Critique

The Monstrosity: A Diary from Occupied Kherson

Russian troops occupied Kherson, a city in the south of Ukraine, at the beginning of March 2022. A lot of citizens left their homes, but Mykhailo Rai, a photographer and artist, decided to stay. He keeps an open online diary, where he publishes photo collages and describes his life under occupation. Bird in Flight talked to him.

Mykhailo was born in Kherson and grew up there. Being a sailor, he got fascinated with photography. One time, he came across “very realistic collages” and knew instantly that he wanted to do something similar. That’s when the sailing career was over.

When Kherson turned into a war theater, Mykhailo and his wife stayed in the city. Realizing that the war is not going to end any time soon, the artist turned his Instagram page into a diary. Every post is accompanied by a collage. “Someone takes a weapon and joins the fight. Someone becomes a volunteer. I’m good at writing and creating collages, so that’s what I do,” Mykhailo explains.

He has a precise framework for every collage. He starts by gathering information, then waits for the ideas to take shape. Afterward, he takes photos and turns them into collages.

The war accelerated Rai’s efficiency. He used to spend a week or a week and a half creating one collage. Now it takes him a couple of days. Sometimes he uses collages from his archives to make a post on Instagram. He calls his project “The Tale Teller”. Rai calls the President of Russia by the same name.

Rai’s deliberately simple collages resemble surrealistic nightmares, where the viewers’ only desire is to wake up as soon as possible. That’s the feeling a lot of people experience during the war.

Bird in Flight publishes chosen works from Rai’s diary, alongside the notes that he made in occupied Kherson.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 10

The ’90s are back—with 30-meter queues to buy bread and rallies for independent Ukraine. No one cares for Covid anymore, we have a deadlier virus to deal with. The Tale Teller says that his “special operation” to destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty will last until its objectives are reached. He doesn’t mention, though, that sanctions will also last until their objectives are reached, too.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 12

The ’90s vibe got stronger. The queues got longer. Citizens of occupied Kherson spend most of their days in queues, arriving early in the morning and leaving at 2-3 p.m. with products that might disappear tomorrow. Russian soldiers block supplies of products and cut off mobile communications from time to time. It’s hard for me to live through these days because I don’t have a wired Internet or TV. But let’s get back to the Tale Teller. He’s now sitting in a bunker, playing on his gas pipe. No one enjoys his performance, but everyone stays quiet, thinking about their personal gain. Eight years ago, the Tale Teller made his Western neighbors choose between ethics and finances. It turned out that Western neighbors depend on the gas pipe a lot.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 14

We got used to the war. A couple of old trolleybuses and garbage trucks slowly crawl down the street. The deadly virus that attacks our city has gone nowhere, but it has changed. The new strain is called the Russian Guard. It causes acute symptoms and complications in protestors in the city center. Meanwhile, the Tale Teller carries on with his “special operation”. Today, he has successfully completed the demilitarization and denazification of a children’s hospital in Mariupol.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 16. Potatoes day

Some people stand in a queue to buy potatoes. Some join a rally for Ukraine’s freedom. I see more and more messages about people going missing after the rallies. I can feel the smell of the People’s Republic of Kherson in the air. Recently, theatrical props and extras were brought to the city center. It looks like there will be a show soon.

The Tale Teller mentioned potatoes today. It’s his friend and ally, with whom he enjoys telling tales. You know, they say two tale tellers are better than one. When I look at the neighboring “potato republic” I see clearly what will happen to us if we give up. One day, the President of Ukraine will pull out a piece of paper and tell us that Poland planned to attack our country, which is why we provided our airfields for the forces of preventive demilitarization and denazification. The Tale Teller knows better than anyone that words have power.

If only 5% of the 12 million people in Moscow went on a peaceful protest, the war would have stopped.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 18. A day of wrath

Despite threats and warnings, the citizens went on an epic rally, proving that Kherson is a part of Ukraine. At the same time, the Russian military tried to arrange a staged performance with an ex-mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, wrapped up in a red commie rag.

