Pavlo Kazarin is a journalist and media host. Yurii Matsarskyi is an international journalist and broadcaster. Together they hosted a program on Radio NV; and together they enlisted in the Ukrainian army. Pavlo and Yurii speak about their decision to take up arms, the peculiarities of military service, and the way war impacts culture.
First days of the war - thoughts, experiences, actions
On February 24, Pavlo Kazarin was planning to host his morning program on TV. He had set his alarm for 5am, but the sound of the explosions woke him up some time earlier. So Pavlo scrolled through the news and realized that it was war. He got up and went to work because his morning show hadn’t been cancelled. He felt distraught during the entire 2 hours and 15 minutes of live broadcast, as none of the coverage was relevant anymore.
“I just sat there and retold what I had seen, read, and experienced,” Pavlo recalls. “On my way to work I was worrying that my voice might shake on air, because the audience must never feel your own anxiety.”
Afterwards, Pavlo went to host another edition of Double Standards, the program he hosts jointly with Yurii Matsarskyi on Radio NV.
“On the first day of the full-scale war I felt 200% bewildered,” Yurii admits. “I could not understand what I should do. I have seen many wars in other countries, but every time my perspective was that of an outsider. But when the explosions approached my own house, I felt that I could no longer observe the war with a stranger’s eye. It was a certain break in my mindset.”
After coming home, Yurii realized that he could not do journalism from then on. So he told his colleagues on his work chat that he was going to enlist in the Armed Forces. Pavlo made the same decision. Next day, both went to the military administration and ended up in the same territorial defense unit. By the end of the day, they had been given weapons, and went to patrol the streets of Kyiv.
As soon as Yurii decided to enlist in the army, he did something to drag himself out of his state of bewilderment. He took his old reporter’s helmet with a big white ‘PRESS’ label on it, and covered over the letters with his daughter’s black marker pen. He has been wearing this very helmet for the entire time of his military service.
“I knew that many reporters would continue working,” says Yurii. “There’s no shortage of people who can cover the war efficiently, but I thought the army would need those who were willing to take up arms. In the end, I was proved wrong, but that was my personal choice, and I would make the same choice again today without hesitation. I could not do anything else.”
Nevertheless, this decision came as a surprise to Yurii himself. A few years before, he had thought that in case of a full-scale war he would work as a fixer with a big Western media organization, which would among other things have helped him earn some money for his daughter and parents. He recalled this plan a few weeks after the invasion, when he woke up one day in a sleeping bag, next to his gun and helmet.
For his part, Pavlo remembers how he decided to continue working as a journalist in 2014. It seemed to him that there had been a failure to understand the situation, and that it was of crucial importance to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. In 2022, he could also have said that he would have been more useful as an influential journalist, but still, he chose the army.
“I might have been called a pessimist prior to the invasion, when the Ukrainian authorities discounted the warnings about war, saying that it would make the country’s potential for investment less attractive,” he continues. “I was anticipating a full-scale offensive. My premonitions sounded like those of Cassandra, but I have never wanted to reproach anyone by saying ‘I told you so’ on February 24 or 25. I would have loved to be wrong.”
The war has simplified everything. Here’s the enemy, and here’s your assignment. The war has taught Pavlo to give up planning anything and to quit procrastinating. He hasn’t experienced this sense of life without plans since he was six years old. Then, he lived just for the day with his friends, playing outside in the yard. Now he’s 38: no plans again, just living day by day, rubbing shoulders with his friends in combat.
Even so, the military service has its own peculiarities. In the words of Pavlo, one of the greatest scarcities in the army is privacy. Thus, he felt happy when he was left alone with a fever to enjoy some respite for several hours. Yurii adds:
“In the military, you can only choose to go to the bathroom and clean your teeth. The command decides all the rest. Some people suffer because of that, but others take it very easily. Today, I am completely dependent on the orders from the command. No plans, no right to manage your own time: it’s others who tell you what you must and must not do.”
After April 20, the territorial defense fighters could independently choose a unit in which to continue serving. So Pavlo and Yurii decided to leave Kyiv and relocate closer to the frontline. By now, they have already been to the Mykolayiv and Donetsk regions.
“The South is mainly associated with artillery duels in my mind,” says Yurii. “You can hear them over almost all the Mykolayiv region. It stands to reason there why the locals should immediately evacuate as soon as it’s required.”
Conversely, the cities which the Russian artillery cannot reach make another impression. Pavlo considers this difference as fundamental right now. Missiles might hit any town at the rear, although their number is limited, but artillery can wipe out entire districts or even cities.
Whatever locality Pavlo and Yurii may come to, they eventually find hundreds of stories everywhere. Families who joined the military together; nineteen-year-old reconnaissance girls; an ex-mime; a teacher; a mother who took up arms to avenge the death of her son killed in 2014; a writer; a playwright.
