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The Past Meets with the Future: Russia’s Barbaric War Against Ukraine

As I spoke with Alina in central Kyiv on the evening of March 23rd, her husband kept an eye on the skies and his ears open for Russian missiles just in case they’d have to rush downstairs to the bomb shelter in the basement of their building.

“We’re lucky that we have a good air defense system in Kyiv,” said Alina, who is an Associate Professor of Economics at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. “It’s tragic that cities like Mariupol and Chernihiv don’t have air defense and have been bombed mercilessly by Russia.”

The couple keeps their apartment windows open and line the windowsills with bottles to prevent the windowpanes from shattering when missiles strike and rattle the neighborhood.

“The modern new shopping mall that the Russians bombed opened only a year and a half ago. It is ten kilometers away from us,” Alina says. “Why bomb a shopping mall?”

On February 26, on the second day of the war, the Russians bombed a high-rise apartment building just two kilometers from their building she tells me.

“The first place they bombed, though, was the Holocaust site, Babi Yar, and the television tower.” Alina notes that these bombings were intentional and carried symbolic meaning.

“Did you anticipate this war?” I ask.

“In the weeks before the war started, the news talked about war day and night. It became too difficult to listen. We started watching movies just to take a break from hearing about war. I am a consultant for the United Nations. On February 19th, there was a UN meeting, and we were told to buy three-month’s worth of medicine and bottled water. I did not believe there would be a war, but I followed those directives just because they came from the United Nations. Now I’m glad I did. In the days before the war, I’d say 50 percent of the nation did not believe there would be war. Society divided into three groups. The first group panicked and left Ukraine in the weeks before the war started because they were afraid. Then the second group prepared for war but stayed in Ukraine. Many of them went to the countryside because they thought they’d be safer there, but that proved not to be true. They met up with the Russian military in the countryside. Then, there was the third group who did not believe the war would happen and did not prepare for it. That was me. I was working on an economic project the night before the war began and was up until two in the morning. Early that morning my mother called me from outside Kyiv to tell me she saw Russian missile strikes.

“Putin’s plan was to win a blitzkrieg. That did not happen because Ukrainians fought back, and they fought very well. On the first day of the war in Kyiv we watched the panic in the streets from our apartment windows. People were running to get in their cars and leave the city. The trains were packed. Fuel was suddenly 40 percent more expensive. There was a moment when I considered leaving, but my husband reassured me that we had everything we needed here at home, and we also have a secure bomb shelter in our basement. My parents also didn’t want to leave. My father said that if my mother and I left, the radiation generated by Russian tank treads and military activity in Chernobyl would reach us wherever we ran in Europe.

“A few days before Russia started this war, I listened to Putin’s speech. I was terrified on a physical level when I heard him utter those words: ‘Ukraine is not a country. Lenin created Ukraine.’ I felt horror wash over every part of my body. I looked at that psychopath’s eyes and saw how dangerous he is. How could this be real, I thought? But it is real. The bombs, the rockets, the Russian soldiers are all real.”

"Do you consider fleeing Kyiv now?” I ask.

“No, absolutely not. My husband and I are professional middle class people with good jobs and a comfortable home. We are not at all interested in becoming refugees. Friends in Lithuania and in the Czech Republic have offered my mother and I a place to stay, but we refuse to leave Ukraine. I understand that people raising children must evacuate, so that their children have a chance at life. No child deserves to live through war. But we do not have children, so it would make no sense for us to leave. We plan to stay in our home as long as possible. My family has stayed together in Kyiv, checking in on each other. My mother is a Professor of Marketing. My parents’ home is filled with books. We love books in our family. We make jokes that if we had to run, we’d need to decide quickly which books to pack and which ones to leave behind.”

I ask about her wellbeing.

“Before the war I kept healthy by working out in the gym. Now, because of the constant anxiety, every inch of my body is in pain. This is our destiny. We are making an impact in the world by standing up to Russia and defending democracy.”

Alina, who is 41, has had an impressive career. She has worked at the World Bank in Washington DC and at international charities among other venerable institutions. She represents the class of comfortable middle class forward-looking Ukrainians who have now found themselves trapped in a war reminiscent of the rape and plunder of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol hordes.

“I was offered professional positions with good salaries abroad,” Alina confides, “but I felt that I wanted to dedicate my life to working hard to build a strong independent, democratic Ukraine. Ukraine is a country of unlimited opportunity. If you work hard, you can make a real difference here. Ukraine is a young democracy.”

Alina, who is only a few years younger than Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy, belongs to a vibrant, energetic, young generation of Ukrainians who share a vision for the country’s future. As an educated, traveled, sophisticated urbanite, Alina works hard for a strong Ukraine that she feels will prevail, despite Russia’s war of genocide against Ukrainians.

“We are the generation who spent our childhoods in the awful, militaristic, Soviet Union. Before World War II, my grandfather was a hard-working farmer in western Ukraine. Because he had a large farm, the Russians deported him to hard labor camp in Siberia for ten years. That’s the type of Soviet Union we lived in. Then there was the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. I was a child then and lived through that. Then came the Orange Revolution, then Maidan, then the economic crisis, and now this war. Life has been interesting for our generation,” Alina concludes with irony.

“I listen to you, and I understand where President Zelenskyy’s resolve comes from. It seems as though your generation has endured nothing but extreme hardship your entire lives,” I comment.

“When I think about what my life would be like if I were the exact same age with the same education and profession, but lived in Italy or the United States, it is hard for me to even imagine what such a calm and secure life would feel like. This war is very difficult to bear psychologically. You just never know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know when and if a missile will hit your building.”

“What is it like living in Kyiv right now?”

“I hear the sirens about eight to 12 times a day. My mother was staying about 10 kilometers outside of Kyiv when the war began on February 24th. She saw the rockets flying. It was very frightening. My childhood district was bombed by the Russians. I know so many people there. We are all just surviving. What else can we do?”

“Are you still teaching at the university right now?”

“We had school holidays until March 15th in Ukraine. Our university is scheduled to reopen on April 1st. I am preparing assignments for my students. It’s important to carry on working, not to let the Russians destroy the fabric of society. However, many of our students, even the girls, have joined the Territorial Defense. Some young men have joined the army. The army only takes those who have military training, otherwise, they are a danger to others. If a young man does not have military training, he may join the Territorial Defense or help in another capacity. Young men seventeen and eighteen years old are volunteering. Many of my students have volunteered. We professors need to be flexible about exams and diploma defenses to accommodate the students who are volunteering to serve Ukraine. So, I am spending my time preparing lectures and assignments for the students, but it is psychologically very difficult because we know we can be bombed at any time.”

Alina pauses, then adds, “It is like we are living through a horrible dream. You know, I never liked to watch horror movies because I’m too sensitive, but now it’s as though we have all found ourselves inside a horror film that never ends.”

“Do you feel that the United States and NATO could do more to help Ukraine?”

“Please understand that Ukraine is very grateful for all the help we have received already. We could not fight this war without the weapons and supplies we’ve received from NATO countries and the United States.”

“I feel that NATO should create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and the United States should engage in a peace keeping mission,” I say.

“I understand why the United States is unable to support us any more than they have already,” Alina says thoughtfully. “Putin is crazy. He is unpredictable. He is capable of anything.”

I ask Alina about her views on President Zelenskyy.

“I did not like Zelenskyy in the beginning,” Alina explains, “but let me tell you why. I think he is a great actor, a comedian, but that does not mean that he will be a good politician. I think a person in public office should be educated in the law, politics, diplomacy. But now under conditions of war he has risen to the challenge. During the presidential election, 75% of the country voted for Zelenskyy, and 25% did not. But that is democracy. I accept that. Every country gets the leadership it deserves.”

Alina pauses to check in with her husband about the war raging outside their windows. Reassured that she can talk a little longer before going down to the bomb shelter for the night, Alina continues our conversation, eager to talk.

The bomb shelter.

“The only way I can describe what we are living through here in Kyiv is by referencing George Orwell’s 1984. It’s like in this war with Russia the past has clashed with the future. The Russians are like people from another civilization frozen in time. They actually believe they have the right to reassemble the Soviet Union. We are a forward-looking modern nation. We do not want to go back into that awful past with Russia.”

“I’ve heard our American news media talk about how Russians and Ukrainians are like brothers.”

“That’s just Soviet-era propaganda,” Alina says bitterly. “We are not like Russians at all, and we don’t want to be. There was a survey taken in Russia and 86% of Russians said that they are okay with Russia using nuclear arms to destroy the West. They don’t mind, as long as they have enough sugar to make their samogon (moonshine). I don’t want to discriminate against Russians, and I really shouldn’t as an educator and a professional, but intergenerational alcohol abuse is a strong part of Russian culture and explains a lot of their behavior. I think vodka has deeply affected their culture and mentality.”

“No one wants to talk about fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect, but with the rates of alcoholism and alcohol abuse in Russia, which has been the case for centuries, the lack of rationality and critical thinking skills indicates widespread mental disabilities,” I say, adding, “and I can say this out loud because this is my opinion, and I am expressing it in my own blog.”

“They all cry ‘Poor Russia’” Alina comments with irony. “Russia claims that they are victims, but they are stealing from us. I follow the Russian chatter online and I read their articles. On February 26th a Russian newspaper wrote: ‘Finally Russia has fixed the problem of 1991.’ There is no such thing as a ‘poor Russian.’ They are proud of their chauvinism. They are proud of their ignorance. We hear the cell phone conversations where Russian soldiers call their wives and girlfriends in Russia and brag about the goods they have stolen from Ukrainian people’s homes and how they plan to drag it all back with them to Russia.”

“It’s just like the testimonies from World War II,” I comment. “When the Red Army occupied foreign countries, Russian soldiers were let loose to plunder whatever they could steal. They’ve not changed in all these decades.”

“In Kherson, 12 girls were raped by Russian soldiers. They are raping Ukrainian women all over the country. They are rapists. No, there is no such thing as a poor Russian. They are all complicit.”

Alina sighs, then continues.

“Putin has been ruling Russia for 20 years and the Russians are happy with that. Online, during this war, the Russians brag about how they will destroy the world. They are a jealous nation. They cannot stand it if a neighboring country is doing better than they are, so then they set out to destroy that nation. The Russians have done this throughout history. Russians hate anyone who is better than them.”

“They are even mercilessly killing Russian speakers in Ukraine,” I add.

“Yes, Mariupol is a hundred percent Russian speaking, but that did not stop them from destroying that city. Right now, 300,000 people are living in basements without water, food, medicine, or heat. They are mostly Russian minorities who live in Ukraine. These are the people Putin claimed he was liberating. Putin’s Russians are not like regular people. They are zombies. Around 500 Russian soldiers have been taken prisoner. They have been treated well and are being given good food. They call their mothers to tell them how good they have it and their mothers tell them to just sit there in captivity. Imagine. Just the other day our army captured a Russian colonel. He was wearing Ukrainian army underwear and socks that he had managed to steal somewhere. That is the Russian mentality. But we are too soft with the Russians. We Ukrainians do not want to kill anyone, but we have no choice. They created this war. I’ve seen the Russian soldiers’ corpses lying around on the streets and I feel nothing for them.”

The New York Times has written several articles sympathetic to young urban professional Russians leaving Russia,” I comment. “They are sipping lattes in foreign cafes and looking for work abroad on their laptops. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

Alina comments: “Meanwhile, five hundred educational institutions in Ukraine have been bombed, that means schools, kindergartens, universities. Over 50 hospitals have been completely destroyed. This is the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Before the war we were not a rich country, but we had enough. Kyiv was voted one of thirty most innovative cities in the world. Now the Russians have destroyed our cities and we have no idea when this will stop. When I go to the grocery store, I only buy just enough for our family to get by. I know supplies are limited, so I’d rather leave bread for those who need it more than we do.”

Alina pauses, reflects a moment, then continues.

“The rockets being shot at us now are coming from Belarus. Oh, what a price we are paying for democracy,” Alina sighs. “We worked so hard to make our country a democracy and now we are paying the price.”

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1 Comment

Rita Gabis
Rita Gabis
Mar 23, 2022

Thank you for making this interview available during this critical time.

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