Things Only Seem to Change

In Ukraine, history just repeats.

Words: Linda Kinstler x Images: Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Olga Rud was tending the garden at her dacha outside Kyiv when the phone rang. Ivan, her 25-year-old son, was on the line. “I was just gardening, with my peppers and tomatoes, when he called. He told me to stop doing that, that he was going to war,” she says. “I didn’t think he was serious. I thought, He will die there.” It was the fall of 2014. The Ukrainian Army was said to be fighting a rogue band of armed separatists hoping to resurrect the eighteenth-century territory of Novorossiya, “New Russia,” by consolidating the eastern Ukrainian cities of Luhansk and Donetsk into a satellite state of the Russian Federation. In reality, the separatists were supported by highly trained Russian forces with sophisticated equipment who’d been sent into Ukraine to further the land grab that had begun with the annexation of Crimea earlier that year.

Ivan is Rud’s only child. A round woman in her sixties with a soft face and bright eyes, Rud also has an apartment in Kyiv, in the city center, a part of town that only the middle class and officials from the old nomenklatura (the civil service), had the connections to secure. Rud, who’s retired, lives off what is probably a comfortable pension from her husband’s years in the civil service, one of the most attractive elements of the old Soviet system. After Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014, one of the first things the Kremlin did to secure its control was promise to double pensions for all Crimean residents.

Later that month, Ukrainian special forces opened fire on protesters camped out in Kyiv’s Independence Square, near Rud’s building. Mother and son rushed to help: Ivan joined the men building barricades and protecting protesters from encroaching police officers, while Rud worked as a cook and medic for the injured. They weren’t the sort of family that would have joined the movement under normal circumstances, she says, but sitting at home, they were “so close.”

By March, having pushed the country’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych out of power, many Ukrainian protesters started readying battalions to face Russian forces on the eastern front. By the time Ivan signed up to fight that fall, those battalions had incurred thousands of losses and the country was begging for lethal aid from the European Union and United States. Draft-dodging was rampant, and the dilapidated Ukrainian Army, which had never recovered from the pullout of Soviet expertise and equipment after the fall of the Soviet Union, needed more men. Ivan joined the Donbas battalion, a group of fighters infamous for threatening to mobilize a coup against the newly installed Ukrainian government if it attempted to negotiate with the separatists.

I thought, He will die there.

Rud heard that groups of women were getting together to make supplies for their husbands, sons, and nephews at the front, so she searched online and found one of these groups with headquarters not far from her apartment. “I said, ‘Girls, let me make my son a chimera’”—a full-body camouflage suit—“‘and then I will come back and make as many as you need,’” she says.

Four months later, Rud was hunched over her work in a crumbling corner of Kyiv Fortress, the nineteenth century imperial western outpost and famously brutal prison. Under Soviet rule, part of the sprawling complex was converted into a museum, but much of it was left unoccupied, and during the revolution, volunteer groups and resting battalions on rotation in the city set up camp inside one of its timeworn towers. Women of all ages lined its peeling walls, ripping bedsheets into strips and weaving them into tank-size nets. Some came on their lunch breaks; others were full-time volunteers. They occasionally dodged falling rocks falling from the fortress’s crumbling ceilings and subdued distressed soldiers reeling from the battlefield. Balaclavas, helmets, gloves, and fraying shreds of fabric littered the earthen floor.

Ivan was home on rotation, but he had barely made it out alive. His unit spent twelve days fighting in the Battle of Ilovaisk, which flared after separatist forces reneged on their promise to allow safe passage to Ukrainian soldiers retreating from the city. As the battalions began to roll out, blue and yellow Ukrainian flags affixed to their tanks, Russian-backed insurgents opened fire, killing at least 300 soldiers and wounding hundreds more. The government called it a massacre.

Rud had become quite skilled at making chimeras. She threw on one of her finished products, modeling how it would obscure the body of its eventual owner. Most were intended for snipers. Within the hour, a convoy would roll by to fetch her latest batch and take it east toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the last metropolis before the front line.

When Ukraine greeted the Euromaidan Revolution in November 2013, memories of the 2004 Orange Revolution, a protest against political corruption that ultimately had little impact on government integrity, still lingered in the public imagination. The country had grown perilously accustomed to the absence of change and deeply skeptical of those who dared to promise to bring it about. Almost three years, two governments, and a small army of foreign correspondents have come and gone since then, but the sentiment remains.

My grandmother and her five siblings grew up not far from Kharkiv’s main avenue. Of their sprawling family, only my mother’s cousin Irina (she asked that her last name not be used) remains in the city.