“Ukrainian culture will flourish after the victory,” states Yurii. “It will give a tangible impetus to music and theater. Ukraine will become the country of new talents comparable to those of Hemingway, Remarque, or Charley Chaplin.”
For his part, Pavlo is convinced that war, regardless of its result, always gives rise to a new cohort of authors.
“Everything is changing so quickly – the people, impressions and circumstances of warfare – that naturally you want to document it in the moment and keep the war diaries,” he explains.
“Still, we do not always have time for that. I think that the best books about this war have not yet been written. It won’t be professional writers who will write them, but deeply traumatized ordinary people, for whom writing will constitute a sort of real therapy. The emergence of this new culture will be bound up with pain and its re-examination.”
Pavlo himself has written only eight pieces during the three and a half months of his military service. He has no regrets that he has not written more, because in wartime it’s not very hard to slip into pathos and start selling your emotions. The same goes for Yurii: he says that he misses his work in journalism, but another job still has to be done, no matter what on earth you miss.
“Once, we were driving somewhere not far from Donetsk with a few guys from Lviv,” Yurii recalls. “One of them looked around and said, ‘It so resembles the Lviv region, it seems like we’re fighting for our own home’. ‘We are indeed’, the other one answered, ‘because this is where our common home begins.’”
Meanwhile in the military, Pavlo and Yurii have learnt how to handle weapons, analyze the current situation on the battlefield, and what to do during missile or artillery shelling. Still, there are other skills to master: for instance, discipline. Full-grown adults with an established mindset and reputation may find it hard to be subordinate.
“It’s not that easy to get used to the lack of privacy and to the bad command,” says Pavlo. “A commander can be incompetent, way too ambitious, unable to admit their mistakes – but nevertheless, this is the person your life depends on. You can end up dead because of someone’s stupidity or excessive ambitions. This is how it happened before; this is how it happens now, and this is how it will happen in the future.”
Besides, Pavlo goes on, loners do not survive in the army: it’s always a collective mechanism, where you are not a personality but just someone’s tool. Each soldier is like a thread, insignificant on their own, but turns into a flag along with all the others.
So there is no room for stereotypes about someone like Rambo in the real army, where soldiers must work in pairs at the very least. Another unviable Hollywood stereotype is based on armed clashes between infantry. This war is mostly about artillery, so for the infantry, it constitutes 95 per cent routine and 5 per cent horror. People here actually die from missile fragments rather than bullets.
The Russian-Ukrainian war is different from how wars have been conducted over the last forty years, when it was primarily combat between regular army and guerilla squads. At first, even the international partners had sent us weaponry for grassroots resistance, like NLAWs or Javelins, but in fact you may never encounter any Russians yourself.
“It’s a war of two institutional armies, each of them using all it has at its disposal,” Pavlo goes on. “This leads to the huge numbers of the deceased. This war is about artillery duels, which result in either occupying or withdrawing from localities.”
Misunderstanding the peculiarities of this war irritates Pavlo a great deal. For example, the questions about the liberation of Crimea.
“Sometimes, I guess, there is a temptation to contemplate warfare as if it was a football game,” he says. “Our main goal in this war is to preserve Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty. We’re David in this war, not Goliath: we are playing defense, and we have fewer resources than Russia. As for a possible capitulation by Russia, the only acceptable form of victory means setting yourself up for defeat in advance, because in any other case our victory would be regarded as insufficient.”
Pavlo recalls that Ukrainians are paying an enormous price for holding the enemy back. Our people keep dying every day, and this is going to last a long time. Thus, only servicemen have the right to demand the lightning-fast advances to the borders like in 2014; still, these same people would never do it.
“As for me, it’s not enough to just ‘believe in our Armed Forces’,” says Pavlo. “You must either serve in our Armed Forces or help our Armed Forces – and don’t forget to constantly check against turning into some kind of football fan, sitting in front of TV with a beer can and blaming the players for not running fast enough, not playing effectively enough and not passing the ball accurately enough.”
Pavlo and Yurii have come to Kyiv for a few days until they set off to another region with their unit. No more details: they are forbidden to disclose operational matters, so both speak of their own feelings. Yurii, for instance, was planning to get his affairs in order, but instead he slept all day long after having seen a soft bed for the first time in a long while.
Meanwhile, Pavlo feels like in his old student days when he went to the Crimean mountains, or returned to the city after a long absence. He seemed like a passing stranger then; so now, Kyiv in wartime also feels nostalgic for him.
“An acquaintance of mine asked whether I was irritated at what I saw in the city, like working restaurants or the short curfew,” says Pavlo. “But I wasn’t: on the contrary, I was encouraged. I dislike the narrative that suffering must be smeared in a thin layer, that we are all obliged to openly suffer in solidarity with the others. One of the main objectives of the military is ensuring that the cities in the rear can live their normal lives. Therefore, a peaceful life in Kyiv indicates that we are doing everything right.”