“We Thought We Were Living in an Enlightened Age”: Talking with Artem Chapeye

“Many people who call themselves very patriotic, even nationalist, leave [Ukraine], while the people who are actually protecting it are the common people.”

She and I converged on a sullen love for our country,” begins “The Ukraine,” a short story by Artem Chapeye. “A hate-love, some might say. A love with a dash of masochism, I used to say. A love in defiance of pain, she used to say.” As a Ukrainian American who has been traveling to Ukraine regularly for twenty years, I immediately recognized the affection and ambivalence in the writer’s words.

Over his fifteen-year career, Chapeye has become one of the foremost chroniclers of Ukraine’s complexities, documenting and critiquing his homeland’s trajectory amid neoliberalism, political upheaval, and changing social norms. The subjects of his nine books have ranged from migration to gender to capitalism to class to war. He is particularly concerned with the marginal or vulnerable—his Dyvni Lyudy (Strange People) may be the only novel written purely in surzhyk, an informal mix of Ukrainian and Russian that Ukrainians tend to view as unrefined and unworthy of literary representation.

Like so much in Ukraine, Chapeye’s work has been upended: when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, he evacuated his family from Kyiv and, despite previously identifying as a pacifist, voluntarily enlisted in the army.

Ironically, the war has brought Chapeye, along with other Ukrainian writers and artists, unprecedented attention in the West. “The Ukraine” was published in the New Yorker, and Seven Stories Press will release the collection it headlines in January 2024 (also called The Ukraine), the first of his books to be translated into English. In May, Chapeye received rare permission from Ukrainian military command to leave the country to speak at the PEN Global Voices Festival in New York City. He appeared on a panel alongside another Ukrainian writer and soldier, Artem Chekh, and Chekh’s wife, the filmmaker and writer Iryna Tsilyk.

Their participation attracted wider attention when it became known that the Ukrainians had voiced opposition to the participation of Russians on a different panel at the festival. Due to their concerns, the Russian panel was taken off the festival’s slate. The Russian American writer Masha Gessen, who was scheduled to participate in the panel, resigned from the board of PEN America as a result, citing free speech concerns.

Gessen’s decision raised all kinds of worthy questions—about the tension between a commitment to free speech and solidarity with the oppressed, about corrective acts by representatives of colonial power.

To learn how Chapeye viewed the scandal and his life as a writer turned soldier, I arranged a WhatsApp video call with him in early June. We spoke while he was guarding a train station in a small town in Ukraine.

Megan Buskey (MB): You came of age in western Ukraine in the 1990s, a time when poverty was rife, Ukrainian society was being restructured at every level, and millions of people were leaving the country for what was seen as a better life abroad. How did you decide to become a writer amid these dynamics?


Artem Chapeye (AC): As a young person, I had conflicting views of what should I do. I lived in the US on and off in 2006 and 2007, mostly in New Orleans. It was after Hurricane Katrina, so I volunteered with a radical relief organization founded by ex–Black Panthers. It’s a long story, but I was distracted by different things, let’s say [laughs]. So I didn’t start writing until I was 26. [Pauses as train rumbles by.]

I was very influenced by Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most important author. I was most impressed by how he lived. After having spent 10 years in exile and being forced to be a soldier of the Russian Empire, he didn’t resign himself to imperialism. He returned an even more bitter anti-imperialist than he was before. He was a great early example.


MB: You grew up speaking Ukrainian as your native language, presumably? Has the language landscape changed since your youth?


AC: Yes and yes. When I first came to Kyiv from western Ukraine, the Ukrainian language was considered the language of the uneducated. It had very little prestige except in a few artistic circles. Now, gradually, the Ukrainian language is more and more prestigious. Lots of people have started speaking Ukrainian. It’s not just the language of the academics and the peasants.

Of course, the Russian invasion of 2022 has made many switch to Ukrainian. Before, for me, switching to Russian was a matter of politeness. Now, though I’m not a nationalist, or even very patriotic, while I will switch to Russian with people from Armenia or Georgia because it’s easier, with Ukrainians, I won’t.

MB: Were you surprised that Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?


AC: Like many people, I didn’t believe an invasion was possible. We thought we were living in an enlightened age. Europe in the 21st century. I thought that things like invasions belonged to a different time.

Still, I was afraid. I even proposed to my wife that we bring our kids to the west of the country. She replied that we didn’t know when an attack would happen and we cannot move our kids indefinitely. For that reason, the invasion found us in the capital. At 4 a.m., we woke up to bombs. At once, we realized, this is it. That’s what my wife said. This is it.

We were lucky that we had good friends who agreed to help bring us out of the city. We didn’t have a car of our own. The trains were too crowded. Several of the towns we passed through were later bombed. That was the day that I started to think about what to do next.


MB: I know you were also involved in helping your brother. What happened to him?


AC: You have to realize that stories like this happened a million times.

My brother has two very small kids. When the invasion started, he and his family made the mistake of going to his wife’s village, which is north of Kyiv. I presumed—they presumed—that the fighting would be between the armies. We thought, well, they are civilians. They have two kids. Nothing would happen to them.

Russia occupied their village. Then we learned about what was happening to civilians in places like Bucha. It became very scary. I was on duty in the army—it was my third or fourth week—and we learned from an Austrian analyst that, based on open-source intelligence, one of the roads near the village was being repelled by the Ukrainian army. People—civilians who were willing to risk their lives—were volunteering to get other civilians out. After a day, we were able to coordinate so that they reached my brother and his family. Once I learned that he was on the bus with the volunteers, I was smoking one cigarette after another. We didn’t know whether they would make it out or not. We had already heard about the Russians killing people who were being evacuated. Kids. They got to Kyiv, luckily. The locals know the territory better than the invaders. Only when they were safe back in Kyiv did I feel relief.

In theory, I am very sympathetic to the pacificism of Tolstoy and Gandhi. But that’s theory. Theory is barren sometimes.


MB: You identified as a pacifist before the start of the full-scale invasion. You even translated Gandhi into Ukrainian. Why did you become a soldier?


AC: I have always been on the left. Not so much intellectually, but instinctively. My grandfather was like this. He was a very religious person. He empathized with the left on religious grounds. I do so on ethical grounds. I just sympathize on an emotional level with people who aren’t privileged.

From the first day of the war, I already started to realize that in this war, as in most wars, the burden would be on the shoulders of the people who were not privileged. Not necessarily the poor, but people from small towns and villages.

On the first day of the war, we had lunch with the parents of the people we were driving with, people I didn’t know. The father turned out to be embodiment of the real Ukraine, which I’ve written about.


MB: How so?


AC: He had a gold tooth, for example. In Ukraine, that’s a sign that he’s not very sophisticated. Anyway, I liked him a lot, and by the end of the day, he was already conscripted into the army. For me, then, the war posed the choice of whether you live up to your emotional credo or whether you are a traitor—first of all, to yourself.

I’m a big fan of George Orwell, and the main scene for me in 1984 is when Winston Smith is threatened with rats and he starts yelling, “Don’t do it to me, do it to Julia!” This felt like a similar choice. Would I break down and escape and leave the burden on the shoulders of others? Or would I be ready to also take part of the burden myself?

In theory, I am very sympathetic to the pacificism of Tolstoy and Gandhi. But that’s theory. Theory is barren sometimes. I googled to find out what Mahatma Gandhi did during World War II. He was just writing letters to Hitler. You can write as many letters to Putin as you want right now but, unfortunately, it’s not the best way to defeat him. Unfortunately, it’s not people like Gandhi who defeated Hitler. I respect those methods a lot, but they don’t work in all conditions.


MB: What do you do now in the army?


AC: I was very lucky. I was put in the military police. It’s not like in the movies. You don’t have to be very trained or anything. We’re guarding places. Manning checkpoints. Looking after the general order. We’re scattered all over the country. I can’t be very specific, but we do what police do in all countries.


MB: You’re a very involved dad. You even wrote a book, Tato Na Dekreti (Dad on Maternity Leave), about being the primary caretaker of your two children while your wife worked, an uncommon arrangement in Ukraine. What has it been like being separated from your children? How are they and your wife faring?


AC: Ukraine is still a rather patriarchal society. I wrote that book as social propaganda [laughs]. If it were like, Sweden, such an arrangement would be normal. But yes, before the war, I used to be very involved. For me, the separation from my family was the hardest part of my army service and still is.

About a month and a half after the war started, my son had his tenth birthday. I still was not used to the separation, and I was very depressed the whole day. I took a photo for him with a cake on which I wrote, “I love you,” and I couldn’t even smile for the photo. I couldn’t force myself to smile.


MB: Your family is abroad?


AC: My wife and kids, like millions of others, have become refugees. At the moment, they’re in western Europe, but life there is also hard and I think they’re going to come back. Even though the shelling of Kyiv has resumed, we think it’s too hard to be separated. They want to come back so they are home. There’s more risk but otherwise you’re suffering every day. And if they’re home, at least we can see one another once a month, maybe.

I’m luckier than many of the soldiers because at least I’ve seen my kids four times since the war started a year and a half ago. My good friend was in Mariupol and he and his family were shelled and his son was seriously wounded. They thought he would die. They were evacuated—it’s a very long story—and his child was stabilized. He was transported to Poland and then to the United States, where he’s starting to learn to walk anew. This friend hasn’t seen his family in more than a year.

MB: As a condition of participating in the PEN Global Voices Festival, you and your fellow Ukrainian panelists said that no Russians should be allowed to participate in the festival. Can you explain why you took this position?


AC: Mostly because Artem Chekh and I are serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It would look very weird if the leadership of our country denies contact and negotiations with Russians, and two people—a private and a sergeant—are seen as being involved in an exchange with them. This is just very wrong from a military point of view. For us, it wasn’t a matter of disliking somebody or even a matter of personal choice or principle. That’s just how it had be. I tried to use the metaphor of chess to explain our position. In chess, if you’re a pawn, you can only take a certain set of predetermined steps. You can’t go against the rules.


MB: In the army, you forfeit some of your rights as an individual.


AC: You are still allowed to voice opinions. It’s not like you’re denied a voice. But of course, there are some things you can’t do. For example, I can’t go home. If I go home, I’m a deserter.

After this scandal unexpectedly emerged, I tried to explain that it wouldn’t mean anything bad for me personally. I’m just a private soldier. But okay, just hypothetically, my commander could be reprimanded by his general. He could be told: You’re allowing your soldier out of the country, and there he’s dealing with the enemy? Something like that.

Also, you feel obligated to many people. People from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense. Scores of people were involved in getting permission for me to leave Ukraine. You feel morally responsible for these people, that they don’t get reprimanded or regret supporting me.


MB: Some might argue that this position is inconsistent with Ukraine’s struggle because it clashes with the values Ukraine is implicitly fighting to protect through its continued existence as a sovereign, liberal democracy—political and social equality, for example, or freedom of expression. How do you respond to this?


AC: Ukrainians don’t mind that the Russian opposition is participating in any panel in the United States or in any other country. It’s just that we can’t be in the same festival. We didn’t even propose that we cancel our panel or they cancel their panel. I tried to explain our position using the language I’m using now. Then the decision was made, as I understood in the moment, by the Russians themselves to cancel their panel. I felt grateful that they were very tactful about it. But I understand that in the United States this decision was seen differently—freedom of speech and nondiscrimination are very noble principles, of course. As I see it, it was a decision by the Russians to avoid a scandal, but it caused a scandal among the Americans because it didn’t seem to go along with the values that most American liberals hold.

The most interesting and important thing for me was that one of the Russian participants was discouraged by the scandal.


MB: In what sense?


AC: Anna Nemzer, one of the Russian participants, gave an interview to Russian opposition media where she said more or less what I’m saying. [In an interview with TV Rain, Nemzer expressed dismay at being portrayed as the main victim in the scandal when people were being killed, and said, “I have a very simple position—if the Ukrainians don’t want to see me there, I won’t be there.”] Some American media made her into a victim, which she didn’t feel herself to be. It’s very similar to pacifism. There are certain principles that are very noble but you realize that there are circumstances where you have to decide on a case-by-case basis.


MB: The Russian American writer Masha Gessen resigned from the board of PEN America because of the cancellation of the Russian panel, which they were slated to participate in. While they stated that they empathized with the Ukrainian position, they also said that PEN America had been “blackmailed” into canceling the Russian panel. The Atlantic article reporting their decision described the Ukrainians as “cruel” for refusing to participate alongside the Russians. Do you want to comment on this language?


AC: To say “blackmail” and “cruel” was very emotional and wrong. But I also empathize with Gessen’s position because I realize they were acting, first of all, as an American, and they were acting out of, as they explained, the shame that they had to go through this with their Russian friends.

It seems like nobody was to blame. I don’t blame Masha Gessen for what they did. It seems like an irreconcilable ethical situation where different people did what they had to do. At the time, I felt that PEN America dealt with the situation very tactfully. But Masha Gessen didn’t feel that way.

MB: Russia’s invasion has led to countless deaths of young Ukrainians—civilians, soldiers, and erstwhile civilians who left their normal lives to become soldiers. I read your Facebook posts, for example, about your friend Evheny Osievsky, a brilliant 29-year-old anthropologist turned soldier who was killed in May near Bakhmut.

How do these losses resonate for you? Does it change what you see as your purpose?


AC: It’s painful, of course. That’s how it feels. You always want to think this war won’t touch your friends or relatives. But then it does.

I knew Evheny Osievsky for two or three years. I first learned about him as a talented author. He was also an academic and very funny. We had been messaging a lot. Later, I realized the last message I wrote to Evheny, I sent when he had already been dead for two or three days. I only found out a few days after that. It’s very painful.

There’s also how war changes you. There are the dialectics of any war—you feel, okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to quit. Then you realize you cannot because of what you’ve lost. Because you’d be ashamed of yourself. And that’s sad. And I think the same dynamics work for the enemy, the Russians. The more of them who are killed, the more they feel that they can’t quit. [Pauses as a train rumbles by.]

Sorry, I couldn’t go to any other place to talk because I’m not allowed to leave.


MB: The writer and soldier Artem Chekh, who was on the PEN panel with you, has written about accepting the possibility of his own death in battle. Indeed, less than two weeks after returning from New York City, he narrowly escaped getting killed near Bakhmut. How has your thinking about your mortality changed since you joined the army?


AC: What I remember most about what Artem Chekh wrote was how the feeling of “silent terror” has disappeared. I agree. The first week or so, I felt dumb and numb with terror because my whole life had just been shattered. Now, I want to survive. I do everything I can to survive. But I live with the possibility of being killed. It’s very paradoxical, but this awareness makes life more acute. You feel the beauty of nature more. Right now, there’s a stray dog lying next to me. He just comes because we feed him. I feel very grateful for these moments.

I cannot say that, like Chekh, I accept the possibility of my death. I still hope that it won’t touch me. But, as I said, I also thought that it wouldn’t touch any of my friends, until Evheny died.

I don’t feel brave at all. I sometimes think that maybe, to quote Tom Waits, “I’m the one with the gun most likely to run.” I don’t know.

I’ve been reading on Wikipedia about this book by Epictetus, the ancient Greek Roman Stoic philosopher. You tend to come to books at hard times like this, when unpleasant things are happening outside of your control. There are many stoics who used to be emperors, like Marcus Aurelius, or millionaires like Seneca. But Epictetus was a bit more credible to me. He had a limp—one of his legs had been broken—and he was born a slave. He knew more about what living in a difficult situation is. I’ve gotten some tranquility from him.


MB: In your story “The Ukraine,” you give the reader many moving images of what you term a “Ukrainian Dasein,” or the real Ukraine: a dilapidated mosaic of a Ukrainian folk woman who’s missing an eye, a chubby mother and daughter with “a deep beet-colored flush on their cheeks,” an abandoned Pioneer camp outside of Mariupol with a view of an icy Sea of Azov. From what you see of a Ukraine under invasion, what embodies “the Ukraine” today?


AC: Right now, maybe I’m a bit bitter, but I feel that it is this real Ukraine that is protecting Ukraine. I’ve witnessed many people who call themselves very patriotic, even nationalist, leave the country, while the people who are actually protecting it are the common people, the people who are not shown in the official, glorifying propaganda. Controversial people. Some of them are not liberal. Some of them may be anti-Semitic or anti-LGBT. These common people are serving because—well, sometimes they have to. They are not privileged. Sometimes they feel they must because they owe it to themselves to not feel like a victim. They feel they owe it to their families. For simple reasons, basically. Not for reasons like defending the world or defending democracy.

Recently, I was at a checkpoint with two other soldiers who were, well, not really peasants but people from very small towns. They were in their forties, fifties. Since we were not on the front line, there was an agriculture market nearby. They heard there were these saplings being sold, sazhentsi, which you have to plant. In their villages and towns, these saplings aren’t sold and so they asked me to take one of their shifts so that they could go to that market to look for these young trees. For me, this was very symbolic. It made me think, as Voltaire said, “you have to take care of your garden.” Regardless of the war. For me, this is part of the real Ukraine: these average, middle-aged soldiers, and how the thing that made them the happiest was to send these young trees to their relatives so they could plant them in their gardens.

I really loved them in that moment. I felt this unconditional love. icon

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. Featured image: Artem Chapeye.