Russian-speaking Ukrainians on survivor's guilt and Russian friends

Yelizaveta and Valeriia.
Yelizaveta and Valeriia. Source: Marina Barinova

Svetlana Štšur interviews young Ukrainians Valeriia and Yelyzaveta on their upbringing in Ukraine as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the feeling of guilt that a lot of Ukrainians experience outside of Ukraine and their relationships with their Russian friends and relatives.

I did my last interview with mother and daughter from Sievierodonetsk, Ukraine, Valentyna and Yelyzaveta. Valentyna shared her story escaping the war with her mother-in-law. This time I decided to speak to Yelyzaveta and her friend Valeriia.

Valeriia arrived in Tallinn from Dnipro, Ukraine, in 2018 to pursue her studies. Before coming to Estonia, she did not have any friends or relatives here. Her parents had been dreaming for a while of sending Valeriia somewhere abroad to study. An education agency recommended Estonia as an option. Valeriia looked at pictures of Tallinn on the internet, read some information about Estonia and thought to herself: "Wow, that looks cool!" And this is how her Estonian journey began.

Today, Valeriia is engaged to an Estonian. "I am very integrated into the local life (laughs). Thanks to my fiance, I've made many Estonian friends. He helped me dive into the Estonian language and culture," Valeriia said.

Valeriia speaks Estonian with her fiance's parents, and apparently, she knows everything about free Estonian language courses: "I took my first language course as part of the adaptation program (Settle in Estonia), then I attended an Estonian class offered by the Estonian Language House (Eesti keele maja), then the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa). I have taken a hands-on approach with the language and recently passed the B1 level Estonian proficiency exam," Valeriia shared.

On cultural differences between Ukrainians and Estonians. "I indeed saw some differences in the beginning," Valeriia said. "I could not make any Estonian friends at school because students divided into groups: expats hanged out with expats and Estonians with Estonians. It changed when my Estonian fiance introduced me to his friends. To be fair, it was quite awkward at first. When I met his friends for the first time, I hugged everyone because I am a hugger (laughs). After this they asked my fiance if I was flirting with them or something because apparently, I was a bit too touchy according to local standards. (Laughs again.) Luckily, we are very good friends now and I am invited to all the parties. Honestly, I do not feel that much different from my Estonian friends, we are like family," she added.

I asked Valeriia about her family's reaction to the news of her dating and now marrying an Estonian guy. Valeriia said with a big smile that her parents are super excited and probably thinking to themselves: "Oh dear, Valeriia is marrying a European (Valeriia bursts out laughing once more). But honestly, my parents have traveled quite a lot across Europe, and they are far from being conservatives or afraid of foreigners. Of course, they are happy for us."


Yelyzaveta: Before I went to the Ukrainian-language school, I did not know any Ukrainian. We spoke only Russian at home. Notwithstanding, my parents decided to send me to a Ukrainian-language school. It was a conscious choice because there were Russian-language schools in my home area as well. (Since 2014 the number of Russian-language schools in Ukraine has significantly decreased.) So, basically, when I went to school, everything around me was suddenly in Ukrainian – the books, the lessons. We spoke Ukrainian even during lesson breaks, despite of the fact that most families in my home region are Russian-speaking. In other words, I had to learn Ukrainian from scratch by literally looking up words in the dictionary, like with English later in my studies.

Yelyzaveta: The Russian and Ukrainian languages are so close that it was not a major problem for us growing up. I personally realized that there is something wrong only in high school during final exams when you could choose in what language to do the examinations. I picked the Russian language because I just did not know the terms in mathematics in Ukrainian, because I was studying in a Russian-language school. In 11th grade, at 17 years old, was my first shocking realization that I do not speak the language of my country well enough. By the way, I always knew some Ukrainian because of my grandma who spoke surzhyk (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian). My father's family is from the west of Ukraine and my mother is Russian but she moved to Ukraine with her family when she was only two years old. So, my grandma from my father's side spoke surzhyk to me and at home we always had Ukrainian television.

Yelyzaveta: Yes, we have never had the Russian TV at home neither...

Valeriia: Therefore, I always knew such tricky words as polunytsya (strawberry in Ukrainian, the word is used to test if you are from Ukraine, because it is difficult to pronounce for outsiders).

I asked Valeriia and Yelyzaveta about the music that they listened to while growing up in Ukraine.

Yelyzaveta: I used to listen to Russian music, and English of course. There were not that many Ukrainian-language songs at that time. Most popular Ukrainian singers were also singing in Russian back then (Bumbox, Quest Pistols, Luna, Ivan Dorn, Monatik etc.).

Valeriia: Since 2014 musicians and songwriters started to produce more songs in Ukrainian like Odyn v Kanaoe. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) adopted a new piece of legislation that provided all Ukrainian TV channels must broadcast in Ukrainian, and radio to prefer Ukrainian-language songs. 

I also broached a cultural identity issue – how Elizaveta and Valeriia identified themselves from an early age.

Yelyzaveta: I have never been a fan of the idea that Russia and Ukraine are brother nations. I would have never come up with this thought on my own. What kind of brothers? I never saw Russia as some kind of an older brother even before 2014. Most probably because I do not have any relatives in Russia.

Valeriia: I do have Russian relatives. Some of them work in the police. Now they cannot even talk to us freely. They leave our family chats as soon as we start talking about the war. I also remember how in 2014, some of my relatives called us and accused my little three-year-old brother of referring to them as 'moskaly' (an offensive name used by Ukrainians to refer to Russians) during our visit to Russia. The funny part is that my brother had not yet learned how to speak at that time (laughs). I believe that they were brainwashed by Russian propaganda. But luckily today, eight years later, they started to listen to us more than to the Russian news and came back to their senses... But yeah, I did see Ukrainians and Russians as brotherly nations...

Yelyzaveta: We are close nations, historically, culturally, and economically, for sure. But still, I did not give it too much thought before 2014.

Valeriia: You know this common culture thing began only in Soviet times. In the Soviet Union it was prohibited to read Ukrainian books or listen to Ukrainian music. The Russian language was forced on us and that is the reason why we are so close culturally today. /…/ I never questioned my cultural identity. In the Russian-language school, which I attended, we celebrated all the Ukrainian holidays. I was singing and dancing in the national Ukrainian costume, vyshyvanotchka with a traditional wreath on my head, to Ukrainian songs. I was raised in Ukrainian culture. Russia has always been a totally different country for me all my life.

Yelyzaveta: Yeah, Russia seemed to be also far away for me too. When my parents sent me to international summer camps abroad, there I met some kids from Russia. I have certainly felt that we are different: I am Ukrainian, and they are Russians. But we never fought or argued over anything. Instead, we hanged out together and had a very good time.

Survivor's guilt

Valeriia was in Ukraine visiting her family when the war began. She felt an enormous guilt leaving her family behind when returning to Estonia. But it was clear as day that her parents were not going to leave her grandparents, and as it tends to happen quite often during these days, elderly generations of Ukrainians refuse to flee their homes even if their personal safety is in great danger.

Valeriia: When I returned from Ukraine home to Tallinn, I still had vacation days left. It was horrible. When you are not at work, nothing can stop you from endlessly scrolling the news. Next day I went straight to the Ukrainian Culture Center to occupy myself and I felt better immediately. But overall, the feeling of guilt is overpowering. The first thing that I wrote to all my friends and relatives in Ukraine after the war began was that they are always welcome in Tallinn.

Yelyzaveta: In the beginning I expected my friends in Ukraine to blame me for not going through the same experience as they did. They never did. I was afraid that I would not be able to support them, that I don't even have a moral right to say anything on the matter. What can you tell the people under bombs really? To stay strong or that it will soon be over? It is almost impossible to find less appropriate words for the situation. What helped me to get over self-blaming was the fact that my family went through this hell, and I felt all of it through their suffering.

