Ukrainian Writer Artem Chapeye On His Decision To Fight for His Country
From a military base, Chapeye discusses the impossibility of nonviolent resistance against the Russian invasion
“Listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves. Start with the columns of refugees …”
Last March, shortly after Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine began, the Ukrainian writer Artem Chapeye penned a short letter addressed to “some Western intellectuals.” In it, the 41-year-old took to task the idea that his native country somehow bore complicity for its larger neighbor attacking it. He understood his audience might need a refresher on what a just, violent resistance looked like and entailed: “I know other countries have faced their share of foreign intervention,” he wrote, “and right now you’re witnessing overt Russian imperialism … before ‘overthrowing capitalism,’ try thinking of ways for us Ukrainians not to be slaughtered.”
It was a searing indictment of a certain type of detached worldview, reminiscent, for me, of George Orwell’s writings in the thirties on the Spanish Civil War, imploring the wider world to care about what was happening there. And it came from a person not easy to dismiss: Chapeye’s an intellectual force himself, the author of five novels and four books of creative nonfiction who has translated the works of luminaries such as Edward Said, Gandhi and Noam Chomsky. (Chomsky got called out by name in Chapeye’s letter due to some of his positions regarding the war.) Chapeye is open about his left-wing politics and served as an activist during the Ukraine Without Kuchma and Orange Revolution protest campaigns, and witnessed the killing of protestors during the Maidan Uprising in 2014. He’s executed nonviolent resistance in practice, and, before Russia’s invasion, at least, considered himself a pacifist.
Blunt and candid though it is, Chapeye’s letter did leave out one pertinent fact: only days before, after evacuating his wife, two sons and the family dog from their home in Kyiv, he’d enlisted in the Ukrainian army as a private. Becoming a low-ranking soldier in a military at war would be quite the career change for any writer, let alone one already with a collection named a finalist for the BBC Nonfiction Book of the Year. (The Ukraine is forthcoming in the US in 2024 from Seven Stories Press.) But Chapeye had his reasons.
Last autumn, while in Ukraine reporting on the war for Esquire, I contacted Chapeye for an interview, eager to talk with someone who thought about his nation’s conflict through both a moral lens and a historical one. Reluctant soldiers seem uniquely qualified for this role, I’ve found, and Chapeye more than provided. He joined me on an encrypted video call from an undisclosed military base. Bearded, wearing a ballcap and earbuds, he looked like most any other soldier unwinding after a long patrol, all the while revealing a singular mindfulness. Questions he especially wanted to ponder were preceded by splintered eyes and heavy cigarette drags.
Matt Gallagher: Where are you now? Can you tell us what life’s been like since last February?
Artem Chapeye: I am on a base in western Ukraine, there’s a lot of military facilities to be protected here. I am not on the front line, I am rather far from it, as I am serving in a so-called military warrant order unit, which is basically something similar to military police, except we don’t really interact with civilians. Our main thing is making sure there are no diversion groups, making sure that Ukrainian military isn’t doing any crimes. So there’s no looting, no drugs, stuff like that. It’s not heroic work but I still find it very important.
What’s changed, other than everything? I remember the end of 2021, there was this talk that, “Okay, we all know that Russia is going to invade, we all know that the West will try to help, the only thing we don’t know is how Ukrainians will behave.” I must say that we didn’t know either how we would take it, I didn’t know how I personally would behave until the first day of war. Before, when it was theoretical, I was pretty sure I would flee because, well, family is the first thing for me. I never saw myself as a soldier.
Then everything changed in just one day because you realize there can be no nonviolent resistance to Putin’s missiles. When you wake up to the building rumbling, the choice is made on a primal level: I must protect my children.
MG: Has becoming a soldier, even a reluctant one, changed how you think about your country and the world?
AC: It’s very easy when you have money, or are part of the intelligentsia, people from the artistic professions like myself and even the doctors and stuff like that, to feel removed from the consequences of war. And I’ve been impressed, many have volunteered in some way. They had a choice, as did I. With most people, there was no choice at all, and so my basic reason for joining up was solidarity.
