The Poet Laureate of Hybrid War

The tragicomic absurdities of 21st century warfare are finally being transformed into literature.

On Dec. 1, 2013, at least half a million people gathered on the Maidan, the large public square in the center of Kiev. They came to express their outrage at Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who the day before had sent Berkut, his riot police, to bludgeon the students protesting his sudden refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For these young people, Yanukovych’s decision foreclosed the European future they had imagined for themselves. For the hundreds of thousands who joined them on the streets after they were beaten, Yanukovych’s violence against Ukrainian citizens broke an implicit social contract.

Among those who came to the Maidan that December day was 24-year-old Pawel Pieniazek, a journalist from neighboring Poland, who had studied Ukrainian at Warsaw University. The demonstrators were hurling bottles, flares, and cobblestones newly dug up from the pavement; the militia was using gas. Pieniazek bent down and tried to cover his face with a scarf. He saw people running, and he got up and turned around: On one side of him was a kiosk, on the other Berkut. He took out his press accreditation and shouted that he was a journalist.

“And who the fuck cares!” a Berkut officer shouted back.

Then a club came down on his skull. Pieniazek cringed, covered his head. Then came another club, and another one. He began to run, but running meant running the gauntlet. When Pieniazek finally got away, he looked for help, but all the ambulances were occupied by other wounded, bloodied people. He found a television station van, where a girl tried in an amateur way to bandage his head. Some 20 minutes later, a doctor who had finished taking care of other wounded protestors re-bandaged his head and warned Pieniazek that he needed to get to a hospital right away.

At the hospital, the young foreign journalist was received warmly. The doctor who X-rayed his head told him that they needed to go out on the streets and finally get rid of this government, because it was impossible to live like this.

Anti-government protesters walk amid debris and flames near the perimeter of Independence Square, known as Maidan, on Feb. 19, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Today, nearly four years later, there is still a war going on in Ukraine, although on this side of the Atlantic it has been largely forgotten. Given the conflagration in the Middle East and the refugee crisis in Europe, U.S. President Donald Trump’s flirtation with a nuclear war against North Korea and other international catastrophes, it is perhaps not surprising that we have paid little attention to this “hybrid war” in Ukraine, where leading actors such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are only indirectly involved in the exchanges of fire. Yet a long tradition holds that a certain kind of war correspondent will challenge the fleeting nature of our attention by capturing moments of particular violence and preserving them as urgent, lasting literature of fact.

In December 2013, Pieniazek was just a bit younger than the American journalist John Reed was when he went to Petrograd in 1917, and about the same age as the British journalist Timothy Garton Ash was when he went to Gdansk in 1980. Reed witnessed the beginning of communism in power; Garton Ash witnessed the beginning of the end. What they share is having both fallen in love with revolutions not their own. Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and Garton Ash’s The Polish Revolution: Solidarity remain the classic accounts of these Eastern European revolutions bleeding into years of hot or cold war. Pieniazek’s new book, Wojna, ktora nas zmienila (The War that Changed Us), an account of a very different war in a very different era, has earned a place alongside those earlier works.

Reed and Garton Ash were both outsiders drawn inside. Reed finds himself in Petrograd in autumn, when it is damp and cold and the sun sets at three in the afternoon and does not reappear until ten the next morning. There are bread shortages and babies starving for lack of milk, and a city hungry for information, “[absorbing] reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.” Reed writes as if shouting breathlessly into a dictaphone in real time. There is not a moment to waste: An hour could plunge you a century ahead, into another epoch. He runs into a Bolshevik leader who tells him, “The game is on.” It is a Kierkegaardian moment of Either/Or, and Reed captures that dizzying thrill of the audacious decision.

Garton Ash’s voice is much more restrained. He describes hearing, upon arriving in Gdansk in August 1980, a word that sounded like yowta over and over again, and thinking it must mean something like “that’s life.” In fact, this was the Polish pronunciation of “Yalta,” the shorthand a reminder of the moment Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Poland’s postwar fate was sealed. (In 1980, “Yalta” bore directly on the most urgent question of the moment: Would the Soviets intervene?) Garton Ash writes with British irony never entirely free of condescension: “Was it Balzac who said that a Pole cannot see an abyss without jumping into it?” And yet the reader senses it was precisely this contra spem spero that felt irresistible to the 25-year-old from London, who grasped that he had wandered upon special people at a special moment.

