Participants: Elena Seryankina (E.S.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
E.S.: I want to start from my time as a student. I studied in Kyiv. I was born in the Mykolaiv region in Ukraine, in a small city called Pervomaysk. It’s in the south of Ukraine. After school, I moved to the capital to study journalism at the National University of Ukraine. And I think I was in my 3rd year when… But it doesn’t matter. So, in 2004-2005, we had a revolution called the Orange Revolution. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was the first revolution since our Independence. Russia wanted to start to influence our country through politics.
There were two sides. The eastern part of the country was Russia-oriented, the western part was Europe-oriented. So, at the time, almost 20 years ago, it was 50/50. Me, as a student, I was there, on the Maidan, it’s the main square in Kyiv. It was the first revolution in my life. I was young, I was 18 or 19 years old, and it was my first time working in journalism. In the first half of the day, I was a journalist, in the second half I was a regular person, revolution girl. My parents didn’t support me. They said: “How can you go there? It’s not good.” But it didn’t matter.
Why did I have this spirit in me? Because I had heard various stories from my family. While my grandmother and grandfather were still alive, they told me about the genocide in Ukraine in 1932-1933. And later there was a period of kurkul, maybe you’ve heard of it? My grandmother and grandfather where kids at the time, but they remember a little about it because they were 7-9 years old. And they told me stories.
Our land is very rich. In the south of Ukraine grow a lot of crops, corn, wheat, cereals. Now Russian history tells is there was no genocide, but a bad crop.
N.M.: Like a bad year?
E.S.: Yes, yes, a bad year. But no. They came to our houses, they took the food from our plates, they took everything, all the food. Also, there was this period of rozkurkuliyvanny, and my great grandfather was considered a kurkul. My relatives were hiding so as not to be sent to the Gulag, to build the Belomor Canal. And then the Soviet Union was created. My grandfather took part in the war. He fought on Romanian land, but on the Russian side. Yes. But he said he never had anything against the Romanian people, you know. He was injured, but he survived. But he never said anything bad about your people. He just said that his father had died early, and so he thought he should just go to war.
My parents were born in the Soviet Union, and the mentality had changed. Ok, we remember those bad things, but maybe it was Stalin, maybe he was the one who was bad, and then there was another Soviet Union, very nice, all for youth, all for people, communism, we’re all equal and so on. But my grandparents remembered and told me stories. And what was very strange was that after this Orange Revolution, in 2005, some people, some teachers from my University, said that now that Ushchenko became president, he wanted to mobilize some education institutions to learn more about Ukrainian history, especially about those terrible periods like the Gulag. So they were organising a trip for journalists, activists and others, to go to the Gulag, to Solovki Island, in the White Sea. I was young and it was after the Orange Revolution, so I said: “Yes, I want to go”. And so we went there. It was three days by bus. I was inspired by the stories in my family, but I was also young, and I just saw it as something to do. I didn’t know all the details at the time. But we went there with historians who told us about that period in our history. We also met some people from Russia. In Saint Petersburg they had an organization called Memorial, it was really great, but Putin closed it because it talked about the horrible time of Stalin’s rule. Some researchers from this organization also went with us by bus. We went to Belomor Canal. It’s a small channel where thousands of people died, not just Ukrainians, but from all over the Soviet Union. They were made to dig that channel to the White Sea.
N.M.: And now it’s not even used.
E.S.: No, it’s not used, maybe by one ship per week. I was shocked when I got there. And then we went to Solovki. It’s a very nice place, it’s in the White Sea, we saw white whales. When we got there, the first thing we saw was a great church, like a monastery. I hadn’t known that in the Gulag, the churches were made into prisons. It was terrible. They destroyed everything. They destroyed all the culture, all the things precious to our souls. And then we visited different parts of this island, we saw same very harsh things. We even found some bones. You know, you want to pick some berries from the forest and “oops”.
N.M.: You stepped on some bones?
