I started reading Stanislav Aseyev’s book In Isolation out of a sense of duty. He’s a Ukrainian writer from the Donbas (a region that has been occupied by the Russians for 8 years), a hero of Ukrainian resistance, and he has been translated into English. How can I not support him through something as small as a purchase of the book?
The reading of the book, however, became a very profound experience. I can only read it in small portions because every short chapter is like a session with a psychoanalyst. This writer looks into the depths of my soul and understands me the way I have never been understood. Here, for instance, is a quote from a chapter that blew my mind:
In a regular civil society, people’s minds are usually troubled by issues such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, corruption in government, and the freedom and effectiveness of the press. Some might see these topics as overblown, while others can barely have a cup of coffee without catching up on the latest news. But none of these matters trouble people’s minds in the Donbas. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always heard, “We don’t make the decisions.” All we could do was think about the price of butter or how expensive potatoes had become, while the powers-that-be had already decided everything for us. My friends, have you never stopped to think why this is so, why people whose strength of character and will enables them to descend half a mile below the surface of the earth while under artillery fire are so indifferent and apathetic to their own fate?Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation
Aseyev is talking about the coal miners in the Donbas but I had the same experience with my fellow college students in Kharkiv in the 1990s. Their indifference to absolutely everything except slavish, meaningless toil on the dusty, grimy plots of land they called dachas was complete. We were 18, 19, 20 years old. I’d try to talk about boys, music, politics, TV shows, celebrity gossip but all I got were blank stares. Tired, indifferent looks that only got animated when my friends shared how much they had slaved at their stupid dachas over the weekend. The point of pride was not the profit they derived from the dachas (there was none) but the suffering they experienced in the struggle with them.
And here is Aseyev, talking about the same thing:
This is the very essence of the psychology of the people of the Donbas, for whom ideals like freedom and equality always came down to the choice of rope for their own noose. The mentality of a person who works 12 hours a day in very harsh conditions for a monthly paycheck of between $100 and $130 turns into something that might be called masochistic, cursing this way of living and at the same time unable to imagine an existence outside of it.Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation
Aseyev compares this attitude of resentful hostility to that of the liberated serfs in 1861. I left the Ukraine that was almost invariably like this in 1998 because I couldn’t abide this life in the world of the living dead anymore. Since then, the rest of Ukraine somehow moved to normalcy but the Donbas got stuck behind. I see this in the attitudes of my cousins who are in their thirties and who can’t be moved to adopting any strategy beyond resentful indifference interspersed with angry demands for money even in the midst of a war.
I’ve tried to explain this to people for years. “But are the residents of the Donbas for Russia? Or are they for Ukraine? What do they want?” people ask. And. . . it’s just not like that. On the pages of Aseyev’s book I find the dead, indifferent Ukraine that I left in 1998 and that still exists in the Donbas.