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IN A REFUGEE TRAIN, THERE IS NO PLACE RESERVATION

Diary of a writer in exile.

  • Essay
  • Nov 08 2022
  • Vadym Yakovlev
    (1990) is a Ukrainian queer writer, publicist and journalist. He/she is the author of the first Ukrainian novel with transgender characters, Where the Territory Begins (Kayala, 2020). He/she currently lives and works in Germany. You can contact him/her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100013291847024).

***

Sasha sheltered me in Berlin. When we were teenagers, he was fascinated by Stephen King and published the school newspaper. I had a column in the paper. Sasha has been living in Berlin for 8 years. A successful IT specialist and liberal. We sniff and drink. I often complain that there are too many white people in Berlin. When we went to a gay club, we almost immediately decided to sniff out the toilet track. Leaving the toilet, a handsome guy greeted me. "Nice German guy," I tell Sasha as he sorts the powder on the bill. "He's not German," Sasha replied. "Who cares, they're all Germans," I think, although I understand what Sasha meant. From this point of view, Sasha does not consider himself a German either. His mother, in sixth grade, criticized my column in the school newspaper, thinking that I had committed racism. I can't remember what exactly the column was about, racist jokes at school were taken as a normal thing. 

***

Stas is a political refugee. In Ukraine, he was almost killed by neo-fascists. He's studying to be a historian here. Stas shows the building where the German communists met. "And these are quotes from Rosa Luxemburg," Stas points to signs embedded in the asphalt. I ask him to translate what it says. We sat down in front of the building and started drinking alcohol. "Can you do that here?"- "Yes, of course." Berlin, as it seemed to me, has almost no tourist attractions, but the city is very lively and mystically gloomy. 

***

At the local bazaar, where they sell used items, I bought an amazing dress from an african woman. You can't find such in white people’s stores. At least at this bazaar. Walking around in a dress and with painted nails, I caused a transphobic reaction in one man. The man aggressively said when I passed by "Man, you wouldn't survive in Odesa." It was an amazing coincidence, considering that I ran away from Odesa when my sister's husband, drunk, threatened to kill me when my sister wasn't around. I really didn't survive in Odesa. 

***

Finally I arrived in my small town. The professor of Ukrainian origin helps me to gain a foothold here. I think I'm having a psychosis. I drank in the dorm and then went for a walk. After meeting some guy, I went to a bar with him. I don't remember anything else. The next morning I woke up at the train station without my phone and keys from the apartament. 

***

As soon as the war began, the Ukrainian art community took a militaristic and nationalist position. Under the guise of theses about the "anti-colonial war", they fell into xenophobia, which found its most complete logical embodiment in the expression "there are no good Russians" and the demand to abolish Russians from everywhere. My harsh public criticism of xenophobia has sparked a backlash. Militarism and nationalism were also affected by the familiar queer and left-wing community. The final straw was my admission that I am a pacifist and want nothing to do with militarism and nationalism, regardless of whether we are talking about Ukraine or Russia. Outraged curses rained down on me. I became an enemy for many friends and acquaintances, at best - a "useful idiot serving Russian interests." My whole social capital, accumulated over the years of creative and journalistic activity, was drained down the toilet along with my desire to be a part of cultural and social processes in my native country. Hatred was declared the only right and appropriate feeling, the desire for revenge and death - the most important desire that should unite everyone. Any criticism of Ukraine is illegal. Having adopted a radical version of liberal Western identity politics, Ukrainian intellectuals and activists now regarded criticism of Ukraine or Ukrainian nationalism as "victim blaming." The state, the nation, and war won in their hearts, replacing all the other ideals and principles they adhered to. If other ideals and principles at all have ever taken place in their value system.

***

I've been living in a student dorm for the first month. I communicated with people from Iran and Pakistan. A Syrian lives with me. He's a dentist. We discussed Lenin, Stalinist politics, and pan-Arabism. When he left, I found two bottles of beer in the refrigerator in the morning. Thank you, Jamal!

***

I entered the master's program. I suffer from depression, apathy, and sometimes paranoia. Nothing new, but I'm waiting for the start of training, because I can't stand it anymore. Sometimes answering an email is already a feat. Studying will make you feel that a normal way of life is returning and that there is a possibility of socialization. Sometimes I drink. During my studies, I plan to finally start a second novel. I met a trans person. We drank with her and her friend at a smoking bar. They listen to Eighties music everywhere. Rock or pop. The only modern music is German rap, which sounds from cars driven by brutal guys. On Tinder, I met two trans girls. One of them offered to have a beer next week, but said that she prefer more masculine persons, so we can only have communication. Interesting. What else could it be? Sex? I didn't even think about it, although I often think about sex.

