Bright Star Publishing, both in Russian and Ukrainian
Stichting Uitgeverij Douane
Ars Longa, Poland
CITIC Press, China
BizBooks, Czech Republic
Dienas Grāmat, Latvia
Sergei Loiko’s Airport conveys the futility and absurdity of the bloodshed in Ukraine better than all the reporting and analysis on the war put together. The Los Angeles Times reporter and photographer spent eighteen months on the scene writing about this war that is officially not a war, not having been declared. Loiko is the only reporter to have spent several days with Ukrainian volunteers in the very hell of this war: the Donetsk airport. His photographs were picked up by all the news agencies.
Loiko’s Airport has a number of plot lines, the main ones relating to war and love. At the center of events is the forty-something protagonist, Alexei Molchanov, a war correspondent and photographer from Moscow—to a certain extent, his author’s alter ego. He and his family had moved to the United States to live and work long before. Alexei has reported on a number of wars, including two Afghan, two Chechen, the war in Nagorno Karabakh, and in Tajikistan, Libya, and Syria—and much else, and he has looked death in the face more than once but always emerged unscathed, knowing he was loved and awaited at home. In this war, the most tragic of all the wars he has known, temptation awaits him in the form of Nika, a a young woman he meets on Maidan.
Plotlines keep spilling over into other plotlines, and the high-tension narrative makes the book impossible to put down. There is Maidan, where several hundred thousand people on the many adjacent streets chorus their country’s national anthem. The Blitzkrieg in Crimea, which Russia wins “without a single shot fired . . . when the enemy failed to show up.” The February shootings at demonstrators in Kiev, during which Alexei saves Nika’s life. In Solegorsk (Slaviansk), the protagonist is delivered by convoy to Dyrkin, nom de guerre Rasstrel, a former KGB man who is now a leader of the separatists--on order of Alexei’s old sworn enemy, Shamil Baraev. The chance meeting between Alexei’s wife and Nika in Kiev, where Ksiusha has flown to see her husband, but he just won’t be able to tear himself away from “his war.” Scattered among the many military actions, the protagonist’s “freaks of memory": his childhood hunting mushrooms in the remote Russian countryside; the first time he met Ksiusha and this crazy love and tenderness of theirs; his Chechen captivity and the finger joints cut off by Shamil Baraev, the Chechen fighters’ ringleader; treasure hunting with his grandchildren; his recurring dreams and nightmares about the war in Afghanistan that he can’t share with the people closest to him; fishing in Finland, which he and Ksiusha love so much; his wife’s brief illness and death as Nika leaves him for another man.
The novel’s basic framework consists of chapters devoted to the last days of the defense of the Donetsk airport, or rather, what’s left of it by mid-January 2015, when the protagonist arrives. This, the most modern airport in Ukraine, built for the European Soccer Championship just three years before, now “reminded Alexei of a dinosaur or leviathan skeleton gnawed by marine predators and cast ashore by the storm of implacable, cruel fate.” “Sometimes it looked to Alexei like a Hollywood set where they were filming yet another picture about World War II. So creatively and ingeniously had the entire setting been disfigured that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Spielberg had suddenly popped up with the magic word: ‘Cut!’” The defense had been going on for about 240 days, but “it was impossible to tell what lofty strategic goal was inducing the attackers to rain down fire and lead on these transparent ruins day after day. And then send to the slaughter more and more so-called volunteers, the majority of whom quickly recrossed the open border to go home, to Russia, in wooden boxes stamped ‘Top Secret.’ By the war’s tenth month, despite all the many ceasefires, the airport remained a positively gaping vortex of the whirlwind that was this senseless war, a war that consumed everything both armies threw at it on a daily basis--tanks, armored vehicles, and men—and constantly demanded new offerings.”
Battling from the Ukrainian side at the airport were true volunteers (“You don’t order men into hell”), known by their enemies as cyborgs for their inhuman vitality and the obstinacy only doomed men show. Not one of them could explain why they should hold onto these smoking ruins, losing comrades every day, but for the men here, “the war’s fate was being decided in this damn airport.” “The command of the ‘orcs,’ as the cyborgs called them in turn because of their blanket depersonalization and the impossibility of them understanding why they were here or what they were after, believed the airport had to be taken at all costs ‘to align the front.’”
