Đi hay Ở ?


Some Ukrainians ignore the prospect of war. Others are fleeing

Liza and Yulia, 26, disagree about the risk of a Russian invasion

Ukrainians don’t ask themselves whether there will be a war with Russia. Instead, most wonder whether the existing one will get worse. In 2014, after protesters ousted the thuggish pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and backed gun-toting separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where conflict still rages.

Some reports leaking from Western intelligence agencies foresee calamity on a new scale. Could the 100,000 or so Russian troops at the border really invade “at any time”, as America suggests? Might Kyiv, the capital, really fall within 72 hours? The Ukrainian government, for its part, retorts that a full-scale invasion is unlikely.

The people of Ukraine have to decide what to do with all this information. Thinking daily about war doesn’t alter the chance of it arriving at your door, but it can wreck your mood. A solid disaster plan could be life-saving. You could up and leave ahead of time to get out of harm’s way, at the cost of comfort and community. But what if nothing happens? Such dilemmas are among war’s earliest anguishes. For Ukrainians, they are already here.

“You can’t fit everything you love in a backpack”

For Ukrainians, no year of your life passes by without a crisis. By now we can survive basically anything. That is why I love being Ukrainian. I don’t have that “toxic patriotism”, when someone is brainwashed to be willing to die for a concept or a country. Today, it’s fashionable to want to die for Ukraine. I was born and I will die Ukrainian. I want to pass this on to future generations. I love Ukraine but I will not die for it. I will not die for any idea.

I was 17 during the Maidan uprising in 2014. After school I’d go and spend time in the square, there was such a nice vibe. But one day, after I left, some students were beaten up by police. A foreigner asked me which way the protest was. I replied: “The revolution, you mean? The revolution is that way.” After the violence began my mother locked me inside our house and I wasn’t allowed to go. I was excited, but I was about to learn that revolutions can be bloody and depressing. My relatives lost their jobs, I was the only one in the family earning any money. Sometimes we didn’t have enough food. I knew that the revolution would be for the better – but I also knew that “better” wouldn’t come any time soon. Maybe we are still waiting for the “better”.

A war thaws Opening image: Liza, 26, in Kyiv. From top to bottom: The Dnieper river bisects Ukraine and runs through the capital. If war breaks out, Liza plans to leave Ukraine. To support political prisoners in Russia, Ukrainian artists painted a crack on the Peoples’ Friendship Arch, a monument in Kyiv

Perhaps that is why I had an itch to explore other countries. I left Ukraine for the first time in 2018. Travelling gave me a new personality, a new Liza was born in each country. I didn’t expect to stay away for so long, and I knew it wasn’t right to be so out of touch with my family. When I came back from Texas last year, my mum had a new partner, my sister had a baby and my little brother was a grown man. I didn’t know these new people, and I struggled to introduce the new me to them, too.

I don’t even remember the order of things back in 2014. Maybe Crimea was first. I wasn’t following it, I was surviving it. It didn’t feel like the war was coming to Kyiv. This time is different. Now I read everything. I wake up, and the first thing I do is google Russian aggression. I read Ukrainian news and my co-workers send me articles from American media – I work for an American marketing company.

Nobody really understands what is actually going on in the minds of Ukrainian people right now. Friends abroad are concerned and ask questions. But it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like this is entertainment for foreigners. They are in their apartments checking the news, it’s like watching Netflix for them. For us it’s reality. Ukrainians are often annoyed with this, they think the us is whipping up panic, which is bad for our economy. And the media plays along for clicks, for views, to sell you a subscription for the next month. There are so many people hyping it, even on TikTok.

Ukrainians prefer not to speak or read about it at all. They only listen to our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who speaks in a calm voice – he used to be an actor and is such a charismatic person. I think he is doing the right thing, trying to get people not to panic. Typical Ukrainians don’t get lots of information from abroad. They hear only that everything is fine, that Russia will not invade, that it is just threatening us. This is what my Ukrainian friends say.

When I first heard the stories about Russia, I did some research and I figured that there might be danger. So I decided to talk to my family to see if they had a backup plan. They accused me of panicking, even though I was talking in a calm voice. I tried to get them to have a conversation, but they said they didn’t want to hear any news because it upset them. They’d prefer to be delusional. I realised that my family wouldn’t try to leave Ukraine until it’s too late. When I understood that, I made the decision to go by myself.

That’s my plan, now. But first I am buying food supplies for my family, getting some cash and hiding it all in our basement. If something happens hopefully they can go down there and find it. For me it’s easy to go. I’m young, I’m single. I don’t have a lot of belongings, I believe in this “vagabond” minimalist lifestyle. But I have a good group of friends and I worry that I will lose them. My family is here. You can’t fit everything you love in a backpack. I only have a little suitcase, with space for clothes and documents. I’ll take some cash and my laptop, because I need it to make money.

The Ukrainian frontier From top to bottom: Ukrainians gathered in Maidan square in central Kyiv, in 2013 and 2014 to protest against the government. A Romanian truck driver eats at a coffee shop on the border between Russia and Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massing on the border

Until I go, I’m staying at my mother’s house just outside Kyiv. When we speak about the news, there’s a wall. But the other day, my mum had a little brush with reality. An investor in her company is selling all its assets in Ukraine because there might be a war. At that moment I decided to tell her that I was about to leave the country for the same reason. Do you know what she said? “Oh, that will be a fun vacation.” She doesn’t get it.

For a long time I was searching for who I was. People abroad often wouldn’t know what or where Ukraine is. If they did, I was ashamed of all those stereotypes. But after this past year of being back in Ukraine, I’m proud. I haven’t felt like that before. Somehow, by leaving and learning about other cultures I realised that I am Ukrainian and that I really do belong here. I have just found my identity – but I might lose it soon.

This whole situation has made me think about what actually belongs to us. There are things that don’t belong to me even if I think they do. Let’s say your family has a house for generations. It’s yours at this given moment, but tomorrow it might not be – because a guy with a gun could come and say it’s not yours anymore. I used to think Crimea was a place that belonged to Ukraine in the same way, I used to go there in the summer and now I can’t. Maybe family is not so different.

I heard about a Ukrainian woman, 52, who joined the army – she’s in all the newspapers posing with a huge gun. At first I thought it was ridiculous. But you know what? Now I’m trying to get some guns for my family too, I have been googling that while waiting for my paycheque.

We lack information but try to make big decisions anyway. It’s like trying to assemble a puzzle with too many pieces missing. Maybe I am being delusional. To be honest I suspect nothing will happen in Kyiv. There is no reason for Russia to do this, they will end up paying so much for it. But the risk is great enough to have a back-up plan. There might be an invasion, and Kyiv is a sweet target. I can change from certainty to doubt and back a few times in a single day. I try to be as logical as I can, but nobody knows. This past week I have been crying every night. You see your family, you try to be in the moment, but you think about heavy things.

Lives lost From top to bottom: Some buildings in Ukraine were heavily damaged during fighting with Russia in 2014. Zina Lukyanenko’s brother, Levko, was a Soviet dissident and Ukrainian politician. Portraits of demonstrators who died during the protests in 2014

Maybe the best way is to tell myself with a smile: I’m just going away for a holiday, it will be fun, I will come back in six months and everything will be the same. But that would be a lie. I think about other things, too. I woke up today and I coughed once, and I thought maybe I was getting covid and I couldn’t go. I haven’t booked my flight yet. I’m procrastinating for a reason. I wake up every day hoping something will force me to stay here, even though I know I should go.

“The prospect of invasion feels unreal”

Of course I have some doubts, but I’m 80% sure Russia won’t invade Ukraine. I reassure my friends and encourage them to be positive. The president said: don’t panic. That’s all there is to it. Why spread all these rumours? So you can sit up in bed at night because you cannot sleep?

I was born in Belovodsk, near Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Most people there speak Russian, and when the war came in 2014 my mum and dad supported the Ukrainian side, but my grandparents, uncle and aunt did not. Whenever we sat down at the table together, any discussion about politics invariably led to rows.

This is standard in Ukraine, especially in the east. My generation was born and raised after Ukraine became independent from the former Soviet Union in 1991. We were taught in Ukrainian at school and inoculated with patriotism: a flag, an anthem, our history. That is why opinions differ greatly between generations.

In 2014, nobody was ready. I didn’t hear the news about war, I saw it. I was in Luhansk when the headquarters of Ukraine’s security service were seized; I saw that a crowd of Russian separatists had formed around the building. These were ordinary people, not soldiers, who had removed the Ukrainian flag from the building. I was 18 then, and I didn’t fully understand what was happening. How was this possible in my country – where was our army, where were our police, why didn’t anyone stop them?

We had to leave our home. I didn’t realise I would have to do so until the very last minute. The university told us to go. When I left my dormitory, I took only what I needed. I left my jewellery, my books and personal belongings. I thought it would all be resolved quickly, that I would come back and get everything. I never did.

In 2014 my region declared itself the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and pledged allegiance to Russia (it is not yet officially recognised by any country, including Russia). When my family decided to leave there was 100% agreement, no rows. There were explosions at the regional parliament: our decision was based on safety, not politics.

Doubt and defiance From top to bottom: The banks of the Dnieper river. Yulia, 26, thinks it’s “silly” to get upset about the prospect of war with Russia. The Three Sisters monument, which is at the junction of the borders between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, was built as a symbol of friendship between the countries

My family moved to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, but first I went to study in Kyiv, where everything was much more Ukrainian. The mood was patriotic. I found a place where everyone had the same opinion. They were more pro-European and pro-Ukrainian than my family.

Living with conflict has become normal: we’re used to people fighting and dying in parts of the country. For the past eight years Ukrainians have had to watch the same news unfolding on every tv channel. Every day there is a summary of the war. The newspapers are full of what happened at the front, an anti-terrorist operation here, a shoot-out there. Now there is news of another invasion. But we are told that no, the Russians will not come because if they did attack us, they’d face tough sanctions. And we think: “Oh cool! America is protecting us.”

But I know from experience that Vladimir Putin can turn around and spit on you. These are the games of big people. Right? America and Russia. Maybe Putin will switch suddenly, and he will decide: “I want Kharkiv to be ours, too.” We cannot be sure that the Ukrainian state will protect us, that everything will be fine, because Russia is much stronger than us militarily.

I don’t watch tv. I get my news online and from my friends. I saw the president give a speech where he told the whole nation – and Kharkiv residents in particular – not to panic. He asked us not to send each other inflammatory news articles. But my friends are still sending anxious messages in our group chats: “Russia has gathered troops near the border”; “Oh, have you seen helicopters flying across Kharkiv at night?”; “War must be coming soon.”

A chill in the air From top to bottom: Sacha, who now lives in Ivanhard, Ukraine, left Donetsk during the fighting with Russia in 2014. Scenes near the border with Russia. Nadezhda Ivanova, who lives in eastern Ukraine, says of a Russian invasion: “If something happens, we’ll just go to the basement again”

I trust our president because he speaks in simple words. He asks: why only now are we talking about this threat, if it has been around for eight years? I want to believe Zelensky when he tells us there is no need to be concerned. I do believe him.

The prospect of invasion feels unreal. My family and I can’t imagine it happening. That’s why no one is coming up with a serious plan of action. My older relatives don’t want to leave their beloved family home. If Kharkiv is occupied in the same way that Luhansk was, I think they will stay there anyway and live according to the new rules. Not me. I am 26, I’m free, not tied to any place or city. I don’t have my own apartment, not even a cat.

My sister and I do things together. I live on one side of Kharkiv, she lives on the other. We’re starting to make plans for if suddenly Russia attacks us, what we’ll do if the phone and internet are cut off and the metro is closed. We agreed that I’ll go to her house and then we’ll travel together. But I think leaving Ukraine now – just because such things might happen – is very stupid. To sit around, get upset, wind yourself up every day, read the terrible news and collect all your things? I think it’s silly.

During the second world war lots of Soviet and Ukrainian women were just as heroic as men. And wow, you admire it. If necessary, I think many young women will go to defend the country now. My mother trained as a nurse – she could be called up. But I don’t have such useful skills: I work at a food-delivery service, training junior staff. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a sniper, I’m not a pilot.

It’s easy to feel anxious when you see some of the terrifying posts on social media, but I can handle it. Today I’m seeing friends as if everything is fine. It probably looks funny from the outside. Perhaps you think that tomorrow there will be a war – but we are going out for drinks and being cheerful. But this is life. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, we are stuck in our precise geographical location. We have big, terrible Russia nearby. What are you going to do about it? This is my country. I live here. And that’s it.

Richard Ensor is The Economist’s correspondent for Russia and Ukraine



Popular posts from this blog


Nguyễn Ngọc Tư