Ukrainian dissident Oleg Sentsov pays tribute to his childhood friend in this moving excerpt from his autobiography

Ukrainian dissident Oleg Sentsov pays tribute to his childhood friend in this moving excerpt from his autobiography

14 October 2019
Text: Oleg Sentsov
Translation: Uilleam Blacker

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was catapulted into the global spotlight in 2015 after being jailed in Russia on terrorism charges — a case which his supporters say was politically motivated. ​In this extract from his newly-translated collection of autobiographical stories, Life Went On Anyway, Sentsov describes growing up in 1980s and 1990s, balancing the difficult relationship between the political and the personal.


Makar lived on the other side of the fence from us. He was my neighbor and my best friend in childhood, one of those people you don’t remember meeting, you’ve just known them forever. His name was Igor, he was quite strong and pretty fat. He already started getting a moustache in fourth grade, and by seventh it was all there. Makar was four years older than me. I never had a big brother — I had Makar. He taught me a lot. True, not much of that was useful, and even less was good. Makar wasn’t a bully or a troublemaker, he was kind of quiet, he read a lot, mostly history stuff, but he wasn’t a good student. He wasn’t stupid, he was cunning, a bit of a rascal, though he didn’t mean anyone any harm. Or that’s how it looked from the outside. If you looked close up, at least from across the fence, then Makar was a pretty good friend. Despite the quite big, by kids’ standards, age difference, we were really close — he was my protector, if not a particularly commanding one. But then his childhood finished, and they took him to the army, while mine kept going for a while.

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But while our childhoods were still running in parallel, we did a lot of interesting things: we walked our dogs together in the forest, we played football and chizh, rode our bikes, swam in the pond, took used bits of wood and rubber bands to make rifles that shot bullets made from nails, and a whole load of other typical things that typical village kids do. He taught me to smoke and play cards, at first just for fun, then for money. Makar was better than everyone else at trinka, and I, like many others, always lost to him, but I didn’t lose much — because we never had much. Makar played really well, he was cunning, skillfully manipulating his opponents, and he always came out on top.

In winter, Makar and I even managed to played hockey! Mainly, we played football with the other kids, or just passed the ball to each other on the street or in his yard. On TV, however, apart from football, we also watched hockey, because we had both been bought hockey sticks just in case it ever snowed in Crimea and didn’t melt before we got home from school. The sticks lay in our attics and store cupboards for a couple of years and then, finally, there was a beautiful fall of white and downy snow. We trampled out a little “rink” for ourselves in Makar’s yard, put two benches at each end in place of goals, and started to play real hockey, with a puck, though not on skates, of course — a kind of running hockey. Everything was going great, we were scoring goals, the little rink was full of excitement, until I took an overenthusiastic swipe at the puck and whacked Makar, who was standing behind me, on the head with my stick

I barely even felt anything, but he yelled out “Ow! Ow!” and with his hand held over his bloodied brow he ran into the house. I stood alone for a while on our little ice rink, looked at the tiny, neat red spots on the white, well-trampled surface, and then slouched off home with my stick over my shoulder.

He taught me a lot. True, not much of that was useful, and even less was good

We didn’t play hockey again after that. I never even said sorry. And not because I’m so ill-mannered or insensitive. It’s just that when you’re a kid, a little boy, it isn’t done, saying sorry. If you’ve done something wrong, like I did with that hockey stick, you just stand there, or you say something like: “Let’s see!” or,“It’s not so bad,” or if what you’ve seen really does look pretty bad, then, “Should probably go to the hospital.”

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Between Makar’s yard and ours there was a fence made of thick wire mesh, and we were to go visit each other. We could have gone via the gate, of course, but climbing the fence was somehow closer — both in terms of distance and in terms of simple human relations. Makar climbed the fence only rarely, because the wire mesh really wasn’t designed to hold hundred-kilogram loads, but I was light and skinny and would jump across several times a day. The fence had bent and sagged in the place where we would climb across, and I got yelled at for that, but I refused to give up the direct route to my friend. Since Makar rarely made the trip across the fence, if he needed me, he would just come up to the fence and shout. I’d come running, and we’d often stand there for ages talking. Boys somehow can’t talk to one another just like that, they have to have some business to discuss, it might be something small, but it’ll be important for them. We could talk like that for a long time.

l’ll never forget how I once ran from my gate to Makar’s fence to get his advice about a deal on micromotors. Micromotors were these little motors that had been ripped out of old Soviet electronic devices. Smart kids could use them, in combination with some batteries, to make little toy cars. At that time, all we had were toy cars that you had to push along yourself. You can’t imagine what a battery-powered car meant for a seven-year-old village kid back then!

An unachievable dream! That kid couldn’t have even imagined that there existed such a thing as remote-controlled cars (the ones on a wire, never mind the radio-controlled ones) or that one might even dream of such things. So the most inventive kids made cars for themselves. Or with their dads’ help, it didn’t matter — the main thing was that boys like this and their toy cars existed.

The Crimean landscape where Oleg Sentsov grew up. Image: Alexander Vovchenko, under a CC license

And so, one day, two of these happy little boys with one of these little cars in their hands came to call on even littler me. They’d found out from somewhere that I’d got two excellent new micromotors. I think I knew one of the boys and had said something to him about it myself — it wasn’t like they would have been spying on me, after all. It doesn’t matter — the main thing is they showed up and wanted my micromotors, and at the same time I was dreaming of a battery-powered car, or at least a set of plastic Hungarian soldiers, Indians, or at least cowboys. I already had pirates, and there was no point in dreaming of Vikings, they were impossible to get hold of. So when the two boys asked me to give them the micromotors, just like that, I told them I would have to think about it.

I left them sitting on the bench by the gate and ran to the fence to call Makar for advice. Makar was a person of experience — he was a fourth grader after all, and so had basically already lived half his life — and, after a moment’s consideration, he suggested that I ask for a real battery-powered car, or, at the very least, twenty Vikings in exchange for the two micromotors. I ran back to the gate. The boys calmly listened to our proposition and said that they had nothing to give me, but they showed me how their homemade car worked.

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Only very small boys with very active imaginations could call the thing crawling along my bench a car, and even then, you’d have to look at it from a certain angle—from a low vantage point, as it crawled toward you. But I was precisely one of those boys, and the thing wobbling along the wooden bench made an indelible impression on me, so I ran back to the fence.

I ran back and forth like this for about an hour, during which Makar and I gradually lowered our demands to ten Indians or, say, two of these homemade cars. Makar clearly wanted to stay in the background of the negotiations, but I’m sure he would have been counting on fifty percent of any proceeds. But the boys told me that in the time I’d been running back and forth across the yard they hadn’t come into any more soldiers, and that exchanging two micromotors for two finished cars, for which the motors were the main but certainly not the only component, made little sense.

Whether it made sense for me to just give my motors away to them for nothing, they didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. In the end, the deal fell through, and the motors, which had now shot up in value in my eyes, got left out in the rain at some point, swelled up and went rusty, and ended up in the bin.

A year later, on my birthday, I was given a remote-controlled tank, which was operated via a meter-long wire, which was a bit short, but, on the other hand, was useful for yanking it whenever it happened to get stuck. The tank didn’t go outside, it was for indoor use only.

Makar had a big family. His parents, Uncle Misha and Auntie Katya, were proper village Ukrainians, with the characteristic accent and manners, and they had moved to Crimea from somewhere in mainland Ukraine. They were all quite fat, especially Auntie Katya, and they were proper collective farm folks, despite the fact that she anyway had worked all her life in the city, in some big factory, where she went every day on the bus, despite her sick legs. Uncle Misha was fat, but not quite as voluminous as his wife, he just had a big belly, which he waddled around behind. Although he didn’t walk much, because he worked as a truck driver and spent more and more time behind the wheel. Makar also had an older sister and an older brother.

After all, adults are just kids who’ve grown up a bit but often still think in the same way

The sister was called Svetka, she was five years older than Makar, pretty stupid and not too pretty. Her most distinctive physical feature were her blackheads, which she was always squeezing, and which she could thus never get rid of. But Svetka wanted to be a singer. She was a huge fan of Sofia Rotaru and wanted to go off and study wherever they train singers. When my cousins, two girls, came to visit us for the summer and heard about Svetka’s ambitions, they naturally jumped at the chance to test her talents, to help prepare her for her entrance exams. Late in the evening, Svetka put on a concert, standing on her side of the fence, while on our side our two little mischief-makers lay on the ground under the bushes choking with laughter – it wasn’t possible to listen to Svetka singing and stay standing upright. The examination commission at the place where they train singers (though not all singers, as it turned out) reacted in pretty much the same way to Svetka, and in the end she went to work in the factory like her mother. These days the TV is full of all kinds of tone-deaf idiots with neither a decent voice nor an ear for music trying to get on various shows, but then such a phenomenon was a rarity.

Singer Sofia Rotaru. Image: NASA Johnson under a CC license

Makar’s elder brother, Valerka, also wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box — uneducated, untalented, but at the same time unambitious. After military service he went straight into the collective farm and worked as a driver, like his dad. He married a local teacher, had two children with her — a smart girl with a huge birthmark that covered half her face and an unremarkable boy.

In our family, the weekends rarely differed much from weekdays, but in Makar’s house the whole family would get together and things would often get really noisy. I wouldn’t say that we were good friends with Makar’s family, like it sometime is in cities when families call round on each other a lot or maybe go away somewhere on holiday together. In the village, good neighbors live like one family, only with a fence between them and with their own money hidden in their own pillows. They’re not neighbors, but one big clan. That’s how things were between our families.

And then the Soviet Union cracked and disintegrated, and the lives of many cracked and disintegrated along with it

I knew Makar my whole life, and I knew that was his nickname, which was derived from his surname, and when I grew up, I was surprised to learn that adults also had nicknames. Makar’s dad, Uncle Misha, was also called “Makar” by his friends — they had the same surname, after all, and adults are just kids who’ve grown up a bit but often still think in the same way.

The Makars always ate well. Or, rather, not so much well, as just a lot.That’s probably more like it — they just ate a lot. Auntie Katya would always go by the shops on the way home from work and come home with enormous bags — if she bought bread, it would be six loaves, if it was milk, then the same number of big glass bottles. So everybody in the family was well-fed, and the most overfed of the lot was, of course, Makar — my Makar. He was bigger than his father and bigger than his brother and at eighteen, before he went to the army, he looked like he was pushing thirty.

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When Makar had to go to the army — this was in 1990, a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union — for some reason he was sent off to serve in the Russian Far East. His parents found out that their son was being sent to the other end of the country, that he’d be flying on a normal civilian airplane with the other conscripts, and that they could come to the airport to say goodbye. They found this out at the very last minute, and since they didn’t have their own car, we went in ours. Auntie Katya packed two bags full of food, and we set off, together with my dad. Whether we got the time wrong or were late because of preparing the food, I don’t know, but when we got to the airport there was no sign of the conscripts or of Makar.

I ran up to the first floor to look at the crowd down below and try to find my friend that way, but all I could see was Uncle Misha and Auntie Katya desperately searching for their son in the public part of the airport outside the departure area. Uncle Misha, with his belly and waddling gait, strode among the passengers, and Auntie Katya with her fat, swollen legs, minced through the crowd with her two big bags, in which, alongside all their homemade food, she had surely stashed some cigarettes and a bottle of moonshine. But Makar was nowhere to be found, he’d already gone. After a lot of wandering round the airport and shrugging our shoulders, we drove home.

And then the Soviet Union cracked and disintegrated, and the lives of many cracked and disintegrated along with it. Life got tough for almost everybody, including us and the Makars. But somehow it was tougher for them.

Life is especially tough for girls who are neither pretty nor smart

Svetka was unhappily married — she’d married a guy from a small town who seemed, on the outside, normal, and was even pretty good-looking, unlike Svetka herself, but things went badly. He turned out to be unbalanced and suffering from some kind of nervous disorder. I only saw him a couple of times and once stood behind him in a queue for bread, where I watched him for a long time as he constantly twitched his head and shoulders for no reason, and you could see that something wasn’t quite right with him. Then he started to drink, to beat Svetka, and to regularly throw her out of the house. She’d show up every so often at her parents with her little daughter, sometimes with a car loaded with her stuff, sometimes with nothing. Things continued in this way until her daughter grew up a bit and came to live with her grandma Katya permanently. Her granddaughter was big, a typical Makar, but she was neither pretty nor smart. Life is especially tough for girls who are neither pretty nor smart. And Svetka sailed off to her husband, or somewhere else on her own, visiting her daughter more and more rarely.

Valerka started drinking. In Makar’s family, just like in all the other families, they drank — when there’s no work and no money it becomes the main way of passing the time. It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t smell good. His wife left him with the kids. First they came to our town, and then they moved on to another one, bigger and farther away. Valerka also went to the city soon after that, trying to make at least some kind of wage — there had been no work in the village for ages — but he didn’t last long anywhere. The wages were bad, and he already had a serious drinking habit to feed.

Crimea's largest city and port, Sevastopol. Image: Pixabay

Uncle Misha also drank, but he did so in resolute binges. About five years later he got really sick — it was the sugar, they said. After another two years, he was confined to his bed, and after another year he died, quietly, in his bed, next to the stove, already several times smaller than he used to be. Makar himself, as soon as the big country collapsed, disappeared from his unit, stealing some supplies before he went. It took him a few months to get home from Khabarovsk, trading whatever he’d managed to take with him from the army and whatever else fell into his hands. At first, they looked for him, but later, when it became clear that Ukraine was already a different country, they gave up— but it meant he couldn’t get himself a passport. When Makar finally got home—thinner, with a weathered face, with the traces of boils still on his arms—I hardly recognised him. He’d grown up and changed dramatically, and not only in his appearance. I had also changed, maybe not as much, but still. We met at the fence, talked about something for a bit, and then parted.

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Makar filled out on his mum’s cooking, and pretty soon disappeared again, this time from his own home. For about a year, nobody heard from him. Somebody caught sight of him in the city at the market, and, seeing how he was dressed, immediately assumed he was now a gangster. Although at that time anyone who didn’t look homeless or like he lived in the village was assumed to be in the mafia.

But Makar was never that way inclined, and, knowing how much he liked gambling, money, and wheeling and dealing, I reckoned that must be how he was making a living. And a year later I met him myself at the train station. I was late for the train home and was walking quickly along the platform. He was also in a hurry, but going in the opposite direction. We walked past each other in the small, crowded station concourse and didn’t recognise each other at first. But then, at the same moment, we both stopped and turned around. Makar was more like a tramp now than a villager; in any case, I, a poor first-year student, looked like a real dandy compared with him. Something had clearly changed dramatically, for the umpteenth time in his life, and, judging by the downtrodden look on his face, he didn’t really want to talk about it, and I was in a hurry, so we stood for a couple of seconds, ten meters apart, and looked at each other, then went our separate ways.

All that was left of the old, blooming, kind Auntie Katya was a headscarf and the painful legs of an old woman.

A few years later Makar came back home to his mum. In the village, he drank like everyone else, ran up debts, and disappeared regularly. When he was gone, his debtors would visit. Auntie Katya paid them off at first, while she still could, and then she just cried. By that time her legs were really bad, the factory had been closed down, her pension was peanuts, and she had to walk a lot — in winter, she’d go to the forest for firewood, because they had never had gas put in, they couldn’t afford it, and coal wasn’t free either, and if you don’t heat the stove life gets pretty cold. In summer she gathered rosehip and dogwood and other things in the forest, worked on other people’s allotments and grew things in her own, and took it all on the train to the market in town, which, like the road to the forest, wasn’t exactly just a short stroll down the street… She scraped some money together, she fed herself and her granddaughter, and Makar if he was home. And she did a lot of other things besides. All that was left of the old, blooming, kind Auntie Katya was a headscarf and the painful legs of an old woman. I don’t know what color her eyes were, I tried not to look into them.

Makar was still alright at that point, more or less still presentable, and he even managed to get married a couple of times. The ladies, of course, were no picnic, but they were good drinking buddies. I heard something about a kid that died young, but I don’t really know the full story. Makar slowly drank himself into decline. The ladies, even the least sought-after ones, no longer looked his way. He tried to earn a bit of money where he could — his mother couldn’t always help him out and nobody would lend him anything.

The Crimean landscape where Oleg Sentsov grew up. Image under a CC license ©torange.biz

Once on a winter night, somewhere not in our village, I think it was in the city, he got drunk, froze out on the street, and ended up losing his legs. In the hospital they cut them off at the knee because of the onset of gangrene. They kept him in for a long time, and then for a long time nobody was able to transport him home, and then he lay in bed at home, and then, eventually, he left the house and started to hobble around the streets on his healed-up stumps. He couldn’t register himself for disabled benefits, because he’d never managed to get himself a passport after the army, and he even stopped drinking so much for a while.

I didn’t visit the village often then, but one time I did run into him. I just happened to have managed to buy myself a good car, and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience to drive it through our village with the spiteful locals looking at it as though I’d personally stolen it from them — and then to top it all off I met Makar. He was tottering pretty boisterously down the street and I was driving toward him. I stopped, and he came up to the car. The window was open, Makar leaned on the door, and we said hello. With me sitting in the driving seat and him on his half-legs, our faces were on the same level. I was pretty shaken by this and didn’t know what to say. Makar lit up a cigarette, said something nice, and we immediately fell silent. He was squinting into the summer sun, and we had nothing to say to each other, just like that time at the station, or even earlier, that time by the fence. We stood like that for a while, and then I drove off, and he went on his way, with his new, swinging, cut-off gait.

When they came to have a look at her it was plain that she wasn’t sick, she just didn’t care anymore

But in the end Makar didn’t stop drinking, and some time toward winter he fell asleep drunk somewhere again and this time died for good. I don’t know if Auntie Katya mourned him, I wasn’t there then, but her face didn’t change much, it had been pretty scary to look at for a long time already, and now it just got even blacker.

Her last granddaughter grew up and, having only just finished 9th grade, moved out. Valerka and Svetka pretty much stopped visiting her. A few years passed, and Auntie Katya also died. Our neighbor came running in and said Auntie Katya was sick. When they came to have a look at her it was plain that she wasn’t sick, she just didn’t care anymore.

Their house is empty and dilapidated now, the garden is overgrown, and the trees have dried up; the water and electricity were cut off a long time ago. Some family tried to move in there, but everything was so rotten inside that it was impossible to rescue it, and of course they had no money for it, so they left. They say Valerka wants to come back from the city, but somehow I don’t believe it, and he couldn’t live in the house anyway.

But the fence is still there, and it’s still bent and sagging in the same place, there’s just nobody to climb over and visit anymore.

This is an extract from Oleg Sentsov’s autobiography Life Went On Anyway, translated by Uilleam Blacker and published by Deep Vellum.

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