This war is a daily reminder to the Ukrainian people that Russia has relentlessly tried to destroy them and their national identity.
As the bombing started, I scrambled to dial the phone numbers of my loved ones, consumed by an overwhelming need to hear their voices and hoping for news of their safety. On the other end of the line, I could hear their voices trembling with fear, as they huddled in basements and bomb shelters, trying to protect themselves from the relentless attacks.
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In the months leading up to February 2022, the Biden Administration issued a warning to the world of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, and suddenly the possibility was terrifyingly real. Members of my family still live in Ukraine. They had always brushed off my concerns about Russia, insisting that such a thing could never happen. But as Vladimir Putin stood before the world, announcing the launch of a special operation, I knew that my worst fears were about to become a reality.
Then on February 24, 2022, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine extending their eight-year-long war in Donbas and Crimea. Few had believed that Russia would actually dare to wage such a brutal war against the whole nation. Every day that the war rages, however, images of massacres in places like Bucha are coming to light. The invasion has forced Ukrainians to confront the historical trauma they have endured at the hands of Russia for centuries, as they once again find themselves caught in the crosshairs of Russia’s imperial ambitions.
I decided that I could not sit around and watch the war on television. I needed to go help. I found a contact in Romania who was desperately in need of a Ukrainian language translator as refugees poured into the country. I bought my ticket and made the 33-hour trip to Romania. During the day, I was the only translator at the shelter, and at night I went to help at the Ukrainian border. I witnessed children screaming, as they replayed in their minds the horror of their recent experiences. I witnessed people who were so traumatized and shocked that they couldn’t even speak. I did what little I could, hugged them and tried to give them the comfort of a human connection.
My second trip to Ukraine was to deliver humanitarian aid to people on the front and to evacuate refugees. At times, the other volunteers and I were caught under Russian artillery barrages. I spoke to refugees from various Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine that were under Russian attack. Many refugees were homeless and living in shelters as their homes had been destroyed by Russian shelling.
There was one man whose story stayed with me. He had spoken Russian all his life, had many Russian friends, and even spent some of his best years serving in the Soviet army in Russia. But when the war broke out and Russia began bombing the civilian Ukrainian population, everything changed.
He told me of a phone call he made to his Russian friends at the start of the war, desperately trying to make them understand the horror that was being inflicted upon Ukraine. But they brushed off his concerns, telling him not to worry and that Russia was simply “cleansing the Nazis among them”. He was confused, asking “What Nazis? The women and children?” He told me that he now hopes that his grandchildren will never befriend a Russian. This man’s story is just one of the many that I encountered during my time there.
This story exemplifies the devastating impact of war on individuals, relationships and communities. The trauma will persist for generations even after this war ends.
There is a long history in Russia of racism and targeting of the Ukrainian people and culture. For centuries, Russians have targeted the Ukrainian language as a way to undermine Ukrainian national identity. Children made fun of my father for speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian as a child because the Ukrainian language was often associated with the lower classes. While the Ukrainian language has been prohibited, primarily by Russian leaders, over 130 times in 400 years, Ukrainians now speak it as a badge of honour.
Ukraine has shown remarkable resilience throughout history in its defiance against Russian and Soviet dominion. This defiance was evident in the leadership of figures like Ivan Mazepa, a free Cossack leader, and the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917. However, despite its valiant efforts, the free republic was eventually invaded by the Bolsheviks in 1919 and ultimately absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1921.
Knowing that Ukrainians valued their independence, Stalin viewed the Ukrainians as a threat to the Soviet regime and non-Ukrainian Soviet citizens were taught to distrust Ukrainians. Stalin arrested thousands of “Ukrainian teachers and intellectuals and removed Ukrainian-language books from schools and libraries.” Anyone with even the smallest connection to Ukrainian nationalism would be arrested, sent to a labor camp or even executed.
Stalin acted with such fervour as though he feared that if Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union would be torn apart in the process. Stalin made many efforts to obliterate the Ukrainian national identity and nearly ensured its permanent destruction, in order to prevent what he apparently perceived as Ukrainian challenges to Soviet unity.
Stalin followed a genocidal strategy by intentionally starving millions of Ukrainians to death, a horrific event known as the Holodomor or “death by hunger”. The peak of this atrocity was in June 1933, when an astounding 28,000 Ukrainians were dying every day. In addition to the widespread death toll, Stalin also imposed a forced assimilation policy by promoting a new Soviet identity and increasing pressure to use the Russian language, further suppressing Ukrainian culture and identity.
To exacerbate the crisis in Ukraine, after the Holodomor, Stalin swiftly implemented a plan to “repopulate” the regions of Donbas and Crimea with Russians, adding to the demographic and cultural transformation of Ukraine.
Freedom knows no dying
This war is a daily reminder to the Ukrainian people that Russia has relentlessly tried to destroy them and their national identity. Ukrainians are engaging in dialogue about the Holodomor and other historical topics, and this increased awareness plays a role in the re-awakening of Ukrainian identity. Ukrainians are delving deeper into their history, critically examining the traumas endured by their ancestors across generations, and gaining a better understanding of the challenges that persistently confront their nation today.
The invading Russian army has been burning Ukrainian history books, destroying archives that document Soviet repressions, and forcing teachers to teach Russian in the occupied regions. As the Ukrainian people continue to defend themselves against Russia’s onslaught, they are reminded that their ancestors sacrificed so much to see Ukraine’s freedom. The Ukrainian people draw strength from their history and keep alive the hope that they will regain their freedom and a free Ukraine will emerge stronger than ever.
The 19th century Ukrainian poet and freedom fighter Taras Shevchenko’s words ring truer today than ever: “…Our soul shall never perish. Freedom knows no dying. And the greedy cannot harvest fields where seas are lying.”
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