Electronic notes of Elena Lavrova, a resident of besieged Gorlovka, which in their tone are remarkably similar to diaries from the Siege of Leningrad.
«…Every evening, a group of believers walks around the perimeter of our neighbourhood with icons and prayers. Local level defence. It’s touching… Today… I suddenly wanted to cry. Had to suppress this stupid desire, because it was pointless and unproductive. The desire to cry won’t make water appear in the house, nor make food for the cats or for me available in the shops. You can only grit your teeth and endure… …When the Ukrainian Army’s shells smashed the water system, the whole Stroitel borough went to the springs with large plastic bottles. The closest to my house—three kilometers each way. Two times a day. Total twelve km. Six of them carrying a heavy load…»
Those lines are from the Facebook pages of Elena Lavrova, an ordinary resident of Gorlovka. For the past few months she has been telling the news to almost a thousand subscribers. Cruel, tragic, but not lacking in irony and an undercurrent of optimism. There would not seem to be any place for the latter in the city, which, since August, with brief intervals during the truce, has been shelled almost daily. But Elena Leonidovna has an amazing faith in the best. Her soul is broad by the standards of today’s cynical times. For several years she has been collecting and nursing abandoned cats. Today, in her home, which stands almost on the front-line, there are more than thirty animals. In recent months, they were joined by ‘abandonnés’ of the war.
Since August, the Stroitel district has been haunted by Ukrainian artillery. Here, every block of flats has been hit. With dozens of strikes… All the bus stops and shops have been smashed by shelling. Still, on the phone, Elena Lavrova advised us to hide the car in the courtyard, put it somewhere near the wall and be prepared for the fact that firing could start at any moment.
A mongrel, Chara, meets us in the corridor, happily waving her tail. Underfoot there are litter-trays for cats. Whiskered muzzles look at us quizzically from everywhere—from the kitchen, from a mezzanine, a window sill, from pillows and ottomans. Nevertheless, the house is surprisingly clean and tidy. A strapping, powerful cat is laying down on the kitchen window sill, guarding the stove. The window itself, taped crosswise, as in besieged Leningrad, was punctured by shrapnel three days ago. The cats meet us cautiously, but behave well towards us, and, by the end of the interview, there are three cats sat on each “KP” correspondent. They have been carefully and silently listening to our conversation. Incidentally, the main sphere of Elena Leonidovna’s activity is far from the animal world. She is a linguist, a lecturer at the Gorlovka language institute. The woman sits at the desk with a shut laptop. From the morning there has been no electricity, and her Facebook was temporarily not updated. The students, whom Elena Leonidovna now teaches remotely, have an unexpected ‘recess.’
“Our foreign languages institute split into two parts,” Elena Lavrova tells us. “Our former rector did his best to transfer the college to Artemovsk. Some of the lecturers declared: ‘We’re not going anywhere, we’re staying here.’ Others decided to go to the Ukrainians. The institute split into two roughly equal halves. Both of them immediately began to hate each other though they were people from the same place.”
“Did you have any opportunity to leave for Russia?”
“Plenty. I was invited by strangers and by my grandson. He lives in Moscow; Anton, a journalist too, by the way. He called three days ago saying that there is a man who could take me away. But… how do I abandon them [the cats -ed.]? I cannot leave them.”
«There are no pensions or salaries, but bills for electricity and rent etc. are already coming.
A small part of the population (I, for example) is in merry and ironic disbelief.
The majority of the population are simply puzzled. But there are those who are furious…
…Now and again I go over the fate of the other Novorossiyans, particularly on days and nights of shelling, and I think, what would I do if my house was destroyed, if I was deprived of my favourite books, my adorable cats?
Would I weep and wring my hands? – No!
Would I escape to my beloved Russia, my Motherland? – No!
Would I ask to be placed in the poorhouse? – No!
Would I commit suicide? – No!
I would go to the Militia and ask for weapons that I could hold in my hands. If they did not give it to me I would peel potatoes for them. And I would read them short lectures on history, culture and world literature…»
“How do they perceive the war?” We nod towards the cats, who have all gathered around us.
“The dog is afraid, of course. The cats also cling to the floor, they are afraid too. You cannot imagine what was going on here in the summer. People left, abandoned their apartments; packs of dogs, dozens of them, were running around.”
“Have many people left?”
“I think a third. Many stayed. I have colleagues who now live in the basement, even with children. They left in the summer, but then came back. My strength is, to be honest, at an end. Strength of nerve. When they shell, we hide with the dog and the neighbours on the stairs. I leave the cats here to their fate. We sit on the stairs, tell each other jokes, distract each other… But during the last shelling, the most horrific one, people fell silent. I was silent too, though I usually keep others going. My strength had gone.”
«…What do you think, which direction does an experienced person run when shelling begins? That’s right! To the bathroom—to fill the tub with water. Then he runs to the kitchen—to finish washing the dishes. Along the way, he plugs in a torch and a phone to recharge them.
Only then does he begin to think about whether to run out onto the landing. Or, he can wait a little…
…In our city, most vendors in shops and markets never say “hrivna”, always “ruble”…»
“Has it become easier since Uglegorsk was taken?” Outside something booms loudly. Far away.
“Not in the least! It was a nightmare; I didn’t leave my home all week. I pray they finally negotiate a deal today (we met on the day that Merkel and Hollande visited Moscow). But they want to corral us back into Ukraine. How could this be after what they did to us? I can’t imagine. People loathe Ukraine. There probably are some Ukrainians who sympathize with us, but can’t speak about it publicly. The social schism is fundamental.”
“Were there preconditions for it before the war?”
“Not as such, no, we didn’t have any. The so-called “fifth column” unfortunately still exists in the Donbass. Kiev has placed us in very difficult conditions. How can we live without pensions, without wages? Our pensioners were forced to go to Artemovsk and Kramatorsk to renew their documents there…”
“Did you go?”
“Of course, how else could I live and feed this mob? I have to go there and queue in the cold for three hours. Then there’s checking, then you have to go there under fire. Then they require a registration that you supposedly live in Artemovsk. Now they require ATO zone passes. All done to complicate, to strangle, to destroy…
A deliberate policy against the elderly, women and children. Our children—’Kolorad larvae.’”
«…I managed to get a piece of fish. I wanted it so much! I fried it and went to log on to FB, anticipating dinner in about 15 minutes. A terrible roar sounded in the kitchen. I thought that a shell had struck and my legs were paralysed with fear. When I came to myself I jumped into the kitchen. The frying pan was on the floor and already licked clean. No fish! The cats slurp and growl in a corner. Well, are they not terrorists?!
…As one of my student said: lecturers and students are choosing between Ukraine and the DPR. That is the main choice. And those who chose Ukraine tacitly agreed with the crimes that it committed in the territory of the DPR…»
“How were you treated on ‘the other side’ when you went to reregister?”
“Normally: they’re our people, it’s the Donbass. My students, those who went to the other side, are well aware that things can change. Our Army will advance, they will be with us. This is the Donbass, they are Russian people. Descendants of those who civilised “Wild Field”. I have lived here twenty years and never heard the Ukrainian language. I remember, I was blamed for not teaching ‘Mova’ [Ukrainian -ed.]. Who am I going to communicate with with this Mova? It’s enough that I know English, French and German. But such was the policy of the authorities—to replace Russian with Ukrainian. Why was Yanukovych elected? Because he had promised to make Russian the state language in the Donbass. There was no other reason to vote for him.”
“And he did nothing…”
“I think he couldn’t. There was all that seething around him in Kiev.”
«…Some people think politics does not concern them. This is wrong as politics has never trifled. It holds us all—without exception—by the throat…
…It would be nice, waking up in the morning and sipping your coffee, rejoicing that a bomb has not hit your house, a shell has not flown in your apartment into, that you are alive and well and not injured. It is impossible to rejoice! Because someone’s house was destroyed, and a shell flew into someone’s apartment, and someone is no longer alive, and someone was injured. And all these someones—Donbassians…»
“Does humanitarian aid reach you? Do you personally get anything? Are you able to get anything?”
“I saw a gigantic queue… but there was no money at the time. I decided that I’d rather shoot myself than be killed in that crowd. But I did get humanitarian aid from friends, acquaintances or just from sympathetic readers.
A week ago there was one day when Gorlovka was not shelled and we were amazed—so many people were in the city! Why hadn’t they left?
People think: ‘This is my home, where will I run away from it?’ I also think like this, though I was born in Russia and lived there for half my life. There are also ideological considerations. There are many people over here who survived the Great Patriotic War. They make comparisons. They say that this war is worse because people are shooting their own. We all have Ukrainian passports!”
«…Here I go again! I am alive! Stroitel was battered terribly these last two days. No gas, no electricity, no telephone, no internet, no water. Not a single house intact. But as soon as the shelling stops, hammering is heard everywhere. People immediately begin repairing the damage.
I removed the shards of glass from the balcony, hammered in place dislocated window frames, nailed the curtains, to partially protect the balcony from the weather. It’s nothing, we’ll get through!»
“How did you start collecting the animals?”
“First there was one cat, then another one… Because of leap years. People here are superstitious and believe that in those years you can’t drown kittens. They just abandoned them. I collected them. Each cat has its own destiny, sometimes very grave. Many died, some from old age, some simply could not bear it.”
“Were many animals abandoned during the war?”
“Dogs were running around in their dozens, cats too. People left in panic. This is Chara, somebody abandoned her to me. I came out in the morning to fetch water from a spring about three kilometres away… She was lying on the porch. Tail like a rope, ears like a helicopter… I was born three days after the Victory Day parade. So, me—a child of that war; and Chara—a child of this war.
«…Taking a walk with Chara in the morning, I found an unexploded shell on the lawn, as long as my fingertip to my elbow and as thick as my wrist. I stood over it and wondered what to do. Children or teenagers could find it. The trouble could be not for a long! I picked it up and took this crap to the checkpoint. I went and thought, what if it suddenly exploded? But it could not be left where it was! I came to the guys and gave it to them.
I asked them:
“Could it explode?”
They answered, smiling:
“Yes, it could. You could lose your hands for sure.”
…The walk with Chara didn’t happen today. In the morning they began firing intermittently. Continued throughout the day. Chara brought her leash. How to explain to the dog that walks are dangerous…?
…Half an hour ago a shell fell near my house. Euro-windows stood only because the kitchen already has blast-holes from the previous strike and I do not lock the balcony door. It swung from the blast and I was thrown on the couch. Soft landing. On Chara…»