I dedicate this story to the Gonakov family, who left this frail life…


Since childhood, Gonya dreamed of becoming a standard-bearer. He imagined how the school would stand on the lineup, and himself carrying the banner under the sound of drumming dressed in a white shirt with a pioneer’s red cravat. Gonakov did not become a school standard-bearer. He studied poorly, dabbled in his lessons. Even the pioneers did not accept him and threatened him with expulsion. He joined the Komsomol not in middle school, but at the state vocational school.* Mining Vocational School Number Three. “Oh god, help this dummy get settled!” the students decoded the name of the school and laughed to themselves.

The first of September in MVS is also a parade. Lineup. The standard-bearers carried the school flag. “Excellent students…” someone whispered from behind. “So I can’t show off with a school banner. I’m unlikely to be an excellent student, even if I want to,” the boy thought woefully. None of the teachers and parents forced Gonya to study well, aside from the classroom instructor scolding him and making entries in the diary, after which Dad slapped his son on the ass with a belt, but for him, even that was pitiful. “Our bread is on a shovel,” the father spoke to his sons. “School, army, coal mine: where else will you make good money so that you don’t leave home?”

And at home, it was really wonderful. In spring, the green leaves are bright green, the flowers are fragrant; Donetsk is a city of a million roses. In the summer, it’s hot, and given how warm the water is, you can swim as much as you want, and in the garden and in the courtyard, there are fruits and vegetables. Autumn was bad: study. Gonak slightly suffered until the eighth grade, and there: MVS, army, and freedom. Work your shift and take a walk. If you want—a beer, if you want—movies, wine, and dominoes.


Gonya brought his first stipend home. Mother gasped when she saw three tenners with a trifle clamped in her son’s fist. Dad said: “It is necessary to celebrate. The first is always washed!” And the boy rushed off to the store for a bottle. He returned. His father and his elder brother saw that he took only one bottle of vodka and they began laughed: “Send a fool for a bottle, he will take one!” The brother went, bought another bottle of vodka, a bottle of wine, and beer for a hangover the next day.

Mother laid the table and they sat decorously, Dad and older brother drank vodka, poured wine for the mother and youngest son. Mother drank little and left the table first; it was autumn, if the food was not canned, what would they eat in winter? Then Dad rolled off with hearty belching and went to sleep. The brothers remained at the table alone with snacks in bulk and almost a full bottle of vodka to drink. The older one began to pour for the little one white wine; Gonya turned off.

The boy woke up in the morning; there was a basin next to the bed, some muck in it. He got it: he puked. He looked at his watch: the beginning of the ninth. He rushed to the bursa, and there was no half-group there: they were ill after yesterday. The director came, counted, made a list. In between classes, students discussed who, as noted by the first step, laughed. After classes, they went to the pub, drank a couple of mugs. Gonya came home; there was nobody there, everyone was at work. In the fridge, he found the wine left over from yesterday, drank it, and went to bed, punctuated by a dream.

In the morning, Dad was going to work: he raised Gonya neither light nor dawn. “Something you frequented, small!” The old one was laconic. “If you come drunk today, I’ll flog you. We do not need drunks in the family!” Brother stood laughing. For some reason, Gonya remembered him like that for his whole life: cheerful, with a smile, in the light of the morning sun.

And at lunch, a siren howled: an accident at the mine, a methane explosion. The whole brigade died: nine people. So Gonya was left without a father and brother. Somehow, the mother got old at once, and the grandmother, when she came to visit, barely moved her legs; they were taken away after the death of her son and grandson.


Driving Gonya to the military registration and enlistment service, the officer said, “You are the only breadwinner for your mother and grandmother, we will not call you up you for military service.” Only the grandmother survived the offspring for a short time; a year later, she went into damp land. And the youngest son and mother stayed together.

Gonya graduated from vocational school. Mother said: “Join the army! It is necessary to serve, otherwise people will laugh and talk, call you spoiled. No girl will want to marry you.” Gonya went to the recruitment office: “Take me!” But there, they began to laugh, too. “What are you, guy, now in the army only for a contract, for five years. Go home, consult.”

Gonya said this to his friends; they also began to laugh. “The military contractors are paid less than the locksmiths in the mine. Do you need it? Everyone evades, are you a redheaded stepchild or something?” The guys downed homemade vodka and went into their houses.

Gonya came home, told his mother everything. “Well, don’t, son!” answered his mother. “At home, it’s better. As much as five years! If I die, who will bury me?”

Home was better, but not by much. Chiefs began to delay salaries, reduce prices. The miners reached out to work west. There, beneath Lviv and Volyn, coal was also mined. Those who are lucky had left for Poland and Germany, almost finding happiness. To western Ukraine, not really. For housing, payment, food, all from the store, and the salary was not more than in Donetsk.

Gonya did not go anywhere. Where do you drag a sick mother? And there was no one to look after her. Who will look after the graves? Marauders had already once stolen all the iron, handing over to the scrap metal collection point. Gonya built a wooden fence and a table with a bench. A friend, Yurka, an Afghan,** helped. When finished, his mother opened the bundle; there was boiled potatoes, hamsa, bread. Gonya got moonshine, a bottle, from out of champagne. He remembered his grandmother, father, and brother. Everyone drank. Let’s go home.

Time passed, and his soul sank. One outlet was Nagiyev’s*** Windows show. That’s where the fun was! Either son and mother cohabit, or sister and brother.


And then the booze began in Kiev. Give them Europe, join the E.U. Well, Yanukovych**** was stealing, but who wasn’t stealing now? He began to give salaries to miners on time, he began to have enough for a living. Not that much, but it paid for bread, salt, sugar, and tea leaves. Gonya and mother kept chickens, slaughtered one a week, crushed butter from sunflower. Everyone has the good gardens, and there are potatoes, cabbage, and tomatoes with cucumbers in the beds. So no, instead of work, they drove Yanukovych away.

