The New Normal: Sergey Vasiliev Documents War Torn Kharkiv

“This is a moment where you realise that, in one second, you can lose everything.” Sergey Vasiliev has heard plenty of stories like this, and even captured a few on camera. They’re not fables, nor the kinds of convoluted anecdotes that find themselves rehashed through unending chains of WhatsApp spam, but the genuine experiences of those still living in Ukraine, which was invaded by Russian forces in February.

From neighbours to shopkeepers and even strangers on the street, there’s not a Ukrainian alive who hasn’t felt the devastating fallout of the war. To live through these scenes is a horror most of us could only imagine, but Sergey Vasiliev says that the rockets, which always seem to be falling somewhere close by, aren’t even the worst part. “My parents are still in Kharkiv and they don’t want to move,” he says. “For me, the most difficult thing is talking with them and realising that maybe it’s the last time. You’re never scared for yourself, but you are, of course, thinking about your [family].”

Recalling the eve of the invasion, the 31-year-old photographer had just returned from a job in Barcelona. Having scored his dream flat only days before – a life-affirming moment for any budding creative – he was excited to check out his new digs and get on with some flatpack furniture assembling. Talk of invasion, after all, had been rife for the last few months, the words “they’ll be here tomorrow” now an all-too-familiar refrain. But after receiving an ominous text from a friend in politics, confirming the Russians were coming, the photographer switched off his phone and succumbed to the flu, waking the next day to find his beloved city changed forever.

“The first day was unbelievably horrible because nobody knew what to do,” the photographer explains of the moment he realised this was his new normal. Before long, he was out aiding the defence effort by volunteering in neighbourhoods that bordered newly-occupied territories. Stopping first at a children’s nursery, whose dilapidated exterior now found itself home to reams of barbed wire and makeshift washing lines, what shocked Vasiliev most wasn’t the visceral loss of childhood naivety that stood before him, but the scale and relative unimportance of all that had been looted by Russian forces just days before. “They stole everything they could,” he says, “even a house for a dog.”

At the behest of a friend, Vasiliev was instructed to bring a camera on his travels, so he could document how truly dire their situation was. Admittedly, he harboured some reservations about the task at hand – how does one ever prepare to take the colossal leap from brand spreads and feel good advertorials to the grim, and quite frankly dangerous, realm that constitutes wartime photojournalism? – but he was willing to trust the process. Waving goodbye to the glamorous world that once derailed his post-Management and Tourism degree plans, he describes what followed as “a broken moment. We just lost our friends, our time, our everything.”

It wouldn’t be long before Vasiliev returned to his native Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, with his only sister in tow. At first, what he saw was unrecognisable, a city centre that held all manner of memories and dreams reduced to piles of rubble. The buildings that did manage to withstand the impact of rocket fire weren’t any better for it either, with Vasiliev likening their decaying interiors to books without any insides. They imposed their lifelessness through abandonment or the total plundering of their belongings, with traces of life that once hung proudly on fridges and mantelpieces now smashed debris on muddied floors.

In the same breath, he also found himself struck by poppies in bloom. Their blush-red petals, synonymous with armistice and remembrance in times of conflict, seemed to appear everywhere, whether surrounding hand-drawn placards pledging support to the country’s military effort or sprouting up through the jagged bricks and destroyed household goods that now littered pavements and roads. Such a pertinent sign of new life and changing seasons seems to have met defiance against the wreckage with the same make-do spirit that Vasiliev, and the country’s nonchalant citizens, have come to embrace themselves. “It’s the same with my parents,” he says. “They’re like, ‘No, we are not going anywhere. We are staying: or dying.’”

Other scenes show a patina statue nursing a head wound, its marble pedestal hanging loose in the wind like an open window in the heat of summer. This crumbling monument in particular – “that you have in every city” – pays tribute to Taras Shevchenko, a pioneering poet, writer, artist and political figure exiled from the country in the mid-17th century. With a plaque unique to this area containing writings from the poet that implored onlookers to “Love Ukraine: in the good ways and the bad”, his revolutionary works serve as a prescient reminder that Ukrainian liberation is a cause worthy of uniting behind – for none of us are free until we all are.

Photography by Sergey Vasiliev. Taken from Issue 69 of 10 Magazine – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – on newsstands now. Order your copy here.

@sergeyvasiliev1

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