The war unfolds right in front of my eyes. That’s why I’m not prone to Russiaphobia. I feel Russia-hatred—not only towards the soldiers, but towards ordinary people who give their silent consent to everything that’s going on in my country. If only 5% of the 12 million people in Moscow went on a peaceful protest, the war would have stopped. Without sanctions and “Russiaphobia” a lot of them wouldn’t even have noticed the war.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 20. A day of the closed doors

I can hear explosions in the city. Standing on my balcony, I’ve seen projectiles detonating and black smoke rising around the airport of Kherson. Four Russian cars with missiles for a multiple launch rocket system sped past my window. “To Kyiv” was written on one of the cars. The good thing was that Kyiv was located in the opposite direction.

Russian troops still block the supplies of Ukrainian humanitarian aid. The vulnerable citizens have already lined up to take Russian aid. Sometimes they are being bullied. But one should remember that elderly people hardly had enough money to buy food when it was two times cheaper. They don’t care about the nationality of the food. The only thing that matters to them is that the food is for free. Some people rip the labels off of the packages and sell Russian products for Ukrainian money.

The Tale Teller laid low today, but this day will be remembered for the closed doors to NATO. Millions of people in Ukraine and abroad asked NATO to close the sky, not the doors. Probably, they got it wrong.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 22. A day of coins

On my wife’s birthday, I found the most beautiful tulips and the best pastries in the city. My discoveries didn’t end there. I found out that the most luxurious beauty salons still work in Kherson, offering a simple haircut or manicure. Roadblocks were built on the main routes. One of those is located right in front of my window, and it bothers me.

Roadblocks were built on the main routes. One of those is located right in front of my window, and it bothers me.

The queues in grocery stores got smaller. Not because everyone has bought what they wanted or decided to spend a day in a beauty salon, but because people ran out of cash and shelves are almost empty. Terminals in the stores have suddenly lost Internet connection and people are forced to pay with cash or, if they are lucky, with a bank transfer.

The war shows who is who. Seeing my neighbors robbing the city hurts me much more than seeing Russian soldiers marching the streets of Kherson. When the Russian army entered the city, shelling a local and, apparently, “Nazi” shopping mall, a lot of the citizens rushed to the smoldering ruins to grab TV sets, smartphones, suits, elite alcohol and pneumatic guns. At the same time, hundreds of people somewhere else gave up everything they had for their freedom, for someone’s audacity to steal TV sets while police are not there.

Kherson, Ukraine, day 25. Z is for Zombies

Today was probably the last day, when we had a rally for Ukrainian Kherson. The Russian Guard dispersed the crowd with sound bombs and gunfire. People were injured. Now gatherings are forbidden, and people keep going missing. Officials from nearby villages are being taken to some undisclosed locations. Probably, they have a “polite conversation about the People’s Republic of Kherson” there. Ukrainian humanitarian aid is still blocked. Chornobaivka became a mass grave not only for Russian troops but for 3 million chickens on one of Europe’s biggest poultry farms. You can feel the tension in the air. We all understand that the current silence will be followed by another storm.

It’s not the first time when people turn into zombies, unable to see, feel, think, speak out and sympathize.

I hear a lot from the Russians that they are not interested in what’s happening in Ukraine, because they stay away from politics. Sometimes they just don’t believe us and keep telling the tales that they hear on the news. Of course, it’s much easier to believe that you’re a part of a great nation than to realize that you belong to a terrorist country that kills the civilian population. It’s not the first time when people turn into zombies, unable to see, feel, think, speak out and sympathize.

Being apolitical doesn’t justify your cowardice and indifference to barbarian horrors, which are sponsored by your taxes. Being apolitical means being unable to make a change in your own country. It’s the reason your dreams and goals were replaced with someone else’s ambitions that ruined your life. You will soon break through the fog of lies and find yourself in a new reality, as you did before, in the ’90s. The stronger your denial, the sooner the new reality will crush you. When you finally face it, you’ll feel ashamed. But only if you did nothing now.

Rai has no plans to leave Kherson any time soon. He says that he might consider this option only if Russia destroys the city or if the People’s Republic of Kherson is announced. But the artist is sure that it won’t happen. He will carry on with his project till the end of the war or till the end of Putin’s regime.

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