One day, he drove away from work to home, turned on the TV. And there, an honest mother!***** Crimea has departed to Russia. “Here are the lucky people!” thought Gonya. Now they will have everything as in Russia: salaries, Dancing with the Stars, and Let’s Get Married. Longing poured into his soul. “What do you have to drink?” he asked mother. The old woman understood him and brought a bottle of moonshine. Gonya drank himself silly, filled with anger. After he lay down to rest, he fell asleep.

A month later, new booze. In the main square of the district, there was a fight. Someone shouted, “Together with Ukraine to the E.U.!”, others shouted, “Russia, send troops! Putin will help us!” The police did not interfere; they laughed. The bones crack at the brawlers, their teeth roll. By the evening, they parted.


A month later, a detachment came from the Crimea and police began to seize weapons. True, the people said that Strelkov was not “Strelkov” and he was not a GRU****** officer, did not serve in the army at all, but he was running around like a journalist in hot spots, trying to find a “bread” place for himself. They also said that his real name was Girkin, and now he came to get himself power and prestige in the Donbass.*******

Gonya wanted to go, sign up for DPR******** detachment, but his mother grabbed his sleeve, cried out, “Don’t go, son, don’t go, you will die in the war! There, Yurka, was in Afghanistan, so as not to fight, he left for Poltava.” The friend’s house was actually locked, and Gonya cooled off. Again, it was time to plant a garden, but what would the old woman do without it? And so he stayed.


The war was gaining momentum. The DPR army moved to Donetsk and Russian Cossacks captured Lugansk. Gonya’s courtyard was spared; the high slagheap blocked shelling, and there was no one to shoot because the militiamen were hiding in school halls and in the cinema, but there were no such buildings in the village.

No luck in the coal pit. The Armed Forces of Ukraine began to fire at the copper mine from which the DPR observers conducted surveillance, and hit the electrical substation from which the mine was powered. 152-millimeter shells tore off powerful transformers from the foundation, riddled them with fragments. The power supply was cut off, pumps and electric motors malfunctioned, and underground water flooded the mine in a week. Coal mining stopped.

Once, he drove off to the mine administration hoping they would at least give him some money, but there, it was almost empty. Who wants to work under shelling? A guard in the lobby on the ground floor said, “There is no one but us. We protect the mine so as not to be raided for scrap. Yesterday, two thieves were caught and shot. Get out of here.”


Life became very bad. What came from humanitarian aid was not enough even for a week. Mother stretched into two. A large garden beyond the railway became inaccessible; a clean field, a person in full view. As soon as someone showed up, both the militias and Ukrainians began to shoot. Potatoes, cabbage, and sunflowers were gone. True, the DPR began to feed those who went out to public work—to repair roads, to remove rubble—but they fed it liquid, the portions are small, and you couldn’t take it off-site; if the administration caught you, then they would put you in a hole.

Mother got sick. To heat the stove, the woman scrubbed the last coal from the barn in the frost, passed through the cold, and lay down. Gonya went to the doctor—the medical man did not want to go to work for any reason—who would walk around the streets under shelling? Somehow, he persuaded the doctor to show. The doctor examined his mother and prescribed some pills. He said the first time you get the medicine for free from the hospital pharmacy, and then pay for later refills yourself. The medications ran out quickly, although due to the economy, the mother drank them in half-doses so that they would last longer. Gonya went looking for a pharmacy, and the cat wept for money. He wasted everything, money to a penny.

He came home to silence. The stove was not heated; it was cold in the house. He went into his mother’s room; the woman was pale and did not move. She left…

Gonya cried, “Where are you, Putin? Where is your army and your soldiers?” In the morning, he went to the administration: “My mother died, I need to bury her.” The ranking officer phoned the commander of the DPR battalion. He answered, “I’ll send soldiers, they will help. Let him prepare the body and wait at home.”

Gonya dismantled the chicken coop and made a coffin. He put his mother in the most beautiful clothes and laid her in the coffin. The soldiers arrived the next morning in the UAZ loaf.********* They put the coffin inside, sat down around it, put Gonya forward: “Show us where to drive!”

They dug the grave for a long time with shovels and a pickaxe, with a crowbar and a grabber. The soldiers tried to open up the frozen ground with grenades, but there were few to spare. Finally, they dug up a pit, laid the coffin inside, and swamped it with earth. They said, “In the spring, you will tidy up.” The soldiers drove Gonya home, got a few bottles of vodka, a snack, offered to commemorate his mother.

Gonya agreed. They slugged alcohol once or twice in a glass; heat came into their bodies. “And you, now alone?” asked the elder soldier. “And how will you be?” Gonya told everything as it was. The soldiers sympathized. “Don’t be sad, bro!” The elder slapped him on the shoulder.

“Come with us. You can right now. The company commander will come tomorrow, arrange everything.” The soldiers went to the UAZ.

Gonya locked the house, looked with longing over the courtyard; thieves will begin stealing what was. Tears flowed from his eyes. He climbed into the salon. The soldiers made room, Gonya sat down, and the car drove to the location.


* MVS: Mining vocational school.

** Afghan: participant in the Soviet-Afghan War.

*** Nagiyev: a Russian showman. Windows is one of his programs.

**** Yanukovych: former president of Ukraine.

***** honest mother: a slang exclamation that expresses a strong degree of surprise.

****** GRU: Main Intelligence Directorate.

******* Donbass: Donetsk Basin, coal mining region of Ukraine.

******** DPR: self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

********* loaf: a model of Soviet-Russian minibus.


For all installments of “Standard Bearer,” click here.