I am always proud to tell people that I was born and raised in Luhansk, in Donbas or, as I call it, "wild East" of Ukraine.
When you tell people that the war with Russia has been lasting for more than seven years, and you lost your hometown, your house, and a part of the family, they usually say, "I am so sorry to hear that".
But the truth is they are not. This is just a way to be polite. It would be far more honest to say, "I can’t imagine what you are going through". So let me tell you what I am going through.
Sense of Justice
In March 1992, I was born in a poor family of anaesthesiologist (mine rescuer) with university medical degree and an accountant with specialised college degree (in Ukraine it is called “Middle Level Specialised Education”).
My dad and his brother, who died in a car accident at primary school, were raised by their mum because their dad was an alcoholic who used to beat the hell out of his wife and children. He left the family. My dad needed to work his butt off to survive. No matter how hard his life was, he got the scholarship at the medical university in Luhansk, one of the strongest medical education establishments in the country.
My mum had nothing when she married my dad. Her parents, apparently, thought that giving her a carpet as a wedding present was a good idea. She didn’t have her own flat or car or anything else that could help her to live a normal, independent life. She married my dad in her late 20s and was considered a spinster. She had me when she was 30, which was believed to be very late. I almost died during labour. A very talented gynaecologist saved my life. Some time ago I asked my mum why she didn’t apply for the university scholarship. She said that she didn’t think she was clever enough. It’s not surprising at all. How can you believe in yourself when no one else does?
As I told before, my family was poor. Really poor. Don’t get me wrong: we lived in my dad’s flat, we had food and clothes, and even some nice people around. We had a TV set and a cassette player. When my so-called friends had play stations, video players, I had to visit them to watch movies or play. But it was enough for me, no complaints. My parents gave me everything needed for staying healthy and happy, but they were too honest to make money.
I was the youngest child in my block. No one liked me because I was considered to be too serious and behaved like an adult. Once, when they didn’t want to play with me, I even told a teenage girl that she was “heartless”. Well, bold, right? They laughed their hearts off (it appeared to be they had ones). Another very bright memory: I am 4 years old and older children tell my dad that I lost money to them in a game and owe them. My dad never punished me and gave them money. It is strange that he believed them and not me. But even stranger was that those older children even had computers and fresh renovation in their apartments. Yet, they lied and took my dad’s money which he earned saving lives.
Now, I only have a sad smile when I think about those days. Even then, my sense of justice followed me around so that everyone could bully me for that.
But it is not a story about bullying. That was just a little introduction for you to understand how poor my family was as well as how cruel and dividing the society was, how the lack of education influenced community development, how drugs killed teenagers and ruined families. Thát was the society I was raised in. The Donbas society with no identity, no ambitions, and no future. And it got to me a few days ago: the war started much earlier than we all know.
It was once said that you need to destroy the education system to demolish the humanity. It is true and Ukrainian people learned it a hard way. A person, who is not educated enough, is very easy to manipulate. They trust propaganda and fake news, they trust their enemy, who wears a mask of a saint peacemaker.
Donbas schools were the source for American thrillers or dramas. The curricula were in Russian with the teachers of Ukrainian who couldn’t make a sentence in our official state language. Those were the teachers who got their degree in the USSR with the specialty “Russian Language”. The teachers who could grab your hair and turn your head because you talked to your classmate during the explanation. The teachers who were so mentally unstable that took children to the hall and hit them if they misbehaved during the lessons.
It was not easier for children. “The fruits of love” of the girls who had no sex education and got pregnant in teenage years, the children of alcoholics who became drug addicts, the children who start having sex in the 7th grade, – I saw it all. At my school #54, where I survived 9 grades, children came for one reason: to wait for the recess when they can go to the school’s backyard to smoke or to kiss a senior or to fight with someone.
The literature we used to read was translated in Russian or written by Russians. Pushkin was considered a genius while Ukrainian literature was in vain. I remember citing “Borodino” and being proud that I could learn it all by heart. By the time of the External Independent Assessment, I would know nothing about Ukrainian literature and the history of Ukraine if I didn’t have tutours.
At school survival times, I heard “Okean Elzy”, Ukrainian rock music. I think it was the first time was during the Orange Revolution. It changed all my perceptions. I turned my face to the rebellious Kyiv spirit and followed it ever since. That’s how I started writing poems in Ukrainian. People were always asking me how I spoke Ukrainian so well even though I was from Donbas. I learned it from Ukrainian songs.
Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Understand
We were dangerously close to Russia and affordable train routes such as Luhansk – Moscow. Ukrainian people from the West go to Poland, Romania, Hungary, seeking for a better life while collecting strawberries. In Donbas you had the easiest option – going to Russia. My oldest half-sister did not consider other, more difficult ways. When I was 6 years old, she got pregnant, got an abortion because her boyfriend was a junky, and went to Moscow to earn money selling clothes.
