‘I hate all Russians’ Olena tells me. ‘My hatred goes from their children to their grandmothers.’
Published by The Daily Mail (18th February, 2023)
On the left bank of Kyiv, ten miles from the city centre, sits a peaceful cemetery beside some woods where yellow and blue Ukrainian flags flap in bitterly cold wind above rows of freshly-dug graves for fallen soldiers.
Each mound of earth studding the snowy ground is covered with ornate displays of flowers, bursts of colour fringed with black ribbons offering sad messages of remembrance in gold script from families and comrades.
And each bears the picture of a Ukrainian hero above a stark sign recording their name and dates: some fresh-faced and barely out of school as they posed with guns, others grey-bearded, smiling men in their 40s and 50s.
Forest Cemetery is one among scores of such forlorn places scattered across this battered nation — testaments to the merciless waste of war.
As I walked in these sombre grounds, I counted almost 50 new graves for soldiers who had died in the first month of this year alone — a grim reminder of the immensity of this country’s suffering since the start of Russia’s invasion.
A grieving woman stood staring silently at the grave of her fiance on the day he would have turned 27 years old. ‘When we buried him, he was the last in this row, but now you can see there are lots of new ones,’ she said later.
Ira told me her fiance, a military medic, was honoured by their president for saving lives. ‘We hope so much the war will end soon since it’s very painful. Ukrainians have no choice but to continue. How many more people must we lose?’
This is the key question as the conflict reaches its first anniversary on February 24 — that historic day of infamy when Vladimir Putin unleashed hell on Ukraine in his bid to crush its independence and cripple its freedoms.
We have witnessed agony, brutality and carnage on a Dantean scale in the heart of Europe — yet Ukraine has stood strong, displaying courage and resistance to inspire democrats around the world in this fight against dictatorship.
We do not know the full horror — although sources indicate Ukraine may have lost at least 60,000 military personnel and Russia more than twice as many soldiers, alongside the sickening toll of murdered Ukrainian civilians from Lviv to Mariupol.
Now, as the Kremlin limbers up for an anticipated new military offensive, siren voices in the West suggest Ukraine should accept some loss of terrain in return for ‘peace’. These people claim to be realists yet display a dismal lack of understanding about the relentless nature of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, let alone his readiness to strike others he views as weak.
Above all, they fail to see the determined state of the country under attack and the furious mood of its citizens after a barrage of Russian atrocities. I would venture that most Ukrainians do not seek just to regain their occupied lands in the eastern Donbas region, recapture the southern strip along the Sea of Azov and retake the peninsula of Crimea seized in 2014.
They want to drive out any trace of Russian heritage that clings to their culture, demolish any reminders of their historic ties and do everything possible to ensure their future safety by destroying the bloodstained dictatorship over their border.
‘We hate Russians with all of our hearts,’ said Ira as she stood beside her fiance’s grave, words I have heard repeatedly over more than six months covering this dark chapter in our continent’s history — and not just from people tormented by grief.
Here lies the great irony. Putin, proclaiming himself saviour of Ukraine’s people, smashed any lingering fraternal bonds that managed to survive both the Holodomor — Stalin’s famine that killed four million people in the early 1930s — and the long chill of Communism.
Regardless of this terrible war’s geographical outcome, the Russian despot has already lost — because he has severed the links between two Slavic neighbours, traditionally entwined as much as England and Scotland through their past and their peoples.
Take Oleksandr and Olena, an artistic couple in their thirties whom I met in Kyiv. ‘I hate all Russians,’ said Olena, a cultural manager. ‘My hatred goes from their children to their grandmothers.’
Harsh words. But then she told of seeing a photo recently of the New Year party they hosted last year for friends — one since killed by the Russians on the frontline leaving behind his wife and child, another held as prisoner of war, three more in the armed forces and one woman who fled abroad with her mother as refugees. It was a snapshot of her nation’s trauma.
Next she showed me a video of the house where they held the party that they had bought in Hostomel, near Kyiv. It was wrecked after being hit by a missile, destroying most of their possessions.
Their beloved library of 2,000 books had amazingly survived — but the couple binned all volumes in Russian or by Russian authors, even a collection of costly art books.
‘No Dostoevsky, no Nabokov, no Tolstoy,’ said Oleksandr, himself a writer. ‘This is how our society has gone. We do not want to read Russian books, listen to Russian music, drink Russian beer or speak the Russian language.’
One small example of the ferocious Ukrainian backlash against Russia — sparked by Putin’s claim their country does not have the right to exist, then fuelled by the blood spilled, buildings wrecked and families ripped apart.
The day before we talked, a statue of the Russian general Nikolai Vatutin — who liberated Kyiv from the Nazis — was removed from its city centre plinth. Street and station names have been ‘cleansed’ across the country. One book shop even organised the pulping of Russian works, donating cash raised from recycling 72 tonnes of books to charities.
This rupture with Russia is personified by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian elected on a platform to ‘reboot’ peace talks who emerged as such an inspiring defender of a nation fighting for survival.
Yet this is a country that has seen two pro-democracy revolutions this century — and Zelensky knows that even if his people are worn out by war, they might pour back on the streets again if he cedes ground to Putin.
This is not to ignore Ukraine’s immense hurt and stresses, often hidden beneath the surface of a society facing existential threat and economic collapse with incredible stoicism for all the bustling cafes and shops away from battle zones.
But these two nations had such deep ties there was a profound sense of shock and disbelief over last year’s attack.
Bear in mind about nine in ten Ukrainians held a positive view of Russians before Putin started pummelling their nation. Even on the eve of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, more than one-third viewed their neighbours favourably. Three months later, this figure plunged to just two per cent as Russian troops began killing, raping and looting.
I have lost count of the painful stories I have heard of families straddling the border ripped apart after those members in Russia — fed Putin’s propaganda since the start of this century — refused to accept the reality befalling their own relatives.
Demonising Ukraine was drip-fed in the media, entwined with a narrative about the glory of the World War II victory over fascists and how Russia today faces similar threats from the West.
Standing outside a supermarket last week, one soldier — injured in fierce fighting for Bakhmut — told me of his own cousin joining Putin’s invasion to defeat the supposed fascists and how his mother refuses to talk any longer to her own sister.
Later I met a former army colonel turned defence analyst. Oleg Zhdanov no longer speaks to his brother in Moscow, who served in Russia’s army. ‘He tells me I’m brainwashed by Americans but it’s difficult to love a country that is shelling you.’
Sometimes it is hard for us Britons, with our fixed island borders, to appreciate how fluid borders, cultures and nations have been during much of Europe’s history.
The legacy in Ukraine, intensified by the Communist fondness for shifting citizens around the Soviet Union for seven decades, was a country where millions of people spoke Russian, especially in eastern and southern parts.
Yes, some looked to Moscow in the past. Perhaps a few still do. But Putin’s great failure since starting this war in 2014 has been to forge such a strong spirit of Ukrainian identity and pride.
Many despise the weakness of Russians for failing to resist their own regime. ‘In Iran, people are being hanged but still they protest,’ said one security source.
Discussing such issues with two women on a train, one told how her Russian-speaking mother had surprised her family by suddenly starting to use her stumbling Ukrainian. Then the other revealed she was making this linguistic switch herself.
She admitted this was a challenge for a middle-aged mum, saying: ‘The war has made us stronger as a country, binding us together, but also stronger as individuals. We have discovered our own strength as Ukrainians.’
Moving words. Yet in occupied parts of their nation, Putin is re-imposing Russian culture, education, language and passports while restoring statues of Soviet icons pulled down after Ukraine won independence in 1991.
And having staked so much on this war, it is hard to see the Kremlin backing down either. There is no obvious compromise when Ukraine wants all its stolen terrain back and Putin plans to grab bigger chunks to shore up his humiliated regime.
Now there is talk of another major Russian push. It feels eerily like last year with alarming warnings of possible attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Intelligence sources say there are up to 40,000 Russian troops in Belarus, the base for last year’s attack on the capital — but they believe this is a feint to draw troops away from the east and do not believe Belarusian forces will cross the border.
Ukrainian analysts suspect that Russia plans to keep grinding forward in the Donbas — and while all wars are inherently unpredictable, they think it unlikely Putin’s forces will be able to steamroller through their ranks to make substantial gains.
Both sides, discharging as many as 30,000 shells a day at one another, are struggling with shortages of key armaments — although the one military resource Moscow has in abundance is human beings to throw into the front line’s hail of fire.
As Kyiv steadily modernises tactics and weapons with the help of Nato allies, one curious aspect of the war has been how Russian military leaders seem bizarrely stuck in the past.
This is not just seen with their old Soviet weapons taken out of storage but in their tactics, so familiar to Ukrainians from the old Soviet military manuals and based on World War II, with frontal attacks, static positions and human waves.
This boosts Ukraine’s belief they will win if the West sticks with them — possibly even in six months if given sufficient longer-range artillery to force back Russian supply lines, assisting breakthroughs towards Crimea, along with aircraft to support advances.
But they see it as a waiting game for now — they must withstand Russian offensives as they embed new Nato equipment.
When visiting that cemetery in Kyiv, I came across a family who invited me to share brandy and biscuits as they remembered Anton, another fallen hero in his 20s. His mother wept, shaking with grief, while gently stroking her son’s portrait.
The dead soldier’s sister Anastasia explained to me that her small daughter, eating a biscuit beside us, had a Russian passport since her first husband lives in Moscow while her second husband is fighting in Bakhmut. ‘I told my ex-husband: you killed my brother,’ she said.
Such are the terrible complexities of this struggle that seems almost a world war, almost a civil war, but always a tragedy for a courageous nation seeking freedom while confronting the evil of dictatorship.
Like most Ukrainians Anastasia had no doubt how this war will end. ‘Look at our history — Russia was always suppressing us,’ she said. ‘Now we are unstoppable.’
Let us hope she is right.