Ukraine

On the Road

A Ukrainian filmmaker photographs a sinister landscape


When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022 the documentary filmmaker Oleksandr Techynskyi quickly moved his wife and two teenage daughters out of the country and took a job translating for a foreign TV crew covering the war. Where he once spent his days making lyrical films, he now spends endless hours crisscrossing the country in a car full of foreign journalists. With his own work on hold and his family in Germany, his days are now defined by the war and the road.

But almost as if he couldn’t help himself, he picked up a camera and began snapping photos from inside the car. At first, he tried taking photos of what he saw in a traditional journalistic style that he thought would attract foreign media outlets. But the straightforward shots of devastation left him cold.

Then he began taking a different approach. He imagined his new photos as stills from a movie. He was the protagonist in a car driving through a land of the living dead. “This is an apocalyptic noir that shows our present—heavy, leaden clouds and ruined homes,” he says, referring to his new images. “The car passes people resembling zombies with empty eyes.” Stopping amid these ruins inevitably leads to the death of the protagonist. “He himself will turn into a zombie, and he will also wander the mazes of war-torn cities,” says Techynskyi, who everyone calls Sasha.

The TV crew that employs Sasha works on rotations: two weeks on, then two weeks back in Europe to rest. But for Sasha there is no break. As soon as he’s done with one team, he picks up a fresh one at the Polish border. “I clearly remember only the endless road,” he says. “When I have an unexpected weekend, I come home. There is no one there. My wife and children have been evacuated. I wander around the house and can’t find a place. I can’t sleep. It is a black hole. Here the nausea is even stronger.” Rather than stay home, he asks for another assignment escorting a fresh crew of TV journalists back into the war. “I want to go back,” he says. “At least I feel alive there.”

• • •

I first met Sasha in 2017 when he was my translator on a reporting trip. It was only a handful of years ago, but the world was far different then. Ukraine’s democracy was young and the country was an intoxicating mix of independent idealists, wayward politicians, corrupt businessmen and a new breed of artists and bohemian free spirits. Back then, Sasha split his time between the eastern city of Dnipro, where his wife and daughters lived, and Kyiv, where his art and friends thrived. He spent his days creating intimate, wide-ranging documentaries that won international awards. He documented everything from the Maidan Revolution to stories of baggage carriers sleeping by the side of the road and the lives of fishermen of the Ukraine River Delta.

Sasha’s films explore profound, sweeping concepts, but always with a quiet, poetic eye. The films are empathetic without being simplistic and always attuned to the absurdity of human existence—hallmarks of a true Ukrainian. There is one scene in particular from his documentary about the Maidan Revolution that encapsulates this. In the film, a group of young protesters pull down a tall stone statue of Lenin that once stood on a large pedestal in the middle of the street. The protesters find a sledgehammer and begin hacking away at the toppled figure. As a reporter in eastern Europe in the early 90s I’d witnessed many a Lenin statue dismantled, sometimes with a simple slow-moving crane that reached down and elegantly plucked it out of the ground. Other times with a violent crowd enthusiastically chanting; hoping to eradicate the past and move feverishly forward into that new unknown future.

On this particular night in Ukraine Sasha’s film captures an old Soviet man stumbling amid the crowd as if in a fever dream. “Please,” he said. “No. Please.” Sasha filmed him as he slowly lowered his body onto the bust of the newly toppled Lenin begging the crowd to stop. He leaned down and kissed Lenin’s head. The crowd, wild and full of ferocity, watched him bemused. But no one touched him. He was a man from their shared Soviet past crying as he watched the world as it once was crumbling around him. “Come away father,” said one protester gently. “Kiss it and say goodbye,” said another. “In 1917 you overthrew us; now it’s your turn to be overthrown.” A young woman pleaded with him to leave and scolded the crowd for jeering him. “He’s old enough to be your father,” she said. Finally, two men escorted him away, staring down anyone in the crowd who might dare to touch him.

But that was before. Before the 2014 annexation of Crimea; before Russia’s full-on bombardment and systematic destruction of the country. That was when Ukrainians felt the future was entirely in their own hands. Overthrow the president, end corruption, cull through the bank accounts of the oligarchs. The catch words in those days were transparency, freedom and democracy. And for the first time in years, these lofty goals seemed like an actual possibility. Of course, this new possibility was not pristine but it was beautiful all the same, the way real possibility always is. The way the future actually works.

When I first met Sasha, Ukraine was barely an afterthought to the west. It was just one of the last of the formerly Soviet countries to find its footing in the new capitalist word. Maidan was three years in the past, and a low-level war with Russia was playing out in the east. Just troublesome enough to keep Ukraine from having a serious chance at entering the European Union or NATO. The West was far from intent on getting into a proxy war with Russia. This could go on for years—and did. Eight years, in fact, of Russians picking off a number of young men every week. Enough to keep the flames of war burning, but not enough to stir the ire of the West.

It was around that time that Sasha and I traveled down to Dnipro to interview soldiers recently wounded in the fight against Russia. I knew that few, if any, in the West would be interested. I even suggested we not bother the men, that it felt false or worse. “No one will want this story,” I told Sasha in the hospital parking lot. This was before Ukraine became the darling of the West. Before Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by video at the Grammys, before Manhattan boutiques showcased Ukrainian flags in their shop windows and before scores of Western journalists poured into the country, tracking down any quotes they could get from soldiers and fleeing villagers.

Sasha just shrugged. “It doesn’t matter that no one will read this. The men will like it,” he said. “They’re village boys. An American journalist standing at their bedside, and a woman. It’s something. They will say patriotic things and feel better.” So, we went inside the hospital and walked through rooms lined with beds full of newly wounded soldiers.

Sasha was right. The men were eager to talk, and every one of them spoke of the same thing: the glory of Ukraine, the bravery of their comrades. How much they loved their family and wanted to die for their country. Only one man was silent. The day before, both his legs were blown off by a Russian grenade. He lay in bed staring at the ceiling, the blood soaking through the white gauze bandages wrapped on his limbs that only hours earlier had been cut just above the knee. Sasha and I looked at each other. Sasha shook his head, I nodded and we both walked quietly past the bed.

• • •

When Vladimir Putin unleashed Russia’s full force invasion earlier this year, I immediately texted Sasha to see how he was. Over the next several months we kept an easy correspondence of texts and phone calls. At first, it was hard to know how bad things would get, and where or when the Russians might attack. During one of our first phone calls after the invasion he was in a dark humor, a bit stoic as if preparing himself for death. “I’ve had my adventures,” he told me. “If I die, I die.” Then he got quieter and said he now felt real joy when he saw a Russian soldier lying dead on the ground. “I am afraid of what I am becoming,” he said.

These days, I think of Sasha as I once knew him—as he still is, even now—forever lighthearted, laughing and talking animatedly, sharing wild thoughts. I remember our long drive back from Dnipro to Kyiv in the rain. The windshield wipers flip-flopped back and forth as he rattled on in his enthusiastic way. Trucks passing us in gusts of water and rain. He was on a jag about a new idea that had just occurred to him. “Maybe I am a feminist,” he declared. I remember being amused, but he was dead serious and wanted to discuss the possibility for the next hour. He couldn’t stop talking, and the wipers swished back and forth, as if trying to keep up with him.

Sasha was not supposed to be an artist; he was supposed to work in the diamond mines of Siberia with his father and brother. He was born in Ukraine during Soviet rule to a father who worked long, hard hours in the Ukrainian coal mines of Donbas. But when a mining accident broke both his father’s legs it was enough to provoke his father to make a change. Looking for a better life, he moved his wife and two sons to Siberia and took a job as a mining engineer. That’s where Sasha spent most of his youth. The family returned to Ukraine only after the fall of the Soviet Union. His father, though, was never entirely able to find a place for himself back in Ukraine. He lost his job, he lost his wife, he lost his family. The collapse of the Soviet Union took everything. “In the end, he found a way to save what he could save,” says Sasha. “He took my young brother and headed back to Siberia.”

And that is where his father has stayed for 22 years—all of Putin’s reign. There Sasha’s father watches Russian TV and rarely uses the internet. “He’s totally out of understanding of what’s really going on.” When father and son talk on the phone, Sasha might try to explain what’s happening in Ukraine now, how whole cities have been decimated by Russian shelling. But his father is awash in Russian propaganda. “He doesn’t believe me,” Sasha says. “He is polite. But I can hear his skepticism.” Rather than being angry with his father, Sasha is patient, even generous. “His life was tough and now in a way he’s finally found some peace,” he says. “He doesn’t want to get out of his bubble.”

Sasha, meanwhile, spends every day immersed in war. We texted one night after he’d spent hours at the mass grave site in Izium where 440 bodies were found. He worked all day with the television crew as they filmed the bodies at the site. Some victims had their hands tied behind their backs. Some were children. Some were tortured or killed, by chance, in a bombing. In the midst of everything, Sasha pulled out his own camera and took a black-and-white photo of emergency workers clad in white suits and masks, quietly standing in line before the police tape surrounding the exhumation area. That night he posted the photo on Facebook, titling it “Lifeguards in the Pines.”

Gatherings such as these have become a kind of morbid homecoming for Sasha. They are where Ukrainian journalists run into each other, where they meet and catch up with friends. “You are on the road,” says Sasha, “and then in the end at the newly liberated town, the new mass grave, you are standing there and hugging your journalist friends that you haven’t seen for a long time.”

Sasha has become more at ease with himself and the war around him. As if he and others are simply becoming more accustomed to death. Recently, he told me about a friend, “a real peaceful guy, you know the type who likes to sit and catch fish from the bank of the river.” But now, Sasha tells me, this friend “can’t go to sleep without watching YouTube clips of the murder of Russians. This is a common thing. It makes sense—there is no other way for us.”

Sasha continues: “Russia wants us to be all the same. No love, no education, no future, no choices. We aren’t just fighting against brutality—we are fighting against slavery.” He lists the freedoms that Ukrainians are in danger of losing: freedom of speech, freedom to be gay, freedom to simply be a person. “Of course, we must win, or Russia will just continue to swallow all the other post-Soviet countries too. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia,” he pauses. “Belarus is already swallowed.”

There is now talk of a fresh wave of military conscriptions. “One beautiful day, I will receive a transcription letter,” Sasha says with a laugh. If that day comes, he will need to report to the conscription center. “After that, everything can happen,” he says. “If I receive a conscription, of course I will go.” He pauses. “And take whatever will come.” The work he’s doing with the European TV crew also helps the war effort—news of Ukraine inspires EU countries to send more money and resources. But he is clear he won’t mind if he’s called up.
“Yes,” I say to him, “but it’s different to hold a gun than a camera?”
“Yeah, but you know,” he says, laughing, “to kill Russians, that would be a pleasure.”

Sasha’s daughters are 13 and 16. “The main thing for me now is to keep them as far as possible from the war,” he tells me. “I want them to be usual teenagers with usual teenager problems. Not teenagers heavily traumatized by the war.” He then mentions his fear that his daughters might lose some of their joyfulness. “I’m just a happy person,” he says. “I was this way from the beginning. My wife is like that too. No matter what happens, you can’t break those kinds of natural things inside of me.” He stops. “Small things make for happiness,” he says. Then I realize he means something profound. “Small things save lives.”


Contributor

Oleksandr Techynskyi

Oleksandr Techynskyi is a photographer and filmmaker. In 2014, he won Best Eastern European documentary at DOK Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival for his debut feature “All Things Ablaze.” Techynskyi has worked as TV 2’s fixer in Ukraine during the 2022 war.

Kira Brunner Don

Kira Brunner Don is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Stranger’s Guide. She worked as a magazine editor in New York for seventeen years and as a journalist in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She studied philosophy at The New School’s Graduate Faculty and worked at a think tank at Columbia University before joining Lapham’s Quarterly, where she was executive editor for eight years. She is co-editor of the book The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention and is the founding co-director of the Oakland Book Festival.

Discover the Ukraine that was—and the one that will be. Stranger’s Guide: Ukraine is among the most challenging and powerful volumes we’ve ever put out, featuring Ukrainian writers and photographers, many of whom are still in their country, others living abroad ...

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