French IR expert and cybersecurity consultant Quentin Jalabert brings us perspectives from young Ukrainians in Kyiv on their current lived reality, their engagement in the context of the Russian invasion and their views on the future. This piece is the first part in a series of three articles.

In May 2023, I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, and interviewed six young locals aged 18-24 who offered insights into the country’s youth, their perceived role during a time of war, and their thoughts on the future of the country. I asked my interviewees a series of 15 questions, addressing subjects such as their personal experience of the war, the Ukrainian nation, culture and identity. The aim was to allow the interviewee to be proactive in shaping the interviews and to diminish the weight of my own bias.

The goal of this series is to amplify these voices and engage readers with Ukrainian perspectives, not provide a comprehensive view of Ukrainian youth. While different, the young people interviewed are all residents of Kyiv, speak English, have international exposure, and engage in volunteer work for Ukraine’s victory. Their experiences may not be representative of the overall understanding of the war by young Ukrainians, but should nonetheless be heard and their voices amplified, as members of a nation that has long been oppressed and deprived of agency under the yolk of Russian imperial power and aggression.

Part 1 – Personal and Collective Struggles

Before the full-scale invasion, Sofiia S., aged 18, lived in Vinnytsia with her family. At the time she was planning an exchange semester in Spain, and she spent two months there after the war began. She could have decided to remain safely in Spain until the situation improved. But with her brother and father both taking up arms, and her mother being left alone in her hometown, Sofiia decided to head back to Ukraine.

To her, one of the first lessons of war came as a reminder of the importance of family, which, in her own words, she now “overvalues.” But Sofiia S. didn’t just go back to her hometown. She wanted to be close to her family, but she also wanted to be useful. Aged 18, she headed to Kyiv on her own, and became a volunteer while studying at university. Enrolled at the Kyiv School of Economics, she joined a project with the aim of making sure that displaced children would receive gifts on December 6th, the day when the country celebrates Saint Nicolas. She reached out to the president of her university to garner institutional support, and together with other volunteers managed to fundraise over twenty thousand dollars.

Photo by Sindre Langmoen

Jenia, aged 24, is an actress and a dancer. However, with the onset of the full-scale war, she lost her primary sources of income and so did most of her family members. Like many Ukrainians, she made a pragmatic decision: a couple of months after the invasion she departed for Ireland. There, she lived for nearly a year, working as a waitress to earn money for her family and to support the defenders of Ukraine. The choice, although uneasy and not without consequences, was a logical one for Jenia. She knew that as the only English-speaking member of her family, she had the possibility to work abroad and gain money.

What might have seemed like an easier option than to stay in Ukraine, turned out to be as challenging. While Jenia is deeply grateful for how she was welcomed in Ireland, being far from her loved one, knowing that each text, or phone call could potentially be the last, took a toll on her mental wellbeing. Back in Kyiv, Jenia reflected that even though she was still unable to feel the way she did before the war, in Ukraine, she was surrounded by people and places filled with memories of when she felt the fullest.

War exacts a heavy toll on all those it touches. Bogdan, a 22-year-old law student from the Hetman Vadym University, described the feeling of helplessness when he was not actively engaged in aiding his country’s defenders. His father, a member of the Irpin municipal council, had long been involved in volunteer work. As the full-scale war began, Bogdan first turned to the Red Cross and participated  in a few actions. However, he soon found himself without a task, and heard nothing from them again.

He subsequently sought out other organisations,  and became involved in some aiding the Aidar battalion, helping to  fundraise, collect materials and goods, and delivering them to the front. Since the beginning of the war, Bogdan has made two trips to the front lines. His first arrival in Donetsk Oblast, at the rear of the front line, marked what he described as “the most exciting day of [his] life.” Near the front, Bogdan finally felt a sense of purpose and usefulness, dispelling the depression he had been grappling with in Kyiv.

In this context, Bogdan’s objectives are clear: to continue helping in any way possible, and to return to the front at the earliest opportunity. He also confided in me that most of his recent discussions with his girlfriend revolved around her desire to join the Ukrainian military. Like Bogdan, she too felt an urgent need to contribute more actively.

Photo by Quentin Jalabert

Katya works with a leading anti-corruption NGO in Kyiv. A former student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, she conveyed how the full-scale invasion brought the harsh realities that the easternmost regions had endured since 2014 to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Prior to this, most of the country had maintained a semblance of peace. Tirelessly dedicated to her work, whether in the office or seeking shelter during bombings, Katya described her work colleagues as a second family, with whom she had grown increasingly close.