It was more of a class solidarity which had almost nothing to do with patriotism. Also there is this psychological reason of this existential choice. Like when you are talking about justice and fairness your whole life, and then, okay, here’s the time of injustice, and if you decide to not oppose it? That would feel like a betrayal of yourself. Well, I would die in that moment, I think I would die, being what I consider myself, or at least what I want to be.
MG: So enlisting was a bit of a moral decision, then.
AC: I have been much influenced by existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, French ones, and there was a very important thing, which I also believed before, that you are what you do. So there is no predestination, there is no essence before existence, your essence is defined by your existence and by your existential choices. For me, going to the army is one of these choices.
I believe this applies for the country as a whole, also. My older boy is 10-years-old and learning history for the first time as a separate school subject. When we talk about it on Zoom—it is very different now. When I was a kid thirty years ago, we were learning the history of our martyr nation, of a nation which was always oppressed, which was always suppressed, which was always abused in different ways. It was mostly a history of oppressed people.
Now, they speak of learning together the history of a heroic nation. It’s about more than suffering. We have changed what we are by our choice, by our choices not to succumb, by our choice not to suffer defeat, not to quit, not to give up, and by our choice to fight. I would say this is a defining moment in our history, and to quote [the historian] Timothy Snyder, “No people have to pay so dearly for becoming a nation.” But that’s what Ukrainians are doing now, and it’s drastically changing how we see ourselves.
MG: Before the war you considered yourself a pacificist, right?
AC: Especially since 2014 and Maidan, yeah, because, well, as a young person, I considered myself rather a revolutionary. And then when revolution happened in Ukraine, I was very much obsessed with people dying, and then I went to Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] as a journalist, and saw the war being fought there, and I hoped for another way.
MG: And what about now?
AC: Well, I think that there are times when even pacifists have to fight. It was an interview of some relative of Tupac Shakur who was in the Black Panthers, and that’s what she said. Something like, “I don’t want to fight, I would like to be a gardener, a sculptor, whatever, not a warrior, but if I don’t fight, I would feel that I am compliant to evil and I would feel that I’m an accessory to evil.” So this is the situation right now in Ukraine. I still think that given other choices, I would be a pacifist but now we don’t have such an option.
MG: Is there a relationship for you between being a soldier and writer?
AC: I would say I’ve put writing on hold for now. One of my problems as a writer is that my method is more description than invention … it’s something Jack London said about his own work, I am very much similar, dependent on real events.
And I don’t mean necessarily writing about the war, either, because well, I’m not on the front, but social writing needs to be based in reality. I’ve tried several times to start writing, but this precarious situation when you don’t know your tomorrow … it’s good for poems, it’s maybe okay for essays and short stories, but I mostly like to write novels. At the moment I only write essays, sometimes, and that’s on request, and that’s also very difficult to get yourself into, in terms of organization and finding time and also the psychological space.
I’ve written before about regular people living under extreme capitalism in the future, and I would like to again, someday. I’ve also been influenced by the works of Naomi Klein who has written about the world becoming divided into “green zones” and “red zones,” safe places and not. That was just one sentence from her but I became intrigued with it and it became the title of my first novel (2014’s The Red Zone).
When I return to that type of writing, will my time as a soldier impact it? I feel that it must.
MG: Do your fellow soldiers know you’re a writer? If so, what do they think about it?
AC: I didn’t hide it, but I also didn’t tell anybody that I’m a writer because, you realize, people don’t know writers … in my unit of about 100 people, I feel like I’m the only person who actually reads a lot. Which is life. I have a funny story about people don’t know about writers. We were walking in the city on patrol, and I was telling the head of my platoon, “Okay, this is the building where one of the most renowned Ukrainian writers used to live,” and I named them, and he’s like, “Who’s that?” And later he shows me another building and says, “This is one of the buildings where this guy lived,” and I’m like, “Who is that?” And it was some kind of a criminal war lord from the nineties. So people have very different frameworks.
MG: Yet you seem fluent in, or at least conscious of, these various frameworks. Which is maybe part of being a social writer. Have you just learned to live with this sort of duality and friction in your new life?
