The Story of My Life

An ordinary Ukrainian's story that reveals much about the deep historical roots of russia's invasion of Ukraine. Svitlana Lychkovska tells the story of her life. As told to and translated by Julia Lasica. First published in Friends On the Shelf magazine.

Issue 7 FOTS

My name is Svitlana Lychkovksa and I am 58 years old. I live in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, and work in health and safety. I was also one of the thousands of Ukrainians who came to the UK as a refugee with my daughter and her young family after the 24th of February last year. We settled here for a few months just outside Sevenoaks in Kent. But my own stay was temporary. By the autumn, I was back in Kyiv, returning to work so that I receive my pension at 60.

My home wasn’t always in Ukraine’s capital, though. I was born in Shyroke, a village in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, more widely known by its Russian name, “Donbas”. Bordering onto Russia, it opens into the Azov Sea. For more than a century it has been the industrial centre of Ukraine.

My parents moved there in 1953, when my father fled the poverty of his home in western Ukraine and became a mechanic in the mines. Our neighbours were other young specialists who, like my father, were drawn to the area. Here, the shops were always full, a rarity in the USSR. Every now and then, the Soviet authorities would bring us tree saplings and plant cuttings for our gardens: the ground is some of the most fertile earth in the world. Wheat, rye, sweetcorn, sunflowers and watermelons grew abundantly among other vegetables; fruit trees flourished in the summer warmth, with cherry and apricot orchards interspersed by vineyards. I was happy there as a child, surrounded by the open steppe.

It wasn’t all rosy though. Pollution was a constant blight. Waste would be dumped into the little rivers that ran past the mines, dyeing them in different colours. You could always tell which industrial town you were approaching by the colour of the smoke that surrounded it. Above Zuhres, 15km away from us, there was always a light blue smog; above Makiivka, to the north-west, it was orange.

There was also high radiation. Every so often, the authorities would pause work for the day and carry out controlled mini atomic explosions to push out methane. It was cheaper to do this than invest in ventilation systems. Many people in the region suffered from different cancers, including both my mum and dad. When we later moved to Kyiv, a check-up showed that my five-year old daughter had the same radiation levels in her body as her classmate, a refugee from Chornobyl. Known primarily by its Russian name Chernobyl, it was the city 90 miles to the north of Kyiv that became the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

Growing up, the school curriculum was based almost exclusively on Russian literature, culture, and history. Although I spoke Ukrainian with my family, neighbours and friends, at school the teachers were only permitted to speak to us in Russian. We were taught that we were one people with the Russians. Our other, Ukrainian identity was cast at best as backwards – at worst, it was unhelpful.

Of course, no one was allowed to tell us the horrors that had been inflicted to make the situation possible. Twenty years before my parents moved to the area, millions of Ukrainians had been starved to death in the nationwide Holodomor genocide. The Soviet Russian authorities confiscated all food following Ukrainian protests against the regime. Entire villages were hollowed out over the course of one winter. Later, Russians were carted in to live in the empty homes, including in the Donetsk area. Our supposedly harmonious co-existence was enforced, and resistance was methodically removed: memories of what had happened were all but buried.

When it was time for university, I chose to go to Voronezh, a Russian city to the north of Ukraine. At the time, it was easy to travel between the different countries in the USSR. There, I made many friends but was also shocked to discover that Russians knew nothing of us Ukrainians and saw us as a separate people. It is often the way with colonies and their subjects: the subjects know everything about the colony, but the colonisers nothing of their subjects. At the time, it confused me. Why were we taught about Russia so thoroughly if we were not part of their nation? The longer I stayed, the more I felt my Ukrainian identity strengthen.

Then in 1991, the USSR fell apart. I realised if I stayed in Russia, I would have to give up my Ukrainian passport and officially become a Russian. So, I went back to Ukraine. There, a referendum was called on independence. 92.3% voted in favour.

