Ilya Kharkow / Ukraine
“I’m a queer writer from Ukraine. A year ago, I escaped my country, and since then, I’ve written two books about the war from the perspective of a gay person: about forced mobilisation, the tough choices young men in Ukraine face (prison or service), homophobia, and how they’ve even started drafting people living with HIV, among other things.
They want to block our bank cards. They ask European countries to close integration programs for us. They request our deportations. Official figures publicly stated that every guy who left should face trial and punishment. This is about Ukraine and guys who refused to fight.
8 years in prison is what awaits me if I return to Ukraine. While many support Ukraine in the war against Russia, few consider that many Ukrainians need protection from their own country. Our crime is that we don’t want to take up arms and go kill. So, I am proud to be a criminal if my crime is that. For almost 9 months, I tried to escape from Ukraine. Two and a half months, I literally spent in captivity. I hid in a conference room of an IT company in Lviv, afraid to go outside. Damn it, for two and a half months, I didn’t leave the room, washed in a bucket for floor cleaning, and prepared to commit suicide. Its worth adding that the walls of the conference room were glass. What could be more absurd than hiding from the war in a glass room? Yet, we hid. On the first day of the war, my partner and I tried to leave Kyiv. We wanted to reach the western border, aiming for Poland, searching for a safe place. So, when we reached Lviv, we couldn’t believe the news that borders were closed for men aged 18 to 60. It sounded absurd; just hours ago, we were fleeing bombs, radio reported the first casualties, and online videos showed Russian tanks entering the capital. Its dangerous here, yet we’re forbidden to leave. But why?
Recently, I came across a YouTube video. Someone compiled a 15-minute video from pre-war news. In these reports, the Ukrainian authorities assured us there would be no war, while American and British politicians specified the wars start dates. When the war happened, Ukrainian politicians urged everyone to stay put. When Mariupol was destroyed along with its residents, Ukrainian authorities insisted on avoiding panic. The government cares about preserving the state, not its citizens. Territory, borders, national symbols matter; people… new ones will be born.
Lviv greeted us unfriendly. My partner and I tried to volunteer, but being from the eastern part of the country made us distrusted and irritated the locals. We speak Ukrainian poorly because our native language is Russian. Due to this, locals accused us at the wars beginning, seriously accused us, forgetting that the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine is not a minority but half the country. Yet, the locals irritation turned out to be just the initial reaction.
It seemed like the entire country fled to Lviv at the beginning of the war to cross the border, but the borders closed, and people had to look for temporary shelter. While Europeans welcomed Ukrainians into their homes for free, rental prices in western Ukraine matched those in Paris. My partner and I decided to go to a social shelter organised by the city. However, it soon became clear that the military and police were checking such shelters, creating lists of those staying there. Men aged 18 to 60 were forcibly taken to the military enlistment office and sent to war. Learning about this, we had to find alternative housing. Thats how we ended up in an office.
Simultaneously, the media spoke of incredible unity among the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, I tried to persuade my partner to a joint suicide after Ukrainian military tried to send us to war. Yes, in the first months, there were indeed many volunteers. But many were also forced into war. And it continues now. Today, it has turned into a well-functioning system. Since August 2023, even guys with HIV+ can be sent to war. Even guys with mental illnesses. Forced mobilisation has been happening for a year and a half, but no one talks about it. They don’t talk because Ukrainian society is patriarchal and homophobic. Being a pacifist in Ukraine today is shameful, thanks to Ukrainian propaganda. Guys are afraid to speak out against forced mobilisation because that would be seen as going against their country. I’ve been in confrontation with my country from day one. As a gay man who lived 30 years in a homophobic country, I’m used to being alone against everyone. I need protection from Ukraine as much as from the Russian army.
While in the office, I feared going out. Stores refused to serve me because I spoke Russian. I started speaking Ukrainian with locals, but my accent still revealed it wasn’t my native language. Members of territorial defence roamed the streets, catching guys from the eastern regions and forcibly taking them to the military enlistment office. Locals, upon learning that the danger existed only for guys who had arrived, began to speculate on this. The western part of Ukraine is much more religious than the east and, at the same time, much more homophobic. It was frightening to show affection to my partner even in a dimly lit room; we were that scared.
Soon, conscription notices started being used as a form of punishment. You could receive a notice if you spoke a wrong language, looked too bright, or simply didn’t appeal to a random soldier. We were afraid to speak. Afraid someone would find out we were a gay couple. Afraid we’d be sent to die. After all I’ve been through, I don’t want to be called a Ukrainian writer. When asked abroad where I’m from, I’m ashamed to say Ukraine. I want to be treated as a human, not as a Ukrainian.
I depicted my escape from Ukraine in the novel THE MINING BOYS. I wrote it for two reasons: to conduct a detailed self-analysis, thereby stabilising my mental health, and to comfort every guy who doesn’t want to fight. To show that not wanting to fight is normal. I hope my novel helps someone, and after reading it, someone decides not to end their life for political reasons. Sometimes, I remember how we had to wash our bodies in a bucket for floor cleaning, the humiliations we endured escaping from soldiers on the streets – escaping from those who were supposed to protect us! Hatred. Language discrimination. Accusations of war. The futile desire to hide in a room with transparent walls. News of how my favourite places were destroyed by Russian missiles. No matter how I try to describe life in wartime, I can’t convey all the horror because my text has logic, but war has none. Thats its horror. If not for my partner, I wouldn’t be alive. Therefore, I write to save those who are alone, who don’t want to fight and consider themselves traitors because of it. But does common sense lead to betrayal or to humanity? Why is forced mobilisation possible in the modern world? I don’t have an answer. Maybe you do?”
This is the link to Ilya’s website: www.ikharkow.com