of expression for something, which the author repeatedly describes as both incomprehensible and unimaginable.
When I write about the attacks and the violence, I use the word ‘war,’ but it hardly describes the terror, the targeted murder of the defenceless. ‘War’ does not cover the merciless attacks against homes and buses carrying refugees.
It’s a persuasive testimony to the endurance of artistic expression that Belorusets acutely captures the war’s effect on her perception, writing, and thinking. Episodes of denial, amnesia, and a missing sense of time are presented in a reflective and compelling manner. Regarding the progression of time, the reader can experience how writing the diary becomes a helpful exercise, a routine to capture the evolution of war and the irreversible change it brings to daily life. However, the last entry in the book, written on a train to Warsaw, reveals the author’s persistent doubts: “All these experiences and memories seem impossible to capture.”
In the nearly month and a half covered in Belorusets’ diary, steady contact with friends, conversations with fleeing Ukrainians from the war-torn eastern regions, and the constant flow of information through social media provide an ever more complex image of the unfolding war. Belorusets manages to capture this constant flow of information in several entries, and documents her initial reaction to key events of the early days of the war, such as the bombing of the Mariupol theatre or the atrocities committed in Bucha. Another recurring theme is Belorusets’ relation and interactions with her parents, who insist on staying in their home in Kyiv. These regular conversations captured in the diary reveal the vacillating deliberations to leave their home country and the endurance of hope.
One does not speak to a ruin. One contemplates it, holds it in one’s mind. It is war’s silent witness in the middle of the city. Looking at a ruin gives the observer a certain distance from events. What does this distance mean? It is in no way an emotional distance, but a detachment that gives strength and the feeling that you can control how close the war comes.
The often laconic diary entries not only reflect the wide range of effects the experience of war has on the human psyche, but also chronicle the metamorphosis of Ukraine’s capital. Through short conversations with strangers on the streets of Kyiv, communication with distant friends, and black-and-white photographs taken during her strolls around the city, Belorusets allows the reader to grasp the thin dividing line between despair and hope. Throughout the harrowing one and a half months, the author chronicles the organic continuation of life in Kyiv despite the constant threat of sabotage groups and air attacks. The photographs, described by the author as “capable of holding together sequences and memories,” hereby not only provide a powerful visual dimension to the diary, but also function as a connecting tissue of the sometimes disparate entries. These kinds of contemplations on the means and limits of artistic expression can be found throughout the diary and elevate it from the mere documentation of the concrete to a general reflection on the role of art in times of war.
Almost all the pharmacies are closed. Electricity, water, and heating are under constant threat of failure. The wounds are getting bigger. But sometimes a little voice comes to whisper in my ear, constantly repeating: ‘They keep fighting, we keep fighting.’ Then the wounds heal faster.
Despite its brevity, Belorusets’ War Diary makes for a powerful testament of the multi-layered individual and collective experience Ukrainians faced in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The kaleidoscope of interwoven themes succeeds in following the imperative the author gave herself: “The catastrophe must be represented—only as part of a narrative can it be recognized as catastrophic.”
Book details: Belorusets, Yevgenia, War Diary, translated by Greg Nissan, 2023, Pushkin Press. Buy it here.