Sometime later, she came to visit us. It’s difficult to say what changed more, her pronunciation or perception of the “brotherhood” of Russia and Ukraine. We were told that we are “the brothers” and yet she came and did not understand Ukrainian. Well, pretended that she didn’t and even giggled a little when heard it. And that was one of the bells that rang loudly in my head: something is wrong. If they say we are “the brothers” and our languages sound alike, then why we understand Russians and they do not understand us? It drove me bananas at that time. That was the moment when I didn’t know what propaganda was but felt that it worked; Russia was creating a strong belief that Russians are the number one nation in the world. And it worked as a charm with my sister. Selling clothes at the open-air market even in winter, freezing so much that fingers and toes didn’t move, she still believed that Russia is the best answer to all her prayers.
It is the same thing which happens in Donbas now: Russia kills Ukrainian soldiers, civilians, and ruins houses and then brings some humanitarian aid, gives Russian citizenship to create an illusion that it brings peace as well, that it wants to protect people. Television, radio, and other media are repeating that Donbas people have “Russian souls”. No, what they have is a washed brain.
Independence. I think I first learned what it was during my first years. I wouldn’t be mistaking if I said that the first thing I grabbed as a baby with my tiny hands was not someone’s finger. I bet it was a screwdriver. There is no need in saying that poor people don’t have nannies. Children stay at work with parents. All colleagues of my dad knew me well. Still remember this strong smell of cigarette smoke and Soviet building. A bonus is that now I can use a hammer, fix water taps and Christmas lights and even make renovations. But let’s get back to business.
After watching news about The Orange Revolution and listening to Ukrainian songs, the only thing you can do is to fight for your bright future. Long story short, I came to Kyiv with my mum in July 2009 to apply to Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, specialty 6.030301 Journalism. Young people’s romanticism does miracles. They start to imagine that writing for a newspaper can actually make a difference. Not in Ukraine. When you finally understand that you do not want to write about pandas when there is the war in the country, you whether change your profession or stay in science and teaching. So, I decided to do the second. Never leave till you try.
The war with Russia started in 2014, during my first year of Master’s. The first thing we lost was the mobile connection. Sometimes you could not reach your family for weeks, sometimes for months. You were constantly anxious and couldn’t go to your hometown. Missiles, dead bodies, lies, block posts, cancelled trains, destroyed bridges, – it dances in your head altogether when you are not sure if your mum is still alive. In August 2014, as a bonus to lacking money and food, I broke my arm. Anxiety kept rising.
My mum had no mobile connection for weeks, so I was going to go to the frontline. With a broken arm. It was nothing. I wanted to bring my mum to Kyiv. In 2014, she was 52 and refused to go anywhere. Her neighbours were telling her that she should not go because “Katya needs to have her own life”. I bet those people send their parents to retirement homes. It took me 6 months to make my mum come to Kyiv. My parents were long divorced at that time, and she was dating a man. She was hiding in a cold basement. She didn’t have a normal job, didn’t have normal food. By the way, when she came to Kyiv, and she still remembers that feeling pretty well, I took her to a hypermarket. She hadn’t had some regular things we had at the times of war, so she wanted to but everything!
Before Russian servants came to Eduard Didorenko National University of Internal Relations in Luhansk, my mum was an archive worker making enough money for living. She also had her own garden where grew potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, courgettes, apples, plums, hazelnuts, etc. Now she remembers very brightly how the servants gathered everyone on the parade ground and pointed their guns at people. The university staff were told that they are “suspended” because “from now on the university is the base of ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’”. My mum is still annoyed. She calls those guys “ssykuny” (Ukrainian word, disgraceful “pissing people” – young people who are not experienced in life). She still cannot get how a young man could point a gun at ladies who were 40-60 years old. Why? Who let them? Who made them? Who paid them?
At those times, after the referenda, the famous shop which was called “ATB” was renamed. The new name was “People’s Shop” (yet people needed to pay). For a while, my mum had to work there to earn some money. The currency was changed into Russian rouble. Step by step, Russia occupied Ukrainian territories and still controls them.
In February 2015, my mum finally cracked. She couldn’t bear it anymore. She didn’t see the changes. She took our cat, Leopold, and came to Kyiv on March 1, 2015.
I told no one that mum is coming. Even a friend, who lived with me, didn’t know. I was afraid to tell anyone because everything could fail. I was scared but ready for challenges. It was clear that it is not easy to start a new life at 52 years old having nothing but a cat. But we decided to make this step.
My mum refused to leave Luhansk without Leopold. She bought an international passport for him, packed the most necessary things, took the cat, gave the key from our small house to the man whom she dated and left Luhansk. It was the active phase of war, so you had to cross the border with Russia, go to Belgrad, stay there for several hours, and then enter Ukraine in Kharkiv region. The trip took 36 hours and cost approximately 1000 UAH (author’s note – a train ticket Luhansk–Kyiv cost 120 UAH).
After my mum came, we had a talk with my friend. I proposed three options: we leave, and she stays; she leaves, and we stay; or we all search for a new two-room apartment. A friend was not happy of course. I am not blaming her. She could be nicer to my mum though. It the end, we had a fight, she left in a month, and we’ve never talked since. But I am still grateful to her for cheering me up and helping me financially when I most needed it.
