Veteran Zapeka’s sniper Shramko: a hapless ‘Ukrainian soldier Schweik’ caught in the turmoil of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Editor’s Note

Ukrainian military casualties due to enemy sniper attacks are on the rise. Russian snipers play an increasingly important role in the war in eastern Ukraine. Entrenched in positions just a few metres from enemy lines, Ukrainian soldiers are constantly being monitored and targeted by these well-trained snipers.

According to estimates, about a third of Ukrainian soldiers fall to enemy sniper fire. Ukrainian military intelligence and volunteers have been tracing the presence of both Russian professional snipers and their proxies.

In his new book, Heroes! Yes! Though Not Really (Heroi, Kheroi, ta ne Duzhe), veteran Vitaliy Zapeka’s hero, Shramko, is a simple-minded, patriotic citizen, and has been compared to soldier Schweik in Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik .

Shramko volunteers to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and is assigned the role of a sniper.

Maryna Riabchynska, a professor at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, describes Zapeka’s Shramko in the following manner:

“…Shramko is a bona fide character within contemporary Ukrainian prose. He is an Everyman who unites within himself traits of several Ukrainian volunteer fighters, who, beginning in 2014, went to defend their homeland. They were not heroes, as they regularly remind others; rather, they were merely very good at their job and continue to do that job very well… Shramko is a true satirical character in Ukrainian literature whose understated unheroics show themselves, despite themselves, to be heroic actions.”

Here is a translation of a chapter from Heroes! Yes! Though Not Really (Heroi, Kheroi, ta ne Duzhe), a satirical novel by a popular Ukrainian writer, Vitaliy Zapeka. He is a professional photographer who was given the call sign “Spilberh” (Spielberg) during the three years that he spent as a volunteer fighter.

In his Foreword, Vitaliy Zapeka writes the following:

“At no time do I ever want to offend the defenders of Ukrainian against Russian aggression through comedy and satire… The satire in the novel is not for the purpose of humiliating, but rather, so that experiences that were “bad” may appear to have been fewer, and those experiences that were “good” to have been greater in number. And that the insanity which is found in every army in the world may be a thing of the past, or at least a hallmark of the foreign, enemy army.”

Shramko

Vitaliy Zapeka at the premiere of the stage performance based on his book Heroes! Yes! Though Not Really. Photo: open source

Chapter 5 of Heroes! Yes! Though Not Really , by Vitaliy Zapeka (Zhytomyr: O.O. Yevenok Publishing, 2020)

They woke Shramko up when it was daylight. He couldn’t believe how soundly he’d slept following the experiences of the early morning.

“Wander over to the underground shelter, to see the senior officer.”

“And where is that?”

“Down at the other end of the trenches. On the way you’ll pass the cauldron we use to make porridge. You might as well have some while the food is hot.”

Shramko hurried off in the direction he had been ordered to. Sure enough, he happened upon the makeshift apparatus of a kitchen, and a cauldron of steaming hot porridge swinging from a tripod. He decided he would eat later, all the more so because, still being half asleep, he had neglected to take a bowl and spoon with him.

In the Commander’s office at the underground shelter, there was a homemade desk at which he was seated, preoccupied about something. Even in the dimly lit room the exhaustion in his eyes was evident.

“Are you from the academy? Or maybe a volunteer fighter?” The officer immediately cut to the chase.

“I’m a volunteer,” Shramko nodded smartly, then added a little bragging: “With two entire weeks of basic training!”

“Impressive,” agreed the Commander. “And in what specialty?”

“Painting the trees white.”

“Incredibly practical. Too bad we have no lime in our unit at the moment… Can you do anything else? Perhaps a specialty from civilian life where you’ve learned skills that can be of benefit to us now?”

“I know how to prepare financial statements. At work I received several coveted awards. Tax inspectors would shake in their boots when I would bring them my annual reports and would quickly issue their statements that everything was in good order. In fact, there was this one time when an interesting…”

“You’ll have to finish your story another time,” the Commander interrupted. “But exactly from where you left off. Don’t forget now… We’ll note in your file that you have no skills, and aren’t a fit for any of our needs,” he continued as he opened some sort of notebook and wrote down a few comments.

“On the one hand, you have no skills, but on the other hand that’s not really a problem. Shramko, we’ll designate you as a sniper. A Number 2 man. As it happens, we currently need to fill a vacancy.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! It’s a job that can get you killed. It would be a shame to appoint someone who has any kind of beneficial skill to such a position. On the bright side, everyone has something to contribute, even an accountant,” the senior officer replied without trying to hide his cynicism.

Shramko was lost for words. He knew who he was, and he knew what a sniper was. This couldn’t be happening! He couldn’t believe it. In the end, he did not say anything at all. The Commander stood up and walked over to the exit and pulled aside the thick blanket that was used as a door.

“Tell Chekh to come here. Quickly. With the weapon.”

Just then Shramko was reminded of a strange incident which happened one year at a New Year’s festivity. All the partygoers were in costumes and masks, and he had been mistaken for the CEO. That was sure comical. No sooner was he about to start relating the tale to the Commander when the blanket in the doorway was moved aside once more. A young man entered, holding a sniper’s rifle. Shramko had never seen anything like it: black in colour, with a large scope, bigger than any regulation SVD- Drahynov sniper rifle he was familiar with from WWII movies.

“Now, Romko, when they kill you, he’ll get your weapon. Our new arrival here will be your Number 2. Teach him everything you know; and give him a chance to fire the thing.”

“Viktorovych! I only have 20 shells to use for this ‘blessed’ endeavor. NATO regulations.”

“Then don’t keep count when he’s shooting.”

“Well…” said the official sniper, who went by the Nom de Guerre of Chekh. “Then fine. Let him shoot to his heart’s content if he’s eager to use the weapon. Come with me.”

Chekh grabbed Shramko by the arm. By this time, Shramko was feeling very uneasy from what he was hearing and couldn’t even move.

The boxes of shells they would need were located near the cauldron of porridge. The two snipers sat down together.

“Here’s the deal. This sniper weapon is called a ‘Fort.” It is the pride of our domestic manufacturing, under license from the Israelis. It is up to NATO standards. None of thar inferior Soviet production. NATO specs, love them or hate them. That explains why we have a problem with supplying enough shells. And the twenty we do have were bought with foreign currency. That’s why every shot must count.”

“I’m an accountant. I’ll keep track of each one.”

The “Number 1” sniper looked sympathetically at Shramko.

“You’re new here? You have no idea what it means to…” Chekh then waved in resignation with his free hand. “Ah, forget about it. Tax accountants have it easy compared to military accountants.”

Shramko’s eyes bulged in astonishment. Military “paper pushers” deserved secret admiration. He decided, however, to focus on his new responsibilities.

“How does it work?”

“If you believe its reputation, then it works incredibly well,” said Chekh, caressing the fun. “Reinforced moulded plastic, factory-made silencer, and the scope works like a song! They has it has no recoil whatsoever. That’s what they say…”

“You mean you have no experience firing it?” Shramko interrupted his new friend, unnerved by the thought that he had no first-hand knowledge of how the weapon responded in action.

Shramko

Heroes! Yes! Though Not Really, by Vitaliy Zapeka. Photo: open source

“Of course not!” Chekh replied, looking at Shramko as though he were a little boy asking a stupid question. “We have it just for show. The factory manufactures them, assembles them. They must be sent somewhere. They don’t have the capability yet to make the necessary shells. That’s why we must buy them with foreign currency. A specific calibre used by NATO. Now you know why we have a sniper’s rifle and only twenty bullets. We’ll fire this weapon only in the most extreme circumstances.”

“And when’s that?”

“When you have an enemy general in your crosshairs, or one of their snipers, or…” With that Chekh fell silent momentarily. “Or when you know that there’s no longer a need to account for every shell.”

“Understood. May I see it?”

“Go ahead, take it.” With that Chekh reluctantly offered him the weapon. “But don’t touch anything or change any settings.”

A little later, Chekh softened up, removed the cover from the scope and permitted Shramko to look through the lens.

***

During breakfast, Shramko was lost in his thoughts. Was it true that he was now a sniper? He had managed to get a second helping of porridge, which gave him more time for a proper consideration of his dilemma, though he was unable to reach a satisfactory answer.

***

He spent the entire day becoming accustomed to his new environment. He adjusted to his surroundings and in general acclimatized to his new life. He hesitantly approached his new friends to ask them about the Commander.

“What is Victorovych like?” he asked one soldier.

“Well, how should I begin? Some commanders might call you over for a drink and you might take them up on the offer, but then think better of it and decline. Now this Commander, what he’ll do is call you to follow him into hell. And I for one would follow him without a second thought.”

Shramko liked that answer. During his career as an accountant, there were many drinking sessions with his managers. But would he ever trust any of them professionally, or falsify records on their behalf? Never! He always trusted his own judgement. He knew that when the rooster of betrayal crowed, they wouldn’t defend him or be men of their word. By contrast, the men here are willing to follow their Commander into hell. Come to think of it, where do they think they are now?

By evening, Shramko’s doubts about his military specialization reached a climax in a most unexpected manner. A strange noise could be heard intermittently above the trenches, something like the sound, “vzhykh”. Everyone was bewildered. They stopped and listened. “Vzhykh”. The sound repeated, this time from a slightly different direction.

“What the devil can that be?” asked Viter curiously. “Is it a bullet? Or is it not a bullet? And if it is, then it sure is a strange one.”

