Ukraine (IV): "Karina, Nietzsche, and Me." An Interview With Karina, 25, a Ukrainian Émigré
Karina is from Luhansk, a Russian-occupied breakaway region in the far east of Ukraine. We met in Warsaw, Poland, in April, through a mutual friend, Alina.
“My hometown is Luhansk, but I've been in Kyiv since 2014.”
Since the war in the Donbas?
“Yeah, but it was my plan to graduate from school and go to university in Kyiv. So it was always my plan.”
So the war didn't change things?
“It even helped me a little bit—no, I don’t want to say that.”
“Okay, I will say it. It’s just my parents didn't want me to leave Luhansk. They wanted me to stay there. And obviously, I didn't want to, I wanted to move to Kyiv. And when the war happened, it was obvious that I could not stay in Luhansk, so I moved to Kyiv without any pressure from my parents. It's not like the war helped me—that's stupid to say.”
It seems like a lot of young people want to go to Kyiv.
“Yeah, it's like all the young people, all the teenagers, they want to move to the capital of the country. Especially, I hated Luhansk during the last months because there were still many pro-Russian people.”
In Luhansk, I imagine there are lots of pro-Russian people.
“I don't want to say a lot. I was visiting Luhansk after 2014, and I was hearing people talking over there like, Oh, I miss Ukraine. Because it is shitty there right now. The Russians occupy the town but they made it really shitty.
When this city was in Ukraine, it was so much better. Life was better. Now, even the people who were pro-Russian are starting to say, Why does Ukraine not want to take us back? And I’m like…Seriously? You are trying to blame Ukraine, even now? So, even when they want to come back to Ukraine, they’re still blaming Ukraine somehow. Brainwashing is everything.
Even my grandmother and grandfather. For example, my grandfather, he was speaking Ukrainian until 18 years old. But in the Soviet Union, you cannot go to university if you speak Ukrainian, so he had to switch to Russian.
And I’m like, It's so good that they forced you to switch your language? And then they also complain by asking, Why won’t Ukraine pay us this money—how to call it in English, money for the old people?”
“Yes, the pension. And I was like, Seriously? They cannot pay you the pension because your city is occupied by Russians.”
“And they're like, Oh, it's so difficult for us to get this pension. Because my grandfather has two pensions. A Russian one, and a Ukrainian one. To get the Ukrainian one, he has to pass two borders. And my grandmother, she doesn't want to go through those borders, so during all of these years she has only had one Russian pension. But it's not Russian, it's…”
The Luhansk People's Republic?
"Yes…and it's paid in rubles…”
It's in rubles. Well, there you go.
I want to know more about how you got to Poland, why you're here, and how long you've been here.
“It's an interesting story because my company, where I was working, they offered me to stay here for free. They booked us a hotel for one month, but then we will need to find another place to live and pay for ourselves. They offered us to increase our salary a bit as life in Poland is more expensive for us, here in Warsaw.”
Oh, I thought you'd been here for some time. Like, years. Not sure why I thought that.
“No, no, I was in Kyiv until the 5th of March. I left because of war.”
So, you've been here since the 5th of March in Warsaw. How did you get here from Kyiv?
“It's also an interesting story. A colleague from my last work, she's living in Latvia, her company were organizing some bus. The company in Ukraine, it's an IT company, with a main office in Israel.
The Israel community organized this bus for the Israeli people who are living in Ukraine. But they were offering this bus for everyone, not only Israelis. I was on this bus, and I was using this bus to get to Lviv. Then I was sleeping in Lviv, in this office, on the floor of the kitchen."
You slept on the floor of the office kitchen? For how many nights?
“One night only. But it's fine, they don't have enough space because there are too many people. It's not like I’m complaining. It's just how it was."
I understand. When I was at the camps in Medyka I had to sleep in my car every night. There were no beds. Anyway, you got to Lviv on the 5th?
“No, it was a bus from Kyiv to Lviv, then a bus from Lviv to the border. And here I went to Poland. I went to a small Polish village, Dołhobyczow. There were a lot of volunteers who were helping. One volunteer offered me one place in the car. There were Polish guys who were helping who took another girl with two children, and me. They gave me a ride directly to my hotel here in Warsaw. From Dołhobyczow to Warsaw.”
