Right now we are just trying to survive
It’s a nice beautiful country
For the most part I have been trying my best to practice shutting the fuck up on social media over the past few days as the Russian assault on Ukraine continues. First time for everything right? Mostly because I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about when it comes to the geopolitics of the region and it’s difficult even when you are trying to be circumspect to be taken in by bullshit and propaganda during any conflict or to get a little too horny for the grand spectacle of death and violence from the safety of your own home thousands of miles away — in the United States of all fucking places — like it’s some televised sporting event. Also because the opportunity to absolutely eat shit by saying something stupid — or like many journalists around the world have been — saying something downright racist and Islamophobic is unparalleled right now and people just cannot help themselves from doing it over and over.
I also can’t stop feeling unsettled about how Americans seem to be identifying so strongly with the defiant and overmatched underdog Ukrainians here. I’m not certain that’s the correct analogy for who we usually are in wars like this buddy!
I did want to hear from someone living in Ukraine right now about what it’s been like the past week however and so I called a friend of a friend who happened to live in a town nextdoor to mine in Massachusetts for years. “People are not sleeping but we must be strong,” Olena Vink who runs a beauty salon not far outside of the city of Kyiv told me while hunkering down in her apartment building. She’s scared but inspired by the spirit of community that the people of her town are showing.
Read our talk below.
But first be sure to follow my Discontents colleague Jack Crosbie who has been reporting from Kharkiv for Rolling Stone the past few days.
We spend the night in the garage sleeping on disintegrating blocks of padded insulation that is thankfully not fiberglass. At around two a.m. I give up and go sleep on a couch cushion on the floor in the lobby, behind a row of couches and well away from all of the windows. No one has turned the elevator music off so I toss and turn to smooth jazz until sometime past five a.m. when I fall asleep. I wake up at seven on Sunday to one of the hotel security guys nudging my cushion with his boot. He tells me to go back down to the garage and mimes shooting a gun. When I get down there I check my phone and there are reports of Russian soldiers in the middle of the city. The shelling picks up again. We come upstairs after half an hour and huddle in the dark, checking the news on our phones. No one can do any reporting because there are gunfights in the streets but we have no idea where. The street in front of the hotel is calm but you can hear both shells and guns coming from somewhere sort-of-nearby. At some point a little after noon it slows. The news claims that the Ukrainians have won, wrested back control of the city from a Russian incursion, but that there is now a city-wide 24-hour curfew – anyone still out on the streets will be assumed to be a Russian saboteur and could be shot. A group of armed men piles out of a police car a block away and three or four of us poke our heads out of the lobby doors to look at them. They look at us and we look at them and then I decide to go back inside the hotel because when a person with a gun looks at you for long enough it gets a bit uncomfortable.
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Where are you right now?
Right now I am very close to Kyiv, in Hatne, probably just 15 minutes from the border of the city. We have a small complex of apartments here. We are trying to survive. What I want to tell you, and probably nobody around you is talking about this, is how Ukrainian civilian people are helping each other. It’s amazing. For me it’s especially amazing, because I spent twenty years in the United States, and right now… it’s very different. I don’t want to say anything bad about Americans, but I never felt so much support from strange people [whose faces I never knew before]. I lived in Massachusetts, but I was born in Ukraine in Kharkiv, in the east of Ukraine. My mother is still there, my mother in law is still there. That is the place right now that is very scary.
That’s where much of the fighting is happening right now.
Yes. I spoke with my mother twenty minutes ago.
They’re being bombed there right now?
We are seeing lots of reports, but when it’s a war it’s hard to tell what’s real sometimes. Are civilian buildings and residential buildings being attacked?
Absolutely. Absolutely. This is the truth. I can swear for you.
You are in a tall building?
Yes. I live on the tenth floor.
Are you not told to go to the basement or anywhere?
I gave the basement to my friends and neighbors who have a small kid. And who are really scared. All the nights I have spent in my apartment.
You don’t want to go to a shelter? Or is there one?
What is the reason? Listen, if I lost my place to live I don’t think I would survive for a very long time. We don’t have shelters. Our shelters are the basements in the buildings. People are sleeping on the ground, in a sleeping bag. No beds, no nothing. In my same complex I am the owner of a beauty salon, so I gave my beauty salon for the other people who need it more than me.
Are stores open? Are you able to get food?
Sometimes. Sometimes. And not a lot. Most of the stores closed. The pharmacy is closed. On the weekend everything was closed. Everything. For food, I will tell you the story of how I spent the last hour. We have a friend, the owner of the small store here, she was evacuated to the west of Ukraine. Right now she’s not able to come here. She asked my husband to break down the door and give the food to the people who need it. It’s what I have been doing for the last hour. Sharing the food for everybody. Nobody is asking for money. They say, ok, the war will be over, we will help one another again. Right now, even the stores that are open are cash only, but you cannot get the cash. It’s no ATMs open, no banks open. No currency exchange open.
So people are sharing food from stores?
Yes. Sharing everything. Whatever they have.
That’s inspiring to see. How else are people coming together?
Right now in my salon there are a couple families which I never saw before. People just brought them from other areas in Kyiv, because here we are a bit out of the center, so it’s more safety. They didn’t have anything. So our neighbors gave to them food, blankets. I gave to them a nice warm place. Thank you lord we still have electricity and water.
On the second day of our war, one of our security was trying to chase a suspicious person. But it was really thin ice, so he drowned. So we had our first loss. You have no idea how many people came to my place and brought the money for his funeral. Everybody came and gave whatever they have. Right now we couldn’t even bury him. His mom is on the west of Ukraine, but we don’t know her wish. Maybe she wants to see him.
Our guys made this themselves to close the road to our community.
Have you been paying attention to social media? What are people saying there?
Russians are just lying. I’ve been here in Ukraine for the last four and a half years. If they say we have here Nazis and everybody should speak only Ukrainian languages? No. It’s not true. My first language is Russian. I still speak Russian with everybody. My salon has prices in the Russian language.
I’m sure there’s some bad people, Nazis, in Ukraine, but there are bad people everywhere. We have plenty of bad people in America too.
Yes. Especially right now. We have some situations right now where some robbers, who put stickers on doors to say that the people were evacuated. So everyone in our area would go to those buildings and take the stickers away. It was planning for a robbery.
People were robbing the buildings?
They were preparing for it.
So not everyone is coming together?
Mmm. Most of them. 99.9%.
There are always going to be people trying to take advantage.
Everyone in America seems to be very taken with Zelenskyy right now. What do people there think?
Absolutely he is a hero. He stayed with us, with our nation.
Has that made people feel more like you’re in this together, to see the president?
Was he popular before?
I would say so-so. Before the war it was so-so. But right now he is our hero, the face of our country.
Has there been fighting on your streets yet?
No. Our men who have stayed with us who are not in the army, they are [patrolling around] every night. In the first few days, in the beginning, I don’t know if it’s true, but the rumor was some Russians who came here before the war would make marks for planes, for bombing for the future. People are watching and looking for anything suspicious. There are not too many guys left here because most of them went to the front, they are in the military. But even civilians are helping to keep calm. For example, from today, no alcohol is legal right now. We made this decision for ourselves. Just to make sure people will be acting correctly.
You would think people are so stressed out they would want to drink. I know I would.
Yes. But, you know, we have a lot of weapons around right now.
Did your town hand out weapons?
Yes, but not for everybody. Only to the men who [are healthy] and they can prove they can defend.
Are you worried that the fighting is getting closer to you?
We’ll see. I don’t know. Right now we are just trying to survive.
Was there any thought of trying to escape to Poland or anywhere?
There’s no chance anymore. It’s too late. I don’t think other people should try to escape. I propose you stay here. I have my place where I can live, electricity. I think it’s safer to stay right now. You don’t know where you will meet with Russians right now on the road. You can stop with kids in the middle of nowhere, in the forest, you don’t have food, you don’t have heat. It’s still the winter. Still pretty cold here.
Do you have children? What are you telling children in the area?
No. The parents are trying to keep them calm. Ok, I have a dog, and he’s pretty funny, so sometimes I come up to them and they play with my dog and try to forget there’s war around them.
Are you allowed to go outside?
Yes. There are some hours you can’t go outside, but nobody will say you shouldn’t stay home right now. It’s for everybody to be safe.
This is much worse than usual, but it’s not the first fighting going on in the country in recent years. Why do you think people are paying so much more attention now?
I think it’s almost World War III. Putin will not stop. He will not. Ukraine is just the beginning. Listen, we are a small country. Peaceful people. Ukraine has never been fighting people. Look at Georgia. Look at the other countries around. He’s always trying to keep his politics in those countries.
Hopefully his talk about nuclear weapons was just posturing. But the United States is stupid and belligerent too. I just hope we don’t do anything to make things worse.
I know, but… Putin lost this war already. The plan was to put Ukraine on its knees in two days. Now we are on the sixth day of the war. Right now all the world knows they are attacking us. They’re not trying to save Russian people here. No. He is the aggressor.
That seems to be what they were telling the Russian soldiers, that they were going there to save civilians that were being mistreated. That was a lie it seems.
Absolutely. It’s a nice beautiful country. Listen, I’m a U.S. citizen too, but I made my choice and I came to my country. My age right now is fifty. I have been living in peaceful Kyiv. Trust me, it’s beautiful. A lot of musicians in the streets, restaurants, cafes open. People walking, smiling, no aggression. I could speak the Russian language all the time. Nobody ever corrected me.
What are you hoping happens next?
I think the Russian people, civilians, or some other politicians will stop it, will stop Putin. Because it’s only his idea. Here, the Russian soldiers, they’re dying much more than Ukrainians. The Ukrainian army is very strong. In my basement there is a girl whose husband right now is fighting. She saw some kind of message over the phone, that Russian soldiers were in some certain area. She called it to her husband, and her husband said to his commanders, and they sent the flight and bombed that column. A girl sitting in the basement and she is still fighting for the whole country. Because of this probably twenty hard vehicles were stopped.
Well more than anything I hope this fighting stops soon before it can get too much worse. Please stay safe.
Thank you for your support. Thank you America.
Thank you for providing us access to Olena’s story and experiences. Always appreciate having firsthand on-the-ground information about what’s happening. Sending love and support Olena and all, and hopes for strong recovery and a swift end to Putin’s war.