After I lost a friend, a fun part started. I studied at two universities with one scholarship (700 UAH) and second-degree fee (5000 UAH per semester). I had no official job. We had to pay 3000 UAH for rent and approximately 1500 UAH for conveniences. My boyfriend left me because he didn’t want to date a girl who lived with her mum, my friends left me because I was a poor vegan and lived with my mum. In May 2015, I had to apply my master’s thesis, but it was not ready. Moreover, I had to constantly cheer my mum up. First months were hellish. No one wanted to hire her. She was disappointed, sad, and sometimes even crying. She was ready to go back to Luhansk. Every employer wanted a worker no older than 35 years old. One insurance company (Ukrainian Archive Company), where my mum wanted to work as an archivist, told her she was too old for that job and proposed her a salary of 1500 UAH. My mum really cried that day. It was painful to see how Soviet Union got us believe that people’s life stops at age 40. My mum used to repeat that she only creates troubles and that it was a mistake to come to Kyiv because no one needs her here. She was wrong. I needed her. I couldn’t allow my mum to hide in the basement again. She still jumps up when hears fireworks exploding.
The first thing we did was the registration of internal displacement. You had to be officially internally displaced person to get some financial help from the government. The monthly payment was 432 UAH, which I considered hilarious. It was given only to the employed people. If you were not employed within 6 months, the payment was decreased by 239 UAH and then stopped. Every six months you needed to register again and provide the document, which confirms you were employed. At first, we registered for it but after a year we send the social services to hell. 400 UAH was enough for two supermarket visits in 2016, and it is not enough to buy food for the family even for two days.
In two months after my mum came, I was so exhausted and broken psychologically that got sick and lost my voice for a week. No one sees it but war leaves a forever scar on your heart and pain in your eyes. My mum lost hope. We got deeper and deeper into debt and had to pawn all gold we had – earrings, necklaces, beautiful rings. In May 2015, I got the job of an Assistant Teacher at the British International School. First, we managed to pay money to the pawnshop every month. But then mum was kicked out once again and we lost all the jewellery. My scientific supervisor called me almost every day and made me finish my master’s thesis within two weeks. He didn’t know what I was going through but despite that managed to save me.
Yet, we always kept the cat alive and happy. Have you ever had such moments in your life when you needed to decide who eats today – you or your cat – because you only have money for a bag of cat food or a loaf of bread? That’s how bad it was. But finally, my mum was hired by the chain supermarket, and we could at least pay rent and eat properly.
Leopold died on September 25, 2021, at age 11. He was the only sunshine which reminded us of the life in Luhansk. And we thought we had nothing of our own. It was so depressing that we couldn’t stop crying. This cat was a member of the family, a story which we lived together in Luhansk and in Kyiv. He crossed the rainbow, and on October 16, 2021, a new kitten found me in the forest. We are rich now; we have little Lucky now. The only thing left to do is to hope that one day I will tell my mum, “Look, mum! This is our own house”. I also hope that one day I will be able to buy her golden earrings making up for at least something she lost.
The Paths are Covered with Grass
But I would lie if I told you that our family is full. Unfortunately, the war separated us, and propaganda divided us, broke us into two camps. One camp was brainwashed by the Russian propaganda, and another camp supports Ukrainian side.
When my mum came to Kyiv, I took her to the Carpathians, to Ivano-Frankivsk region. She was so scared because propaganda in Luhansk assured that Ukrainians in the West of Ukraine kill people who speak Russian. How surprised my mum was when she spoke Russian, and people where kind and polite to her! That was the first time she understood that Russia really lied to them.
It was not so easy with my dad. He got married for the fourth time and moved back to the occupied territory because it is very hard to start all over again with nothing of your own. Living there, he believes Russia saves lives and Ukraine kills its own people. I don’t blame him. He was always easy to manipulate. His mum manipulated him till the day she died. No wonder he trusts Russian television. But he is still my father; I will communicate with him no matter what happens. Losing my family because of an angry dwarf with unhealthy imperialistic ambitions would be really silly.
It’s not the level of education that makes you trust some fake news. It’s the level of trust you have to the humanity in general. But it’s clear that you should not believe anyone who says you are brothers and then shoots you in the heart.
In 2019, we went to the occupied territory to take some of our stuff (books and photos) and finally visit our family for Easter holidays. The roads were inspected by The Main Directorate for Traffic Safety of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia. The currency was Russian ruble. People were forced to change their car plates to make sure they cannot leave the “republic” in such cars. Children, who are 14, get the passport of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the only country, which accepts these passports, is Russia. With those passports you cannot go anywhere but Russia. Teaching at educational establishments is in Russian. Ukrainian is an optional subject. The History of Ukraine is rewritten by Russia. Children are forced to stay in the “republic” or to go to Russia to study at universities. Some youngsters escape that hell with no future by applying to Ukrainian universities through special educational centres “Crimea–Ukraine” and “Donbas–Ukraine”. Nevertheless, Russian propaganda is extremely strong, so strong that it is hard to believe it’s possible to stop it.
But let’s keep trying. You know, there is the railway next to my house. It was used to transport coal from the Mine Control Centre “Luhanske”. Now, our house is partly ruined and the railway in covered with grass. It is so hard to find a way home when the paths are hidden. Maybe someday our hearts will show us the way how to win back what we had.