‘I’M not doing great,” a 28-year-old Ukrainian soldier named Timur Dzhafarov tells me over a surprisingly clear and stable line from a pitch-dark forest somewhere near the frontlines in southern Ukraine.

“It’s a weird kind of not great though. I’ve been in the military fighting Russia for 16 months now and all my feelings are blending together at this point. My mind is clouded by this constant depression or whatever it is but I don’t have good days or bad days. It’s all the same, it’s ­tolerable. There were moments of intense dread and depression in the past but by now I’ve kind of got used to it.”

It’s a characteristically considered and honest assessment of where his head’s at from an unfailingly bright and interesting young man thrust into a barely ­imaginable perversion of what he would like his life to be.

I first encountered Dzhafarov in summer 2017 at a Kyiv electronic music festival called Brave! Factory, a key event in the city’s coronation as “the new ­Berlin” by a million magazines and websites in the years before everything changed in 2022. It was 6am in a tunnel-like venue that had swiftly and very recently been flooded with incongruous morning light.

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Dzhafarov, aka John Object, was ­playing a set of experimental electronic music to what he freely admits was a ­rapidly dwindling crowd, most of whom had been in the tunnel to see the previous act, German producer The Field.

Dzhafarov was 22 then and “already feeling like I was too old to be making my first festival appearance” despite ­being the youngest act on the whole bill.

“I’m glad that’s when you saw me,” he says. “It was a strange gig because of the time of day and the fact that I was coming on after this huge act, but it was kind of the show that started everything for me.”

Dzhafarov spent the next few years ­making music just about every day, ­playing in Ukraine and sometimes ­elsewhere in ­Europe and supplementing his ­income from music with various side-gigs, ­including work as a translator that utilised his dizzyingly ­excellent English skills.

“YouTube and rock music” were the two factors that honed his English as a kid. “I wanted to understand what David Bowie’s lyrics were about,” he laughs. “I still don’t really know that – I don’t think Bowie himself knew what he was talking about a lot of the time – but at least I came out of it speaking good English.”

Music career-wise, Dzhafarov’s ­fortunes over the past three years or so have played out like an extreme living meme about his generation’s recent travails. A potentially breakthrough John Object ­European tour was scheduled for early 2020, but had to be put on hold when the ­pandemic hit.

By early 2022 promoters who had booked him for the Covid-hit tour ­started to ­contact him about rescheduling the shows at long last, but with Russia ­massing troops on Ukraine’s borders and war looking imminent, Dzhafarov was in no mental place to do it.

He says he had thought about joining the army in the buildup to Russia’s invasion of his country but “had no idea how I would respond to the situation until I was actually in it”.

On February 26, two days after ­Russia ­invaded, Dzhafarov enlisted in the ­military, though not before hurriedly ­assembling a 58-track anthology of his ­music on the website Bandcamp. “It sounds dramatic and pretentious now but Kyiv was being shelled and I really thought I might die in the coming hours or days. If I died I didn’t want someone else deciding what my musical legacy would be.”

The National: John Object by Ievgen Borysovskyi.

In the time since then, Dzhafarov has spent much of his time in southern and eastern Ukraine. His most intense experience of the war so far came a couple of months ago with a week-long rotation in the trenches near Bakhmut. He spent the night before his 28th birthday under intense Russian shelling, hoping against hope that he would avoid joining the 27 Club – the name given to the large group of musicians and celebrities who have died at 27 – on his final day of being 27.

“That night I kept thinking: ‘My ­gravestone is gonna have such a dumb date on it if I die now’,” he says.

“In Bakhmut, our trenches were about 600 metres away from the Russians,” he tells me. “It’s the strangest thing when there are people right over there by the trees, who are here just to kill you. You’re at home, in your home country, and these people came here just to murder you. If you go to them, they’re not going to talk to you, not going to ask you anything, they’re not going to interrogate you even, they’re just going to blow your head off. That’s weird.

“It’s a shocking experience because I think part of me has always believed that there was still some aspect of ­humanity left, that when push came to shove and you’re standing across from each other with rifles, maybe they’re not ­going to shoot. Maybe they’ll ­hesitate, or say: ‘We’re all humans here, let’s not take things too far’. But no, it’s ­literally just ­fascists ­cutting people’s heads off, or shooting them in the head, just pure ­murder, they don’t feel any kind of ­hesitation or ­remorse or doubt.

“They’ve been given the order to take us out and that’s what they’re trying to do and it doesn’t seem like they’re people, to be honest – I know they are and I’m not ­trying to dehumanise anyone but it feels like you’re fighting against ­someone who just doesn’t believe in ­anything and doesn’t care about anything. I truly ­wonder how their lives had to go so that all humanity has been scooped out of their souls. I wonder what process is ­necessary to turn people into these hate-filled machines.”

In spite of these desperate feelings, there’s no doubt in Dzhafarov’s mind about who came out on top during his time in Bakhmut. “We totally kicked their ass,” he says. “A regular occurrence would be seeing a group of them walk into the trees, pinpointing those same trees, forwarding the co-ordinates to artillery, and seeing some more of them go MIA… I did not enjoy it, and I’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else, but I’m at home! I’m not trying to kill anyone who’s not trying to kill me. It’s a miserable situation to be in, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but the Russians.”

Dzhafarov was recently promoted to a role that should hopefully mean he will not spend any more time in the trenches. He has also, probably not coincidentally, been allowing himself to look forward to the future that awaits him when he leaves the army and goes back home to Kyiv. He has been spending his military paycheques on a new piece of musical equipment each month – the day I talked to him his mother had just taken delivery of a mint-condition drum machine from 1987 which the previous owner had packed up and sent in an alligator-skin briefcase.

As for the music he will make with it and the rest of the gear he has been ­remotely amassing, Dzhafarov has decided some notable changes are in order.

“The experimental electronic stuff I made as John Object evoked a response in some small online communities and I have fans who are very devoted and ­passionate and are wonderful people. During the war they have literally saved my life by donating several thousands of dollars to me so I could buy certain pieces of equipment I have needed,” Dzhafarov says.

“I have to face the sorry fact that my music didn’t speak to many people in Ukraine, though, and during the war, I’ve realised two things. Firstly, that I want to feel the euphoria and joy of making music far more quickly than I would be able to if I tried to make a new album as John ­Object, which would take me ­several years. I don’t have time any more to ­fiddle around for ages arranging tiny little sounds into abstract formations.

“The second thing I’ve realised is that Ukraine means a lot more to me than it used to. I love Ukrainians, and I want to create accessible and catchy music for Ukrainians. I want to sing in Ukrainian for the first time, and I want to sing something people will understand and that can bring us together at a gig or a club.

“The music will still be a little weird of course – it will be dark, gothy, 80s-inspired synth-pop made under a new name, and made for people like me. I feel like I’ve been looking up to the Western cultural hemisphere for so long, trying to impress Europeans and Americans and trying to join that club, and that doesn’t interest me any more, now I want to make something for Ukrainians.

“I want the music I make after we win this war to be for us.”