Putin’s decision to invade has triggered many unintended consequences.
By JAMIE DETTMER
MAY 3, 2023
“We were invisible before, and to become visible is a huge step,” historian Olena Dzhedzhora said, as we discussed how Ukraine has drawn the attention of the rest of Europe and the United States.
The dignified, gray-haired historian joined the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv as it was being founded in 2002 — the first Catholic university to open anywhere in the former Soviet Union — just 11 years after the country declared independence. And since Russia’s invasion, Dzhedzhora, an archeologist-turned-medievalist, has been busy making darkness visible, along with around 30 volunteers — students, lecturers and others — who’ve been video recording and transcribing war testimonies gathered from people of all walks of life in Ukraine.
Last year, Lviv became a sort of Noah’s Ark, crowded with the displaced. And Dzhedzhora’s university stopped functioning for months — sheltering war refugees, feeding them, collecting medicine and raising cash for those who wanted to move west as Europe opened its doors.
“When I looked in their eyes, or talked with them, I had a feeling that I must capture their stories somehow,” she said. “We started to listen to these people and, with their permission, film them. Right now, we have 157 long video interviews and are busy translating them. They include volunteers, drivers, military men, medical personnel, people who teach and who make art and play music, and also those who experienced Russian occupation,” she added.
The project set out with two aims — to record war testimony for posterity, and to show the wider world what’s happening to Ukrainians. “The challenge, initially, for us, personally, was that none of us had any experience interviewing people suffering deep trauma. We have always stayed away from children because we fear retraumatizing them,” she said. “I am the only historian in the group, but all of us are very good listeners.”
Discussing the testimonies, Dzhedzhora remarked that “people say funny things in the interviews; they say very deep things, and they say very unexpected things. Some people, after a couple of months, reread their interviews and say, ‘Did I say that? That’s very interesting. I already forgot about that.’ People often forget or repress their first reactions to trauma.”
And she teared up recalling some of their stories — one, of a deeply traumatized 45-year-old woman who endured the three-month-long siege of Mariupol, and remained there during the early days of Russia’s occupation before being able to flee. “At first, she didn’t want to talk, saying she couldn’t, but eventually she did, and what most shocked the woman was how some of her neighbors welcomed the Russians, and started to point out people who were Ukrainian-oriented. They were among the earliest also to loot apartments,” Dzhedzhora said. And to the
woman’s disgust, she later saw one of the looters interviewed on Ukrainian television, claiming to be a patriot.
Another painful interview for the historian was with artist Ivanka Krypyakevych — the partner of Mykhailo Dymyd, a professor at the university — on the loss of their oldest son, Atemi. Atemi died fighting in Donetsk in June, and Ivanka gave her testimony two days after his funeral. “Yes, I knew him, and know the family well. Atemi was such an excellent, such an interesting young man,” Dzhedzhora added.
Through these experiences, she said she found most interviewees didn’t harbor personal hatred toward Russians. “They understand that would be very destructive for themselves. So it’s not the hatred — it’s something I don’t even know how to express it in English.” Then it came to her: “It is more Biblical. Something much more powerful than hatred. It is wrath,” she said.
Back in Kyiv, I then sat down with a young American, a veteran of the U.S. army named Eric, who’s seen plenty of war and joined the international legion of foreign volunteers in April. “When the invasion happened, I was like, ‘the Russians suck’. But I thought it is not my fight. Then they started the terror bombing and attacking malls, hospitals and schools and stuff like that, and I thought, ‘I can do something about this.’”
Eric served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he admits he enlisted to fight in Ukraine for prosaic reasons too. He left the army realizing that with America’s “forever wars” winding down, he might not see action again. “I do miss getting shot at. That was enjoyable when it started happening again,” he said.
“I know what I am. I’m a soldier. I’m a dude who goes and fights wars, kills people, all that stuff, gets paid for it. It’s, like, objectively speaking, not a morally healthy thing. But there’s still standards, there’s rules, laws. There’s like a code, and you’re supposed to adhere to [it]. I mean, it’s war. It’s brutal. There’s none of this, like, ‘Yeah, man, you know, as long as they fly a white flag.’ A lot of times, if somebody’s trying to surrender, you’re not going to realize that. You see movement. You see a guy. You shoot,” he added.
The foreign legion in Ukraine now numbers around a thousand, and most of the wannabe heroes, the unfit and the fantasists who initially flocked to join in the early weeks have been booted out — or “dipped out,” in Eric’s words — once they went through their first bombardment or firefight, and realized “it’s real life and dangerous.”
“We still get some nutters — the vetting process isn’t great,” he grimaced, recalling how some German neo-Nazis had joined up last year, but they “dipped out because nobody wanted to work with them. We’re literally fighting fascists here. That’s what Russia is. Fascist. Their squad nickname was Wehrmacht. It was really stupid,” he said.
Eric, who asked to withhold his last name as he doesn’t want exposure, also echoed other American legionnaires when discussing the differences between various foreign fighters. The Belarusians, Chechens and Georgians are seen as much more ideological, viewing the war as a way toward freeing their own countries from Russia’s control, while most of the Americans and the British, as well as Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, are more like Eric —
veterans whose chief motivation for being in Ukraine is to avoid civilian life, although they stress the rightness of the Ukrainian cause.
Motivations aside, the highly combat-experienced Americans and Brits are often used in especially risky commando and reconnaissance missions. And it was on such a mission that Eric and his entire squad was wounded near Bakhmut last year. He got shot in the chest — the bullet partly penetrating his body armor — and was then hit by two fragmentation grenades during a vicious close-quarter skirmish.
“I was bleeding in a bathroom — in the same building I got wounded in, with the Russians still inside. So, me and another guy, and then later another guy, were balls to the wall, trading fire with the Russians and tossing grenades at each other. I couldn’t move my arm and my leg, so I was, like, handing off magazines to the others, and then losing blood and passing out.” Another of the legion’s platoons was ordered to mount a rescue, “but they were busy making Instagram videos about the BTR [Russian armored personnel carrier] we’d all blown up earlier,” he said, chortling.
Meanwhile, among the many unintended consequences Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has triggered — including prodding Sweden and Finland to join NATO, wrecking the Moscow-tied Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was once a useful Kremlin tool of influence, and volunteering foreign fighters — there’s now another that will likely infuriate the homophobic leader: boosting support for gay rights in Ukraine.
“If Putin hates gays, we should support them,” announced Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Kozhemiakin to the surprise of many last month. Kozhemiakin previously served as an officer in the Soviet Navy from 1982 to 1988, and he was in the Russian KGB for several years.
His support for LGBTQ+ rights came during a committee hearing on a bill introduced in April by Inna Sovsun, an opposition lawmaker from the liberal, pro-European Holos party. Sovsun’s bill seeks to legalize same-sex civil partnerships, granting LGBTQ+ civil partners the same rights as married heterosexual couples. According to Sovsun, the war has helped shift public opinion, with many recognizing the inequity of the partners of LGBTQ+ soldiers not having any legal rights when their loved ones get wounded or killed — including making medical decisions on their behalf, burying them or receiving any state benefits.
Over a hundred soldiers have so far come out as LGBTQ+, and thousands more are estimated to be serving. “Kozhemiakin’s speech was the most impressive I’ve seen in the parliament, and was the least expected,” Sovsun said. But she also cautioned: “I think if the parliament were to vote on this today, it would fail. My feeling is that the parliament is more conservative than our society because 56 percent of Ukrainians actually support it.”
And public support is growing still, but the government doesn’t yet have an official position. “Zelenskyy does things when it’s clear the public wants him to do it. He hasn’t quite worked out what the public’s position is yet” on this, she said.
But she hopes he will, and soon.