Image credit: Diaries of War by Nora Krug (Penguin Random House, 2023).
Diaries of War is a real-time journalistic record of the first year of a harrowing war that continues to devastate countless lives. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a renewed and brutal military attack against Ukraine, aimed to colonize it as a country, to stamp out its culture and its people. As the events of this war unfolded, I reached out to K., a Russia-born Ukrainian journalist in Kyiv, and D., an artist from St. Petersburg. I asked K. and D. if I could interview them to create a visual, weekly diary that would juxtapose their contrasting voices, and that would raise awareness and funds for the victims in Ukraine. Every week, I asked how they were feeling, what they were thinking about and what they had experienced during the previous week. In addition to documenting their everyday experiences I also posed questions that I hoped would shed light on how the war affected them on a deeper, more existential level: What impact did the war have on their minds and bodies? How did it change their relationship to their families and their sense of cultural belonging? Did it make them think differently about words such as guilt, sacrifice, reparation and retribution? Why do we wage wars, and will we ever learn from them? I shaped their individual accounts and responses into a consistent narrative, changed certain details to maintain their anonymity, passed the text by them for final approval and then created the accompanying illustrations based on my research and imagining.
How can the voices of two individuals with such complicated and contrasting identities contribute to our understanding of the current war in Ukraine? Individual narratives are often overlooked in the writing of history, and yet they allow us a different kind of entry point, a nuanced and emotional understanding of what most historians, journalists and writers seek: the truth. Facts are important and incontestable, while individual experiences can never be entirely objective, nor do they present a complete picture of the political situations that they grow out of. But personal narratives shed light on different aspects of the truth and are therefore important components of it.
Despite their differences, D. and K. are both witnesses. In order to understand the human cost of this war, it was important to record those personal voices, these distilled moments in time, immediately as the political events unfolded. Diaries of War does not aim to substantiate a particular, pre-existing narrative, to portray a quintessential Russian or Ukrainian perspective or to represent a definite guide to understanding Russia’s criminal war on Ukraine. My objective is not to create a space for reconciliation, to equalize the Russian and Ukrainian experiences, to victimize the Russian side or to tell the story of a “good Russian.” Rather, the project’s goal is to document the stark contrast between two narratives shaped by this war on opposite sides of the border and to highlight D.’s and K.’s multifaceted identities and experiences by placing them in direct proximity to each other on the page.
Both D. and K. were born in the Soviet Union but have spent many years of their lives in two very different societies whose distinct cultures have shaped the way they think. D. speaks openly about his anti-Putin views in his diary entries, and allowing himself to be interviewed about his views involves a certain risk. At the same time, he admits that he is too afraid to voice his views in public. He can only trust people he knows and with whom he shares the same opinions. Not being able to speak to others about his thoughts and feelings makes him feel afraid and isolated. In contrast, as a journalist, taking a public position on the war, and talking and writing about it, is K.’s main activity and responsibility. Through her work, she connects with her friends and peers, and with the Ukrainians she interviews and writes about. In stark contrast to D., speaking her mind is K.’s strategy for survival. Both K. and D. find themselves in unfamiliar situations, isolated from their families, but they experience the war in vastly different ways: K. lives in constant fear of her home being bombed; of her friends and colleagues being kidnapped, tortured or killed; of her Ukrainian family being harmed. D.’s struggle is more passive and internal: The war has estranged him from his country and makes him feel emotionally paralyzed. Although he contributes money to Ukrainian causes, he admits to his fear of taking part in public demonstrations and to the fact that he is not an activist. K. has clear goals: for Ukraine to win the war, and for her family to be reunited. D. wishes for his family to be reunited as well, but he has no clear idea of what his future should be, where he should live or whether and how his country will evolve into a democracy.
When I first conceived of this project, I was uncertain as to whether showing a Russian perspective was justified. For decades, the world has tolerated and thus indirectly sustained Russia’s revisionist narratives, expansionist policies and genocidal tactics while undermining Ukraine’s self-determination. As a European, I understand that the war in Ukraine is about the future of all of Europe, and that Ukrainians are paying the deadly toll for our freedom. As a German, I believe that we have to correct our mistakes of the past. Democracy is just a utopian concept if it doesn’t include our neighbors, and pacifism remains an empty word if we cannot provide active military, financial and ideological support to democracies who are attacked by tyrannical regimes. At the same time, I am aware that I am coming at the project as an outsider. K.’s and D.’s perspectives are utterly different from my Western European point of view because I do not share their individual stories or their distinct histories. As an outsider, I will never be able to fully grasp the extent of the Ukrainian suffering.
But contemporary Russia’s politics of colonial aggression feel uncomfortably familiar. As the granddaughter of a “follower,” a German who neither actively supported nor resisted the Nazi regime, I understand the importance of highlighting ambiguous, complex and sometimes contradictory narratives–narratives that are perhaps difficult to accept – because they are often overlooked despite the fact that they are necessary to our understanding of how dictatorships take form and are sustained. It is easy to celebrate a hero or to condemn a perpetrator. But it is ambivalent narratives that force us to critically confront our own passivity, to challenge the fallibility of our own moral integrity.
As a visual journalist, my responsibility is to the truth, and to accurately and sensitively document the perspectives of my two protagonists, even when I didn’t agree with them. I strongly believe that we can influence and change our governments, and I believe that it is our responsibility to actively resist injustice. To those of us living far away and watching from the sidelines, simply telling ourselves that we do not know how we would act, what we would do in the face of a tyrannical regime is not enough. Admitting to our fear of taking action should merely be the starting point for a deeper inner confrontation. A war can never be blamed solely on a single despotic leader and his propaganda. When thinking about the Third Reich, we often forget that people actually had a choice: between remaining passive or resisting in big or in small but significant ways. We also have a choice today. And what we decide to do or not to do will have direct consequences for the lives of others. What would the world look like today without those who resisted tyrannical regimes in the past? What will it look like tomorrow?
Reprinted with permission from Diaries of War: Two Visual Accounts from Ukraine and Russia by Nora Krug copyright (c) 2023. Published by Ten Speed Graphic, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Nora Krug is the author and illustrator of the graphic memoir Belonging, the illustrator of adaptation of On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, and an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York.