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Ukrainian civilian killed by Russia was a celebrated children's author

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The human cost of Russia's war in Ukraine includes a celebrated children's author who has become a symbol of Russia's war on Ukrainian culture and identity. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Volodymyr Vakulenko wrote 13 books. And through them, he tried to help children understand the world. He especially loved reading his poems aloud in classrooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLODYMYR VAKULENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

KAKISSIS: His characters include a hardworking elephant tending a rainbow-colored garden, a jealous star causing wars in the universe...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAKULENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: ...And in this 2016 reading, a sad teapot with a broken spout. His most popular collection, called "Daddy's Book," is dedicated to his 14-year-old son, Vitalik, who has autism.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

KAKISSIS: Vakulenko lived with Vitalik in a modest house in the village of Kapytolivka. His father, who is also called Volodymyr Vakulenko, now lives there alone.

This was his room.

He shows us his son's room. The bed is made, and the shelves are lined with his books and literary awards.

VOLODYMYR VAKULENKO SR: (Through interpreter) We have been living this way for months, knowing that he is not here and that he will never be here. But as they say, hope dies last.

KAKISSIS: Russian troops invaded the village early last March and occupied it until September.

VAKULENKO SR: (Through interpreter) He expected the soldiers to come here. That's why we hid whatever we could, including our Ukrainian flags.

KAKISSIS: After Russian soldiers showed up at the house on March 22, he also decided to hide a diary he had been keeping during the occupation. The poet wrapped the diary in plastic bags and buried it under a cherry tree in the yard. On March 24, the father says armed men in black arrived in a bus marked with a Z, Russia's symbol for the invasion of Ukraine. He says a villager was with them.

VAKULENKO SR: (Through interpreter) And he said that Volodymyr was a fascist. He asked me, how could you raise a fascist?

KAKISSIS: After the armed men drove away with his son, Vakulenko's father ran to the home of his ex-wife, Olena Ihnatenko, the poet's mother.

OLENA IHNATENKO: (Through interpreter) We don't know what was said about our son. Maybe people identified him as a nationalist to save themselves.

KAKISSIS: Vakulenko did not hide his disdain for Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAKULENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: In this 2018 interview, he called for Ukrainians to break free of Russian influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAKULENKO: (Through interpreter) I lived through the Soviet Union, and I hated it with all my heart. We don't need them or their matryoshka dolls. We have to rebuild our own culture, our true culture.

KAKISSIS: His mother says that after her son disappeared, she tried to find out where he was. Days passed, then weeks.

IHNATENKO: (Through interpreter) It was torture. Some of my neighbors said they had heard rumors he was taken to Russia to be tried in court there. I hung onto that hope because I thought if he's in jail, maybe we can still help him.

KAKISSIS: The Ukraine chapter of PEN International, an advocacy group for writers, spread the word of his disappearance. Novelist Victoria Amelina is a member of that group. She says Russian forces have abducted or killed many Ukrainian artists, writers and historians.

VICTORIA AMELINA: Our Russian occupiers, their goal is to exterminate Ukrainian identity. They want to kill those who cannot be converted into Russians.

KAKISSIS: Amelina now helps Ukrainian authorities research war crimes. She arrived in Vakulenko's village in September, not long after Ukrainian forces liberated it and the surrounding area after seven months of Russian occupation. She went straight to his parents to get their testimony. They told her that their son was still missing.

AMELINA: And while we're talking about that, Volodymyr's father remembered that Volodymyr hid the diary, buried it under the cherry tree in the garden. So we decided that we should go and get the diary.

KAKISSIS: She found the diary buried under the tree. The pages were damp after being in the ground for months. With his family's permission, Amelina took it to Tetiana Pylypchuk, the head of Kharkiv's literary museum.

TETIANA PYLYPCHUK: (Through interpreter) Our conservators did what we could to preserve its pages, to repack it and document what was in it. We hoped to keep it safe for him until he returned to publish it.

KAKISSIS: A few weeks later, Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass grave in the woods near his village. A ledger listing the dead indicated that Vakulenko was buried there. His mother said that Ukrainian authorities asked for DNA tests to verify.

IHNATENKO: (Through interpreter) His father went to Kharkiv for this test. And when the results came back that this was my son, in a mass grave, it was the most terrible day. Before then, I had hope. And that day is when my hope died.

KAKISSIS: In November, the Kharkiv region's chief police investigator said that the poet had been shot to death not long after his arrest. He was 49 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: His funeral was held in early December, in Kharkiv, where he's now buried. Many Ukrainian writers, including Victoria Amelina, attended.

AMELINA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: His diary is still in the Kharkiv Literary Museum. On a recent visit, a museum administrator peels back layers of protective tissue and shows us a slim notebook of graph paper. Vakulenko's handwriting is small and curly. In one of the entries, read here by a translator, the poet tries to find hope in his circumstances.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) I have pulled myself together and even worked in the garden a little, bringing potatoes into the house. The birds chirp only in the morning. Today, a small flock of cranes congratulated me from the sky, as if to say I believe in victory.

KAKISSIS: There are no plans yet to publish this diary, Volodymyr Vakulenko's unexpected last work, but a publishing house is reissuing his books with the proceeds going to support his family.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kapytolivka, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.