At first, I returned to Shyroke to care for my mother who had become ill with cancer. Here the mood was hopeful. The miners expected support from the new government in raising their working standards. But the opposite happened. There was a sudden rush of privatisation, leading to capitalism running riot, a ‘wild west’ of rapaciousness and corruption. Shyroke became a ruin. When my mother died, I realised I couldn’t stay there any longer. At the turn of the millennium, I left for Kyiv with my daughter and father.

There, life became better bit by bit. It was the very beginning of modern Ukraine. I saved up slowly to have my own private home built with a garden full of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, just like back in Shyroke. Around us, colourful apartment blocks sprang up, Western shops edged their way into the market, and restaurants and cafes opened their doors. In 2013, I hosted university friends from both Belarus and Russia. We never talked about politics because it simply wasn’t relevant, and enjoyed each other’s company, just as we had done when we were students.

But then towards the end of 2013, everything changed again. The Maidan, also known as the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, began after the pro-Russian president ripped up a long-awaited agreement with the EU and signed one with Russia instead. I and the vast majority of Ukrainians could no longer bear Russia’s endless meddling in our country’s affairs. All that country had brought us during our independence was corruption, rigged elections and backward thinking. If we didn’t put a stop to it now, we knew we would become their colony once more. The European Union offered us sovereignty and a better life.

All through the winter of 2013 – 2014, protests raged in the capital Kyiv, with live ammunition fired on the demonstrators by the riot police. My future son-in-law was among the protesters. All they could defend themselves with were improvised Molotov cocktails and cobbles ripped from the pavement.

Then in February, the president fled across the border to Russia. We had won. But it was then that we Ukrainians realised that Russia would never forgive us for our total rejection of their empire. Lies were disseminated by Russian state propaganda. On primetime TV shows, on the radio, in the papers, everywhere, they began to tell the Russian population and their international audiences that we Ukrainians were modern day Nazis. I called my old friends who had visited me months before from Russia and Belarus. But they told me they couldn’t visit me anymore because there was a ‘Kyiv regime’ who would murder them as soon as they stepped on Ukrainian soil. I was told that there was chaos, a civil war, and genocide going on in my own country. I tried to counter. But it was no use. We barely talked from that moment on.

On 20th February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. Weeks later, their army entered the Donetsk region. Soon my old village was occupied and that summer, Flight MH17 was shot down an hour’s drive away. I called my neighbours but could not talk. The phone lines were not secure; people who had said the wrong thing had been taken away. It was almost impossible to know what was happening there. But we knew that Ukrainians were being tortured and killed. One place they were taken to was Izoliatsiia, a former arts centre in Donetsk city. Soon after occupying the city, the Russians turned into a concentration camp. This torture centre, and countless others, continue to function to this day.

And then in early 2022, the war came to my home in Kyiv. I cannot understand the Russians who have done this to us. They have returned to their old empire, mixing the USSR with imperial Russia, proudly holding aloft their old red flags, repeating the old war slogans, deporting Ukrainians. A colleague of mine has a sister who moved to Russia decades ago and was naturalised. She didn’t believe my colleague when she called to say the war had started. “What war?”, her sister shouted back. It was only when the sister’s own Russian sons were mobilised that she called back to complain. But to this day, she has never asked if my colleague or her family have survived the bombs. All Ukrainians have a story like this. To the Russians, we are a lesser nation in need of disciplining: it is natural to attack and exploit us.

I am telling my story from Kyiv. Russian rockets fly directly over my house often. I broke my arm soon after the darkest winter months began, slipping on the ice during one of the blackouts caused by Russia’s missile strikes. I don’t worry for myself and my own death, though. I hate the sounds of the sirens and ignore them as much as possible. I worry most for the people who have experienced the worst of the war in the east of the country, including in my old home. Too often, they have no way to escape.

All this has come from Russia’s inability to forgive us for moving on from their empire. My childhood home, the open beautiful fields around it, entire cities like Mariupol: all have been reduced to smouldering rubble. Trees have been razed by the trench warfare, the best of our men and women are being killed on the frontline, and those in occupied territories are treated worse than slaves.

We understand what will happen to us if we give up.

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