Ten years ago, Ukrainians came out to peacefully protest against our pro-Russian puppet President Yanukovich, who announced under Kremlin pressure that he would refuse to sign the political association and free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), as had been planned. Instead, Ukraine was headed toward the Eurasian Customs Union, Vladimir Putin’s puny alternative.  

But the protests didn’t last long, and soon only a bunch of cheerful university students remained in the heart of Kyiv. Living the lives of rebellious youth, they slept in tents, played guitars, and made funny posters, including one on the Customs Union’s strange and widely derided ban on imported women’s lingerie.  

Seeking to erect a Christmas tree on the main square, the police turned up one Saturday night to sweep away the protesters. It wasn’t unusual to use brute force for that. Students, with blood running down their faces, found shelter in the nearby St. Michael’s Cathedral.  

It mattered that the battered victims were basically kids and that a lot of Ukrainians had already taken part in the first days of EU-ECU protests themselves. Society finally rebelled against police violence. Thousands of people from all over Ukraine headed to Kyiv that night. Thousands of Kyivans changed their Sunday plans.  

The government acted on instinct and brutally beat those taking part. Cops used tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Many people, including 40 journalists, were hurt. I was one — a grenade exploded under my feet. As my shoes filled with blood, a friend took me to a jam-packed ambulance and off we went. At the hospital, assisting one beaten person after another, an old nurse shook her head and tutted: “We’re supposed to be at peace, but this is like war.”  

Kyiv kept at it. About 10 days later, as police were trying to wipe out the protests again, St. Michael’s began to toll its bells, endlessly ringing out through the night. Warning the city, calling locals out, as they had earlier in, in 1240, as a warning and a summons as the Tatar invaders approached from the east.  

“The legitimate government has been swept away by thieving oligarchs, the Nazi gang and sectarians. The first thing they did was to ban half of Ukraine from speaking in their native Russian language”— Russian media claimed, when the protesters won after a blood sacrifice of dozens shot dead by police, as Yanukovych ran away to Russia. We laughed at their delirium, a sign of their collective insanity, without realizing that delirium can go on, and on and on. 

In March 2014. . .  

. . . as Russians entered Crimea (“There are no troops whatsoever, no Russian troops at least,” Russian officials stated), I took a train to Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative center. Russian troops were everywhere. Most local people stayed indoors, whether packing suitcases or hoping for a quick return to normality. Simferopol was eerily quiet, except for groups of Russians or pro-Russians waving flags. The “flagmen” clustered around me, emotionally explaining that Russian language speakers were suffering elsewhere in Ukraine. “Russian speakers, even women and children, are made to kneel in the streets,” they said. “Nationalists p*** on them. They make them shout ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ There are 200 buses of Ukrainian Nazis, who will do the same here, already on the way to Crimea.” Luckily, however, the Russian army that wasn’t in Crimea was there was present to protect Crimea from these imagined indignities. “Fascism shall not pass,” they said. 

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“Please, take the train back home” my mother implored in the purest Russian, the language she had always used and which she still speaks in Kyiv each day of her life. “It might be the last train tonight . . . “ 

I left in tears, even as Russians built checkpoints between the peninsula and Ukraine. And as they continued building this new, unwanted wall justified by the most ridiculous lies — that we had once accepted as “pluralism” and “the freedom of speech”. 

It’s 2016 . . . 

. . . and I’ve now been in the army for two years. Our position sits on a destroyed coal mine near Donetsk, and the Minsk ceasefire agreements are in bloom. Our artillery isn’t allowed to fire, but the enemies’ does. Groups of Russian-directed separatists and Russian troops constantly attack us and sow mines in the land around us. The stormtroopers who attack us have Russian documents (and no socks sometimes, we note.) The weapons used against us are often modern Russian, not Soviet.  

Photo: On the "Sky" position in Pisky, 5 km away from the Donetsk airport. That winter the temperature was sometimes around -20 Celsius. Credit: Lera Burlakova.
Photo: On the “Sky” position in Pisky, 5 km away from the Donetsk airport. That winter the temperature was sometimes around -20 Celsius. Credit: Lera Burlakova.

My fiancée is at Butivka too. One day he leads a group on a routine combat mission and never comes back. He’s killed by an anti-personnel landmine — prohibited by the Mine Ban Convention that Russia doesn’t acknowledge.  

I’m sitting on my knees next to him. He’s dead, his legs are torn off. I’m trying to warm up his fingers with my breath. Kissing his fingers. Paramedics want to put him in a bag, so I’m taking his uniform jacket. It’s soaked in blood, but it still smells like him. 

I put on the jacket, poke my nose into it and think that I’ll see him again soon. And will even kiss him again. In the morgue. 

A little bus takes his body home from the morgue in Dnipro. All the way, from East to the West, people kneel when they see the “200” (deceased soldier) sign. At one of the gas stations, I come out to get a coffee, wearing his jacket. Comrades scold me for this — there are holes, dirt, and blood on it, and there are people around. What are you thinking?! 

“I’m thinking my country’s at war,” I snap. 

“ . . . At civil war”, Russian media patiently explains. They write about Donetsk endlessly shelled, and about Ukrainian troops endlessly killing civilians. But six years later, in 2022, I’ll really enjoy a paragraph of sudden truth in a popular Russian newspaper. It’s about painful communication with the “liberated” people of Mariupol. “This is a bitter conversation . . . Olga says: ‘I took an old lady from Mariupol to Donetsk. And she said to me: You destroyed my house, and I don’t see signs that you were bombed hard! Where are your ruins?’ . . . In the mirror, I see that Slava’s face is changing. He had been on the frontline for the past months, only he has the right to such judgments: Ordinary people are worse than Nazis. Yes, worse!”   

It’s 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 . . .   

I’m raising my son and working as a journalist in Kyiv, as I always used to, and I can’t cover anything but war. Although it’s a bit forgotten. Although it’s often frozen. I’m walking around my city and often imagine it under fire. I can almost see the missiles landing, people running and panicking.  

I tell my psychotherapist about that. That’s still PTSD, isn’t it? Anxiety? She works with active military and combat veterans a lot. That’s adequacy, she says. And suggests that the only way to fight this “anxiety” is having a clear plan of my own actions. For the moment when the Russians go all in. 

Russia won’t invade Ukraine and isn’t harboring any aggressive plans, and Russian spokesmen say, “Russia is not going to attack anyone”. 

My psychotherapist has a plan too but doesn’t survive long enough to put it into action. Her heart fails, and she is gone. 

Photo: Lera Burlakova (author) and her son near the Wall of Remembrance of The Fallen in Kyiv, looking at pictures of my friends. Credit: Olena Khudiakova, a photojournalist and a soldier.
Photo: Lera Burlakova (author) and her son near the Wall of Remembrance of The Fallen in Kyiv, looking at pictures of her friends. Credit: Olena Khudiakova, a photojournalist and a soldier.

It’s 2023 . . .  

I’m in Washington, DC. I attend meetings with experts, some of whom explain that we must negotiate with Russia. We have to if we want the world to go on helping us. A refusal to negotiate is not serious. (Not that we have declined any negotiations. They haven’t been offered.) 

But even if they were, negotiating with Russia would justify everything that they did to us. It would say that attacking a smaller neighbor, smashing its buildings and its people and the infrastructure of its daily life is normal. It would say that terrorists and war criminals have a legally valid opinion. And I wonder, did the United States take Osama bin Laden’s views into consideration? Did they talk to him?  

Where is the compromise? Russia seeks to wipe the Ukrainian nation off the face of the earth. Can we perhaps negotiate a partial genocide?  

And, most importantly, negotiating with Russia is negotiating with a fantasist who manufactures his own reality. Who constantly tells you that “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”  

Who will always lie — about the past, present, and, most importantly, the future. That’s not a statement of my prejudice; it’s just an observation born of sad experience. 

Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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