Olena Stepova: Letter to a Russian Soldier’s Mother

This week’s StrongStory comes from Olena Stepova, a Ukrainian blogger writing from within the occupied territories of the Luhansk region.

Hello! I’m not really sure how to address you. You’re not my sister, we don’t have family in common, and you’re not my friend. You and I have never met, but I know you, I know of your existence. I saw you in the eyes of your son. But don’t worry! He is alright.

He was in a large military vehicle—one of the numerous ones driving around these days—headed for Mariupol. Serious, focused, albeit covered in dust and a bit worn out by the road and sun; thus a bit sad-looking, leaning on his machine gun as if propping himself up with it.

This vehicle was full of such boys: identical to one another, with floppy ears, in light-green uniform, with a hint of first facial hair and a tired indifferent gaze.

They asked me where to get water. I showed them:

– (in Ukrainan) Two streets down around the corner there’s a well in the yard, you can get some water there. Where are you boys from?

And then I drowned in his eyes: they became so large and deep, initially pulling me in and then forcefully pushing me out. They darkened, either with fear or panic, but in such a way that I could no longer see anything but them:

– (in Russian) Is this Ukraine?!—he exhaled. He already knew the answer to his question, but still posed it, hoping for a negative answer.

– (in Ukrainian) Yes, Ukraine.—I confirmed.

Silence. Just a movement of the lips, a flicker of pain and despair in the eyes. The soul does not accept this military command. It weeps, or just whispers, exhales like the wind in the steppe:

– Mama…

And I see you, in his eyes. Just a moment ago you were saying something, in your own world miles away, but then he exhaled the word “mama” and you shuddered and turned to face him… it couldn’t have been otherwise; part of your own soul was calling for you, and your heart skipped a beat calling back.

“Mama!”—we scream birthing a part of our soul, letting the world know we have fulfilled part of our duty in it. Then, we cry with joy when this part of us, with its bright eyes and wrinkled-up nose, says its first word, “Mama!”, reaching out to us. “Mama” is what we shout out when we are afraid, hurt, surrounded by darkness, trying to hold on to life, losing ourselves, losing others. “Mama!” cry our children in fear, helplessness, despair, pain, love, happiness, victory. The word at every life’s beginning and end is “Mama.”

I could see you and hear the voiceless call of your son, only because I myself am a mother.

I live in Ukraine; I have two daughters. I am a mother.

Your boy came to us for the war. Or rather, he came into the war: I cannot tell whether it was to kill or to be killed. At war it is one and the same: having soaked my land in blood, it is doubtful that his soul would live.

So you don’t believe in a soul, in God, in love? That is your right.

What will bring your boy back home to you? An order from his commander, or a disobedience of that order? Probably neither. Love and faith will bring him home.

Can you tell me, why did your son come to kill us on our own land? Why is he here, brandishing a firearm, instead of hugging his girlfriend back home? Why does he go through my steppe leaving grimacing and empty-eyed widows in his path?

Did I hurt you? Did I ruin your home? Did I break your heart, stealing your loved one? No. You and I have never met each other. So why the war then?

You know, at night after a battle, there are a lot of phones ringing here in the steppe. The living are calling the dead; they are the mothers calling their dead sons. It’s harrowing.

Here in Ukraine, we have the Bittern bird; people say that when this bird sings, it is mourning the unburied souls that wander the steppes unable to find peace. [ed: according to local beliefs, a soul will wander around restlessly until its body is properly buried and mourned.]

Here the women, as the mourners of the world, cry and mourn for those lying in the ditches and tall grass, those thrown down old coal-mines, those buried in trenches. We close their eyes and say a prayer for their souls to rest in peace. We don’t know whose children they are, whose husbands. Our land has absorbed them, and other details are irrelevant.

Do you know how frightening it is to stand on the side of the road and watch truckloads of these identical army boys go by? They arrive from your side of the border, speaking with their rounded O’s and sharp T’s [ed. characteristics of a Russian-Russian accent as perceived by a Ukrainian Russian speaker], frightened when they find out that they are in Ukraine. As fragile and pitiful as sparrows. These are the mandatory-service soldiers; they are yet afraid to kill.

Those that scan their surroundings as a bird of prey on the hunt are the contract soldiers. They already like to demonstrate their power, and they have tasted blood. This is visible by the flaring nostrils sniffing prey, and by the bolting eyes constantly on the lookout for death.

