Toska is a Russian word with no direct translation. It can best be described as deep spiritual pain and anguish. Existential suffering of the sort.
In short, it is a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, except that they seem to wish it on me.
Since the day the news broke of Russia’s declaration of war, my heart has known nothing but toska.
I grew up in the Northeast region of Ukraine. My town was a short distance away from our pacifistic neighbour to the East - a few hours, give or take. This geographical positioning is why I grew up speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian. It’s for this reason that I now feel a pang of irrational guilt for speaking the language that I do.
All good memories I have of my home seem tainted and blemished. My childhood memories, which were once so comforting and pure, now make my heartache as the realization of reality begins to settle. My dreams have turned into nightmares. Nightmares that get progressively worse as I am rocked to sleep by the sounds of my mother crying herself to sleep every night.
There are small magical flowers resembling lilacs, of which I don’t recall the name; generally white or pink, that bloom in the garden below our flat. As I walk past, I reach out and pull off a branch. Then, as I pluck the small flowers off their vine one by one, I listen to the sound of them squeal as I sip the luscious nectar from the stems.
This meant Summer was here.
This meant we were off to the river Psel, my babushka and I, where we would spend the whole day together. The river Psel was my favourite place on earth, without a doubt.
The river Psel is where I learned to swim at the age of three. The river Psel whose shores are covered in cattails. The river Psel where they found that dead body that one time. The river Psel, where I always felt undesirable weeds, amongst other things, wrap around my legs as I swam. The river Psel, where I swam gladly either way.
Many were scared of this river and dared to enter, perhaps for the reasons I just mentioned. Not me; my excitement only grew when I was confronted with the slimy river monsters that tried to pull me down into their depths to no avail. I was much too strong of a swimmer to let them get me.
The journey to the river was a risky one. Upon leaving our flat, we are regularly confronted by a group of babushkas who sit on the benches outside. They are always delighted to see me - they squeeze my cheeks and tell me how much I remind them of my mother. They smell of the Pelmeni’s they made their ungrateful grandchildren, complemented by complaints about said grandchildren. They smell like cigar smoke from their ungrateful alcoholic sons, accompanied by rants about the spouses of said sons. Their boys, after all, could do no wrong. I didn’t care much for these conversations.
My babushka would smile and nod in response to town gossip while I sat and played with the neighbourly stray cats. Then, when the women would finally exhaust themselves, and it was time to go, there was a mutual look of relief between us.
Although sometimes tedious, these conversations were integral to why I loved living in our little square. Everyone knew everyone, and unfortunately, also their business, but regardless, my babushka and I were met with greetings everywhere we went.
The next step of our journey involved passing through a stretch of a magical land. There is a cat six times my size with red boots six times too big for him, who tips his hat to me in greeting. Behind this friendly Puss in Boots is a moat with a bridge that runs across a large orange brick-coloured castle. We stop by this castle every day, where I slide a letter under the abandoned door. Many didn’t know this, but a Queen lived in that castle, and if it weren’t for my daily correspondence with her, I imagine she would die of loneliness. I tell her about my days at the river while she tells me about any love interests knocking on the castle doors. Nikolai, an old USSR soldier statue, stood in our way when my babushka and I would go to church; I thought he’d make a good fit for her. I’m not sure why I gave him that name, but it, too, seemed like a good fit. We make our way through Skaska - the fairytale-inspired childrens’ park responsible for fueling a lot of my childhood imagination. Every single story character you could ever imagine lived in this park. The Sea Tsar, the magical swans and the greedy fox began to wear as vandals covered their images in obscenities. My babushka would curse them out when we walked by the damage done by the rebellious neighbourhood boys.
There's a slope we have to climb past the castle, a steep one with little to cling onto. Although my babushka’s legs were hardly adequate enough to carry her up, she insisted this was the way we took since it was shorter and much more thrilling. We manoeuvre our way through thick vines and weeds on the way up. Many of them frequently turn out to be poisonous, requiring my babushka’s attention whenever I carelessly walk into them. She gathers mint leaves to apply to my wounds, and my tears quickly subside.
