UARU
“You Do Not Come Back from War”: How the Journalist Valeriia Burlakova Volunteered to Serve and Later Became a Writer
25 November, 2021
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Veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war Valeriia Burlakova and her sister-in-arms Kateryna Drapiata came to Lychakiv Cemetery, where their comrade-in-arms, singer Vasyl Slipak, is buried together with other Ukrainian servicemen Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

On 21 November 2013, a vast European Union flag appeared on the Budynok Profspilok (The Trade Unions Building). It reflected in puddles crossed by numerous pairs of wet boots. Every hour, more and more people were coming to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Someone kept shouting, “Revolution!”

One thought crossed the mind of a journalist who came here like many of her colleagues to gather materials about the beginning of protests: “Here we are again with this nonsense.” Several times she saw failed protests in Ukraine. That is why she did not believe that anything would come from people’s frustration growing in Kyiv city centre. But deep down inside, she understood it was the time to act, so she couldn’t just leave this place.

Лєра Бурлакова на Євромайдані

Lera Burlakova on Euromaidan. Photo: Iryna Tsvila / Facebook

Eight years later, she said, “We’ve got the changes we wanted.”

But at what price?

***

A woman appears on the platform. Short hair, dyed blonde, temples shaved, sharp cheekbones. She exits the train carriage holding a little boy by the hand. He is wearing a tiny yellow backpack, grasping her palm with one hand, and he carries a plastic suitcase with a toy first-aid kit in the other.

Лєра Бурлакова викликає таксі, стоячи разом із сином на привокзальній площі у Львові

Lera Burlakova calls a taxi, standing with her son on the station square in Lviv. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske
This woman’s short hair, tattoos and dark eyeliner make us unintentionally fill in other details of her biography in our heads. She could well be a rock star talking about her tours, drug-and-alcohol-fuelled rave parties and her crazy plans. But she carries an army backpack with patches and a sign saying ‘Lera’, written with a green highlighter.


Yes, of course, she is going to talk about tours and parties. But the tours were in the Donbas, and those parties were among ATO soldiers (the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone in the east of Ukraine). Instead of loud music, she heard the sobbing of her fellow soldier who said: “I’m tired of all this. I just want to die.” But for now, first she needs to smoke, and that is how she becomes human. Lera takes a deep breath and exhales all the fatigue of a night trip.

Лєра Бурлакова на шахті «Бутівка»

Lera Burlakova at the Butivka mine. Photo: Lera Burlakova / Facebook

You do not come back from war

Valeriia Burlakova is a veteran. Like many other soldiers, her story began at the Maidan (the Revolution of Dignity, 2013–2014). Back then, she was a reporter for Ukrainskyi Tyzhden (Ukrainian Week magazine) covering the protests.

The day when the Heavenly Hundred (participants of the Revolution of Dignity killed by the security officers) were shot, Lera was sent home just a few hours before the first death at the hands of snipers. She almost couldn’t stay on her feet, having not sleep for several days. Extreme fatigue and exhaustion caught her at her flat’s door. She woke up in the evening to the headlines already screaming about the bloodshed on Institutska Street.

“I had a wild feeling of guilt,” she explains. “That day, one could die for Ukraine. Instead, 17-year-old boys were killed while I was sleeping at home. I survived, but they didn’t. I didn’t know how to cope with that. So the war became my sort of salvation. It was the chance to prove there was a reason I stayed alive.”

Lera’s first attempts to go to the front line weren’t successful. For half a year, she was looking—in vain—for a unit to join. But she kept going to the east as a journalist. At the same time, she wasn’t giving up on finding her place in the Donbas—until finally in 2014, she got an opportunity to join a training of the Aydar Battalion. But nothing there bore any resemblance to what is shown in heroic military films. She didn’t participate in pre-army military drill sessions and didn’t have basic military schooling, so she failed to master Aydar training. While she was disassembling an assault rifle, her instructor said to her, “Don’t even pick it up; you are going to break it.” Everything was pointing to the fact that being a soldier is not her thing. But still, she never gave up.

Василь Сліпак, Михайло Лупейко (Ангел) і Лєра Бурлакова на Світлодарській дузі

Vasyl Slipak, Mykhailo Lupeiko (Angel) and Lera Burlakova on the Svitlodar Arc. Photo: Lera Burlakova / Facebook

Finally, Lera got what she wanted and joined an assault company of a volunteer battalion, Karpatska Sich (the Carpathian Sich). She called her editors while she was already in the Donbas and told them she quits. The editor-in-chief was surprised that it took her six months to leave. All of her relatives, friends and colleagues knew that sooner or later, she would go to the front line.

Since then, a kaleidoscope of military brigades, a change in rotations, Pisky, the Butivka mine, the industrial landscapes of the Donbas and a great love—all of these have taken root in her life forever.

Later, on 8 March 2016, she wrote in her diary: “The Road Back by Remarque, aside from some final pages about a forced happy ending, is all about how almost nobody comes back from war. Even if one stays alive.”

Лєра Бурлакова у Пісках

Lera Burlakova in Pisky. Photo: Lera Burlakova / Facebook


How did it all start?

“In the beginning, in 2014 and 2015, I was saved by the fact that I totally had no clue what’s going on,” Lera recalls. “One day, someone said that SPGs [tripod-mounted anti-tank recoilless guns] were firing at us. I asked in response, ‘What is SPG?’” Saying this, Lera blinks as naively as a doll and rounds her surprised eyes.

She remembers how she got to Pisky for the first time: a grey, underground city where everyone lived in basements. Most of the houses became broken piles of iron and bricks lying on the ground.

“I was terrified. If anyone asked me whether I thought I would survive this winter, I would probably say no. I remember asking the commander, ‘What is it like, a missile in flight?’ He answered: ‘It will whistle. You hear a whistle, you lie down.’ When I first heard a missile flying, I looked up and said, ‘Woooow.’ But later, I got used to it.”

Лєра Бурлакова разом із посестрою Катериною Драп’ятою на Світлодарській дузі

Lera Burlakova together with her sister in arms Kateryna Drapiata on the Svitlodar arc. Photo: Lera Burlakova / Facebook

Lera believes that you get used to everything on the front line—and to the fact that sometimes you need to melt the snow to bathe. And that instead of a bed, you have wooden boxes covered with blankets. And that you also may not live to see the morning.

She supposes that death becomes a part of everyday life. At some point, you just realize that someone was killed today, and tomorrow they may refer to you as ‘number two hundred’ (meaning 200 kg, the standard weight of a coffin with a body, used as military slang to describe a killed soldier). A two and two zeros tally up the life of each soldier. Of course, there are times when anxiety prevails over common sense. Then you want to run as far as possible. But there is nowhere to retire: only the enemy and missiles are around.

Lera recalls the day when a film crew came when her unit was on rotation. Suddenly, heavy fire began. As everything calmed down, the journalists quickly picked up their equipment and said, “We will probably go.” According to the filming plan, the team was supposed to stay the night with the soldiers. Instead, the journalists considered the environment too rough, so they would better spend the night in a hotel.

“And then you realize that some people can simply leave this place because they want to live, and then there is you, who cannot escape. And then I was asking myself unintentionally, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But that’s just a low moment, when I was just looking back to the Maidan, to all those who died and why it all began.”

Лєра Бурлакова і Анатолій Гаркавенко (Морячок) на шахті «Бутівка»

Lera Burlakova and Anatoly Garkavenko (Moriachok) at the Butivka mine. Photo: Lera Burlakova / Facebook
Her voice while talking about her killed and injured fellow soldiers is flat and a bit distant. Mif was killed by a sniper, Rozpysnyi died under mortar fire, Angel had his legs blown off… She had no energy to cry or be in hysterics. There is no other way to survive in war.

“How do people go through the loss of a loved one outside the war? Tears, screams, ‘I’ll get drunk, my friend died’ routine, right? On the front line, you would have to do it every single week.”

Lera is sure that death is just the end because the one who died loses everything in an instant. But it’s a much deeper wound for his dear ones he’s left behind: those who will miss him and those he will miss.

Лєра Бурлакова підписує примірники книги «Життя P.S.», розмовляючи  актрисою Мар'яною Кучмою у гримерці Львівського національного театру імені Крушельницької

Lera Burlakova signs copies of the book "Life P.S.", talking to actress Maryana Kuchma in the dressing room of the Lviv National Theater named after Krushelnytska. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

A letter

We are in the chamber hall of a theatre. It is small; you take a few steps and are already on stage, looking the actors in the eye. Three short calls signal the start of the show. Spectators enter in complete darkness, so they are looking for their places using phone flashlights.

A streak of soft light from the spotlight flows down the stage, illuminating a small female figure. This is Lera. In this play, Maryana Kuchma, the Maria Zankovetska Drama Theatre actress, plays her role.

Актриса Мар'яна Кучма тримає афішу вистави «Життя P.S.» за книгою Лєри Бурлакової

Actress Maryana Kuchma holds a poster for the play "Life P.S." based on the book by Lera Burlakova. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Zhyttia P.S. (Life P.S.) is a play based on the book of the same title. Lera Burlakova wrote it after the death of her fiancé. His name was Anatoly Garkavenko, with the call sign Moriachok. With two of his fellow soldiers, he was on a demining mission near Avdiivka, where a 25-year-old boy hit a mine tripwire.

When they took Moriachok’s body to the morgue, Lera returned to the Butivka mine. Most of all, she wanted to be alone, to think over everything. But the door to her room did not close. Over and over again, fellow soldiers were coming in with clumsy attempts to calm her down and comfort her: they offered cognac and hugs, engaged her in some personal conversation and asked her questions like, “What do you feel now?”

“It was unbearable,” Lera admits. “There was no way they could leave me alone. So I was pretending to be a super busy person. I picked up my phone and started typing something there. But I had nothing to text. And to no one. So I decided to write a letter to Moriachok. When I was finally alone at night, I continued writing to him. Talking to him.”

And that lasted for 40 days.

Лєра Бурлакова курить на проспекті Свободи у Львові

Lera Burlakova smokes on Svobody Avenue in Lviv. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

These letters became a kind of therapy for Lera, helping her cope with the loss. She calls this writing “a mission she invented for herself.”

“This way, I could not just go into the woods to kill myself. Because I needed to finish this story. I had a higher calling.”

As a result, the letters became a book published in 2018. Lera donated the money she got for the book to the needs of soldiers in the east. The publishing of these letters, which was a spontaneous act because she wasn’t going to publish them, led to yet another unexpected turn. Mariana Kuchma asked her to share her army experience, to tell what it is like to be a woman on the front line. She wanted to make a play about this. However, Lera refused because, as it seemed to her, she was lucky. After all, the males around her always took her as a tomboy, so they treated her accordingly.

Instead, she sent her book in response to Maryana’s request. Lera thought the playwrights would get some daily army routines, nothing more. But a few days later, the phone rang. It was Mariana. Lera recalls her genuine surprise when she heard a sob on the other end of the line, and Mariana asked her permission to create a play based on the book Zhyttia P.S. Lera had no good reason to say no. First, she wanted as many people as possible to know about this story, as well as about the stories of other dead soldiers.

“That is because Moriachok was a true soldier. Most of us were just pretending to be a soldier. We had to be there, to do something, to stay strong. Some people seem to be born for war; they don’t think what to do and how to do it, and it is their only life. They believe in the victory, but they don’t shout that on the streets,” Lera explains.

“Lerika! Le-ri-ka!” Moriachok’s love fills the dark corners of the theatre. Today, we hear the voice of actor Oles Fedorchenko, a tall man standing in the dark, wearing military pants and a T-shirt.

Mariana Kuchma loses her temper, screams and falls to her knees.

“We have no-o-othing left,” the male voice says behind her. Spectators shudder. Some of them look down. A woman’s sobbing breaks the silence.

Лєра Бурлакова сидить разом із сином біля локації «Ветеранська книга» на проспекті Свободи у Львові

Lera Burlakova sits with her son near the Veterans' Book location on Svobody Avenue in Lviv. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Lera and Moriachok were going to leave, get married and have children. At the end of January 2016, when they announced their engagement, they were never allowed to go home. The commander said, “You’ll have enough time to do that.”

Later in a letter to her beloved, Lera wrote: “All the way, I sit next to your coffin. Endless highways. Coffee at gas stations, I go there in your jacket. Someone yells at me “Holes, blood, dirt and people all around ... what are you doing?”

“‘There is war in my country,’ I answer.”

People leave the chamber hall in silence. 

Someone wipes away tears, taking their coat from the cloakroom. They gently start a conversation about the east and begin to share their experiences. “And our Andriy has been there for three years”, and “My Serhiy was severely injured and then hospitalized”. They say it in hallways—memories of collective pain spill out into the cold street with people in autumn clothing.

In the chamber hall for a few minutes more, there are Lera’s bitter words: “I want you to be alive so much. Even if you had no legs. But alive.”

Військовий рюкзак Лєри Бурлакової із нашивками

Lera Burlakova's military backpack with patches. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Returning

For many veterans, returning to civilian life is an even worse challenge than being on the front line. The war experience leaves its marks, sometimes physical and almost always mental, leading to problems with adaptation and PTSD, which bother you in various ways.


“At first, I couldn’t force myself to take off my military uniform,” Lera explains. “I thought that if I did that, I would become like all these people who were not on the front line, who walk the streets, choose souvenirs and sit in peace in a cafe when soldiers die in the east. I was afraid that a soldier would decide that I was the same.”


Lera recalls how she went to Moriachok’s funeral in Delyatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. In the local school, as in hundreds of others in Ukraine, there was a Heavenly Hundred memorial, a yellow-and-blue flag and a portrait of the late Anatoly Garkavenko. And a caption like: “This is our best graduate. He died on the front line. Let’s all be as brave as he was.”

Lera describes the event: “We stand there, and I notice the deputy head teacher, who can’t stop crying. At first, I thought that maybe it was because of Moriachok. But then I heard her say, ‘Son... son...’ I couldn’t understand what was the matter. I asked her, ‘Is your son on the front line?’ She said no, she was just afraid they would send him there. How ironic! You hang heroes’ portraits and write eloquent words, so you are proud of them, but you don’t really want them to go there.”

Лєра Бурлакова у фойє Львівського національного театру імені Крушельницької

Lera Burlakova in the lobby of the Lviv National Theater named after Krushelnytska. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske
It’s been four years, but Lera hasn’t shortened the distance between civilians and the military. In 2017, fatigue and frustration finished her off, so she made the final decision to leave the Donbas.

“We were transferred to the 46th Donbas-Ukraine Assault Battalion. Although the unit was fantastic, we found ourselves in a field near Mariupol, and there was no work. It was for months. I did not understand what I was doing there, and I didn’t do any good. It was a shame to receive a salary because I did not earn this money. So I decided it was time to go to Kyiv.”

Since her return, Lera has worked as a journalist. The war is still close to her, but she transformed it into texts and conversations. Lera records veterans’ memories: some are to be published, others are just for herself. She says it helps her to feel and understand what they have overcome. She doesn’t believe that her work could change something, but she can’t give up on writing.

“Now, the most valuable moments for me are those when I see a person opening up, when they trust me and become ready to say something very personal and priceless. Not heroic, no. For example, one soldier was telling me about a day he was freezing somewhere in the snow in the woods at Svitlodarka. He was almost out cold when he imagined semi-consciously a girl he knew, wearing a red dress. Then he realized it was time to snap back to reality.”

This honesty gives her wings.

Lera Burlakova smokes on the square in front of the Lviv Opera House. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Meanwhile, her book has a mind of its own. People related to the story full of pain spilled on the pages of Lera’s diary—this year, Lera received the special Women in Arts Award. She became the first woman veteran to receive this award—as a woman who is not a professional artist but has made an important contribution to Ukrainian culture. Numerous media outlets published reviews of Life P.S. A fellow journalist, who was also at the front line, called this publication “the strongest and the most honest book about the war in the Donbas” because it was written in simple, unpathetic words by an eyewitness, presented in an original style and vivid language. But art for Lera is not something she does for accolades and awards. She dreams of something else.

Мурал із зображенням Василя Сліпака на стіні одного з будинків на вулиці Дорошенка у Львові. Його помітили випадково, сідаючи на трамвай, який їхав до Личаківського цвинтаря

A mural depicting Vasyl Slipak on the wall of one of the houses on Doroshenko Street in Lviv. It was spotted by accident while getting on a tram going to Lychakiv Cemetery. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

When it comes to dreams, Lera changes markedly. She smiles and jokes more. She and her fellow men and women soldiers are now discussing the idea of creating a sanctuary for ex-soldiers—a place for veterans who have problems with accommodation so that they can have at least some kind of roof over their heads.


“Moreover, we have a lot of guys from Donetsk who have nowhere to go on vacation,” she explains. “Go to an unknown city to rent someone’s empty apartment? Yeah, and sit there alone. I talked to volunteer Lyuba Shipovych, who works on the Veteranius project. She believes that they should adapt to society, so there is no need for a separate bubble for veterans.”

Lera stops talking.

“I have been living among people from 2017 to 2021. Perhaps I myself have adjusted. I don’t yell at anybody anymore, ‘Hey, I was a soldier!’ But there is a thought in my head that I want to go back and be surrounded by my people.”

Лєра Бурлакова з сином та її посестра Катерина Драп’ята йдуть до Личаківського цвинтаря

Lera Burlakova with her son and her sister in arms Kateryna Drapiata go to Lychakiv Cemetery. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske
Therefore, her biggest goal now is a nook in the dense greenery, far outside the city, where she plans to build a community. Let it be small, temporary. It doesn’t matter. Lera jokes that she imagines this place with recycling bins and solar panels—such a utopian patch of the ideal world.

“An abandoned village somewhere in the Chernihiv region would perfectly fit. We could gather together at least in the summer while it is warm outside. We could relax, talk to a psychologist and feel at home. There are a lot of veterans who don’t have a sense of home. Anywhere. I want them to have someone waiting for them.”

Лєра Бурлакова з сином та її посестра Катерина Драп’ята біля могили Василя Сліпака на Личаківському цвинтарі у Львові

Lera Burlakova with her son and her sister Kateryna Drapiata near the grave of Vasyl Slipak at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

A dragon has eaten them

It is wet at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. Water drips from the crosses tied with yellow and blue ribbons. In some places, the grave candles burn. Suddenly a tiny yellow backpack appears in the rainy grey. Four-year-old Timur walks hand in hand with his mother. Like before, on the platform, he grasps her palm with one hand, and with the other, he carries flowers this time.

Another person near them is Lera’s fellow soldier, Kateryna Drapiata. Her call sign is Zelena (the Green). They pick up these names from the east and use them in civilian life, so these names are their second skin now. Zelena was the first person Lera saw after Moriachok died. She told her: “Do not go there. He is two hundredth.” Later she became her close friend, someone she could be silent with.


This modest delegation goes to the field of honorary burials, the resting place of the fallen soldiers killed during the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. Lera stops at the grave of Vasyl Slipak (call sign Mif) and greets him with a short smile. She lights two cigarettes: one is for herself, and the other one she puts on Mif’s tombstone. The girls talk, remembering the moments they had on the front line. Timur looks around, frowning, and asks, “Mom, where is Mif?”

“He is here, my darling. In the ground.”

Лєра Бурлакова разом із сином вертаються під дощем із Личаківського цвинтаря у місто

Lera Burlakova and her son are returning to the city in the rain from Lychakiv Cemetery. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko / hromadske

Lera has a rule for raising children: to be honest.

“I do my best to explain adult things to him, and I’m not sure if I always do that well. Sometimes I try to speak about the war, weapons and so on. We talked about the Heavenly Hundred, and I told him about these people. He decided somehow a dragon had eaten them.”

She did not object.

/ The project was implemented with the support of UN Women Ukraine, the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine.