(Kate Tsurkan’s article appeared in the Lyiv Independent, 12/30; Photo: LVIV, UKRAINE – NOVEMBER 1: Graves of Ukrainian soldiers during the memorial day at the Lychakiv military cemetery on November 1, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. On November 1, Ukrainians mark the memorial day. The memory of fallen soldiers was honored at the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. People leave flowers and candles on the graves. (Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images; Below: Watch the play, produced at Molodyi Teatr London.)
A historian by profession who has studied war for over a decade, Olesya Khromeychuk found her research spilling over into real life when her older brother Volodymyr was killed in 2017 near Popasna in Luhansk Oblast, nearly two years into his military service.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, which began in 2014, had mostly disappeared from international headlines by then, and “most Western Europeans did not even remember that there was a war raging in Eastern Europe.”
However, for the majority of Ukrainians, terms such as shelling, bombing, captivity, casualty, and war crimes have become more than just words in history books. These terms have increasingly encapsulated their reality over the past decade.
“The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister,” Khromeychuk’s memoir, which was written mostly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, is a reflection not only on the loss of a family member.
The book’s core delves into a profoundly personal experience of loss during the war in Ukraine. However, thanks to Khromeychuk’s strength, openness, and vulnerability, it also serves as a compass for navigating grief within an ever more conflict-ridden world.
The exact number of Ukrainian soldiers that have been killed since Russia launched its all-out war is unknown, but nearly every cemetery in the country has a section dedicated to the soldiers who have given their lives to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression.
As the prospect of a long-term war drags on, and more people are called up to serve on the front line, Ukraine is faced with questions of how, as a society, to mourn and commemorate the fallen.
Grieving the loss of a loved one is typically a personal journey. The lives of those who outlive them become divided into periods of “before” and “after” their death and the impact of this loss is not necessarily something that one wishes to divulge to just anyone.
However, when a life is taken during a war, loss inevitably transcends the personal realm. It becomes a collective grief felt by the nation and requires navigating sometimes surreal experiences accompanying such a tragedy. As Khromeychuk describes it, “there is nothing natural, nothing normal about death in a war.”
A poignant example of this in the memoir is how the public obituaries written for her brother deviated from who he really was. “If reality didn’t make it into the obituaries, then what does?” she wonders.
Given his previous military experience, Volodymyr Pavliv didn’t wait to be summoned for service. He volunteered to fight in the Donbas because he saw the Russian invasion as “a European war that just happened to start in Eastern Ukraine,” as he told his sister before his death.
Pavliv had been residing in the Netherlands beforehand, working as a laborer. After his death, the Ukrainian media portrayed him as a man who had given up his privileged life in the West to return and defend his homeland, mythologizing his decision. And yet, as Khromeychuk points out, the life of Ukrainian migrant workers is often anything but privileged.
Khromeychuk also writes about how she dealt with the layers of bureaucracy leading up to her brother’s funeral by writing down each task in the kind of small notepad she’d normally take with her on a research trip. Instead of conducting trips to archives or interviews, her tasks included visiting the morgue and picking a restaurant for the wake after the funeral service.
On the day of the funeral in Lviv, the church was filled not only with Pavliv’s loved ones but also with soldiers and members of the public. Khromeychuk and her family could not yet mourn him privately, something that was underscored by the presence of the media.
“They seemed to be everywhere: filming, taking photos. Part of me felt sorry for them: how do you find a good angle and decent light, in order to get good footage of a funeral in a gloomy old church?” she writes.
“But mostly I felt annoyed. With their lights and cameras, they were turning one of the most intimate moments–a final farewell–into something that resembled a theater show. I knew it was their job, but the last thing my family and I needed was to be filmed as we were being torn to pieces by grief.”
At the cemetery, the defiant wartime slogan “Heroes never die!” echoed among the crowd. While Khromeychuk acknowledges the sincerity and meaningfulness of the sentiment behind this powerful phrase, she confesses having dreaded that moment, feeling an overwhelming urge to shout: “Stop! He is dead! They’re about to put him in a grave!”