At the top of the hill, we are rewarded by a magnificent plum tree, whose succulent fruit gives us the confidence to press on.
We continue our walk through a big Bazar - a market where ladies sit and sell anything from their freshly grown produce to artisanal cheeses and salami. They are often accompanied by the farm animals that lend a hand in making them - this is blatantly heinous, no doubt. We notice Olga; she sits on the pavement surrounded by her school of goats that like to accompany her. My babushka makes pleasantries with her as she pushes us to test her product. Smetana, sour cream - of which she offers me a teaspoon or two to try. Smetana was one of my favourite foods - if you can call it that. I often preferred the tangy, rich taste instead of sweets and chocolate, like many children my age. So much so that this was not the first time I would eat spoonfuls of it. Whenever my babushka could afford it, I did a similar thing with caviar, scraping the bottom of the delicatessens' jar with a teaspoon.
Many locals relied on the Bazar to make a living - something I didn't understand very well at the time or cared to. The vendors sat in the scorching sun all day complaining about politics and the failing economy. My babushka and I would often make stops at the bank, where she would pick up her pension. An amount that often seemed to decrease each time we stopped by there, with no real reason or explanation.
We finally make it to the river, my babushka and I. All the usual neighbourhood children are already there - some come alone, and others, like I, accompanied by their grandparents.
We move through the crowds of people basking in the warm sun. Stray dogs dash along the river's edge and through the people, on the lookout for scraps to eat. The long blades of forest green grass brush against my legs as my babushka and I look for a prime place to settle ourselves.
A slight breeze caresses my cheek coming from the water, which invites me into its cooling and freeing embrace. She lays out a blanket and urges me to test out the water. She knows my eagerness could never be tamed.
As I run into the river in my usual delighted way, I notice that the water looks darker and more profound than it used to.
The weeds wrap around my legs as they always do, to no surprise of mine. However, this time, they've grown stronger. I look down at the depths below me only to notice that it’s no longer the unpleasant weeds pulling me down. No, instead, a pale corpselike hand reaches out from the abyss. Many more hands begin to appear, pulling me down with great force. Eventually, my nose is barely able to reach over the water. I can’t breathe, and as I flail around frantically looking for my babushka, I can hear her screaming my name from a distance.
Her voice becomes more and more muffled until I am finally submerged under the murky water. All I can hear is the silent screaming of the corpses who lay piled on top of each other on the river floor. I join their choir of anguish with my own internal screams as I am pulled further to the bottom.
The recollection of joy amidst the present melancholy gives me considerable misery. My childhood memories that often symbolized innocence and my wildest dreams have become tainted and heart-rending. The river Psel, where I learned to swim at the age of three, whose shores were covered in cattails, was now stained with blood. The river Psel, where they found that dead body that one time, was now filled to the rim with dead bodies. My mother’s collar, which she always made sure to keep exceptionally clean, was stained with tears as she sat by the phone awaiting more bad news.
They took this innocence from me. My wild dreams have become submissive and compliant. The animatronic cat who tipped his hat to me in my memory was replaced with animatronics of a different kind; ones of destruction and horror. The enemy tanks that flood my street and the streets of my family erase all the life and colour from my memories.
My friends are good people; they ask me how I’m coping regularly. Sometimes I wish they would stop asking, as nothing I can bring myself to say even remotely captures how it is that I am feeling. What right do I have to speak on the horror happening in my home when I myself cannot even fathom it. It is what it is, I say. What else is there to say after all? I am Guilt-ridden; I am so far and disconnected from the war, where my family and friends are slaughtered while the rest of the world looks on from their phones. I am far away, safe and sound in my mother's embrace, a feeling that many of my people will never be able to feel again.
An unreasonable part of me wishes I could be there alongside them. An unreasonable part of me wishes I could raise my hand in protest as the tanks approach my defenceless castle walls; my cat would tip his hat to them in kindness, unknowingly. Then they would see me, a child, an innocent child who has no place in this war. The soldiers in the tank would nod understandingly, maybe even give me a smile and turn around… as I say, this is unreasonable.
There it is, my childhood imagination getting away from me once again.