E.S.: Yes. And that made me have a change of heart. After that trip, I decided to become a political journalist. So I worked as a political journalist for 5 years. Because I understood that, for me, it’s important to know about Ukraine, about our history. A few days before the start of the war, Putin said: “Ukraine is not a country. It doesn’t have its own history.” But my grandmother was a teacher of history. She learned and studied the history of the Soviet Union, but she also studied our Ukrainian history, our national songs, she knew everything. When the second revolution took place, I was pregnant, so I was just sitting in front of the TV and crying.
N.M.: Because you wanted to be there?
E.S.: Yes. But I couldn’t. But you know, life is strange. 5 years after I went to Solovki, I went a second time, because I was involved again in a project. But this time it was a completely different trip. Because in 2005 Russian people helped us understand more about the history of the Gulag. That organization, “Memorial”, had organised the trip. But 5 years later, when Putin was becoming more and more powerful, they wouldn’t allow the trip. Only religious trips were allowed. All the tourists go visit the church, that great monastery. It’s over 500 years old. But they hide part of its history. Hundreds of people died withing the walls of that monastery. I heard such terrible stories. For me, it was hard hearing all those things.
So, I missed the second revolution because I was pregnant. Also, there were painful events in Odesa. On the 2nd of May 2014, 50 people died in fire. It’s one of the well-knows stories from that time. When Russia attacked Crimea and Donbas, they also tried to come to Odesa. But Odesa fend them off.
So, in 2004-2005, the ratio of EU and Russia supporters was 50/50. After 2013-2014, it became 70/30. So, 70% of Ukrainians support a pro-European direction for the development of Ukraine. The number of pro-Russian supporters decreased because people saw Russia as the aggressor. And after the war started, the ratio became something like 90/10. So they wanted to make us pro-Russians, but all they do is make us stronger and stronger and more united.
When the war began, I couldn’t believe it was happening. But my husband saw it coming and he was begging me to leave because he thought the war would start sometime after the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games ended on the 20th of February, if I remember correctly. And he said to m- “Please, let’s pack some bags, just to have them ready.” But I didn’t believe it would happen. And then, on 24th of February, my cat…
No, two days before that I had a dream that my grandfather was fighting in the Second World War. And he came to me in this dream, and the meaning of this dream was like… He just said to me that something bad will happen. I called my sister, she also lives in Odesa, and I told her we should meet because grandfather had come to me the previous night. I met her and when I was on my way back home, two or three dogs ran in front of my car. Because dogs, they can sense things.
So for me it was like another sign. But I didn’t prepare any bags, I didn’t start packing. I thought that maybe they would do something to politicians, but not to civilians. And my cat started meowing during the night, just 10 minutes before the bombing. So I heard the first explosions. And when I went to the window… We live not far from the sea, and we have a sea view. So when the first bomb exploded, I thought maybe it was a firework in the early morning. But after the second explosion, I felt the vibration of the windows and I understood that my husband had been right. He woke up and we discussed what we should do. We packed some clothes and went to my parents’ town, 20 kilometres north of Odesa. It’s not a big town, but it’s pretty famous because during the time of the Soviet Union it was a closed town. Stuff related to nuclear bombs was based there. This was before Ukraine signed that agreement of de-nuclearization. But now it’s just a town. And when we arrived, we realized that the Russians have old maps and maybe they would think there are still a lot of military objectives there. One bomb fell near the old army airdrome.
When we woke up to the sound of rockets, and when we saw Ukrainian planes, we decided to leave Ukraine and come here because the Russian army was advancing very quickly in the south. When they were 70 kilometres away from the town, we decided to leave because we were scared for ourselves and for our kids.
So we came here.
N.M.: What was your itinerary?
E.S.: Brăila, then Brașov. When we were in Brăila, we didn’t know what to do. We just paid some money for a flat. Then we realized we wouldn’t be able to pay like that every day because we didn’t know how long it would be. Some people we knew from Odesa were in Timisoara. They called us and said there was a studio, and we could go there. So, first we went to Brașov, where there was a support centre called Katya where they accommodated a lot of people in one big space. I have this photo where I’m sleeping on the floor on a mattress. But it was nice. The people were very good, they helped us. A lot of Romanian people helped us with food, with everything we needed. And then we came here. The first week we lived in a very, very small flat, maybe 25 square meters, then we went to the Support Centre, we waited for few days and they found us a bigger apartment where we still live now.
