Poltava is a city in eastern Ukraine, about 350 kilometers (217 miles) from Kyiv. It is an area whose history dates back to the Neolithic Trypillian culture (6000-1000 BC). It is also the home of Christoph Brumme.
The East German-born writer knows Eastern Europe well: when he was younger, he made several bicycle trips from Berlin through Poland and Ukraine to the Volga, covering a total of 30,000 kilometers. He has described his adventures in articles and books, including the 2009 “On a Blue Elephant – 8,353 kilometers by bike from Berlin to the Volga and back”.
He has since moved to Poltava, from where the 59-year-old author reports for various newspapers, including Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
In his current book, “Im Schatten der Krieges — Tagebuchaufzeichnungen aus der Ukraine” (In the shadow of war — diary entries from Ukraine), he gives a very personal, honest and unambiguous description of life in times of war.
New jokes do the rounds
Fear is a constant companion in times of war. But Brumme also shows the other side of the coin – the desire for freedom, which is stronger than the slightest hint of fear, the enormous will to help and the solidarity of the people, the hopes and above all the sense of Ukrainians of humor.
“In the street with Oskar, the sun is shining. I sing the chorus of a scout song: “Long live the sun / Long live the sky / Long live mom / And me too.” Oskar sings in Russian. But instead of “sun “he sings ‘vodka’,” Brumme writes, citing new jokes that surfaced after the outbreak of war.
For example: Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel ‘War and Peace’ is now called ‘Special Military Operation and Peace’ – since Russia has banned the word ‘war’ in reference to Ukraine and its use may lead Russians in prison.
“Humour is part of the survival strategy, it is one of the most important national characteristics of Ukrainians, laughing at themselves, making jokes about their government or the EU,” Brumme told DW. It is, according to him, an expression of sovereignty. In Ukraine, people are free to criticize the authorities, unlike in Russia, where a “completely humorless culture prevails”, he said, quoting another new Ukrainian joke:
” You know what ? I’m really afraid to speak Russian on the street now!
– Why? Are you afraid that the nationalists will beat you up?
“No, I’m afraid Putin will come to protect me.”
Humor is a Ukrainian survival strategy, according to Christoph Brumme
Ukrainians feel betrayed
There are, however, moments that Ukrainians do not find funny, for example when they follow the debates in Germany: “Germany’s image deteriorated very strongly during the last months of the war”, Brumme said, adding that Ukrainians feel betrayed. “They are waiting to see if words will finally be followed by deeds.”
But in general people are skeptical about Germany, he said. “If needed, you can see who provides help and who still hopes, secretly or openly, to do business with Russia and sacrifice Ukrainians if necessary.”
When war broke out, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for a “turnaround” in the Bundestag, but resolve was thin and Germany’s credibility suffered. The chancellor was hesitant about arms deliveries and did not advocate a full energy boycott of Russia.
According to an opinion poll conducted by Infratest dimap in April, only a slim majority of the German population was in favor of delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine.
“German society is deceiving itself,” Brumme said. Believing that you can resolve conflicts with Putin and reach agreements that he will adhere to “has a delusional quality”, he added.
The media are also responsible for how Germany is perceived, he said. He is wary of German reporting on Ukraine: “In general, coverage of Ukraine has been poor for years. Public broadcasters have an obligation towards the general public, but in my opinion they do not fulfill this obligation towards Ukraine at all,” he said.
He cites as an example the oft-repeated claim that pro-Russian separatists have been fighting in the Donbass for eight years. “Anyone who knows a bit about the situation is aware that this is clearly a Russian project with Russian leadership and Russian finances, Russian know-how and Russian technology,” he said. “This is how public pressure and public opinion has been generated over the years, which in turn leads to political decisions that are incredibly bloody for Ukrainians and cost an incredible number of casualties,” Brumme said.
Cover of Brumme’s new book which gives insight into daily life in the war-torn country
“People don’t know anything about it”
In his book, Brumme said that the Russian soul is made up of “delusions of grandeur, self-hatred and feelings of inferiority towards the West”.
Speaking to DW about propaganda broadcasts on Russian TV, Brumme wondered how many Germans regularly watch Russian TV and who understands what Russian politicians are saying. “A survey of 1,000 people might find two who show some competence. In Germany it’s common to talk about things you know nothing about – and that’s all freedom of speech.”
Russia’s brutal warmongering went unregistered in the West, he said. “In Germany, the historical dimension of this war and of the Ukrainian-Russian relationship is not perceived at all, because people don’t know anything about it.”
Christoph Brumme does not see the end of the war anytime soon. Russia has not taken legal or moral responsibility for the mass murder of Ukrainians in the 20th century, he said, adding that eight years of propaganda appears to have worked. “The majority of Russians want this war, and the longer it lasts, the more fanatical they are,” he said. “A (temporary) Russian defeat would only make the desire for revenge there grow infinitely.”
The war will end when the Russian state no longer exists in its current form, the writer concluded. “Russia, too, is fighting for its very existence.”
This article was originally written in German.