KYIV, Ukraine — In the summer of 2021, I was finally happy.
My parents were moving to the Kyiv region to live near me. They were leaving behind our hometown, Donetsk, which had been one of the biggest cities in Ukraine and one of the most developed.
Today, Donetsk is a depressing place with few job opportunities, media censorship, and one of the worst incidences of human-rights violations in Europe. Аll because the “Russian World” was imposed upon it eight years ago, when Russian-led forces declared it a “republic.” I was very happy that my parents could start living a normal life again, in the capital city.
And now? They are forced to seek shelter whenever they hear a siren that warns about possible airstrikes. They are experiencing the nightmare of shelling and heavy fights again. All because of the greedy dictator who could not imagine his fantasy empire without my country.
“‘I am writing this from an underground shelter.’”
On Feb. 24, around 5 a.m., I woke up to a call from my boyfriend’s mother. She told me that Kyiv was under attack and asked us to go to a safe place. Like a lot of Ukrainians, we could not say that we were caught by surprise.
For months we were reading news about Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and a possible Russian invasion. Many Ukrainians did not want to believe this. At the same time, we were preparing: reading instructions on how to behave during wartime, going to first-aid training, getting our backpacks ready in case we had to leave our home urgently. A lot of people signed up for territorial defense, to get trained so they would be ready to help the military in case of invasion.
So, after that call, my boyfriend and I checked the news, took our backpacks, and left our flat. We did not plan to evacuate. We just went to a safer place in Kyiv where we could continue working and be near a bomb shelter.
Looking back at that moment of getting ready to leave the house, I was not panicking. Rather, I was angry, angry because I did not know if I would ever come back home, angry that he had done it — that Russian President Vladimir Putin had given the order to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign state, meaning there would be a lot of civilian casualties. Because he does not care for ordinary people.
Life under the shelling
I am writing this from an underground shelter where I and 20 other people are staying for the night. Since the start of the invasion, the nights have been especially dangerous, and, if people have an opportunity, they sleep in underground shelters. Some sleep in metro stations as they, too, serve as bomb shelters.
Those who stay at home can choose to sleep in the bathrooms or corridors — the main guidance we have been given is not to be near windows, because you can be injured by broken glass in case of an explosive wave.
There have been attacks on residential areas in different cities around Ukraine. In Kyiv, several apartment buildings were damaged. In Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts — in the north of the country — kindergartens were attacked.
Kharkiv in the east was so heavily shelled over the past few days that it is now difficult to count the casualties. That is despite the claim from the Russian authorities that they “came here to protect the people.” We now spend time hiding in bomb shelters to avoid their “protection.”
Some shops and supermarkets closed down after the invasion. But, at the same time, most of the big chains are organized, so that they will have some shops open with a steady supply of needed products. You can’t say that there is a shortage of food, at least not in the cities. At least not now. Public transport in Kyiv is working and working for free so that citizens can enter the metro as a shelter or to get around town, or they can use other transport modes.
“‘I am just sad that it took so much time for people around the world to see the true nature of Putin’s regime.’”
The banking system is working, and some supermarkets in Kyiv even have an option of cash withdrawal from a cashier. Each day now we have a curfew. This means that you can’t go to the streets and should stay at home or at a shelter during certain hours (usually from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.). But on Sunday we had the whole day as a curfew in order to trace the activities of Russian soldiers in civilian clothing who had infiltrated the city.
In the event of a possible attack, we can hear a siren. We also have official media channels, social media, radio and even some mobile apps that alert us when we need to hide in the shelter.
I am now getting a lot of support messages from my friends around the world. It is great to see a lot of people gathering in peace rallies in their cities to support Ukraine. They don’t believe Putin’s lies anymore.
I am just sad that it took so much time for people around the world to see the true nature of Putin’s regime. And so many innocent lives.
Ukrainians are different
Open the map, and compare the size of Ukraine with that of Russia. Compare the size of the military budgets of the two countries and the number of military personnel. You will probably be amazed how Ukraine is still standing and fighting for so long against one of the biggest forces in the world.
Putin himself was hoping for a quick victory here. Yes, we received a lot of military-defense support from the world over the last few months, but it is not about that. It’s about something more meaningful, something that Putin did not take into account, something that makes us significantly different from the Russian invaders.
The overthrow of the Russian-aligned government of Ukraine in 2014 happened after then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a political association and free-trade agreement with the European Union. More Russian pressure, of course. But this was not even the main reason for the Revolution of Dignity.
“In 2014, we understood: If we don’t act now, sooner or later we will have a dictatorship just like our eastern and northern neighbors.”
The main reason occurred when demonstrators — mostly students who were preparing to stay overnight on the Maidan in central Kyiv — were surrounded and attacked by riot police on the orders of Yanukovych’s government.
At that time, eight years ago, we understood: If we don’t act now, sooner or later we will have a dictatorship just like those in our eastern and northern neighbors. You can watch the documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” on Netflix to understand these times better.
Just imagine this — a city within the city. In this inner city of protestors surrounded by barricades for defense, there was a place for a kitchen, a place to sleep in tents, a place for artists, a place for an “open university” for lectures and open-air discussions. This “city” was well supplied by food and medicine, which were donated by ordinary citizens and by businesses.
The system of defense was well-organized, with a changing of the guard. Ukrainians were united and were determined to fight for their rights, to fight the dictatorial regime that could oppress its citizens, censor the media, and prosecute those who were involved in peaceful demonstrations. And this dictator was afraid of us.
“‘Some of my friends are fighting, some help with evacuations, some work on logistics to supply much-needed products.’”
There is a meme circulating right now in Ukraine: In a photo our ex-president, Yanukovych, is talking to Putin. And he tells Putin: “I know them. You are fucked.”
Yanukovych fled to Russia because of our Revolution of Dignity. We won. It was not easy, and we lost over 100 people. But we won our right to live in a democratic and free state where citizens matter.
Right now, I can see the same level — or an even stronger one — of unity and organization. Some of my friends are fighting, some help with evacuations, some work on logistics to supply much-needed products, and some translate Ukrainian news and share it with the world. Ukrainians are very good at uniting against a common enemy.
We are strong
This is what Putin doesn’t get: We are not Russians. We can stand for ourselves. And we have our own history. Over the last 30 years of this history, there have been six different presidents all democratically elected in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin has been ruling in Russia for 20 years.
We have a track record of successful campaigns for our rights. We have a strong civil society that is pushing reforms — from healthcare to anti-corruption. Of course, it’s not a bed of roses: We still have weak government institutions, a corrupt judicial system, and so on. But we are evolving. And our civil society is strong.
“‘I feel like we are now fighting not only for ourselves, but for Russians and Belarussians, who could not overthrow their dictators.’”
And now members of this strong community are fighting for their life. I don’t know what will be next. But I am sure that we won’t give up fighting for our country, for its independence and freedom.
And I have something to say to the Russian people: You should fight against your own dictators. Freedom is not given; it’s taken.
I feel like we are now fighting not only for ourselves, but for Russians and Belarusians, who could not overthrow their dictators. We are fighting for Europe and U.S. leaders who were naive or so interested in business relations with Russia that they didn’t punish Putin enough for the annexation of Crimea and for moving his military into the Donbas in 2014.
That’s a lot of pressure to handle. And we could not handle all of it alone. That’s why we need support. We need unity from leaders around the world, and we need ordinary citizens to push for this support.
This is an unprecedented time. And it demands unprecedented actions. Like closing the airspace above Ukraine so that no Russian bombs could attack civilian buildings anymore. Like imposing devastating sanctions and isolating Russia. Like giving Ukraine military support from NATO, providing financial and humanitarian support to Ukraine, and accepting Ukraine to the European Union.
The international community should do everything to stop civilians from dying right now in the middle of Europe. Or be ashamed for the rest of their lives.
Olya Gvozdyova is a former activist of NGO Donbas SOS, helping internally displaced people from Donbas since 2014.