“Remember Also Me: A Mosaic of Interviews from Ukraine [part six]” by Laura Swart

Niobe Flux

This is the sixth of a series of interviews about the war in Ukraine, which began February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion. Laura Swart interviewed doctors, nurses, hospital patients, security personnel, humanitarian workers, and pastors. The speakers are not identified for security reasons.

Part Six. Ukraine, the Country

I started Ukrainian folk dancing when I was four years old. Before the first class I cried because I didn’t want to go to the class. But my mother was like, You must; it will be better for you. Now I understand; I enjoy dancing. I meet a lot of new people. We have performances around Ukraine and we go on the road to Poland. In Poland people explained their culture and we explained our culture and traditions. My mother also dances in this group, so it’s our family tradition.

My mother, my father, my brother, and my uncle, we are Russian-speaking people. It isn’t a problem for us at all to speak Ukrainian, at work or when we have a business conversation. It doesn’t matter which language you speak, because language does not influence your way of thinking. Language is only an instrument of communication, and it doesn’t determine your political views. I have very close friends that I speak Russian to. They answer me in Ukrainian. And we understand each other. And we do not argue. In Ukraine, you can speak Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan and Hungarian, English, French—any language, and you won’t be punished. You won’t be condemned by society. You have freedom of choice and that differentiates Ukraine from Russia.

Throughout the history of Ukraine, somebody has always tried to destroy us. So we have a very black-and-white mindset; life comes in streaks of black and white. Good times, bad times, good times, bad times. Good times can’t last forever; something bad will happen. But bad times can’t last forever, either.

You have to remember that before 1918, Ukraine was split between two empires. In the west it was the Austro-Hungarian empire, and in the east, it was the Russian empire. These were multinational, multicultural empires. They knew which church they went to, they obviously spoke their language and dialects—but to say that they were Ukrainian would be a bit of a challenge because they identified themselves by their local province or county. After the war, people became more politically self-aware because of the striving for independence.

Western Ukraine is more European, the east is more Russian—and they’ve always said, Russia! We love Russia! Russia is the best! But when the war started, they travelled 1,000 kilometers to come west. If Russia is so wonderful, why not go there?

I’m twenty-two years old. I want to create my own family and I want a peaceful country for my children.

Sea of Azov, courtesy of Laura Swart

Strong family bonds come from decades of adversity; you have to hold onto each other.

My dad thinks everything was invented in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded in doing one thing that no president of Ukraine has ever done. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has united the Ukrainian people like never before. Right now, we have ninety-eight percent support for Vladimir Zelensky. A record—a world record, you could say.

Growing up in Ukraine, I couldn’t just go downtown on my own as a young kid, because there was a good chance that I might get kidnapped or robbed or something like that. The country is not the safest; there’s a lot of criminal activity. So we grew up being wary of our surroundings. As much as I want to just share nice things about my country, there are things that are not nice. No country is perfect, right? 

By education my parents are both engineers, but in Ukraine they worked at a farmers’ market bazaar, essentially a Costco. They would get up early, go to their stalls and sell stuff. It’s such a common thing. People get a high education but rarely use it because there’s no jobs in those spheres.

Can you imagine it? Fields of sunflowers, filling the horizon!

So, you know, people that grew up under the Soviet yoke were taught that they’re all one great Slavic people. But the eleven percent who voted in the last election for pro-Moscow parties are definitely not pro-Moscow now. Because when soldiers come in rape and pillage and massacre people, that love is gone.

Some European leaders said that Ukraine should give up some occupied territories to establish peace. But our Ukrainian representatives said that it’s impossible. Firstly, many of our Ukrainian soldiers, many of our people—men, women, children, old people—have died for these territories, and now you’re asking us to give them up? It’s a bit impolite to Ukraine. And secondly, do we suppose that if Ukraine gives up these occupied territories, Putin will stop? Maybe it will be peaceful for one or two years, but after that, Putin will attack again and again, because he will taste blood; he will feel his power. He will invade Georgia, he will invade Moldova, he will invade Belarus, he will invade Kazakhstan. He will invade any country that is not a member of NATO. And that’s why it is not even a question. It’s not. It’s not under discussion.

Ukraine is a very multinational country. We have, of course, Ukrainians. And Slovakians, Polish people, Belarusians, Russians, Moldovans, Jewish people. So all of these people are different. They speak different languages. The only thing that unites them is this: They live in Ukraine and they want to live here.

When you look at a package of Italian pasta, it says, Made in Italy. But the wheat was grown in Ukraine.

I was born and raised here, and to be honest, I don’t think I ever would want to leave Ukraine. I don’t have any family outside my village, my grandmas and grandpas, they were all in my town. And I’m used to seeing the farm animals and fields and gardens. We often travel to Odessa and vacation by the shores of the sea, I have a lot of good memories related to that.

We have beautiful mountains in Ukraine. The highest mountain in Ukraine, it’s called Goverla. I’ve have been on this mountain. It’s 2,061 meters high. We have the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, and we have a lot of very beautiful buildings.

Sea of Azov, courtesy of Laura Swart

In Mariupol, pro-Russian forces are trying to convince Ukrainians that their city was destroyed by Ukrainian forces. If Ukrainians want to receive money (and not die of hunger), they must write a declaration stating that their house was destroyed by the Ukrainian army.

In Ukraine, you learn hard work; hard work is very valued. If you are told you have white hands, it means that you don’t do anything; you’re lazy, you’re scared to get your hands dirty. So it’s not good to be prim and proper with nice hands. You want to have calloused hands.

My father’s cousin lives in Russia. And they communicated all the time before the war started, but now they’ve stopped their communication. Because when the war started, my father called her and said, Your country started to attack Ukraine and your military started to kill our people. And she said, I don’t believe you. It’s false. And she said, It’s not our people that are killing you. It’s your own government. We tried to explain to her but she didn’t believe us. We are her family, and she didn’t believe us. She believes her news and what’s on TV in Russia. She’s Ukrainian, but about twenty years ago, she left Ukraine for Russia.  I don’t know why she decided to do that. And we have only one question. If the government of Ukraine is killing Ukrainians, why do all the countries of the world support Ukraine and not Russia? They cannot find an answer; they don’t know.

Much of Ukraine has a Soviet mindset. Many speak Russian, although they are now speaking Ukrainian, except the older people, who can’t learn it.

I like my grandma’s village so much because there is a lot of beautiful countryside around, a lot of forest. And it looks like our Ukrainian flag, blue sky and fields. And when the poppies come, it looks amazing.

What should I say to you? It’s a great shock, not only for Ukraine but for all of Europe; right now, there is a great risk of starvation in Africa, in Asia. Because Russia is blocking Ukrainian ports that supply grains.

When I was a young girl, we went on vacation to the Crimea, and my parents and I were on the beach. I saw a lot of children clustering around one man talking, laughing, and playing. I asked them, What are you doing? This man said to me, What is your language? What is your language? It is awful; it sounds like a crazy language. I was shocked. But I said one sentence to this man. I said, I’m Ukrainian, and it’s my language. It was the first time I felt this fight between Russians and Ukrainians.

Growing up in Kyiv, we always went mushroom picking in the woods. We went with trained dogs or pigs, but the dogs are better because the pigs eat the mushrooms, so you have to stay close to them. We used to go out for a few hours and return with a big bag of mushrooms. Not now—we have to stay on the pavement, because of the explosions in the woods.

A lot of Ukrainians know Russian. But a lot of Russians don’t understand Ukrainian. That is a result of Russification. They want Ukrainian people to forget our language. There is not a single generation of Ukrainians that didn’t suffer from Russia.

We have a national dish called borscht. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s really delicious. It’s soup with beets and potatoes and carrots, and it may contain meat. It can be cold but mostly it’s hot. 

Last summer, Putin said that there is no such country as Ukraine; it’s a figment of the Bolshevik imagination. And there was never a Ukrainian people. It is all just artificial, and he’s going to fix that. So he has by invading.

Grandpa helped my mother raise me. When everyone else was at work, he would play with me, telling me stories about his childhood. I would pretend to make food for him, using cut-up pieces of paper. I’d put everything on the kitchen table, and he pretended to eat it. It’s so tasty, he said. Then he played the accordion, and I danced around the table as he played.

Despite living in a city, we had a big garden; we had all of the berries you could think of, we had cherries, we had apples. And we lived right on the outskirts of town, essentially, so you would think it would be impossible, but it was a big garden.

Denis Bondariev, 2014

In Ukraine, it is common for kids to stay with their parents in the same town or the same home. People don’t move around; often they stay in the places where they were born. This happened in my family. My father bought a large area of land and we built a huge house, a really huge house—four levels—because my father was dreaming that we would all stay together. He worked and travelled a lot when I was growing up, so my real relationship with him started when I was fourteen and we built that house, because we build it with our own hands. It was a wonderful time, and I became close with my father. We became like best friends. He wanted all of his kids near him, together in the house.

We lived all together, my two sisters and my younger brother, we lived in this big house with separate apartments even after we got married and had children. We had coffee time almost every day with my father. We had a cup of coffee and twenty or thirty minutes of conversation. When I didn’t come for more than two days, he called me and asked, Is something wrong? Has something happened? Why didn’t you come?

After the war started, we weren’t not together anymore. One of my sisters moved to California, then my parents moved to California. My sister, she’s in Poland with her family. My brother moved to western Ukraine; his wife, she now lives in France. My family is in Sweden. Waiting for the end of war. It’s hard. We’re not together anymore.

Kiev, 2008; VasenkaPhotography

I have a really close friend. He’s studying in Poland now. One year ago, he got acquainted with a Russian girl, and they became friends. After the invasion, this girl from Russia, she was crying and begging him, saying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry for my country. I’m sorry for the actions of my country. On Instagram, she posted a flag, it was the flag of Russians who are fighting with Ukrainians against Russians.

So this girl from Russia posted this white, blue, white flag. And she says that right now in Russia, your every movement, every step, is controlled by the police, by the regime, by power. If you post on Instagram some oppositional photos, oppositional tweets, oppositional notes—if you write that you are against Putin or don’t like the war—if you write that—that this is a war between Russia and Ukraine, and not a “special military operation” as Putin calls it,  police officers will come to your home and they will handcuff you, and you will go to prison. Because it’s illegal to call it a war. But she did that. She posted that flag.

My grandma cooked every Sunday. She cooked varenyky. Do you know what that is? It’s potatoes. Dough with potatoes. It’s a traditional Ukrainian dish. She cooked it every Sunday, especially for my granddad, because he liked it a lot. Different families have their own varenyky; it might be with potatoes or with cherries or cheese or with anything you want.

Today I came home, and my mother made varenyky for me. Varenyk with blueberries.

The empathy people have for each other and the support, I hope it stays. The kindness—I believe we need to learn about a little bit of that.

Bats at night and bullfrogs booming all around, zooming through the lake water.

In Irpin where it was bombed, the most disturbing thing for me was the shooting of a monument of Taras Shevchenko. He is a really important poet and political man in Ukrainian culture. He suffered a lot under the Russian empire and is like the father of Ukrainian culture. When I saw this monument shot in the head, that was really upsetting. It was not just the action itself, because it’s just a monument; Shevchenko is already dead. There was something more involved. Russia does not just want to occupy territory. They want to kill all nations. They want to kill culture. They want to kill history.

I don’t have any close relatives in foreign countries. For example, a grandma in Poland or grandfather or aunt or uncle in Estonia or Slovakia. Like, almost all of my relatives were born in Ukraine. And they are here.

In our village, the streets are clean now—already been cleaned. And already all tanks, all military machines and everything is like, gone, and so it is empty. And people started to clean their yards, to clean their houses, to do some housework. A lot of people are starting to rebuild, to make some plans what to do next, or just sitting and relax—not relax—just sitting and thinking what to do next.

People in my city are painting the benches in beautiful colours, making it more beautiful than it was before.

I like our language because it’s the language of my parents, and it’s my first language. We have a lot of beautiful Ukrainian songs, and I like to sing in Ukraine. But a lot of Ukraine songs are sad. Some are about war, about mothers, about sons who become soldiers and go to war. It’s our history.

Before this whole conflict, not a lot of people knew about Ukraine. Now people know.


Laura Swart is a novelist, poet, and playwright. She has taught creative and critical writing to adults for over thirty years, encouraging students to find and raise their writing voices. Her humanitarian work around the world—most recently in Ethiopia and Ukraine—have shaped her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.

From Laura Swart: My profound thanks go to the men and women who shared their lives and their stories with me. Thank you also to those who translated during interviews. Finally, Borys Sydoruk, chairman of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, spent several hours teaching me about all things Ukraine. Thank you.

If you would like to support Ukrainians who are helping Ukrainians, consider donating to Dental Hope, which provides free dental work to victims of the war throughout Ukraine. 

[These interviews were further edited and arranged by ACM‘s S.L. Wisenberg.]