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Over the past weeks, as I put my three-year-old son to bed each night in the safety of our home, all I could think about were the parents in Ukraine who were now marking their children’s blood type with a sticker when sending them to school. This recent precaution has quickly become a routine for many Ukrainians, especially in eastern Ukraine, where the war with Russia was imminent, or so we kept hearing. Some of these children are even products of the war, the offspring of couples who met on the frontlines, most of them volunteers. Their parents returned home to raise these children from 2017 onwards, hoping for at least a semblance of normalcy during a lull in the midst of a war that has never come to an end.
My son, Henryk, is similar in age to many of these children. Growing up in New Jersey, he has just recently started realizing he is Ukrainian: “I heard ‘Ukraine,’” he says as I obsess over the news on TV. “You are Ukrainian,” I respond. “And what is happening? Why is this guy so loud,” he asks when I show him a video of a Ukrainian soldier singing a song in his car on the way to the frontline. “The bad guys are coming. He is going to fight the Russians,” I say.
The evening of Feb. 23 is different. A seven hour time difference separates Princeton and Ukraine. When my son goes to bed, around 8 p.m. in Princeton, a lot of people in Ukraine are still awake staying connected, as I am, via Facebook. At 4 a.m. local time in Ukraine, some of my Facebook friends know something is brewing in the air. Several minutes later, Russian state TV airs Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pre-recorded address to the Russian people pledging to “free” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Minutes afterwards, around 5 a.m. local time in Ukraine, the first explosions are heard in Kyiv, and later across Ukraine.
My native region — the city of L’viv in western Ukraine, close to Poland — was supposed to be safe. The U.S. had evacuated its embassy from Kyiv to L’viv just a few days earlier and had advised President Zelensky to move Ukraine’s government there too. But as the night in Ukraine turns into the morning and people start mapping those explosions, it becomes clear that all of Ukraine is affected.
As I get my son to daycare the next morning, I cannot keep my eyes off of the images of children in Kharkiv’s and Kyiv’s subway stations that are now used as bomb shelters. Friends are circulating copies of their children’s birth certificates so their children can be located and identified, if not by them, then by strangers. The unthinkable becomes a reality.
It is the first day, or night, that many of us Ukrainians hear “concerns” from our Russian colleagues or “friends.” In the eight years since the beginning of the war, they have done nearly nothing, shrugging off the occupation of Crimea and the separatist status of Donbas. Anti-Putin and anti-war demonstrations had been sporadic and poorly attended, small and marginal for the country of 144 million. I must, of course, understand: Russia is a totalitarian state, and neither movement nor speech is free. They are sorry and they are ashamed, they tell me. I must, of course, understand, life is scary there. It is not their fault.
“Scary” has recently become one of Henryk’ favorite words. “Scary,” he says, when I tell him it is time to go to bed. “Scary,” he argues when I ask him to clean his toys. My husband, the responsible parent, then sits Henryk down to tell him a story. “Do you know a story about the boy who cried wolf?” my husband asks. “No, what is it?” our little boy responds. “Once upon a time, there was a boy who cried wolf. One day, he screamed: the wolves are coming. And all of his neighbors came to help. But there were no wolves. The next day, the little boy screamed again: the wolves are coming! And the neighbors came again. But there were still no wolves. And then, the little boy cried for help again. The neighbors did not believe him. But the wolves did come. So, if you keep saying ‘scary’ about things that are not, at some point, we might not believe you.”
Being scared and feeling fear are a part of life. As I was finishing my first book back in 2014 from the comfort of my home in New York, Ukrainians were burning tires in the central square in Kyiv, in sub-zero temperatures, as a way to create a shield between themselves and the police. Police repression — we should remember — was brutal during the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014: people were beaten and shot, some of them to death, on the streets of the European capital in broad daylight. Everything — the fire, the beatings, the weather — was incredibly scary. And yet, as people were being beaten, more and more people came to join them. The wolves did not come, but the neighbors did. There was no place for fear. I dedicated my first book to those people who shed their fear.
Things are much worse today than they were in 2015. As the situation in Ukraine escalates, we are on our own. I don’t believe in miracles. Maybe aliens will come to help us, because no one else will. My only hope amidst all this is that one day the Russians will lose their fear, too; that the burden of responsibility for the killings of the innocent and the sufferings of the children will outweigh the fear of fighting for their freedom.
Iryna Vushko is an Assistant Professor of History at Princeton, focusing on modern Eastern Europe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.