Uncovering the buried diary of an executed Ukrainian writer

Before Volodymyr Vakulenko was shot dead by the invading Russians, he decided to bury his diary in his garden

It was late in the afternoon and the ground still hard when Volodymyr Vakulenko scouted around the family garden for a suitable place to bury his diary. He had wrapped the loose-leaf pages into a cellophaned scroll and told only his father and uncle of his plan. A year on, it remains a terribly lonely image: a 49-year-old man, alone in the winter garden of his childhood home in northeast Ukraine, acknowledging to himself that he was about to be taken and seeking to leave something imperishable behind.

This was on Tuesday March 23rd, 2022. The previous day, Vakulenko had been taken into custody by Russian troops, along with Vitali, his 14-year-old son, who has autism. Although both were released hours later, his papers and phone were held by his interrogators. He knew enough to be fearful after that. Already Vitali, highly sensitive to any disruption in his pattern of life, had become muted since the Russians arrived in the village on March 7th. Kapytolivka is an unremarkable village adjacent to the small industrial town of Izyum and, before the invasion, was home to just 2,000 people. Everyone knows everyone and, after returning to care for his father and son, Volodymyr Vakulenko cut a distinctive figure, with his mohawk haircut and tattoos and a backpack decorated with Ukrainian symbols which he wore as an emblem. He was a poet, a published writer of funny, offbeat children’s stories, an activist, a single father and a man unwavering in his beliefs. If he had his dreams, his attitude towards writing and literature was wedded to the 20th century principles of vocation and communication. The local library was one of his few outlets. In a locality where Russian and the hybrid Surzhyk were the common dialects, he spoke Ukrainian and could be confrontational about that.

The Vakulenko house sits on the Victory Avenue, leading into the village; in the days after the occupation, as Vakulenko wrote his daily entries, he could see a Russian tank standing sentry from the livingroom window. He recorded the local mood and the low-grade tension and fear and deprivations. He wrote of the looting of the bread factory, of bikes appropriated, of food deprivation, of the dispiriting ritual of bag-checks. The local wifi services were gone; electricity supply was intermittent. He wrote swiftly, by ballpoint pen. What he depicted, in rigorously organised, tightly compressed pages was the almost banal way in which the occupiers came to erase the patterns and exchanges which make a society function.

Choosing a spot in the garden beneath a cherry tree, he buried the diary for safekeeping. The following afternoon, his dread sense was borne out. Two Russian soldiers returned, ignoring his pleas that Vitali was completely dependent on him. He was ushered into a military vehicle and this time he did not return home. When his mother, Olena Ignatenko (71), who is separated from her husband, also named Volodymyr, went to the camp to ask about her son, she was told that he would be released shortly. “We are not Nazis,” came the reply, as recounted to Ariane Chemin, the French writer who visited Kapytolivka for a profile of Vakulenko written for Le Monde.


“We will release him tomorrow at the latest.”

They waited, and when Olena went to Izyum to inquire further, the Russians claimed to have no idea where her son was. He had vanished. That summer was a torture for the family as Olena walked daily through the village, looking in vain for any sign, asking neighbours if they knew anything. But apart from a rumoured sighting of her son in the local school, converted into a holding cell with a rumoured torture chamber, there was nothing. That September, a counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army pushed the Russian army out of Izyum. Soon afterwards, they discovered what was termed a “city of the dead”: 400 graves, hastily dug and individually numbered, in rows beneath the pine trees at Shakespeare cemetery.

Reports of the graves quickly circulated through international and social media. In the weeks afterwards, the Vakulenko family was given confirmation that Volodymyr had been found in the grave marked 319. An autopsy told of an execution with two bullets from a Makarov – the Russian army pistol. Afterwards, the family was informed that his body had been discarded not far from a Neft gas station outside Izyum; volunteers had taken and buried his corpse. Although no precise date could be established, it was believed he was killed days after he was taken from his home.

By the time Victoria Amelina arrived at the Vakulenko house, in late September 2022, to gather testimony for war crimes, the diary might easily have been forgotten. Amelina is a Ukrainian writer with a flourishing reputation. But since the outbreak of war, she has been travelling throughout the country as part of the war-crime researchers’ team Truth Hounds. She’s planning a book about other women in her position, which will be published this year.

“Because I found it interesting and also just weird how we had to shift our perspective and deal with this horrendous stuff,” she says.

“But this is a way to help people as well. There is no guarantee that we will punish all the perpetrators. Some will go on and live their lives after this and pretend to be good husbands and fathers. But it’s very important to come to the survivors – for example, mothers of those who have been tortured and killed, and just listen to them and let them know that somebody cares. That it is not like this happened and nobody asks them about it.”

Within a few months, Vakulenko’s father had gone from living with his son and grandson to wandering the same house entirely alone and bereft. “I do not see any consolation for him,” Amelina says. When she visited, the older man showed his guest around his son’s room. It was a scene of a life interrupted: the empty shelves, his writer’s diplomas on the walls and other books that the Russians hadn’t bothered to take.

“I kind of forgot I was there for war crimes research,” Amelina says now. “I started talking to Volodymyr’s father about his son as a writer. And it was while we were talking about it, he remembered that he had hid the diary out in the garden. It was not his main thing on his mind. He just wanted his son back. So, after recording the testimony, we went out to look for it.”

The garden was lush after the summertime and several digs yielded nothing. Vakulenko snr became upset when the pages, too, seemed to have vanished.

“He was quite desperate to find it. And I was also desperate then. It wasn’t buried too deeply but the garden looked different to when they had been out there.”

For whatever reason, Victoria started to dig a little bit the left of where they had concentrated their search. This time, she unearthed something solid, wrapped in plastic There it was. On her Twitter account is a photo she took in which she holds the wrapped pages, the cover soiled.

“I don’t know if amazing is the right word but it was a great relief and a sense of great responsibility. Because I realised I was holding something from him and I wanted to do with it what I would want for myself. And that’s what I did. I passed it to the Kharkiv Literary Museum. That is what I’d want for my manuscript.”

In the weeks and months afterwards, the discovery of the diary shone an international light on a figure who, although well known in Ukrainian writing circles, was essentially obscure. Burying the diary was an act of such delicate, effective defiance that people naturally became curious about its author. What emerged was a portrait of a complex, driven character whose lifeforce revolved around caring for his son and whose years mirrored the decades of emerging Ukrainian independence. “Volodia” – as friends nicknamed him – Vakulenko was born in July of 1972, in the maternity ward of Izyum, and lived the first 19 years of his life in the Soviet Union. His 20s coincided with Ukraine’s fledgling steps of independence. He worked as a chef and in local factories, married and had a son. When the relationship with his wife broke down, he moved to Lviv with his new partner Iryna Novitska, who encouraged him to resume the imaginative writing that had engaged him as a child in the declining Soviet Union.

Vakulenko had the energy and ambition to throw himself into the city’s lively artistic scene and he became further politicised. His second son, Vitali, was born in 2008. Three years later, the couple realised he was on the autism spectrum. By the time they, too, split, amicably, they decided that Volodymyr would have custody of Vitali as Iryna had been diagnosed with an autoimmune illness that confined her to a wheelchair. They decided she would move to Dnipro; Volodymyr and Vitali returned to his father’s house. The responsibility of caring for his son shifted the focus of his writing without diminishing his energy.

“Volodymyr was a very active person who wanted literary fame and was ready to do everything possible for it,” remembers the writer Maksym Bespalov, his friend from the couple’s years in Lviv.

“Volodymyr’s character was complex. He was always a person from informal, non-conformist circles, an old punk in a leather jacket. Volodymyr’s mother said that this non-conformism manifested itself in Soviet times, when Volodymyr was a young man. Because of this unwillingness to be like everyone else, I always considered Volodymyr a child in an adult body. He was always a maximalist and a fantasist, and he generated hundreds of different projects, only a few of which he brought to the end. Everyone who met him first fell in love with Volodymyr’s tenacity and energy, but later became disappointed in his ability to get things done. He talked more about what he would one day do, what he would achieve, than he actually achieved it. But he always tried to infect others with this energy and uncompromisingness, which is why people loved him.”

Still, he was a prodigious organiser, publishing literary magazines which hosted the works of young unknowns, a book in Braille, organising festivals in cities across Ukraine and serving as a kind of connection point for writers across the country. He sided with the disadvantaged and voiceless. He was capricious and moody; quick to make friends and quick to fall out.

He was, in Maksym Bespalov’s term, “an uncompromising person”.

“Each of his friends can tell many stories about how Volodymyr quarrelled with them and stopped communication for several years,” he told The Irish Times through email.

“He was a maximalist in everything and demanded it from everyone else around him: from friends, relatives and even strangers. That’s why many people eventually stopped communicating with him, considered him a brawler and even crazy. This may give the impression that Volodymyr Vakulenko was an uncompromising romantic dreamer, but in fact he was a complex, very ambiguous person. Somewhere he was too hard, but in many respects incredibly soft and gentle.”

Bespalov was deeply upset when he heard of Vakulenko’s disappearance but wasn’t surprised. He had decided against leaving Kapytolivka in the days when the Russians were approaching the town, even though he knew his ideological views left him exposed. His mother Olena had begged him to leave, assuring him that Vitali would be cared for by his grandparents. Bespalov read a Facebook post in which his friend darkly predicted that when the Russians came, his neighbours in the village would reveal him to the occupiers. There is a general belief among his family and friends that he was betrayed in that precise way. His funeral took place on a frigid day last December in St Demetrius Greek Catholic Church in Kharkiv. The occasion had an international dimension but the crowd of mourners from his home village amounted to a handful. The daylight was poor, the church candlelit. A modest choir sang. In the photos of those present, the pain and strain of the previous year is evident. Volodymyr Vakulenko’s death was just one of thousands of familial tragedies unfolding across the country. But he was a compelling character, at once furious and paternal and unwavering in his views.

I have stockpiled potatoes in the house. The birds only sing in the morning: in the afternoon, the evil crows are silent. In the evening I listen to my music on my cell phone, recorded before the war, which is my salvation

—  Volodymyr Vakulenko

“As an editor, I would say he was a brilliant children’s writer,” says Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, herself a published children’s writer and editor who met Vakulenko a few times. Now, she is editing a book that will contain his stories and diary excerpts.

“He was very playful and funny and brilliant in his writing and it was all to show adults how you can work and be with a child – how you can be a child while being an adult. They are interesting to read because they are funny and kind and sincere. And his adult poetry then was absolutely something else; sometimes he was cursing and aggressive in showing his feeling and position. He was grounded in his place. How he spelled his name was a symbol. This love of place is not an easy love because it is a small village and to be a pro-Ukrainian guy in this environment, it was not easy. But that was him and it was his great wish to make it better and all of that is visible and palpable in his writing.”

Vakulenko may become better known posthumously than he did in his years writing. Of the 17 books published in his lifetime, his children’s poetry collection Daddy’s Book (2014) was the most widely known in Ukraine. But the 30-odd pages of his hastily composed diary stand as a vivid testimony to quickly shifting days when he did his best to uphold Ukrainian identity.

“Language and culture was always a kind of shield for identity of being Ukrainian,” says Kateryna Mikhalitsyna.

“Working with language was always a fight. Not only in the 1920s when the Soviet empire came here, it was also like that. If you work in the Ukrainian language, it was always like that. Volodymyr is a part of that tradition. We are in the 21st century but there is a long tradition of the Russian empire trying to kill the Ukrainian culture by trying to kill writers, musicians, translators. Being a Ukrainian writer is a long, long tradition and it means you are a fighter already. There is a long Russian imperialistic tradition of killing other cultures. And it is not new. And that is the reason that Volodymyr was killed. He knew. His mother said that she is convinced that somebody from the village said who he was and where he could be found. Because of his values and how he was trying to persuade others to turn to Ukrainian culture and language. They are burning books and libraries and the aim is to show that there is no such thing as Ukrainian culture.”

His incomplete diary, on display in Kharkiv, has already acquired a strange power. Ariane Chemin was shown its pages when she visited the museum for her Le Monde story and quotes what proved to be the last-ever entry.

“On March 23 I pulled myself together… I have stockpiled potatoes in the house. The birds only sing in the morning: in the afternoon, the evil crows are silent. In the evening I listen to my music on my cell phone, recorded before the war, which is my salvation: Joryj Kloc, Plach Yeremiyi, Gorguicheilo. Today, the day of the poetry festival, I was greeted by cranes flying high in the sky and I thought I heard them cackling: Everything will be fine for Ukraine. I believe in victory.”

Victoria Amelina is helping the family preserve Volodymyr’s room as a museum which might be visited occasionally. An annual memorial day, for March 23rd, has been organised. Olena has taken custody of her grandson Vitali and is active in promoting her son’s legacy. It is too early to predict what that will look like in years to come but, even in the midst of the chaos, those who knew and cared for Volodymyr Vakulenko are trying to reconcile the hot, stubborn, funny individual they knew with the figure who could, when the years pass and the war ends, become a symbol in his homeland.

“I wouldn’t like his image to eventually become marble, like a monument,” writes Maksym Bespalov.

“He had many friends all over Ukraine, and I am sure that many of them can tell both positive and very negative stories about him. Volodymyr was an extraordinary, talented person, very energetic, but at the same time hot-tempered and conflicted. I think that Volodymyr will remain in the history of Ukrainian literature as a children’s writer. This is a real irony, because Volodymyr wanted a completely different glory.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times