All the way to Warsaw? And it was free?
“Free of charge, yeah. Even the bus was free for me somehow because this colleague from the last job, she told me, I was talking about money, and she said it's already paid for by their company, so it was free for me. This whole trip.”
Do you think you might want to leave Poland for somewhere else—Germany, Spain, France? You speak a little French, I mean, that would help.
“Yeah, but, when we win, I will go back to Ukraine for sure.”
I love that mentality.
“Right now, I'm here. But I don't care where to go. I don't want to live too far away from Ukraine. But maybe if I go somewhere it will still be in Europe. England is the furthest.”
“England is the furthest I’m willing to go. I’m just thinking about it…Canada is too far away.”
Yeah, it is very far. And it's expensive to get to. The flight is expensive. But there are a lot of Ukrainians there. I'm not sure if you know, but there are more there than anywhere else in the world outside of Russia and Ukraine.
“Of course, I know. We have diaspora in Canada. Plus, I know Ukrainian literature very well—okay, not very well, just scholar program. But there is a Ukrainian story from the 18th or 19th century about a guy who was living in a small village and his life was so hard and so difficult and then all of his village were leaving for Canada. He didn't want to join them, but eventually when he had to leave it was like the most horrible day of his life.”
To invest so much into one place, and then have to leave. I can see that. Do you know the name of the story?
“Yes, it's…[checks phone]...The Stone Cross by Vasyl Stefanyk. It's, like, a classic. Maybe I've forgotten some facts, but I remember for sure there was Canada. It was like a really huge story about Ukrainians moving to Canada.”
Now, feel free, by the way, to skip any question or only provide minor details if you don't want to get into it, but what was it like on the morning of the 24th?
“For me, it was like, Oh really? Because my first experience was in 2014. Everybody should remember that the war began not in 2022, it began in 2014.”
Especially for you.
“Especially for me. And I’m not complaining, but people forget. I just tell them, because the Russians made it look like it wasn't a war, just a Ukrainian crisis they say. I hate it. It's not a crisis.
Okay, so back to this question, sorry. What I felt…I felt like, Oh really, again? They decided to go all the way to Kyiv? For me, it was like anger. I was angry. I wasn't scared at all. I was like, annoyed by all this stuff going on. I was sleeping. I didn't hear it. A lot of people were woken up at 4:00 AM or something, but I didn't hear it.
I lived in a flat with two girls. Basically, Alina, she left before the war, and another girl arrived in her place. I was in this flat and I woke up with my alarm and I was like I will sleep a little more. But I heard my flatmate, she was running around, like running around the flat.”
They didn't wake you up, really?
“No. When I got up, I was looking at my phone. There were a lot of missed calls and messages. And I was, like, Oh no, something happened. And then I called another girl who lived with us, and she told me: I'm going by foot from Kyiv to Irpin!
Luckily, she went to Irpin and then, with her parents, they moved to another city. So, fortunately, she wasn't there when everything happened.
Another roommate, she was packing her stuff, and she told me she was already at the shop and there were a lot of people in the supermarket. This was while I was sitting at home. She had left. She told me she would go take some water because maybe there would be no water in a few days.
But, for me, my reaction was like, Oh really? They did it? Something like that. I even didn't go to the shop until two days after, because I didn't want to go there since there were too many people. And on the first day, my friend was so scared that she told me, Please come to me. So I packed my luggages and went to her and I lived with her for one day.”
Sorry, when was that?
“First day of war. And even at 9 a.m. I had a call with a client, and it was so weird. I mean, I wrote my other colleague and was like, The client asked me to have a call at 9 a.m… so what we gonna do? And he was like, Okay, let's do it anyway. And I was like, Okay.”
On the first day of the war?
That must've been awkward.
"It was so awkward because I opened this call and this [client], he's from Australia, and he was like, How are you guys, are you okay? It was at this point when I realized what happened and I was like, I'm okay, but I turned off the camera and started crying. My colleagues, they, like, started to talk, so I was out of this call after that point. I just turned off the camera. This was the first, maybe, emotional thing…like, when I realized it.”
