In a Moscow apartment that has been without hot water for days, a mother watches the Olympic opening ceremony with her husband and son. Here’s the best bit, the Parade of Nations – here comes Slovakia! Here comes Spain! Here come our guys, here comes Russia! The family cheers, and when it’s Ukraine’s turn, her son asks why their flag has such funny colours. It’s an unfortunate question to ask, but Ukraine was bound to come up eventually, so she is not so much surprised as resigned. It’s the feeling she gets when an electricity bill arrives at the end of winter.
Her husband sighs, peels himself off the couch, and shuffles towards the kitchen. A distant click of a lighter underlines his disapproval. She’d lost the accent years ago, traded a navy passport for a burgundy one, took his surname with its respectable suffix. What else does he want?
The mother softly explains that the Ukrainian flag looks like the countryside. The yellow is a wheat field; the blue is a clear sky.
But the mother is lying. The blue is water that a girl on Maidan pours over her boyfriend’s eyes while he screams and she bawls and the pepper spray refuses to wash away. And the yellow might be a wheat field, but it’s a field seeded with blood, strewn with skeletons of Ivan and Fritz and Mykola. That’s the field of Nikolai Gogol, of Taras Bulba and Vakula the Smith. It’s a field of heroes. Before there was an us and a them, they were everyone’s heroes, but now they’ve chosen sides, too. The war is a silent dinner table.
The young woman never had a brother, but Seryoga … Seryoga was just as close. Their mothers met while walking prams. In childhood, when grocery store queues spanned half the neighbourhood, their families would pool the meagre contents of their cupboards together in cramped kitchens. As youths, they split the cost of a new seven-stringed guitar, took turns having it each week, the schedule firm like a handshake.
Now the young woman disembarks from a bus. The sun hasn’t risen yet, and her breath swirls into the sky like cigarette smoke while she walks through bouquets of traffic lights, past cardboard-coloured high-rises, and beneath the cemetery gates. When she emerges, the sun is rising, and, for a moment, so is she. Her soul is undone, it ascends into the autumn air and soars past the birches and the onion-dome cathedrals and the cars on the MKAD that go in circles like thoughts. And then she is back in the world, and everything is the same, and he’s still gone. The guitar sleeps in her bedroom, silent beneath a pile of old clothes. The war is an unstrummed chord.
There’s a young man whose wife had been married before. He spotted a photo of a handsome officer in her wallet, when they first started courting. The young man broached the subject eventually, and the photo disappeared, but he can still picture it perfectly.
Her first husband remains frozen in sepia. His pilot’s cap and straight-toothed smile will never vanish, and he will stand beside that helicopter forever. The young man is only human – slammed doors and broken plates won’t let him forget that – but that first husband? He is infallible.
The young man buys his new wife a fur coat and a 2004 Lexus. The young man will never don a pilot’s cap, because when the Military Commissariat comes knocking, his father is prepared with bulging envelopes and sympathetic doctors. Salvation is a flat-foot diagnosis. And the young man might not be the smartest in his graduating class, but he’s sprawled on the hood of a new car in his VKontakte profile picture, while the best and brightest of his cohort sit atop a half-track in the Donbass. The war is a fresh opportunity.
A man lives in a Slovyansk apartment that has been without gas for weeks. It does not matter what nationality he is. When the bombing begins, he starts a blog.
His first post talks of sucking down cigarettes beneath the kitchen bench while shells whistle outside his window. Of how every loud noise sends him scuttling to the tile floor. Of how a pack of Kozak never leaves his shirt pocket. He has not mentioned which side he belongs to, so in the comment section, both sides deem him either traitor or coward. Eventually, the blog posts cease. There is one comment asking if he is all right. His readers have to scroll a long way down to see it.
He is all right. He will move to America, learn English, and find a job programming computers. One day he’ll play Risk with his new friends, and someone will innocently quote an American TV show, and right in front of everyone the man will burst into tears while his throat itches with phantom nicotine. The war is a knowing nod.
The Olympic opening ceremony has finished. While mother and father are in the kitchen, the boy discovers an old book behind the family bookshelf. It’s a book for kids. It’s got a big red star on the cover, and it’s from the time when the country was both the same and different (why did they change the name, the boy wonders? Why did they change the flag?). The first story is about someone called Uncle Lenin, who finds a bird with a broken wing while strolling in the woods, and tenderly nurses it back to health.
‘Where is Uncle Lenin?’ he asks mother when she emerges. He’s heard of Uncle Lenin but he’s not sure where he went.
The book talks about friendship and optimism and helping one another. The book says we should work hard to make life better for everyone in the country.
The war is a bird with a broken wing.
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