During the last ceasefire, in late December, the separatists, reinforced by fresh regular units arriving from Russia nearly by the battalion every day, controlled the entire city, “except for the Airport named after the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, a hometown boy. As brilliant as he was, Prokofiev could scarcely have imagined, even in his stormiest creative fantasies, the fierce battle between Russia and Ukraine over an airport named after him.” More and more rarely was Ukrainian equipment able to get through to their own men across the runway, which was under fire, in order to collect the dead and wounded and bring in fresh forces in rotation as well as food, medicines, and water.
Most astounding in Loiko’s novel is the “portrait gallery” of cyborgs. In a few strokes, sometimes with just a brief dialogue, the author is able to convey the essence of his heroes—these men condemned to death who have not lost their crude but authentic wisdom or their stern but shy masculine tenderness and even emotion, which all the filth, blood, and monstrosity of war have not destroyed. Many of them are not fated to survive. Like the thirty-six-year-old broker, Anton, nom de guerre Scherzo-Musician-Philosopher, who has a submachine gun in his lap and is holding a shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Scherzo would die on the last day of the airport’s defense without ever getting to read the text from his girlfriend, who had gone back to him, was waiting for him, loved him. Vakha, the commander of the separatist fighters, “shot Scherzo in the belly four times. When Scherzo was dying on the cold concrete floor, still alive, they crammed his beloved flute down his throat.”
The youngest of the airport’s defenders is Svetozar, nom de guerre Svetik, a nineteen-year-old second-year journalism student from Odessa who looks like he hasn’t started shaving. Svetik’s father, a colonel in the Russian army, who has long since acquired a second family and other children, lives in Petersburg. “Do you realize you’re going to be shooting at your own brothers there?” his father asked in the tone of a Russian newscaster when he found out that Svetik was in the war. “Pop, my brother’s still little, and I didn’t ask these brothers to come here with weapons. We’ve had our little talk now.”
Moisei Grinevich, a forty-three-year-old artist from Feodosii, nom de guerre Ravvin, “Rabbi,” is the most picturesque character in the airport. He went to fight to prevent a repeat of Babi Yar. During a gas attack he sat calmly by a window, “laying his AKM on the floor in front of him and putting little black boxes on his head and arms. If the cyborgs could have been distracted from their convulsions and from coughing out their lungs, they would have thought Ravvin was using some kind of secret Israeli defense. But these were just tefillin on leather straps, part of a Jew’s prayer vestment. He bobbed his head, like a pendulum, very quickly, and recited his prayers silently. When the orcs went on the attack on three sides, under rifle and cannon support from the fourth floor, Ravvin was the first to meet their fire and the first to perish in that battle.”
There are almost no regular military men among the cyborgs. Triton is a tractor driver from Vinnitsa; Dmitro, nom de guerre Cannibal, is a mathematician; Sasha, nom de guerre Felicita, is a twenty-five-year-old Russian from Sumy who teaches high school physics. Yura the volunteer is a businessman who for a few months already, under continuous fire, has been driving his armored transport through to the boys cut off from the Mainland in order to deliver linens, flashlights, water, canned goods . . . and even a cake. “The minute Yura shows up, it’s a party, as if there were no war.”
After his wife’s death Nika abruptly marries her long-time boyfriend Stepan, who later emerges as the last commander of the airport defense and “everything lost its taste, color, and meaning” for Alexei. Only in the airport, “among these amazing cyborgs, would the narcosis relent sometimes, and he would again return to real life. He felt at home, among his own people.” For the majority of the fighters, as for the protagonist, the ticket to this airport is one-way. In January the entire terminal is shot up and all they have left is one floor with gaping holes in the floor and caved-in sections of ceiling. The third inhale on a cigarette is deadly (here is where smoking really is dangerous for your health) because on the third inhale the enemy sniper doesn’t miss. They all understand that death is standing by every man’s side. Forty-nine-year-old veteran Salam, who likes to repeat that “finally he is defending his homeland in his homeland,” his years spent in the Soviet army notwithstanding, after the latest attack looks for his helmet. “‘Here’s my sweetheart, under this thick layer of dust.’ He picks it up. And a head rolls out of it. Salam drops to his knees. He blows once in the head’s face. Blows twice. It’s Panas’s head. His eyes are even open. Afterward Salam keeps repeating, 'Amazing eyes. Amazing!’ He’s wrong. He meant to say ‘amazed.’ Thank you for the helmet, brother, he says. He closes Panas’s eyes with his hand. He crawls on farther on all fours.”
What is stunning is not only the courage but the ineradicable humor in the most hopeless situations. A fighter with the nom de guerre Parovoz—Locomotive—has his leg crushed by a concrete slab that falls from above and that five of his buddies cannot budge. “Triton, cut off my leg. My wife won’t let me come home if I don’t go back.” At that moment another slab breaks away and buries under it not only the wounded man but two of his buddies as well. Or, when communications are briefly restored, Sergei, nom de guerre Panas, calls a pizzeria and orders a pizza delivered to the old terminal of the airport, and when the young woman expresses doubt that anyone would dare deliver it, he promises to cover the delivery with artillery fire.
Airport is a novel about men who sacrifice their lives and perish just so they can send home the leg of a young man they didn’t know who died in an incinerated tank. About how the dead and wounded are tied to an armored vehicle called a chaika (which means “seagull”) because there’s no more room inside it and the bodies have to be returned to their families and so those who can be saved are saved. “On the chaika, those still alive look like corpses among the real corpses. An apocalyptic spectacle.” At the sight of this “hearse,” even the Russian colonel gives the order to fire in the air—a salute in honor of fallen heroes. And both commanders, Ukrainian and Russian, curse the war simultaneously and in nearly the exact same words: “This fucking war. God damn it! I hate it!” But all are equal in war, and here the Russian colonel’s Tiger is already burning, and he didn’t even get to answer his wife’s text: “Again no answer. The kids are going to forget their father. What are all these endless training exercises?” They tell his wife her husband died in training exercises in Rostov Province. His body, along with the corpses of ninety other Russian servicemen, is trucked back to the homeland with a humanitarian convoy.
The author doesn’t divide the heroes up into good Ukrainians and bad Russians. There is the worried mother of a Russian draftee who has been trying unsuccessfully to find her missing son. She is told by his military unit that he was transferred to the reserve. But a Ukrainian captain found him, dying, on the battlefield and posted a photo of his body and his military card on Facebook—and now a Ukrainian reporter is calling her and expressing her condolences so that afterward she can write an article, “A Mother Is Not a Hero.” The grief-stricken mother seeks out the captain, and together they go to the place where her only son died and might be buried. Under mortar fire, pressed to the chill earth, they lie together in the field “where one Ukrainian soldier killed a Russian soldier, her son, who himself had come here to kill.”
Who is to blame for men’s deaths in this war? Who is to blame for inciting propaganda against “Ukrainian fascists”? The Ukrainian volunteers could not feel any hatred if they can bandage up and give painkillers to the wounded Russian sniper who just tried to kill them, and later, on a cart, risking their lives, take him to the airstrip to pick up a signal so that he can call his wife one last time. The next day, the Russian news is screaming about the terrible crime of the “Kiev junta” and “fascist punishers” “who tortured terribly and disfigured the body of one of the separatists.”
On the last day of the airport’s defense, when the defenders have only a tiny area left, under fire on all sides, between concrete slabs stacked up by an explosion and a huge funnel in the floor that sucked up several fighters along with stores of military supplies and medicines, when enemies are behind every wall and ledge and more and more often they hear the “Allahu Akbar” of the mercenaries from the Chechen battalion of Shamil Baraev (now a lieutenant colonel in the Russian Interior Ministry), Alexei gets a call from Cathlyn, the senior foreign correspondent at the newspaper where he works, who is based in a comfortable Kiev hotel and wants to talk to one of the defenders over the phone. And for the first time Alexei tells her what he thinks. “Listen, Cathlyn, why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
Reading the novel feels like watching a movie (as truthful and terrible as Black Hawk Down), so alive are its heroes and so authentic their dialogue. They are as alive as life itself.
“This is, without a doubt, the best book about the war I’ve come across. The author has managed to convey the reality of this war with ‘our good brother and neighbor’ a full 110 percent. Here the writer’s talent isn’t enough. In order to depict war, you have to have a very good understanding of it. You have to spend all those days there with us. I read it and get the shivers, and my heart pounds and turns cold, as if I’m there, in the Airport. You can even smell the war and hear the gunfire and explosions.” -- Sergei Tanasov, a cyborg, nom de guerre Tanas, a participant in the battle for the Airport.