Until February 24, artist Alexander Krolikowski was engaged in conceptual art, looking for an answer to the question – is there life after postmodernism? He was born and raised in Donetsk, evolved as an artist in Sevastopol. For 15 years he worked in the duo Krolikowski Art.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, Alexander moved to Kyiv and took part in the Maidan protests. He later went abroad, but finally returned to Ukraine – to Vyshhorod, which is 20 kilometers from the capital.
In 2022, when Russia had already arrived there, Alexander decided not to go anywhere.
Three days after the full-scale invasion, with minimal recovery from covid, he went to the military registration and enlistment office. From there – to the voluntary unit of the Vyshgorod community, a volunteer center and finally – to the local morgue, where after the deoccupation of Kyiv Ukrainians killed by the Russians were transported. Tortured, shot by machine guns and even without heads.
“At some point, there were so many bodies in the refrigerator… that it was impossible to find anyone there. An unpleasant detail, but – to get to the end, you had to step on the corpses,” – Alexander recalls his April in the Vyshhorod morgue.
At least 300 bodies literally passed through his hands during the whole time of his work. Some of them, as well as his work in the morgue in general, he recorded on “Intax”, an instant camera.
“You see?” He points to three photographs of the dead man, where the exhibition changes from light to dark. “That’s how my father imagined death. A person dies, and that’s it, nothing is left afterwards”
But in his view, a person after death can also do something, in particular – to avenge his murderer. Prove that he committed a war crime.
In a conversation, Alexander talks about the stages of getting used to the dead, hallucinations from the smell of the morgue, the most difficult moment in communicating with relatives of the dead and the impact of work in the morgue on his work.
From now – his direct speech.
“Almost all soldiers were shot in the back of the head”
The corpses began to be brought in in the last days of March, when the Russians began to retreat from the Kyiv region. First there were villages, and then – Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka. Ukrainian servicemen also were brought – we didn’t have Russian bodies here, but 80 percent of the corpses were civilians.
As for the military: I assume that these are murdered prisoners of war – almost all of them were shot in the back of the head. Some with traces of torture.
A large number of people, both military and civilian, were killed by those… darts, as reported by The Guardian [flechettes are tiny metal darts that fly out of a projectile during an explosion]. There were also many people shot – sometimes with one shot, sometimes with automatic gunfire, like that one elderly woman. What could she do, so that someone would spend so much ammunition on her? I don’t know.
There were also some people from the hospital – there were no bullet holes in their bodies, they may have died from lack of medication.
Of the volunteers, four of us remained to work – this is the minimum for the morgue. I understand everything, not everyone can withstand this psychologically. But I’m basically used to plug holes with myself: if there aren’t enough people somewhere, I go there.
Interestingly, two of the four volunteers are cultural figures, me and Mykyta Havrylenko (musician, member of the duo “Hertz” – UP), you could have heard his song about “Javelin”.
We once even said that it might be easier for us to go through these events, because later we will reflect on them through art. Our psyche knows in advance about this option. All terrible events remain with you forever, but in time you can rethink them, relive them.
It’s impossible to manage 30 bodies in one day
There are four levels of proximity to a dead body: the first – you are shocked even by its appearance, but you can basically look at it and carry it in a bag; second – you can touch the body through clothes; the third – without clothes; the fourth is to cut.
I didn’t get to the fourth. I do not have the qualifications for this and I am not burning with desire, to be honest.
The standard process is as follows: a car arrives, for example, from Bucha, it needs to be unloaded – moving people in packages, sometimes replacing packages because they break. We put the bodies in the local refrigerator – but there are only 10 places, so as not to throw them on top of each other, or the refrigerator.
Then the bodies are handed over to the Ukrainian police – together with the pathologist policemen examine them, write whether the body has been identified or not. If not, he cuts out part of the bone (points to the leg below the knee – UP) for DNA analysis.
At this moment, they need help – to undress people, turn them over, because if they brought 30 bodies at once… And the bodies can be half-decomposed, dug out of the ground. Although the most frightening is when they are with traces of torture. When you don’t understand what could be done to make a person look like that…
In general, it’s impossible to manage 30 bodies in one day. With 15 – yes, if you work very hard.
The police also take photos of all the bodies and send the photos to a special group in Telegram – so relatives can recognize someone. Some find their own.
Then, when the French scientific gendarmerie arrived, we began to hand over some of the bodies that had been shot, with traces of torture. As far as I understand, they were involved in documenting war crimes. The prisoner of war killed in the back of the head was of less interest to them – because it was a war, but a huge number of civilians killed by darts were of great interest to them, because it is a prohibited weapon.
After examination, the body is returned to the large refrigerator.
At one point there were so many bodies in it… that it was impossible to find anyone there. Unpleasant detail, but – to get to the end, you had to walk on the corpses.
They say “the French gendarmerie needs something like that”, and you look for it, bring it, then take it back. It’s like working in a warehouse, only you have the dead instead of things. And then the relatives come – and the most painful part of the work begins.
“What can I show if the body is headless?”
It can take two days or even two weeks from the time the body enters the morgue until it is handed over to relatives. This is not always a controlled process.
Sometimes relatives came to the local headquarters and said – we will go with you to the morgue to look for the body! To which we responded that this is a very scary place, we don’t want you to look at it all – it will only make you worse, but just wait. If the body was dug up, it has already fallen into safe hands. I guarantee you that we treat all bodies carefully and respectfully.
Sometimes relatives cry very much. You can get even trough traces of torture, because it shocks you, of course, but it is your inner experience. But it is very difficult to see these sufferings from the outside.
However, the hardest thing is to ask relatives: “Will you look at the body?”.
At first I couldn’t be with them at that moment, I asked someone from the police, but then I started doing it myself – you get used to everything. In principle, I got used to the dead in two days.
The first thing you need to get used to is the smell – it is sweet and unpleasant, it is the smell of decay. The body itself after death turns yellow, blue, green – in different ways, it all depends on storage conditions. As far as I understand, the excavated ones have survived better than those lying on the street.
Not all people, by the way, recognize their relatives. They come, already knowing the body number, find out all the documentation with the doctor, and then look at the clothes, the moles and do not recognize. Their psyche does not accept what they see.
And sometimes a body can’t by recognized, because, for example, it doesn’t have a head. The lower jaw is present, but the head is not. We also show such bodies, it is their right, moreover, they take away this body, they have to bury it.
Although at first you stand and think – what to show if the body is headless? Then you show the clothes, take off some of the clothes, if they know any marks. Relatives watch, stand on their feet and watch. If a loved one died, wouldn’t you watch? You would watch. Then they might have lost consciousness, but first they would have watched.
In addition, people usually do not come one by one, but two or three – two cry, one looks. Some cry softly, some loudly.
“If the Russians came to Vyshgorod, I would not want to have my eyes burned out – I saw such a corpse”
For us, the lack of a head, or when it rolls out of the package – it’s the worst. Because when the body is damaged, it is one thing, you are at least a little ready for it, you have seen dead animals before, you can imagine it. But you never imagined the absence of the head.
Before the war, we never imagined what it’s like that when rockets were flying overhead.
Sometimes working in a morgue causes emotional stress, and you start talking to the dead. You go into the refrigerator with the words: “Dear friends, I have no good news for you – relatives did not come, did not recognize you – but there are new French bags! Fashionable plastic white bags!”.
And then you go home and think: if the Russians went to Vyshhorod and killed me, because I was on these “death lists”, then what would I not want?
I didn’t want have my eyes burned out – I saw such a corpse.
I would not like to be put in a black bag, better in white. Black packages are disgusting and easily torn. Such thoughts sometimes creep up.
Another very interesting experience: when Russian troops approach, your body really feels danger. Similarly, bodily sensations change as they depart. Probably, it is the spinal cord that works – it trumpets: “danger, you have to run away”, while the brain says: “nobody runs away, there is a lot of work”. And they seem to have such a certain conflict.
By the way, about “a lot of work” – the smell of the morgue is easily washed away, but there are hallucinations. I had them for the first 3-4 days – I suddenly began to smell this, and then asked people around and they said it seemed to me. It shocks your consciousness so much that it starts to come to you.
Sometimes I would sit in the apartment in the evening and hear someone rattling with forks in the kitchen. But I said to myself – these are our native Ukrainian dead, we do not work with the invaders, let them [dead] come in and have fun! Who am I to disturb them? It was not easy for them anyway.
When you touch death, you perceive everything differently. Death is a part of life, there is no escape from it. After all this, I will make a project about death in my vicinity.
On the second week in the morgue I took a camera with me, but I still couldn’t take pictures… The first photos show that I’m making them out of fear. And then I got bold, and that’s how the idea of creative reflection came about – I want to make a book with my thoughts. There will be documents, visual poetry and texts.
My parents believed that a person dies and that’s it – only relatives have memories of it. But I understand that our influence remains outside us. Even after death, a person can do something, such as prove a war crime.
This is a form of revenge by the dead.
What will art be like after Bucha? Or as in the original – “Is poetry possible after Auschwitz?”
The answer is yes, but it will be a new type of art. Because we say “there are no words to describe it” – that is, we do not have conceptual tools to describe what we have experienced. Therefore, we need to find new words. The war stimulates this search.
The first to do so will be the people directly affected by the war – a reflection of their own experience. And it affected many, if not all.
Those who survive this war will be the creators of a new world. This is not just a war of Ukraine, it is simply a war of two worlds in Ukraine. We just have the hardest mission.