No one could understand what was flying around their heads. Viktorovych came running out of his underground shelter.

“Did I hear correctly? Was that sound I heard a “vzhykh”?

Before anyone could answer, there came a “vzhykh” in reply.

“There it goes again. Another provocation.”

“Commander, what is that?”

“I have had some experience with this “vzhykh” in the past. It’s their sniper, popping off these rounds, challenging ours to a snipers’ duel. Get Chekh over to me immediately! With the weapon!”

Everyone scurried about. In earlier times, such duels were only known from war movies. Shramko began to panic: if Chekh proves that he’s no match against the enemy sniper, that’ll mean he’ll be up next with the rifle to engage their adversary.

He tried to remember all the different parts of the weapon. He had no idea, because Chekh hadn’t explained it to him yet. What else did he need to know? Calculate the distance, the wind velocity, make the necessary adjustments. Shramko had no clue, and no one had ever explained it to him.

“Chekh says he’s busy,” a soldier informed the Commander. “He’s putting on the “Kikimora”.

“I’ll get him dressed, alright! I’ll definitely put everything on him! Get him here to me. Now!” Viktorovych was nearly bellowing, he was that angry.

Shramko interrupted his calculations about distance and wind and other measurements he wasn’t trained to determine. Now he became preoccupied with the problem of how to find the enemy sniper, and how to determine his location. They are taught to conceal themselves perfectly, so it’s very difficult to see them.

Meanwhile, Chekh ran up to them carrying his “sniper”. The boy’s eyes were as red as flashing hazard lights, and his face was a picture of determination and focus. The young soldier was dressed in a strange green uniform, with shaggy-haired pants. Shramko realized that this must be the “Kikimora”, something he had only heard about until today. What seemed strange to him was that in contrast to the onset of winter, the uniform had the look of summertime green. Newly minted “Sniper Number 2” quickly realized that his career would soon skyrocket into the “Sniper Number 1” position.

“Did you hear that sound?” the Commander said as he grabbed the expensive “Fort” from Chekh’s hands. He’s calling you poor bastard to a duel. He’s been training intensely for years. He knows his sniper gun more intimately than you know your own wife! And you are a sniper only from what you’ve read in the manual that comes with the gun. Without ever having fired a single round.”

“How does he make the bullet go “vzhyk”? asked Viter.

“He takes a knife and makes a scratch on the bullet. Then they attempt contact. Their sharpshooters wander around the front lines. They single out our snipers who are rookies with their weapons. Those are the ones they challenge.”

“Commander,” Chekh objected, “I got high scores on the firing range during target practice. Just let me finish putting on this “Kikimora” and then…”

The formidable “Sniper Number 1” didn’t finish saying what he had in mind. The Commander grasped the expensive sniper gun by the barrel and smashed it against the wall of the shelter with a power equal to his rage. Shattered pieces of reinforced moulded plastic flew in all directions. The barrel itself was badly warped.

“Here’s what I think of your duel!” Viktorovych screamed, continually whacking the weapon against the shelter. “Here’s your duel! Here it is!”

The Commander struck the gun against one of the shelter’s wooden reinforcement beams until it was a mangled mess. Then he flung what remained down to the bottom of the trench, kicking the pieces with his feet. His breathing laboured, he stared at Romko-Chekh.

“That bullet missed its mark. Such an expense for nothing…” Then he shouted in the direction of the enemy position: “Damn you! Damn you! We have no snipers! Not a one!”

All were motionless and silent as they watched this spectacle. Although Shramko had only just arrived, what would have amounted to several years of experience back in civilian life had been packed into one stressful day here.

His strength completely spent, the Commander flopped onto an ammunition crate. He lit himself a cigarette.

“Romo! Chekh!”

“I’m right here, Victorovych.”

“Live your life, Romo. Live! Wherever your carpenter’s trade takes you in life. Live. And this accountant here, Shramko. May he stay alive, too.”

The Russian sniper kept “vzhyk-ing” a little while longer. Then he disengaged. He was never heard from again along this sector of the front.

Shramko
Vitaliy Zapeka, call sign “Spielberg” was born October 13, 1967 in Poltava. He is a Ukrainian writer, photographer, volunteer, veteran fighter in the Poltava Battalion.

Zapeka wrote his first stories and essays in 2015 when he volunteered for the war. So far, dozens of stories and hundreds of essays have been published on social media. Zapeka’s texts are characterized by subtle psychology, irony, humour and at the same time deep philosophical reflections and thoughts.

Zapeka has a peculiar literary position: “the less is published, the better”. He destroyed his intellectual novel The City That Lost Itself . He has written several intellectual novels – Absurd, Tomorrow Again Today, Sausage in Paradise – which lie in his drawer at home. Other works were published on the initiative of some Ukrainian publishing houses.

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