In a post-COVID world where online workspaces have become the norm, I like many others took the unprecedented career move of becoming an online teacher. Doing so allowed me to interact with people from across the globe hailing from all manner of cultural and ideological backgrounds. From Iran and Beijing to Sao Paolo and Moscow, each pin on the map fascinated me more than the last.
Back in April 2022, I received a lesson request from the unlikeliest of places, somewhere I didn’t expect there to be any demand for extracurricular classes – Kyiv.
Ukraine had been fighting a war of attrition for over a year at this point, fighting for its very existence. Yet, as the blood-shed and the devastation continued throughout the country, I was blessed with a unique opportunity to talk with someone who was currently living at the heart of it. There would be no manipulative media to spin any narrative, there would be tales from the frontlines themselves.
This is how I met Aleksandra, and this is her story.
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Table of Contents
Who Is Aleksandra?
Aleksandra is a 27-year-old Ukrainian woman who has lived and worked every day of her life in the heart of Kyiv – the city that nearly fell into the cold grip of the Russians during the early stages of the war.
Despite the country’s current hardship, she has persisted in living in the city without a moment’s hesitation. This is her home – what was once her childhood and what she hopes will be her future.
Critically, Aleksandra has the fortunate benefit of working for an international company, which ensures she can continue her work regardless of the carnage that envelopes her nation. More importantly, this ensures that she did not suffer any significant financial strain as a result of the conflict, a rare luxury amongst the Ukrainian people.
She recently became a wife to a loving husband and, together, they purchased a new apartment they were in the process of renovating just before the invasion. The hope is to one day be able to raise a family of their own in their new beloved home.
The Timeline of the War
Aleksandra has been a firsthand witness to the ravages of the war since the first missiles were launched. She bore witness to death, destruction and the resilience of the Ukrainian people with her very own eyes.
Though she has been fortunate to remain unscathed, many around her have not. Aleksandra along with her fellow Ukrainian comrades have come to understand that witnessing horror and tragedy beyond comprehension is simply inescapable.
Though some may believe the war began in early 2022, its devastating roots had been planted long before that. The recent invasion was an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War which began in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea.
Back then, Aleksandra was still a student, yet Europe’s passive-aggressive attitude towards Russian aggression remains eerily reminiscent of today. Allowing the former Soviet state to proceed without repercussion while giving nothing more than a firm wag of the finger behind an Eastern European buffer brought us here today.
Under the leadership of the Russian sympathiser Petro Poroshenko, pieces of Ukraine were allowed to fall into the hands of its aggressors without much resistance. Yet, that seemed inconsequential, as Ukraine didn’t have the capability to defend itself even if it tried.
In recent years, Russia continued to fan the flames of rebellion in the Eastern Donbas region, resulting in a scattering of local conflicts, though nothing large-scale. Nobody believed that full-scale war would have been possible, not even Ukrainians.
Outbreak of War
The first few months of the war were spent in sombre desperation having the fear of death lingering over them at every turn. Aleksandra’s days were spent in a flood of tears, not knowing what fate might bring her.
On the long desolate roads that led to flattened villages, charred corpses lay belonging to both Russian and Ukrainian military as well as the tragic citizens caught in the crossfire. Cars were burned, houses destroyed and shot-down drones lay exactly where they had first crashed to the ground.
In one of our many classes, Aleksandra sat in a remote little village on the edge of one of Ukraine’s most notorious landmarks far preceding the acts of war – Chornobyl.
It was a plot of land given to her grandfather during the Soviet-era, and a place that found itself firmly in the hands of their Russian occupiers during the early stages of the war.
Many villages across the country had fallen victim to prolific looting and absurd acts of violence. Yet, this village was blessed in comparison as its inhabitants did not suffer considerably under the hands of the Russians. On the contrary, Russian soldiers showed a semblance of humanity by providing food for some local villagers who faced starvation.
Later in the War
As the Russians lost ground, Ukrainian’s momentum of motivation continued to soar, causing the Russians to alter their targets. Since May 2023, in an attempt to remove any desire to fight, the primary target has been civilian buildings.
Shopping malls, schools, hospitals, and anywhere an unsuspecting citizen might unwittingly find themselves came under Russian crosshairs, and innocent fatalities began to pile up by the hundreds. Though it may have been a callous attempt to shatter morale, it only succeeded in propelling Ukrainian resolve even higher!
The government repaired what it could, focusing its attention on the essentials. The Ukrainian people continued to scroll through online news for daily updates and settled down for what they anticipated to be a drawn-out war. They came to learn to accept their new reality and adamantly refused to go down without a fight.
