Ukraine Is Not Yet Dead, Nor Its Glory and Freedom
“Wake up, my sunshine. The war has just begun,” a young mother named Irina told her ten-month-old son at six in the morning.
Irina was woken up by one of the many missile blasts that hit multiple Ukrainian cities at once. Outside, air sirens were ringing, warning citizens to flee to the bomb shelter.
The stroller was ready. Irina took the dog on a leash and they ran to the underground metro station, the Golden Gate.
This is not a description of a feature film. This is a real description of what happened on the 24th of February in Kyiv when Russia attacked Ukraine. Just yesterday, a few people could even imagine such an awful outcome.
Even after the speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin made the day before, in which he revealed his longing to restore the imperial borders of Russia. He even went as far as referring to Ukraine as a “brotherly nation,” in a bizarre rewrite of historical fact. Dictators do that all the time. They live in their own reality.
Meanwhile, during the last two weeks, I felt like I have been living in a parallel reality, too. Every day, I read in American publications about the increasing threat of the Russian invasion. And every day, I called my friends in Kyiv to share my concerns.
As a Ukrainian myself, born in Odesa, went to school in Lviv and attended state university in Kyiv, I have many relatives and close friends to worry about. Most of them didn’t believe me, almost accusing me of spreading panic and being hypnotized by war-hungry Americans.
They brushed off my worries by telling me how beautiful the country was, as winter began to melt into spring rather than war. “Putin is crazy, but not that crazy,” my friends reassured me.
I wish I was wrong and my friends were right. And that my fear of an imminent invasion was merely a paranoid nightmare.
I can’t stop thinking about how fragile our world is, how quickly everything can change. I was horrified watching the footage of Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary, Babi Yar. Context, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021. This film, awarded the special Golden Eye Award, consists of a selection of various footage from a newsreel filmed during the Second World War.
Perhaps it is precisely because there is no verbal narrative that the audience becomes not just observers, but essentially, they find themselves in the place of eyewitnesses of those distant events. The film about the Holocaust had many intense scenes, but the very first scenes made the strongest impression on me.
The film opens in a Ukrainian village, captured on the first day of the war when the Nazis had just dropped the first bombs, and clouds of smoke were rising into the sky over an endless field of wheat. The camera of an unknown operator stands motionless, impartially filming a summer afternoon. At some point, a man appears in the frame, hurrying to the village.
And that’s when it hit me hard for the first time even though I’ve read about the first day of the war constantly. I saw it in staged feature films. It was the preferred subject of Soviet cinema. But this documentary was the first film that allowed me to dive into the reality of it. And not just for a moment on screen, but agonizingly stretched out for its entire duration.
I felt with my whole body that all-consuming fear because this summer day and the day after that will never be just a regular summer day. It’s like receiving news of a sudden death of a loved one. Yesterday, everything was fine, but today, life will never be the same again.
I felt it once more when I saw Klondike by Maryna Er Gorbach which was shown at Sundance this year. The film, winner of the Director’s Award in the World Dramatic competition, tells the story of parents-to-be trapped in their home in Hrabove, a village in Eastern Ukraine that happens to be in the middle of a conflict zone in the Donbas region.
As the Canadian Klondike Gold Rush attracted human ambition for personal wealth, Donbas has attracted human ambition for bloodshed, entering a period Er Gorbach refers to as a “war rush.”
I was struck by the similarity of a particular scene in this feature film to that of Babi Yar. Context. Almost identical footage of peaceful wheat fields by villages ruined by explosions. Maryna Er Gorbach was inspired to write and direct the film after the harrowing Malaysian Airlines crash in 2014, where Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-backed separatists, killing all 280 passengers and 15 crew members.
Over eight years, Putin has denied any accountability and has continued to supply weapons and support to these separatist troops.
In his two most recent speeches, Putin has practically admitted his refusal to recognize Ukraine’s independence and right to democratically decide the country’s path to prosperity and peace. He finally showed his true face; his inhumanity shocked many people, including his fellow countrymen.
Many of my Russian friends expressed their horror and shame towards his actions that will cause future generations to view him with the same malice we feel about Hitler today. This is what I don’t understand – to what end is he doing this? You can take wheat fields and nuclear plants, but you cannot win over people with bombs.
After seeing videos of explosions throughout Ukraine, I keep hoping to wake up from this insane reality. Of course, it’s easier to accept war in the narrative constructed by films rather than seeing them firsthand taking place in my hometown. I find myself wanting to pause and rewind, to go back to the days before the war.
The 2019 film, Atlantis, takes place in 2025 and imagines Ukraine after the war. Director Valentyn Vasyanovych, who took home the Best Film prize in the Horizons competition at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, holds long and steady shots of a deteriorated Eastern Ukraine. The region struggles to return to a sense of normalcy, as the lingering effects of the war continue to poison the soil, water, and people.
Bodies of nameless victims are abandoned in former battlefields and survivors have little to no motivation to continue living. The main character is a former soldier and is more a ghost than a man. Having lost everything in the war, from his family to his humanity, he finds a new purpose in life after meeting a young volunteer who identifies and buries corpses to give them peace after death. Their newly kindled love serves as an act of rebirth for them both.
The idea that only love can save us during the most horrific events gives me hope to continue living because despite the hatred Putin has stirred up, the love my countrymen have for their land and each other is the heart of Ukraine and cannot be destroyed by any artillery.
I’m overwhelmed by the heroism our people have shown in the past couple of days. Civilians and soldiers alike have proven again and again their determination to come out of this victorious. May we honor the courage shown by the thirteen outmanned border guards on Zmiinyi Island who told a Russian Warship to “go f*** themselves” instead of surrendering.
Right now, besides frantically talking to my friends and constantly watching the news, I am learning how to receive sympathy from my friends and colleagues around the world. And again, it’s like when you lose someone and everyone sends their support as you grieve.
The pain that I feel is indescribable, the words that I have written do not even begin to convey the depth of my despair.
This is why the only way I can respond to the flood of heartfelt messages is: thank you. I want to thank my friends and colleagues, for your support through this unimaginable time. Thank you for your attention, for your sympathy, for your strength.
At the same time, I have to constantly remind myself that my motherland has not yet fallen. No matter how hard Putin and his supporters try to bring us down.
Because I am here in America, the list of what I can do for my home country is limited. However, I will continue to donate to Ukrainian charities and vow to donate my earnings from this published article to medical aid and humanitarian relief for the front lines.