Valeriia: I am actually very glad that I happened to be in Ukraine with my family when it all started. I witnessed the mobilization of the whole nation. I saw young Ukrainian soldiers who were ready and willing to defend my country. It sounds weird but I felt at peace seeing it all. After taking a 24-hour ride on a train packed with people, I understood why humanitarian help is so important. On the train there were children who had not had any food for two straight days. These children wore the same diapers throughout the whole trip. I rode for 20 hours standing because only people with children had the right to sit, and there was nowhere to sit anyway, because the train was full of people, and the floor was covered with bags. I managed to sit down twice for 30 minutes with someone's kid on my lap. So, even if I feel guilty being here in Estonia because I understand what Ukrainian people are going through every day, I know how to help, I know what they need. There is no such thing as too many diapers…

Yelyzaveta: Action is the key to overcoming guilt. You must channel this energy into some action. Valeriia, for example, bought medicines, blankets and hygiene products for volunteer organizations. She also helped with sorting and packing of humanitarian aid in the Estonian Student Union's office, which was used as a collection point. I was helping my friend Vita with a charity auction, and even bought a painting myself (laughs). General awareness spreading is also very helpful.

Valeriia: But it still might feel like you are not doing enough… Especially when you see other volunteers working day and night. However, for me, it's a mixed feeling of guilt and pride for the people giving all of themselves to help others. Their dedication makes me want to do even more on my part. For example, when I cannot make it to the volunteers' center, I transfer 100 hryvnas to some Ukraine humanitarian aid account.

Yelyzaveta: Yes, we can help our country with money. And information. I have heard that if war lasts longer than 30 days, people outside of the conflict area start caring less about it. That is why I continue sharing war posts across my social media network to remind people of tragedy and horror that Ukrainians are living in today.

Russian friends

Both Valeriia and Yelyzaveta have Russian friends. I asked them how the war has affected their friendships.

Valeriia: At the beginning of the war, some of my Russian friends argued with me on social media, saying that Putin does not equal Russians, that it is only his war and that ordinary Russian people do not want the conflict with Ukraine. But what is important to understand is that we Ukrainians do not really have time to choose the tolerant words to convey the message because people in Ukraine are dying right now. We don't have time and energy to specify that, "I hate those Russians who support Putin and the war." But after some time, my Russian friends understood what we felt and stopped making such comments.

We have a common friend, Vika, who lives in Russia. Each time Putin pulled something, she told us: "You know, what can I do? What can I really repost? What is the point of me going to the protest? Nothing will change because of it." So, you know, this kind of position "I am a grain of sand in the wind." (Both laugh).

Yelyzaveta: I remember that I made a questionnaire on the second or third day of the war where I asked my Instagram audience: why are you silent about the war? No judgment, but why are you not speaking up? I did judge them to be fair (both laugh). And the very same friend Vika, with whom we used to study, answered something like this grain of sand thing.

Valeriia: But she (Vika) did change her position. Now she actively reposts on her social media from BBC and some other sources. I think it did finally get to her that the region that is currently under attack is my home region. So, when she sees Dnepropetrovsk on the news, she writes immediately to me: "Valeriia, how are your parents? Are they safe?". If she sees Vinnytsia, she reposts right away and writes again, asking how we are doing. So, when the war touched people who are close to her, the war became real, the puzzle was completed for Vika, and she woke up...

I asked the girls what the main requirement was for their Russian friends to remain a part of their lives?

Valeriia: Do not be silent (about the war). If a person does not bother to write to me personally, a person I have met and talked to in real life, this is offensive to me. So far, I have unsubscribed only from Russian bloggers.

Yelyzaveta: For me it is not enough. If the person writes personally to me but will not share information about the war on social media, it is not going to work out between us.

Valeriia: Mm… I am a softer person, I think.

Yelyzaveta: I am definitely more radical (laughs).

Valeriia: I do hate the fact that Russian troops came to my land, but I do not feel resentment or anger towards every Russian person.

Yelyzaveta: I have friends in Russia, and I understand that they have families there, who lost their jobs or suffer under sanctions in some other way. But you know, sometimes I do have these intense emotions and thoughts circling in my head... Wishing that Russia would disappear from the face of the Earth one beautiful morning... Sometimes I think that maybe there is a way to build a physical wall between our countries, and let them (Russians) nibble on each other and do whatever they want with their lives... But I know that I would never say such things to my Russian friend because it is her country and her family lives there too.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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