Today Every Day Is Normal
Despite the daily horrors that occur across Ukraine’s ever-changing Southern and Eastern borders, life in Kyiv continues as normal, or at least as normal as could be.
“In Kyiv, it’s normal. It’s normal everyday life here,” said Aleksandra. Despite us envisioning a city crumbling under the might of Russian firepower, the fear and destruction that once rained down upon the city has significantly decreased.
Kyiv is by no means a safe haven. Air sirens and the familiar ominous thuds of missiles and drones are still a nightly occurrence. It’s a deadly inconvenience that the people of Kyiv have learned to endure.’
People continue to work (if they’re capable of doing so) and spend their days relaxing in parks or dining out in the evenings. In a macabre form of gallows humour, citizens even attend comedy shows put on by members of the Ukrainian army with hopes it can raise funds for the cause.
The Ukrainian people refuse to live their lives under the oppressive rule of Russian ammunition. By all likelihood, this is not a crisis that will be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, life goes on. If today is their day, so be it. Until then, they will continue to live their lives as the free individuals they are.
Accepting Her Fate
Despite Aleksandra’s steely determination, the gravity of the situation has never been taken lightly. Each person understands and must come to accept that death is a real possibility.
Aleksandra has been fortunate not to have a tragedy befall any of her family, friends or herself. That is the greatest blessing she could ever hope to receive.
Yet in the spinning chamber of Russian firepower, it’s simply a matter of when and where. Her beloved apartment, her home, her future, was mere meters away from an Iranian drone strike which decimated her neighbouring building. One can only wish that the time and place continue to align in their favour.
When the bombs start to fall, some hide away in basements or ramshackle shelters to wait out the storm. In the case of Aleksandra, who finds herself at the top of a vast apartment complex that lacks any form of subterranean protection, she has nowhere to run. Her only course of action is to curl up in bed beside her beloved cat and pray this is not her day.
What Does The Future Hold For Ukraine?
As their country continues to be ravaged by the destruction of war, Ukrainians still see a future in sight. People persist with long-term plans; marriages, families, studies and careers, their dreams are still as alive as ever.
For the people of Ukraine, it’s not a matter of whether they win the war, it’s when. Victory is nothing short of an inevitability, and one that everyone will gladly persevere until it is achieved.
When Aleksandra spoke about her personal sacrifices and those of her fellow nationals, she lacked any form of self-pity or any melancholic sadness for what the world once was. All their collective suffering will be worth it once the war is won. For that, each citizen would give everything they have without a moment’s hesitation.
That is why Ukraine could never be truly conquered, as every civilian is ready to die for the cause, something that cannot be said for the Russians fighting on the other side.
What Do Russians Think?
Something that is very difficult to ascertain outside of the influence of modern-day media and the unrelenting propaganda machine of the crumbling Russian empire is what the Russian people actually think. What do they know about this war? And more importantly, how do they actually feel about it?
A considerable proportion of my students are Russian, hailing from the streets of Moscow to the barren lands of Siberia. Many of these students had no choice but to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia or Armenia. Others set up camp further afield across Europe or any place where they could get their hands on a visa.
Many are men of fighting age who would have found themselves on the front lines had they not escaped in time.
A rare few have remained in Russia, who despite choosing their words very carefully could not contain their disdain for the current liberties that Russia had lost at the hands of this war. Tongue-in-cheek references to the “special operation” come with expressive eye-rolls and a resignation to the fact that it’s something they simply cannot control.
Nobody seems to understand the war, though most know better than to question it. In a totalitarian dictatorship, sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.
A Final Word From Inside Russia
Each and every Russian student that I’ve had, whether within or voluntarily exiled from their motherlands, has made it adamantly clear that they did not support this war in any shape or form. Most cannot bear having such a falsified reputation.
In the early stages of the war, one of my students shared something that has remained etched in my memory ever since. It serves as a poignant representation of the nightmare we find ourselves in and a fitting place to end this article. In her own words:
“There is another thing I find rather important to tell. We live in Russia, in Moscow, and we are absolutely devastated by everything that is happening today, by war, and by all the tragedy that is happening. I am one of the journalists in opposition and a “scholar at risk” although it is a rather risky thing in Russia today, and we by no means support whatever is going on right now.”
Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!
Thank you so much for reading How I Met a Student in War-torn Ukraine! Thank you Aleksandra for the pleasure of being able to share your story.
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