By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Viktor Stafiychuk hasn’t slept in days.
Although he lives in Arlandria with his wife and 4-year-old son, his thoughts have been far from the Port City and lingering in his native Ukraine. Through continuous news coverage, calls and texts with relatives and friends, Stafiychuk has managed to stitch together a bleak picture of what has happened to his home country, after Russian President Valdimir Putin launched an invasion and increasingly bloody war against Ukraine six days ago.
This week, Russia pressed further into Ukraine, as a convoy of Russian tanks and military vehicles stretching 40 miles made its way toward the capital city of Kyiv on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Russian troops stepped up their attacks on Ukrainian urban centers. Russian bombardments rocked the main T.V. tower and a Holocaust memorial in Kyiv and the central square in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Russia’s attacks “frank, undisguised terror,” according to The Associated Press.
Despite Russia’s claims that its troops are targeting only military targets, Human Rights Watch documented a cluster bomb attack just outside a hospital in eastern Ukraine. The U.N. human rights office already recorded 136 civilian fatalities, although it estimates the actual death toll is far higher. Meanwhile, more than 500,000 people have fled the country.
Stafiychuk said he was able to move his parents, both of whom have visas, to the U.S. two months prior to the invasion, as the situation started to escalate on Ukraine’s eastern border. Stafiychuk, who moved from Ukraine to the U.S. in 2007 to work for a global energy company headquartered in Arlington and subsequently moved to Alexandria in 2015, said he still has a sister in Ukraine.
“My sister and her kids, they do have a U.S. visa. I invited them to come in the first moments when the war erupted. There was an opportunity maybe to help them move across the border and fly at least to stay here for some time, but she refused. She said, ‘No, I’m needed here,’” Stafiychuk said.
Stafiychuk’s sister is one of countless Ukrainians who have stayed behind to support the army and help their fellow countrymen and women during a time of crisis. As people continue to flee Ukraine, Stafiychuk said he has friends who have taken to driving women and children to one of the country’s borders with Poland or Romania, before turning around and either enlisting with the military or driving more people to the border.
“[My friend] is volunteering dropping women and children at the Romanian border, going back, picking up others, dropping them at the border, while his own parents, who are 80 years old, are trapped in Kyiv because it’s impossible for them to get out,” Stafiychuk said. “And his own friends are helping them with basic necessities, food and medicine. He’s completely torn because his wife and kids are already in Europe. These are the types of stories I hear from pretty much everybody out there.”
“It’s nerve-wracking. It is what it is, but I’m kind of shocked – in a good way – how people are united right now helping each other,” Stafiychuk added. “They were really shocked the first moment, but then the next day, [there was] such an uprising and everyone is doing something.”
A defiant response
In recent days, Russia’s superior military force has run up against the resolute Ukrainian army. According to A.P., more than 5,000 Russian soldiers had been captured or killed in the war as of Tuesday.
Ukrainian civilians have also found creative ways to try to prevent Russian advancement. On one highway in southern Ukraine between Odesa and Mykolaiv, civilians attempted to stop the Russian advance using improvised blockades made out of sandfilled piles of tractor tires, according to A.P.
Jim Gilmore, who lives in Alexandria part-time and was governor of Virginia from 1998-2002, served as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under President Donald Trump. Gilmore said his conversations with Ukrainian diplomats clued him into the country’s potential response to a Russian invasion.
“My interaction with [the] Ukrainian ambassador in OSCE and my trip to Kyiv in May of 2021 left no doubt that the Ukrainians have no intention of giving into the Russians. They do not see themselves as Russian,” Gilmore said. “… Their symbol of Ukraine is Saint George, and he’s constantly depicted as killing a dragon. Russia is the dragon.”
Ukraine secured its independence, along with the 13 other non-Russian republics, when the Soviet Union collapsed following a coup attempt by hardline communists in 1991. It was the first non-Baltic state to subsequently hold democratic elections, but the country’s path to democracy has been fitful due to many factors, with its geography – Ukraine lies in Eastern Europe, yet shares a long border with Russia – leading to a tug of war between Russia and the West.
Ukrainian-born Alexandria resident Svitlana Yarymova said she was proud of how her country has united not only to help its people but how they have been defiant in the face of Russia’s latest armed attack against Ukraine.
“Ukrainians are [a] very potent nation and [have] overcome consequences of war, as we did this through our history full of famine and wars. As we say in Ukraine: We baptized Russia, so we will bury it,” Yarymova said.
Yarymova was in Ukraine in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution, a series of violent encounters between police and protesters in Kyiv that ultimately led to the overthrowing of Ukraine’s government at the time. The protests began in November 2013 in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to have Ukraine join the European Union, instead opting to pursue closer ties with Russia.
Following the 2014 revolution and the formation of a new government, pro-Russian segments of the Crimean Peninsula within Ukraine began to call for secession. In March 2014, Russia deployed troops into Crimea and southeast Ukraine, quickly establishing control of the region.
Ukraine’s history is full of resistance, survival and violent clashes with powerful regimes, including Russia and Nazi Germany, which occupied Ukraine during World War II. Yarymova said the battles fought in 2014 proved to her that Ukrainians will fight for their country – something that has been proven again in the current war with Russia.
“The last [several] days showed their heroism and bravery from a different light. We have been a very peaceful nation and never started any conflict, but we become a nation of warriors when others attack us,” Yarymova said. “For centuries, Ukrainians fought for their freedom. I pray this one is the last one that will definitely end with our victory.”
According to Stafiychuk, the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 prepared both the Ukrainian military and civilian population for a future Russian invasion.
“People have been through this and they’ve learned, logistically, how to support each other and respond quickly either in terms of helping the army or each other,” Stafiychuk said. “I’m in the same mode. I’m doing work, but the next moment someone calls [me] – despite the fact that I’m in the U.S. – because they know that I know someone across the ocean.”
The last time Torpedo Factory artist Tatyana Shramko went back to Ukraine was in 2019, as part of an art project. Before that, she hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home of Kharkiv since World War II, when she fled Ukraine with her family.
Despite the intervening decades, Shramko’s memory of the city she grew up in was as concrete as if it was written in stone. She remembered the streets, the well she used to draw water from, the place she used to play with her favorite ball and the government building where her father was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed.
Shramko lived in Kharkiv during a devastating time for the city. Kharkiv was seized from Russia by Nazi Germany in 1941. The Red Army then attempted to recapture the city in 1941 but failed to do so. Subsequently, Kharkiv passed back and forth between German and Russian control several times between 1943 and 1945, and the city was almost razed to the ground in the process.
In 2019, the streets were the same and Shramko’s memories were intact, but the city had changed. Kharkiv was vibrant and full of food, culture and life. An influx of students and young people from across the world had come to the city to attend the National University of Kharkiv.
“To think that suddenly all of that is in the process of being destroyed,” Shramko said. “… It was incredible, and I cannot believe that now there’s war again and destruction. To be honest with you, the type of war that we have now in our society – weapons of mass destruction, electronics and computer destruction, false information – is by far worse than I’ve experienced.”
During Shramko’s visit in 2019, she saw what Ukraine had become. But she said there was still a lingering sentiment among Ukrainians that it could all disappear at any moment, a fear that has been borne out this week.
Home away from home
Stafiychuk is across the Atlantic, but he has been heartened to see his new home express solidarity with Ukraine. Alexandria City Hall and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial were illuminated with the colors of the Ukrainian flag this past week, and his neighbors and fellow residents have reached out looking for ways to help Ukraine and its people.
“When I saw Alexandria lighting [the George Washington Masonic National Memorial] in Ukrainian colors, I dropped a couple of tears,” Stafiychuk said. “It was so amazing to see and feel that I’m part of this community. … I’m just happy to be here and very grateful to people in general. I can’t even speak now because I have tears in my eyes. This overwhelming support is amazing.”