Like Reed and Garton Ash, Pieniazek writes books in the first person. He is disinclined, though, ever to put himself at the center of sympathies, or of events. Above all, his prose conveys a groundedness, a commitment to clarity amid reigning confusion. (Though he does not write in English, his writing translates well, because there is nothing ornamental in his sentences.) He does not feel himself to be a hero — nor does he see very much heroism among others. He feels empathy for his protagonists, but he does not idealize their willingness to risk their lives. Unlike the revolution that immediately preceded it, the war in eastern Ukraine is a tragicomedy.

A fighter from the Ukrainian volunteers Donbas battalion takes part in military drills not far southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on Apr. 1, 2015. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

After his head was battered by the riot police, Pieniazek could have gone home to Poland; instead, he stayed through the long revolutionary winter, through the February massacre on the Maidan, through Yanukovych’s flight across the border into Russia. When that spring Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula and provoked a war in eastern Ukraine, Pieniazek headed east. He felt an obligation to see what was happening there, to complete the story he had been reporting in Kiev. At the time, in early spring 2014, he did not imagine he was heading to a war. He was expecting new instances, more brutal perhaps, of the pro-Yanukovych “anti-Maidan” gatherings that had taken place in Kiev.

Pieniazek describes arriving in the post-industrial mining region called the Donbas as entering a “special zone of lawlessness.” Neither in Ukraine in general nor in the Donbas in particular had the rule of law ever functioned very well — now this was true still more so. The gangster-president, himself from the Donbas, had fled; the state had all but disappeared. Everything was possible; everything (and nearly everyone), it seemed, had a price.

In the Donbas that spring and summer of 2014, self-declared “separatists,” claiming to be protecting Russian speakers from an American-sponsored fascist coup in Kiev, staged insurrections. Soon the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Lugansk People’s Republic” were conjured into being, supported by Russian weapons, Russian volunteers, and Russian soldiers — which Putin suggested were figments of the Ukrainian imagination. In July, in a separatist-controlled part of the Donetsk Oblast, a Russian surface-to-air missile shot down — presumably due to some confusion on the part of the person shooting — Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. When Pieniazek arrived with the very first group of reporters, about 300 bodies were decomposing in the July heat.

What the local separatists themselves envisioned was varied: Some wanted a region cleansed of oligarchy, some independent city-states, some a mythical Novorossiya composed of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, some unification with Russia. Yet it was only in the realm of the metaphysical that “Mother Russia” offered a home to the Russian-speaking residents of the Donbas. On the contrary: Putin found instability in Ukraine desirable.

On the other side, in Kiev, the government was unprepared to fight. As separatists stormed government buildings, the Ukrainian army was being crowd-funded on the internet. Volunteer battalions outside the control of the state military formed to fight the separatists. Self-organization, “the most impressive element of the revolution,” as Pieniazek describes, now sustained the fight to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It was volunteers who fed, clothed, and supplied Ukrainian soldiers. The volunteers were for the most part amateurs, offering what they had and what they knew. Some Crimean Tatars brought a slaughtered ram. Another volunteer brought an inflatable female doll — a request by some soldiers to substitute for the prostitute who had given them a venereal disease.

Ukrainian soldiers drive tanks along the road leading out of Debaltseve on Feb. 19, 2015 in Artemivsk, Ukraine. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Pieniazek is soft-spoken, with a boyish smile, and very polite, but also quite tough in his modest way, and not easily shocked. He does not recoil from his motley protagonists. Among the separatists, some are locals, some Russian mercenaries, some Kremlin agents. On the Ukrainian side, too, Pieniazek tells stories of how the war and its volunteer battalions have provided a place for outcasts and losers, for lost souls unable to find a place for themselves. It was the criminals and hooligans, Pieniazek points out, who were best prepared for war.

