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Artem Chapeye, a writer fighting in Ukrainian army, on his love story for his country

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Artem Chapeye is a Ukrainian writer. He just had a short story published in The New Yorker. But reaching him to talk about it was tricky.

ARTEM CHAPEYE: Right now I'm in the armed forces of Ukraine, the army. I have been training for a while, and so it was difficult to talk. And then it's just difficult to be by yourself in the army, you know?

KELLY: We reached him on a break. He was sitting under a tree. I asked about his story, which is titled "The Ukraine" - "The Ukraine" because of an inside joke between the main characters, who share a love-hate relationship with their country or, as Chapeye writes, love with a dash of masochism. The things they see - a dilapidated mosaic of a woman in traditional dress with a missing eye, for example, or a gigantic but strangely empty bus station - those things make up "The Ukraine." Chapeye's love for his country shines through in his writing. But he told me that before now, he had not imagined fighting for it.

CHAPEYE: I thought the army was not my thing. And then I realized that, OK, the army may not be my thing, but, you know, after you're fleeing with your kids from bombs, your opinions are shattered and changed so much. I used to be a fan of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughter No. 5" (ph). I used to be a fan of all these anti-militaristic books. I used to consider myself a pacifist. But, you know, when you are directly attacked and you have to flee and you're just praying that your kids don't see any corpses, that changes you. That changes you overnight.

KELLY: I can imagine. Are you still a pacifist? Is it possible to be a pacifist and serve in the army?

CHAPEYE: I consider myself still a pacifist. Like, I don't feel really comfortable in the army. Like, I feel like I don't belong here. But sometimes it's not about what you feel and what you - where you belong. It's like, if I wouldn't go, I would probably never be able to respect myself again.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHAPEYE: Until the invasion started, I didn't believe such things were possible in Europe in 21st century. I still cannot believe it sometimes. And today, like, as we're talking, there's, like - they shelled the railway station - like, not a military object. They shelled the railway station where people were trying to escape in Kramatorsk. Like, the Russians just shelled the railway station to sow panic or - I don't know for what reasons. I can't understand. I don't see any rationale behind Putin's actions.

KELLY: So I do want to ask about your short story, "The Ukraine." I mean, you wrote this several years ago now. It was published in 2018 originally. And now I'm speaking to you, and Ukraine of April '22 is a totally changed country. I wonder, does it feel like you are writing about a foreign country, as though the Ukraine you wrote about then you're covering as a foreign correspondent?

CHAPEYE: The story was, like, about all this, like, usual thing in Ukraine that we don't usually value but that I value so much right now, about some things that sometimes even annoy us because Ukraine has never been a perfect country. Apart from that, like, we knew everything about, like - I don't know - anything - like, bad roads, corruption and everything. But now I - in retrospective, I'm thinking that part of what the story is about is, like, trying to explain why so many people - like, I would say a majority - are so willing to defend the country, you know, are so willing to defend this imperfection and despite this imperfection and, like, accepting and loving this imperfection.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, this story - it's a love story. Or, as you say at the beginning, it's kind of a hate-love story - is your word for Ukraine. But you describe it as this really beautiful country. There's a line that I underlined where you write, and I'll quote, "the trips I typically remember were in late autumn or very early spring, when the country is in a palette of gray, rust, faded yellow and pale green. It is unimaginably beautiful."

CHAPEYE: It is.

KELLY: Tell me more about that and how you try to capture it in your writing because the images that we see right now and, of course, the reality that you are living is of a country that is - I don't want to say being destroyed but being...

CHAPEYE: Being devastated. Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah, being devastated.

CHAPEYE: I don't know what else to say. I think I value it even more now, and I really would like to things to turn back to normal. But I understand this is a long process. Like, the Russians or the Putin, the regime - whatever - they don't know how to lose. That's one thing because they thought they would capture Ukraine in three days. OK. Then it didn't work. OK. We will destroy civilians now. We cannot fight your army. We will destroy civilians.

Nobody knows where they're going to stop, whether they going to stop. You know, after what happened in Bucha, where they killed civilians with arms bandaged, like, behind their backs, after what happened today as we are speaking, when they bombing a railway station where people trying to evacuate - like, a crowded railway station - and now I don't know whether they will stop. So it's better - you know, it's better to fight. If you have to die, it's better to fight.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHAPEYE: But - and I'm talking like that now because I know - like, I read the news again. But, I mean, I'm not like that all the time. I mean, now I'm, like, trying not to cry. But, like, it's - you know, there's this mood swings all the time. Like, we are much tinier than Russia is. But we are fighting back, and we are surprising ourselves, you know? But then you see, like, how they are raising the stakes all the time and at the expense of the civilians mostly. That's the most - I don't know the word. But that's, like, unimaginable.

KELLY: Yeah. You are a writer. You are at war now. Were you worried about that? Is there war reporting you want to do? Are there stories that you feel the world needs to hear that you could tell?

CHAPEYE: Well, to be honest, well, sometimes I just - like, for example, today was a hard day. Like, I can't go into details. Like, you just are afraid, like, this - at this animal level where your stomach hurts. Like, you're just afraid for your own life. And you don't know if you'll survive because this may end with some - I don't know - with something, like, in a month, but this may drag on for years. So how do you write about it? What do you write about? I tried to write something like war diaries, but I'm not sure. I basically stopped this.

KELLY: Why?

CHAPEYE: It's difficult. There's less and less time, and there's the feeling of everything behind you is gone. And you're like, this is a part of your reality. So sometimes you think, OK, I will write about what I remember - something like that. I don't know. I would like to write about it, but I kind of feeling that there would be a lot of people able to do it. So maybe I won't. Maybe I will switch to comics or science fiction instead. Who knows? Who knows how it will end? But I don't know if you would want to remember - not remember it, but, like, dwell into these things again.

KELLY: Well, I hope one day, whenever it may come, I'll get to speak to you again. And you will be writing stories again about the beauty of your country and its people. I hope we get there.

CHAPEYE: Yes, I hope so.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Artem Chapeye. He is a writer. His short story, "The Ukraine," appears in The New Yorker. He's also a private serving today in the Ukrainian army. Artem Chapeye, thank you.

CHAPEYE: Thank you so much for your interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM WAITS SONG, "CLOSING TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sarah Handel