It is February 27th, three days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Russian tanks roll into Kharkiv. Sergey Gerasimov hasn’t seen them on his street yet, he heard it from a friend. Or from his daughter, who says she saw a tank that had “taken off”.
And he watches videos of confused Russian soldiers who, contrary to expectations, are not greeted with flowers, bread and salt, but instead are fought. “You look really sloppy but relaxed. They don’t know what to expect. (…) The intruders are chased through the city like Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451. It takes a long time for them to die.”
Gerasimov, who was born in Kharkiv in 1964, studied here and still lives today, has been writing a diary since the beginning of the war. Passages from it first appeared in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, among others. He currently lives with his wife, his daughter, her boyfriend, five cats and a hamster in two rooms on the third floor of a high-rise building in the center of Kharkiv.
Although the Russians were quickly driven out of the city, Kharkiv has been bombed and riddled with rocket attacks every day since then, until today. Gerasimov notes which schools, hospitals, kindergartens and public facilities were destroyed in addition to the normal residential buildings, for example a fifth of all schools are said to be in ruins.
Gerasimov was born in Kharkiv and still lives here
The opera house is also damaged, as is the swimming pool where he learned to swim and the zoo. On March 9, Gerasimov states: “Just two weeks ago, Kharkiv was as beautiful as a finely worked jewel. Now the city is a horror.”
He talks about the people around him who are trying to survive this horror in one piece, who are getting sick, who, like him, are getting used to the attacks. For example, on April 15, a beautiful spring day, many people go for a walk in the city, “they seem comfortable and relaxed, maybe a little crazy.”
In addition to the many ruins, the cityscape is characterized by queues of people in front of the shops, especially in front of pharmacies and the Nova Poschta shops equipped with relief supplies. These snakes are only measured in units of time, two hours long, two days long, and each has its own character, democratic and respectful, authoritarian or psychotic.
Gerasimov considers leaving the city. But he knows that the nearest Poltava is overcrowded and that there is no safe place in Ukraine anyway, “in the relatively safe places, people are crammed together like sardines. So we don’t know what to do.”
Speak Russian – and fight the Russians
Despite the precarious situation, he worries about his relationship with Russia, where he basically grew up and has three cousins who also presumably see Nazis everywhere in Ukraine. He thinks about Putinophilia and Russism, about the terrible and terribly effective propaganda of the Russians.
And about the nationalism of the Ukrainians: “Most people in Kharkiv (…) speak Russian while fighting the Russians. Nobody finds that strange. We fight for freedom, democracy, justice, equality and dignity…(…) Where is there nationalism in our fight? It is the most global and universal thing I can imagine.”
The German publisher called Gerasimov’s war diary “Fire Panorama”. It’s unhappily colorful and atmospheric. But taken as a whole, the Ukrainian writer’s entries are a darkly shimmering panorama, a tableau made up of descriptions, reflections and memories.
Despite the speed with which Gerasimov wrote his texts, “Fire Panorama” is reminiscent of Serhij Zhadan’s Kharkiv declaration of love “Mesopotamia” in passages, but understandably lacks any lightness. The diary ends on April 18, but is still valid today.
The fighting for Kharkiv continues unabated, the destruction progresses. Sergei Gerasimov, however, remains true to his hometown and he writes. He cannot understand the madness of war: “Some things defy logic.”