It is even more frightening to stand here on the side of the road and watch how these same transport vehicles return to the border. From their depths, overpowering the scent of benzene, tarp, and dust, is the sweet, all-consuming yet repulsive scent of rotting flesh. There is also wailing coming from these trucks; the wailing of those transported in them. Oh, how they cry! How they wail, exhaling their last breaths, soaking the road dust with the black tar of decay. The dead are riding with the dying, erasing all hope for life.

We don’t have any water, and it doesn’t rain often: we are a dry steppe with cracked arid land. The thirsty land laps up blood as greedily as it does water.

This is why the scarlet-brown path trailing from the transport vans, containing bits of curded black blood, will vanish into the dust mere minutes after the trucks have passed.

The earth takes in the sap of life from the rare rainfall, and the sap of death, which now feeds the steppes as an overflowing river; the earth drinks it all without discrimination. Ashes to ashes.

Fresh water sources are rare here: the coal mines have altered the natural flows of the underground rivers and have diverted the water away from this dry land gleaming with anthracite dust. We fear for the few remaining water sources. In this steppe, around the abandoned coalmines, we often see military vehicles with number plates smeared out by dust and blood. Our bottomless abandoned coalmines have become graves for nameless soldiers. For some reason, they are not transported back across the border, but instead laid to rest here. Now we are afraid that their decaying corpses will poison the last fresh water we have.

War is marching across my country, blackening and dehydrating it. And your boy is also here, in this hell. Why is he here? Is this his war?

I was told that Russian soldiers are “protecting Russian nationals”, here in Ukraine. From whom are they protecting us? I speak two languages: Russian and Ukrainian, or rather a mix of the two, as everybody speaks here. Before this humanitarian-military mission instigated by the insane leader of our neighboring country, I had everything: Summer, seaside, vacation, work, dreams, a home, groceries; my children had their school and safety. And now all we have is your son with his gun, and ruins.

I did not ask him for “protection”; I did not ask anybody to interfere with my life. Why is he here?

Are you crying? Did I upset you, disorient you, make you nervous? Did you not know that he is here, in the Ukrainian steppes, in the depths of this cauldron of hate and sorrow? Do you not want him to shoot at me?

My dear, we are women. Let me hold you, and let’s cry it out. We have something in common, something that is dearest to both of us: our children.

Don’t worry. Your son has left, alive. He got some water, even had time to wash his face before leaving. Though it’s difficult to wash off coal dust, he at least managed to wash away his tears; they glistened treacherously, leaving clean streaks on his dusty cheeks.

There, where he has gone, he will meet other regular village or city women, other mothers; pray that they will only have to give him water, and not have to close his eyes and mourn him.

My dear! You and I did not start the war. But we do not want to lose our children either, right?

I do not know how to stop those already on our land, who promise us a “humane protection” by means of death. I feel powerless to stop them. But perhaps together, in the name of our children and grandchildren, we can do something about it? Come here! Don’t wait for him or his body to return; don’t give him to the war. Come here! I do not want to wail and mourn and close his eyes, the eyes that will never see the stars or the steppe again.

You and I are probably of the same age, or you’re a bit younger, or a bit older, but that doesn’t matter. You and I are mothers. This world is ours. We gave life to it; who has the right to take it away from us? Nobody! So come here!

Come just as you are: in your apron, as a teacher, a physicist, a construction worker, a doctor, or a housewife. Mama, we have to fight for our children. Because the coalmines are bottomless, the steppes are endless, and sorrow is pointless. War makes everybody equal; only it brings to much sorrow with it.

Our children were not meant for war. Don’t you understand this? You and I have the same tears, bitter as the wormwood in our steppe and salty as your son’s sweat as he enters somebody else’s war.

Come! Come to the border, to our Ukrainian cities, protect your son and my children, as a dove protects its nest from the rain. There is no such thing as somebody else’s child, remember? Children are not meant for war.

Don’t talk to me about duty, honor. Duty means to protect your own country, and not to destroy somebody else’s. This is the meaning of shame. Don’t say anything, just come here!

You don’t want to come? Well, so be it then. We women are all different: some may turn away from grief, while others may enter a burning house to save somebody else’s child.

Just know that I, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, mother of Ukrainian children, will give your Russian-speaking son water, and if need be, I will close his eyes and mourn him for you. Because there is no such thing as other people’s children.

Olena Stepova, August 2014. Translated from Russian, original text here

Editor Redactie

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