“And honestly, these first hours I was doing like nothing. I was just like, Maybe I should pack a luggage? Maybe I should do this, maybe I should do that? Maybe I should go to the shop? I was staying like that, doing nothing.”
Like you didn't know what to do?
“Then my friend told me, Go to my place, I feel scared. And when I was right near her place, with the luggage, I heard a Boom! in the air. So close to me. So I started running. Then, yeah, I was living with her and her boyfriend for one day, I guess. […] But, anyway, after one day she left Kyiv.
And you were alone at that point?
“Well, okay, I went back to my flat. But first, when I was at her place, another one of my friends from my district wrote me, and he also knew my other friend, so we all knew each other for a long time, and he was like, I'm here alone and it's frustrating, can I go to her place? So he went also to her place and then we decided to go to my place with him. Because my flat was empty because my other roommate, she went to her friend's in another district in Kyiv. So I was with him until I left Kyiv.”
What did your parents think this entire time? They must've been talking to you and telling you to do something, like leave, or come home, or something like that. What'd they say?
"Um, I don't remember.”
You don't remember?
“My mom, she told me, like…I don't know. They, like, always think it's my choice what to do.”
They trust you a lot.
“Maybe. They can do nothing anyway.”
Right, right, you’re a grown-up.
“My father, he told me I should go like a refugee to England or to Canada. But it was just like advices. I mean, I don't remember. They didn't force me to leave Kyiv, actually.
But it was so heartbreaking when I went to Poland, my first night in Warsaw. It was at night and I texted my mom: I’m in Warsaw. And my mom answered me: That's the best gift for my birthday. It was her birthday, the night that I came here. I remember, I started crying."
Oh, man. Where are your parents now?
Where's everybody else - your grandma, grandpa?
“Also in Luhansk.”
What are your plans now? Do you have a plan?
“Yes. I want to find an apartment to rent, and then work.”
As obvious as this might sound, has this been a hard experience for you? Has this been one of the more difficult experiences of your life?
“Not one of the most difficult, because I had another more dramatic story that's not connected to this. But it's still very dramatic and very difficult. And I’m sure that, for most Ukainians, it's the most dramatic and traumatizing story for them. Maybe for me as well. Because before I always knew I could go back to Ukraine. But now, I can't. I mean, I can, but it's dangerous.”
One thing about Ukraine that I love, is that the people who are from there, like you, they love it and they want to go back. A lot of people that I meet who are from my home country, many just want to leave. Most people that I met from Paris, they kind of hate Paris, and just want to head east. I like how you want to go back to Kyiv. That says a lot about your culture and the fact that you feel so at home there.
“Yeah, I know a lot of people who want to come back. Actually, I know a lot of people who don't want to come back - it's like everywhere. But, still, as you mentioned, there are a lot of people who want to come back. And I realized it when I was living in Kyiv. It's the best city, honestly.”
I can't wait to go.
“Honestly, it's so fun. And it's free and it's comfortable.”
You said ‘free’?
“Yeah, you feel at home.”
Oh, you feel free. Free as in freedom.
“You feel at home. It's just perfect. It's beautiful.”
I’m sold. Actually, I’m hoping to be there for some of the rebuilding and repatriation. That's my plan, at least. Now, I want to ask you what are your hopes for the future and how do you hope this ends? What are your aspirations?
“I think we will win. We will rebuild our country, and we will become stronger than ever. I think a lot of people started realizing who they are, and what our culture is about, and what our history is about. Because Russians were trying to steal it all these years, for all these centuries.
Now we have an opportunity to remind ourselves who we are. It's our history, it's our country, it's our language. And that we're capable of rebuilding it as we want it to be.”
That's an amazing statement. Can I ask you what you went to school for? Like, what's your educational background? I’m just curious.
"It's philology. At the pedagogical university. English and French languages.”
Philology? You’re not the first person here…actually, I think it was Alina who also studied philology. I had never met anybody in my life who studied that, but both of you did. That's incredible. Like, Nietzsche was a philologist. If you know who Friedrich Nietzsche is, the philosopher. He's the only one I knew.
