Image credit: Kamil Zajaczkowski / Shutterstock
Yes, I’ll smile, indeed, through tears and weeping—Lesya Ukrainka, Contra spem spero (“Against all hope, I hope”) 1890
Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,
Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,
I shall live! You thoughts of grief, away!
Born less than a year after the collapse of the USSR, I represent the first generation of Ukrainians who were born and raised in a sovereign, free, and democratic country. While my ancestors had experienced a civil war, coerced collectivization, deliberate starvation at Stalin’s hands, and the slaughter of the Second World War, my generation was able twice, in the Orange Revolution in 2004 and again in the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, to help show that values of freedom, human rights, and democracy were fundamental values for modern Ukraine.
Although our nation is used to political crises, economic instability, and a permanent threat from Russia to the east, a full-blown war was something no Ukrainian could have imagined in their wildest dreams, despite months of high-alert US intelligence reports that promised an imminent invasion. News reports showed Ukrainians ice-skating during the Christmas holidays, singing songs, and spending time with friends and family. My mother visited me in New York and laughed off the possibility of bombs in Kyiv.
On Tuesday, March 1, after four days of hiding in an office basement in Kyiv, my mother told me on the phone that she returned to her apartment, in the neighborhood not far from the city center. She and her next-door neighbors designated the safest place in their eighteen-story building—the hall outside their apartments, far from windows and doors on the tenth floor outside their apartments. She sleeps fully dressed and keeps her bag with blankets, food, and other necessities by the door, ready to leave whenever the sirens go off.
As I write, I am living out of harm’s way in Canada, where I am a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto. Ukrainians like myself, who are witnessing this horror from abroad feel guilty and helpless for not being with our families. We go to bed afraid of what tomorrow might bring. We wake up, with our first thought to check if our family and friends are still alive. Our sense of time has completely changed—we do not know anymore what day of the week it is; we only know what day of the war it is.
Yet with all the destruction and intentional demoralization, Ukrainians remain fierce, fearless, and hopeful. We will not surrender.
Undoubtedly, Putin significantly underestimated the willingness of Ukrainians to defend their land and their ability to do so. Coming to “liberate” Ukraine from the “fascist” regime, his army is bewildered and demoralized that no one welcomes them with flowers. They were told they would be treated as heroes, instead, they are met with vigorous resistance and hatred. Having no sense of location, orientation, language, or local context, they are easily trapped and tricked by the army, as well as by the local insurgents. Ukrainians are motivated to live, while Russians do not even know what they are doing in our territories.
Additionally, while earlier revolutions trained us on the art of mass mobilization and creative sabotage, this is the first time in Ukraine’s short democratic history that we are witnessing a coordinated mobilization to defeat an invading army. The whole world watches in awe as the Ukrainian people and state demonstrate the highest level of courage and resilience, with a readiness to defend our democratic ideals not only on paper but with our lives—and this is happening at every level from the president and military, down to everyday civilians. Today, 90 percent of the Ukrainian population believes they can win this war.
The experts on international television often claim that Russia enjoys a military advantage against Ukraine—but this is not entirely true, since virtually the entire Ukrainian people, from the president, who rejected Biden’s invitation to hide in the White House, to schoolchildren, who wage DDoS attacks on Russia’s websites from the shelters, are now ranged against the Russians.
Our President Zelenskyy has risen to the challenge and is showing leadership skills that other world leaders can only envy. His resolution to fight until the end, his optimism in our victory, his perfect Ukrainian speech (all the more impressive for someone who knows him as a Russophone comedian and, who grew up in a Russian-speaking city, Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih) have already made him the most popular president in our short history. Despite threats of assassination, he remains in Kyiv as a true leader of his people.
Our military’s acts of bravery are already a legend. When a Russian warship approached the tiny island Zmiinyi on the Black Sea and ordered the soldiers there to surrender or perish, they responded: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”
Ordinary civilians like me, with no prior military experience, have stood in mile-long lines to receive arms and instructions. Friends who would otherwise be preparing academic lectures and writing books are learning how to use weapons they have never held in their lives.
For now, Ukraine’s people have a surprising capacity to communicate via social networks, chats, alert systems, TV, and radio. As a result, the authorities are able to update the people on the developments in their regions, warn them of the enemy’s tactics and disinformation, and encourage them to wage a local insurgency as circumstances allow.
For example, the police have warned residents of Kyiv that Russian occupiers leave special signs to indicate potential targets for attacks. My 21-year-old cousin subsequently posted a video on Instagram that showed how she found such a sign on her car and burned it. Following authorities’ instructions, people take down road signs to confuse the enemy, prepare Molotov cocktails, and reveal Russian soldiers disguised in Ukrainian uniform by asking them questions in the Ukrainian language.
The courage and creativity of my compatriots inspires me. How can anyone defeat a country where women yell at fully-armed Russian soldiers and demand them to leave their country, Roma people steal Russian tanks, local thugs seize Russia’s military vehicles and give them to the army, homeless people collect empty bottles for Molotov cocktails, farmers use their tractors to steal Russia’s armored carriers, children and adults make camouflage nets for Ukrainian soldiers, people rally at their occupied towns, kicking out the occupiers with their bare hands, residents block convoys with tractors and sandbags, and people block roads with their own bodies to prevent Russian tanks from entering their cities?
In the darkest of times, a sense of humor is an important weapon. Across the country, people display billboard signs that say “Russia—go fuck yourself,” “We do not need to be liberated. Our home is Ukraine. Russians, go away,” “Occupants, run away from our land before it is too late,” “Ivan, does your mom know that you are killing Ukrainians?”
The videos of Russian tanks stuck in a swamp, war prisoners forced to say “Slava Ukraiini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) on camera, or lost soldiers, who came to the police office to ask for fuel for their tank, have gone viral and keep our spirits high. Even the National Agency for the Protection against Corruption has resorted to mockery, assuring citizens that there is no need to declare captured Russian tanks as income.
Finally, there are armies of volunteers, who organize blood donations, humanitarian aid, food for the soldiers and those in need, online classes for children, accommodation for refugees, cyberattacks on Russian websites, and much more.
We know that the world sees and supports us. People in Ukraine are profoundly grateful for the humanitarian aid, protests, donations from people, and their governments from all over the world. We are grateful for the harsh sanctions and weapons that the U.S. and E.U. states are supplying. Without this help, we would not stand a chance.
Yet, the world needs to understand that this is not just our war. Putin is not simply fighting Ukraine, he is fighting the entire democratic world—he is attacking our freedom, and our shared commitment to democratic self-government.
Ukrainians will fight to the death against the twenty-first century’s worst dictator. Yet, if world democracies continue to hesitate, and if Russia manages to prevail over Ukraine, the war will soon enough be in your homes—because Putin has already threatened to turn this war into a nuclear catastrophe with the potential to be global in its scope and impact.
It is in the interests of the whole world to protect Ukraine, to shield our skies from Russia’s bombs, and to incapacitate Putin’s regime before it is too late.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU.