The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Life in Ukraine

Author’s Note: I approached this article with the humility of a college journalist. This coverage is based on my own research, conversations with Ukrainian citizens, and a recent trip I made to Kyiv. I hope to provide insight into what life is like in Ukraine now that the tides of war have shifted. 

In late February, shortly after the invasion began, Russian forces had pushed up to 30 miles from Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv. Millions of Ukrainians fled, mostly to nearby neighbors of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Millions more found themselves displaced within Ukraine. Most military experts predicted that Ukraine’s army would lose, quickly — outmatched by Russia’s superior manpower and technology.

At that point, the U.S. military offered to evacuate Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had survived several assassination attempts by pro-Russian agents. If Zelenskyy had accepted that offer, we could very well be living in a drastically different world today — one where Russia would have seized Ukraine’s capital and escalated global tensions to World War III level proportions. But, Zelenskyy stayed: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.1

Ukraine began showing serious resistance, holding ground in key areas and repelling attacks on Kyiv suburbs. Still, the odds weren’t in Ukraine’s favor. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, remarked: “[Russia] will defeat the Ukrainian conventional forces, that’s again, not in question. It’s how long it takes.” Ukraine’s defense was honorable and inspiring, but not a force which could actually beat a global superpower. 

Now, half a year later, they proved us wrong. Yes, Ukraine has received billions in military aid by Western allies. And yes, many countries took action to hurt Russia economically. But, make no mistake, Ukraine was through-and-through an underdog. They are now closing in on victory in a war they had no business surviving.

It’s too early to celebrate, of course. But it’s not too early to prepare. In a recent piece from The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum writes: “A new reality has been created: The Ukrainians could win this war. Are we in the West really prepared for a Ukrainian victory? Do we know what other changes it could bring?”

Many Ukrainian citizens are preparing for this. Since July, millions of refugees have journeyed home. Thousands of volunteers have also traveled into Ukraine, repairing shelters in places that were bombed to rubble a few months ago.

To get to Kyiv, I took a train from Poland’s Eastern border. I waited through a long line to get my passport checked off by border security. The line itself consisted of hundreds of refugees returning home — the quintessential “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Except, in an uplifting twist, they were returning to their country, not escaping to a new one. 

At Kyiv, many streets were blocked off with barricades and tire shredders:

Some roads, those near government buildings and other important places, had more security:

Destroyed Russian tanks were out on display as trophies:

And this decorated sandbag monument stood outside of St. Andrew’s Church — a plea for help and support from them to us:

You couldn’t go a few blocks without seeing armed soldiers and barracks and more scary reminders of the conflict. But while the sense of war was omni-present, people still lived their lives. Teenagers still went out to drink at clubs and old men still met friends for coffee at their local cafes. Moms still strolled their kids through the park and dads still walked their dogs on the sidewalks. 

Back at the passport line, two kids, no older than seven, were tossing around a neon green glow-stick — the type you’d see on the Fourth of July or a Bar Mitzvah party. They were wrestling, laughing and being kids that are no older than seven. 

This is what’s missed from the news-eye view — the camera zooms in on the trauma and what doesn’t fit in the frame is left behind. They cover the bombings. They don’t cover Daniel going to the grocery store to pick up milk.

When you only hear about a group of people through the news, our brains have the dangerous habit of turning them into abstractions. I imagined Ukrainian refugees solely as victims — as crying women and children, helpless and scared. I imagined Ukrainian soldiers as heroes, fearless and brave, ready to die at any moment for their country. While these notions aren’t false, they capture a minute fraction of their reality. In truth, their lives will always be richer — more interesting and simultaneously more mundane — than we can possibly imagine.

On my walk back to my hotel from dinner, I spotted a particularly well-guarded building with large barracks posted out front. I tried to snap a picture, but a few soldiers caught me and were not happy. They yelled at me in a language I did not speak, so I used arm waves and a sorry facial expression to give the best apology I could. They responded with rude arm waves and angry faces, telling me without words: “go away you stupid tourist.”

A few months ago, that interaction would have gone differently. I would’ve been abducted or questioned, or at the very least asked to show identity. “Things are still scary now,” one Ukrainian women told me, “but at least we can breathe.”

Footnote 1: This quote from Zelenskyy is commonly referenced, but its legitimacy is not confirmed.

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Louisiana State University

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