***

Lyosha is a childhood friend. Lyosha and his wife have been living in Germany for two years. He helped with the apartment. Lyosha says that people are stupid and don't want to think. "Do ordinary people on both sides understand whose interests they are actually fighting for?" Lyosha asks rhetorically. I don't know.

***

Shortly before the war, my friends and I were attacked by Nazis at a queer party in Lviv. After that, I stayed at home for three days, did not eat anything and dreamed of running away to France. Then I read biography of Tristan Tzara and reread the novels of Breton and Batay. Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist and anti-nationalist, escaped Romania during World War I to avoid being influenced by various nationalisms. I was thinking of doing the same, willing to abandon excessive attachment to Ukraine and feeling disappointed in my activities in my native country. “Why am I doing this? Ukraine is a cursed place today. I have to run, but what the hell is France? How do I get there?” I was thinking. The war broke out, and it became possible to leave for Germany. Be afraid, as they say, of your desires. Another novel that made an impression on me on the eve of the war is Limonov's "It’s Me, Eddie" about the unsuccessful life of a migrant from the USSR in New York. Some scenes from the novel in almost identical form happened to me in the first month of my stay abroad. I can't read fiction again yet.

***

This room was the first one I considered as an option. The residents are German students. The girl who had to leave the apartment was showing the room. The last thing she's going to show off is a large closet. Opening it, the girl begins to apologize, remembering that I am from Ukraine. I look deep into the closet and see... The Kremlin constructed of Lego. It makes me laugh. The girl studied in Moscow for some time. I started touching the Kremlin with my hand, waiting for something to happen. But nothing happened. In this apartment I was refused to move in.

***

The dream. Trying to escape from Ukraine through... Space. I made fake documents, as if I had already participated in space expeditions. After meeting a group of Ukrainian cosmonauts in an abandoned gym, I sit down with their commander on an old bench - the interview begins. I’m telling that I am a writer and I want to write a novel about space, and make a new Gagarin out of the commander. Having almost agreed to my participation in the expedition to the Moon, the commander takes out his phone and reviews my Facebook. When he sees the photo in the make-up, he politely says that he can't take me to the team. I turn around and look at his command. Pumped up, strong and rude men. Homophobes and transphobes. Disappointed, I leave the gym and realize that I am at some old Soviet training base. I want to pee. I find the toilet. The room is old, frozen and unlit. Along the entire wall, starting from the floor, various urinals are drawn close to each other. They come in different colors and sizes. It looks crazy and surreal. The upper part of the wall is covered with small old windows without glass, through which dim light breaks through. I start peeing, trying to get into all the urinals without exception. It fails. I'll simply fill the floor with urine. Meanwhile, the young guys begin to pass by the window. Like cosmonauts, they have brutal and, despite their age, courageous faces. I think they're schoolboys. They watch me pee and comment viciously on it. I can't understand a word, even though the guys speak Ukrainian. Over time, I see some strange physical abnormalities in the guys. Someone has hypertrophic muscular arms or legs, someone - even fingers or ears. Someone doesn't even have hands or eyes. I wake up.

***

In this city there are many people that in Odesa would have been called "city madmen". People with psychological features. The charismatic grandfather who took my backpack and went with it, wishing me "love and happiness". The man who constantly thinks that he is communicating on the phone. The young guy who digs through garbage cans and asks all passers-by something. I like to talk to them or just listen to them. Even if they use German, which I don't know yet. Sometimes, when I can't cope with bad thoughts, I go out for a walk early in the morning. I wander around the almost empty city, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Periodically, I stop near a building or sign and look at it stupidly. I sigh heavily, thinking that everything is gone and I need to start a new life from scratch. If a local passes by, I think he or she can easily identify me as one of the "city lunatics". Well, that's if he or she pays attention to me. Looking at strangers in Germany is considered even more indecent than in Ukraine.

