Culture during the War. The West: story of Andriy Lyubka, Ukrainian writer and volunteer from Uzhgorod

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Mutual aid is one of the key factors in how Ukrainians are valiantly resisting Russian aggression. Many settlements in regions far from the front became shelters for people who had to leave their homes because of the war, and millions are collected every day for the needs of the Armed Forces. While one person helps by continuing to do what they have been doing even before February of 2022, another has radically changed their life and is doing things that are unusual for them.

This material is a part of the documentary project Culture during the War, which comprises a series of videos and articles focusing on the culture of the West, East, North, South, and Center of Ukraine. The first series centres on the West and consists of two parts. Today, we will explore how cultural figures in Uzhgorod and Chernivtsi have found different ways to contribute to the country during these challenging times.

This article spotlights the writer and translator Andriy Lyubka, who, despite having a substantial readership, has become a volunteer raising funds for vehicles for the Armed Forces, purchasing and delivering these vehicles to the front lines.

Andriy Lyubka, writer and volunteer from Uzhgorod

Ukrainian writer and translator Andriy Lyubka began volunteering when the full-scale invasion began. The front lines consistently require vehicles, and Andriy has taken on this responsibility.

— My primary current endeavour involves reviving the car market in Great Britain. I purchase cars, typically diesel jeeps, diesel pickups, and minibuses, prepare them for use in combat zones, and then provide them to official army units. This is now my main and, perhaps, most productive occupation.

It all started with a pre-Easter call to a friend who had joined the Armed Forces in February 2022 and was already fighting in the East of Ukraine by the end of March. Easter being a significant holiday, Andriy decided to send his friends some traditional meat dishes that are essential for Carpathian Easter baskets, including a traditional shovdar (salted, boiled pork leg), and homemade sausages smoked over fruitwood. The main challenge was the lack of transportation to deliver these products. They decided to purchase a pickup truck and initiated a fundraising campaign on Facebook. After posting the request, Andriy’s phone was flooded with notifications. He turned it off for the night, and by morning, he had received enough funds on his card to buy two cars.

— They made the decision for me; I didn’t plan on dealing with cars. If it were just one car, I would have bought it, loaded it with sausages, and that would have been the end of it. But since I had enough money for another car in my account, it added an extra layer of responsibility.

Finding a second car was not easy. As you may know, during martial law, there are restrictions on men of conscription age leaving the country, and almost no one had special volunteer permits to cross the border. Those who could select a car on the spot and organise the necessary documentation were scarce. Nonetheless, the process had begun. Soldiers, their spouses, and mothers wrote to Andriy under his post, informing him that the car had reached the front and requesting his assistance.

— By the summer [of 2022 — ed.], I had purchased 20 cars. By Independence Day on August 24th, there were 50 of them. In other words, the pace had accelerated, and it became increasingly intense. In October, I realised that I could theoretically buy another 50 cars, and by New Year’s, there could be 100. It was hard to wrap my head around the idea, but I decided to set such a goal for myself.

Andriy achieved his goal, and the number of cars he purchases increases every week. In addition to collecting funds and buying cars, they need to be repaired, painted, and delivered to the military. Each trip involves thousands of kilometres, four days of travel, approximately one hundred thousand hryvnias for fuel for ten cars, and some time set aside to return to their regular routines. At the time of this interview, Andriy was preparing for his 21st trip to the East and summarised the year’s activities:

— 20 trips of 3500 kilometres each amounts to 70 thousand kilometres per year. That means we practically circumnavigated the globe twice, just driving around in volunteer cars.

When Andriy says “we,” he is referring to the people who search for and drive the cars, including the core team members Ivan Matskanych and Yurii Kupriianchuk. Ivan, an auto mechanic, used to work on Andriy’s personal car. When the first car destined for the front arrived, Andriy also brought it to Ivan. Ivan dropped everything else he was doing and started fixing the car, completing it by that evening. Since then, he has been responsible for repairing each one. Yurii was involved from the summer of 2022 until February 2023, after which he joined the Offensive Guard. Friends jokingly say that he has a better work-life balance there than when he was a volunteer.

Offensive Guard
The recruitment campaign of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, aiming at forming new assault brigades that will liberate the territories of Ukraine temporarily occupied by Russia.

Slovak Roma play a crucial role in the process of acquiring cars for the Armed Forces, with Andriy purchasing most of the vehicles from them. The prices are relatively low, but how is this achieved? On a specific day each month, the British discard household appliances that are still in working condition. The Roma community collects these appliances and transports them to Eastern Europe. Flights to Great Britain are affordable, but return trips, especially with a lot of luggage, can be quite expensive. It’s more cost-effective to purchase a car, drive it back, and then sell it. The Slovak Roma have even begun checking specific technical criteria and buying only cars suitable for military use, such as four-wheel drive vehicles in good condition.

— A car like that is about a third cheaper than if I were to buy it, for example, in Germany.

Ilko, a Ukrainian from a Romanian village, also contributes, particularly when there’s a need for more specialized vehicles like ambulances, buses, or armored cars. He’s willing to travel extensively across Europe to find what is required. Additionally, there are several individuals ready to serve as drivers for these vehicles. They typically travel in a convoy of ten cars and one bus (the drivers return home in the bus). As they approach military deployment points, they disperse to avoid becoming easy targets for the enemy.

— Most of the Zakarpattians travelling with us are visiting Donbas for the first time. These volunteer trips have enabled us to become familiar with the now-deoccupied territories: the Izium region, Kupian region, areas near the Russian border in Chernihiv, Sumy regions, Mykolaiv region, and Kherson region. We often spend the night with the military. Some of these locations are marked on maps, while others are not. It’s a journey of discovery in Ukraine, exciting, but we always adhere to safety rules.

Andriy maintains only a Facebook page for collecting donations to purchase cars. Most of the contributions come from people who know him as a writer. Up to 80% of the donors had previously ordered his books and attended festivals and performances. While the number of donors has increased and diversified, many still make regular payments. Andriy mentions a music school teacher in Uzhgorod named Maria, and he can tell when she’s been paid by the timing of her contributions.

Andriy underscores that each vehicle involves a significant amount of resources and people, and he is consistently amazed by how much has been accomplished. However, he has not established a foundation because he primarily identifies as a writer, and such an endeavour would demand much more of his involvement.

— I still hope not to be a volunteer someday. I genuinely hope that, at some point, the need for such active volunteering will disappear, and the State will be able to adequately support its military without relying so heavily on citizens’ active assistance.

Andriy doesn’t see the necessity of creating his own public organisation because he imports all the cars with the legal support of the NGO of Ski Coaches. From the very first car purchase, he established a separate account.

Andriy admires the Ukrainian volunteering phenomenon but dreams of victory so that this phenomenon can become obsolete. He advocates for the development of a high-quality and flexible state management model that can respond effectively to crises.

— A volunteer is like a poet who finds inspiration to contribute to the common good once a week. He dedicates a couple of hours, writes a poem, and that’s it. When a volunteer becomes merely a labourer who works incessantly, it’s not right. He ceases to be a volunteer; instead, he should function as hired managers within a structured system designed for such work.

But Andriy didn’t cease his volunteer work for two reasons: he considers the needs of the military more important than pondering the efficiency of the state, and he recognizes that his public profile is helpful because it’s becoming increasingly challenging for military families to raise funds.

The first car was delivered at the beginning of May 2022. I used to be in the ATO zone as a writer, but so much has changed that it was daunting to transition from relatively peaceful Uzhhorod to a war zone full of unknowns.

The Anti-Terrorist Operation was a series of measures initiated by Ukrainian security forces in 2014 to counter illegal Russian and pro-Russian armed groups during the war in eastern Ukraine. Since 2018, it has transformed into the Joint Forces Operation.

— I didn’t know what awaited us and what life was like because all we saw in the news were images of explosions and destruction. To be honest, it was a bit frightening… but once we arrived, a different phase of the journey began.

Initially, I drove without a co-driver, listening to music and splashing myself with water to stay awake, combatting fatigue and the monotonous hum of the wheels. Along with sleeping bags, food, and essentials, Andriy and volunteer drivers brought packages from home to soldiers containing jam, children’s drawings, and various small tokens of support.

— The friend, to whom we delivered the first car, lives just two kilometres from the Slovak border of the European Union, and suddenly, we found ourselves in Donbas. There was a sense of joy and a connection between the home front and the front lines

They often stayed overnight with the military due to roadblocks that prevented them from planning trips to depart before dawn. During these moments, they had the opportunity to converse. Despite the constant fear and explosions, the volunteers became less apprehensive over time, whereas the soldiers, who had been civilians only a month before, had grown accustomed to the situation.

Over time, the trips became routine, and Andriy experienced burnout in January 2023. The war persisted, and so did the constant requests for assistance. Power outages occurred, and his partner announced plans to join the army. According to Andriy, routine work allowed him to avoid deep reflection because thinking about it could be unsettling.

— I met many people this year who passed away. I stopped attending military funerals for a while because it became a regular occurrence and was unbearable.

Throughout 2022, Andriy was supposed to be on scholarships in Poland and Canada, working on a historical novel. Instead, his writing was limited to short posts about the cars he purchased and a few essays, one of which has already been translated into 16 languages. He aims to return to writing, even if it’s in diary format, to capture more than just “there was a counteroffensive” but also the forgotten and unrecorded everyday moments, the essence of life during wartime, people’s expressions, and humorous situations, which are particularly dear to him.

— And then we arrived at our destination, and I said to a driver named Yura, “Could you make some sandwiches? We need something to eat.” Yura left, stood off to the side somewhere, spread something out, started cutting something, opened a can… and cut his finger. I went over to him, and he was bandaging his finger. I said, “Yura, in 50 years, when your grandchildren ask you what you did during the war, tell them “I shed blood in Sloviansk,” and don’t say anything else.”

Andriy tailors his performances in Ukraine and abroad differently. For Ukrainian audiences, he prefers reading humorous, light texts, while with Western audiences, he speaks earnestly about the war. During his first speech in Germany, when Germany’s stance on supplying weapons to Ukraine was uncertain, Andriy didn’t hold back. He aimed to convey that cultural diplomacy — “smiling and waving” — was no longer sufficient:

— My role was to say: if you think that you have done some cool event, taken photos, given some books and that’s all, then you are mistaken. This is a homework assignment that you slept through. You fed the beast for 20 years, you created this Russia with your policies and your streams [the gas pipelines from Russia to Germany, NordStreamed]. Now you can’t pretend that you’re not involved. This is your war too. If you don’t understand it, you will pay for it. We already pay, but you will too.

Later, the mood in Germany changed, as did the tone of Andriy’s speeches. He told of how Ukrainians unite, how they change their activities, using his example in particular. He said that now he is a writer who does not write, instead devoting himself to volunteer work. He also spoke about why it is important, and why this is the time to sacrifice one’s own plans and ambitions.

If at the beginning it was necessary to explain the obvious that “Ukraine is not Russia,” then later, his speeches began to focus on what life and art in modern Ukraine are actually like. The next stage, according to Andriy, will be to promote Ukrainian classics.

— If we promote Skovoroda and Shevchenko as people who fought against imperialism at the very beginning, our hundred-year old modernism, the early feminist texts, as well as the classics, then we will be able to convince the European intellectual and cultural elites who shape the agenda, that Ukraine has the right to exist, and not just by chance a member of the European family due to the war, and that this is a process built on a deep foundation. No one should get the misleading impression that this is simply a byproduct of a new era and that Ukrainians only became like this after 1991.

Andriy is one of the curators of the anthology Martial Law, published by a publishing house called Meridian Czernowitz. The book contains fifty texts written by Ukrainian intellectuals, with its foreword written by the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhnyi. This book is part of a massive project aimed at assisting cities near the front lines. The authors visited these cities to give speeches, with the primary goal of creating a portrait of the times through the writings of different people. There are two intended portraits: one for the Ukrainian audience and another for the foreign audience. No specific genre or stylistic boundaries were imposed on the authors, but most of them wrote reflections on their personal experiences. These include paramedic Yulia Paievska, who survived the siege of Mariupol and captivity, as well as writers who became refugees or joined the Armed Forces. Others wrote about continuing their pre-war activities.

— I would like us to continue a similar tradition this year and create another such book. My hope is that someone can pick up this book after 20 years and read it, gaining a portrait of what was happening in Ukraine. This book serves not just as literature but also as documentation. Another goal was to compensate people for their work. We made efforts to engage as many individuals as possible, including proofreaders, editors, translators, and graphic designers, to breathe life into this infrastructure in a broad sense.

Ukrainian writers are gaining popularity abroad. In Andriyi’s case, a French agent contacted him, and others acquired translation rights. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the interest in the Balkans following their wars, and Andriy foresees an increase in tourism in Ukraine after the war ends. The current moment in Ukrainian literature resembles the time of collecting stones.

Wars in the Balkans
Armed conflicts in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

— We are accumulating experience. Eventually, we will process all of this into literature. It may not happen today, but it will someday. I believe that war is a time of poetry. When emotions run high, real and sincere, it’s at its best. I can write a poem to somehow soothe my emotional state, and the reader can read it in two minutes and feel something too.

Andriy believes that it’s worth fighting for Ukraine’s national culture because it holds symbolic significance and serves as a marker of a watershed, a distinction. This is why the Russians target museums and purge Ukrainian books from libraries. For them, culture is a trigger, an irritant. They associate ‘Ukrainian’ with something hostile, just as we now associate Russian culture with something hostile.

War destroys everything, from everyday life and plans to nature and lives. In this state, people focus on their basic needs and cannot create.

— The antonym of war is not peace; peace is just the middle point. The antonym for war is creation in every sense: building a new life, revitalising affected areas, creating works of art, and writing texts that help our community process all that has happened to us.

According to Andriy, the war is acutely felt in Zakarpattia, even where there is no curfew, because most of the population is rural and now men are either working or at the front.

— Since it is a small community, you know everyone. When the first attempts at a counteroffensive in the south began in August [2022 — ed.], it was led by our 128th Mountain Assault Brigade based in Mukachevo. There were three days of mourning in Zakarpattia, because this counteroffensive devastated the reconnaissance company that went there, resulting in more than 30 dead in just one day.

Another aspect is the influx of people after February 24th, 2022. Uzhgorod is overpopulated, and everyone is learning to live together. Many relocated their businesses to Zakarpattia. In the spring of 2023, Andriy noticed that many tourists came to see the cherry blossoms. After a trip to the front line, it seemed nonsensical to him, but then he calmed down and thought: the war did not spare anyone, and this is their way of coping with grief.

— One of the elements of psychological safety is to try and live a so-called normal, peaceful life — although I am sure that these people also start their morning looking at the map of nighttime air raids and donating money to volunteer initiatives.

War with Russia is not a game that can be taken lightly. Occupation would mean the end of Ukraine as we know it, so it’s necessary to fight until victory. Andriy has read a lot of materials about the beginning of the 20th century and believes that our current situation is much better because the majority of Ukrainians now recognize themselves as a nation. Additionally, our country finally has the support of other states. Both the world and Ukrainians themselves have seen how capable Ukraine is and the relatively good standard of living it had before the war. On the other hand, Russia is experiencing opposite processes.

— This is a country [Russia — ed.], which cannot create a competitive economy and continues to play at empire-building and authoritarianism, despite having only raw resources, unlike China, for example. It has nothing to offer for the future; it lacks a vision. Russia is fighting based on a version of the past. Ukraine must seal Russia’s fate.

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