My sister is still in Odesa, in Ukraine, because they had just renovated their house. They built their house by themselves. Her husband made it with his own two hands, you know. And they had just finished some repairs in the children’s rooms. The kids were happy. And then the war started.
The thing is that in 2010 my sister and her husband moved to Crimea. Her husband opened some business there for renovating cars. I don’t know how to say it correctly. Some place for cars. The business was going well, but in 2014 he played the Ukrainian hymn on his phone, he got into a fight, and after that they decided to leave. They sold their business for a small price, a very small price, they left everything behind. And when this war started, her husband said: “No, I will stay. I don’t want to move again. Those Russians, why should I have to move because of them?” He made a bunker near their house all by himself. And my sister and her kids stayed in Ukraine until… In April or May there was a bombing of the shopping centre in Odesa. And it’s one kilometre from their house. It was huge, they were able to feel it in the ground, in the bunker where they were hiding. Then there was another huge bombing of the oil plant, which is also close to them.
N.M.: How old are their children?
E.S.: 10 and 13. After that, she came here in June and stayed for a month and a half, 45 days.
N.M.: And her husband?
E.S.: Her husband stayed in Ukraine. He has work. When she came, she said to m- “You should understand, all of us who stayed behind, we got used to that. We are used to hearing the bombs, we are used to the air raid sirens.” All of us have this application on our phones with air raid sirens.
N.M.: And they let people know in advance?
E.S.: Yes, yes. All the people have them on their phones. And she said that they just got used to it. She’s working in her garden, a lot of people came back because, you know… Yesterday I spoke to a girl I know; she was in the Netherlands. They had a good flat, the government gave them money to support themselves, and she said: “I just want to go home. I just want to go back. If it’s our destiny for a bomb to fall on us, so be it.” And she took her kids and went back to Ukraine. And so did my sister.
Now I understand them. Because when you go out of the country… Well, some people say: “Ok, we left Ukraine, we need to start a new life.” But some people don’t want to start new lives because they have their…
N.M.: Because they had good lives in Ukraine?
E.S.: Yes. They have a house. Our parents, they will never leave Ukraine. They have their house where they lived their whole life. My mom said: “If it will be bombed, ok. It’s my house, I don’t want to go anywhere.”
N.M.: How old are your parents?
E.S.: They are 63 and 67.
N.M.: Are they retired?
E.S.: Yes. But mom has a job now. They also have a small house with a garden not far away from town. They live in town, but they also have a small house in a village where they have fruit trees, some vegetables. They like it. Yes.
And when my sister decided to come back to Ukraine, I went with her to Ukraine for two weeks. I came back a week ago.
I was in Odesa for two weeks. There is a corridor for ships now and that’s why Odesa is quiet. The first few days were very…
E.S.: Not just emotional. I felt scared. Because of the air raid sirens. And you know, two days before the war, when my husband was saying there would be war and I didn’t believe him, we passed by the Military University, and we saw a few hundred young boys all wearing guns and ammunition. I saw this and I felt scared, but I thought: “Maybe they are just studying, training.” Very young boys. I vividly remember this image. When I came back and passed by the University, I saw a couple of elderly men and women with red flowers and black ribbons, and I understood that they were waiting for the bodies of their sons. And I began to cry because I remembered the image of the very nice, very young boys. And I saw a lot of murals in Ukraine.
The first days I was afraid of the air raid sirens. But then I saw that people didn’t pay attention to them, they just continued living their lives. And when I asked: “How can you do this?”, they said: “Do you remember that famous phrase, ‘What would you do if this was the last day of your life?’” That’s how they are living. There are a lot of marriages now, three new restaurants have opened in Odesa, and when I went and asked those people — because I knew them — they said: “Listen, we planned to open our restaurant in January, why should we postpone anymore? Why should we stop our lives because of fucking Russia? We want to live.” And so they opened the restaurant. Very nice. Also, they had already bought all the equipment for it. It’s very nice.