By Kharkiv standards, Irina qualifies as a liberal. She watches dispatches from Dozhd, otherwise known as TV Rain, the only independent television channel left in Russia, on the desktop computer she keeps in her bedroom. On the increasingly rare occasions that she talks to her sister, Tanya, who lives on the other side of the Russian border, she tries to undo the effects of one-sided anti-Ukraine propaganda. Otherwise, she steers clear of politics. I was in town in February of last year to report on a Communist rally taking place that week, organized by “Soviet expats” to mark the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Kharkiv during World War II. She cautioned me to stay away. I gave her my assurances I would but went anyway.

I just want you to know it has always been like this.

Irina watched the proceedings from her desktop at home, and spotted me among the small crowd of journalists. When I got back that evening, my last in Kharkiv, she pulled me aside to show me the old photo albums she keeps under her bed. As we flipped through the pages, she removed one artifact after another and handed them to me. “You’re never coming back here, and they mean more to you than to me.”

The last item she pulled out was an old Soviet postcard. Its faded illustration showed a happy Soviet family striding together down the sidewalk, carrying a flaming red flag and sporting black and orange St. George’s ribbons on their lapels, a decoration Ukrainian politicians once tried to ban for its association with Russian patriotism. The caption clarified that the postcard was issued to commemorate the same World War II anniversary I had just observed being celebrated today. Irina told me to hang on to it. “I just want you to know it has always been like this,” she said.

To some, Kharkiv has always been a Muscovite city, an extension of Moscow. Others think of it as the center of Ukrainian intellectualism, “in a sense, the capital of Ukraine, and therefore the capital of Ukrainian literature,” as Vissarion Belinsky, the Russian literary critic and godfather of the country’s radical intelligentsia, once put it. The city sits on perilous ground, midway between eastern separatist territory and Kyiv, just a forty-minute drive from Russia. Kharkiv is vulnerable enough that the Ukrainian government recently reinforced its Russian border with anti-tank trenches. Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed separatist group, threatened an occupation after making further advancements into Ukraine last February. “We have a lot of our people in Kharkiv. When it’s necessary, they will take up arms,” he said. A week later, a makeshift bomb exploded at a peaceful pro-Ukraine march in the city center, killing four people.

“Zakharchenko, he is nothing. He’s a terrorist,” Katerina Yaresko, a volunteer and activist, tells me over coffee. “We understand that Kharkiv is on the front line, that anything could happen. It’s an old city. There are elderly people, and when there were meetings for the KNR”—Kharkiv People’s Republic—“they immediately put on all their St. George’s ribbons,” she says, which were at that point worn primarily by Russian separatist fighters.

Yaresko is one of the hundreds of civilians who became accustomed to making regular trips to deliver food, clothing, and chimeras to the front. “Our army wasn’t ready at all,” she says. “There were no logistics, no sleeping bags, no nothing. Our forces were in ruins. So we started bringing supplies.”

Yaresko’s activism has made her something of a local celebrity. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who took office in the aftermath of the revolution, awarded her a medal for her “work and valor,” and from time to time, she appears on local television. Her Facebook page used to be devoted solely to tributes to soldiers, calls to action, and photos of herself at the front, blonde bob and blue jeans paired with a bulletproof vest, but now half her posts concern civilian casualties and Russia’s involvement in Syria.

The Kremlin’s decision to redeploy troops from Ukraine to Syria in October 2015 diminished the separatists’ ranks. Fighting in the East dwindled after the rebels agreed to a New Year truce in Minsk, but Russian-backed separatists still hold substantial territory, and implementation of the Minsk agreement is still being negotiated. Yaresko has contacts across Ukraine’s occupied territories, from Crimea, where the embattled minority Crimean Tatars staged a blockade of the peninsula, to the city of Debaltseve, which fell to rebel forces in a bloody battle in February 2015. “We’re always in touch,” she says.

Her phone rings. It’s Vitalik, a soldier and friend of Yaresko’s calling to check in. Yaresko answers in Russian.

“Everything okay? How is it with you, quiet? Tell me. I’m fine. I’m giving an interview, I’m about to talk about you. Tell me honestly, is it quiet there or not? Just tell me, honestly. Quiet. Really? Okay, good.”

She recalls how on one of her supply missions, she traveled with Vitalik to his unit’s position near the occupied territory of Luhansk. “They were building trenches, digging dugouts, and so on,” she says. “There was one position that was very important from a military standpoint. They discovered a lot of evidence that the site was also used for military activity during World War II.

“The logic is the same,” Yaresko says. “Everything repeats, just this time the fascists came from the other direction.”