August 23, 2022: Kamianets-Podilskyi
by Svitlana Matviyenko
I am sitting on the windowsill in my living room. It’s five in the morning of the 181st day of the war. The night was sleepless, sirens after sirens, when the valley with the river canyon amplifying the sounds give it such volume that the city landscape alone never does, as it swallows the city steers, activating dogs and most certainly birds much earlier than their time. After a short while of peaceful rest, after the sirens stopped, my town, covered with a thick layer of fog, is slowly awakening: the curfew is over. Everything here is now immersed in a complete silence that you can only encounter in a small town like mine and in that rare moment when the choir of morning birds is quiet already but the people are still not out on the streets. This silence is so surreal and overwhelming amid the war. The rocket attacks are most typical at this hour. When they are detected by our national radar system, the entire river canyon is filled with the wailing sound of air raid alerts. It’s rare we get a morning like today. I come out to the balcony—quietly, as even I am afraid to attract sirens—to immerse myself in this silence, so strange and challenging for the horizon of my human hearing. Today is August 23, and many of us in Ukraine are bracing ourselves for tomorrow, our Independence Day, that our enemy threatens to make hellish for us.
Reuters alerts us too: “The US has intelligence that Russia is planning to launch fresh attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities soon.” Right. When you are somewhere there, such a report probably makes sense. But if you are here, you’d know—the attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure are daily. This morning, for instance, the Russians attacked Dnipro, Enerhodar, and Kharkiv, among many smaller cities, towns, and villages that do not make the news and whose names are unreadable to non-native speakers. Yesterday morning was like that too. And the day before. Dead and wounded. Dead and wounded. So, I wonder, what does “soon” mean, dear Reuters reporters? For whom are you minimizing the Russian aggression?
Yesterday I kept calm. I went for a walk with Olya. We hiked down the river canyon. Holding our things stretched high above us, we walked in the streaming water toward the archipelago of stones, where we settled to drink a bottle of cheap warm white wine with frozen berries. Today I’ve canceled all meetings and shut down my work, including that on my tenure file. I am shaking. All I can write now is this letter—let’s call it this—addressed to no one in particular, as if it’s going to rescue me.
It’s close to eight in the morning already, but the fog over my town has not dissolved. Oh, this sticky fog, the fog of war, which makes my head spin, my heart race, and my lungs hurt every time I inhale it. But it could also be just dust raised by a storm typical for our region, which would hold it up in the air for a long while.
Sirens after sirens, I place my computer under the bed—unlike me, it has a hiding place in the case of a rocket strike. I must leave for a kinesiology session, as I am trying to fix my back after months of lifting my mother when she was recovering from surgery on her broken spine last year. Ivan, my instructor, seems to get how my body works better than I do, and I think, while following his directions on moving weights up and down the red machines, this workout comes as an investment in my future and makes it real somehow, despite the US intelligence about the preempted apocalypse tomorrow.
On my way home, a taxi driver tells me that everyone is complaining today about this fog, that everyone’s saying their faces and bodies are itching. “I am sure it’s radiation. Its color is yellowish—did you see? It’s certainly radiation,” he says. “I heard the level is ten times the normal today.”
“This is not true,” I say. “Radiation has no color, the level is okay, and you’d hear an alert in the case of a nuclear explosion, immediately.” But the driver concludes, with a tone clearly signaling that he knows what he is talking about: “Yeah, they are just going to tell us, if it happens, of course—just like they did in 1986!”
At the beginning of August, the Air Alert app released an update with two new types of warnings—for chemical and radiation hazards. The update, in all honesty, came very late. The nuclear terror has been part of this war from the first days of invasion in February, and it has escalated tremendously after the Russian side announced the facilities of the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, are mined. As far as chemical hazards, if you have not heard about the use of phosphorous bombs on civilian areas in Ukraine by the Russian forces, you probably don’t have the Internet, as the videos of those deadly fireworks are viral.
The US Embassy, I am reading, urges US citizens to depart Ukraine—now. These people, I must say, trust their sources. Not like us. In February 2022, for instance, I did not think a full-scale invasion would erupt. I, personally, could not imagine it happening. Like many, I read the American and British intelligence as a clever blunt deterrence game, by which the CIA and SIS dudes were sending Putin open messages warning him they see all his cards—they know. They must have thought their knowledge could make him reverse his intentions. They probably figured a KGB guy’s pleasure is secrecy. They probably believed they could kill it, his pleasure.
Tired and falling asleep, as I listen to the night’s delicate breathing, I suddenly shudder from the loudest sound of pouring water falling from the sky on the roof below. I am sure—although, nobody would know that in a complete darkness—the fog of war is gone.
- Svitlana Matviyenko is assistant professor of critical media analysis in the Simon Fraser University School of Communication. Her research and teaching are focused on information and cyberwar, the political economy of information, media and environment, infrastructure studies, and Science and Technology Studies. She writes about practices of resistance and mobilization, digital militarism, dis- and misinformation, internet history, cybernetics, psychoanalysis, posthumanism, the Soviet and the post-Soviet techno-politics, and nuclear cultures, including the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion. She is a coeditor of two collections, The Imaginary App (MIT Press, 2014) and Lacan and the Posthuman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She is a coauthor of Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism (Minnesota UP, 2019), and a winner of the 2019 book award of the Science Technology and Art in International Relations (STAIR) section of the International Studies Association and of the Canadian Communication Association 2020 Gertrude J. Robinson book prize.
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