Tuesday, November 29, 2022

100 days of Russia’s war: What our staff learned about their country, the world, and themselves

by The Kyiv IndependentJune 3, 2022 10:27 pm
Share
The Kyiv Independent's journalists work in the field during Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February-May 2022. (Courtesy)

Editor’s Note: As June 3 marks 100 days of Russia’s all-out war, the Kyiv Independent publishes its staff’s takes on what they have learned or understood over this time.

Olga Rudenko, editor-in-chief

100 days. When Russia started its invasion in February, it was impossible to imagine this catastrophe would be on for 100 days with still no end in sight.

100 days may sound vague, but each day represents thousands of tragedies: lives lost, people tortured and raped, homes destroyed. 

But it’s not all a pure nightmare, it’s also a time of revelations. People show their true colors, ideas get shaped, and societal trends manifest themselves.

I used to be reasonably skeptical when I heard that we, Ukrainians, were of an entirely different nature compared to our Russian neighbors. Yes, I thought, we are freedom-loving and have had three revolutions in less than 30 years, while Russians have allowed themselves to be dragged back into the swamp of authoritarianism without putting up a fight. But surely it must be a combination of factors from recent history that led to that? I thought, all people are vulnerable to succumb to the craziest of propaganda. 

But this invasion completely changed the way I think about the differences between the Ukrainian and Russian people. 

Russians aren't a normal nation who got lost and turned the wrong way, or got unlucky that an authoritarian ruler came to power. No, they turned the wrong way many times, impossible to know how long ago, until finally the country became what it is: a fascist state – no, a fascist society, a mix of aggressors and their apathetic accomplices. The way they have swallowed up the murderous war against their neighbors and cheer on the killings and rapes is an indictment not of the Russian state, but of Russians as a group. Their state will be defeated and they will have to reinvent themselves as a nation. 

Ukrainians, on the other hand, aren’t a group that got “lucky” for getting Viktor Yanukovych instead of Vladimir Putin. There is a reason for why there hasn’t been a Putin in Ukraine, and that reason is that the Ukrainian people would never tolerate Putin. In Ukraine, there is no societal demand for a violent strongman in power. The Ukrainian people’s strength is in themselves. They don’t need a “strong hand” – their own hands are strong enough, and they feel it. We saw it in the early days of the invasion, when regular people confronted armed Russian soldiers, and we see it today, with people protesting Russians in occupied Kherson, and with the Ukrainian military fighting fiercely at the front lines. 

I'm not a social historian, and I can’t explain what exactly led to this utter difference between the two people who have a shared past. But what this invasion made absolutely clear is that they don’t have any shared future. Ukraine defeated Russia on the first day of the invasion, when it didn’t surrender, and there is no changing that. 

The Kyiv Independent's journalist Igor Kossov holds a cat as he visits Borodyanka, a largely destroyed town in Kyiv Oblast, on April 6, 2022. (Illia Ponomarenko)

Igor Kossov, investigative reporter

Last independence day found me on the twilit summer streets of Kyiv that I’ve come to love so much.

I walked along Khreshchatyk Street, looking at all the families with blue and yellow ribbons, laughing couples and children with balloons. And I pictured Russia in the distance, coiled to strike.

And a thought popped into my head, fully formed, about how weird it is that as a Russian-Ukrainian (born in Kyiv and raised in New York), “half of me came from this and half came from that which wants to destroy this.”

I didn’t know how correct that phrasing would turn out to be. Because five months later, Russians forced their way in from all sides, destroying cities and murdering thousands. 

Some of those fathers I saw on Khreshchatyk would be crouched in the trees, firing rocket launchers at Russian tanks or shot in the head with their arms bound. Some of those mothers and children would be torn apart by shells or driven into exile. Some would be tortured or raped.

My brain was trying to tell me something then, because I stupidly, irresponsibly underestimated Russia until the end. I hadn’t fully realized how much it wanted to destroy Ukraine.

Russia doesn’t just want the land. It doesn’t just want the geopolitical dominance. It literally wants to annihilate what it means to be Ukrainian, as Putin, his cronies, his TV stations and loyal subjects have repeatedly stated. The fact that they haven’t succeeded in most regions was not for lack of trying. They may as well have said “Ukraine delenda est.”

I bring this up because I’m not the only one who underestimated Russia’s desire to destroy Ukraine. Many Western leaders and people were shocked at what they saw when it should have been blindingly obvious to any of us if we had bothered to look. 

And some of us still don’t get it. Some still believe in treating the Kremlin as an honorable adversary at the negotiating table. Some of them are leaders. 

If there’s one thing we should have all realized is goddamn certain: Putin’s Russia cannot be negotiated with. Only stopped. This thankless task falls on Ukraine’s shoulders but it can’t do it alone.

Daria Shulzhenko, reporter

This war made me realize how fragile a human life is. One moment you stand at a train station, expecting to evacuate from a town once beautiful and lively but so dreadfully mutilated by a brutal war, leaving everything behind to save the most valuable — life. A split second later comes a terrifying shrieking sound followed by a loud blast. It takes away everything — all dreams, plans, and hopes. And just like that, dozens of lives are taken away. 

Such terror has been happening all over Ukraine for 100 days now. Ferociously and villainously, Russia kills innocent Ukrainians every day. 

Right now, somewhere out there, a Ukrainian mother is crying over her killed child. She wants to recall her baby’s laughter. Instead, her memory brings out the horrifying image of the dead body torn apart by a Russian missile. There is a grieving father who has lost his whole family and does not know how to keep on living, or a sister who mourns her brother tortured to death by Russian troops, by Russia itself. 

Even though Russia has been abusing Ukraine not only for the past 100 days or eight years, but for decades and centuries, I have never fully realized how badly it wanted to wipe out my country. 

Now I see that as long as Russia exists, as long as its imperialism is thriving, my life and the lives of all Ukrainians are under threat. Even this very moment could be my last moment just because I am Ukrainian. Just because Russia wants it that way. 

And it’s not only our task now but the world’s task as well to never let Russia get what it wants. Because what it wants equals the end of Ukraine and the free world. 

The Kyiv Independent's journalist Asami Terajima stands on a wreckage of a residential building in downtown Kharkiv on May 7, 2022. (Dmytro Sanin)

Asami Terajima, reporter

When I was a child, words like “war” and “missiles” sounded so foreign to me. 

My young self assumed that there is unbreakable peace in the world and children no longer had to see their parents head to war – something that I only read about in textbooks. Never had I known how much of a privilege it was to enjoy that carefree childhood. To not know what air raid sirens and shelling sound like. To not know what the aftermath of a missile attack looks like. To not know what dead bodies smell like. 

It’s a privilege that Russia took away from millions of children across Ukraine. 

Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, more than half of the nation’s children have had to flee their homes. As Moscow continues to wage war in Ukraine, more and more children are being exposed to unimaginable horrors.

There are kids who had to watch Russian soldiers torture and kill their parents. Russia’s war did not just take away their youth, but also stopped the hearts of an unknown number of Ukrainian children. They never got the chance to grow up, go on a first date, and maybe even get in trouble in school and laugh about it years afterwards.

I still think about the 14-year-old survivor of Mariupol siege whom I met weeks after her family barely escaped the bombed-out city. She showed me photos of her completely-destroyed house and how the corpses of her classmate’s family just laid there because no one could bury them due to relentless Russian bombardment. She still holds on to the photos, wondering whether her friend was buried. 

I think about what I was doing at her age, and my heart aches. But it also made me realize how vital it is that we continue reporting – we need to make sure that the world is witnessing the toll of Russia’s eight-year-war. 

Toma Istomina, deputy editor-in-chief

Just minutes into the war, I learned that your own apartment can feel like the least safe place on earth. And that keeping busy with work can help you stay sane when your life is in danger. And that no matter how prepared you think you are, when your country is invaded from all fronts, as missiles rain down on your city, it turns your world upside down. 

Weeks into the war, I learned that saving a single human life can push some people to sacrifice their own and that for others, thousands of lives are merely means that justify the ends. And that you can publish news about your hometown under fire with your family at risk and still be professional, as tears are running down your cheeks. And that the flowers you receive during a war easily beat any other bouquet you have ever held in your hands.

Months into the war, I learned that you can get used to death, to the overwhelming death that you hear and learn about every single day. And yet after a certain number of lives lost, you become numb to it because your mind can only take so much. I learned that you can work for months without proper time off and still be productive (though your boss may disagree on this one). And that you can paradoxically experience the most beautiful feeling during the darkest of times. Though enjoying it to the fullest is a challenge that you might not dare to take up. I learned that an act of bravery is the easiest thing to do when courage is part of your nature and that it’s also absolutely unattainable for those who come short of it. Even 100 days into the war. Even after so many examples. 

The Kyiv Independent's journalist Alexander Query during a work trip in northern Kharkiv Oblast to listen to the testimony of residents of villages recently liberated by Ukrainian forces on May 11, 2022. (Alexandre Larcan)

Alexander Query, reporter

100 days of war, and Ukraine is still standing. I already knew about the extraordinary strength and the Ukrainians’ faith in their land but this war confirmed that these are not just words. 

Ukrainians taught me a sense of duty I look up to and adopt in my daily routine. We, journalists, owe it to the soldiers defending Ukraine’s sovereignty.

We owe it to the countless victims of the war that Russia started against Ukraine eight years ago to erase a country whose only fault was to dream of its own future.

I’ve learned not to shy away from tragedies. Ukraine has 40 million stories to tell, and the world needs to listen. 

There’s always room for hope, and I’ve learned to cherish the friendships I’ve built here, hardened by the steel of war. There’s no more room for self-pity, or fear. They dissolved in anger toward Russia.

I’ve learned to live with the knowledge that we may be hit by a Russian missile tomorrow. It means acting today without yielding to fear.

The center of Europe is now in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, where countries that know Russia too well won’t back down in front of Vladimir Putin’s madness. They know that fear is Putin’s favorite weapon. 

Fear shapes the moral compass of Western diplomacy. History books won’t be kind to Germany, and France, where I’m from. I’m ashamed of my homeland’s spineless excuses to hide cowardice in the face of a colossus with feet of clay.

Oleg Sukhov, reporter

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was not surprising to me. It is the logical culmination and (probably) the end game of Putin's semi-totalitarian regime. Putin had been preparing for this invasion for years, and his regime had been evolving towards a more totalitarian and more war-mongering stage for decades.

As someone who used to live in Russia, I was not surprised that most of the Russian population either backed the aggression or didn't speak out against it due to conformism. This slavish and aggressive attitude was instilled during the seven decades of Soviet totalitarianism and the two decades of Putin's dictatorship. If Russia were a small country, this problem would not be as bad because Russia would not be able to harm anyone and would have to solve its domestic problems without launching aggressive wars. But the fact that Russia claims to be a great power poisons this attitude with insane imperialism, which will eventually kill the Russian state.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine has already cut off all cultural, political and economic ties that Russia could have had with Ukraine and ensured that Ukraine will never be part of Russia's sphere of influence. It is the death knell of the Russian empire. Eventually, this neo-Soviet behemoth is likely to collapse like Nazi Germany in 1945, while Ukraine has the chance of becoming a full-fledged constitutional republic with rule of law and joining NATO and the EU.

A soldier with a code name Andrea and Anna Myroniuk, a journalist of the Kyiv Independent, speak about the hostilities on the front line in Mykolaiv Oblast on April 28, 2022. (Courtesy)

Anna Myroniuk, head of investigations

The war made me once again realize how fragile our regular day-to-day lives are and how valuable are simple things like a call from your mom or a hug from a friend.

The war has also taught me that however difficult it is we must carry on with our lives because that is something our soldiers are fighting for, too. We must continue to stroll the parks and squares of our cities, to laugh, and to love.

I have never been more proud of Ukrainians, both military and civilians. Never have I felt so honored to be a Ukrainian myself.

This war made me reconsider love. Out of love for their country and each other Ukrainians bravely fight to protect their future.  

The way our people self-organized and helped one another during crises is inspiring.

The way people across the European Union supported Ukraine is touching.

I was moved watching Lithuanians chipping in to raise money to buy a Bayraktar drone for Ukraine, and then once again when Turkey decided to give it for free.

I recently went abroad for work for the first time since the full-scale war broke out. Having arrived in Poland late at night I went to a café to grab a bite while I was waiting for a bus. It was raining heavily, and I was wet, cold, and hungry. They usually don’t serve food that late, but when they heard that I was from Ukraine, they did. Their chef brought me some soup for free. I burst into tears.

I wish this unconditional support we feel from common people across Europe was mirrored in the EU’s support for Ukraine on the official level.

Lili Bivings, contributing editor

Since the war started I’ve learned just how deep the belief in Russia’s “greatness” and “strength” runs in political circles, newsrooms, and through the halls of academia– all over the world. While these actors spent decades marveling at Russia, they tragically disregarded Ukraine and Ukrainian history. 

As a master’s student at an American university, I was shocked to learn just how far people were ready to go to defend Russia, Russian culture, and Russian society, even as Russian bombs rained down on Ukrainian cities and report after report of Russian atrocities came to light. Those who defended Ukraine were at times labeled as “emotional” or “biased” because of personal connections to the country. 

At the same time, we’ve seen to what extent Russia has underestimated Ukraine – its love for country, willingness to fight, and desire to be free and independent from Russia’s malign influence. 

It’s precisely these combining forces of dismissing Ukraine, of refusing to heed its warnings, that have led to the horrifying consequences Ukrainians have to live through with each day that Russia’s war continues. Consequences that include some children being forced to live the rest of their lives without their parents.

What we should all take from this tragic moment in history is that the voices of the oppressed have much more to teach us about the oppressor, and that if we are to move forward, we must learn to listen to those that suffer.

The Kyiv Independent's political editor Oleksiy Sorokin stands in front of destroyed Russian artillery near Shevchenkove, Mykolaiv Oblast, on April 28, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

Oleksiy Sorokin, political editor

It’s been one hundred days of unimaginable pain and suffering for myself, my family, friends, and every person I know. The worst part is that it feels like we are now used to this pain, and I don’t know how we will be able to get out of this state even when this brutal, unprovoked, and unjust war is over.

We are accustomed to sitting in bomb shelters, hearing air raid sirens, to knowing that thousands of people are killed, injured, raped, and tortured day and night. We are used to not having days off and feeling guilty for not doing more.

We are also accustomed to many people in the West being tired of war, tired of us dying, not giving up, and not willing to sacrifice our lives and our country for the comfort of their homes.

We are constantly asking people not to become numb to war crimes, but in a sense, I feel that we are moving in this direction ourselves.

We see destroyed cities, lives shattered, and families torn apart, and we understand that this is the new normal we live in.

It’s heartbreaking that we are now accustomed to death, to losing people that would otherwise have lived, who would have been loving parents, caring friends, and wonderful people.

Yet, we are also used to the notion that we cannot lose. This is a war of conquest, a war of colonization, and a deliberate genocide in the making. We are familiar with the fact that this war will end with either the fascist Russian regime falling or us dying.

And to be honest, we’re not planning on dying anytime soon.

The Kyiv Independent's reporter Anastasiia Lapatina stands near a group of soldiers from the territorial defense on the outskirts of Irpin, a Kyiv suburb, on April 13, 2022. (Courtesy)

Anastasiia Lapatina, reporter

Before the war, I really assumed that I knew what that word meant. 

I closely followed events in other conflict zones around the world, I was friends with people who grew up and lived through wars, I listened to their stories and tried my hardest to deepen my understanding of their experiences. But when I heard my mother’s terrified voice as she was clinging to a mattress pushed against a window – an illusion of safety in a house that had no basement – with artillery going off just hundreds of meters away from our home, I realized that I truly knew nothing about war. 

Three months in, I feel I know a lot. 

I know a lot about destruction – not in the abstract, but in the most literal sense of the word, when entire cities essentially disappear, with only rubble, dead bodies, and terrified survivors of Russian occupation left behind. I know about suffering – the unimaginable and all-encompassing kind, when a little boy stands near his mother’s grave, a man loses his entire family to a Russian airstrike, or a mother watches her young daughter being raped by Russian soldiers.

I also know a lot about privilege – the absurd kind, because none of the things described above apply to me or my family, and that is a privilege. We’re all alive, our house is mainly intact, none of us is injured.

But more importantly, I know a whole lot about love – the kind you never thought people were capable of, yet they are. In these 100 days, Ukrainians have shown to the world the true meaning of bravery, resilience, and love  – the love we have for every centimeter of our land, our language, our culture, our democratic values, all things Russia has so persistently tried to destroy. But I am genuinely convinced that love will always defeat hate. It has to. And it is precisely because of this love that we will win. 

Olena Goncharova, Canadian correspondent

I remember day one of the war as clear as if it was yesterday. I'm sitting in my office, thousands of kilometers away from home, I'm on a night news shift knowing that something terrible will happen tonight. I want to pray, but I feel I can't find the words. And then I see the avalanche of messages – from friends and family, most of them almost identical, with just two words that sent chills down my spine: "It started." It's almost 5 a.m. in Ukraine and nobody sleeps. I'm watching a video of a missile hitting the city I love more than words can describe, my hometown, my Kyiv. I'm wailing, I can barely pull myself together, I'm nothing but heartfelt grief at that moment. It's the day I want to erase from my memory, yet I know – just like millions of fellow Ukrainians – I will never be able to forget it.

Fast forward to day 100. It's been over three months since the war seemed far away, and you understand that the problems you used to care about are not problems at all. The perspective has changed now that your relative's house was destroyed by a missile. Now that you’ve seen a child who used to excel at dance competitions with their legs amputated. It is hard to silence that guilt inside of you that never goes away because you happened to stay alive and thousands of others were not as lucky. So you do what you can to help. And no matter how small and insignificant your contribution may seem, it matters and gets you closer to the moment you can send an avalanche of messages to your loved ones, saying just two words: "We won!" 

The Kyiv Independent's journalist Thaisa Semenova prepares for a zoom call at her friend's office in Lisbon, Portugal, where she fled from Russian invasion of Ukraine on April 16, 2022. (Courtesy)

Thaisa Semenova, reporter

In the early days of the war, I interviewed Anastasiia, 25, my university peer. She fled Ukraine with her two-year-old son, spending hours in line at the Polish border and then walking 13 kilometers on her feet. She couldn’t even hug her husband goodbye as people in the crowd pushed him away. Shortly after our conversation, I learned he died in combat in Kyiv Oblast, and she became a widow at 25. The love of her life was gone, just like that.

Since then, I can’t stop thinking about how a war can take away everything  – the people we love and our own time on Earth. I am among the lucky ones who haven't lost loved ones to war. It’s scary even to write this as if thinking about losing someone could somehow bring the tragedy closer. 

In those 100 days, my mornings have started the same way: A minute after waking up, I’d grab my phone and text my loved ones. I would ask, “how are you?” but would actually mean so much more than that – “I love you,” “I care about you,” “I hope you’re safe,” “Please be alive and text me back.” 

As cheesy as it may sound, during the war I’ve learned that love is what matters the most in life. Not a career, ambitions, or money. 

I left Ukraine two days after the invasion. That’s probably why I haven’t had nightmares about explosions or shelling. My dreams are about the pre-war life that I’ve lost — holding hands with someone that I’d just met at some bar, drunk laughing with friends, hugging my mom. Being in exile, I only hope one day I get to have it all back. 

Sergiy Slipchenko, reporter

In the winter of 2013, I closely followed the events unfolding throughout Ukraine, as a peaceful demonstration turned into a bloody revolution known as the Revolution of Dignity or EuroMaidan.

Despite being thousands of kilometers away, in Toronto, I felt a strange, unbreakable connection with those strangers in the streets. 

Watching my countrymen stand up for what they believe in, and die for the future of our nation, I experienced great pride in being Ukrainian. 

All of a sudden, for once in my life my peers knew about Ukraine, where it was located, and the strength and spirit of the people living there. It felt like a rediscovery and resurgence of Ukraine and its culture.

Shortly after the revolution, Russia tried to squander that victory and chain Ukraine up through a fabricated conflict. However, Ukrainians fought back and despite an ongoing war, the country continued to prosper. 

In 2021, I moved to Kyiv, wanting to come back to my homeland, with my wife and kids. Those short few months were without a doubt the best time in my life. I had the job of my dreams, our own place to call home, and a beautiful city to explore. That perfect life was ripped away from my family and me, and yet I know I am one of the lucky that managed to flee the war unscathed. 

Others, those much less fortunate than myself, have to endure unimaginable horrors due to the whims of a tyrant. Yet, I know that at the end of this nightmare Ukraine and its people will remain free, their spirit unbroken, unyielding. 

Independent journalism
for an independent Ukraine
Independence is an expensive currency. Both Ukraine and its journalists are paying a high price to preserve its independence. Support Ukraine's trusted journalism in its darkest hour.