“That's funny - me, Alina, and Nietzsche.”
Is there something that you haven't had a chance to say yet?
“Russians are fascists.”
Let me know how you really feel.
“They don't need to exist.”
Who doesn't need to exist?
“Their country. It's not like I want to destroy them. I mean that they need to be divided. Their whole empire should fall. It should be destroyed. Because they, the Moscow government, were taking lands that weren't Russian lands. There are a lot of nationalities in Russia that forget their language, forget their history, forget their culture. A lot of countries, like Kazakhstan, like Kyrgyzstan…they're trying to erase and steal each of these countries’ cultures, and they’re trying to do the same to us. Actually, Russians started doing it a couple of centuries ago.
What is Russia telling us today? That after Ukraine they will go to Poland, and then the Baltic countries. Why? Because it's also Russian, they say. That's why the empire should be destroyed.
What is also important to mention is that not only Putin is responsible, but all Russians. Because they were paying taxes for the military stuff, and a lot of them support this war. And Putin’s polling statistics have increased. Some people say it's all propaganda and it's not true, but I believe it's true because I know Russians. I know their language, and I see them on the social media, sometimes I’m stalking them.”
You're stalking them?
“Yes, on social media. They have another platform, like Facebook, but for Russians.”
“Yes. I logged in to my old account there, and I looked through their comments and it was horrible. I know some of them are brainwashed, but they're still responsible.”
I don't know, I do have to commend, and can only think positively about, those who have protested. Now they're in jail. There are thousands of them. But, I mean, thousands within a country of one hundred and something million. That's a small number. But I’m sure you’ve seen women getting taken away by cops for having a sign that doesn’t even say anything. Also old people and children.
“They have one activist, in Russia, she’s so old that she survived the siege of Leningrad. And she sat there with a sign that said War in Ukraine and Syria - Shame on Russia, and she's sitting on the ground, and the people around her were bullying her and trying to destroy the sign. They were telling her that it's a shame that you’re doing this against your own country.”
As if she's a traitor or something.
“So there are still some people who are trying to change something. But, you know, it's like the same for…maybe I don't want to tell it…okay, for example, there are some places, even in Germany, for example, I saw there was a picture advertising with Russian and Ukrainian flags, with handshakes or something like that. For me, it's similar to Jews and Nazis shaking hands, this sign.”
Yeah, like an oppressor-oppressed relationship.
“I don't understand how the people think they can do something like this, this Russia-Ukraine sign.”
You've seen that? I haven't seen anything like this.
“On the internet. I saw on the internet the picture from some street in Germany, where they had this sign with the Russian and Ukrainian flags. And I think it's hilarious.”
Yeah, it is a bit strange.
“Why don't they understand it? Because Hitler, he was open about his ideas. He was open that he wanted to destroy Jews. But Putin, he's trying to hide it. Because he also wants to destroy Ukraine, it's true. But he wants to destroy them by making them think they are Russians. And that they are brothers and sisters. But it's wrong, because all throughout our history Russians have been trying to destroy us. Even with Crimea, they took part of our land. They’re our brothers, really? No, they're our enemies.”
Is there anything special or unique about Ukrainian people? Specifically for people who might not have been able to find Ukraine on a map before this war. What is it about Ukrainians that are unique, if anything?
“I don't know. I mean, this war helped us to understand that we are strong. Because we never knew that we were. We are like those people that are like, Oh, I’m not that good, but you are good, something like that. It's not like we're that perfect, not at all. But we’re naive sometimes. Do you have this word, naive?”
Yes, of course.
“We are naive, and too kind sometimes. We actually love to work. And apart from that, we're the same people as everywhere. But we are also brave.”
“Before, I was talking to this guy, and he kind of knew that Putin was bad, but he's kind of scared of him. And I don't understand why people are scared of Putin. I knew the story of him, he was nothing. His story from before he became president was so hilarious.”
“Well, he was a killer…”
“...when he was at school, he had such funny, hilarious names. You know, when someone is trying to bully someone? Even if I look at him, I see that he is so pathetic. I really don't understand. For us Ukrainians, we're not scared of him, we're just angry about him. And we're angry that a lot of Russians are so scared of him.”