N.M.: They had already bought everything?
E.S.: Yes, yes. And after this I was proud of my people, and I understood. I can’t go back because of the children. But my heart is there now. I also have a big nice flat with a sea view, but now it’s dangerous, because we have panoramic windows and there is a lot of glass.
N.M.: Have you been to your flat?
E.S.: Yes, I was in my flat, I slept in a room that has 3 walls, and when the air raid sirens started, I stayed in the corridor where there are no windows. But sometimes I went to my parents. They are ok.
N.M.: Do you feel that life there is more intense now?
E.S.: The first days it was hard. I felt scared, I was not used to it, I didn’t know what to do in certain circumstances. The people are different. They are strong, they laugh, they live their lives. They try to do their jobs. I thought there would be no more people in Odesa, because only 30% stayed. But now a lot of people have come from the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions. So there are internal refugees. So there are a lot of people in Odesa. I gave my flat to a girl from Mykolaiv. You gave us flats here, we gave our flat there. Yes, my flat is not so good for hiding, but it’s better than in Mykolaiv, where there are bombings every night.
N.M.: Does she have a shelter to go to in case anything happens?
E.S.: Her mother is in Lviv now, but Lviv is overcrowded because a lot of refugees have gone there. And there is a shortage of living spaces. Flats are small and very expensive. Because there are a lot of people.
N.M.: Have prices gone up?
E.S.: Yes. In Odesa too.
N.M.: How much is the rent now, for example, for a small flat?
E.S.: Oh, now in Lviv is the same as in Europe, 500 euros. And it’s very expensive for Lviv. Before the war it used to be around 200 euros. So…
N.M.: It has doubled.
N.M.: Do people still have jobs?
E.S.: Some of them, yes. Because shops are fully stocked and working.
N.M.: So there is some work for people. I imagine some work in administration too.
E.S.: My brother-in-law’s business, the one about renovating cars, is also working. Also, volunteers get some money for volunteering, just to have a something to live on. And transport.
N.M.: What about those who have lost their jobs? Those unemployed?
E.S.: Actually, I’ve heard that people who lost their jobs mostly went abroad. Or one of the family members has a job and it’s ok, because a lot of men went to the army, and they receive salaries from the government. And if your husband is in the army, you’ll receive the money. And also, retired people receive their pensions, so some parents help their children.
You know, the war has changed people’s mentality. You stop buying things you don’t need. Like extra clothes and so on. You just buy food and the bare necessities, gas for the car… And even if you have an opportunity to buy something, you don’t because you don’t need it.
Also, you know, we call the soldiers in our army kittens.
N.M.: How do you say in Ukrainian?
E.S.: Kotyky (котики). Yes, kittens. And a lot of murals such as this one (shows some pictures) are with kittens. It says: “Good evening from Ukraine”.
N.M.: How do you say that in Ukrainian?
E.S.: Dobrogo vechora my z Ukrainy (Доброго вечора, ми з України). It’s now a very popular phrase because a Major from Mykolaiv, Vitalyi Kim… He is now famous because he is very strong… He has been in Mykolaiv all this time and it’s because of him that Mykolaiv is still standing and has not been occupied. I will show you the map so you can understand. Here is Odesa.
N.M.: Odessa is pretty close to Romania.
N.M.: And it is also close to Crimea, by way of the Black Sea.
E.S.: Yes. And this is Mykolaiv. This whole part is occupied, up to the river. People in Mykolaiv mined the bridge so that the occupiers could not approach it. But if the Russians occupy Mykolaiv, then they will come to Odesa. So, Mykolaiv is like a shield, a wall between Russians and Odesa. So all of Odesa is helping Mykolaiv.
N.M.: And Kherson?
E.S.: Kherson is occupied. And here is Zaporizhya, where the nuclear station is. Everything is occupied up to the river. And here, it is occupied up to this point. (shows a point on the map) They can’t occupy Mykolaiv because there is a very strong army there. And here is Odesa.
