When I die bury me
in a high grave,
in the middle of the steppe
of my beloved Ukraine.
When the Russian invasion began Pavlo Vyshebaba he enlisted in the army and his family left the country. Several months later, his six-year-old daughter learned to write. She called him and told him that she was going to write a letter, the first of her entire life, and that she wanted it to be for him. Pavlo was moved and his daughter told him that she had a problem: she didn’t know what she had to talk to him about. He thought for a few seconds and replied: “Just don’t write me about the war.”
That same day, thinking of his daughter, Pavlo wrote this poem:
Just don’t write me about the war,
tell me if there is a garden nearby,
if you can hear grasshoppers, cicadas and crickets,
and if the snails crawl on the vine.
What do they call cats in those distant lands?
Above all, sweetheart, I wish there was no sadness in your lines
fill them with the songs of birds and frogs!
Do the cherry and apricot trees still bloom there?
And if they give you a bouquet of fragrant flowers,
don’t tell them how you escaped from the missiles,
tell them how well we lived here.
To everyone you meet in exile
invite them to Ukraine to visit us,
we’ll show them how grateful we are
—after the war—, for the peace of our children.
On February 24, 2022, in the Ukrainian winter dawn, a series of missiles of Russian origin fell on the city of kyiv. From then on, an infinite series of events was unleashed that would have a single word in common: war.
It all started in a rush. Many took their cars and tried to leave the capital, millions left the country, thousands lost their lives, millions their jobs, hundreds of thousands their homes. Everything changed forever in Ukraine.
Before that day, Pavlo Vushebaba was a vegan poet, musician, and environmental activist who made songs and poems and tried to lead a relatively Buddhist life. He had never published a book but he had been working on a collection of poems for years. Today, in this Ukraine traversed by tragedy, Pavlo is a bestseller: in December he published the book “Just don’t talk to me about the war”, sold 15 thousand copies in two months and expects a second edition of 20 thousand more copies.
It is currently affected by brigade 68. He is the commander of the field communications squad and is in charge of managing communication on the battlefront, in the so-called ground zero, where there are no obstacles between the enemy troops, only a few hundred meters. There, he spends his days among rabbits and pheasants, hidden in the trenches of the front of vuhledarone of the cities that witnessed the bloodiest clashes.
-Your book of poems is called “Simply don’t talk to me about the war”, but you published it while you were in the middle of the war, where everything tells you about the war. Why the title?
-I think that this poem, which gives the book its title, describes what many of us want for our children: that they do not see what we are seeing in the war. It is the desire to protect all of Ukraine and Europe. And tell them that after the victory, we are waiting for you here with open arms, that we are going to celebrate together the day we are victors.
-Can you explain to me with your words what it is like to be in ground zero?
-At the front there are very different days, there are very different months, everything depends on the intensity of the actions. Sometimes there is a lot of adrenaline, and it is interesting, I cannot deny that at times I like it. But there are days when there are losses and they are very tragic days. There you curse this whole war and want it to end as quickly as possible, to get all Russians out of our land as quickly as possible.
Come March, Pavlo will leave the combat zone to tour the entire country. It is that his poem dedicated to his daughter became so viral that it gained enormous popularity, becoming a current version of Taras Shevchenkothe great national poet, one of the promoters of the Ukrainian spirit.
It was the same army that entrusted him with the task of making this tour, aimed mainly at raising the morale of the troops and the civilian population. “The military chiefs decided that it is necessary at this moment to raise the spirits of our comrades. There is a lot of war weariness and after a long time it is important to remember why we are here, and to strengthen our mission. So I will do this tour in honor of my companions who died, ”he says. He will tour various cities in the country reciting poetry, making music, and meeting some of the almost 130,000 followers he has on Instagram.
-What was Pavlo Vyshebaba like when he arrived on the first day of the war and what is Pavlo Vyshebaba like today?
-I imagined the war as something totally different. And when we got on the army bus I thought that we were all going to go to the front, that we were all going to shoot at the enemy. I thought I had to choose what to be: gunner, infantryman, etc. However, I changed roles several times during this time. Now I work in communication, before I was an assistant gunner.
-And at the spirit level, did you change?
-Yeah. When I arrived there was a strong desire to shoot down the enemy, and I gave very little thought to losses. Unfortunately you get used to everything. Now I take death differently, I think differently. About death. About life. I don’t have any more friends from my life before, I don’t talk to them anymore, now I only have brothers in arms. I don’t know if I changed for the better or for the worse, but I changed.
-Food, as I understand, you maintain it. What is it like to be vegan in a war?
-I follow a vegan diet every day, yes, but now I started to allow cheese because I lost 7 kilos in the last month. In any case, it is beginning to be easier because volunteer help began to arrive, people who send me things from vegan associations. For example, a package of vegan food arrived from France that I can keep for a long time.
-When do you write?
-Do you see that I have dark circles? I didn’t sleep last night because we worked until three in the morning and then the inspiration came and I was finishing a poem that I want to take on tour. I hope to finish the poem today, after this interview is over.
-Only poetry always?
Now I started writing a novel. It’s about a person who was very successful before the war but couldn’t find his purpose, and it tells of the transformation that war brings, the change in values. It’s about a person who seemed very successful in society, but later he’s happy because he finds his own worth.
Pavlo was born in the city of Kramatorskin the region of Donbas, just two hours from where it is serving. When he was 10 years old, he wrote his first poem. She doesn’t want to recite it because she wrote it in Russian. For most of his life that was his language, but in 2014, after the first invasion took over the city from him, he decided that he would never speak Russian again. “From that moment I began to feel that I could be a kind of influencer of the Ukrainian language,” he says.
While the interview is taking place, a helicopter flies over. She is not startled: she looks at him and says: “He’s one of us… I hope so”, and smiles. He does not understand if he has real doubts or not, but he does not move from the bench in the square of the small town of Konstantinopilthe meeting point that he gave us for the interview.
We meet at the door of a bar. It’s seven degrees below zero and we suggest going in, but Pavlo refuses: “Here they always play Russian music and we ask them to take it out but they refuse, so I don’t go into that place anymore,” he says.
Konstantinopil is a quiet place compared to the front lines, but permanent explosions are heard and at the end of the talk we found out that a Russian projectile hit a barn less than two kilometers from where we are.
-Anyone would think that it is strange to think about poetry in the middle of the war. Is it possible to find any poetic situation in this context?
-If there is something poetic in the war? Of course I do, because poetry is the concentration of emotions and sensations in a short text… And what is war? It is the concentration of the most extreme emotions and sensations in a very short time. I think it is very appropriate to write all this in the form of poetry… It is the best thing to do. All the great novels about the war are always written 5 or 7 years after the war… A long text is not yet to be born, but poetry is, because it is about the emotion we feel, and today we can retain it in a poem.
-Did you meet other artists at the front?
-In Ukraine now there are many artists, there are many people of all possible professions who are in the war. When I got here, I was very surprised that in our room we were a high-ranking judge, a tractor driver, an IT (information technology) specialist, an accountant, and me… People who could never have met in life. It is a people’s war, they are all. In fact, when we first arrived at the war we didn’t know that we were going to get paid for this. Nobody cared about it. I was very surprised when I found out that we would have a salary.
-Why write about war and not, as your poem says, about birds and frogs?
-I think that today we are obliged to write about what happens. People who can write have to. I remember that when the invasion began, the pantheon of our poets fell silent. All modern top poets stopped writing. And I thought that if I were them, I would write even more. So, since I’m here, I also decided to write about what I feel and live.
-How is the reaction of your comrades?
-I have met a lot of soldiers who talk to me about my verses, they quote my words. It means that I am transmitting that emotion that is not only from my story: I am only the one who unites the experiences talking about this
-If you die in this war, are you happy with the words you have written?
-I want to write much more, but I am ready to die here if it is necessary. I didn’t think like that in my first days, it’s something I was processing over the months. Now I take it as normal, something from my context. My relationship with death was little by little… I knew I could die but I didn’t take it normally. However, when you see all this and you are under the pressure that we are, something changes. There I began to write in a hurry, because I saw what was happening and was aware that it could touch me. Everything can end in a second. So today I write several texts a week, just in case I run out of time. I used to write very slowly, I wanted to edit my book a lot before publishing it. But then the war started and I thought that I was not going to make it, that I might die before then. When it came out, I was so happy, I sighed and thought: “I arrived”.
-Do you read poetry at the front?
-In the zero zone I never did it, but in the second line yes. Under shelling I did it twice. And she thought: if the projectile hits us, that’s how it has to be, there’s nothing to lose.
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