“In a parallel world, I’d be in Berlin right now,” says Bohdan Sokur, “preparing for an exhibition that I planned to show in Prague with other artists from Berlin and Prague. Now all I can do is hope that it’s just a temporary delay.”
Sokur (27) is a painter from Kyiv who has spent the last few years working and studying in Czechia. A week before the outbreak of the war, Sokur returned to Ukraine, joined a volunteer battalion in Kyiv, and traded his paintbrush for a Kalashnikov: “The idea of sitting at home in Czechia while my friends and family were in Kyiv was unthinkable for me.”
During his first leave from the battlefront, Sokur spoke with Davar via telephone.
“I left to refresh myself for a few days,” said Sokur. “I didn’t travel far away, I’m just outside the city. When I woke up here for the first time, I completely forgot about the war for about 30 seconds. That calm allowed me to remember my previous life for the first time, to remember that I’m an artist, to think about art, to remember that there’s more to life than the most basic needs of food or body heat.
“I allowed myself to think about all of the things that are impossible in my life right now; the adrenaline doesn’t allow for artistic inspiration and definitely not for clear thought. Clear and creative thought has been replaced by cold calculation and focus on carrying out the mission.”
“Holding a weapon was a staggering experience”
A week before the war, Sokur understood that the Russian invasion was inevitable and that he had to come home. “I decided that even if the war started before I got to Ukraine, I would still go back.”
You knew that war would break out?
“On the long trip back I already started to emotionally prepare myself for the possibility. In a certain way I had already started to prepare for it a year ago, but there was still some measure of surprise when it happened. In my heart I always hoped that it was all just provocation and political moves by Putin to scare us and that it wouldn’t actually amount to anything. It was a lie I told myself in order to stay calm. Logic clearly showed that we wouldn’t be able to avoid a full-out war.”
According to the Ukrainian government, over 300 thousand Ukrainian citizens have, like Sokur, returned from abroad to volunteer for the defense forces since the beginning of the war.
It’s quite out of the ordinary for artists and intellectuals to choose to take up arms.
“Among the volunteers, there are people with leftist views and people with right-wing views; the intelligentsia – artists and intellectuals, teachers, programmers, etc. Everyone. We all came together. I know a lot of artists and musicians and poets that have taken up arms. The tragedy has taken over our entire country; almost everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend who's been killed in the fighting in Donbas in the last eight years. And now the war has reached every single home. Even in Lviv in the west, right on NATO’s doorstep, rockets are falling.
“Our professions or political views don’t matter. Divisions over things like skin color, or religion have been pushed aside. I have LGBT friends on the front, right now all of us are brothers and sisters. It’s really nice to see that. The unity around the spirit of Euromaidan (pro-Western protests in Kyiv in 2014) has reached the entire nation. This didn’t start in 2022 or in 2014, this war is hundreds of years old, and we’re fighting to ensure that this will be the last attempt by the slaveholders to destroy our freedom.”
“Every day you get a little more used to a new nightmare”
Can you describe your transition from your daily routine to taking part in a war?
“Holding a weapon was a staggering experience. To feel in my hands an object that can kill someone was really difficult emotionally. But you get used to it. The feel of it in your hands is natural, you practice in shooting ranges, learn how to change magazines and load your weapon quickly.
“I had never been in the army; the sum of my military experience was completing missions in the video game ‘Counter-Strike.’ And then all of a sudden everything was real. We were training with a medic who told us that there was a good chance we’d see an amputated organ. That shocked me. I remember feeling nauseous.
“Going to war means entering into a completely different reality. It’s scary. It’s really, really scary. On the first day, when I heard the explosions for the first time, I went and hid in some corner.”
Did you pray?
“I didn’t pray; I tried as hard as I could to disconnect, not to think about the nightmare that was happening around me. For the first two or three days I was in deep despair, but after that it turns into cold calculation. You get used to it. I remember one time after I’d been there for a week I was standing outside smoking and Grad rockets started to fly overhead – our rockets. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, there’ll be a little time before they return fire, I’ll finish my cigarette and then go hide.”
Do you really get used to it?
“It’s a never-ending psychological test. Every day that I carry a weapon is a new level of terror that I have to overcome. The first stage was on the day of the invasion, when we understood that our city was being bombed, that the rockets were falling on us and all around us, that there was gunfire in the streets, that outside of the window there was smoke rising from the city center, that hundreds of thousands of people were trying to flee and creating endless traffic jams.
“You learn to live with the noise and the sight of fighter jets and helicopters in the sky, and later on the guided missiles blowing up the city. Every day you get a little more used to a new nightmare. Every time you wonder: what else can they surprise us with? You become immune to everything you’ve already experienced.”
Still, five weeks into the conflict, Sokur feels that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I get extremely anxious whenever I hear a sound from a friend’s TikTok that sounds like a siren or a noise that sounds like an explosion.”
How is that anxiety expressed?
“It’s expressed by my body entering itself into defense mode. The calm disappears. You quickly get yourself together, assess the risk, and look for shelter.”
That sounds like it would lead to a lot of despair.
“I don’t feel despair – not from myself and not from others. Sometimes we feel tired, because everything’s drawn out and it’s not at all clear when it will end. That feeling builds on itself. What we do, usually, is rest for a bit and disconnect ourselves from the news. But that doesn’t mean that the war has worn us out; we’re all prepared to see it through to the end, every one of us.”
“Our commanders are experienced members of the military”
What kind of missions are the volunteers given?
“Our commanders are experienced members of the military and they organize the distribution of forces. They wouldn’t send unprepared volunteers to the battlefront or to other dangerous positions. There’s an order. It’s not as if everyone decides for themself what to do and where to go.
“Everyone does what they’re capable of. That could be going out on patrol, serving in a support role to soldiers, assisting in rescue missions, or guarding a specific area or captured Russian supplies. There are some people who have been here for a month already but haven’t taken part in any operational activity at all.”
Have you found yourself in battles in the cities?
“There weren’t a lot of clashes within the city, except for a few times when the Russians sent in some sort of small commando units. They were wiped out quickly. We all see this as a strange tactical move. It seems like the Russians are sending them as a kind of cannon fodder. What chance do they have of accomplishing anything against tens of thousands of soldiers and armed volunteers within the city? It’s very unclear what their strategy is, but that’s what we’ve seen, mainly in the first few days.
“There was also an incursion of a few armored units that attacked civilians, including gunfire right below my house. For now, the special forces are mainly focused on catching undercover Russian forces in the city.
“Lately I’ve been hearing the answer to the question of ‘how can we win?’ Basically, through yesterday’s baristas joining the territorial defense forces and defeating the Russian army. It speaks to our motivation and our deep desire for freedom. It reminds me of Israel.”
What do people say about Israel?
“The Israeli approach to the army is that everybody has to serve, that the entire nation knows how to fight. Right now, we’re lacking that here. But we’ll see where things stand after our victory.”
“More than anything we need helmets and flak jackets”
In an effort to raise global awareness of the situation in Ukraine, Sokur decided to sell paintings and call on everyone who can to donate military supplies or money for purchasing supplies.
What equipment are you lacking?
“More than anything we need helmets and flak jackets that are grade four or higher. Those are professional flak jackets that they don’t sell in stores in Europe. They’re only purchased on a national scale for the military and the police, it’s very difficult to acquire them. We’re also in need of fully equipped first aid kits, as per NATO standards.”
What is the fighting like without proper equipment?
“The situation is harder in the volunteer brigades, which I’m part of. Big organizations are trying to help us, but volunteers really have to work hard to get supplies.”
How do you get military supplies into Ukraine, outside of the regular channels?
“Volunteers manage to find things and bring them from all over the world, mainly from Canada and Poland, where there are large Ukrainian communities. Until recently a lot of the supply shipments had trouble getting across the border because of government prohibitions, but as of now military and medical equipment are coming into the country as humanitarian aid. Volunteers buy supplies and bring them in.
“There are organizations, mostly managed by Ukrainian businessmen or other supporters from abroad. They send concentrated shipments of supplies to headquarters in different cities, where they’re distributed according to need. You can also get supplies sent to you directly from friends or volunteers abroad.”
“There’s still a lot of work to be done on the artistic front”
What is it like to be an artist on the battlefield?
“Being an artist isn’t some kind of special status, it’s a trade. It takes a lot of effort. It’s very difficult, intense daily work, so it’s hard to think about art right now. I have some paints with me that I probably haven’t used since elementary school. In the evenings, if there’s a little time, I’ll open up my notebook and try to scribble something down.
“Lately I’ve been working on paintings of helmets, monuments, places destroyed by rocketfire, abandoned, burnt out buildings. They also appeared frequently in my latest work before the war, and now I don’t need to imagine them. They’re just everywhere.
“I can’t manage to paint anything else, and that’s probably how it should be, because otherwise my work wouldn’t be true. My thoughts are here, in the war, so why should I paint flowers? Of course I could paint some sad flowers like Emil Nolde, the Danish-German painter, but in my mind I see rigid forms.
“In general, anyone can paint whatever they want, but here you can’t really distance yourself, and in the end any form of expression will be about the war. I’m in a kind of loop, I still haven’t had any time for self reflection or exploration. Maybe that’s why my thoughts sound a little jumbled right now.
“I don’t know what will become of the project that I started in Berlin. We’ll probably change the subject of the work, or rather its tone. It’ll be impossible to ignore my time here and the experience I’ve gained. The war isn’t some kind of vacation from work that you disappear into and then come back from exactly the same.
“But maybe that’s for the best. After the first and second world wars there were huge changes in the art world and among artists here, and in general everyone here gains a unique experience that most people don’t have, and that most people shouldn’t have. I believe that we’ll have something to say and that we’ll be able to say it. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the artistic front.”
Direct inquiries to Bohdan Sokur: firstname.lastname@example.org
Donations can be made to Sokur’s paypal: email@example.com
Details for Sokur’s Czech bank account:
IBAN – CZ2627000000001398863002
BIC/SWIFT – BACXCZPP
A fundraising exhibition is currently open at Sotheby’s Tel Aviv through April 13.
This article was translated to English by Sam Edelman.