And that cafe that my friends opened is very pretty and very pleasant.
N.M.: Do many people go there?
E.S.: Not many, but some. A lot of men stayed in Ukraine. Also, women who don’t have children often decided to stay. And even those who have kids decided to come back because many families were broken up. It’s hard not seeing each other for 6 months. When I asked some men what they were thinking, they said: “That my wife will find someone else in Europe.” It’s hard for men because they can’t leave the country. But, at the same time, it’s good that Zelenskyi decided to do this, because the economy needs to keep working. A lot of men are supplying services for the army. It’s very important. A lot of men are working as drivers for humanitarian aid transports. And for the army.
N.M.: Transport, logistics.
E.S.: Yes. All these jobs are very important. So it’s not a problem finding a job. Yes, the salaries are lower. But it’s ok for food, for example.
N.M.: So you can survive.
E.S.: Yes. And if your parents can help because they receive their pensions… And if one of the family members is working…
A girl I know from Odesa, Anastasiia, she taught my kids… Not as a school teacher, she just taught at the after school. She had just graduated university. Her husband is 26 years old and had some experience in fighting. Now she has come here, and he joined the army. Is today the 19th? Today he supposed to sign the contract. So, I asked her how it is for her. And she said: “We talked about this a few months ago, and he said that if they call him, he will go because he doesn’t want to hide”. He said: “If I don’t receive any papers from the army, if they don’t call me, ok, then I will stay and continue the work I do now.” He had a job.
People also have online jobs. A lot of IT specialists still have their jobs. So it’s very important for Ukrainian economy for people to stay and work.
I understand when people here are asking: “How can mothers with kids stay there?” They do it for different reasons. A lot of people don’t know English, they have never been abroad and for them rockets and going abroad are almost equally scary. They say: “How will I survive there? How will I communicate? I don’t understand the language. I don’t have money. I have nothing.” For example, in Poland they don’t give any money to refugees because Poland is overcrowded and people go work in the fields, professionals with higher education. And if have to choose between being there and not having anything to rely on, and going back to a place where you have a home, work, friends and so on, you will probably choose to go back. A lot of medical workers also decided to go back, dentists and so on. And they also still have their jobs because…
N.M.: Because their services are always needed.
E.S.: Yes, people need those services. So, in order to understand those people who went back, you need to understand that, psychologically, they have adapted to the situation and now they know how to live with that stress.
N.M.: Do you think they are stronger?
E.S.: Mmm… maybe they are stronger. It’s like a safety reaction of your mind going: “Everything will be ok. Everything will be ok.” Some people in Odesa still go to the pool because they used to… Odesa is by the sea, and they used to relax by the sea on weekends.
My visit to Odesa made a very powerful impression on me because I understood that my people are strong, and I believe in my country. And — let me show you — one evening, there were no air raid sirens, and I went to the sea. And people were having a walk by the sea. (shows pictures)
N.M.: It looks very nice.
E.S.: Yes, very nice. Some were on bicycles, some on foot. There is a lot of art now on the topic of war, but it’s a way for people to express their feelings. You know, like that famous picture “Russian warship go f*** yourself”. It’s dark, but it’s appropriate and powerful in these times.
N.M.: Yes, I understand.
E.S.: It’s the way to express… you know. There is another story of a man… he is… how do you call it… drawing…
N.M.: Street artist?
E.S.: No, he has his art studio. It was very hard for him to accept this war. So he went to Kyiv and helped find the bodies of dead people near Kyiv… Just a moment… There are a lot of places around Kyiv, like Bucha, where there are mass graves of people who have been murdered.
N.M.: Oh, and he helped handle the bodies?
E.S.: Yes. He helped bring them out… Yes… So… He said that it was his way of doing something for his country. He said: “I can’t fight. I can’t kill people. But I can help in this way.” So different people are finding different ways to adapt and be useful, to adapt psychologically and to adapt their lives. And now they do this thing of trying to live as if it’s the last day of their life and it’s very interesting. There are a lot of marriages. I heard that a lot of men decided to marry the girls with whom they had been living for a long time. So it’s very, very interesting.
I told you the stories of my family because for many people who remember the stories of their families, this is more than just a war. I spoke to a guy here who helped us, and he said: “You are crazy [to think of going back], you should care about your children.” And I told him: “Yes, I know, I understand, I care about them.” He said: “It’s just things, objects. All those houses, the land. It’s only things. It’s more important to stay alive.” And I tried to explain to him. Yes, the first month we were just shocked, we only cared about our lives. But now it’s also about the history of our families. Of our grandparents and so on. This war is not only about the fact that we want to save some things, some money, some stability. Yes, maybe for people who didn’t have any stability in Ukraine, this is a good time and a chance to change their lives. And I know people who decided to stay in Europe, who are learning the language. It’s ok, their decision is also normal. But I’m among those who want to go back.
N.M.: What do you do to relax and to make your stay here more enjoyable? I presume that you read the news every day. But you need something to relax.
E.S.: Yes, now my psyche, my mind has adapted to the situation. The first months I started to exercise. In April I got some difficult news, and I began to smoke, because that’s also something that can get you mind off things, you know. Now I’m not smoking anymore, I’ve stopped. Some people get drunk because it’s another way to stop cortisol. The people with whom I interact are ok. There are a lot of people, kids have their lessons, we see each other, we make new contacts, new people to communicate with. We have a lot of Ukrainian events, like those which Jane is now preparing, and I’m helping her with media. We also try to travel. I was in Oradea, in Cluj, we will go to the mountains for a change of scenery. The kids have already made some friends here. So it’s almost like normal life. Now we can laugh, we can think of other things except the news. But we still need to help, to send money. Maybe you’ve heard the story about Byraktar? Yesterday they bought a satellite. Do you know about this? They rented this satellite for a year for the Ukrainian Army.
N.M.: The Turkish people?
E.S.: The plane, Bayraktar, is from the Turkish people. But the satellite is from the British.
Now there is a phrase going around, “drink more coffee and donate for the army”. So, it’s normal things. For us, it’s also a way not feeling guilty. That we live and other people die, that our army fights every day. My sister, for example, she found people and they helped buy a car for the soldiers. And there are a lot a of stories about people helping each other, donating for humanitarian aid, for the army, buying ammunition for soldiers. I think there are three types of refugees now. One type is of people that didn’t adapt. They are closed off, they keep going about their lives, eating, receiving money, business as usual. Some people began to live, to help the Ukrainian people and Ukraine, to do some activities, to try to live. And some people just decided not to pay attention to the war, not to read news, they just look forward to a new life. I think that’s also a form of psychological adaptation.
In Ukraine people don’t have a good opinion of those who are doing nothing, just travelling and posting photos of beautiful places on social media. And now there’s also a difficult situation with the language, because a lot of our people have decided to speak Ukrainian.
N.M.: After years of using Russian?
E.S.: Yes. But you know, Russian and Ukrainian are like Moldavian and Romanian. They are different, we have some words they can never understand, but historically, there was always a part of Ukraine where people spoke Russian. Now they are trying to change and start speaking Ukrainian.
N.M.: Those parts that are closer to Russia?
E.S.: Yes. But you know, for example, people from Kharkiv, which is only 60 kilometres from the Russian border, and it’s being bombed all the time… I have some friends from Kharkiv and they are now trying to speak Ukrainian. For me, speaking Ukrainian comes naturally.
N.M.: When you studied in Kyiv, did you study in Ukrainian?
E.S.: Yes. Also, my parents, during my childhood, we had something called surzhik. It’s a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. It’s very funny. We call it surzhik.
E.S.: Yes. All Ukrainians know the word. It’s not people from the East or the West, but from central Ukraine. It’s a mix. And now people from Kharkiv try to speak Ukrainian. It’s very hard for them. But I said to them (in Ukrainian): “Girls, it’s so cool, you are strong.” They understand Ukrainian, but they can’t speak it.
N.M.: They didn’t use it.
E.S.: No, they didn’t.
