He started to be spoken about suddenly and unexpectedly. But it seems everybody has known him all the time. Valeriy Ananyev is a famous blogger and traveler, a former soldier of the 25th airborne brigade. He fought at the ATO in Donbas. He participated in liberating Sloviansk and Mariupol, he fought in the most heated fights, in particular for Vuhlehirsk, Shahtarsk, Debaltseve. His videos from the war, which showed the war in its true colors, without any posh “pyrotechnics”, were seen by a hundred thousand people. Valeriy went through two concussions, a worsened health and a painful socialization. Later, he started to travel across the world, to do soul-researching which resulted in almost 2000-kilometer pilgrimage to the Cape Finisterre in Spain, to “the end of the earth”, where a former trooper ran a Ukrainian flag from the Maidan up.
Some part of this experience, in the first place, of a military experience, was reflected in his first book Traces On the Road. It was published not by some prestigious publishing house but by Valeryi himself. He became an author, a publisher, a distributor, a PR-manager and a literary agent. The book has become quite popular, the first five thousand copies were sold in three weeks. Perhaps, it is because this is almost the first “living” book about the war. As Arkady Babchenko, a famous journalist, said about it, “it is not just stories about war routine, written in the raw and unvarnished, in a simple and comprehensible language. It is also a philosophy, an attempt to realize: what was it? who was who at that war? where is the borderline?
By the way, Valeriy Ananyev has just started his promo tour. 10 presentations, which started in Kharkiv, are to cover 8 cities of different regions of Ukraine. It will end in Kyiv at the beginning of October. Presentations in Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv are known to gather a lot of people. But in the city of Dnipro, something went wrong. No, about 200 people came for the meeting to the City Library, which is a huge success for a modern world, but… But the author was detained by police and taken to the town of Novomoskovsk.
Obviously, people were outraged, activists, all the caring people, policymakers and even MPs started to advocate for Valeriy’s release.
Today, we won’t speak about the case which took place in 2016. It is a legal case, so let specialists deal with that – fairly and without any prejudges. Moreover, our interview took place before the promo tour. We just want to mention that Valeriy is still on his road. We spoke with him about traces on this road, about his experience and plans.
Let’s begin at the very beginning. I saw an interview, and it turned out that your last name is not Ananyev. It is a pseudonym, Tell about it a little bit. And why “Valera” – why did you choose such a diminutive form of the name?
The name is not important to me. I don’t like diminutives like Valeryk, Valerian or Valerchyk. I don’t like when even close people call me so. As for the last name… When in 2014, separatists announced money for my head, my parents were in a place where bad people could find them. That’s why I decided to be aside from everything which was connected with my family. Such as my last name. So I put the last name “Ananyev” in all the social networks. I wanted my real last name to be forgotten. Now, it doesn’t seem to me that relevant because…
Well, it is an open secret, in fact.
Of course. Even then, everybody who wanted to find me could do it easily. But I didn’t want to make it easier for them. I wanted to do my best. Now I think, nobody cares about me. Yes, I am a former trooper. By the way, I am neither a writer, nor a volunteer, nor a blogger – I have no certificates about that. I am just Valeriy.
You are 25. You a young person. However, you have a tough and complicated background. What is the most important for you from that – the army, the war, the journey from Paris to the Cape Finisterre, or something else?
These are all steps of my life, very important ones, and it doesn’t matter how long they were – 3 months or 5 years, as the army, or 3 years, like the war. These steps have brought me up, changed me and I can’t highlight any of them. I have been often asked in interviews whether I want to change anything: to fail to go somewhere or do something? I always said “no”. Because it is literally experienced through pain, blood, and sweat. It would be silly of me to give something up when such a price has already been paid.
You said that three months of an army induction were harder than three years of the war. Is it true?
Yes, the army induction was terrible! I still can’t recall it without horror!
But an army induction and a war seem to be not comparable, don’t they?