He listens to conversations that go more or less like this:

“Who’s shooting?”

“How should I know?”

In this war, the longest and most gruesome battle has been the second battle for the Donetsk airport. Not long ago it was a shiny new airport, unveiled for Euro 2012. It was meant to open the Donbas to the world — instead it became an inferno. For combatants on both sides, entering the airport became a limit experience, a descent beyond human rationality. As one Ukrainian soldier tells Pieniazek, “For each of us it was like a duty: to undergo the airport.” The battle lasted from late September 2014 to late January 2015 — long past the moment when there was any airport left to defend. The Ukrainian fighters who continued to defend the remaining pieces of terminals came to be called “cyborgs” — the name suggesting the implausibility of their having survived in that airport for so long.

Villages surrounding the airport emptied. In October 2014, a local man named Artem shows Pieniazek around the village of Vesele. The very name — which means “cheerful” — now sounds sarcastic: The village is currently populated largely by homeless dogs whose owners have fled. As the two men walk amid the dogs, they hear whizzing sounds, an explosion, shells bursting. Artem does not even cringe; he is already used to the shelling. While they talk, a little girl a few hundred meters away is walking home. The shards hit her; she is killed there on the sidewalk; someone covers her body with a sheet. An old woman comes by, sees the body, and lifts up the sheet.

“Oh my God! Nastia!” she sobs.

The girl is — was — her granddaughter.

A few feet away from the girl’s body, Pieniazek sees broken eggs, blood stains, a flat cap, and a man in a blood-soaked shirt, still breathing.

Pieniazek spends a longer time in the Ukrainian-controlled village of Pisky, a mile or so from the airport. There “Kucha,” “Kent,” and other members of their volunteer battalion formed by the right-wing group Pravyi Sektor (“Right Sector”) moved into an empty apartment — empty because its owner, like most residents of Pisky, fled when the tanks and artillery arrived. In their way, the Pravyi Sektor fighters are very hospitable to Pieniazek, who has a talent for getting along with people. He also has a talent for remaining sober about who they are and what they are doing. In The War that Changed Us, Pieniazek describes the run-down post-Soviet apartment in Pisky: posters of naked women, sandbags covering the windows, and grenade launchers dangling from the wall together with a Ukrainian flag and a kitschy picture of a small dog. He notes that the building is more solid than it looks: It takes a lot of shelling. (In contrast, he observes, Pravyi Sektor’s ideological coherence is much less solid than it looks.)

Inside the apartment, Kucha and his comrades-in-arms spend their time listening to music and watching old Soviet films. Kucha’s favorite radio station is “Novorossiya Rocks,” whose jingle advertises the station as “cheering you on to victory.” Kucha seems unbothered by the fact that the radio station is cheering his enemies on to victory; the station plays the music he likes. His favorite song is the “Molodyе Vetra” by the group 7B. When it comes on, Kucha and Kent turn up the stereo as loud as it goes and sing along.

Before he joined the volunteer battalion to fight in the Donbas, Kucha was sitting in prison in southern Ukraine. Pieniazek senses that the Donbas is a comfortable place for Kucha, because he knows that here, no one will ask questions. Kucha did not get involved in the revolution on the Maidan; he was not especially interested. He is not especially interested in Ukrainian nationalism either. He was drawn to the Pravyi Sektor battalion, rather, out of a desire to go to battle like in Cossack tales of times past. “Had ‘Kucha’ and ‘Kent’ been born somewhere in Russia,” Pieniazek writes, “today they would no doubt be stationed a few kilometers away and supporting the ‘young republics’ — with dedication, but without ideological pretension.”

By the time he writes this, Pieniazek has spent enough time with both sides to know that everyone not only listens to the same Russian bands and watches the same old Soviet movies, but also uses the same old Soviet weapons from the 1970s. (“The quality of the weaponry,” he notes, “leaves much to be desired.”)

Pieniazek prefers not to talk to the combatants on one side about his contacts with the other. That said, he does not like to lie, and so if asked directly, he tells the truth. At one point, Kent asks him if he has spent time with the separatists near the airport as well.

When Pieniazek admits that yes, he has, Kent smiles and says, “You see, first we were shooting at you, and now they are.”

“He is sincerely amused,” Pieniazek writes, “there is not a trace of anger or suspicion in his words.”

Destroyed commercial airplanes sit scattered at the Donetsk airport on Feb. 26, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

On Jan. 21, 2015, the airport falls to the separatists. Kent dies not long afterwards. Kucha is thrown out of his battalion for smoking marijuana. Pieniazek spends a lot of time with people like Kent and Kucha and Artem. He is a good listener. He listens to the gangsters; he listens to the sobbing grandmother. He has time. He is open to the unexpected. And he knows when to be agreeably silent. “I nod my head with understanding” is a minor refrain of his writing.

One Ukrainian soldier from a volunteer battalion shows Pieniazek a photograph on his phone: an enemy soldier against the background of a thicket, the portrait taken with the viewfinder of the weapon used to kill him moments later. The viewfinder’s characteristic cross is visible.

“It’s his last photograph — I took it just before I shot.”

The soldier grins. And Pieniazek understands that dabbling in photography this way is a source of entertainment in wartime. Pieniazek does not want to judge him: “After all, the point of being a soldier in a war is to kill the opponent.” And the long, empty hours of waiting to kill him are often the hardest to bear: the boredom, the pointlessness. Waiting is miserable — and there is a lot of it: Fighting takes place only a few hours a day, generally beginning around 7 o’clock in the evening, after the international observers have returned to their hotels. The war becomes a routine. Everyone adjusts to its rhythm.

Pieniazek develops a sociologist’s understanding of the human need for routine. In the neighborhood of Zhovtneve, in the northern region of Donetsk, the shooting begins every afternoon at 4 o’clock. “This is Stunde Null,” he writes, “after which life recedes and everyone descends into the basements.” In the morning, the few remaining residents of Zhovtneve climb out of the cellars and begin to clean up in the courtyards. The women run around with buckets and brooms.

“Although there’s not especially much to do here, people are often rushing,” Pieniazek writes:

Three men are attaching a slab of fiberboard to cover a shattered window. One of them says: ‘I would be glad to talk, but we have to fix this quickly. The shooting is about to start.’ Every day they clean up and do repairs, despite the fact that the following day everything is going to be destroyed again. It’s Sisyphean labor, and they subject themselves to it with complete awareness. Why?

Although they are unable to articulate an answer, Pieniazek senses the reason: They want to carve out some small space for themselves where they have some tiny bit of control over reality, which has otherwise slipped from their hands.

It is this juxtaposition of brutality and normality, the extreme and the banal, that Pieniazek finds most disconcerting, and most poignant. The surreally short gaps of time or space — a kilometer, an hour — between eating salad in a cafe and the shards hitting the little girl on her way home. Pieniazek, too, gets used to the rules of the war and habituates himself to its rhythm. At night, regardless of where he is, he falls asleep as soon as he lies down. And so long as the explosions are not ear-piercing, he sleeps soundly through the night.

A pro-Russian separatist stands guard at a check point on the road heading to Mariupol on Mar. 4, 2015 in Novoazovsk, Ukraine. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Donbas, in Pieniazek’s portrait, dramatizes the extraordinary human capacity — evident today on both sides of the Atlantic — to normalize the abnormal. It also lays bare the physical consequences of a metaphysical leap into “post-truth.” There is no real reason for this war — the reasons that allegedly provoked it were dark fantasies: There was no CIA-sponsored fascist coup in Kiev. The Ukrainian Nazis coming to kill all the Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine are imaginary.

In the town of Ilovaisk, Pieniazek speaks with a married couple in their fifties who tell him the story of how 50 local separatists with only rifles defeated 1,500 professional Ukrainian soldiers armed to the teeth.

“But how was that possible?”

“Because they were fighting for their land!”

“I nod my head with understanding, but really I understand nothing,” Pieniazek writes.

Even though in the course of this conflict I’ve been fed a similar line dozens of times, it always ends the same way: with my giving in. Because what should I continue to discuss with them? Make a drawing on a piece of paper to show that 50 people will not succeed in surrounding 1,500 regardless of how motivated they might be? There’s no point. In the Donbas, geography, measurements, all possible theories, and above all common sense have gone to the winds.

Pieniazek is not alone in being struck by the susceptibility of the Donbas’s population to Russian television. “Post-truth” — he writes — emerged precociously in the Donbas, thriving there long before Brexit and Donald Trump and the Oxford English Dictionary’s choice of “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. Not only soldiers and weapons, but also a very sophisticated level of fake news has come to the Donbas from the other side of the Russian border. Russia’s flood of fake news began during the Maidan, but reached another level during the war. One graphic fiction described the Ukrainian army crucifying a small boy in Sloviansk.

Pieniazek makes clear that in the absence of the Kremlin’s intervention and provocation, there would be no war. He also makes clear that the Ukrainian media is not innocent: While it has not flooded the Donbas with fake news, it has been selective in its coverage, reluctant to criticize Ukrainian soldiers and disinclined to admit that Ukrainian forces have also hit residential targets and killed civilians. In so doing, the Ukrainian media has played the game less well: It can not match the postmodern sophistication of the Russian media and at the same time has lost the trust of the population. It would have been far better, he believes, for the Ukrainian media to have insisted on the truth: that this is a war, not an “anti-terrorist operation”; that there is real support for the separatists in the Donbas; and that both sides, however unintentionally, have caused civilian casualties. This is the reality of war.

The jarring juxtaposition in the Donbas is not only between brutality and normality, but also between the postmodern and the premodern. Amid the post-truth machinations of Putin’s geopolitics, there remain small human cares, in their essence unchanged for centuries. Long after most civilians have fled the town of Debaltseve, when there is no water, electricity, or gas, Pieniazek meets the 50-something-year-old Dmytro and his wife, whose basement has become their home. Artemivsk, the closest town under Ukrainian control, is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. But Dmytro does not want to leave his cat, and the evacuation buses do not allow pets. Moreover — Dmytro explains — he and his wife do not want to leave all of their things behind. It would not be possible to bring all of them: special things like photographs, diplomas, and notebooks with his own poems, but also ordinary things like pairs of scissors, sewing needles — little insignificant objects to which one becomes attached.

A Ukrainian fighter practices shooting during military drills not far southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on Apr. 1, 2015. (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Pieniazek never loses himself the way that Reed does, nor is his irony as biting as Garton Ash’s. He is both less romantic and less cynical than his predecessors; he is, rather, gentler and sadder. He immersed himself in a war he had never had any desire to experience. Unlike more than a few other young men, he had never been fascinated by tanks and guns and soldiers. Yet he got used to them and found his place in a war not his own.

Lev Tolstoy wrote that each unhappy family was unhappy in its own way. George Orwell followed with the remark that each revolution was a failure in its own way. Pieniazek’s work suggests that each war is a tragedy in its own way. In Ukraine, that way has to do with the effacing of the boundary between reality and television. Pieniazek describes what he saw himself and in so doing illuminates the reality of hybrid warfare: People are being killed in fact for reasons that are fiction. He understands that there is no escape from the senselessness of this war. Three years into it, he is resigned: There will be no happy ending.

“In these kinds of conflicts there are no winners,” he writes.

For a long time, Pieniazek hoped to be on the front on the day the war ended. Now he has given up hoping — that the end will come anytime soon, that he will have the patience to stay, that he can bear to tell the same hopeless stories over and over again. He imagines that when the war does come to an end some day, those on the side of the separatists who are ideologically committed will face reality: “Instead of fulfilling the dream of an affluent life in an encore of the Soviet Union, they will have found themselves in a post-apocalyptic hole-in-the-ground with high unemployment and pathetic pensions, a place that is unrecognized by the world, that counts for nobody, and that is not needed by anyone for anything.”

Pawel Pieniazek is now reporting from Syria and Iraq.

Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale and the author of "The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe". She is also the author of the forthcoming book, "The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution."