What became of the Ukrainian girl whose tearful farewell to her father moved Rishi Sunak to despair?
Published by The Mail on Sunday (26th February, 2023)
It was a moment of heartbreak, an immediately iconic image that captured painful separation, but was also a portent of the Ukrainian people’s steely resolve.
As war erupted around them, Ruslan Mishanin held his hand to the glass window of a train as it prepared to depart from Odesa, taking his wife and children to safety in Western Europe. In the carriage, his nine-year-old daughter, Daria, reciprocated, two hands joined by love, but separated by glass.
Ruslan says his recollections of this ‘saddest moment’ are ‘a bit blurry now and it feels like a lifetime ago’. But the photograph is seared into the memory of another father, in Britain, with daughters of a similar age, and it underpins British support for the Ukrainian cause.
That father was Rishi Sunak. Last week, he wrote in The Mail on Sunday about how moved he had been after seeing that picture, laden with such profound symbolism from a nation under attack.
Explaining the image’s effect on him, he said: ‘The photo was taken on an empty station platform. There is little detail in it, but the caption by the photographer simply reads: ‘Ruslan Mishanin bids farewell to his nine-year-old daughter as the train with his family leaves for Poland, at the train station in Odesa, on Monday, April 4, 2022.
‘It was taken 39 days after Putin unleashed his full-scale invasion on Ukraine. As a father with daughters of a similar age, I can’t begin to imagine how Ruslan must have felt.
‘But despite the despair behind that image and all it represents, the courage of the individuals shines through. The courage of the nine-year-old girl saying goodbye to her father and the courage of Ruslan ready to stay and fight while seeing his loved ones go.’
Mr Sunak had no clue what had happened to the family in the intervening time since the picture was taken last April. But The Mail on Sunday has tracked down Ruslan to hear how his family’s life has been since the war broke. What, we wondered, has happened to little Daria?
Ruslan, 38, an air traffic controller before the war, was painfully frank about his heartache at being parted from his family. He also spoke graciously about his nation’s gratitude to Britain for supporting Ukraine in its existential struggle against barbarism and dictatorship.
He told us: ‘When I was standing on that train platform, I thought I’d see my wife and children again by the end of the summer. We were all saying: “See you soon.”’
But their hopes were dashed as the war dragged on and then Putin started attacking Ukraine’s energy system as winter descended on the war-torn country.
His wife, Svitlana, moved from Poland to Germany with Daria and Gleb, their son who turns two next month. One week after they left, the windows of the family home in Odesa were blown out after a Russian missile landed near their apartment block.
Since then, the area around their home has been hit another eight times. ‘So, even though it was hard to send them away, I never regretted the decision – I know that it was right,’ said Ruslan.
His resolve was strengthened by the energy crisis, which has hit the Black Sea port harder than most Ukrainian cities. ‘We had power cuts for two to three days in a row. And there was no water, heating or electricity.’
It was so cold that Ruslan was sleeping fully dressed under several blankets in their eighth-floor flat. ‘Having a little baby in the cold and in the darkness would have been awful,’ he said. ‘At least they are not freezing – and they are in safety.’
He also worried about supporting his family financially since civilian flights were cancelled at the start of the onslaught, leaving him without work – though he was retained by the airport on one-third pay, so not called up for military service.
Separation has been agonisingly tough. ‘It’s terribly challenging for all of us – but we don’t have a choice until the war is over.
‘For me, as a father, it has been so very hard not to see my children grow. When they left, my son was still crawling, so I didn’t get to see his first step and didn’t hear his first word. I’m sad that I missed some of the most important things in his life.’
His daughter had to leave her friends while studying online with her Odesa school. ‘She left behind everything she loved. She has a new country, a new language, a new place.
‘She studies German and tries to integrate but it’s difficult and her German isn’t that good yet.
‘Daria says that most of all she wants to return to Ukraine to her usual, familiar life. Go back to her school, visit her after-school activities, spend time with friends. And of course, to be with her family, especially with me.’
Ruslan, who has been working as a taxi driver to make ends meet, admits that he misses his job as well as his family. ‘The war took a lot from us. It split my family. But it also made me think about what is important and set the priorities straight.
‘Many people are in a similar situation, when their families are abroad and the men are in the country – some working, some fighting, and some sadly are killed.
‘But my closest relatives and friends are alive and that’s what’s most important. I would wish that for everyone.’
He has been allowed to leave the country this month for a holiday with his family in Germany and The Netherlands – and appreciates the support shown to Ukraine by its European allies, taking in refugees and supplying vital weapons. ‘Britain was one of the first countries to show its support and start helping us. I’m grateful for that. I hope that Britain will continue that path under Rishi Sunak. They’ve done an amazing job.’
He has travelled to Britain in the past, staying in Bournemouth while studying for an air traffic controller’s language course, and hopes to visit again with his family in more peaceful times. ‘The UK is a lovely country,’ he said.
But for now, his hopes are fixed on peace. ‘Like many of us, I had hopes the war would end soon. Now I’m afraid it won’t be over in the next half a year.
‘The West has started sending us much-needed weapons, so maybe it will help end the war.’
When told that his family’s plight had so moved the Prime Minister of Britain, Ruslan said he was amazed. ‘There are so many more tragic photographs taken all over Ukraine in the past year. I don’t know why exactly Mr Sunak paid attention to that picture.’
When shown the PM’s article in The Mail on Sunday, he said it ‘brought a lot of sad memories of that day back in April and the beginning of the war’.
Ruslan added: ‘I very much hope that the next time I see my family, it will be on the same platform at the train station. But then, they will be returning home to Ukraine for good.’