In Memoriam of Mykola Rachok, All-Encompassing Light of Many

June 12, 2024
Sister Antonina and best friend Iryna recall Mykola Rachok, a journalist, philosopher, poet, and soldier who volunteered to defend Ukraine and was killed in combat.

One of the first things Mykola told his loved ones when he arrived home on a visit from the frontlines was that he now felt happiest at war. This was such a relief for his family, who had accepted his decision to join the armed forces with natural unease.

As he left on one of the first buses headed for the front in 2022, Mykola was unable to contain his excitement about what he saw. While on the way, he called his sister and best friend Antonina to share this positive picture with her: he was surrounded by strong and dedicated people of different ages who had chosen to defend their ideals. It all seemed so right for him, his life among theirs.

"I am extremely proud of Kolya. He chose to defend Ukraine without hesitation. However, throughout his whole time in service, I only saw him in uniform in a photo.

At one point, he had to come back home for a little while. While we were waiting for him, I had imagined him coming home so many times, always in uniform. He arrived, but not at all as I expected. He stepped out of the car looking well-groomed and neatly dressed, wearing linen trousers and a white striped linen shirt, carrying his familiar beautiful scent. It was because he didn't want to bring the war back home with him," recalls Antonina, who never refers to Mykola in the past tense.

Mykola made a point of ensuring that his loved ones did not associate him with war. Of course, they talked about his military service, but as these precious moments with the family became rare, he desired to erase the reason for it from their lives, at least for a while.

Antonina reveals that she was worried that this war would lock Mykola up, as caring and easy-going as he was. To prevent this, she had to get through his personal defenses the same way he broke the enemy's defenses at war.

He always said that he was fine. However, there were moments when I could see he was struggling, and I openly insisted that he share his feelings. When he did, we both realized it was worth it.

A witness to Mykola's fellow soldiers experience burnout, she wondered if her brother's inner light would lead him through this darkness till now. The last time they spoke, he seemed to still have it.

The casual talk, which appeared to be Antonina and Mykola's last conversation, occurred just a day before he was killed on July 19, 2022, at 27 years of age.

"When he called, I was getting a pedicure. That day, he was able to video call. He even laughed at the girlish color I had chosen... That was our last moment together, and now I think it was a somewhat ridiculous talk to have been our last one."

At that point, she did not know that she would still be in touch with her brother, but in a special way.

As a person passionate about writing, Mykola has left many notes, articles both half-written and finished, some poetry, and, most personal, his diary. In autumn, when Antonina came to Mykola's old apartment, which had been locked up since he left for war, she collected it all with the care only a sister could have.

Even though there is hardly a thing Antonina did not know about her brother, what she found in his writings, never published or shown, revealed something else to her: his thoughts' birth. The way he put words, the way he chose them, and, of course, the physical traces of his hand felt in each piece kept his presence alive.

"That day in October, I allowed myself to simply take all his diaries home to read them with our parents and reread them many times, of course. I said, 'Kolya, whether this makes you angry or not, this might clear many things up for me now.' And so it did."

Voluntarily shared or not, Mykola's written legacy has allowed his loved ones to understand his life through his eyes, which Antonina describes as olive-green.

He wanted the world to be just -- this was always clear to all who knew him. However, his talking to himself on paper showed that everything Mykola knew in life was perceived through this prism of justice. It was not simply one of the thoughts on his mind but a virtue that was an integral part of his own soul was partly made of.

Among many other things, his always-wearing shirts and trousers, keen interest in retro cars, love of solo walks around Kyiv at dawn, refined manners, ability to understand people at their lowest, interest in looking for keys to anyone, never-judging and always-caring nature made him look to many like a man from centuries past, if not from another world.

"Mykola was such a gentleman that our shared friends and I kindly teased him that he was a perfect boyfriend to introduce to any mom," Iryna, his other best friend, recalls with a smile.

Looking at her open-type balcony, she longs for him the most, as it is the place where she would like to drink port wine with him and talk or just listen to some old music.

"Kolya liked the apartment where I live, especially my balcony. We had a tradition: whenever we decided to drink, it was usually port wine. He once told me about how he sat alone on a balcony in Porto, doing just that. Over time, he got me accustomed to this drink, and it became our thing. When he went to war, I had this fantasy about us sitting on my balcony, sharing a glass of port wine while he recounted his adventures at the front, if he wouldn't mind, of course. Sadly, that never came to be."

After Mykola passed away, Iryna brought this dream to life alone. Luckily, there was a song that still accompanies her during this ritual, making her feel as if he was truly there by her side.

"During our first trip to Dzharylgach, a deep spiritual connection formed between us. We were with a large group, and the boys had to leave a bit earlier. My friend and I walked them to the pier to catch the ferry. Near the tent camp, there was a stall with a bar and snacks playing very good music. Kolya was a music connoisseur, and I always paid attention to the songs, too. When I hugged him goodbye, the song In the End by the Cranberries was playing. You know, some life moments have soundtracks, and that was it.

I added the song to my playlist but never listened to it until after Kolya's death. Then, I re-listened to the entire album and read about its creation, as it held a strong musical association for me. I even bought it on vinyl."

Iryna and Mykola on Dzharylgach.

Antonina also has her things which she will forever associate with Mykola. For example, Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel Three Comrades.

"Kolya, perhaps a bit shy, once mentioned that he wanted to be like Otto Kester. I completely understand him, as I also admire that character."

Mykola's love of books was great and sincere. In addition to writing as a journalist for the Ukrainian outlets InfoCar and KUNSHT and for himself, he used to read a lot and dreamt about owning a bookshop in Kyiv, designed in a sophisticated English style. Now, he has one in his native Vinnytsia.


"A while ago, he and I had a detailed discussion about what this bookstore would be like. His favorite color was navy blue, and we took his preferences into account not only for the design but also for the content. We work with publishing houses he loved and avoid those with bad reputations. For example, some publishing houses had delayed payments to his acquaintances, which he disapproved of."

Named Heroi, it contains photos of Mykola and books about some of the soldiers he used to know. There are actually a great deal more books, but the shop's origins and the current times make its military theme unavoidable.

Iryna also frequently visits the shop when in Vinnytsia. Although she and Mykola first met in Kyiv, studying at the same faculty of humanities, Vinnytsia is both their hometown and is where their friendship really blossomed.

Antonina said that Mykola revealed many secret locations in Kyiv to her and many of his friends. Ironically, for Iryna, he helped her really discover the city they both were born in.

"There is a spot in Vinnytsia where the South Bug River flows, an informal place where someone has built a platform over the water. You can sit there, hang your legs over the edge, and enjoy the beautiful green landscape. That's what we did. I've tried several times to find it again without Kolya, but I can't remember the way we got there. Now, it's somewhat hidden from me."

However, some things, on the contrary, became clear to Iryna only after Mykola's death. His poetry is one of them.

"I didn't know he actually wrote poetry. All I knew was about his desire to open a bookstore and his love for literature. I was also surprised to learn that he wanted to volunteer with the Ukraїner project and felt like he wasn't good enough for it. Many personal details emerged when I talked to Mykola's family about him."

Death leaves a lot of empty space for wandering through the labyrinths of what was known or left of the departed and for attempts to revisit some moments. The wounds can become even deeper if one does not accept the limits of what one knows, as Mykola's sister did.

"I realize that much of what I know about Kolya's time in the army comes from his comrades, presented to me as a sort of demo version, like "take this and know that." I understand they meant well. No one wants to come to your house carrying a fallen child and share some true but perhaps hurtful facts."

However, there is something that will not leave her mind that only Mykola could make sense of for her.

"I don't know how it may sound, but after his passing, I saw that he was in a hurry to live. At some point, he said he wanted to take as much from life as possible. A bit over a year before the war, he became determined to resolve all his unfinished business.

During that time, he pursued Asian martial arts, learned tango, started doing voiceover work, and finished all the articles he had begun. Ensuring a good old age for our parents was always important to us, so Kolya took them to Rome.

Looking back, it seems either he was prepared for what was coming, or he foresaw the potential events in Ukraine. He even declined to be godfather to my son, saying he might not be able to be there for the child, and that this role was very important."

Mykola was very active, and this behavior might have been seen as normal back then. However, after his death, it took on the appearance of fatum behind his back, and him having a sense of the great design all along.

Antonina later convinced Mykola to become her son's godfather, and her son had the chance to know him that way, even though he was very young. Now, Antonina hopes he grows up as kind and understanding as his uncle.

There is this all-encompassing light in Kolya, that touches everyone who communicated with him. When you met him, you couldn't imagine wanting him to ever disappear from your life.

Thus, Antonina, Iryna, and many other people who loved Mykola do as much as they can to ensure that he remains in the world.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld