Participants: Yevheniia Shashkova (Y.S.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: Can I have your full name, please? Then tell me a little about yourself.
Y.S.: Yevheniia Shashkova. I am Ukrainian, I was born in the Kyiv region. I lived in the city of Poltava then, for the past 5 years, I lived in Kharkiv. I am a lawyer. I have two degrees, one in law and another in economics. I had a law practice in Kharkiv. I have a big family. My husband and I have three kids. Two are from my husband’s previous marriage, and the youngest one, Misha, is our son. We had a very good life in Kharkiv. My husband was producing pellet burners. Our business grew. Our children had a good education. The youngest will be 4 years old in October. He had a nanny, he was going to a swimming pool and to kindergarten. Our parents live in Poltava, 130 kilometres from Kharkiv. My husband has a grandmother who lived in Kyiv. When we came to Romania, we brought my mother, his mother, his grandmother, our turtle and our cat.
N.M.: Were you born in Poltava?
Y.S.: No, I was born in the Kyiv region. But when I was 2 years old, my parents moved to Poltava, and I lived there until 2017, when I moved to Kharkiv. I studied in Kharkiv. It is very close to Poltava.
N.M.: What happened on the 24th of February? What do you remember?
Y.S.: (starts crying) We bought a new flat in 2018 and we refurbished it very nicely with the help of a designer. We put the last cupboard in on the night of the 23rd. No one believed there would be war in Ukraine. My birthday is on the 27th of February, and we had a trip planned to Vienna on the 26th. But on the 13th of February I started to get worried, as there was talk of closing the airspace. We decided that if the airspace was open, we would fly. I am a lawyer, I called the authorities and asked whether my husband was allowed to go abroad, they said yes. But at the same time, the American news said that in two days there was going to be an invasion from Russia. So I cancelled the trip because I was afraid to leave the kids.
On the 23rd of February I felt really nervous. I didn’t go to work. I drove to different shops looking for a box for our turtle. People seemed happy, no one was worried.
N.M.: Were you planning to take the turtle with you in case of war?
Y.S.: No. It was something I had been meaning to do for 2 months, but I hadn’t had time for it. But on the 23rd I had some free time and I decided to do it. Then I came home and went to sleep together with my son. We live in the city centre, near the stadium. Our windows were closed. At 5.30 a.m. a relative of mine from Dnipro called and asked: “What is going on in Kharkiv? The war has started, have you heard the explosions?” I ran to my husband (he really likes to sleep), I woke him up, I told him that his relatives couldn’t reach him and that the war had started. He woke up and said: you must be joking. I told him to get up. We have two cars, one had gas, the other one didn’t. I asked him to go to the gas station and get gas. He left and I started to pack our things. I had one suitcase already packed with documents and valuables. Funny what I was packing: 2 orthopaedic pillows, Misha’s Spiderman costume.
My husband came back and told me there were huge queues at gas stations. He had also heard explosions while in the queue and he hadn’t managed to get gas. I told him: let’s go and buy at least hrichka. (laughs) We didn’t have any in the house. We went to the nearest supermarket, a pretty big one, it was 7 a.m. and all the shelves were already empty and there were a lot of people queuing. We laughed, we went home and decided to try again the next day. At home I called my close friend in Poltava, he is a very influential and powerful man, and I asked him what to expect. He said: you have to be on the border of Poltava and Kharkiv areas by lunch time. I think they were expecting that Kharkiv would be occupied by that time, like Kherson.
And we started packing. (crying) We decided to take one car, as mine didn’t have gas. I didn’t take any summer clothes with me. Our nanny stayed in the city, she has keys to our flat. Also, I thought we would come back. I took the scooter for my son, some things for the kids. I only took 2 jumpers and a pair of jeans for myself. For the eldest son we packed his desktop, it is very important to him. At 10 a.m. we left. Our car reminded me of a gypsy caravan. (smiles)
When we were leaving the city, we saw a gas station not far from our house, which was quite expensive. The queue there was small. My husband asked: shall we go back for the second car? I was scared, but I thought: my lovely car will be there all alone. (smiles) We took my car on one condition; that the kids stay with him, as he is a better driver than me. It took 6 hours to get to Poltava (usually the trip takes an hour and a half).
There were huge traffic jams, and we drove on secondary roads. Later, we found out that there were Russians on the Kharkiv belt. We saw a lot of tanks carrying our military, young boys and girls.
We managed to arrive at our parents, in Poltava, on the 24th. I wasn’t thinking of going abroad, I wanted to stay in Poltava. But when fighting started near the nuclear station, and I listened to Putin’s speeches, I started being afraid of nuclear missiles, and I started asking everyone to leave the country. My mother agreed at once, but Slava’s parents said I was panicking. But now they are the happiest about being here. (smiles).
First, we were supposed to go to Prague, and Slava’s parents were supposed to go to Berlin (Slava’s brother lives there). But we have that business, producing pellet burners, and last year we found a partner from Timisoara. He came to Kharkiv last year and he was really excited about this city. In the end, we decided to go to the Czech Republic through Romania – it was the shortest route. We didn’t want to go to Poland because there were a lot of people there already. And I wanted to get out of Ukraine as quickly as possible.
N.M.: Did you drive by car?
Y.S.: Yes. We decided to come to Romania, rest for a while, then go to the Czech Republic. So we came to our partner’s house. He lives in Giroda, he has a house there.
N.M.: When did you arrive?
Y.S.: We arrived in Romania on the 7th of March. At the border, all the people were very kind and caring. When we arrived, our partner said he had a friend who had an empty house, so if we wanted, we could stay there. We had a look at it, it was big and spacious, and this man told us he would let us stay there for free, we just needed to pay for utilities. We decided to stay. I thought we would stay here for maybe 2 months, then at the beginning of May we would go back to Kharkiv. Now I understand we might be able to go back in the spring of 2023. One of my friends says the war will most likely finish in December 2023.
Later we learned about the program 50/20 and we told the owner of our house that if he wants there is a possibility to receive money compensation for us from government.
I opened a business here. I can’t work as a lawyer in Timisoara because I don’t know Romanian. I am learning it (at LOGS), but it is very difficult for me. I think the war will end sooner then I will learn Romanian. (laughs)
When I realised I would have to stay in Timisoara for a year or more, I started to think of what I could do. In Kharkiv I had a very active life: work, meetings, events. So I opened a laser hair removal studio.
N.M.: What is the name of the studio?
Y.S.: LazerMe. My husband still works for Ukraine, he has a lot of work online. We moved our production from Kharkiv to the Poltava region. Heating is a difficult topic now as there is no gas. And no one knows what will happen to us in winter.
Our eldest son goes to a Ukrainian online school. He is in the 11th grade, and we thought Romanian school would be difficult for him. I want to get a place in a kindergarten for my youngest, but I can’t find any in Ukrainian kindergartens. He doesn’t speak Romanian and I don’t want to stress him.
We like the people in Romania very much. They are very kind and open-hearted. Romanians are just like Ukrainians. I can’t say I like Timisoara too much. We lived in a big city, Kharkiv is quite big, it has a faster rhythm. I like that we are close to the border with Ukraine. My friends who moved to Spain, Italy and Germany are not as happy as we are here. (smiles). There is a huge community of Ukrainians here, huge support, we don’t feel like we are far away from home. Only 365 km and I am in Ukraine. We still get parcels from our nanny. (smiles)
I have many friends who have stayed in Kharkiv. They didn’t want to leave. But the city is bombed every day. It is near the border with Russia, just 20 minutes from Belgorod. Anti-rocket systems don’t work. The city is reachable by Russian rockets in minutes. But people still live there, they got used to it. But those who left and came back can’t get used to it. My friend lives in the centre. She left after two weeks. I will show you a video of what happened. There was an explosion. (shows the video) Our flat, thank God, is safe. The Russians have also bombed all schools and education institutions. It seems that they want to turn Kharkiv into an area where people can’t live.
But we have such resilient city services. Bombs fall in the morning and by evening they have already cleaned the debris and planted flowers. (laughs) And the city looks clean.
But there are some neighbourhoods, like Saltovka. It has a population of 300,000, it’s almost the size of Mariupol. Now it also looks like Mariupol. It is almost completely destroyed. But we still want to go home.
N.M.: What do you miss the most?
Y.S.: My daily schedule. I woke up, had a cup of coffee, our nanny came, I got in my car, I went to work. We had so many nice things at home.
N.M.: Do you feel like you didn’t appreciate these things enough at the time?
Y.S.: Yes. On New Year we watched the movie “Don’t look up” with Leonardo DiCaprio. And at the end of that movie there was the phrase: we really did have everything.
N.M.: You didn’t think at the time: Oh, my life is beautiful, I have everything I need.
Y.S.: Yes, that’s right. But our stories are not as horrible as those of people from Mariupol, who had to escape risking their lives.
N.M.: Every story is interesting and emotional.
Y.S.: Putin and Russia took so many lives and ruined so many destines. Have you seen the statistics from Mariupol? 87 000 people died there. I am sure they will get what they deserve. Maybe we are also paying for sins from the past, maybe because we were so lazy all these years. This year was the first year Ukrainians were united, in our 31st year of independence. Putin wanted to tear us apart, but he united us.
Y.S.: Kharkiv is the most Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, so the idea of denazification is just stupid. Following their logic, they should go to Western Ukraine, where people speak Ukrainian.
N.M.: Are you bilingual?
Y.S.: I speak mostly Russian, but I can speak Ukrainian too.
N.M.: Are you more comfortable speaking Russian?
Y.S.: Yes. But I speak Ukrainian very well, as I am a lawyer, and I work in the justice system, where everything is in Ukrainian. This is not a problem. If you have the brains, you can speak 4-5 languages. I have never heard of people in Kharkiv who wanted to go and live in Russia. In Russia only 2-3 cities have a good standard of living. The other cities and regions are really poor. So the Russians who came to Ukraine were surprised by how good the roads were, about us having toilets inside the house… Because they live in poor regions. They just envy us.
N.M.: Do you have relatives in Russia?
Y.S.: Yes. My mother’s sister lives in Kursk. She and her family are against war, but they can’t do anything, because they don’t live in Moscow and even if they went to protests…
N.M.: … they would get arrested?
Y.S.: Yes. They are afraid. There is strong propaganda. When I went to Russia in 2019 to visit my cousin, I stayed at their house for one week and the whole week the TV was on and I heard what they said on TV and after that week I started thinking: maybe they are right? It is very easy to fall for propaganda. And now there is no more Facebook, no more social networks, they only watch TV and propaganda. They use a VPN, but my husband jokes that VPNs are going to be banned as well. (smiles)
N.M.: Yes, but you can still find information on the internet.
Y.S.: If you look for it. Like in the Soviet Union, they had the opportunity, there were programs such as “Voice of America” and others, but you had to think differently in order to look for them. But when you start thinking differently, you stand out. You are against the system. But it’s like my aunt says: those who don’t have relatives in Ukraine don’t even try to find other sources of information. Because they believe what the system has been telling them for so long… It is convenient.
N.M.: Thank you very much!
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu