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In this passage Anton finds himself battling against his former friend Nikolai who has kept faith with his country and joined Ukraine's legendary Donbas Battalion
Two people moved carefully through the dense undergrowth of the tree plantation. Explosions rumbled in the distance and a machine gun barked in short bursts, akin to like a chained dog. The scorched carcass of an A destroyed armoured vehicle sprawled like a liked a dragon exhaling fumes. The poplars lining the road vainly tried to shield themselves from the smoke with their leaves. The dark ashes ascended, splintering the rays from an oppressively bright sun, which, now at its zenith, witnessed the battle.
“Dad, what will we do?” asked the younger soldier, with a St. George’s Ribbon fastened to the sleeve of his jacket, askedto his companionolder partner.
They were both lying in the greenery. The battle was almost over and their unit had fallen into an ambush by the ‘Ukies’. Almost all had died and some had fled. The commander had been slain and all their armoured vehicles were crippled. The ‘Dad’, a wiry man with big hands, hugged his AK rifle and tensed in the tangled vegetation. At that moment he wanted to say, Son, this is the end, but something bustled behind them. They both jolted and the younger man childishly squeezed the grenade in his hand. A gruff voice said, “Lads, it’s me, Anton, call sign, Artist.”
After another ten seconds the branches parted and the two militiamen lying in the clearing were joined by a third. Anton’s camouflage jacket was scorched in a few places and there was a superficial, ten centimetre gaping wound on his leg; a bullet had grazed his hips. A ragged wound from an explosion bled from his forehead. However, his face, smeared with mud, ash and unknown substances, beamed.
“Well, men, you’ve survived? Don’t these fascists aim that well?” Anton asked the question with some delight as he looked at his comrades, who were in fear forterrified for their lives.
“So, Artist, you’re just grinning there, on civvy street you probably just drew naked birds and now you’re playing at war,” Dad said, looking askance at the newly arrived soldier. Anton did not reply; he had noticed a human figure through the foliage. Laying a finger on his lips, he pointed towards it. Stooping carefully, he began to weave along a narrow path through the branches of shrubbery. Having advanced ten metres, hidden by the tangled greenery, Anton saw that the figure was a fighter from a Ukrainian volunteer battalion. He clearly thought that the skirmish was over and none of the foe remained, so had taken a leak. Now he was roaming the plantation without anxiety or, pausing occasionally, just checking out the areaexamining the territory. The Ukrainian soldier passed through the bushes where the militiaman sat, and stood with his back to him. Anton took his chance, leaped from the vegetation and smashed his rifle butt into the back of the soldier’s head. The soldier fell unconscious, face down in the grass. Cautiously approaching the enemy, heAnton flipped over the Ukrainian volunteer’s body. Nikolai Nikolaev who he had saved by beating him off the charged trolley poles in the mine lay before Anton him; the man he had saved by beating him off the charged trolley poles in the mine. He looked closer, not believing his eyes; yes, it really was his former mining colleague. They had become friends after the incident and its fortunate outcome. If their shifts coincided they had often travelled home together. He had told Nikolai about his pictures and Nikolai had told him about his children and his wonderful wife; they had lived together for fourteen years and if they argued it was only about who loved whom the most. Anton was a little jealous of his colleague. There were a couple of occasions when Nikolai’s wife and children came to the bus stop to meet him. T and the image was like that of an episode of soviet cinema which focused on theimpression he formed was that they were an ideal family. Once Anton had brought Nikolai home and showed him a painting he had made of his friend.
“What? That’s me? No one has ever so precisely conveyed my spirit,” Nikolai, or Kolia as his friends called him, said enthusiastically.
“You are contemplative, you understand the depths that exist within the superficial smears of personality; the depths from where humanity’s essence emerges,” Anton had explained.
His former friend was now his enemy. Anton called over the other militiamen and they bound Nikolai and hauled him, like sailors drag a boat overland, to a small, wooden hut. It resembled a suburban dacha in which gardeners store a few tools and was furnished minimally with desks, wardrobes and drawers. They broke down the door and entered. The militiamen hung the volunteer soldier from the roof and sat while they decided what to do with him. It was a long way to their base and what could they use to drag him on was the only question. They did not consider letting him go. The older man said that Nikolai Nikolaev was a volunteer from the Donbas battalion, which had killed many militia and periodically raided their bases and destroyed the equipment of the Russian brigades and the Novorossiya army. The entire battalion consisted of Russian speakers, who were drawn from the local Ukrainian patriots. This disturbed the leadership of the DPR and LPR, who had prophesied that all of Donbas would rise against the “JHunta”.
The trio agreed that the younger man and older man would go to seek assistance and transport while Anton would guard the captive. They departed, leaving the former comrades together. Nikolai hung from the ceiling, with a gag in his mouth. Anton sat on an old red sofa, the springs of which grumbled irritably. He looked around the room. It contained spades smeared with soil, a hoe, and a green waterproof coat hung on a nail driven into the wall. A vase with dried meadow flowers stood on a table. This composition evoked a desire to sketch in Anton. He unfurled a canvastook out his pad and sketched the outline around the white spaces with broad strokes before pencilling in the details. “Forsaken life or the withered atoms of the universe,” he said aloud as a name for his, as yet, unfinished picture.
In reply, Nikolai groaned through the gag. He saw his old friend spread out on the settee with his arms resting on his back. He seemed to know who he was looking at and read the desire to draw in his eyes., Howeverbut it also seemed that this person now sitting in a camouflage uniform with bruises on his face was incomprehensible to him. Life had repainted everything in his personal universe.
“Eee arrr watttttt waannnt,” Nikolai murmured. His foe looked attentively at him, and spent a few seconds checking he was tied securely before he withdrew the gag. The prisoner breathed deeply through his mouth.
Anton stepped back a little, demonstratively laying an AK rifle and a large notched knife on the table.
“Why do you need them? Why are you fighting against your own people?” he asked, and sat down on a chair, the white paint of which was flaking, before the victim, the white paint of which was flaking. Nikolai raised his eyes and for a moment their gazeyes met in a silent duel. Two foes, two former comrades; one of whom was indebted to the other for his life, the other finding respite in the man he had saved. Now both were on opposing sides in a war.
“That which they are building now in Russia has no relationship to the Slavonic world, to the ‘Russian Spring’, nor to the USSR. They want to implant it in Ukraine too … it’s a mixture of orthodoxy and fascism … this is all wrong,” Nikolai said.
“All wrong?” screeched Anton. “Do you know that in Lviv, the Berkut fighters were made to kneel and then sent to atone by spilling blood in the east. So many of them arriving at the front immediately go over to the side of the militia. Their decision is motivated by this public humiliation. So, what are we talking about. Who is the fascist?”
The captive lowered his eyes. He seemed to be seeking the words and phrases to reach the other man and slip, as quietly as a mouse, through some chink in his closed heart.
“Anton, do you remember how you saved me? Am I your enemy? When we made our way through the workings, when you supported me so I didn’t fall, you showed empathy. How could I have changed? The local authorities have supported this. The crime bossesinality, the ‘Regionals’ who used city mayors and used people, shipping them in from all over the province to create pro-Russian meetings until a chain reaction occurred. This is of course a problem born in the midst of the province itself. And Russia has joined in, dividing the sheep and the rams. Were we enemies? Are we?” the soldier hanging from the ceiling yelled.
Anton listened to his heart, searched for some current of logic, some sense which would allow him to answer this question honestly. Not in reply to Nikolai but for himself. The air tensed as if the destiny of the world was being determined here.
He wanted to say, Kolia, you are not my enemy. How could you be my enemy if I stood between you and your death? Whether his salvation of the other man was a deed of little importance was irrelevant, Anton felt some thread connecting him to Nikolai.
“You could change everything. You cannot fight for fascists. Did our grandfathers fight for them? Anton asked.
“My grandfathers fought for Ukraine in the soviet army. You say, ‘our grandfathers fought’. I’m forming the impression they fought in the ranks of the secret police. For heroic forebears could not have descendants who torture, murder and kidnap,” replied Nikolai.
Anton, barely restraining himself, strode around the room, counting his steps like the secondhand of a clock measures time. Couldn’t Nikolai see what was going on? How could he do anything with him? What was to be done? His heart fluttered from his breast like a dove from the hand. It seemed that his soul was hanging on the rope with Nikolai. All the weight of the past pulled upon that rope, it trembled and stretched with the tension, then contracted again. Life hung in a fragile balance. Anton suddenly snatched up the knife and raised it to Nikolai’s throat. He drew it slowly over the other man’s skin so that droplets of blood oozed from tiny lacerations. “One movement separates someone from death. You are brave, for you think you know me. Are you not afraid of death?” He could find no other argument he could use.
The prisoner was, of course, terrified now. His whole body tensed and fear swung like a boat on the swell oscillated through his psycheconsciousness like a boat upon the ocean swell. It would only take one word and nothing would stop the man, who was now his foe, from taking his life.
“I understand this will sound laughable when said with a knife to my throat, however, that which you do now is a deeply personal choice for me. Perhaps I am a romantic, but I wanted to help my country - so that it becomes closer to the dream that many had on the Maidan,” said Nikolai slowly.
Anton was searching for some words, some suggestions, but his comrades burst through the door. They had arrived in an armoured car, ready to transport the prisoner to their base. One of the militiamen severed the ropes from which the prisoner was suspended and the ties binding his feet so he could walk. It was a bright summer’s day, the azure porcelain of sky was slashed with attenuated long wisps of cirrus cloud. A bird flashed over the field. It was a flickering point of life that composed its schedule from chance meetings and separations. Then a rumble came, followed by a short burst of fire. An explosion followed. The armoured vehicle burst into flames as quickly as dry autumn grass lit by a match.
“The Ukies are laying everyone out tak…” the militiaman leading Nikolai managed to cry before collapsing wordlessly. A sniper was at work. The prisoner darted quickly aside. The Ukrainians had observed the troops who had captured their commander and were ready to devastate everything. Anton, stooping as the bullets whistled overhead, tore after the escaped prisoner. Nikolai hid in the bushes and only a soft rustling gave his movements away. Anton saw his jacket flickering through the greenery. The path meandered through the roadside shrubbery and it seemed the prisoner would soon be out of sight. Nikolai suddenly tripped and rolled into a small ditch. Anton swooped on him as he rose. Both bodies rolled noisily on to the floor. Holding Nikolai’s tied hands with one hand, he held the notched knife against his throat. He pressed slightly and droplets of blood covered the glittering blade, like sunset gleams off Kyiv’s jagged skyscrapers.
“One move and I’ll kill you,” Anton warned him. Nikolai froze for a second, but then the footsteps of approaching separatists were heard. This was Nikolai’s last chance, a chance like that of a terminally ill patient to be cured, or of a vagrant who finds a large bag of money in a bin. HeNikolai thrust his whole body towards the separatist, in an attempt to shrug him off with his legs. His attempt was a single, three-second movement; the sum of the muscles of his back, arms and legs. It should, with mathematical certainty, have produced a result. He had to take the risk now to evade captivity, torture and a shameful protracted death. But the movement did not work out how he wanted it to.
Within the first second of Nikolai’s movement Anton had grabbed the prisoner’s hands, then he braced his legs to take the blow with the muscles of his back. The third second was the longest. Later, Anton would replay the scene in his mind and sometimes that moment returned to him in nightmares. The Ukrainian had almost broken free, twisting like a snake, when a knife had entered his back and its point pierced his breast. At the moment when the skirmish flared, another militiaman saw that the enemy had almost won and immediately stabbed Nikolai, shearing through his torso. Blood sprayed on Anton’s face; it was warm , like burning streams of life, almost like water from a shower. Nikolai’s body spasmed once as he died. HiAnton’s former friend, whose life he had saved at the risk of his own life in the mine, someone to whom he had revealed the secrets of the soul and had felt some unfathomable attraction between their spirits, now lay dead.
From The War Artist by Maxim Butchenko. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
The War Artist: A Ballistic Missile of a Book Launched on 7 July 2017