UARU
Ex-Military Cartographer On Women On Donbas Frontline, LGBT Activism, and Nationalism
31 January, 2020
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Veteran of hostilities in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya in a cafe in Kyiv, October 18, 2019 Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

According to official figures, more than 25,000 women serve in Ukraine’s army - that’s almost 23% of the total number of people serving in the country’s armed forces. Nastya Konfederat (pseudonym, she does not reveal her real surname -ed.) is a veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war, a military cartographer and drone operator.

Most recently, on January 27, she found herself in the middle of a scandal when her friend, Yaryna Chornohuz, got into an argument with a bus driver regarding the airing of a Russian television show in a bus between two Ukrainian cities Lutsk and Kyiv. 

READ MORE: Volunteer Medic and Airwoman Dumped in Street After Conflict With Bus Driver

Nastya's military experience dates back to 2015 and is associated with volunteer battalions. But she is not included in these statistics.

She is also public about her sexuality and considers herself a nationalist, despite the well-known aggressive attitude of the ultra-right towards the LGBT community.

Nastya was one of some three dozen veterans who bravely took part in the Kyiv Pride equality march last June. It was the first time members of the military and veterans formed their own column for the equality march, which took place in the country’s capital for the fifth year in a row and was widely covered by television stations. 

Nastya says that this was her first momentous event as an LGBT activist. She insisted on marching under the black and red flag (historically used by Ukrainian nationalists). Among friends who walked alongside in a separate column, there were other LGBT soldiers who professed nationalist ideas.

Nastya is sharp and energetic, confident in herself and her abilities, and says she doesn’t feel discriminated against. She is not afraid, because she has learned how to stop negative comments coming at her with one glance. At the same time, she recognizes there are others who are less fortunate. This is why she became involved in LGBT activism as part of the veteran community. 

Hromadske spoke with Nastya in October about what it’s like to be a woman on the frontline, a veteran in civilian life and a lesbian in Ukrainian society, where LGBT people are still stigmatized.

Veteran of hostilities in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya in a cafe in Kyiv, October 18, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova /Hromadske

***

Nastya, you are a woman, a war veteran, and at the same time you openly and publicly talk about belonging to the LGBT community. Additionally, you call yourself a nationalist. How does this all fit together?

How does it fit? Just like brown eyes and a nose fit together. If a person accepts themselves, then it is easy for them. If they don’t accept themselves or are afraid of something, then it’s not so easy. 

This is exactly what my activism is aimed at. I meet a large number of veterans belonging to the LGBT community. I adapted to civilian life quite quickly, but not everyone does. 

Since childhood, I’ve never perceived my orientation as problematic. I tried different things, and at the age of sixteen I finally fully realized it.  

There is no drama here. I am an absolutely happy person, my first relationship was a happy one, a reciprocal one. And so I understood who I was. Of course, back then there was no information about this being normal, and we were still children. Of course, there were questions, but at the same time there was also a lot of trust. Other people don’t have that. That’s why I’ve been an activist for a year now.

Were there any questions at school?

There were constant fights at school! I had short hair, I played football with the guys... There was bullying at school - until the tenth grade, when I put a friend in his place. He drenched two floors in blood. Then it ended.

If you are somehow different from others, you will be bullied. But if you have the strength, then you defend yourself. I had that strength. 

How did your parents perceive the situation?

Mom doesn't know. More precisely, we have this policy - don’t ask, don’t tell. She knows perfectly well, she follows my news, unofficially I’ve come out a thousand times. That is, I declare this about myself openly. Mom sees everything, but we don’t talk about it. 

I don’t have a dad. My dad was a Chernobyl nuclear power plant liquidator. He and my mother split up. His fate is unknown to me. 

Veteran of hostilities in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya in a cafe in Kyiv, October 18, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova /Hromadske

***

Aerial Reconnaissance, Discrimination in the Army and PTSD

How does the story of going into the army begin and why? I know that you studied at the Faculty of Tourism...

I studied to be a tourist! That’s a joke, but traveling is my lifestyle. 

What brought me to the army? In the fall of 2014, I decided to join the army. But where was I going to go and how? As a soldier? Well, was I really a soldier? I have never served.

I did not see myself as a soldier. Therefore, I decided to use what I had. I had fundamental knowledge of cartography. At mobilization centers, I recommended myself in this way: "Take me as a field cartographer, an instructor."

And at mobilization centers they told me directly: "We don’t need a girl on the front."

When I came to the military commiserate, the second wave of mobilization was already taking place. I was told they had enough people. And we have only one cartographic center, and it’s not so easy to get into it. 

So I went to the Dobrobat ("volunteer battalion") mobilization centers and, in the end, I found a volunteer organization - Cartographic Hundred. The organization Map100 arose from it, and I joined “Map100”. There we printed, digitized, conducted briefings, procured rulers, compasses...

We collaborated with government agencies. State institutions at that time were very poorly equipped and everything depended on volunteer donations, which my friends also made. They bought equipment. And that’s how it all began.

Then I called Mariia Berlinska, who was then learning to fly a drone. I said: I also want to fly drones, I was doing cartography, I want to go to the front, but they don’t take me. Mariia gave me the instructor's phone number, I then went to the center and learned how to operate a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) Then I worked as a field cartographer, that was already directly in combat units.

Nastya at a rehearsal with her music group, Kyiv, October 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Nastya at a rehearsal with her music group, Kyiv, October 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Who did you work with?

The Carpathian Sich, the 93rd Brigade, 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, 28th Separate Guards Mechanized Brigade, Donbas. There was also DUK (Volunteer Ukrainian Corps), Dnipro-1... there were many! 

As far as time goes -  [I was there for] seven months, from January 2015 to August-September 2015. From time to time, I returned to the rear, to Kyiv. [The drones] would fly and then be struck down or break... Near Kyiv, everything could be fixed and tests could be carried out. Then, we can go again. Riding, flying, doing reconnaissance along the line. 

What was life like at the front? Where did you live, where did you spend the night?

When I came to the unit, at first it went like this: "Oh, a girl has arrived! Why are you here?" 

I said, I'm so-and-so. [They said] "Well, you will sleep here."

One of the hardest places where we had to spend the night was the dugout in the [village of] Pisky, near the trenches. There are trenches and dugouts. The dugouts were made of wood.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Military Academy Rejects Woman Based on Gender

In general, the specifics of such work means that the operator needs to rest, because eyes, alertness and control are important. And we’d go deep, from 1 to 5 kilometers from the front line. This is not the rear, there is shelling here, but we were able to sleep in silence. And so that it wasn’t wet. After all, it was winter.

One time we spent the night in the basement of a hotel. At night, when the shelling began, I was just sitting there decoding. The guys were out for a walk somewhere, and I was sitting in the basement by myself. I stuck the headphones in and sat, and worked. Then I hear - [these sounds] - goots-goots-goots ... I take out my headphones, and there is shelling. And suddenly everyone runs into that basement - the only place where you could hide. They run in and say: “We have ammunition here on the street. If we are hit, we will burn here.” We had to run and carry those boxes of ammunition. 

Was there always this perception, “a girl has arrived”? Did you face discrimination at the front?

Usually this “a girl has arrived” [attitude] ended 5 minutes later, when I got a map. So, in principle, I did not experience discrimination.

But other girls who I spoke to would complain that they were being held back in their careers, sometimes significantly held back. They’re limited. I saw one case in Dobrobat - a girl who is now a well-known photographer, then told me that she takes pictures, but no one would take her. They had a very tough commander.

I tell her: “Listen ... He took me because I am a specialist in cartographic reconnaissance. So you say that too - I am a photographer ”... She said for 2-3 days and they took her. They took her to Pisky and put her in a bullet proof vest. She took pictures, everyone was in shock, they were simply wonderful shots. And that's it, now she has an official contract.

But this attitude towards women is there. A lot depends on personal contact.

Nastya at a rehearsal with her music group, Kyiv, October 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova /Hromadske

Why did you stop working in the war zone?

Why? Because war is not for people. And anyone who fights on the front for a long time will have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They will be drawn to war. And I was drawn to the war.

READ MORE: Preventing Suicide Among Veterans in Ukraine

So I just decided to live a civilian life. Plus, the fighting had subsided a bit. Somewhere in August 2015 they disengaged the heavy equipment, pulled away the grad rockets ... I realized it was time to leave. 

That was your decision- that’s it, I’m leaving? 

Yes, my decision! I'm leaving, I want to live differently. I came to Kyiv, called a friend, drove to her dormitory. We got some wine, sat down, and decided to hitchhike around Europe. We drove to Gibraltar. I was wearing my combat boots and there I washed them from the war dust. That’s it. 

I didn’t get a certificate to say I participated in the conflict. Although they did offer, and are still offering. I didn’t get it, I don’t worry about it,  I don’t know, that’s not what I went there for... 5 years have already gone by, why? I was offered a contract in the 93rd brigade... They offered everyone a contract.

How does PTSD manifest itself?

When you are stressed, you just hear gunshots in your head. On Defender's Day, someone set off firecrackers on Khreschatyk Street. These guys were 16 years old, youngsters. They were 11 years old when the war began. What do they know about the war? They set off firecrackers, and it shook me...

There was a time when I would just be lying flat on the sofa. Not for long, but there was such weakness, exhaustion. War is stressful for a person. For any person, even for the strongest.

***

March of Equality, Nationalism and Same-Sex Relations

How did the former comrades react when they saw the photos from the March of Equality?

When we came out for Kyiv Pride, I think, two turned their backs. One freaked out, even wrote something. And the second just quietly deleted themselves (from my friends on the Internet).

And how do women, your partners, take these military stories? Is it something that can be discussed at all?

It’s hard. Several girls not so much didn’t accept this, but they had different views. Not opposite, of course, but different. I had to explain it to them. My last girlfriend was fine with it, but it seems to me that it’s hard for civilians.

Jokes and certain aggressive reactions to particular things slip out... because blood has spilled. Of course, civilians don’t always understand. Therefore, we are now working through this with a psychologist. It is difficult to find a partner who would fully understand what was going on in my head.

Veteran of the war in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya (center), in the military column at the March of Equality, Kyiv, June 23, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

You call yourself a nationalist. What is your definition of nationalism?

Yes, I'm a nationalist. Nationalism is a recognition of oneself as part of this culture, history, it’s having an interest in studying history. It is support for Ukrainian culture, support for Ukrainian youth.

But nationalism is based on ethnicity...

Representatives of other ethnic groups can be our ideological allies. That is, nationalism is the unification of people with the same ethnic traits, but it does not mean a hostile attitude towards others. If you read the “Nationalist Code” from the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) time, there is even information that if you are half Jewish, but also half Ukrainian, and consider yourself Ukrainian, then you are Ukrainian. Therefore, nationalism is not a chauvinistic ideology. This is the ideology of universal unification, development, a common cultural vector.

READ MORE: Veteran Turned Singer Shares Unique Outlook on Post-War Life

For me, a Ukrainian is not just a person who has a Ukrainian passport. For me, a Ukrainian is a person who respects their home and does something for it. Volunteers, for example. And if a person quietly tells someone that things would be better under Russia... even if this person has a Ukrainian passport, then for me this person, as a Ukrainian, is dead. That’s is my attitude.

READ MORE: Meet One of the First 120 Women to Have Marched in Military Parade in Kyiv

I am not saying that we have only one external enemy - only Russia. Look at how many people want to go to Romania in Chernivtsi. 

We also have an enemy within us: stupidity, lack of education, timidity... These are internal enemies that hold us back in the development of our nation.

You call yourself a nationalist, when we often see quite aggressive attacks on LGBT people by nationalists... 

But who is financing them! Mordor is (Mordor- the home of the villain in J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional series Lord of the Rings, some Ukrainians refer to Russia as "Mordor" -ed.)... This is done in order to defame the Ukrainian nation, the idea of ​​liberation, the idea of ​​Ukraine’s identity. To show it as aggressive, Nazi, to defame it. And who will benefit from it? This would benefit our main geopolitical enemy. That’s it.

Veteran of hostilities in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya (center) in the military column at the March of Equality, Kyiv, June 23, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske 

Right now you are engaged in activism that supports LGBT people in the military. Why is it this important?

A person who is a representative of the LGBT community and in the military has double the stress. At the moment we are focusing on those who participated in the war but we also plan to work with the Armed Forces, the National Guard and the police. And even with the railway! So, we focus on everything that relates to the stigma of a person in uniform.

I can’t give an exact figure, but we have a group of about 50 LGBT military people. We have a Facebook group called “LGBT Soldiers and Our Allies”. This is a closed group, but whoever wants to can confidently join.

In addition, we have our allies, who may not be LGBT, but who support us - fellow volunteers, journalists, and psychologists.

READ MORE: What It's Like to Be a Female in the Ukrainian Army

We now have a project, which I lead, “Peer to Peer”, it is funded by the Canadian Embassy in Ukraine. The project concerns the psychological rehabilitation of LGBT military, transgender military persons. 

I’m also a coach. I train in the gym, and this is also important for rehabilitation, which improves my headspace and helps you not to feel alone.

Veteran of the war in the Donbas and LGBT activist Nastya (in the background, holding the flag) in the military column at the March of Equality, Kyiv, June 23, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske 

/Interview by Tetyana Ogarkova

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov