IN CHIȘINĂU, MOLDOVA, ON THE CRACKED asphalt of the wide but empty central street, a wrinkled old man sold a hammer, a rusty screwdriver, two Soviet history textbooks, an old VHS tape, and a bunch of rainbow-colored rubber balls in a crinkled plastic bag. The objects, arranged at an even distance on a red tablecloth, looked like Inquisition torture tools, surgical instruments, or an exhibit of communist artifacts.
This makeshift street market threw me back to the 1990s post-Soviet Union limbo space: empty, dim-lit stores, coarse soap, stale bread. Back then, I once saw a woman selling a severed cow’s head in Red Square in Moscow. The Kremlin’s Sauron tower reflected in the purplish-white of the bovine’s dead, convex eye. The woman and the cow shared the same desperate look as the man in Chișinău. No one knew what was happening in that post-Soviet period. It was a dead cow realm. And now once again, no one knew what was happening.
On February 24, the Russian Federation started a full-scale invasion of sovereign Ukraine, claiming “demilitarization” and “denazification” of a thriving, young democracy. Uncertainty prevailed.
IT WAS MARCH, JUST WEEKS after the initial invasion, as I walked past people selling nails, shoes, and handkerchiefs on my way toward an expo center turned Ukrainian refugee shelter to interview those fleeing Ukraine. This was the beginning of my reporting on the Russian war of aggression. Two toddlers danced to a Ukrainian love song in a parking lot. Kids played soccer in front of an abandoned building, shaggy dogs running alongside them. A lost doll stared into the sky from the artificial green grass of an empty playground.
After nine months of traveling around Ukraine, I have come to understand that war feels inconceivable in its entirety. Too epic to contemplate as whole. So I have instead begun to seek the truth about existence during wartime by examining familiar objects snatched by explosions from their habitual context. As reality shatters into a million senseless shards, the meaning of one’s life is rearranged and reassessed midflight, constantly changing.
AT THE END OF MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI’S 1970 classic Zabriskie Point, a villa blows up in the desert. Everyday things float in slow motion through the blue sky to the wild screams of Pink Floyd: a book, pages churning, then the whole library; a raw chicken, legs spread out shamelessly; summer dresses like a flock of flamingoes. Viewers are to understand that the death of this stuff represents the purification of revolution and the damnation of consumerism. Like the film’s young Daria, I always watched this execution of daily life and the material world with compassion, even excitement. In movies, metaphors are often beautiful.
Finding a photograph of a family killed by shelling is not.
THE FIRST TIME I REPORTED FROM a shelled building, I couldn’t take my eyes off the windows. The broken glass shards looked like teeth. This was in Odesa, on the eve of Russian Orthodox Easter. As I approached my corner bakery, the ground shook, and a rumbling roar filled the street. An elderly woman, pulling down her beret, ran into the bakery mumbling “the horror, the horror!” I took a video of the shaking street and stepped inside after her. The air smelled of vanilla. A sales lady in a crisp white uniform asked the old woman not to lean on the counter with the sprinkled Easter cakes. A blonde in a purple velveteen tracksuit asked if they were fresh. Outside, a woman sold tulips and carnations on the corner—she didn’t look up from her phone during the explosions.
You don’t forget your first bombing. The stench of things burning. For a moment, all your senses are overwhelmed. Then, it’s scarily mundane. A cardboard box filled with crumbled Easter cakes by a pile of concrete rubble—the white icing smudged and ruined, the amber rich insides glittered with glass splinters and raisins. It reminded me of a line by Isaac Babel, an Odesa author who wrote of gangsters and revolutionaries: “Her sponge cakes had the aroma of crucifixion.” I walked around, filming the exposed interiors and taking snapshots of what used to be private. Secret lives—secret no more.
I found intimate things under the rubble and cement dust, things thrown into public view without shame or scruple; A pinkish bra on a twisted iron bar. A torn page from an article about black holes, all scientific lingo, atop it a shred of a bright blue silk shawl. A fluffy bath towel. Golden curtain tassels. Fragments of the missile itself, melted black, sharp, and endlessly ugly. Ordinary objects lose their comforting meaning when taken out of the context of daily life. They start a new life: existing as symbols.
In the silent, empty courtyard, a pink baby stroller idled in the middle of a playground. A baby was killed here that day, along with her mother and grandma. Had this been her stroller? A young boy sat on the squeaking swings.
IN JUNE, I DROVE TO MYKOLAIV for an interview with Olga Malarchuk, a military spokesperson for the Mykolaiv Oblast administration. We stayed in a shelter for two hours as rockets fell on the city. After the air raid ended, Olga took us to the ruins of the Mykolaiv main administrative building. Time stood still as we walked through what used to be a high-rise. A bright blue sky bled through a giant hole in the middle. The now iconic office building was frozen in a moment; life stopped there on a spring day around 9 a.m. Duchamp has nothing on a Russian Kh-22, a supersonic anti-ship missile.
All around me, the symbols of Ukraine’s resistance: A high-heeled shoe by the entrance—the exodus of Ukrainian women, who had to flee to the west, saving their children. A framed photo of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, crooked, on a bloodstained wall of a ruined office—Ukraine’s European dream, an allegiance paid in blood. Greek amphora replicas in the courtyard, intact, amid rubble and chaos—the transience of time. Ukraine’s ancient history sends a reassuring message: the country will live long past the hordes from the east retreat back.
This language made sense of the senseless. Yet, grasping the feeling of dread, of misplaced—or foregone—humanity is a failed hunt for meaning. There is no meaning in war: The sound of the map flapping on the floor of a room with no walls. The dead silence of an office telephone, the receiver slightly off the hook. The scent of a perfume bottle, forgotten on a shelf. The emptiness.
Read more about the war in Ukraine from Zarina and others here.