July 31, 2022 A few days ago I found an old Russian edition of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in a box in front of the door of a neighboring house. I flipped through the pages and thought of my very first volume, which was named after an article of the Soviet Penal Code mentioned in the novel: Illegal Crossing of the State Border.
I can’t remember our songs, it’s a long time ago, I was 14 at the time (amazing that I was already reading Solzhenitsyn at that age!). No audio recordings of the band survived – maybe for the better. But I still have a black and white picture in my archives, someone immortalized us on stage at our only concert in school no. 116. I played bass that day, through my grandfather’s amp, who always had his record player connected to it – until the day of our performance, after which it was unfortunately no longer usable.
To my right in the photo is Gleb, he often participated in my early music projects. Gleb was my neighbor, we used to play together as kids and later we discovered rock music at the same time. When I moved to Germany we lost touch, I heard he was studying at the medical institute but dropped out. Then we found each other again and met on my visits to Ukraine.
Gleb wasn’t doing well for a while, but he reinvented himself during the Maidan revolution, taking part in the Kharkiv protests, helping the injured and volunteering for the army in 2014. This morning he wrote to me again after a few months: “I’m fine, I’m on the front line, I’ve already had two bruises and two minor head injuries this year. The second time, two colleagues were killed by the same mine.” Gleb says he has had hearing problems since then and that’s pretty annoying, could I see how expensive the earmuffs would be here? Of course I can, but is there a specific brand he trusts, I ask. But Gleb is offline now…
In the evening I finally meet up with Taras, whom I have known for decades, just like Gleb, we lived on the same street in Kharkiv. He’s been in Berlin for three weeks and he’s coming to visit me with his wife Anna. We often met at her home in our hometown, it’s a slightly surreal feeling to welcome her here.
As is often the case in conversations between Ukrainians at the moment, at some point we come to February 24 and how the two of them experienced the day. Anna was nine months pregnant. She says that her elderly aunt was not well in the days before and when her daughter entered the bedroom early in the morning and whispered something to Taras, she was sure that it had to do with the aunt, that something had happened to her. But it was bad news of a different kind and Anna found it incredibly difficult to process.
She would have had an examination at the family doctor at 10 a.m., would the appointment be canceled now or what? Is it best to drive away? She, Taras and her daughter spent the next few weeks with the neighbors in the basement of their skyscraper and rarely came out. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about the Russian tanks on our street that evening, but even after five months I still can’t imagine it. “I feel the same way,” says Taras, “I saw it with my own eyes and I still don’t believe it to this day.”
He worked in Mariupol at some point and has since had some friends there who stayed in the city under Russian occupation. Taras shows me a chat with an ex-colleague on his cell phone: “We’ll hold on, what can we do… there’s no water, gas or electricity. But we have a well in the yard and a neighbor gave me his old generator.” His wife and daughters fled, he couldn’t leave, someone has to look after the house and the dogs, Taras explains to me. I nod.