CW: PTSD, Suicide, Sexual Harassment, Violence, Death, Displacement
One last blog post.
This one regarding the last leg of our trip as an appropriate and important denouement to our journey.
Following our visit to Avdiika, we had two full days in Slovyansk. Patrick fell ill after a Diablo Pizza (topped with about a dozen full Jalapeno peppers) and literally stayed in bed for 48 hours. Matt and I also slept for a good portion of day one, and the second day did some writing. There isn’t anything exciting to report from our time there. Without a translator, we couldn’t do anything productive since most of the population is Russian speaking. And the level of dialogue we were engaging in is beyond my Ukrainian Language abilities. So, we rested and recouped from the physically and emotionally exhausting week in Eastern Ukraine, and then caught a night train back to Kyiv.
In Kyiv I met with another cousin who I didn’t know existed, a second-cousin once removed, Misha (Mykhailo). My paternal great-uncle is his great-grandfather. He is 22-years-old and studying to become a lawyer. And, like so much of the other family I connected with, he is an excellent and hospitable tour guide.
He also shared his intelligent and thoughtful insights on Ukraine’s situation (which were echoed by some of the veterans we met with later in the day). In his opinion, which he reiterated several times, Ukraine is a modern day colonial state. He made the analogy that Ukraine is a “very pretty girl,” and that historically there have been many boys who have fought over her. And right now, there are two boys that want her – Russia and the EU/USA. (It’s generally my preference to not use gendered analogy’s, but he put it well).
If Ukraine becomes closer to Russia, Ukraine loses because it will be absorbed into its oppressive power sphere. But, if Ukraine becomes closer to the EU and the Western World, it also loses. So much of Ukraine’s economy and industry in currently tied in with Russia simply because of geography. He made the analogy that if Canada cut off all ties with the US, but wanted to continue relations with Mexico, it would be problematic. And to become dependent on the EU/US would only mean more economic dependency.
He feels that Ukraine needs to become economically and politically independent, and not trade in its dependence on one superpower (Russia) for another (EU/USA).
As we toured Kyiv, it was obvious how much Mischa loves the city and his country. He, too, was on Maidan during the Revolution of Dignity. He loves history, and would share insights about the history of Ukraine and Kyiv as we walked around. We walked down Andriyivski Uzviz (St. Andrew’s Descent), the oldest cobblestone road in Kyiv, and he told me about a famous Ukrainian movie filmed here, After Two Hares. We walked down to the famous Dnipro River, and went up the funicular, where there were stunning autumn views as we ascended toward Kyiv’s old city.
As we walked back to my apartment, we passed through Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s Independent Square. He pointed out an image screened onto a large canvas covering scaffolding over a building on the square’s west end. It says “Freedom is Our Religion,” with the image of a broken chain. The scaffolding is covering the damage of a building that was burnt out during the Revolution. He described, as other Kyiv residents have criticized, that it is Ukrainian propaganda. People feel that the city is masking the turmoil the city went through, as well as more deep-seated problems such as continuing corruption within the Ukrainian government, in an attempt to appear more “western,” particularly for the Eurovision 2017 competition which took place in Kyiv.
In the evening, we reconnected with one of the veterans we met with last time we were in Kyiv, Dimitro aka Dima1 (everyone is apparently Dima). We met at a pub in a converted warehouse. He generously shared with us some of the footage he took with his GoPro when he was at war in Eastern Ukraine. He also invited more members of his squad to the bar: Dima (yes, another Dima. He will be Dima 3. Because we met Dima 2 the first time we met with Dima1), and Vasyl. Another veteran also joined us, but wasn’t a part of their squad. The first time we met with Dima1, I asked him about the role of women in the war. And he promised that if we met again, he would set us up with a female soldier. And so Alina also joined us for drinks.
The night was more of an informal get together than the first meeting we had with the veterans (a few more drinks, if you know what I mean). And in this way, I feel like we connect with their stories differently. Not better or worse, just different. Once again, you’d never expect people this age to be veterans. They could all be our peers, friends, and colleagues in Canada.
I was especially grateful to gain the female perspective on the war. About 10% of Ukrainian soldiers are women. However, women can’t join the Ukrainian army. The only way women can serve their country is by volunteering with the Right Sector, Ukraine’s independent, volunteer army. Women cannot serve as snipers or foot soldiers, so they often take on other more supportive roles. Alina, 22, was extremely open and generous with her insights. She is a steadfast Ukrainian patriot. She chastised the waiter for speaking Russian, asking him “Why do Canadians speak Ukrainian, and Ukrainians speak Russian?” He retreated with his tail between his legs.
In the war, Alina worked as a medic and took part in the battle at the Donetsk Airport. At the time, she was 19-years-old. I asked her if she experienced sexism during her service. Unsurprisingly, she did. She described that to be respected by your colleagues you had to make a choice – to be either “a man or a woman.” At first she would receive many comments saying that she should be at home in the kitchen, and other stereotypical things like that. But when she took on more “masculine” characteristics, she gained respect from her colleagues. While she herself didn’t experience any sexual harassment, she knows of a lot of other women who did and continue to.
Our conversation with the veterans lasted well past the technical “last call” at the bar, so I can’t begin to reiterate everything we talked about. But Dima 3 and Vasyl also shared their own stories of how they became involved, and their experience of war. It seems common that people met on Maidan during the Revolution and became very close. And when Russia annexed Crimea, they called up their friends and became their own “squad.”
Vasyl asked me what people in Canada thought of the Revolution – if they believed that the driving force was because Ukraine wanted to become closer to the EU. I said yes, that is what most people in Canada believed, and they all kind of rolled their eyes. For them, they said, it wasn’t about the EU. It was about an independent Ukraine and about basic human, individual rights which were being stripped from them by their own government. They, too, believe that Ukraine is a sort of colonial state. They don’t want Ukraine to join the EU or be a part of Russia. And talked about an idea they dreamt up about a sort of “Baltic-Black Sea Union,” including the countries bordering Russia, including Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and potentially some parts of Russia that would break apart from the rest of the country.
It was fascinating to hear what each of the veterans are doing since their time fighting in Eastern Ukraine. They have all been shaped by their experience as Ukrainian soldiers. The two Dimas (Dima1 & Dima3) have gone into business with a variety of projects, including one to do with DNA and genetic research. As Dima1 told us more about this project, and went on to describe so many more he is involved in, he expressed how he wants to be a part of building the small-to-medium business sector in Ukraine. He believes it is important to strengthen the country’s economy. He also has a project idea to sell Ukrainian wool products within Canada, but wants to team up with a Canadian designer to do so. (So, if anyone has any ideas, let me know and I will hook you up)!
Vasyl in now in University studying in psychology, and Alina has become involved with numerous NGO organizations serving veterans. She was very open about her experience coming back from war, describing how one minute she would be fine and the next she would want to commit suicide. She is seeing a psychologist and has thrown herself into services that serve veterans, and hopes to continue finding ways of bringing psychological help to the young people returning from war. They all see their post-war life as a way of continuing to serve their country without being a “soldier.”
We later learned some of the stats of returning soldiers. Suicide rates are incredibly high. Of the soldiers who have returned home, over 500 suicides have been reported. But this report does not include deaths which may appear as “accidents,” or soldiers who have died by suicide during their deployment. It is believed the number of suicides is closer to 1000.
Dima3 made a point, that amidst the chaos they are living within and after all that they went through, that it is important to remain positive. And to continue striving toward positive, constructive ventures. Because otherwise, they have nothing.
The bar continued to shut off more and more lights around us, and we got the hint that it was time to go. I thanked them once again for meeting with us and sharing their stories, and that it was my hope that our production could raise more awareness in Canada of what is happening in Ukraine. Vasyl thanked us for doing what we were doing. But then said, sarcastically, that it is good that more people in Canada will know there is a war in Ukraine, than Ukrainians in Ukraine. And they all sort of chuckled…
On our last day in Ukraine, Matt and I visited the History Museum in Kyiv, where there is currently an interesting exhibit about the current war, and an installation that has been created in part with support by veterans. There are pianos in the museum where sometimes veterans play music. There is a photo exhibit of photos from Eastern Ukraine, and a photo exhibit comparing photos from Ukraine in WWII to the current war. There’s also an installation of war weapons and munitions suspended in the stairwell.
In the evening, we met once again with Paul Niland, the self-proclaimed “accidental” political commentator we met with at the beginning of our trip. He was interested to hear about our trip, and we were eager to gain some of his insights on our experiences.
Once again, he was a wealth of knowledge. He spoke very positively about Ukraine’s future. In response to the idea that Ukraine is a modern day colonial state, he said that Ukraine is already an independent country with an independent government and an independent economy. He said that following the Revolution, there was an initial drop in the economy and employment, but currently, if you look at the numbers, that Ukraine is on the rise. Although it is not substantial, Ukraine’s GDP is positive. He also said that Ukraine is gaining more jobs, and that labour is Ukraine is cheaper than it is currently in China. Not that that is a good thing but it could bring more work to the country.
The most valuable thing Paul reminded me about was to consider our experiences within the broader context. I told Paul about some of our experiences speaking with IDPs and individuals affected in Eastern Ukraine. And while we spoke with a good number of people, I was reminded that there are currently 1.7 million displaced people in the country. Each with their unique and individual stories.
I was reminded about the deep and pervasive web of Russian propaganda and the far-reaching effect of the Putin agenda. I spoke in a previous blog post about Olya, the mother of 4 who fled during the attack in Slovyansk, and her comments about how even though she is a Ukrainian, she thinks it would be better to be a part of Russia because there are more jobs. Paul put her comments in this context for me: that if she speaks only Russian, that she likely gets most of her news from Russian sources, and is therefore victim to Russian propaganda. He said that Russia is not the strong economic utopia full of jobs that the Russian media purport it to be. Russia’s economy has tanked and there are currently more jobs in Ukraine. In fact, if you examine the numbers, it would be better in the long term for anyone seeking employment to remain in Ukraine.
As we spoke more with Paul about the convoluted web woven by the Putin administration, it became apparent just how exhausting it would be to live amongst this. And Paul confirmed that it is exhausting, but this is the web that so many people in Eastern Europe have lived within their entire lives. That it is all they know.
And it is very real. Russian propaganda is not a conspiracy theory. He referenced a conversation he had with someone he knows that lives in Canada. She said it could not be possible for Russia to have rigged the Crimea referendum, which was held after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It was reported that a whopping 87% of the population voted.
This woman didn’t believe it was possible for the government to rig an election. She simply couldn’t understand how a government could manufacture something of that scale. But the Russian government operates very differently than the Western world understands. Paul returned to the numbers. He described that maybe it’s possible that the older ethnic Russian generation would be pro-Russian, but the historically oppressed Crimean Tartar population which makes up about 15% of the population unanimously boycotted the referendum. It would be very unlikely that 100% of the younger, Ukrainian-born generation would all have voted, let alone all in favour of Russia. The numbers just simply don’t add up. To put it in perspective, there was a 31.5% voter turnout in the recent Edmonton civic election…
While in my previous blog post, I allowed myself to thoughtfully explore and attempt to empathize with why someone may be sympathetic toward Russia. I chose to explore the micro perspective on how this war affects individuals. However, let me be clear that I have not forgotten the broader political picture. And that I recognize the importance of considering the micro perspective within the broader context.
A conflict did not exist within Eastern Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea. Perhaps there were Russian leaning sentiments, particularly since that part of the country was economically and industrially tied to Russia during the Soviet Union. However, this conflict has unequivocally been manufactured and executed at the hands of the Russian government. And this conflict is only the most recent iteration of a long history of oppressive travesties against Ukraine constructed and realized by the Russian government.
To understand this conflict fully, you must consider the complexity of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It is important to understand that the seeds are deeply rooted in the threat of Ukrainian sovereignty from Russia, and it is important to consider the historical context. I invite you to read this article, which will explain things much more eloquently than I could:
The Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 in Ukraine was a threat to Putin’s power. As Paul put it, Russia is currently a corrupt and dysfunctional “sh** hole.” It is in Putin’s best interest to discredit democracy. If civilians begin to recognize the corruption within their country, recognize the lavish lifestyle lead by the oligarchs and the government and compare it to their current health system, for example, that they too will consider revolting.
It is in the Russian government’s best interest for Ukraine to be in turmoil, and to create a façade of “look what happens when your country revolts.” Even in the last week, there was a “protest” that appeared to be mounting outside the Ukrainian parliament. And Russian propaganda took hold of the situation and conflated it to their own gain, showing how Ukraine is “always in turmoil.” You can read more about the dud “protest” in an article written by Paul Niland, published the day after we met with him: https://www.kyivpost.com/article/opinion/op-ed/paul-niland-dangerous-populist-gamble.html
Russian aggression in Ukraine, with the use of propaganda and military backing, continues to undeniably fuel this conflict. It has senselessly murdered, wounded, displaced, uprooted, and devastated the lives of millions of people in Ukraine.
The majority of the country is peaceful. Ukraine is not a dangerous place. Ukraine is a gorgeous country, rich and diverse in culture, beauty and hospitality. But the fatigue of the war is rampant throughout the country. And while it is most apparent in the displaced people we spoke to, it appears more subtly in the rest of the population. There is less media about it now. It is common for a few soldiers to be killed every week, so the war doesn’t make headlines anymore. Both in Ukraine, and internationally
It’s understandable that people in the more peaceful parts of the country want to, and frankly need to, continue living their lives. There may be an “out of sight out of mind” mentality that our veteran friends hinted at amongst Ukrainians, which in its own way may be a form of fatigue. Regardless, Ukraine’s complex history of centuries of oppression has affectively traumatized and stagnated this beautiful and rich country.
We have now arrived safely and soundly in Canada. And honestly, I fear the “out of sight out of mind” mentality in myself.
When I visited my maternal grandmother’s village, Veliky Lazuchin, and met my cousin, Tonya, she showed me the things that my grandmother mailed them when Ukraine was still living under the Soviet Union. Tonya kept Baba’s letters. She pulled from a cupboard two scarves my Baba sent her family in the 1970s — they had written her telling her how poor they were. Life was hard for my Baba in Canada, but at least here she could build a life for herself. She no longer lived in a country which systematically kept her poor. And she did what she could for the people who were at the mercy of these higher powers.
Personally, I can’t do much. It is a frustrating feeling. But when we asked people in Ukraine how they felt international assistance could best help them, many people said that what we were doing was important. They thanked us for not “forgotting them.” Dima1 had said that we are “soldiers fighting” in our own way.
This is my last blog post. And for the next several months, together with a group of incredibly dedicated and talented artists, I will be pouring my heart and soul into creating a piece of theatre that will honour the people we met in Ukraine, honour my heritage, honour my grandparents and their strength, and draw awareness to the events occurring in Eastern Ukraine.
This is my way of doing what I can for the country where my roots are planted. The land where I can dig through an overgrown graveyard and find the tombstones of my great-great grandparents.
Blood of Our Soil will be performed in Edmonton, AB from March 1 – 9 at the Westbury Theatre, in partnership with St. John’s Institute.
There are many ways to stay updated on our production:
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Our website it currently under construction, but will also be an excellent way to learn more about our company and stay apprised of our work:
How to further support Blood of Our Soil:
Our project has received support from several organizations, including the Shevchenko Foundation and the Edmonton Community Foundation. However, even though our workshop production was mentioned in Parliament by Linda Duncan, and that we received overwhelming support from Edmonton’s Ukrainian Canadian community, we were disappointed to not receive local support from the Edmonton Arts Council. One of their reasons indicated that they did not understand why travelling to Ukraine was important in the development of this production.
While we remain positive about our pending applications, we still need support from our community to fully realize this production. If you can donate, please visit our GoFundMe page for more information:
Thank you for following our adventures and misadventures in Ukraine. The experience has been simultaneously enlightening, fulfilling, infuriating, and profound. I am so grateful for the candidness, sincerity and generosity of the people in both Canada and Ukraine who helped make our research trip a possibility.