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As Putin lays siege to Ukraine, memories of life between wars

If you aren’t thinking about a place at all, and then a war starts there, it seems like it came out of the blue — a maniac starts the war; a bunch of people die; the rest of us post on our social media.

But wars don’t “break out.” They ripen in plain sight until there is a moment when no one can ignore them anymore. This happened with Hitler’s war. And this is what’s happening with Putin’s war, eight years in the making. All of the sudden, everyone is paying attention, asking, “What’s up with Ukraine?” “How did this happen?”

It’s a long, terrible story. Here is my little piece of it; it makes no mention of the bloody civil war, of Holodomor or the Holocaust. I’m not a historian. This is my understanding of Donetsk, my mom’s hometown, where I spent time as a kid.

Anya Ulinich protesting Putin's invasion of Crimea in 2014

Here I am in Times Square in 2014 protesting the invasion of Crimea. Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

This is a picture of me that I found this morning. At first glance, it looks like one of thousands of images taken around the world today. Except today, my hair is gray and bobbed, not dark and long, and I haven’t bothered with lipstick since the start of the pandemic. The photo is actually exactly 8 years old. It was taken March 2, 2014, in Times Square. I’m protesting Putin’s initial invasion of Ukraine, the one that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the formation of the Russian-backed separatist statelets in Eastern Ukraine.

Today’s invasion of Ukraine began when Vladimir Putin officially recognized these regions — Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic — and sent troops there, officially invading.

My maternal grandparents lived in Donetsk. My mom grew up there. I was raised in Moscow, but spent a lot of time in Donetsk as a child between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Donetsk had been an important and prosperous city in the Soviet Union, a home to coal mines and the steel industry, as well as a large toy factory. Probably every kid growing up in the USSR played with something made in the city.

Before this latest, worst round of Putin’s war on Ukraine broke out, I found a Soviet-era book about Donetsk on eBay. It was published in 1978, but despite its stilted Soviet aesthetic, the photos in it align with my memories of Donetsk: a modern city with vast flowerbeds, where most men worked in mines and factories.

Images from a Soviet-era book about Donetsk that I found on eBay.

Images from a Soviet-era book about Donetsk that I found on eBay. By Anya Ulinich

Yet, less than half a century earlier, Donetsk had been almost wiped out by the Nazi invasion. At the start of the war, its population had been half a million. After the war, it was 175,000. Between October 1941 and September 1943, the city had been occupied by Germans and Italians. After the war, it was rebuilt on a large scale. Much of the work was done by Swabian forced laborers (which is its own horrible story.)

My grandfather Dmitri had gone through years of trench warfare in Ukraine during WWII. Getting wounded had saved him from getting killed. My grandmother lost her first husband in battle. These two deeply traumatized people met each other after the war. My grandmother was a 25-year-old widow with a toddler daughter. My grandfather had a 7-year-old son who was so malnourished, he couldn’t walk. Together, the four of them restarted their lives in Donetsk.

By the time my mom was born in 1949, the city was back to its prewar population. My mom, the baby boomer, grew up with more than enough food, in unprecedented prosperity. Though there was no hot water in my grandparents’ house, my mom had piano and ballet lessons, and, eventually, a university education.

At left, the author's mother dances the part of Clara in a school production of 'The Nutcracker' in Donetsk

Mom as Clara in the Donetsk Ballet School production of Nutcracker in 1959 or 1960 (not sure). Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

When people in the U.S. talk about “Ukrainians,” they make the nation sound monolithic. But Ukraine is a large country. People in the East, in parts closest to Russia, always spoke Russian. My grandmother’s native language was Ukrainian. My grandfather’s native language was Russian. Like most of the city of Donetsk, they spoke Russian with a Ukrainian inflection – this dialect had a name — Surzhik.

They lived, organically, in a Russian-Ukrainian culture, and considered the Soviet Union to be their country, and Ukraine to be their state (in a sense that New York is a state in the country called the U.S.). Ethnic conflict typically doesn’t randomly flare up among people who are, for the first time in years, getting enough to eat, and get to sleep in beds instead of cellars and trenches.

The author and her family taking a picture on the steps of a photo studio

In 1979, my grandparents didn’t have a telephone, so one time our family showed up at a photo studio to take a family portrait, and on finding it closed, took a photo on its steps. My uncle is taking the photo, so he is not in it. I’m the kid in the middle in white. My grandfather is on the right, with all his medals on. My cousin Greg, to the left of me in a sailor suit, was killed in Sievierodonetsk in 2015. He was a civilian and a young father who stayed away from fighting and politics. No one investigated how he died. Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

I was close to my paternal family in Moscow, who were all college-educated and anti-establishment, and who poked fun at my Donetsk grandfather’s staunch pro-Soviet conformity. When my grandfather dressed up, he always wore his war medals. I believe he felt deeply grateful that the regime, in the 1960s and 1970s just let them be: go to work, have enough to eat, raise children and grandchildren. There was no war for once, and no arrests.

My grandfather adored modern appliances, all things plastic, vacations, souvenirs. He was generous to a fault. To me, as a kid in the 1980s, Donetsk was a place where nice things came from: my fancy scooter, my fake leather jacket, and, of course, toys. I got whatever I asked for.

My grandmother cooked massive quantities of amazing food and overfed anyone who entered their house. The trauma of war was not talked about, but was noticeable in absences: my grandfather never told stories about his experiences, and he wouldn’t watch movies about WWII, thus missing out on probably 80 percent of available Soviet entertainment.

The author with her family, circa 1976, gathered around a table in a garden.

1976, my family in my grandparents’ garden. I’m the little one in the middle Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

Of course, Donetsk had a Soviet Empire problem. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was failing. Its industry had become outdated. Coal mines in Donetsk had been operating since 1869, and after a century, they were depleted, dangerous and unprofitable. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, miners in Donetsk experienced poverty.

I last visited my grandparents in 1996. I had been living in Chicago at the time. I went to Moscow first to see my family there, then took a train to Donetsk. When my grandmother met me at the station, she said that public transport wasn’t running, because miners were rioting and flipping over street cars. We would have to take a taxi and drive through alleys and back roads. Donetsk miners were rioting because they weren’t being paid. They were on strike against an employer who didn’t need them.

Anya Ulinich's grandparents in their apartment in Donetsk in 1996.

My grandparents in their apartment in Donetsk in 1996. The photo is black-and-white because I was an arty-farty art student. Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

Ukraine’s economy was in shambles in 1996. So was Russia’s. Nobody in Donetsk was a separatist of any kind. My grandparents weren’t upset about the color of their passports. They were upset that the water pump was broken in the basement of their apartment building, and water didn’t reach above the second floor, except in the middle of the night. Before they went to bed, they set buckets under open taps to collect drips through the night. By morning, they had enough water to get through the day.

In the mid-2000s, people in the region watched the quality of life improve in resource-rich Russia just to the East. In 2010, they helped elect their former Governor, the notoriously corrupt pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, president of Ukraine. (By notoriously corrupt, I mean he had gold bathroom fixtures and a private zoo.) In an imperfect analogy, people of the region were like the “Make America Great Again” people of West Virginia – they wished to go back in time.

When Yanukovich was overthrown in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and went into exile in Russia, people of Donetsk protested, and Putin — a real Hitlerish character, full of grievance and obsessed with imperial expansion — was only too happy to militarily assist them in breaking away from Ukraine.

This was eight years ago. There were outraged protests around the world. My kid and I took our signs to Times Square. Putin annexed Crimea. War began in Donetsk and Luhansk. One of my cousins lost his life.

But the world can’t afford to get involved, not until a certain point. There is a hard utilitarian calculus behind standing up to invaders versus letting them alone. The day Putin started his latest invasion, I woke up at 4 a.m., looked at my telephone, and saw The New York Times headline that said “All at Once or Bit by Bit? Putin’s Choice Could Determine World’s Reaction.”

It was as if they were discussing table manners. If Putin chewed Ukraine politely, just around the edges, the World might just let it happen, the headline implied. It made me so upset that I couldn’t sleep anymore. So I got up and made an illustration.

'Bit by Bit,' by Anya Ulinich

‘Bit by Bit,’ by Anya Ulinich By Anya Ulinich

Eight years ago, after some shouting in the streets, the world decided to allow Putin to keep Crimea, and to assist the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in becoming self-proclaimed statelets. Statelet is a cute word, like driblet. What it actually describes is a semi-livable, impoverished place that exists in a state of perpetual lukewarm war, with a population that watches Russian propaganda on TV and waits to be absorbed into Russia. But Putin never wanted the people of Eastern Ukraine and their decrepit industry – he wanted Kyiv. For why, you should listen to his pre-invasion speech.

For the last month, I have been ruining dinners with ranting about the upcoming war. Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine was an obscure topic. Then Putin decided to go for “all at once,” rather than “bit by bit,” social media lit up blue and yellow, and the world began to pay attention to the place where my family used to have a normal life. I have one relative left in the region. Here is a text my mom received from her the other day:

We’re up all night, worrying, waiting. In the morning, the shops were open 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. All the banks are closed. There is no money in ATMs. In every part of the city, there is artillery, armored carriers and smaller military vehicles. All day an armored carrier stood by my apartment building. We hear shots from BM-21s and cannon fire. The military is digging trenches around apartment buildings – residents are a human shield for them. I gotta get more minutes for my telephone and internet … Can’t get more internet data. Will be out of reach…

Anya Ulinich, grandmother, and family

Goofing with grandma. I’m on the left. The cousin with her tongue out, now in her sixties, is currently in Sievierodonetsk. Her little brother was killed in 2015. Her son lives in Kharkiv. Courtesy of Anya Ulinich

The war that no one wants goes on, getting more and more horrendous by the second.

“For the first time in my life, I’m glad my parents are dead,” my mom said to me. I believe she meant both: one, it sucks to be old in a bomb shelter. And two, it would have been unbearable for my grandparents to witness their hard-earned peace being so senselessly wasted.

To me, like to millions of Post-Soviet people with family ties in both Russia and Ukraine, this war seems not just shockingly awful, but absurd. To see Russian soldiers killing Ukrainians is a little witnessing people from Massachusetts slaughter people in Connecticut. Without uniforms, they wouldn’t know which was which.

This sense of absurdity is reinforced by some viral videos, like the one where a Ukrainian motorist stops to chat with a crew of a broken-down Russian tank and offers to tow them back to Russia. speaking Russian. Everyone laughs. But these videos from just a few days ago don’t age well against the backdrop of nightly slaughter and destruction. How long can this last before Russian people just STOP? No matter how much Putin restricts the Russian media, there is still social media. When a momfluencer in Kyiv posts the footage of an explosion on her Instagram, moms in Russia will probably believe her, rather than Putin’s state television.

I hope the words printed on this banner in 2014 will come true. By Getty Images

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As a Russian Jew from Moscow with a strong connection to Ukraine, I hope that Russian people will get rid of Putin before a huge chunk of Europe is back in ruins, the way my grandparents found it in 1945. And I hope that the sentiment written in 2014 on the banner above will finally come true.

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