Her journey increased her resilience to stress, while also making her totally unempathetic towards pro-Russian discourses and narratives. I recall her laughter as she admitted that she was grateful she had remained in Ukraine. A sense of gratefulness which also extended to the fact that in Kyiv, she didn’t have to continually confront individuals and challenge their pro-Russian biases. In Ukraine, she said, she felt free to be herself, to curse the Russians when they bombed the city, and to express her anger towards the war without fearing being perceived as overly aggressive in the eyes of more prudish western observers.

Having many friends who fled the country, she reflected on the immense pressure they faced: representing their country, countering Russian disinformation, while attempting to strike a balance and achieving a sense of normalcy  in a foreign land. She also highlighted how the war, in a way, helped her identify her true friends and focus on the relations that mattered the most.

The solidarity she experienced with her colleagues, with whom she shares similar values, exemplifies in her eyes the horizontal links that characterise Ukrainian society. This solidarity, she feels, is akin to the cross-country networks of assistance and volunteers that, back in 2014, had enabled  the country to withstand Russia’s aggression. This strong culture of self-organisation is one of the strengths of Ukrainian society. United by their shared experience of the horrors wrought by the Russian invasion, the people of Ukraine are standing resolute, fighting back, and increasingly, prevailing.

Sofiia K., a 20-year-old philology student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, had always been a dreamer. Before the full-scale war, she had dreams of buying an apartment and moving in with her boyfriend. Then came the invasion. At the war’s onset, she found refuge in Cherkasy Oblast, while her boyfriend found himself trapped in Bucha, under Russian occupation.

Reflecting on this experience, she spoke about  how surviving such an ordeal at such a young age made her feel empowered. She described how Ukrainians have become more anxious and sadder than before the war. But she also spoke of the unity, amazing solidarity and resilience of the people. Though fear still lingers, her gratitude towards those sacrificing their lives to keep the country safe has inspired her to be brave, leading to a form of empowerment.

A couple months after the start of the invasion, she went on a long-planned academic exchange semester in Toronto, Canada. There, she volunteered, raised funds, organised exhibitions, and held a Ukrainian Week festival, during which they raised thousands of dollars to assist their classmates on the frontlines. Even while away, she dedicated most of her resources to support her country. “I believe in taking action when the freedom of my country is at stake,” she said, “and every single action counts.”

Anastasia, a 21-year-old Ukrainian-Turkmen artist, was living in Dubai when the full scale war erupted. Her brother had been fighting on the frontlines since 2014, and despite living abroad, Ukraine always remained at the forefront of her thoughts and actions.

Following the exodus of Russians fleeing conscription, which, in her words, turned Dubai into a “little Moscow,” she decided that her place was in Kyiv. Her decision to move back to a country at war solidified after a visit to the frontline, where she met with her brother and gave him a tattoo. The horrors and devastation caused by the Russian army in the eastern part of the country left a lasting impact on her when she returned to Dubai. Life there became increasingly unbearable and senseless.

She shared with me her experiences of the nightlife and underground art scenes in both Dubai and Kyiv. Even in the midst of the war, the Ukrainian capital retained a vibrant art scene. The proceeds from art sales and event earnings often went, at least in part, towards supporting various volunteer initiatives. The country’s capital is still alive and well, demonstrating the beauty and strength of a society that has decided to resist and not give up.

As most of the interviewees were women, I asked about what it meant for them to be a woman in a country at war. Their answers all revolved around how courage could be found in every action and form. They emphasised that the mother going into exile to protect her children is as brave as those who decided to join the army and defend the country on the frontline. The active roles taken by women before and during Russia’s full-scale invasion have also become a source of pride and inspiration. In a context where every action holds significance, acts of heroism are everywhere. The sight of numerous women fighting on the front, taking care of their families, relatives, and friends, working tirelessly, and dedicating themselves to contribute to victory – both within and outside of Ukraine, had a strong impact on the interviewees.

The desire to help often outweighed the fear for one’s personal safety, as expressed by Sofiia S.. The need to safeguard one’s mental health was also a common concern. Most interviewees showed understanding for those who did not possess the mental resources required to contribute as actively as themselves. It is in moments like these that the real unity of Ukrainian society appears. Whether one decides to focus on maintaining their mental health or to become a volunteer, matters not: as long as one’s actions do not actively hinder the path to victory, there is a strong tolerance for the various ways in which individuals cope with the events.

Unity, resilience, anxiety and grief are all intertwined in the fabric of life after more than a year of full-scale war, bearing witness to the broader changes that have affected Ukrainian society. On an individual level, the need to be of use, to contribute in every way possible and to one’s best extent was expressed unanimously. The idea that the youth was at the forefront of the resistance was also ubiquitous. All interviewees had comrades, school friends and acquaintances fighting and dying on the frontlines for the sake of the country’s future. Honouring their sacrifice is no easy task. Beyond gratitude, all felt the need to do more, to help build and defend the Ukraine so many are dying for.

Cover photo by Sindre Langmoen

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