February 24, 2022
BEFORE IT HAPPENED, I was in denial. There had been many signs that it was going to happen and that it would happen sooner than later, but I ignored them all. I kept ignoring them until this very day.
I woke up and discovered that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun during the night. I took a picture of the sky outside my window because I knew it was the sky over a historic day. Already, the day had the same vibe as several other days in my life when something completely unexpected had happened. The same vibe as the day Donald Trump won the election, the same vibe as the day Britain voted for Brexit. After burning myself with that vibe in 2016, I’d decided never again to fall into that trap—never again to look at the future with the eyes of a time that no longer exists, and thus unable to understand what’s coming.
So, why hadn’t I seen the war coming? I texted a friend who’s a researcher on post-Soviet space and asked her. She told me she had the same feeling. After that, I worked for a bit but couldn’t really focus and kept switching tabs to check Twitter for news. Then for lunch, I went to my mother’s place, a 15-minute walk from my house.
I’m the kind of person who gets obsessed with music, who, when he discovers a song, plays it ad nauseam for days until the song’s power is exhausted. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, who made me discover Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (Shostakovich is one of the main characters in that novel). And in those days, I was playing over and over the First Movement, also known as the “Invasion Theme.”
I don’t remember what we ate. After lunch, while my mother was doing the dishes, I visited my grandmother, age 97, who lived nearby. I always felt that in my family, she was the one who understood me best. Born in the second year of the Fascist era—as they called 1924 in 1924—in one of the country’s poorest regions, she had attended only a few years of school before working in the fields and caring for her sisters. She was ignorant but also very smart. She had moved to Milan after the war and worked as a doorkeeper, saving every penny. She never went to the movies in all her life, but bought four houses—one in Milan, one at the seaside, and two more for her son and daughter.
I went to visit her because she was sick. Until January, she had been the same as ever—quick-witted, always in a good mood, even if a little bit tired and with some trouble walking. Then, at the start of February, she had a crisis; she came down with a high fever, and we all thought she would die. She recovered a bit, but everyone knew it was just a matter of time. I knew that too, and that’s why I went to visit her every other day, although, as I said, I was still in denial.
I found her slumped in her armchair, the one with the adjustable backrest, breathing heavily. She had stopped recognizing faces but could still identify who she was talking to. She asked me many questions—about my work, my girlfriend, my cat, my dad, and even about an uncle I hadn’t seen in years. And that was the moment when it hit me. When I felt I was meeting her for the last time.
The TV was broadcasting news about the war. “Putin has a sick head”, she told me in dialect. Funny, some days later, the discourse about the war in mainstream media was all over the question: “Is Putin crazy?” Establishment journalists were displaying the same level of analysis of current events as my grandma.
My mother arrived, and I picked up my jacket. I told my grandma about the book I had just started writing, which would be published at the end of the year. I’d just realized that she wouldn’t live long enough to see it, and that I would dedicate it to her, but I still told her to read it. She said nothing but glanced at me in a way that said, “The fuck are you saying? We both know this will not happen.” It wouldn’t have happened even if she were to live forever —I have never seen my grandma read something. There were no books in her house, only an encyclopedia, some religious pamphlets, and a weird recipe book about Christopher Columbus and his times.
I went home, again listening to the “Invasion Theme” while walking. I texted my half-brother, a Ph.D. student of Russian literature. We both thought that Ukraine didn’t stand a chance and that Zelensky would be ousted by the end of the day. I was still inside that trap. At the high point of my paranoia, I took my backpack and started preparing for an eventual evacuation. I spent the rest of my day in a dream-like state, listening to the other song I was obsessing on in those days: “Du hast der farbfilm vergessen” by Nina Hagen. I’d discovered it the previous December, when Angela Merkel chose it to be one of the three songs played at her Großen Zapfenstreich, her farewell to politics. I found one verse particularly striking: “Nun glaubt uns kein Mensch, wie schön’s hier war”, “Nobody will believe how nice it was here.”
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