Ukraine (VI): "If I had a chance, I would kill them with my own bare hands." An interview with Helen, 24, a Ukrainian in revolt.
Helen left Crimea alone in 2018 to escape to Poland, fleeing Russian influence and corruption. Today she lives in Krakow, where we met for an interview.
ALYONA (HELEN), 23, Donetsk
“I was born in Donetsk and escaped to Crimea in 2014 at the outbreak of the war in the Donbas. My mother was engaged and he, my step-father, is Crimean. Then, the strange situation came. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. For a while, there were two currencies in the markets. You could use both Russian or Ukrainian money, but, eventually, it switched entirely to Russian.
Despite living in Russian-annexed territory, I was unable to get Russian citizenship. I was 15 and I was a bit too young since you could only get it at 16.
My school teacher in Crimea, she was a teacher of mathematics, and she switched to Russian propaganda during the 2014-2015 school year. She would say, ‘We are part of Russia, Crimea always was part of Russia.’ Politics became part of the classroom. If you were against it, you were in a real bad spot. Nobody supported you. I was too shy and I couldn't resist, so I was silenced [into acquiescence]. I was exposed to lots of Russian propaganda, like the TV network Russia-24, which told me every day ‘You are strong, you are part of Russia, a strong country.’
At the age of 16, I applied to university. I studied at Crimean Federal University in Simferopol from ages 17 to 20. I started there until I understood what was going on there…it was a total mess. The corruption, the everything. I realized something was wrong. I had to pay bribes all the time. In hospitals, even. You couldn't receive a driver’s license without a bribe. So, I decided to escape to Poland and restart.
My parents are pro-Russians. My mother and father divorced. My father is in Donetsk and blindly pro-Russian, but didn't fight in the war. My mother is also pro-Russian. They have been supporting Russians all this time and I cannot speak with them…even after the war came in all of Ukraine, they still think Ukraine deserves it.
I was alone when I came to Poland at the age of 20. I planned it for one year. I was studying Arabic philology, because the Russian education system is bullshit. I saved some money for my escape while going to school. I graduated with this diploma from a Ukrainian remote institution, because Poland didn't recognize my Crimean degree, so I needed this second one. It was a one-year Ukrainian diploma [comparable to a U.S. GED].
I then applied for university in Poland, and my family supported me while I established myself in Krakow. I later graduated and found employment here.”
How do you identify now, as a Ukrainian?
“Before the war started, the one reason I wanted to leave was the huge corruption in Ukraine. I didn't want my taxes to go into some pockets of rich people. But after war came, I…
…you know, there's a strange patriotic feeling when your country is being destroyed. I feel this, and I never thought I would feel it. Because I consider myself a multinational person with no country.
Truthfully, I am lost. Am I Ukrainian, or not? My father says that I'm Russian, but I'm not. It was very difficult to distinguish between being Ukrainian and Russian. Now, the only thing you need to ask to distinguish yourself is whether you think Putin is bullshit or not. That's all. It's totally black and white. No gradients and no grey areas.
I never had a home like you might call home. I was so lost all my life. I lost my home at the age of seven because of the wars. I’ve been a refugee all of my life. But now I understand who I am and where I should go and what I should do. I need to rebuild my country after this war.
You know, I was impressed by my Ukrainian fellows and how they united. Even my enemies, pro-Russians, called me and asked me if I’m okay.
Today, I’m totally sure Ukraine will win. I’m a bit pitiful of Russians because I have a lot of Russian friends. We speak the same language and have the same culture. Regarding Russians, I’ve read Dostoevsky and I understand what they are because our Ukrainian literature is about suffering and oppression by someone.
We have a difficult relationship between men and women. In Russia, men are considered superior to women, and beatings are legal and institutionalized. In Ukraine, men and women are considered equal. In western Ukraine, it’s not even equal, because women actually physically beat men sometimes.
By the way, in our literature in Ukraine, you can find this quote:
“Make love, but not with people from Moscow.”
Where is your extended family in Ukraine, where are your family's roots?
“My aunt, uncle, and cousins all came from the eastern part Ukraine, specifically Donetsk. My grandma’s building was recently destroyed, so she moved to her friend’s apartment. She cannot escape. Because she refused at first, and didn't believe that Russians would come, because shes so pro-Russian. She believed that Russians would one day rescue them from Ukraine's so-called Nazi regime.”
What do you make of the Kremlin's attempts to use this as a justification for the invasion?
“My educational background is in international relations, so I know about casus belli. The Russians tried to prepare a casus belli by accusing Ukraine of bombing something in Russian-controlled territory. When Ukraine announced that women had to serve in the military three months before the war, as well as men, I understood something was coming. Something is coming…every Ukrainian was feeling this.”
What was it like on the morning of February 24th?
“Since it's expensive to buy Airpods and Apple products in Poland, my friend bought me Airpods in Ukraine that she was going to give me in Krakow on the 24th. My friend escaped literally two hours before the first bombings, carrying my Airpods to me…
On the morning of the 24th, on the first day of the invasion, my friend called me…when I heard this call, I understood everything. She would only call me only under such serious circumstances. Her name is Lilea, and she is a good friend of mine. She was in Kyiv, and she called me with tears, saying ‘Can you help me? Do you have relatives here with a car?’ because she doesn’t have driver’s license. She called and asked if I can help her escape to Poland. I asked my friends to help, but their cars were already full.
I called another, my friend Natasha, from Donetsk, because we’ve already experienced war. When I called her and said ‘The war is come,’ she was like, ‘...Again?’ And I said ‘Yes, again.’
Natasha currently lives in Poland, but her parents are in Mariupol, where dogs are eating bodies in the streets. Like Stalingrad, the same. It's like Stalingrad.
Natasha's parents prepared water for two weeks in Mariupol. But after the third week, they understood there would be no water, no food, no gas, no internet, and it was cold. They were in a house, not a flat, so they burned wood to warm themselves and took water from a river to drink. They eventually escaped on March 20th to a western part of Ukraine. Natasha was calling me all the time, crying during all these days, since she lost contact. She received a list of people dead every day, trying not to find her parents’ names.
Mariupol is the most dangerous place on earth right now. Where civilians have taken guns to protect themselves.”
Do you feel as guilty as I do about leaving?
“I have these same feelings about guilt, Liam. I wish I could help. I can use swords, but not a gun. I studied swords for two years in Kendo school, but I cannot shoot. The frustration! I can use a Katana and a Kendo sword…but not a gun.
It's funny, there are heroic stories coming from Ukraine. I saw a video from one woman, on the third floor of her apartment, and she threw a Molotov cocktail right into a Russian tank!
You know, in Ukraine, we have witches. Every second woman here is a witch. But we respect them! No burning them or putting them on fire here! All Ukrainian women are kind of witches. I don't totally believe in all that, but there is some truth to it.
And, well, there's a video of a witch cursing a Russian tank, cursing that the man in the tank will never get an erection again. And later, two Russian tanks misunderstood each other and shot themselves. Yes, these two events are connected!
There are other stories. For example, I heard of a dove that killed a Russian drone. Or it was a bird? Maybe it was a dove. I've also heard of grandmothers that killed Russians by poisoning them with laxatives and then burning the bathroom when they were inside. There are also many stories of Gypsies stealing Russian tanks too.”
What role does the Russian public have in this conflict?
“First, fewer than the reported number of people support the war in Russia. Not the majority. The statistics and the polling data in Russia should be questioned because the Russian people are under duress. You know, I was pro-Russian myself. It's really painful to understand that you're wrong and that all you did was wrong. It's painful for people. And I guess a lot of people who support the war are just afraid of this truth.
Personally, I don't hate Russians. Ukrainians don't hate Russians. We hate only governments and those who provoke the war.
If I had a chance, I would kill the Russian soldiers and government with my own bare hands. I don't think you can understand this feeling, this pure hatred. This desire to murder. It's something from animals. It's not human. I felt this burning desire to kill the perpetrators of the war. If I had an opportunity, I would do that. And every Ukrainian would.”
Do you think Ukraine should accept a ceasefire agreement?
“No, Zelensky should not accept Russia’s ceasefire demands. You don't understand what Ukrainians are. We are the same as centuries ago. We love our country and our land the most. We are patriots, because we were suffering for decades, for centuries, to receive this land.
In our literature, our authors, the most popular, Pushkin, said that our land is the most precious thing we have. We will die, our children will die, our grandchildren will die. But our earth remains, and we need to protect it.
If we surrender now, they won't stop. Even if we surrender Donbas and Crimea, they will want Poland, they will want Lithuania. Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union.
Putin is a gopnik, and his government speaks in prison slang like gopniks. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself speaks in prison slang. He recently said ‘Whether you like it or not, bear with it, my beauty.’ This is an expression referring to women [insinuating rape], but that men do it anyway because men are stronger and women don't have the right to stop it. They say these things on the official level when referring to Ukraine. That's why Ukrainians don't want to give up any territory. It's a gopnik gangster country, Russia.”
How do you see the war ending?
“My feelings say ‘Please close the sky.’ But I have an international education, and I know that they cannot do that. Nobody wants to have a nuclear war, right? I want Ukraine to stand alone. I want Ukraine to show all the world that we are strong, and that we can protect ourselves, even if we are alone. We will close the sky ourselves.”
As a witch, can you put a curse on Vladimir Putin for me?
“I already have!”
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