Historians' Watch

On Hearing and Not Hearing Air-Raid Sirens

In Ukrainian, the word for February is ‘Fierce’. Today, as I’m writing this text, it’s the 143rd of February, or the 143rd of our ‘Fierce’. We don’t get used to it. We can’t. Spring passed us all by. And to us, the word ‘hot’ only means news from the front. We still don’t know exactly what date is in the calendar in other countries and what day of the week it is for them. For us, it’s still Thursday.

I didn’t intend to write about that, but words take on a life of their own. And when it comes to words, I’m like a child who does everything right, except that they can’t stop crying. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. My thinking, and everyone’s I think, isn’t linear anymore: it zigzags. I comfort myself with the thought that a zigzag is the line a living heart makes on a cardiogram. And that means that at this precise moment, we’re alive.

In the first days of February—the 24th, 25th and 26th—it seemed as though nothing would survive. For many, the only real question was how dignified death would be, how much memory would be left behind. Memory is important. It is in memory of our nation’s legendary heroes and our elders that we fight over and over again for our freedom. There are lots of memories – some bitter, some victorious. In those first few days of February, it seemed that courage and dignity were the main thing that we would leave to our children. If, that is, our children survived.

Extract from the protocol of the GPU (Secret Police) Special Board, 24 April 1931. Credit: Author’s own.

When bombs and rockets fly over Kyiv, when the invader’s army is stationed in the suburbs, when everything around you turns deadly, you can see what is important and what is not. And the important thing turns out to be what you can do with your hands: what you can carry, load, transport, collect, pack, how you can weave nets, fill bottles for Molotov cocktails, or as they’re called now, ‘Bandera’s smoothies’.

It seems as though nothing else is important, and crucially won’t be important. Monographs, research, books: they don’t offer any defence, they can’t defeat the enemy. That is how it seemed, at least during the first few weeks of the war. Sometimes I still think that now too. But I can’t find the right words to describe how my friend Tamara Vronska and I, despite everything, managed from the first days of the war to accomplish things not just using our hands and physical strength. We were able to do important things for the history profession too.

On the one hand, it looked like a hopeless attempt to save what could be salvaged: archival documents from our personal collections, a few ideas, some drafts. On the other hand, it was a miracle. And evidently when it comes to describing miracles, I don’t have the right words. But miraculous things happen. And in our case, they came in the form of collaboration with historians Polly Jones at the University of Oxford and Miriam Dobson at the University of Sheffield.

Just before the war broke out, we had started collaborating together on a research project exploring the social history of the Soviet 101st kilometre — a symbol of repressive geography in the Soviet Union. The project will explore how the introduction of internal passports in the 1930s accelerated the formation of zones of privilege and of punishment.  Those the state considered ‘undesirable’ were denied the paperwork they needed to live legally in the city and its surrounding hinterland. Just outside this prohibited zone, outcast communities formed on what came to be known as the 101st kilometre.

Extract from the protocol of the OGPU (Secret Police) Special Board, 2 November 1928. Credit: Author’s own.

And yet the people who were punished in this way thought they had lucked out. Just a ban on living in your own town or village, just banishment, just a ban on getting within 100km of Moscow or 50km of Kyiv and Lviv. All in all, pretty lucky.

Those who had been quietly lucky in this way were called ‘minusniki’: people with minuses on their passports, indicating the cities from which they were now barred. We will never have exact figures for how many of them they were. One million? Two million? Five million? The word ‘minusnik’ is a term from the dictionary of repression of the Soviet secret police force (OGPU/NKVD) and now it has been virtually forgotten. That’s very Stalinist, very Russian: the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of thousands is just a statistic. In this case, this wasn’t a death, but a tragedy. And not thousands, but millions.

The 1920s was when the ‘lists of regime territories and cities’ were drawn up: at first, only six of them, then twelve, then fifteen. Ukraine was always a suspect territory, untrustworthy in the eyes of Moscow, always ready to revolt: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv. The most regime of all the regime places. The only difference was that for Kyiv the 101st km was actually 51 kilometres outside the city.

To save on words, the secret police would write ‘minus 6’ or ‘minus 12’ in people’s sentences indicating the number of cities from which they were now banished. Writers, artists and doctors were forced to live at this distance from Moscow. All of them were people who worked with words. They remembered, spoke, and wrote about it. Ordinary people, those without any words, didn’t tell their stories.

Places where those sentenced by the NKVD Special Board are forbidden from residing (1 June 1939). State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fond 9, file 8, p. 273.

As I’m writing about this project, I can hear the air-raid siren, but I also do not hear it. My friend Tamara would say the same thing in the first month of the war. Her shield was the walls of the stairwell: two thick, concrete, windowless walls. Both double thickness. That meant that they had an additional wall before them. I would like it if no one needed this advice. But just in case: if your shelter is far away, and if your basement isn’t set up for bombing, two concrete walls, both double thickness, are a pretty good place to pass the time during a rocket strike on the city. You will not have 100 per cent safety. If a rocket lands on the roof, the whole building will go up in flames. But still.

Tamara lives in the area of Kyiv that the Russians came close to taking. They didn’t spare anyone. ‘If the rocket landed in a residential building, then let’s call that building a military base’: that’s war-crime speak. In her stairwell shelter, Tamara would work on saving historical documents: some of them typed into her computer, some of them photographed, some of them notated. She slept there too: in a sleeping bag, fully dressed, with an emergency suitcase as a pillow. Many of us only stopped sleeping fully dressed at the end of April, after realising that it was pretty hot sleeping in two sweaters and two pairs of trousers. ‘When I’m working, I don’t hear the war at all. I don’t hear the sirens one bit. I only hear it when something’s already flying in, and the building jerks around like a madman’.

Polly and Miriam wrote to us in the first days of war to say that the project (if successful) would only start in 2023, but that for now we could and should try to save the documents. Or was it mainly to save us? The main task was to examine the 101st kilometre in Ukraine, and from the very start: the 1920s. To write an article about it. To work together as historians and researchers. Tamara and I gathered these archives and filled in the gaps. We could see new topics and new questions: about the people who’d been banished, about whether they could or couldn’t return, about how the regime geography swept in waves across social and national groups.

I didn’t go to the shelter, I’ll admit. I had experience from being in Donetsk in 2014: I can tell from the sound whether it’s our anti-air defence (in military slang, ‘heading away from us’) or enemy rockets (‘heading for us’). Plus, my apartment is in a three-storey building surrounded on all sides by high rises. This means my building is kind of protected. If you take that to its logical conclusion, then it means: my house will stay standing because any rocket that’s launched will land on the nine-storey building. But if it’s a plane, well then, yes: it’ll get me, us. Even two walls offer no shelter from a plane.

Besides, I believe in the Ukrainian armed forces. All of our early correspondence with Polly and Miriam, with our documents and discussions, ended with the words ‘we would also like to thank the Armed Forces of Ukraine for providing security to perform this work. This work has become possible only because of the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian Army’.

Even so, sometimes—especially when people were dying in Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumi, Izium and Irpen—it seemed rather meaningless to die not at the front, but amongst papers and ideas for books. But on February 49th (March 25th), when a Russian rocket burned down the Chernihiv archive, the frontline shifted toward those papers, documents and ideas that needed to be saved. It turned out that this too fitted perfectly in the formula from the first days of the war: ‘to die with dignity and leave a memory’.

This piece was translated by Professor Polly Jones at the University of Oxford with assistance from Dr Miriam Dobson at the University of Sheffield.

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