The Russian invasion into the eastern part of Ukraine was highly predictable. But the four months I spent at home in Mariupol, a densely populated city in southeastern Ukraine, was the time when this very history became personal and rather painful.
When I arrived at the Donetsk airport, about 120 km from Mariupol, on April 30, my family greeted me with a gigantic Ukrainian flag. I was instantly put in the midst of an ongoing war for Ukraine’s independence – one where the flag of my country became, simultaneously, a weapon and a target. That is why, on that day in Donetsk, the heart of the separatist movement, my flag remained in my backpack.
A few days later, we displayed the flag on the balcony of my parents’ apartment in Mariupol; my family debated whether we’d be identified and killed over lunch or maybe later in the evening. Of course, our self-preservation instinct won and we eventually took the flag down.
Instead, we printed flyers in support of Ukrainian unity and put them in the mailboxes of our apartment building.
Yet, there were lines and lines of the brainwashed Russian TV audience, that just happened to hold Ukrainian passports, in a hurry to vote at the illegitimate referendum for something that, as they had been told, should make their lives more bearable.
I frequently asked myself: What are the unarticulated fears of the Donbas region’s people? Losing their imagined community to the one of so-called ‘Ukrainian fascists’? ‘Rotten’ European values? Zero trade with Russia? Modernization of their old manufacturing?
Did Vladmir Putin play his cards right and there are indeed two Ukraines – East and West – and my half-Russian family just happened to end up in the wrong part?
There were violent clashes on the bloody May 9, ironically, the old Soviet Victory Day, celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War. Then Ukrainian forces withdrew from Mariupol. Chechens, as well as Russian citizens with distinct Russian accents and unemployed locals, took over the city. They reportedly looted a few gun shops and a supermarket next to our apartment building.
For a moment, I even thought the Bolshevik-led October revolution of 1917 was strangely reenacted.
But, since my sister was still alive wearing a yellow and blue bike shirt downtown, and only a couple of strangers tried to spit on her, I thought it was a mere exaggeration, and perhaps nothing more serious than the criminal 1990s coming back. However, when armed separatists came to my grandma’s house and interrogated my sister over a small chat with the neighbor at 5 a.m., I reconsidered my stance.
In the meantime, more and more checkpoints went up; Donetsk and Slov’yans’k quickly became the real battlefields. On June 13, Ukrainian forces reclaimed the city and my politically active family stopped playing hide and seek. A good number of Mariupol residents almost magically were ready to buy food and supplies for the Ukrainian army and not willing to live in yet another Abkhazia or Transdnistria.
We held peaceful rallies in support of Ukraine with the funniest slogans that, perhaps, earlier people from Odesa came up with: “Russians, go home! There is no vodka!”
We slowly, but surely, started defining our regional identity through what it’s not; it’s not Russian. We still like Pushkin and Tolstoy, but not an armed Russian citizen who came to claim our land. Yet, we felt natural to verbalize our hate for Putin in the language we were used to – Russian.
So, what if Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak is right and there are in fact many Ukraines, not just two? What if there are as many Ukraines as we dare to count?
With these thoughts, I was on my way to Kyiv, recalling everything I read about Putin’s ‘imperial syndrome,’ the Yugoslavian scenario, the new world order, as well as memory and trauma.
As I was packing my Ukrainian flag, the Russians were getting ready to attack Mariupol again.
Natalya Domina is a second-year PhD student in Comparative Literature at Western. Her research interests include utopian studies, Soviet experimental fiction and Ukrainian and Russian contemporary literature.