Love Among The Ruins

by Joseph Carter Milholland

Lately, I have been thinking about the failures behind my most recent relationships: what led to the breakup but really what caused them not to begin at all. I have been wondering why I am always left with the feeling that the contact between the two of us never became more than surface level, and often not even that. As I wrestle with this sad fact, I have, as a form of fantasy and consolation, been thinking again and again of a scenario in which another person could know the real me. 

In my imagined scenario, another person would shadow me for 24 hours – at least 24 hours, in my wilder imaginings maybe as much as a week. They would not interact with me, except for perhaps the occasional commentary or clarification as to what I was doing. They would see when I woke up, what and how I ate, how I worked, what I did with my spare time, the way I would take naps for 11 minutes and 35 seconds in the late afternoon, how I would take long walks in the evening listening to music, how I would make dinner while listening to a podcast or Youtube video, and then eat it while watching a documentary or disposable television show, how I would, during my workday, constantly refresh my podcast app and Youtube subscription to see if anything new had popped up, how I would also check the news in certain conflict zones to see if there had been an escalation, how I would read a poem each morning as soon as I woke up and often right before bed, how I would sometimes read a poem during breaks while at work but not as much as I wanted to, how I would have absolutely no set time as to when I ate, sometimes not eating anything until 5 or 6 or later, other times eating so much granola in the morning that the protein overlead would make the idea of eating unthinkable for 12 hours or more, how when I do my laundry, I take my pants out of the dryer ten minutes into a hot cycle and then hang them up semi-damp to remove the wrinkles without needing to iron them, how I make endless lists – lists of music I want to listen to, authors I want to read, books others have recommended, poems and short stories I recommend to others – and yet I am seemingly incapable of scheduling my day. They would see the sum of me, the sum of my most prized habits which I refrain from showing to anyone outside myself, the parts of me I admire or detest or am indifferent or resigned to but which are somehow opaque to others. 

There is something narcissistic about this fantasy, but more significantly, it’s completely unrealistic. An observer necessarily changes the behavior of the person who is observed. If I was being watched during all my waking hours, I would fundamentally not be the same person I am when I am alone. Most importantly of all, who would consent to such a strange ritual?

And yet, in 2021, a couple did exactly that – actually, they did much more than that. They handcuffed themselves to one another – a cuff on the right wrist of one and the left wrist of another – for 123 days, forcing themselves to be permanently aware of the other’s presence for as long as the handcuffs were on. It was, some alleged, the world record for the longest time a couple has done such a thing. A radical act, certainly, but a radical act of… what, exactly? Love? Commitment? Bravery? Self-exposure?

Their names were Alexandr Kudlay and Viktoria Pustovitova, and they lived in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (alas, no longer a city that needs an introduction). Basically every detail about their relationship is fascinating – or at least, all the details I have gathered from the English-language reporting and a few sources run through Google translate.

The couple claimed they undertook their project after repeatedly breaking up and coming back together again. Their time together in handcuffs, it seems, was a final test to determine if they could survive as a couple, if they could withstand the most serious burdens of a relationship. 

They started on Valentine’s Day. Their cuffs seem to have been custom-made, wielded together outdoors, in the February snows. There was no keyhole on their cuffs, so they had to stay attached to each other 24 hours a day – on the street, in restaurants, at their jobs, in their bathrooms. They of course documented their journey on social media – though I am not sure how much attention they earned for their extraordinary efforts, as the number of Alexandr’s Instagram followers appears to have plummeted once he and Viktoria released themselves from handcuffs.

Alexandr was a car salesman and Viktoria was a beautician, though Viktoria quit her job because, as one journalist wrote “clients weren’t comfortable with [Alexandr] standing over them as she manicured their eyelashes.” There is no word as to whether the customers at Alexandr’s car dealership were comfortable with seeing a woman chained to their automotive salesman.

I am not sure how they got dressed. No matter how I picture it in my mind, there is no way you can put on an upper body garment with your wrist handcuffed to another’s. You would need specially made clothes. Somehow, they seem to have done it. Nevertheless, the conundrum of how they dressed and undressed is a signal to me that there was something a little fake in their project – but more on that later.

What did they do, day after day, when cuffed to one another? The photos on Alexandr’s Instagram account show the couple eating together, bathing together, appearing on television together… and not much else. The one photo that suggests they cooked together looks staged. They all look a little staged, which is standard for Instagram, but I am skeptical they actually frequently cooked together while handcuffed. And they must have had a third person on hand whenever a picture of the two of them was taken. There’s also an Instagram photo of them playing video games together, each one holding a controller and staring at a screen. This photo is the most believable one. Playing video games is probably one of the most easy partnered activities to do while handcuffed to someone – and yet, it requires that your focus be ripped away from your partner and towards a glowing screen. But I’m sure that for them it was quite an intimate activity.

After four months of being cuffed together, they broke up, in both senses of the word. 

Viktoria regretted the whole endeavor. Here is how one report put it:

[Viktoria] Pustovitova said personal space is what she missed most, although she also felt her boyfriend did not pay her enough attention while they were chained together.

“We stayed together all day, I did not receive any attention from Alexandr because we were constantly together. He did not tell me: ‘I miss you’, while I would like to hear that,” said the 29-year-old beautician.

Though it seems believable that constantly being in the presence of another person – even if you are physically bound to them – can paradoxically cause you to lose attention to them, my hunch is that Alexander’s constant physical presence was not in fact the proximate cause of Viktoria feeling ignored. Feeling emotionally distant from your partner is, after all, a common enough complaint in non-handcuffed relationships. I suspect Viktoria was lamenting a chronic condition of her relationship with Alexandr – a condition that the handcuffs could not cure.

“I think it will be a good lesson for us, for other Ukrainian couples and couples abroad not to repeat what we have done,” Viktoria said. 

The experiment was self-defeating: if you already felt emotionally close to your partner, the idea of getting closer to them through handcuffs would simply be unnecessary.

A man with a large bolt cutter was required to unchain them. It was a media event, clearly planned at least a day or two in advance, meaning that there was a significant period of time between the couple deciding to split up and the chains they wore being broken. Those last hours locked together must have been the most awkward, but also the most emotionally close. Probably once they made the decision they did not talk about it, went out of their way to not even indirectly acknowledge it, and in doing so, became closer than ever in their shared, unspoken fate. Their last shower together must have been the saddest, the most excruciating. One can imagine Viktoria dropping something, maybe a shampoo bottle, while coming out of the shower, and Alexandr instinctively picking it up; their eyes would have met each other unexpectedly as Alexandr passed her the object. They would have, for just a moment, wordlessly acknowledged to one another that this was the last act of kindness either one would do for each other.

As far as I can tell, Alexandr and Viktoria are safe amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alexandr is, or at least was, trying to sell something related to his handcuffing as a NFT, with the proceeds going to Ukrainian children affected by the war. “My next performance will be even cooler and put up for sale as a new NFT collection immediately after the implementation of this one,” he wrote on Instagram in October. Alexandr’s branding of himself is what leads me to suspect that there was something fake from the beginning about this. But all the same, I admire it immensely, admire it more than if it had been entirely genuine. It is a significant piece of performance art – one that displays a certain kind of pessimism towards contemporary romantic relationships, a pessimism that we should not ignore.

When Alexandr and Viktoria released themselves from their handcuffs, their performance changed, but it was not finished: it can never finish. Like the last page of a novel of Balzac, it was not an ending to this grand human comedy, but rather a rupture, a definitive point at which our characters’ lives have changed. From here on they will be fundamentally different people. What remains is a different, and much cruder, form of love among the ruins.