AC: That’s also one of the reasons why I cannot really write now. Because I cannot write honestly until the war ends, quite honestly, in details and showing the inside, that it’s not all roses and we are not elves as being presented by our propaganda. Which is of course necessary in a war of this magnitude, but it gets hard when I use the writer part of my mind. This is why it’s important to me that I’m serving in a unit that fights war crimes, including any by the Ukrainian army, so we are not like the other side, we are defenders of ideals and beliefs. Yet I still understand there’s also Ukrainian propaganda, and I realize that even as I talk to you, I am agent of it, because there are some things I wouldn’t say, even as I’m trying to be reflective and critical.
MG: You covered the war in its earlier phase as a reporter. (Chapeye and journalist Katerina Sergatskova coauthored the 2015 book War in Three Letters, a collection of their dispatches.) What ethics do you maintain for writing about violence and war? How do you find the balance between telling people, describing to people what it’s really like, versus exploiting it, going too far, being pornographic about it?
AC: Yeah, I understand what you mean. So that’s also one of the problems. I don’t know now how to write about it now, this is one of the cases where words actually fail … I was kind of thinking about maybe turning this into sort of a fable, but I still cannot find words for all which is happening because, well, let’s face it, no one believed that such atrocities are possible. We are considering ourselves part of Europe, and nobody believed that such atrocities are possible in Europe, in the enlightened 21st century.
Here’s another anecdote: maybe you remember there was a Russian military show of force in 2021. I’d planned a vacation with both of my kids, just the three of us, as my wife had to do some work. So we planned a vacation beforehand and we rented a small house in the countryside, near the border of Russia. Then there was their show of force, and I was like, “Okay, this is the kids’ school break and we already rented [the house] and I think we’d already paid half. Even if they invade, I’ll just say that I’m civilian and I will take my kids’ documents to prove that they are my kids and everything will be okay.”
After [the 2022 massacre in the small Ukrainian city of] Bucha, I realized how naive I was. After all the forced deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia, I realized how naïve I was.
MG: You said earlier one of the reasons you joined up was you didn’t want to consider yourself a victim, but you wanted to be an agent who resists occupation.
MG: Could you go into that a bit more? I’ll be honest, my experience in the American military was that folks don’t always join with quite so much consideration. Though of course we weren’t under existential threat, so it’s a flawed comparison.
AC: Well, I’m distinguishing between the ideological and psychological. So basically my ideological reasoning was the solidarity with the common cause, that we don’t have a choice whether to fight this or not. Then one of my main psychological reasons was I hated this feeling, like when we were running away with our kids, I really hated this feeling of being a victim.
I don’t know where the term comes from, but in Ukrainian, we have the term of Spanish shame, which means being ashamed for other people. Here’s a moment that maybe combines the ideological and psychological.
On the first day of fleeing [last February], we traveled with an older man, a villager who served in the Afghan war in the Soviet times. I liked him a lot, for me, he was representative about what is right about our country. That evening we learned he was being mobilized [for this war] because of his experience. And his son, who I liked, too, and is more like me, of the urban middle class, the son was very relieved he hadn’t been [mobilized.] Later he refused to keep traveling because he’d become afraid that someone would ask why he, as a young man, was not mobilized.
And this reminded me of this great moment in 1984 by Orwell when Winston Smith was broken by one thing, when he was afraid of rats, and when he was presented with rats, which would torture him, he begged, “Don’t do it to me, do it to Julia,” his loved one. And I thought, I don’t want to be like this, I don’t want to be this kind of guy who would prefer his father is in danger and feeling relief it’s not him. In retrospect, this seems like the moment when I decided that I would definitely join.
MG: Are you reading anything interesting? Do you even have time for it?
AC: I do but it is very difficult to get immersed. Books that are more escapist can be easier. I recently finished The Three-Body Problem by a Chinese writer [Liu Cixin]. I read it in English, because it’s not translated into Ukrainian, or at least I couldn’t find a copy that has been. It’s an amazing book about an alien invasion … there’s some Chinese propaganda in it—well, not propaganda, but he, the author, is basically influenced by the Chinese framework of thinking as much as I’m influenced by a Ukrainian framework or some American authors are by the American framework. Sometimes it disturbs you to an extent, but if you remember their framework, I think you can better appreciate the writing, the thinking. This was my experience with Cixin and The Three-Body Problem.
I’m also learning German and French in bits, but it’s difficult to study because I’m almost never alone. This is part of a soldier’s life that maybe people do not know. To be by oneself now is like a dream.