...do not give up and do not despair, do what you think is the right thing to do. Russia will definitely be free.
_Katya and Dima (names changed) are engaged. They met during a course of anatomy at the medical school, where they are still studying. Katya moved to the Czech Republic in 2019, Dima has been living there for seven years, since June 2021 he is a coordinator of Youth Democratic Movement "Vesna" in Czech Republic. Katya is from Kyiv, Dima—from Tula. We asked them questions about their lives, their reasons for moving, and how the war affected them both._
Why did you decide to move?
Dima: Reasons are the same as for moving from Russia. While I was living there, it seemed to me that it was going to end very badly. The second reason was that I could not get a medical education in Russia, because I am from a family of doctors, and we know that medical education in Russia is getting worse every year and is now in a deplorable state. If I wanted to be a doctor, I had to leave.
Katya: My reasons were a little bit different. The main reason was just to get a good medical education. It is quite common for us [in Ukraine] to get an education abroad: in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Please tell us about your surroundings before you have moved and after: your family, your friends, and your loved ones. What are the views of these people? You met before the war, but after the annexation of Crimea—how did this situation affect you and the people around you?
Dima: My whole family took the annexation of Crimea horribly. I remember those times: 2014, I was 16, my mom came to me and said: “Pack your bags, you are going to the Czech Republic”—my sister livees in the Czech Republic—she thought it would begin what has begun now, in 2022—not the ordinary war, but global war. But the Europeans swallowed it all back then. I studied in Russia until the 11th grade. My father is ethnic Ukrainian, my mother has Ukrainan relatives, but she is Russian. My father has relatives who speak only in Ukranian. He was born in Novosibirsk, but in the Ukrainian family: his grandfather’s last name was Sulenko [last name changed] and Linnik [last name changed], they were born in small Ukrainian towns. These were the very migrants who had moved to Siberia to get land.
So they moved voluntarily?
Dima: Yes, it was back in the days of the Soviet Union. One part [of the family] from Kharkiv Oblast, and another one from Sumy Oblast. After the annexation I came to school and my geography teacher said that Ukraine is a harlot, and now we will show them. All my classmates think the same way. I didn’t understand, how? What is this nightmare? So my position from the start was: this is the beginning of the end.
Katya: When the occupation of Crimea began in 2014, I was in the 8th grade, and of course, back then I perceived everything completely differently than I do now. Now I have a completely different awareness of the situation. Because certainly we were told about it in class, and we felt it, but I wasn't directly involved. At that time it felt different: it seemed far away and it would soon be over. I didn't expect it to take this long. Of course, it was scary at the time, we didn't even go to school for a while, but we believed that if Maidan had won, even despite the terrible casualties, then the situation with Crimea would soon be resolved as well.
Were any of your relatives and friends involved in Maidan?
Katya: My older friends were involved, but not my parents. They took care of the family, the kids, and supported the participants of Maidan as best they could, financially.
Did your surroundings change when the war started? What do your friends and relatives think about what is happening? Who do you keep in contact with?
Dima: I’m lucky because everyone around me, all my loved ones, were against the war fron the very beginning. There was a situation with my great-aunt: she didn’t realize how the Internet works, and she was watching the TV and retelling my grandmother all that propaganda bullshit. We set her up on Telegram, and she found out about all the horrors that were going on there. Now her position is absolutely normal. I have cousins on my dad’s side, who, I guess, support the war. They might be quite passive, but we don’t talk to each other anymore. And, in fact, we didn't talk to them before.
Katya: I have had a certain split in my family, illustrated by my mother's cousin. It would seem to be a rather close family connection, and she lived in Ukraine for a very long time and studied here. Back during the Soviet Union, her parents moved to Moscow, and they have lived there for quite a long time. From this part of the family there was never a normal attitude, so we just do not communicate with them, and I no longer consider them as my family, no matter how it sounds. But from the people really close to me, from my friends, even from Russia and Belarus, I met only support and an actively negative attitude toward the war. Maybe I am lucky because most of my friends are from medical school, they are educated and their intelligence level is clearly high.