N.M.: Would you connect language with identity? Do you think it’s important?
E.S.: Yes. But I think now it not the time to say: “You are guilty because you speak Russian.” A lot of Ukrainian soldiers speak surzhik or Russian because it has historically been their language. But after this war, and during the war, I think it’s good that many people are trying to switch to Ukrainian, but you can’t do it overnight. From a historical point of view, there were two documents in the Russian Empire forbidding the Ukrainian language.
N.M.: So there was a decree in the Russian Empire not to use Ukrainian?
E.S.: Yes, in 1876. It was censorship. All arts, all theatres, all books, and all publications were only supposed to use Russian. And they didn’t call our language Ukrainian, but Little Russian.
So, historically they have inflicted a lot of damage on Ukraine and all Ukrainians for about 5 centuries. And the people who know history… But the problem is also that during the USSR, a lot of families mixed. And that’s why now it’s hard for a lot of people to understand. My husband also has some relatives in Russia. And it’s hard for him. Not for me. I have a different blood, not Russian. But it’s difficult for him. But historically, we can see that it is a story from a different century. Our experts have said they think we will be like Israel, who only received their independence 40 or 50 years ago, something like that, but their history is thousands of years old. We know that we have only received our independence 31 years ago, but our history dates back to the Kievan Rus. But Putin is trying to say that we don’t have our own history, that our history is Russia’s history. Zelensky’s wife said they will probably start building professional bunkers near schools. We will do this because we understand that we should have a strong army, because it’s always the same story.
N.M.: It seems to repeat itself.
E.S.: Yes. The Russians have an imperialistic mentality, they called our language Little Russian, they called us smaller brothers, second-class people.
N.M.: Have you been to Russia?
E.S.: I have been in Solovki when I visited the Gulag. And I also went to Moscow, and I felt treated like a second-class person.
N.M.: I meant to ask if you felt it.
E.S.: Yes, I felt, I felt it. When I was 2008 in Moscow, I visited my father’s relatives. They moved there during the time of the USSR. I was living in Kyiv at the time. Kyiv is a very modern city, especially after this Orange Revolution. A lot of investments, a lot of tourists, a lot of global events are held in Kyiv, like the European Football Championship and others. Kyiv is a very modern city. And when I went to Moscow, my relative asked me “Where should we go, what should I show you? Maybe we should go to the shopping mall? There is a cinema there and a lot of shops.” And I told her: “We also have this,” and she was very surprised. They thought all Ukrainians are bumpkins. Because of what they see on their news and also because some poor people from our eastern regions move there looking for jobs. Also, a lot of people from Moldova migrate to Moscow for jobs; they usually work in constructions. They do physically hard, dirty jobs. So the Russians think almost all Ukrainians are poor and backwards. Also, a lot of people from the Donbas region moved to Russia. And Donbas is a rather harsh region because there used to be a lot of miners. A lot of miners and people who were not educated. So Russians thought that all Ukrainians were uneducated and poor. So, historically, they have thought we are the “second-class people”. It’s a centuries-old problem.
When I was in Israel to visit my friends, we went to the underground and I saw people with guns. I asked my friends if they were comfortable with that and they said that they were, they got used to it, it’s normal for them. Even when they go to a celebration or a marriage, they take their weapons. For me, it was like “wow”.
And now I think that maybe this is what it’s going to be in Ukraine too. I don’t know. I think we should prepare for this. Because a lot of people in Europe, even some local people here… I talked to a taxi-driver, and he said to me: “You don’t understand, Russia is a huge country. Putin will never give up. You need to think about your people, their lives. Surrender and accept Russian rule”.
N.M.: Someone in Romania said this?
E.S.: Yes, the taxi driver. “It doesn’t matter under what flag you will live, but people will be safe”.
And I said: “You know, in Crimea we have Crimean Tartars. And now their situation is very bad for them since the Russians have occupied Crimea because they hate these people. They have always tried to bully them. They told they can only live in segregated towns.”
N.M.: Because they are Muslims?
