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Unlucky Stars

Portents of war in Ukraine

Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets. Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky. New Directions, 112 pages.

In Yevgenia Belorusets’s story “The Stars,” women sheltering in basements in eastern Ukraine study their horoscopes to determine when it’s safe to go outside. They don’t know who’s been shelling them. The obvious suspects are either the separatist militias or Ukrainian troops, but the women wager that it’s Canada, which is rumored to be after eastern Ukraine’s precious coal. In the fog of war, the stars impart a welcome sense of certitude. Today the women read that Pisces will be immune from danger between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 p.m.; tomorrow Scorpio can move freely from noon till “almost evening.” Thirsty for fresh air, they welcome the permission to ramble, the reprieve from constant fear.

Once the shelling stops, the horoscopes seem to lose their meaning. “The stars used to be on our side: You might say they worked for us,” the nameless narrator laments. “Now it’s as if everything has broken down, the sky does whatever the sky wants. Time has turned its back on our city. There’s nothing happening.” The obvious narrative choice, the maudlin one, would have been for Belorusets to shell one of her characters while she was out for a Zodiac stroll. Never place your life in the hands of an astrologer! But the grief in this story derives from something subtler and more ominous. The forgotten, bombed-out towns of eastern Ukraine no longer have the privilege of even the bad kind of history. They have become a purgatory: a fate worse than oblivion.

Before the war began in 2014, people in the Donbas, a largely Russophone industrial region of eastern Ukraine, already felt at odds with the Ukrainian mainstream (despite the fact that a number of Ukraine’s most powerful businesspeople and politicians were from the east). Western Ukrainians derided the Donbas as too Russian, too Soviet, backward, a deadweight on a recently liberated nation. After Russian-backed separatists seized power in the region, this contempt was turbocharged. The media and some Ukrainian politicians depicted people in the Donbas as parasites, traitors, collaborators, even if they’d remained only because they had nowhere else to go, or because they didn’t want to abandon their homes, businesses, or family members. Those who fled the east were sometimes greeted with suspicion, and they struggled to find work or housing. Their voices were drowned out by the nationalism, anger, and fear that was sweeping Ukraine.

From the start of the conflict, Belorusets wanted to help correct for the absence of ordinary eastern Ukrainian perspectives in Ukrainian public life. She had long been involved in political activism, and as a documentary photographer she focused on the experiences of marginalized communities: LGBTQ+ families, Roma, the poor. Belorusets photographed the Maidan protests of 2013–2014, which began in Kyiv after then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU; following several months of mass demonstrations, Yanukovych fled the country. This was a kind of victory, but Russia promptly annexed Crimea. War broke out in the east, where it continues to this day.

The forgotten, bombed-out towns of eastern Ukraine have become a purgatory: a fate worse than oblivion.

After Maidan, Belorusets traveled to the east of the country to document the experiences of coal miners and other civilians in eastern Ukraine’s new war zones. She also created multimedia installations on the formation of a new idea of Ukrainian history, which was achieved in part through the toppling of Communist-era monuments—“Leninfall,” as it was sometimes known. During this period, she turned to prose in her search for a way to express the truths that she had seen and heard on her trips. This writing was not strictly documentary but a kind of documentary fiction—based on real events, encounters, and interviews, but moving beyond documents to reach for a more abstract, universal kind of truth, achieved through art rather than journalism or history.

Manganese and Manicures

The stories in the resulting collection, Lucky Breaks, now available in Eugene Ostashevsky’s excellent translation, “focus on the deep penetration of traumatic historical events into the fantasies and experiences of everyday life,” as Belorusets writes in “A Note Before the Preface.” “The insignificant and the small, the accidental, the superfluous, the repressed—all of these things attract my attention because they will never turn into . . . the trophies that winners carry from the present into the future so that they might lay down their booty, like bricks, to construct the dominant historical narrative.” Belorusets is interested in the histories of the defeated, of the unseen and unheard, and above all in the experiences of eastern Ukrainian women in wartime. Bricklaying winners have almost always been men; the hard edifices of historical narrative are a masculine affair. “March 8: The Woman Who Could Not Walk” is set on International Women’s Day—lavishly observed in former Soviet countries and harshly criticized by women who see the tide of flowers and chocolate as poor recompense for the discrimination and violence they face year-round. The eponymous immobilized woman explains, “I am a living monument, but a monument that is soft, unstable, and wobbly”: a Louise Bourgeois sculpture rather than a stone statue in a public square.

In Lucky Breaks, women’s places of work disappear, and the women—a florist, a cosmetologist—disappear along with them, in a fairytale or perhaps Gogolian take on the real effects of bombardment, separatist terror, and civilian flight. Many of Belorusets’s stories concern refugees from the east who are struggling to support themselves in Kyiv. They haven’t quite disappeared, but they’ve been rendered almost invisible. A woman who once had a high-ranking job in a major company is now a night-shift cleaner, dwelling in the memory of the house she renovated so lovingly. Destroyed by war, it now exists only in her imagination. Another woman applies for a job at the National Academy of Arts, which is seeking “a young and goal-oriented woman between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, with a model’s good looks, friendly facial features, top communication and computing skills, and a commitment to personal growth.” When she is hired, she vanishes. The loss of one’s home and livelihood can be a form of erasure, but so can the gendered exploitation of the peacetime workforce.

Many of the Ukrainian places featured in the book have telling names that Ostashevsky wisely chooses to translate into English, heightening the text’s feeling of an industrial fairytale. (One literary point of reference here is Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s “scary fairytales.”) A young manicurist lives alone in Anthracite, where her contribution to the war effort, after her boss at the salon leaves town, is to perform manicures for ten or twelve hours at a time, a Stakhanovite of nail art. Another woman struggles to break free of her mother, who refuses to leave their immiserated hometown, Manganese, where she once worked in a now-defunct ribbon factory. Silvery-grey manganese, which is used to make stainless steel, and anthracite, a form of energy-dense coal, are the mined counterpoints to the flowers, ribbons, and manicures of feminine industry and obligation.

One woman compares her trips to the cosmetologist to military service, experiencing the cosmetologist’s touch as a form of war waged on her body: “Her skin was under bombardment; huge pores yawned open like the mouths of volcanoes.” But the sessions are also a form of therapy for a refugee from the east: “After the many free consultations offered to her, after empathetic eye-contacts with big-eyed psychologists inviting her to appointments and tendering their support, after the human rights activists who, in the opinion of the woman, were interested only in protecting the rights of women but not in her person, the woman, pulling herself together, decided that she had no other options but to visit the cosmetologist again.” Unlike the human rights workers, with their impersonal, categorical gaze, the cosmetologist zones in on the most minute aspects of the woman’s body. For better or worse, she feels that she is being seen as someone specific, distinctive. The assault on her pores is cathartic, allowing her to replay terrifying episodes of recent years without feeling shame at having survived. Appropriately enough, the cosmetologist’s office is in an uninhabitable basement rented out by a company called “Spaces Not For Living.”

Lucky Breaks rejects the fervent, furious partisanship that consumed Ukraine in the years after Maidan. “Sides” are often mentioned but rarely specified. In one story, for instance, a florist is rumored to have gone off with the “partisans,” but no one can say which ones. “Strangers,” who are occupying soldiers but also potential bridegrooms (photos of lavish, kitschy warrior weddings having been among the most memorable artifacts of this war), are not identified according to their position in the conflict. We may assume they’re Russian, but they might also be from some other part of Ukraine—familiarity, after all, is subjective. By emphasizing the fact of division while occluding the proper names and political positions that are usually taken to form the substance of such division, Belorusets draws our bitter attention to the way that war can give lost societies and people a sense of relief, self-love, purpose. In this reading, war is not a manifestation of some specific conflict but rather a way of life—an end rather than a means. One soldier says that he “married war,” putting an end to his parents’ demands that he find a wife. And war can exempt a society from painful self-examination: “It provides us with distraction from ourselves; it absolves us from seeing ourselves close up,” one of Belorusets’s narrators says. “We hate ourselves. That’s the problem. We hate the results of our public life, our activity. We even hate our own national culture, and so we can fall in love with it solely on the account of the afflictions, persecutions, and deaths that befall it.” Another narrator describes her eastern Ukrainian town’s rash of suicides as “the only field where youth can show what they’re made of, apply themselves, and exercise their imagination. Suicide—the one thing they can make theirs.” War is another way of keeping the youth busy.

For Yevgenia Belorusets, writing after “Leninfall” was not strictly documentary, but a kind of documentary fiction.

The eastern Ukrainians of Lucky Breaks are stuck between worlds: those of the separatists and the Ukrainian government, of the EU and Russia, of settled natives and impoverished refugees, of war and peace. Linguistically and therefore politically—because in Ukraine today, language is always about politics—Belorusets, too, is caught between two worlds. As Ostashevsky explains in his afterword to Lucky Breaks, the book was written in Russian, Belorusets’s primary literary language (almost all Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian), except for the first preface, which was written in Ukrainian at her original publisher’s request. Presumably this was meant as a hedge against criticism of both Belorusets’s choice of language and her choice of artistic method. The book’s original title was also in Ukrainian. Because Russian is now the language of the enemy, even as it remains a native language for a large segment of the Ukrainian population, there is little welcome for new Russophone literature in Ukraine. Periodic initiatives, often sponsored by the government, have attempted to limit the amount of Russophone media that is available on the radio, on television, in magazines and newspapers, and in bookstores. It’s hard to find a Ukrainian publisher for a Ukrainian book written in Russian. Belorusets does not want to publish with a Russian press; she considers herself a Ukrainian writer, and her Russian a distinctively Ukrainian version. Indeed, Russians often have little difficulty identifying Ukrainians by their use of the Russian language—and they can be quick to deride it.

Facts and Factotums

Belorusets’s past as a photographer informs her literary project in ways both direct and indirect. Two sequences of her photos are included in Lucky Breaks; in her “Note Before the Preface,” she announces, “You are reading a collection of tales that aspire to a certain quality of photography: the quality of escaping the author’s final control over past events, encounters, conversations, histories.” Documents have their own life, and they may seem to change over time or depending on the person looking at them. At the same time, Belorusets notes “the possibility of forming memories with the help of a photograph that claims to be true despite remaining someone’s fiction, theatrical contrivance, intrusion into everyday life.” Photographs can fuel memories that turn out to be as much art as fact; memory and journalism are both unreliable. To acknowledge this is not necessarily to discredit the significance of documents but to recognize basic problems of epistemology and to give proper credit to the power of art.

As Ostashevsky points out, there is an element of ethnography in Belorusets’s approach, but it is intentionally undermined by the trappings of fiction. This distinguishes her work from that of Svetlana Alexievich, despite some superficial similarities; Alexievich’s work, especially as presented in translation, relies heavily on the claim of factuality, despite her extensive interventions in the material she collects during interviews. Belorusets rejects the idea that an authoritative, objective ethnographer can arrive at some empirical truth about the objects of her study; in her fiction, the “native informants” are allowed to question, challenge, and taunt the ethnographer. For her, art and fact exist in conversation with one another.

