A Tale of Two Countries: An interview with a Russian young mother on the war in Ukraine
At Inspire the Mind, we have previously published on the mental health of displaced populations, in the light of the war in Ukraine. We also published the account of Dennis, a Ukrainian Consultant who drove from London to the Polish-Ukrainian border to deliver medical equipment, and Dr Sasha Dovzhyk’s powerful perspective on the impact on Ukraine through her experience in Lviv. Today, I bring you the account of my Russian friend Polina, a young mother to a beautiful toddler, who moved to another country in Europe in 2003, after spending her childhood and early teenage years in Russia.
I met Polina (not her real name) when I was still a teenager and the group of friends that formed in my country of origin, still tight to this day, includes Russian, Romanian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian. I wanted to ask her about how she has been coping with the news and what was her perspective on the conflict.
Thank you for speaking to me, I know how hard this is for you. How have you been since the 24th of February?
That is a complicated question. I feel awful, I feel like my heart is being pulled in every direction, so much that eventually, it is going to crack open. When I realised that the Russian government was invading Ukraine, because it was a shock for me, I couldn’t believe it. You know, as a new mother, I started thinking about how other mothers in Ukraine may be feeling.
I have been very emotional; I’ve been crying a lot. Even now as we speak…this has been going on for a few weeks and I still cry when I speak about it. It’s horrible, regardless of wherever you’re from, even if you’re not Russian or Ukrainian you must feel so sad and scared like I do. Really, it doesn’t matter where you are from, this war hurts everyone. I feel that my heart is going to break, it’s very hard, this conflict feels so close to me. I was born in Russia, I had my childhood in Russia, this war is impacting my family, my neighbours, my childhood friends…but this is also happening in the whole world, the consequences will be devastating for everyone.
Do you remember what you felt when you heard the news?
I was at work. Strangely, I heard about it from a work colleague, in the morning when the news came out. I wasn’t aware that this was about to happen. After that, I was stuck in a loop of news, I couldn’t stop watching.
In those first few days, I was in denial, I didn’t want to believe it — it felt like a dark nightmare that couldn’t be happening in the 21st century. I felt helpless, this war felt unjustifiable — unjustifiable for the Russian people, the Ukrainian people, to everyone. I can tell you that Russians don’t want this war. It’s not only the country that is being invaded and taken over but Ukrainians’ lives are also being invaded, their lives are being torn.
It got to a point where I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t functioning. My husband compelled me to stop watching the news and now, for my wellbeing, I try to avoid watching.
How are your family and friends back in Russia coping?
I have childhood friends and some family back in Russia. My friends are further geographically from the border with Ukraine than my family is. Friends tell me Russians didn’t know this was going to happen — my close friend was going to travel to Ukraine for holidays on the 24th of February, she had no idea, her flights were cancelled 1h before departure and still, she didn’t know why — until the news came out.
My family is quite close to the border with Ukraine. In the night they could hear military aircrafts flying above their homes, through the night. They knew something was happening above them, that these military aircraft were going to Ukraine to cause destruction…they would then attack with airstrikes.
Can you imagine being woken up with the sound of your country destroying a neighbouring country?
What are your views on what is going on in Russia and what people are experiencing there?
Things have been better in the media recently, with more accounts from Russians but overall, there aren’t many Russian perspectives. The truth is that the media in Russia is very controlled, actually, right now social media is being shut down — in the last few weeks we’ve heard that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are being banned. Russia has labelled Meta (the group that owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger) as an extremist organisation after the group allowed political expression against the war and in support of Ukraine, which meant that posts against Russian military actions were allowed on the platforms.
Hence, people back in Russia are not fully aware of what is happening outside the country and at the same time, people outside of Russia are not aware of what’s happening there. In Russia, anyone who speaks against the war is considered an enemy of the state — so there is no opportunity for these points of view to come out, it’s too dangerous. You can’t go out and demonstrate — so how can people in the West have a clear view of what the Russian people want?
People forget that the war is happening in the two countries. The Russian people cannot be blamed for a decision that is not theirs. Everyone that I know is very scared of this war, they have been helping Ukrainian people, both my family back in Russia and the Russians that live in other countries like me. We are fundraising, donating, helping the way we can. I have so many Ukrainian friends, Russians and Ukrainians who live together as a community here where I am based.
My friend who is a psychologist in Russia the other day was asking me for support, she can’t cope with all the pain that her clients are going through, and she is exhausted, she running on empty. She thinks she might lose her job too eventually; a lot of sanctions are going to come in soon and she fears for the future.
Here, I’ve seen people turning against Russians, even Russian children are being bullied in playgrounds and schools. There is increased animosity, like a “Russian-phobia” at the moment that also scares me, it scares me for my son.
Is there anything else that you think the Russian people would like the West to know?
We are all, Russians and Ukrainians, grieving for all that is happening. But we feel it all, we are suffering, carrying all this weight on our shoulders. Personally, I feel helpless, I feel guilty of this tragedy that the government of my country created and there isn’t anyone that I know that endorses what is happening. No one can want this to happen.
People on both sides of this conflict are stuck, they are powerless. Despite all the help that I have given, in reality, I feel that there isn’t much that I can do at a personal level.
Thank you so much for sharing what’s in your heart with me and our readers.
I would like to leave you with a quote in Russian: «Мирного неба над головой», which translates as “peaceful sky above“, to wish a sky of peace.
We are deeply saddened by and concerned about the terrible events in Ukraine. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine, and we will continue to raise awareness of this frightening humanitarian crisis. It is heart-warming to see the kindness and solidarity shown in these frightening times with campaigns such as the Emergency Appeal from Dennis Ougrin, a psychiatrist who will be delivering medical supplies to those in desperate need.
The personal details in this blog have been changed to protect this individual’s identity.