A war is nothing! As an anecdote says: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game (laughs). I described the army induction well in my book, I tried to convey the feeling which was with me during those three months. And I managed to do that, taking into account what people write. So if anyone is interested, they can learn it from the book.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a book but I have read the reviews. In particular, by our common friend Sashko Polozhynsky, a leader of the Tartak band. I guess he is the first to have told me about you.
Yes, he is a great person, I am happy to have met him. It happened before my journey.
Polozhynsky writes about your book Traces On the Road, “This book is about the war, this book is about love… I virtually galloped over the book”
I gave him to read my manuscript, not edited yet, raw one. And when we met, he, his friend and I, Sashko started to tell his friend about my book. I was listening with delight – I was very pleased to hear that. It was clear that he really liked the book not as if we were just friends.
I believe he would have written only the truth.
You know, I remember 2014. We were going to Kramatorsk, it had just been liberated. We had been given a four-day leave, so we were coming back after that to the Kramatorsk’s airport. We knew some attacks were going to happen. I was listening to Tartak’s music then. In fact, I was listening to it very much. So that period is associated with their music for me. Later, when I met Sashko, it was unusual for me. You see the person who has been inspiring you for something positive. He is a very interesting person.
A bit more about the army. Before our interview, I met you at the Independence Day Parade. What did you feel watching army convoys even though in a parade format? Has the Ukrainian Army changed?
It has definitely changed. But not enough. Not enough to make people stay in the army. 90% of people I know, sergeants, officers, who now could be company commanders, deputy battalion commanders, people who are at the war from the very beginning – they all left. All. Some are working in private security firms etc. Nobody could handle a terrible attitude. The war has changed much in people’s minds. Our army has changed outwardly, but unfortunately, the mindset almost hasn’t. In 2014, it changed for better – very dramatically and suddenly. But in a year, in 2015, when the war became more static, a backward process started.
Is it connected with new people in the army?
Those who had been from the very beginning started to be aside: somebody was injured, somebody left.
Their places were taken by new people. And old officers wanted to return that army routine which had been comfortable for them for many years. They couldn’t treat us, old soldiers, as they used to. But they could do it with new ones. Gradually, there were less old soldiers and more new ones. And officers started to treat them in an old way. So people didn’t like it, and they left. Even though they were raising salaries… Only 2-3 friends of mine (I met many people in 5 years) stayed there. They are fans of the army, fans of war.
It seems to me you were dreaming of becoming an officer at the beginning of your military career?
Yes. Because I was dreaming. I made up the army for myself. I didn’t know for sure what it was like there. I imagined something, made it up, I was living in illusions. Later on, when I faced the reality, a tough reality, I realised it wasn’t like that. But my illusions were so big! Well, when people come to an army, they always get disappointed. My illusions were very big. And it took 7-8 months for me to get disappointed.
It’s some kind of a paradox; you came to the army by chance, but it is not that with the war. Are these two different things?
Yes. Army and war are dramatically different things. It was awesome at the war. Of course, objectively, war is terrible. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. And a mother whose son died can even spit in my face. And she is subjectively right. But subjectively – in my opinion – the war, summer 2014 was the best summer of my life. I have never felt so alive.
I wanted to ask: why? But you have answered…
You see, everyone has their own truth. You can’t pretend there, you can’t be a person you are really not. And I have never seen so much truth as there. However, not everyone can see it. I am lucky, I noticed that. And the most important thing, I’learnedrnt who I am. I became absolutely fair to myself. I admitted all my fears and insecurities. There was a period I hated myself for them. But then, I went through them, accepted them and felt a relief. It is not about 2,5 years. Of course, I became more mature during this time and changed anyway, but the war influenced me very much.
As far as I understand, you are not going to come back to the army. What about the war?
If the war escalates, if it is again as in 2014, when you are not just sitting and waiting while a sniper hits you in the head, when we really fight for some result, then, certainly, I will be back. Despite my health problems. But I won’t join the Armed Forces of Ukraine by no means. I will join some volunteer battalion.
You have injuries and a concussion, right?