Since the Maidan revolution, Ukrainians have been caught between the vile propaganda of Russian fake news—absurd stories of crucifixions and genocide—and Ukrainian nationalist propaganda, censorship, and harassment and violence against dissenters. The desire to destabilize the supposed objectivity of truth or the authority of narrative is a familiar postmodern preoccupation, but in Ukraine’s current political climate (and not only in Ukraine), Belorusets’s willingness to exist between document and fiction is daring, even provocative. This is a moment when facts are both utterly compromised and vastly overvalued—asked to do all the work of politics, to justify whole worldviews with single data points. Belorusets, by contrast, is for plurality, subjectivity, a kind of narrative democracy. She wants us to remember that even documentary photographs and factual narratives are determined, and sometimes distorted, by the worldview that shaped them, including some things and leaving others out. They are partial, in both senses of the word. In her “Note Before the Preface,” she explains,

In this book, the voices of different people resonate and clash; photographs and words also collide, neither given the chance to explain or to illustrate the other. Their interlocked coexistence doesn’t allow any one idea, any one voice—especially the author’s—to dominate . . . With these photographic sequences and stories I want to show how collisions of different contexts inform and transform the manufacture of narratives, resulting in rejection of any instruments of certainty.

Almost none of the voices in Lucky Breaks are assigned names. The exception is a recurring interlocutor named Andrea. In a style somewhat reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s, she tends to speak in an artificially high register. (“I have to confess that I fail at much of what I set out to do . . . But you will kindly spare a few minutes of your time to answer my questions.”) Andrea is a ghostly presence, severed from real life, and she sometimes questions the narrator in the forlorn manner of a shade receiving visitors in the underworld. She is a journalist who writes for “small regional papers that no one in Kyiv has ever heard of,” and her articles are rejected even by outlets like North Donetsk News. She is a writer without readers; she trusts her powers of observation even as she suspects that writing rests on a foundation of “lies, self-delusion, and blind error.” Andrea is the book’s embodiment of intellectualized pessimism, of cynicism so intense that it obliterates everything set before it; she is the character who expresses most strongly and cruelly the shortcomings of the documentary approach.

This is a moment when facts are both utterly compromised and vastly overvalued—asked to do all the work of politics, to justify whole worldviews with single data points.

“Only the smallest particles can survive in Ukraine,” Andrea explains, “a country that leaves its inhabitants very little room for any maneuvering in its practice of humongous fakery and high-stakes play.” She sounds like she’s read the work of the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who has written about the “imitation imperative,” by which post-socialist countries were admonished to imitate their capitalist Western brethren; Krastev views resentment of this copycat mandate as a key source of the rightist revanche in Eastern Europe. With the skepticism that has grown so widespread on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, Andrea derides Ukraine’s post-Soviet revolutions as “skillfully staged,” though not in the sense of Trumpian “crisis actors.” As far as she’s concerned, “These events weren’t real protests, never mind revolutions. They were illusions, the dreams of exhausted people. Exhausted by Europe, by Ukraine, by the memory of the Soviet Union, by the very thought of having to lead an inconspicuous meager life among worlds gaping to swallow them.” In “Lilacs,” she teases the narrator by asking “Whose side are you on?” It’s a trick question: Ukraine is a perpetual gray zone. Andrea’s views are extreme, but pervading Lucky Breaks is a sense of the instability of meaning and the boundless nature of misunderstanding between people. “I believe nobody can believe in anything definite,” Belorusets writes in “A Note Before the Preface.” “It makes no sense to even try.”

Lucky Breaks was originally published in 2018, but it is still excruciatingly topical. In February, as this review went to press, Russia had forces massed on the Ukrainian border and was threatening another escalation of the conflict that has been “simmering” or “frozen” for years, depending on your understanding of metaphorical temperature. For months pundits have argued over Russia’s intentions, but one thing is clear: Ukraine is a playing field for the great power games of Russia, the United States, and other countries that are vastly richer and stronger than it will ever be. Some fourteen thousand people have been killed in the Donbas since 2014; many were soldiers, but many were civilians—for example, women who didn’t make it down to the basement in time when the shelling began. The narrator of “The Stars” worried that after the latest round of shelling ended, astrology lost its relevance. But now it seems that her fears were misplaced, and in the Donbas astrologers, like manicurists, will never be out of work.