About the Book by Yevgenia Belorusets Titled “War Diary”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Benjamin Shull of the book by Yevgenia Belorusets titled “War Diary”:

“The war has begun. It is after midnight. I will hardly be able to fall asleep, and there is no point in trying to calculate what has changed forever.” So wrote Yevgenia Belorusets from Kyiv in the early hours of Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, at the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Her diary entry on the war’s opening salvo was the first of around 40 that have now been collected and published together in “War Diary,” an essential document of the Ukrainian people’s experience of the conflict.

Ms. Belorusets, a Ukrainian writer and photographer, was living in Kyiv when Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation.” She remained for more than a month. The world has already heard her testimonial: These diary entries, written in German, were published daily by Der Spiegel and in English by Isolarii, an experimental publisher that syndicated the work to outlets around the world. Greg Nissan worked with Isolarii to translate the text and edit the book version, a joint project with the independent publishing house New Directions.

The early entries of “War Diary” find Ms. Belorusets, along with everyone else in Kyiv, adjusting to life under bombardment. The local government warns residents of imminent attacks through the Telegram messaging app. On the day of the invasion, Ms. Belorusets goes to stay with her parents; her mother believes that their house will be safe because of its proximity to Saint Sophia Cathedral. “I think if a UNESCO monument could actually stop the Russian army from shelling,” Ms. Belorusets writes, “this war wouldn’t have started in the first place.”

After nine days the author still can’t believe this is happening at all: “It isn’t true. What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble in the 21st century?” She signs off a number of entries with bursts of righteous indignation. On Day 11: “We cannot wait any longer! Stop this violence!” Day 31: “The world will never forgive itself for these crimes.” There’s a palpable first-person sense of the walls closing in: “My first night in a bomb shelter.” “My thoughts become as dark as the windows of my apartment.” Ms. Belorusets describes the constant wail of air-raid sirens, the smoke from explosions, the streets spewed with rubble, broken glass and twisted metal.

The author recently published a collection of stories, “Lucky Breaks,” that explored the experiences of women in the wake of Russia’s 2014 incursion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. In those stories, translated into English by Eugene Ostashevsky, conflict was implicitly present but violence mostly offstage. In “War Diary,” no veil of fiction stands between the reader and the nightmare of life under military assault.

Ms. Belorusets reacts in real-time to the obliteration of Mariupol’s Drama Theater, which had been converted into a shelter. “Today the theater in Mariupol was bombed,” reads her entry from March 16. “As I write this, because of the constant shelling, relief workers cannot approach the site to comb the rubble for survivors.” Around 600 people died in the attack. A couple of weeks later she recounts the discovery of a mass grave in Bucha, just northwest of Kyiv. (Authorities have since recovered more than 450 bodies from the town.) Ms. Belorusets notes the bitter irony that Bucha was a place where many people fleeing Russia’s 2014 invasion had settled: “I ask all those who keep us in their thoughts—commit to memory the names of these unknown places in Ukraine. . . . Very often these are the places where people go to start a new life with the hope of a new home.”

As the book progresses, Ms. Belorusets takes in the mounting death toll in the capital and beyond, in Kharkiv, in Kherson, in Odessa. Alongside the text she presents her photographs. Not all of them point to a state of war. In addition to pictures of deserted streets, damaged buildings and visibly frightened citizens, we see a shot of a bearded man, bulky headphones around his neck, staring at the sky with a big grin on his face. Another image shows an adolescent in a jacket and flat cap balancing a soccer ball on his hand. In a picture that accompanies the entry for Day 11, an artist-friend dons a mask made of plastic cable ties for an impromptu fashion shoot.

“Photographs can be dangerous,” she writes. “They can reveal things without intending to. They transform the city into a target just by existing.” Some residents see her with a camera and suspect her of spying for Russia. Ukrainian soldiers ask her to delete pictures of them. “I’d like to warn you,” says a passerby who sees her at work, “that in these times you can get shot in the head for that!”

Amid the destruction, Ms. Belorusets tries to hold onto some semblance of civilization. She visits an art exhibition and scours the city’s cafes for her cherished cappuccinos. “The daily restlessness and the incessant air raid sirens structure your time,” she writes a month into the invasion, “merging powerfully with the flow of your consciousness, which might otherwise choose to linger on a painful thought as a passenger lingers at a bus stop.”

The book’s final proper entry, from Tuesday, April 5, describes her departure from Kyiv. In a July postscript—“this diary cannot be completed, it can only be interrupted”—she recounts celebrating her mother’s birthday in Berlin and going to visit her father, recovering from surgery after a lung operation, back in Ukraine. Almost half a year into the invasion, the sense of unreality persists. “One does not want to accept the war,” she writes. “Even I have to convince myself, persuade myself over and over again, that the war exists, that it endures, that I finished writing this entry in the midst of war.” The conflict has entered its second year. More grim testimonials await.

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