Katya, have you ever been to Russia?
Have you been to Ukraine, Dima? If yes, what were your impressions of the country?
Dima: I’ve been to Ukraine. We were in Ukraine in 2013, and literally six months later the Maidan started, and we saw what was happening at the time in all the places in Kyiv we have visited and seen. It made a huge impression on us: even in those days, Kyiv was a great city, much better than Moscow. For me it was much freer, much easier, it was easier to breathe. We all communicated there in Russian. There were no problems with anyone.
So there was no Russiaphobia, of which they constantly talk about on TV in Russia?
Dima: Absolutely not. And for us it was a shock when the propagandists started singing this song about the oppression of the Russian language in Kyiv, in Ukraine. I asked the question: “Dad, why didn't we move here? Why do we live in Tula? There is Kyiv, the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country, why aren't we there? And why isn't it like that here? Why isn't it like that in Moscow?”
Tell us about your pre-war social activities. Did your social life change after the war?
Katya: I admit that I put quite little effort into it because I was more focused on my studies. I study at the medical department, the most difficult of all. But this, of course, is no excuse for my lack of political participation. Studying was hard, in my first year distant learning began immediately because of Covid, same in the second year. In the third year, the war just started. So somehow I tried to manage my studies and take care of my family at the same time. But I could do more, even though I was studying.
Dima: In Russian school I took part in volunteering. But I didn’t think of it as something ideologic, only as helpful and positive.
What kind of work it was?
Dima: There is a local volunteer centre in Tula. The social conditions in Russia were not good back then when I left. One example of our work was to be a Ded Moroz [Father Frost in Russia is a New Year charachter similar to Santa Claus] for a school play. Another one was to make a play for people in hospice. Hospices in Russia are a terrible thing, it's impossible to stay there, and we tried to cheer them up and support them. I was involved in children's matinees, subbotniks [voluntary unpaid work on days off, usually a clean-up]. After I moved to the Czech Republic and finished my first year of study, I immediately started trying to consolidate Russian-speaking students in my department. The first time I met Katya was at one of those evenings. At the beginning of the year I gather Russian-speaking freshmen at our faculty (people from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan), and together with older students we help them not to drop out of the institute and make their lives and studies easier. This year was five years of me doing it. But I realize now that even then, after I was enrolled, I should have been more involved in political life, because if I had done it then, even now, given my experience in the Vesna movement this year, I could have done so much more. Now I have to start everything from scratch.
Katya: It’s really hard to combine this with studying, especially abroad and especially in a medical school. You are atudying all the time: at the institute, after the institute in the library, then at home. You have tests and exams again and again, the probability of dropping out in the first year is very high; dropping out means a ticket back home, which is one of the reasons why we help first-year students in the first place.
Your relatives are ethnic Ukrainians, did they have any problems in Russia because of this fact?
Dima: We are all Russians according to our passports. There are no problems with Russians. But maybe I am just not aware.
Are your families acquainted? Did they meet in person or via the Internet?
Dima: Yes, in person and via the Internet. Except for Katya's father, he is still in Kyiev.
Katya: The first time they met in person was in the Czech Republic, with those who managed to leave after the war began.
How did the first connection go, and how is the communication now?
Katya: Communication is good. Of course, my family was a bit worried, but they got to know each other absolutely fine. Everything was okay.
Did your relatives change their attitude toward you as a couple after the war?
Katya: My grandmother asked whether I would have any problems because I was dating a Russian. I reassured her that there wouldn't be any problems. I can more or less control those who are close to me now. Of course, they are also under the influence of the propaganda that is part of the war now, which is absolutely understandable and predictable. I mean there is propaganda against the propaganda that caused the war in Ukraine, so my family is very sensitive right now. This harshly negative attitude occurs towards Russia, but not towards people personally. But I understand that this propaganda also affects the well-being of my family: being under constant stress, they simply exhaust themselves and their nervous system. It is clear that you need your own point of view, but it should not affect the family and relationships.
Dima: My parents support Ukraine as well as they support Katya and me. Speaking of Katya’s parents, I have no illusions. I understand that anyway, for the rest of my life they will have, at the very least, enormous skepticism toward Russia and the Russians. At worst, it will just be hatred. My family and I are doing everything we can to keep it at the level of skepticism, to reduce the degree of disapproval and hatred. I don't know if I can get this across, but I want Katya's relatives to understand that there are good, adequate people in Russia.
Katya: I think they have this understanding. Just because they had to move unplanned, leaving their grandfather there, leaving their habits, their regular life, leaving everything behind, you can't expect them to be calm and sensible. I try to control these things so that they don't hurt themselves, because constant stress won't do them any good. But, obviously, it's a lot more stressful for them than even for us.
How did Katya's relatives adapt to the Czech Republic?
Katya: They are adapting pretty well. The Czech Republic has done quite a lot to make the adaptation of refugees here as painless as possible. There are free Czech courses. My sister was enrolled in secondary school without any exams. My brother goes to a kindergarten for Ukrainian children, to the adaptation group, they teach both in Ukrainian and Czech. I think the Czech Republic did and continues to do a lot to make them feel as well as possible.
After the outbreak of war, did you both change your views on your government?
Dima: Speaking of the main enemy of the free world—Putin—we can definitely say. that we hate him and every day hope that he will die. The sooner it happens, the sooner the war ends, perhaps. There will be some changes in Russia and, in fact, on a large scale. Well, there's probably nothing else we can say.
Katya: Previously, before the full-scale invasion, we treated Zelensky as an ordinary president doing his job. He's doing some things better, some things worse. The real pride I personally and all of us [in Ukraine] felt after February 24. We are glad to have a leader who is able to defend the country and guide its people to victory.
Dima: There are very few people about whom I can say that I’d like to be like them. Despite Zelensky’s words about Russian people in the Czech Republic, in Europe, that they must be expelled, I understand him. First of all, what he did for his country is an act of heroism. Second of all, he is a person who showed the Western world what kind of politicians might exist in Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet space. Even Saakashvili didn’t manage to do what Zelensky did. And I think this is a great example for Russians of what it's like to be a patriot in an insanely difficult time for their country. For Belarusians, it's a great example of how to fight for your country, even if you think you have a bad chance. Zelensky is a person I could call my hero.
Question to Dima: over the past 10 years or perhaps more, have you or your family been affected by tightened laws in Russia?
Dima: I am not personally affected, I have not been in Russia for seven years. I think my main mistake was that I did not participate in any rallies in Russia. I was 17-18 years old, I moved, and all my thoughts were directly about it. So it did not affect me directly, as well as my parents. They went to rallies, but they were never detained. There are no LGBT people in our family. In general I can say that no, we were not affected by it. My family has been living in Germany since the beginning of the war, and they can actively express their anti-war position.
What plans do you and your family have? How have they changed because of the war? How do you see the future of your country, Russia, and Ukraine?
Katya: Our goals have partly changed, but in general, both before and after the war, the main thing for us is to become good doctors, to work in this field—in the Czech Republic or elsewhere in Europe. I believe that the war will end, that Ukraine will be able to rebuild and recover. We have a lot of talented people, I personally know good successful doctors from Ukraine and I believe there are professionals in other fields, too. We have many modern projects, the development is at a quite high level, and I believe Ukraine can become a European country. I personally plan to help the students more.
Dima: First of all, I want the war to end and Ukraine to win. As for Russia, I hope that Putin's power will go away and his legacy will be wiped off the face of the earth. I understand that this will not come overnight, it has to be planned. I think that the younger generation and the generation of 30+ have a chance to become a normal country and a normal nation. Unfortunately, our society does not have a democratic and political tradition, and you have to work very hard to achieve any goals.
Do you envision yourself and your family living in Ukraine or Russia after the war?
Dima: Now it's a very emotional period, and we can't think that far ahead. It is clear that now Katya would not want to go to Russia under any circumstances. For my part, I also understand that I'm not welcome in Ukraine now, and it's understandable. It is not very clear how things will develop in the future. I hope that when the war is over, our states will be able to agree with each other on at least minimal things. In that case, it will be a great victory if we can at least visit each other.
How did you get through February 24?
Dima: It was some kind of crazy, horrible nightmare. We, like many people, didn't expect it and to the last minute believed it wouldn't happen, and that was our mistake, because if we had realized how great the chances really were, we would have done something about it. At least we would have moved Katya's family earlier. I constantly felt hatred for the whole Russia, I didn't understand why it happened and why no one could stop him. I realize now that at that point it was impossible, judging by how powerful Putin's totalitarian machine is. All my thoughts were just about Katya's family getting to the border, whatever it takes. We sat watching on Google maps as they drove, I didn't go to the university, I just couldn't. At that point it was already known what was going on in Bucha, I was cheking where it was on the map and where they were. They stopped at a small settlement near Kyiv (Vasilkovka, there's a military base there), and we almost immediately got the news that a Russian landing force was landing there. My mother was hospitalized with arrhythmia because of the war. We were all completely unprepared.
Katya: I understood that my relatives were not listening to me, they still thought of me as a child, they were under the influence of stress, acting chaotic, and they didn't quite understand what was going on. But no one was prepared for this, despite having their emergency suitcase packed. Until the last minute they hoped for the best, no one could imagine that literally tomorrow you would have to do 180, change your life and go to a foreign country.
How do people around you react when they find out that you are a Russian-Ukrainian couple?
Dima: People in general are happy to learn that even such a terrible thing as war is no barrier to love. But I must say that we are surrounded by very intelligent people who understand the complexity of today's situation.
If there were any misunderstandings and maybe even arguments - between relatives, between the two of you - how did you resolve them?
Dima: I didn't like it when Katya's parents used the words "Rashka" or "Rusnya" a couple of times, but I understand that this is a very hard time and I don't blame them. Once they said that all Russians were shallow, but I said that I was a Russian too. They understood everything and stopped talking like that in front of me.
Was Katya's family aware of the propaganda in Russia over the past eight years (the oppression of Russians in Donetsk, the crucified boy, Ukrainian Nazis, etc.)? What did they think about it, how did they react?
Katya: Of course they knew, as I said, I have relatives in Russia, and they more or less understand how powerful the propaganda is. They themselves don't believe all the Russian media, both Putin's and the democratic ones, and this is sometimes sad.
What would your advice be to couples like you: how to get through this time, how to get through family conflicts?
Dima: As a Russian, I would advise all the guys from Russia to understand and accept that Ukrainians will never forgive us. If we mean the word "forgiveness" with a capital letter. It will not happen. But it doesn't mean that we are not human, that we can't love each other, that we can't be happy with each other. It does not mean that forgiveness of Russians by Ukrainians should come first for Russian-Ukrainian couples. This is a very complicated time, but love is still stronger, even stronger than war. Save your relationship, work on it, discuss your feelings, and love each other. And in general, I would advise every Russian who wants this nightmare to never happen again to be politically active, to be in solidarity with other Russians, and to participate in anti-war initiatives. I would take the latter as some kind of foundation for every responsible person.
Katya: For a start, I would advise you to understand that a conflict does not mean the end of a relationship. Personally, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion it was easier for me to hate all Russians and to consider my relatives as ethnic Ukrainians. I was overwhelmed with anger and hatred because of the war crimes of the Russian military. Some of this has been transferred to relationships. At those moments, it is important to discuss painful or disputable situations and to be understanding and patient with each other. Try not to perceive aggression directed toward you (the Russian side). Talk more, don't avoid the topic of war. Do not indulge in propaganda, read reliable sources, and think critically. It seems to me that it is also important to engage in helping the AFU, in political activities, to volunteer, and to gather for that purpose.
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