Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

From I Love Russia, which was published last month by Penguin Press. Translated from the Russian. Kostyuchenko is a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper.

I am five, I am in preschool. It’s winter. We’re playing war. The big hill of snow is the fortress, it’s full of Germans. We storm it. There aren’t many, nobody wants to be one of the fascists, but they have the tactical advantage—it’s a lot easier defending a fortress. Snowballs are flying in every direction. All of the boys are fighters. I also wanted to be a fighter, but they only let me play nurse. Because I’m a girl. I drag the wounded off the battlefield. The wounded are covered in snow and laughing.

I’m ten, I’m watching a movie. It’s called Only Old Men Are Going into Battle. It’s about courageous young fighter pilots, they’re very handsome, fighting the fascists up in the sky. The movie is black-and-white and every face in it seems to be sculpted from light. The pilots die, but heroically, majestically, going up in clouds of black smoke. I’m not even thinking, I am all feeling: Wow, this is so great, what a life.

I am thirteen, there’s a funeral on our street. A young man was killed—only yesterday he was a schoolboy. They enlisted him, sent him to Chechnya, and he got killed. I ask our neighbor Lenya, Who killed him? The Chechens. Why? Because there’s a war there. With whom? With the terrorists. Wow, I think. Killing terrorists is even cooler than killing fascists. Although maybe not, killing fascists is actually cooler. Or maybe terrorists? Poor guy, of course. He is, of course, a hero. But Lenya’s exaggerating about the war. On TV, they call it a “counterterrorism operation.” If there was really a war, we would know about it.

I am fourteen and I’m reading an Anna Politkovskaya article about Chechnya. Holy fuck.

I am fourteen and I’m reading the books of Svetlana Alexievich. Holy shit.

I am seventeen and I am a student in the journalism department. I’m sitting on the sidelines of an international rights strategy game. Teams from various colleges have come to participate in the game. The team from Chechnya is two girls, Asya and Malika. They are so serious and beautiful. I go up to them after the game and invite them over. We go to my dorm room, I make them tea. I really want them to like me. I tell them, Let me show you around Moscow! And just as I’m saying that, as if I’d planned it, fireworks start going off outside. Look, fireworks! Look! I look out the window and say, Here in Moscow, we have fireworks all the time. The girls don’t say anything. I turn around and they’re gone. Where did they go? They’re under the table.

I’m twenty and Russia attacks Georgia. The president says that this is a peacekeeping mission, because Georgia attacked South Ossetia. Three correspondents go down there from Novaya. Me and three other girls are assigned to the news feed. I need to verify all of the information and write up briefs. I also need to follow the movements of our correspondents, receive breaking news from them, and report to them on the movements of the Russian and Georgian troops. It’s very scary deciding which information is critical and needs to be shared with our people on the ground and what I shouldn’t bother them with. What if one of them gets wounded because of me? Or killed? I can’t sleep for three nights.

I’m twenty-three. I travel to Egypt to cover the revolution. I see people burning alive after being hit with Molotov cocktails. I see flying stones ripping off people’s fingers and ears, breaking holes through their skulls. Then the shooting starts.

I’m twenty-six and the war in the Donbas begins. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine announce that they are now independent republics, the DNR and the LNR. Ukraine has started its own “antiterrorist operation,” and the “republics” respond in kind. Russia says that it doesn’t have any soldiers there, claiming Ukraine is fighting with its own citizens.

I am twenty-seven, I go to the Donbas. I call my mother from the plane, I was too scared to call her before. I thought that Mama was going to scream and cry. Instead she says, Have you written down my contact information in your passport? Cover your passport in plastic wrap and always carry it with you, but not in your purse, in your clothes. Try to get in touch with me at least once a day, even if it’s only a text. Drink water. Seek warmth, stick next to hospitals, avoid army vehicles. Did you bring any antibiotics? You need to get your hands on some tourniquets.

I see war. Heavy machinery breaks through the top layer of soil and light-brown mud rises up through the cracks. It covers everything: people, cars, buildings, dogs. So many abandoned dogs. So many sleepless people with weapons.

I’m caught in the shelling twice. I learn that I can run on all fours. I glide along in long leaps, like in a dream, my body is agile and limber, I don’t believe that I’m going to die.

I’m thirty-four. In Moscow I sleep and I have vivid dreams. I get up and smoke. My girlfriend is sitting up in our bed looking at her phone. I can’t read her facial expression. Why aren’t you sleeping? They’re bombing Kyiv. What? They’re bombing Kyiv and all of the major cities in Ukraine. We’re bombing them? We’re bombing them.

I sleep for two more hours, I make myself sleep. I get dressed and go to the office. They ask, Are you ready? Of course I am.

But really, it is impossible to be ready for being the fascists. I was not ready for this at all.

| View All Issues |

November 2023

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now