‘We will fight until the end’

Published by The i paper (20th February, 2023)

When Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it shocked many people who presumed that he would not be so aggressive or stupid. But not Marina Polyakova. She had witnessed attempts to seize her home city of Kharkiv using separatist stooges in 2014, which failed in the county’s former capital unlike in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. Afterwards this woman in her fifties learned how to use weapons, took medical training courses, started helping families of fallen soldiers in the bubbling Donbas conflict and packed a backpack ready to join the resistance if Kremlin troops arrived on her streets.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said one month before the invasion when I visited Kharkiv. “We’ve been living in constant fear for years. When you live just 40 kilometres from the border, you are always afraid they might invade. There is no sense in running. If we run, the war will follow, so we need to stop the enemy and stop this war.” When asked what she wanted, her response echoed so many others I have spoken to in this country over the past nine years. “I want Ukraine to be a just, democratic, European country. I want Ukraine to be a part of Europe.”

Such a simple hope: to share the values we take for granted in our own nation. This should not be forgotten as we reach the first anniversary on Friday of Russia’s invasion with all its atrocities and war crimes. Ukraine, cursed by its neighbour, has had to fight this century for the cause of freedom – with two revolutions to overthrow corrupt governments linked to Russia, then a war that effectively began with illegal annexation of Crimea nine years ago tomorrow. Shamefully, its plight was largely ignored by complacent democratic leaders in places such as Berlin, London, Paris and Washington. Now we all pay the cost for their timidity, which duped Putin into believing he could get away with demolishing a democratic society on his doorstep.

Like so many people in these parts, Marina’s family history shows the web of ties that once bound these two Slavic nations. Her mother was from Siberia, her father from Ukraine and she was born a citizen of the Soviet Union. She arrived in Kharkiv as a student, staying there after the collapse of communism and rebirth of Ukraine as an independent state in 1991. She admits to being terrified when the Kremlin tried to seize her adopted home city in 2014 and feeling abandoned by Kyiv, but spoke eloquently of how both she and her nation strengthened over subsequent years. “I know many people will stand up and protect their home towns, their families, their businesses, their apartments,” she said prophetically.

This woman – who described herself as a housewife while running a charity helping military families – embodies the heroic fortitude of Ukraine as it sheds so much blood and suffers so much pain in its epochal fight to defeat dictatorship. When she heard Britain was sending anti-tank weapons, she googled instantly how to use them should the opportunity arise. It was no surprise to learn that when Kharkiv – traditionally a Russian-speaking city – was menaced by Putin’s missiles and troops from the first day of the full invasion, she stayed to organise relief efforts rather than fleeing to join her husband and son who lived in Germany.

Barely a week into the war, she was nearby when cruise missiles struck Kharkiv’s regional administration, killing 29 people. The damage, as I later saw standing by the huge hole ripping through floors, was incredible, It was also highly symbolic, since the imposing Soviet-era building overlooked a huge plaza where the country’s biggest statue of Lenin once stood before it was renamed Freedom Square after independence. On the same day a shell landed by her home. “I could have never imagined I would see such war in my city,” she said. “Russians shelling apartment blocks, murdering innocent civilians.” So how was she feeling? “I feel only anger now which motivates me to work even harder. There’s no time to sit around and cry. I hate Russia. I hate what they are doing to my country. We’ll fight till the end.” Such is the fury that makes waffle about peace so pointless when Ukrainians are so pained by killings, rapes, torture and looting – and so intent on recapturing their stolen terrain.

In May, I returned to Kharkiv to find about one-third of residential buildings damaged, at least one million citizens departed and lots of remaining people living a troglodyte existence hiding from bombs in the underground. The streets seemed largely deserted, lined by cafes, offices and shops with broken windows and locked doors. Yet I found Marina leading a volunteer group serving soup, rice and fish from a restaurant chain to scores of mostly elderly people, ignoring rumbles of war in the distance. On Vyshyvanka Day, when Ukrainians celebrate traditional clothing, inevitably she wore an embroidered shirt.

I saw her again last week. Kharkiv is busier, although Russian attacks in the region have intensified amid fears of a fresh offensive to coincide with the anniversary. She showed me boxes of donated candles, food and medicines piled high in the stairwell of her apartment block, then told of a woman shredded by shrapnel and flying glass in a nearby flat a few days earlier; the husband, sitting outside, was first to see the terrible scene in his home.

When we talked about one year of war, she said “we have no time to be tired.” Yet then Marina whipped off her bobble hat to reveal a bald head, telling me she was recovering from cancer surgery. “We will fight, we are strong and we are waiting for victory,” she said later. War is hideously unpredictable. Yet when you meet brave Ukrainians such as Marina, it seems hard to believe their defeat is even remotely possible.

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