Russians? Yeah, I mean, they don't want to go to prison.
“Maybe it's not okay to tell, but they’re like slaves that are angry not at their owner, but at the people who are free.”
I like that.
“They are blaming Ukraine for what's happening, but they cannot blame Putin. Because they're scared to blame someone who is stronger than them. So they think that Ukrainians are…the opposite of strong.”
“Weaker than them, and that's why they're blaming Ukrainians. But we are not weaker than them.”
“But it's so bad that they're bullying Ukrainians. It's not okay. They say that they hate Ukrainians.”
Like on VK, or whatever?
“On Instagram, there are some bloggers, and on TikTok. Some of them are getting paid by the Russian government to tell it, obviously. They’re like, Oh, Ukrainians this, Ukrainians that…They have a new story from Russian propaganda, they're paying them to justify the fact that Russian soldiers are raping Ukrainian girls. They're saying that, You know what, after 16 years old it's the age when you can have sex with a girl. And such stupid stuff. It's disgusting.”
How do you feel about the Russian propaganda regarding Ukraine being full of neo-Nazis and that being the justification for their military action?
“It's horrible, and it's evil. It's pure evil.”
“Yes. It's a lie. It's a pure lie. There are, in each country of the world, these Nazis. It's a fact. So Ukraine is the same as each country in the world. There are some Nazis. I didn't meet them in person, obviously. But we are not a Nazi country. We are a country with democracy. I mean, our president is a Jew. I mean, really? And what is funnier is that our president was Russian-speaking, at least before his presidency. It's nonsense. It's so evident that it's not true that it's nonsense.”
Nonsense and yet hundreds of thousands of people, or millions, believe it.
“Or want to believe it. For them, it's easy to believe Putin. They pay taxes for it. And you know what's
funny? No, it's not funny, don’t write that…”
Okay, I won't write ‘funny’.
“...in Russia, there are a lot of people living much worse than in Ukraine. Because in Ukraine, even in small villages, there is still gas and there is still electricity. But there are some places in Russia that are so horrible. And there are a lot of places like that. Apart from Moscow and apart from big cities where they have a lot of money, there are a lot of places where people live poorly.
Instead of helping them, Putin decided to destroy another country. I can say it because I know a lot of people who left Crimea. They told me it's not as good as it was previously. In Luhansk, there are still destroyed buildings right in the center. Nobody tried to reconstruct it. Life for those people became worse under Russia. So I don't understand why he's taking new territories. Just to use it for the government of Russia.
And that's why Putin is still in power, because a lot of people around him don't want him to lose, because they will lose as well. Because they are in one criminal friendship. They have a lot of money due to that, because they used other peoples’ territory and they used other peoples’ taxes to become rich. And they used oil and gas to become rich, the government and Putin, and that's it. When people are poor and people are stupid, it's so easy to brainwash them—but still, they're responsible!”
How do you feel about the international response? Has it been enough? Do you feel like other countries have taken you in and provided you with the things you need, or is there still a lot that you need?
“I mean, I’m not a politician, so I don't know much stuff about that. The only thing that I can do is say that we are grateful for the support that we get, and we are grateful for the support of the civilized world. That they speak up that they are with Ukraine, and that they support Ukraine. Even in Poland, a lot of Polish people support us and there are Ukrainian flags everywhere. And I guess it's important to see this Ukrainian flag in another country. About whether it's enough, I’m not a politician to tell.”
I was just asking about you personally, not the politics. Like, do you have everything you need? I think you've told me that you need a job, you need an apartment. And I hope you can find those things. Especially work. That's got to be one of the hardest things for a Ukrainian to find. Alina’s going to England, right, and her story's pretty typical. You find someone to take you in, but there’s still no plan for a job or a long-term place to stay. I feel like there's still a lot that can and should be done.
"For me, personally, it's still really hard to tell if it's enough. They're still doing something. You know, another country is aggressing against us. I can't blame another country for not doing enough. They're doing what they can. I mean…normally, people are not so happy about refugees.”