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45,000 body bags

Before the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the military purchased 45,000 body bags. Given Moscow’s belief in a short victorious war, the question must be asked: for whom were these body bags originally intended?

March 20, 2023 - Max Kidruk - Stories and ideas

Photo: Stephen Barnes / Shutterstock

I keep coming back to the 45,000. Forty-five thousand body bags – I just can’t stop thinking about it.

The news that the Russian Ministry of Defence purchased 45,000 body bags appeared in the Ukrainian mass media at noon on February 23rd. Then, less than a day before the invasion, it finally convinced me of the inevitability of a major war. I guess I was not the only one: the Russians were preparing for brutal fighting and stocking up on body bags for their own soldiers who would die in those battles.

Soon after, the Russians entered Ukraine as if on a parade march, planning to take Kyiv in three days and hardly expecting significant losses. A hundred and a half dead at most. For several days, thoughts about 45,000 body bags caused dissonance in my head. I could not figure out who they were for. Suppose the Russian army was preparing for a quick and victorious war. Why did they need so many body bags and mobile crematoria, which were transported to the border?

The dissonance, however, did not last long.

At the beginning of March, a journalist reported that in September 2021, Russia developed, and on February 1st 2022, put into effect, a national standard for the urgent and mass burial of corpses in wartime. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t see it sooner. It seems evident to the point of banality after what we’ve seen in Mariupol and Bucha: all those bags were meant for us. Kyiv conquered in three days, a parade on Khreshchatyk, Gazmanov’s concert, and then slaughter. The executions of politicians and civil servants, volunteers and veterans, journalists and bloggers. And then, probably, doctors, teachers, and scientists because 45,000 body bags might seem too many for activists alone.

Since then, I have not been able to get this thought out of my head: 45,000 black body bags. For Ukrainians. Why? Simply because they are Ukrainians. This is all happening at the same time as humanity is preparing to return to the moon, nuclear fusion is being mastered, and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease is being successfully tested.

And another thought always follows. If I, having a good understanding of what current Russia is, only later realised that those body bags were meant for Ukrainians, how much harder is it for my friends from the US or Europe to believe it? On March 18th, I published a Facebook post in English, mainly addressed to foreigners. I wrote about my Russian relatives, most of whom strongly support what the West calls “Putin’s war”. I tried to explain that they are no different from Putin. Instead of support and understanding, I received wary silence in response. Seriously, after the post was published, neither Jan, with whom I studied for two years in Stockholm, nor Miguel, with whom I once lived in a student dormitory, wrote to me. No messages for more than half a year. Before the invasion, they regularly asked how I was doing and what was new in my life.

I don’t blame them, to be honest. It is easier for a westerner brought up in a liberal environment to believe that I am simply dehumanising my enemy in the midst of a war, rather than the fact that there is a nation in the 21st century that purposefully attempts to annihilate its neighbour. And this is not the first time. This innocent blindness, this irritating inability to recognise evil when it is right under your nose, existed before. The British historian Max Hastings wrote in the book All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 that few of his compatriots recognised the severity of the Holocaust following the Second World War. There were objective reasons for this: the Soviets, for example, hid the facts of the systematic extermination of Jews because, in their opinion, it contradicted the thesis about the USSR being the country most affected by the Nazis. Overall, the British knew about gas chambers, crematoria and death camps like Auschwitz. They just refused to believe that the Germans – a civilised European nation – tortured millions of people in these camps.

I don’t blame my foreign friends, but all the same, it makes me angry. Despite everything, I’ll still have to find a way to communicate with them. Realising how many times in the future we will have to explain seemingly obvious things and how painful an experience it will be is downright sad. I still can’t gather my thoughts and write about my mother’s friend who lived for two months under occupation in Kupyansk. To fully understand how bad it was, you need to listen to the admiration in her voice when she speaks about how wonderful the Kharkiv region is now. I tried three times to write a post about Volodymyr Vakulenko, a poet and children’s writer from Izyum, who the Russians kidnapped at the end of March and is still missing. We were not close, but we corresponded occasionally; he came in and out of my life. He once had a fight with me on social media, although I don’t remember the subject. Once he came to my book launch, and after it was over, he talked strenuously and for a long time about the book he was working on. The novel was about “indigo children”. And I understand that I should have written about Volodymyr, as many of my colleagues have already done. Still, whenever I open my laptop, I struggle to squeeze out two or three long sentences. After that, I close my laptop. The right words slip out, but the apt phrases that seem to have held together a moment ago fall apart. It might take years to put them back together.

It isn’t easy. It’s sad. And it hurts.

Nevertheless, we must find the strength to speak despite the pain, insults and anger. We must learn to put together the right words — both now and after the war. But especially after the war.

Eventually, the war will end. But the Russians’ desire to fill 45,000 body bags will not.

[Editor’s note: Since the writing of this text, the remains of Volodymyr Vakulenko were found in the liberated Kharkiv region.]

This piece is part of the State of War anthology, which features 100 writers’ texts on their experiences during war. It is published by the Meridian Czernowitz publishing house, which aims to return Chernivtsi to the cultural map of Europe.

Translated by Kate Tsurkan and Yulia Lyubka.

Max Kidruk is a well-known Ukrainian writer, radio presenter, and publisher. He hosts the Improbability Theory podcast on Ukrainian Radio and is the author of several bestselling novels including Godlessness, Don’t Look Back and Stay Quiet, The Inner Side of Dreams, and a number of travelogues. In 2023, he published the first book in the New Dark Ages series, a science fiction novel titled Colony.

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