Who decides? On identity, indifference and decisions in time of war in Ukraine

After the Maidan Revolution, a war conflict against Russia unleashed in Ukraine, resulting in the separation of Crimea and the displacement and death of thousands of people. In this article, the author explains this process among the Ukrainian population and questions the political apathy that affects them in such circumstances.

Ilustración: Fernando Aristegui

By Darya Tsymbalyuk

Original version. For Spanish, click here.

No Man is an Island’

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


John Donne

Just after Maidan Revolution, or so called Revolution of Dignity, which took place in Ukraine in November 2013 – February 2014, was over, a hybrid war with Russia broke out in the eastern regions of Ukraine. It started in Donetsk and Luhansk regions where people, who did not support Maidan Revolution expressed their pro-Russian position. For these protests Russia sent in buses of Russian people, who acted as local separatists. In March Ukrainian semi-peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia. It has been a bit more than a year the war in Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk regions) keeps raging. Russia officially denies its involvement with the conflict; even though there are numerous proofs (weapons, captured Russian soldiers, phone conversations, etc.) that clearly show that the war was fueled and is constantly aggravated by Russia. Since the beginning of the war more than a million of people has been displaced, thousands were killed and wounded. Despite the ceasefire, existing only on paper, people keep dying every day. With spring coming Ukraine is expecting a number of further attacks, including a possible attack on a half a million city of Mariupol.

As a Ukrainian, coming from a Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, as a daughter of a military officer, who is now defending Ukraine in the east and as a citizen, who can not remain indifferent to the current situation, I have tried to share my thoughts and my own experiences in this short piece. It is subjective and personal, trying to show you the situation from the inside and not aiming to give you an objective and chronological representation of facts.

During Maidan Revolution and now I often hear people say that they are not interested in politics or that they are out of politics. To be honest I have never been very interested in politics per se myself. But what has been happening in my home country, Ukraine, goes way beyond politics. So when some of Ukrainians say that they are not interested in politics now, it sounds as if they are not interested in anything which goes beyond their private lives. But where does the border between a personal life and a life of society lie? Can you be totally disconnected and unaffected by the situation around you?

A couple of weeks ago a Ukrainian was killed in Moscow. He was attacked by a group of Russian nationalists. They beated him up right on a train station in Moscow. Video cameras documented the attack, and you can see how people just pass by indifferently, as if they do not see the act of violence. What was the man doing in Moscow? I don’t know, probably working, as many Ukrainians still do, mostly performing low-paid jobs. Maybe visiting his relatives, as many families were split between Ukraine and Russia after the fall of USSR. Was he interested in politics? Maybe yes, maybe not, but the reason for his death was exactly politics. Russian propaganda creates an extremely negative image of Ukrainians. We are claimed to be Nazis, who kill and eat Russian-speaking babies. No wonder that Russian nationalists attacked a Ukrainian man in Moscow. As sad as it is, you may not care about politics, but it still affects you.

I have relatives living in Russia as well. Actually, all of my relatives except mom and dad live in Russia. My grandmother lives in Moscow, where my father grew up, went to university and got married to my mother, who studied Russian language and literature in Moscow State University. In my childhood we used to go to Moscow every year. I used to know it better than the capital of my country, Kyiv, where I currently live.

Ukraine got its independence a year after I was born. So in a way we grew up together. In my childhood I lived in a Russian-speaking industrial city with a very post-soviet atmosphere, but growing up together with Ukraine I still got exposed to Ukrainian history and culture. Maybe because I had an incredible teacher of history, who took us on trips to other Ukrainian cities, and who passed to us her love for this land. And the more Ukrainian I felt, the stranger my time in Moscow was. It does not mean that I ever stopped loving great Russian culture, not at all. I still have an incredible appreciation for Dostoevsky, Tarkovsky and Rachmaninov… However I remember several strange moments feeling humiliated in Russia. Once my mom’s uncle, a very good-hearted and wonderful man asked us: “So how is it going in your Murliandia?”. By Murliandia he meant Ukraine and it sounded so scornful and disdainful, as if we lived on a godforsaken edge of the world. It is very common when Russians would not say Ukraine or Ukrainians. Even my grandmother calls me “khokhlushka”, which is condescending to me. I understand that when people use these words, they do not necessarily have an intention to hurt me. Nevertheless they still demonstrate the attitude of Russia feeling like a big brother with great culture and literature, and Ukraine just being its province, where mostly poor and uneducated people live. Often I felt as if many Russians never really took Ukrainian language or independence seriously. I don’t speak for all Russians, of course. I still have really good friends there, who are able to think outside of putinist propaganda. However there has always been this condescending attitude of Russia towards Ukraine, as towards many other ex-Soviet countries. But despite these attitudes Russia and Ukraine were always very bonded, not only by economics and history, but also by so numerous mixed families. During Soviet Union many people moved across whole country because of jobs, and that is why in the east and south of Ukraine, where there are many industrial cities, there are also big Russian minorities, and the language of the cities is predominantly Russian.

I grew up in such an industrial Russian-speaking city in the south of Ukraine called Mykolaiv. My home city still struggles to find its own identity. During Soviet times it was an important shipbuilding center, with three shipyards. Everything in the city was structured around the shipbuilding. However with the fall of Soviet Union, shipbuilding industry collapsed as well. For people who came to Mykolaiv and worked all their lives in shipbuilding everything that they identified themselves with had suddenly fallen apart. And many still struggle with their identity.

Right now the city presents an extreme contrast. From one hand, there is the 79th airmobile brigade as well as many other military units, among them some that were moved from the annexed Crimea. The 79th airmobile brigade was the reason my family moved to Mykolaiv. My father, a former military officer served in the 79th airmobile brigade until he retired. The brigade and other military formations of the city shape its Ukrainian identity. Anywhere you go you see men in uniforms – any bus stop, shopping mall, trolleybus… Whole city is painted in blue and yellow – colors of Ukrainian flag – fences, kiosks, pillars. There are billboards along big avenues with photos of Mykolaiv Heroes who have fallen for Ukraine. My high school was renamed in honor of one of the Heroes. At a first glance the city looks completely pro-Ukrainian.

But from the other hand there is hidden separatism, or confusion. I can’t really understand if those people support Russia, or just want to go back to Soviet Union, I am not sure that even they know. They do watch Russian TV though. Yes, can you imagine? We still have Russian TV channels being broadcasted! Just absurd. And Russian radio as well.

My last visit to my city I went to a store, which is located right across the military base of the 79th airmobile brigade. Inside of the store Russian radio was broadcasting the latest news from Moscow. Outside I saw men in uniforms, perhaps some of them were so called “cyborgs”, the legendary defenders of Donetsk airport, men to whom separatists and Russian soldiers were the greatest enemies. It is the city of very odd contrasts.

My city got one of the first and one of the biggest memorials to the Heroes of Maidan Revolution. It stands right in the center of the city. At the same time it is facing Lenin Avenue, and the main street is still called Soviet street. Another odd contrast.

I really wonder how people in my city can support Putin. Are they blind? Don’t they see all the crimes he has committed in Donbas and in Crimea? Are they just really brainwashed by intense Russian propaganda? And why do they watch Russian TV? Did not they realize that for more than 20 years they have been living in a different country? Maybe it is because they grew up in a Russian culture, always viewing Russians as friends, brothers, and they just refuse to believe that these are the “brothers” that are killing us? But then there are also people like my parents: my father went back to the army and is now in the east of Ukraine defending Ukraine, he had no doubt, even being born and brought up in Moscow, that he has to be on a Ukrainian side; and my mom, being ethnically Russian, never doubted too, she is 100% pro-Ukrainian. So probably this is not just the question of culture, but also a question of choice?

My mother lives in Mykolaiv, I live more than 500 km away in Kyiv. The capital is completely pro-Ukrainian. All blue-and-yellow. There are no visible separatists to fight. However there is still another enemy, maybe even a greater one – indifference.

Kyiv seems like a normal city, with cafes and theatres being packed despite growing inflation. Sometimes walking along the streets it is hard to believe that somewhere in the East there is war and people die every day. Sometimes I feel angry that life in Kyiv looks so merry when there is war in the east. But then I think that I don’t know how much these people in cafes and in theatres are involved with the events in the east. Maybe they donate money, maybe they knit socks for the soldiers, maybe they bring food to the hospitals. Maybe they think about war as much as I do.

In Mykolaiv it could be dangerous to volunteer openly. Women who make camo netting for the army have developed secret paths to get to places, to share fabrics, to do things.

In Kyiv it is easy to volunteer. The information about locations and needs of volunteer centers is all online, but even in Kyiv there are never enough people to help. There are always many after the attack. For example, after the last huge attack on the city of Mariupol, there was almost no place in the volunteer center I go to. Sometimes I wonder how many people have to die so that the rest of the country wakes up and does something?

When I come to the volunteer center I always realize how little I help. Often there is a girl who also helps in the main military hospital. She always tells stories from the hospital, from the injured young men, who lost their legs or arms, or best friends, or hopes in the east, young men who now have to be back to this often so indifferent reality. She tells us that people forget about them. But what about the government?, you ask. Oh yes, the government. Well, the government does try, but their help is too slow, inefficient and insufficient. Most of the things are done by volunteers. They are the ones that feed, dress and equip the army. They are the soldiers of an invisible front.

With the inflation dissatisfaction in society grows. People are unhappy about everything. They are often either grumpy about war, or just indifferent. “I do not watch the news, because they make me sad”, as one of my colleagues put it. Well, people in the volunteer centre watch the news and do get very sad, and that is why they try to do something. Hence this little community of mostly women of all ages, working day and night in an old historical tower, making camo netting and camouflage. For me coming there is like going back to Maidan Revolution, to that community of hope, trust and warmth.

“I am not interested in politics” – many say and keep living their apolitical lives, while journalists tell stories of Heroes fighting against evil in the east, of selfless volunteers literally being guardian angels of the army,  – and sometimes you get an impression that whole country is fighting against Putin, Russian aggression and separatists. In reality the ones who actively resist are many but not as many as there could be. All of Ukrainians really want peace, there is no doubt about that, but how many of them are ready to stand up for it? And we all know that if we do not stop the aggression now, Putin is going to go further into the land.

And if I look back – how many people were involved in Maidan Revolution? Majority or an active minority? And who writes the history of a country, a passive majority or and active minority? Will Ukraine resist Putin’s aggression thanks to selfless volunteers and soldiers who are ready to sacrifice their health and lives for the future of the country? I believe we will resist, I just think that if people had stopped complaining about government, crisis and war, and had helped in any way possible, peace and stability would come much sooner and maybe with a lesser loss.


Darya Tsymbalyuk. Born in the South of Ukraine, where she lived until she went to study abroad at the age of 17. After graduating from United World College of the Adriatic (Duino, Italy) in 2009, she went on to study in Kenyon College (Gambier, OH, USA), and graduated as a double major in Studio Arts and Modern Languages and Literature in 2013. Immediately after graduation she moved back to Ukraine and now lives in Kyiv. She took part in Maidan Revolution last year and currently she is teaching, translating, curating, writing, volunteering and planning to get back to painting soon.

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