Homeless and Houseless The Ice Hut

A wall of a house with a window missing its panes and a big hole gaping under it.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including those who slept on my couch, became houseless. They have lost the walls in which they lived, or have been forced to leave them. | Photo (detail): Igor-Francyshyn © Pexels

Polina Aronson writes about the loss of home on both sides of the border and the sinkhole that the war has created.

By Polina Aronson

The main feeling that has haunted me since the war began is a general homelessness. Bottomless, endless, tormenting, soul-sucking homelessness. 

At first, it seemed like a huge hole, filled to the brim with dense monochrome darkness. But over time, shades began to appear in this darkness. The Ukrainians and Russians who alternately lived in my Berlin flat – a pregnant woman from Kramatorsk, a mother and her daughter from Kyiv, artists from the St Petersburg circus, the family of a Moscow professor – were homeless in different ways, each in their own way.

Houseless

The meaning of these ‘different ways’ is very accurately articulated in the wonderful film about modern-day wanderers, Nomadland. Facing her neighbours from her former life, the main character says: “I am not homeless, I am houseless”. That is, “I am not homeless. I just don’t have a house of my own”.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including those who slept on my couch, became houseless. They have lost the walls in which they lived, or have been forced to leave them. They abandoned their homes under shelling and bombing. I read somewhere the words of a woman from Kyiv who arrived at Berlin’s main station: ‘On the evening of 23 February, I was thinking about which coat to wear tomorrow – and then it was over. For many, many Ukrainians “it’s all over” at once, in an explosion, in a flash – and now they are being swept out of the pit by a shockwave. They are houseless in the sense that their houses no longer exist (or may soon not exist). What is left of them is rubble and ditches. Behind them is a burning void.

But in spite of everything, they have not become homeless. On the contrary, many have a very strong sense of home, where they will definitely have to return to. Every second person arriving in Berlin says that they are coming to “wait it out” and that “as soon as it is over, they will go straight home”. 

At the very beginning of the war, dozens of Ukrainian women who had fled the shelling with their children and cats were discussing what would happen in a month or two with dirty dishes left in the sink and cutlets and chicken legs left in freezers all over the country in a Facebook community “How to stop achieving and start degrading”. How are we going to clean it all up, girls, and how long will it take to air it out and defrost it? 

Two or three months later, those Kyivers whose houses had survived began to return to their city. A friend, also from Kyiv, who was in Ternopil from late February to mid-May, writes: “There were frozen strawberries in a sealed bottle in the freezer. In the process of defrosting it exploded, everything around it was flooded with strawberries, dried up. The smell of spoiled food permeated everything. Three days of cleaning.”

On social media and in personal correspondence, Ukrainians share the names of detergents and recipes for scrubbing mould, because home – it’s waiting. Even if it has been robbed and fouled by unscrupulous strangers, they will come back to clean it, air it out and hang new curtains in it. And if it is bombed, there will be a new one.

No Home

Not so with those who can be linguistically categorised as “Russians” and passport-wise categorised as those who live in the “Russian Federation”. Many of these people still have a house, but since 24 February there is definitively no home. 

Unlike Ukrainians, when they leave their country they still think they are “relocating” or, at the very least, emigrating, but not evacuating. 

I have heard stories of people literally leaving through an open window – and then taking a shuttle bus to the nearest land border. 

But most are taking a little more time before they hit the road. Some as much as 72 hours, even if under normal circumstances that would seem quite insufficient to leave a lifetime behind. “Hi, I’m in Yerevan. The kids are staying with my wife, they’re more endangered with me now than without me. Don’t you have a job for me, by the way? ”  “Are you all right?” – “Not in Russia anymore, sorry, I can’t talk.” “What have you got?” – “Putting the baby down, packing.” “My mother sent cash with my brother, I’ll make out a power of attorney for my father tomorrow, my flight leaves at 2.30 pm.” 

As they leave their flats, these people lock them, carefully shut off the water and gas in the pipes, turn off the defrosted fridge beforehand, go down in the lift, get into their car or on a shuttle bus to Ivangorod or in a taxi to the airport. Their houses will be left standing, and the disconnected modem will continuously signal: “We’re still here, all you have to do is turn around”. That signal will ring in their ears for years to come. Maybe for the rest of their lives.  

Those who have left say: It’s over, there is no hope: “Stop thinking that your real home has remained somewhere far away in Russia, and that you are in emigration temporarily. Now my home is where I am staying more or less permanently,” writes a journalist now living in Israel on Facebook. 

Many, however, have lost their home without leaving it. They are chained to their flats by the drips of bedridden parents, pinned down by stacks of expired passports, and bound by dog leashes. Going out to the kitchen, they press their foreheads against the wall by the window; falling asleep, they feel the wall by the bed with their hands. But the strength of these walls is not encouraging – on the contrary. The concrete capsule shrinks more and more by the hour, and the windows and doors in the Russian Federation are blocked by decree number so-and-so.

Finally, both those and others, and even those who have long lived and can elect authorities outside Russia, have lost their home in their own language. These people – I am among them – are sick with a linguistic autoimmune disease: they are attacked and corroded from within by the Russian language appropriated by outsiders. 

In the smoke-soaked videos, the dumbfounded swearing of the perpetrators and their victims – fuck, shit, fuck, look, look! – are indistinguishable from one another. An object called a “bomb” in Russian falls on a house, often inhabited by Russian-speaking people, and if they manage to escape they tell us about it, often in Russian too. These stories feature people with names that are clear and familiar, doing things that are clear and familiar. Katya was injured by shrapnel from a living room window. Petya was killed in a bomb attack on his way to the shop. Nastya and her children were fleeing for evacuation. Sergei was walking down the street and was hit by gunfire. Kolya was writing his dissertation, went to another city to the library and sat there for a week in the basement, because he could not leave the house.

It is impossible to walk away from these stories at a safe distance. They are made up of words that each of us says to ourselves every day. 

Homeless

There are, of course, those who are not yet fully aware of their homelessness: they think that the letter Z is such a new accessory for the living room, rather than a wrench used to drill gaping holes in the native walls. There is talk that in Russia they are almost a majority – but who knows. 

Anyway, while the Ukrainians wash what is left of their kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, it is becoming increasingly clear to “Russians” and those who live in the “Russian Federation” that they can no longer get clean. 
House in the sense of home – a place where you can walk around in your old slippers, sing under the shower, play Minecraft with your neighbour, eat with your hands off the frying pan, say “kitty” or “your majesty” to each other and turn the TV on and off at will – this place “Russians” by language and those who live in the “Russian Federation” by citizenship no longer have. 

It’s like in a Russian fairy tale: “Once upon a time, the hare’s hut was a hut made of bast fibre, but now it’s an ice hut, with tank cannons, scrap metal, ash and other people’s blood frozen into its floor.” *


* Editor’s note: The sentence refers to the Russian fairy tale „Zayka’s hut“ (Hare’s hut). In the tale, the hare builds a hut from bast and the fox builds an ice hut. When the ice hut melts in spring, the fox chases the hare out of his bast hut and moves into it. The other animals help the hare chase the fox out of the hut. The story ends with the hare living in his bast hut again. 
 
 

The project “Dark Times, Bright Nights” (orig.: “Dunkle Zeiten, Helle Nächte”) by the Goethe-Institut in cooperation with the magazine dekoder invites authors and film and media professionals in Russia and in exile to document and reflect on the new everyday life since 24.2.2022. Further contributions can be found in the dossier on dekoder.