War presents a unique challenge for the artist. When reality has ripped in two and extremes of emotion and opinion take hold, it becomes near impossible to do what art does best: scramble easy categories and introduce complexity into the world. The Ukrainian writer and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets, currently in Kyiv, is facing this dilemma head-on. I called her on the evening of March 23, as the sun was setting over Ukraine’s capital, at a time when air-raid sirens usually start blaring, Belorusets said. As we spoke, she was crouching in the corridor of her apartment building, the safest place in case a Russian missile should land nearby. How do you remain an artist at such a moment of terror?
One answer might come in the form of Belorusets’s English-language war diary, which she began publishing as the invasion started and which has gained the appreciation of writers like Margaret Atwood and Miranda July. Through this act of documentation, in words and photographs, she is processing the total collapse of her world and keeping her openness alive, her powers of observation. I can see the way she’s holding on to a precision of language and thought. In one recent entry, on March 20, she wonders whether a friend’s jarring use of the word genocide to describe the Ukrainian experience is accurate, even if it might feel right: “This word penetrated deep into my mind. I still have a hard time using it. The term is the wrong size: Like many such words, it is both a little too small and much too big, like someone else’s clothes.”
For years, Belorusets’s art has combined photojournalism with writing. Her projects by Ella have looked at people living on the margins, including workers in a brick factory in western Ukraine and the country’s embattled LGBTQ community. This is also not the first time she’s experienced war. After covering the Maidan protest movement in 2013 and 2014, she went east to the Donbas region, where she traveled through villages fractured by fighting between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. Based on her time there, she published a novel, Lucky Breaks, out in English this month (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). These are such, mostly about women, in which the stressful reality of living under the weight of an ongoing conflict mingles with magic. In one story, a group of women gathered in a bomb shelter interprets horoscope signs to figure out when it might be safe for them to emerge. As Belorusets writes in what she calls “a note before the preface,” the stories “focus on the deep penetration of traumatic historical events into the fantasies and experiences of everyday life.”
Now she is personally experiencing something similarly traumatic, and trying to figure out how best to continue capturing what she’s living through. When I spoke with her, she was happy for the momentary distraction from her as she anticipated the night’s shelling. She felt constantly rattled, she said, and tired. “I can’t close my eyes, can’t find peace,” she wrote in a recent entry. “That’s what I want to describe to you.” This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Gal Beckerman: Tell me about why you stayed in Kyiv when the invasion began. So many people’s experience of the war has been shaped by this one moment of deciding whether to leave or stay.
Yevgenia Belorusets: I was thinking that it would not last very long, that the situation was so irrational and that this violence was so unmodern and atavistic in some ways that it could not possibly exist in today’s world. This kind of war is like a reenactment of something from the 19th century, with one power occupying another country, a kind of war that prolonged its existence into the middle of the 20th century, but even during the Second World War already felt outmoded. If you read diaries from the time, there was a sense of how strange it was that these things could be happening at that moment.
Beckermann: And why then keep a public record of your war experience if you thought it would not last very long?
Belarussians: Actually, the idea is that every entry should be the last. And my wish was always to project this vision, to show how important it is to end the war immediately. I believed that it was possible for the Russian side to end it, though I feel that’s much less true now than at the beginning. I believed that there were people there who could also not imagine that this was happening and were powerful enough to stop it.
Beckermann: I want to ask you what you see as the artist’s responsibility in this moment, because you clearly have a drive to document, which was true before the invasion and has been the basis of your work for a long time.
Belarussians: I think that responsibility is a very tricky thing to address. Because my artistic choices are very personal, and they develop from other practices that I have, other projects and ideas. At a certain point, I turn that perspective toward what is happening around me. So I think what I’m doing right now, it’s not because of some responsibility; it just naturally connects to other ideas and attitudes and ways of working. But now that I say that, there is something else: There might be some sense of responsibility among people who are working with ideas to preserve a very complex picture of reality at a moment when war has turned everything incredibly awful.
Beckermann: What do you mean by that?
Belarussians: War is happening—not only war but war crimes, some that seem impossible to describe, people killed in such incredible masses, people who are innocent. When stuff like this is happening, society begins to polarize, which is absolutely natural. And patriotism grows. But artists have this power to stay critical, clear, ironic, even in these kinds of moments—to save this possibility of critical vision and understanding.
Beckermann: Can you tell me about the difference between using photography versus your writing, as you’re trying to figure out how to capture what you’re experiencing?
Belarussians: I think photography is something that you cannot control completely, and there are always, in each photo, footprints that you didn’t put there. Text is different. It is much more directly connected to your imagination and reflection, and your ability to create and document what ideas, words, and experiences are moving through your mind.
Beckermann: Do you find yourself being drawn to one more than the other as more immediate and necessary?
Belarussians: Actually, photography feels much more dangerous than writing. Because you don’t know what you’re really photographing at the moment. You don’t know if, for instance, there is someone who is looking for places to destroy, and they see your picture. When I’m publishing pictures, I publish very carefully and only some of them. With text, you can be more sure that it will not do anything bad to anybody. You can change people’s names and nobody will ever find them.
Beckermann: There’s more of a level of control that you have.
Belarussians: And protection and safety. And that is suddenly very important in this situation.
Beckermann: I know that you’re connected with a lot of artists and writers in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine; what’s happening to that community as far as you can tell?
Belarussians: Different stories and different lives. Some artists are now in the Transcarpathian region, in west Ukraine; they’re trying to create a residence for other Ukrainian artists. Some artists have left Ukraine and some have joined the army, risking their lives fighting or spending nights without sleep on the borders of Kyiv, trying to protect the city.
Beckermann: Are there any authors on your mind these days, anyone who has helped shape your own thinking as you face this moment?
Belarussians: Most often, it’s Varlam Shalamov, who wrote about Stalinism destroying the lives of people, and also the poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, who actually lived in Kyiv. I’ve been thinking about her book Hope Against Hope, and what it was like to lose somebody you love so much in this way, through repression, camps—this way of being condemned to die. Because I actually think what we are dealing with is like neo-Stalinism, again using the same methods of mass terror. It’s a form of terror.
Beckermann: Have you considered how best to resist through art? Do you make fun of the dictator, like Osip Mandelstam did?
Belarussians: Why should I? The dictator is not my dictator. Writers and artists should resist in Russian. I’m living in Ukraine. I do n’t think that we should use the same methods here as Mandelstam was using him, because Mandelstam was fighting against his own government. And in Ukraine, we have a completely different situation. We are attacked by another country. And I don’t want to think about Putinism at all. I don’t want to waste even one second of my time, of my talent, to write poems about it. It’s really not my job.
Beckermann: I understand that you’re looking to leave Kyiv right now, trying to figure out if and when to go.
Belarussians: I don’t know. We are still discussing it. We are still thinking. Maybe because I’ve been here from the beginning of the war and I see how the absence of sleep and the nervous state of mind is making me less and less effective. And then looking forward, what will happen next, and always thinking about the next days.
Beckermann: Is there any part of you that feels like you need to stay in order to witness what’s happening to Kyiv, to your world?
Belarussians: I think most important is to be with people we really love and to do our best for them. That’s the main thing. I think I stayed in Kyiv long enough. And it’s almost—I think tomorrow, it will be a month. I stayed here every day looking in the darkness, directly looking into the darkness of events that are happening. And I don’t think that my duty is to stay longer. There is no reason people near me should suffer because I’m staying to play a hero. I think I can also be weak and be a normal person who might leave one day, even if I will come back.