***

Humanity, or at least it’s significant part, is rushing headlong into the abyss. The bloodiest war since World War II has only begun to unfold. The voices of pacifists and those who seek to avert tragedy are despised and marginalized. Even the post-war European consensus that a humiliating and bad peace is better than a terrible war has been broken and rejected. The possibility of using nuclear weapons no longer scares anyone. All parties, without exception, are held captive by the axiomatics of "national interests". Putin happily leads to the decisive point, others are happy to follow him. Waltz in the cemetery. This is reality. The recipe for the perfect storm. Bloody road map in the direction of the wrong turn. The last stop in the history of the world without Hitler. But I suddenly found a friend in this small German town. "What's wrong with not wanting people to kill and die?" she asks. "I don't know," I said thoughtfully. We started talking at the summer school farewell party and finally realized that we had spent most of that time talking to each other. She was dressed in black, and I asked if the girl had been interested in the gothic subculture in the past. She has a surprisingly lively face. The face is a theater. I haven't seen this in a long time. After exchanging phone numbers, we met again a few weeks later. We spent the whole evening and part of the night talking, walking around the city and sitting in a bar. We shared secrets, laughed, and talked about our lives. This is the first time I have had such an intimate and poignant long dialogue in a foreign language. Her native language is German, mine is Ukrainian and Russian, but we spoke English. How little speech matters when people are interested in each other and when they want to hear the other person. language in such cases, as it turned out, does not mean anything. It was a revelation. The evening city shone with rain and streetlights, and candles burned softly in the cheap bar. This city has an interesting history. It’s one of the few, if not the only, that the Nazi helmsman gave to the Soviet army without firing a single shot to prevent the death of civilians and destruction. In her hometown, which is located somewhere nearby, when the Red Army entered, the soldiers raped her grandmother. She told this the first time we met, at the party when the audience was discussing the Soviet legacy. Local anarcho-feminists have said they don't like the way the right-winged are trying to instrumentalize cases of rape by the Soviet army in order to present Germany as a victim of communists and thus spread russophobic sentiments. Any phobia is disgusting. My English is bad, but gradually, due to objective circumstances, I improve my level. My friend’s English is better, but it doesn't matter. When we sincerely strive for dialogue, language is a secondary factor. Language is just a pattern on the endless blanket of being that people pass through, and sometimes when politicians, national leaders, and other murderers order us to stop at one point, there is always a pattern that we will accidentally stop at and that will define and criminally restrict us from then on.The first time I crossed the border a few months ago, I was struck by how artificially divided the world was. There is a war going on a meter away, but there is no war here, at the Polish crossing. The borders are a convention marked on the face of the Earth by politicians and their armies, the blood of fallen soldiers, civilians, and raped women, men, and non-binary individuals. So it was, is and will be. How many lives of my acquaintances, friends and people close to me will be broken (if not already broken) or taken away by this war? I don't know. But in the morning, I remembered that a friend went to another city for a party on the weekend. Imagining how much fun she had there, I hope, my heart exploded with a fountain of marmalade, poplar fluff and splashes of warm overripe clouds in the early autumn sky. It made me feel better. Easier. Feelings that now rarely visit my heart.

***

A new portion of hate in my direction. My best friend publicly refused to be friends with me. It was a Facebook post. The post was liked by many of our mutual friends. He is an artist and queer director. Another friend of mine said I was a nit and a traitor. She's also a queer and director. They don't like that I'm not a nationalist or a militarist, and I also criticize Russophobia. Sad. 

***

Cigarette prices in Germany are not politically correct. 

***

I’m often haunted by the impression that women in Germany feel more confident and safer than in Ukraine. Perhaps this is an illusion. The European Union's high representative for Foreign Affairs and security policy, Borrel, argues that Europe is a garden, and most of what is located outside this "garden" is a jungle. Today, I think, there is no country or part of the world that does not consider itself a "garden", and others - a "jungle". However, in Germany, perhaps, the situation with women's rights is better. Or do I see it through my background? I come from a poor alcoholic family in which the mother was constantly crying, and the children were in a state of permanent insecurity. Misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and toxicity were the meaning of our family. I tried to get rid of all this for a long time, struggling with the past in myself. I hope that I was cured of most of the family "inheritance". I managed to cultivate a garden in myself, but that didn't stop me from feeling like i am a jungle. My former friends in Ukraine, it seemed to me, also grew a garden inside themselves, but the war forced them to stick mines, shells and barbed wire in it. And, perhaps, this is not war, but their conscious choice. That's why I feel as a lonely, abandoned, and nervous, but still unspoiled jungle. I hope that this jungle will soon be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Maybe it will add meaning to my life. 

***

A dream. I'm trying to get on the train. Everyone around is running, pushing, fighting with each other, just to get into the train as well. I can't do it, and the train starts moving away. In a state of despair, I follow the train with a sad look. "Don't worry," a voice suddenly says. Next to me I found a smart, middle-aged man in an old and strange hat. "It's not going anywhere. It will break," the man says, and walks away, humming something to himself. I wake up and look out the window. Warm autumn rain. The classes at the university are goind to begin this week. 

***

Ukraine is being bombed again.

\\

English translator: Oleksandra Lohvinova



  • Footnotes
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    Image: Vadym Yakovlev

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