E.S.: Yes. But historically, Crimea was their territory. So we understand that if we will surrender, Ukrainians will have the same destiny for centuries to come. They will destroy our language, our culture, our books. There will only be propaganda. Again USSR. So for us… That’s why people say that we will fight them until we die.
We believe in diplomacy. We said: “You should leave Ukraine and leave us the territories we had before the 24th of February.” Zelensky also said that if they leave that territory, we will freeze the conflict like we did with Donbas. But Putin doesn’t want to. Also because the water in Crimea is supplied by this big water reservoir near Nova Kahovka. And also the nuclear plant there supplies energy for Crimea. The situation in Crimea is very hard because they don’t have their own water, and all their lakes are now dry. Because all the water… Why did Crimea go to Ukraine after the dissolution of the USSR? Because they received all their resources from Ukraine: water, energy, everything.
N.M.: They cannot function without them?
E.S.: No. This is one of the reasons for this war. Crimea needs those resources. That’s why at the very beginning of the war the Russians occupied the Nova Kahovka water reservoir and nuclear plan, it was one of Putin’s goals. So, yes, we believe in the diplomatic way, but we want our territories back, with the borders we had on the 24th of February.
Here, in Timișoara, there are people whose houses and towns were occupied. And it’s very hard for them. Somebody comes to your house and lives there. Your clothes, your stuff… It’s like… it’s very hard. I can’t even imagine. At the same time, when we left, we mentally said goodbye to all our things. Because the Russians seemed to be advancing very quickly. Only Mykolaiv stopped them because there are a lot of strong people there. Many people live there, a lot of civilians who live there went and helped the army. They made those anti-tank hedgehogs and…
N.M.: So civilians organized to help.
E.S.: Yes. They organized and helped the army to stop the Russians. Because their initial plan was to occupy Odessa by the 1st of March. But Mykolaiv stopped them.
So now we just hope that the Western partners will give us as many guns as they can, and more modern air defence systems that will help us defend the skies and protect us from rockets. Like in Israel, you know. We really need this. And we also need those long-range missiles, so that Russians don’t come any closer. We don’t want to fight, just to show them that we are strong, and we could stop them. This is what we hope, for now. That’s why Ukrainian people donate for the army, for weapon, for satellites, because it’s our chance to become like Israel. They have adapted and have got used to living with the problem and have become strong enough to live like that.
At the beginning, we were afraid of living that way. But now people say: “Ok, if we adapt to the situation, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to act in this way.”
N.M.: Can you imagine your children in a school basement?
E.S.: I don’t know. If we receive all the equipment to defend our towns from rockets, and if schools have good bunkers, maybe it will be more normal. But we need a few years to prepare. That’s why our government asks for help with weapon. Because if you don’t want war to happen, you have to be prepared for it. Now it’s our day-to-day life, so…
N.M.: What did you tell your kids about this?
E.S.: The first 10 days we stayed in our parents’ house and constantly scrolled through the news. They also saw the news, saw what was on TV. For kids, I think it’s easier to adapt. It’s something new, but they adapt quicker. Of course, it’s hard for them too because they heard about dead children and damaged buildings. They asked me if our flat is ok, if our building is ok. I said that yes, it’s ok. And now they just ask when the war will end and when we’ll be able to go back.
But now they have their friends, their lessons…
So, I’m one of those people who want to go back. Maybe for you it’s hard to hear some of my thoughts, but…
N.M.: I think you should tell your children everything you told me.
E.S.: Yes, yes. When they will be older, I will tell them, of course.
N.M.: Because you didn’t find out all of this from books, but from your grandparents…
E.S.: Yes, my sister also knows all these stories. She is not as involved as me, but maybe this is because I work in journalism, and I studied history. But yes, I think all our children should know this, because, for example, my parents grew up in the USSR, and they didn’t know these stories. And after USSR collapsed, they voted for Independence because they knew from their parents that they are Ukrainians. So yes, it’s important for us.
Not all people think it’s important. Not all people have had relatives with stories such as the ones I told you because it was different in every region. But yes, for us, it’s important.
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu