- Three young Ukrainians talk about where they were when the war with Russia started
- ‘My girlfriend and I are in shock, we are even afraid of the kettle,” one of them said
On the evening of February 23, 2022, Sofia Malyshiva had a pretty normal, relaxed night in for a 19-year-old university student.
Malyshiva spent the evening drinking a bottle of wine and reading fan fiction until the early hours of Thursday morning, finally passing out around 4 a.m.
She had only been asleep for about an hour when she was woken up by a loud boom outside, which shook her house. She thought nothing of it, and went back to sleep.
It was only when she woke up later that morning that she realised the sound she heard was actually an explosion, one of the first as the Russian army launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Malyshiva is one of three young Ukrainians Insider spoke to in recent days, who explained what it’s been like to have their bright futures upended by war.
A family separated
Malyshiva lives in Zhytomyr – a city with a population roughly the size of Madison, Wisconsin – about 80 miles west of the capital city of Kyiv. While it's the areas north and east of Kyiv that are seeing most of the fighting these days, Zhytomyr is far from sheltered. The city has been regularly bombed, and just a day before Insider spoke to Malyshiva last week, a home just 1,000 feet down the road from her was hit, she said.
The attacks have her mother, who lives in Russia, especially worried.
Malyshiva was born in Zhytomyr to Ukrainian parents, but her parents split up when she was young. Her father now lives in Kyiv with her 9-year-old half-sister. While she is not close with him, she has been making sure he is safe by following his social media updates. After her parents’ split, Malyshiva moved to Moscow with her mother, where her mother married a Russian man.
Since then she has split her life between Ukraine and Russia, spending school holidays in Ukraine with her grandfather, aunt, and uncle. In December, Malyshiva returned to Ukraine as usual for the winter holidays, but then decided to stay on because her university classes were taking place over Zoom. Now she is not sure when she’ll be reunited with her mother and stepfather.
A view of damaged civil settlements after Russian attacks in Zhytomyr, Ukraine on March 2, 2022.
While she could join the millions fleeing the country, Malyshiva says she has decided to stay for the time being because her male relatives are being required to stay and defend the country.
“We don’t want to leave my grandad, my uncle, it’s not the right thing to do,” she said.
Malyshiva says there’s now a heavy military presence in her town, with checkpoints set up throughout the city. She recently volunteered at a war kitchen, making lunch for soldiers, but says she has not aided too much in the war effort so far because she still has school work. Giving her studies her full attention has been impossible though.
“I try to study, it’s obviously really hard to concentrate,” she said.
The teen estimates that there are between five to 10 air raid sirens a day, and they can stretch for as much as an hour before the all-clear is given. During these times, Malyshiva and her family seek shelter in a windowless room in the centre of their house, since their home does not have a bomb shelter.
Malyshiva says her mom calls every day from Moscow, to check in on her and try to keep her spirits up. But it’s clear that she is worried and upset at being away from her.
“Sometimes it’s torture to see her this emotionally drained and I can’t make her any happier,” she said.
As a Ukrainian living in Russia, she says her mother has been trying to avoid conversations about the war.
“For my mother, it’s really challenging to not get frustrated and angry at every comment she hears about Ukraine,” Malyshiva said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been called the “TikTok War” for the way that scenes of the conflict have been aired in near-real-time on the video app. Malyshiva is a user of the app, but says she feels like reports on the war are under-represented on it. She says her feed is filled with videos of people enjoying their lives, taking spring walks, drinking coffee, and showing off their outfits.
“I’m not saying that we should all live in grief, but there’s a war happening and innocent people are dying,” she said. “Looking at my peers, it really makes me angry that they don’t really care at all.”
Selling NFTs to fund the military
Twenty-four-year-old Vlad Zhadanovskyi was in Kharkiv when the war broke out. The city, Ukraine’s second-largest, and the closest big city to Russia, has been one of the hardest-hit in the conflict.
When the violence broke out, Zhadanovskyi and his girlfriend fled west with just a bag of clothes each, to the city of Lviv, near the Polish border, which has been relatively sheltered from the fighting.
Zhadanovskyi says he and his girlfriend are essentially homeless, living out of a hotel that her work secured for the pair. “We don’t have a home, we can’t rent anything,” he said.
He says they’ve been shaken up by what they witnessed in Kharkiv. “My girlfriend and I are in shock, we are even afraid of the kettle,” he said.
“They blew up our square, the largest in Europe,” Zhadanovskyi said of the Russian military. “Residential buildings, clinics, administration buildings … Most shelling is carried out in residential areas. Ordinary people are dying. This is not war, this is terror.”
All the while, Zhadanovskyi worries for their parents and grandparents, who decided to stay in the Kharkiv region, where they hide from the Russian attacks in basements and have been struggling to get food.
“They don’t want to leave,” he said of his family. “This is our land, our country. They only want to live there.”
To aid his family, Zhadanovskyi says he is developed about 1,800 NFTs which he hopes to sell in the coming months. In addition to supporting his family, he hopes to donate some of the money to the Ukrainian military as well.
Currently most men ages 18-60 are not being allowed to leave the country, and must stay to defend it. Zhadanovskyi says he does not want to be separated from his girlfriend, but says he will have to if the fighting gets worse.
“We’ll try to stick together, but if the situation worsens, then she will leave for another country, and I will be here to protect our homeland.”
A fifth-generation Kyiv resident stands his ground
As a currency trader at ING Group, a Netherlands-based bank, Mykhailo Kuzmenko said it’s important for him to stay up to date on the news.
While tensions with Russia had been building for weeks, the 25-year-old never really thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would follow through and invade Ukraine.
Like Malyshiva, Kuzmenko says he was awoken on February 24 by the sound of explosions, but initially dismissed the two loud booms as the sounds of sanitation workers.
But when he finally woke up to attend an early 7am morning training at the bank, he says he spoke to a friend on the phone who finally convinced him that all was not right.
“He told me, ‘Come on man, wake up, the war has started,’” Kuzmenko recalled.
While he finally accepted that the war started, Kuzmenko said it still felt weird that he hadn’t heard any air raid sirens. He said he found it “simultaneously funny and pretty scary” that the sirens started going off as soon as he got in the shower.
He said his friend banged on the bathroom door to let him know they were going off. He described it as the “most awful moment” in his life, hearing a sound he had only previously heard in films, and thinking his flat could be levelled in an instant. “That’s how I started my day.”
Since then, Kuzmenko’s job has largely ground to a halt. At one point, he inquired about aiding the military in defending the city, but was told that they did not need any more volunteers at that point.
For now, he is helping out in the best way he can, working at a kitchen that makes meals for soldiers and those in need.
He takes orders, helps with cooking, and delivers the meals. But he admits that there may come a time when he needs to pick up a gun, something he is not looking forward to.
Though Kyiv has been the scene of regular attacks by the Russian military, Kuzmenko says he does not plan to leave. He says he comes from a long line of Kyiv natives, going back five generations, and that neither his parents nor his grandparents are abandoning the city either.
Kuzmenko says he is staying optimistic that peace will come soon, and when it does, he wants to help his country recover as far as possible.
He says his job at the bank has provided opportunities to move out of the country. While he previously considered leaving for a few years to gain experience abroad, he says it would only be to learn skills that he can bring back and help make his country better.
“That was my initial idea, to raise up Ukraine,” he said, “because in my opinion, Ukraine has possibilities.”