I have brain injuries… Head injuries.
You come from Pervomaisk. I thought…
I am sorry, but I don’t speak about anything which is connected to my home or family.
OK, let’ move along. After the war, where you were doing your soul-searching, opening something new, you continued making discoveries while travelling. Particularly during an ancient pilgrim’s way with a beautiful name El Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. Why did you decide to do it? Did an invisible tumbler switch on and you just decided?
It was exactly like that. Everything happens in my life like that (snaps his fingers). Something comes to my mind, I need just an hour and I am on the road.
“The key is under a rug! See you!” – like that?
Yes, exactly. Well, in 7 months I have another trip. I will be travelling for 6 months through the mountains across the Polar Circle, to the Arctic Ocean. I can’t even recall how this idea came to my mind. Something “snapped”, I came to a shop and bought new tracking sticks.
Fantastic. But tell a bit about the trip. Yes, it is Europe, the area is habitable. But anyway: you were crossing mountains, woods. What helped you – some military background? Or you just kind of a person who feels like a duck to water in any circumstances?
I wouldn’t say that the area is habitable. I crossed the Cantabrian Mountains – that was a challenge! (laughs) It is on the north of the Iberian Peninsula. As for what helped me… As for knowledge, I wouldn’t say I have some certain knowledge. But I can bear pain, wait and just be patient.
But you should know at least what equipment and stuff you will need on a trip. I’ve noticed that you have a military rucksack, not a touristic one. A tactical rucksack…
Well, “tactical” is a funny word. Marketers made it up. It sounds cool, they made it up so people wanted to buy it. Well, my rucksack could handle up to 20 kg. It is mostly for some appliances.
Let’s focus on your inner discoveries.
In the beginning, it was hard to hike. On the first day, I covered about 27 kilometres. I constantly do sports, so I had no muscle fever. But I was exhausted. The next day, I covered less, than less again… I was covering about 10-15 kilometres a day. I was always feeling pain, for all three months. I cried out in pain with every step, I don’t exaggerate. But gradually, distances became longer, I became stronger. I started to cover 40 km. Once I covered 120 kilometres on two days. When you are on the road you are full of emotions – against pain, hot weather, thirst, hunger. You are on the road with yourself. You analyse impressions, you feel nervous, you laugh. Sometimes I screamed myself hoarse. Later, when you have been on the road for 10-12 hours, your nervous system isn’t able to feel any emotions. You just go like you are a vegetable. And then you, emotionlessly, objectively enter your mind and start to analyse everything you find there. I can’t compare it with anything, but you take the reality in another way. It is a unique state. That’s why I was gradually increasing the distance to get tired and to dive into this state more deeply: in mountains, in forests. To analyse me, my life. With the war background, which was hard for me to forget, which was hard to live with. It was just eating me from the inside.
Valeriy, these are your inner feelings. But did you pay your attention to landscapes, forests, mountains, cities and towns? However, you are kind of a person who doesn’t like cities, aren’t you?
Everything which is made by people doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t bring out any emotions.
What about the Acropolis, Parthenon, mighty ancient columns…? It all was made by thousand muscles, with blood and sweat?
When I see some ancient building, a big, mighty one, I realise how much strength, blood and deaths it took to build it. And it is not the building which impresses me, but the number of people’s emotions, strength and fates. And I take it as something living, natural. This is what impresses me. I like to visit not just new places, but rather discover new cultures, ideas, breathe the air nobody has breathed before. It is my drug.
How long were you taking this drug?
Two and a half months. I was on the road for about 70 days. I covered over 1 800 km.
You started to speak Ukrainian during this trip. You had been bilingual until that, hadn’t you?
No, I had been speaking only Russian. I had been living many-many years in the Eastern Ukraine (people there mostly speak Russian while people in Western Ukraine speak Ukrainian). Well, the point is that when I came to Paris I paid attention that French people were listening only to French music on the radio. Films on TV were almost only in French, there is a minimum of overseas films.
But isn’t it extremism, nationalism, chauvinism and impairment of ethnic minorities? Aren’t French people accused of it?
Well, I don’t know. Why should I care? Everybody understands that language is just a way to influence people. I am objective about it, and I have no illusions towards nationalism, patriotism, the language issue etc. I realise these are things which can unite people. And some people use it. There is the war now; it is not much for the land. What did it begin with? The war began because there were many people in the East who supported it. At the beginning of the war, there was no Russian army there. There were Russian “friends”, some special forces who came there, they gathered associates, our Ukrainian people, and they helped.
You mean, the war is for brains?
Yes, at that moment, we lost the war for people’s thoughts. We fight not much against Russia. This “Russian world” everybody is talking about has no borders. “Russian world” is in the heads of people who live in the East of Ukraine, it appeared a long time before the Russian army came to Ukraine. This “world” is the recall of USSR. We fight with this recall. This is the war of the present and future. Now, we should be as far away as we can from everything which can connect us with the Soviet Union. Because it limits people. Some people recall some people make up how it was wonderful to live in that country, great times. Though it is not true, and everybody knows it. Language is a very important tool in cutting off the past. Because the USSR, not mentioning the Russian Empire, was hammering into people’s heads for 70 years that the Ukrainian language was the language of a minority, of illiterate people. When all people in Ukraine speak Ukrainian, it will be a huge success. Because people who think in Ukrainian can’t be vatniks automatically. It is impossible, I haven’t ever seen it.
So what about Paris?
So in Paris, one Frenchman asked me, “Why do you have the war against Russian, and you speak Russian?” I didn’t know what to answer. I could say that Ukraine is an independent country and everybody could speak as they want (says this sentence in Russian). It is clear. But we are in we war with Russia. With its culture. Namely, with the absence of any culture because being an animal and a redneck is not a culture. And I felt embarrassed, very embarrassed. And I began peaking Ukrainian. It was hard, my head was about to blow up, I translated every word, was nervous badly. But if I hadn’t had that motivation – embarrassment, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome myself. This is my motivation – embarrassment. I try to avoid Russicisms, I try to speak – well I already do – a literary Ukrainian language. I guess I’ve managed to do it.
I guess you have, really.
I speak only Ukrainian now. I mean at home, everywhere. I don’t use Russian at all. Yes, I am a Ukrainian-speaker. I have finished this shift. Now, I am just developing my Ukrainian vocabulary. I wanted to add something. But I don’t remember what.
I want to ask you point-blank. Are you an honest person? I see how you mince your words, how you get flustered, how you sometimes mumble because you are embarrassed to tell something…
I try to be honest. If I can’t be sincere I say that I won’t answer a question. There is a huge difference between a former me before the trip, and a present me.
Do you mean you haven’t always been an honest person?
No-o… I got a hard background at the war, which is difficult to live with. I considered myself really ill. I was saying that I couldn’t live in that society. Accordingly, I had awful thoughts. I wanted to do many things. During the trip – I’d call it a meditation on the road – I changed my mind on many things. I realised I wasn’t ill. That my background was a gift. The problem is I have to integrate it into my broken outlook somehow. And if you learn how to live with it, you can do great things. Because it is the background which makes you a very objective person. And when you are objective, when no stereotypes or other things influence your thinking, when you don’t depend on what others think, on ideas which predominate in the society, it is awesome. When before that, I was asked some questions and it turned out that I was wrong in something, I tried to jerk from side to side. I used sophistry at interviews. I was handling situations (laughs). And I was good at it. But it was not true, it was all lies. Now, I try to be sincere with people.
Is it better than to bluff your way and handle situations?
It was a badass’s pleasure. Like: hah, I’ve cheated him, you rock, man! Now, I don’t care about it.
OK, so you are on the Cape Finisterre in Spain, What’s next?
Yes, it is translated as “end of the earth”. A long time ago, at pre-Christian times, pilgrims believed that it was the edge of Europe. Today, with the help of satellites people learnt that the edge was somewhere in Portugal. But it doesn’t matter. I ran a Ukrainian flag up. It used to be on the Maidan.
Are you going to describe your trip in a new book?
I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
You are becoming a media, well-known person. Do you think about any political career – at least in the future?
No, on no account! By no means and generally, never. Back in 2014, when I only appeared in media, I received many comments, “He wants to become a politico!..” They still write it. Time flies, and nobody hasn’t apologized yet. People are childish, they can easily accuse someone… I had never been into politics. Until 2014, I thought that there was a fuddy-duddy political and geopolitical system, which couldn’t be changed. It just exists, and everything is as it is. Then I realised: no-o… Because unexpectable things were happening. Russia attacked Ukraine – who could foresee that, who? Even when it happened, it was hard to realise it. Then I started to be into politics. Not because it was interesting for me, no. I hate most politicians. But I felt my responsibility for my irresponsibility. I realise that I have to take part in a political life of my country as a citizen. But I won’t start any political career. Even if I wanted, I know I wouldn’t cope with that. I know myself. This work is not for me.
Well, if you know, then… Though I would like such people to appear in politics and in the government as well.
Are you sure I won’t be spoilt if I get into it?
I am not. But when there will be the majority of people like you…
Neither am I sure. I don’t even want to try. Well, I am 25. As my experience shows, I can change my mind on many things. But now, as far as I know myself, I say that politics is not interesting for me at all, and I don’t see myself in it. I am unlikely to be there. I don’t know what can shift my mind and beliefs so I will become a policymaker.
It is better to be into sports. Do you keep fit?
I do sports all my life: football, basketball, box, heavy athletics, gym, jogging and others. I like hitting my own records. And I don’t care about others’. Now, I just lift weights. I like to lift heavy weights. I like to feel the strength in my hands. When you lift weight three times as heavy as you are, it is pleasant.
You once said that you wanted to meet a girl whom you could surprise. The one, that doesn’t know you.
Yes, because I had another experience. Because a person thought I was very famous – it is not true, but the person thought so. She was with me because of that. That’s why I am wiser now. Perhaps, my conclusions are quite categorical, but I don’t want to face it again.
And the last thing, what are you up to now?
I am selling my book. It takes most of my time. First 5 thousand copies were sold in three weeks. It is a record within a Ukrainian fiction market. Moreover, I don’t collaborate with any publishing house; I registered myself as a publishing house. As an entrepreneur, I printed my book. I promote it by myself, only some friends help who have the audience on Facebook or YouTube. I mean, I’ve done it by myself without any irrelevant considerations.
Why is it so? Is it a principle strategy?
When I finished a book, I switched off a writer inside of me, and switched on a .. how is it called?
A businessman? PR-manager, a literary agent…
A marketer? In short, I started to meet publishers. I wondered how everything was made there. I didn’t understand why I had to agree with their offers. Those numbers they told me were good, I considered a failure. I realize that those people didn’t make anything new, they didn’t try to promote a book somehow. It is just a routine work for them. As if they produced nails instead of distributing unique things, art. And I realized that most of our publishers (not all, of course, there are some promising people with an interesting way of thinking) are able only to bury a potential of a good story. I knew I had written a good book. I knew that. Feedback from all these people whose opinions I appreciate…
Finally, there is an author’s feeling – whether a book is a success or a failure… It is, as a rule, always right.
I knew how good this book was. I knew it had a potential, and I couldn’t let anybody bury its potential. That’s why I invited my friend to the team, and we are working on all that together now.
Let’s promote your book a bit. Where is it sold?
You can enter into Google “Сліди на дорозі” (Traces on the Road). There will be a link to a website. Or you can visit the website: slid.com.ua. Or you can visit my page on FB: Valera Ananyev (Валера Ананьев). You can easily find the link to the book there. What publishing? Well, as I said, “Valera Ananyev”. (laughs)
Interview by Pavlo Volvach
Photo by Anna Chabaray