Alina Mykhailova is 26 years old and has witnessed several wars over the years. It all started with the Revolution of Dignity, when she, then a sophomore studying political science at Taras Shevchenko National University, first went to the Maidan—at first, just out of curiosity, to keep company. But everything changed when force was used against peaceful protesters and Berkut police beat students in central Kyiv.
Her life was never going to be the same. After the Maidan, Alina volunteered for the SOS Army. Together with other volunteers, she sent food and clothing for the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine—and then found herself there, among them. In 2016, Alina lost a close friend at the front line, and then decided to go there as a paramedic. Before 2020, she could not imagine herself outside the army, but she later decided to return to civilian life.
But a new struggle awaited her.
During her first year in eastern Ukraine, Alina worked as a paramedic. She arrived there after taking medical courses from a volunteer battalion called the Hospitallers, which she attended with a specific purpose: to then go to the Donbas.
And from the beginning she tried not to succumb to stereotypes about a woman at the front line:
"I tried to tell them everything at once: I am here, together with you; I do not want anyone to die, and I want everyone to receive medical care in time," Alina explains. "My stay at the frontline is my mission for this country. There should be no gender divide. When you make yourself clear, people realize that 'she's a girl' jokes are out of the question."
She did not need special attention or more comfort:
I never let them think that I could not, for example, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. I can. This is my choice. The men did not take the liberty to flirt or anything like that, because they knew what my reaction would be.
On the front line, Alina met her boyfriend, Dmytro Kotsyubaylo, the current commander of the Right Sector Ukrainian Volunteer Corps in Avdiyivka. Photo: Alina Mykhailova / Facebook
Despite working in the medical field, Alina also wanted to work with guns and mortars, but the commander refused to let her. So Alina decided to act differently—to create an air reconnaissance unit.
"We got unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters," the fighter says. "We decided to gather people so that they could control them, and we could fight more professionally."
Volunteers helped to get the necessary equipment. Alina contacted people, wrote to various organizations that could help, reached out to the diaspora and arranged a fundraiser. Then three years passed. Alina almost never left the front line—only once a month for two days she visited her parents in Dnipro and once a year took a vacation to rest for a week in the mountains. But even there, she could not escape the war.
"I came home and couldn't talk about anything but the war," Alina recalls. "When you're there, you don't care. I felt in my element there, we worked a lot, helped the military. But then new thoughts came to mind: what I am doing and does this make any sense? I gave everything I could, but it seemed that nothing changed."
The lucky call
One of the fellow soldiers who noticed Alina's abilities decided to nominate her for the Open World programme, which gives Ukrainian leaders of various backgrounds the opportunity to meet their American colleagues and share experiences. At first, Alina was sceptical about the offer. She didn't believe that she could win, so she told neither her boyfriend nor her parents. Until one day, the phone rang, and she was selected.
At that moment, Alina was walking down the corridor of their base. She stopped and started to cry. The guys ran up to her, asking: "What happened?"
"I'm going to the United States!" Alina said.
At first, her family did not believe her, but Alina herself was in shock. However, the trip to America was a breath of fresh air for her. She met new people and began to understand what knowledge and skills she lacked. Upon her return, she received a scholarship to the Kyiv School of Economics and began working at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy. Alina took her students to eastern Ukraine, to her unit, and told them about the hostilities in the Donbas. This was the first time in the history of the academy that students were trained at a special forces regiment, with the soldiers who fought at the airport now teaching them.
"It was still difficult when I went with my students to my unit," Alina recalls. "I returned to my home, to the war, but in a completely different role,"
For her, it was a difficult period—when she could not make her mind up whether to stay in Kyiv or return to the front line. Eventually, Alina dropped out of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy.
Alina Mykhailova (center) at the frontline. Photo: Alina Mykhailova / Facebook
For four months, she returned to the front line, to her unit, but her previous anxiety kicked in soon enough. She blamed herself for giving up and returning to the war, so she decided to look for a job and try to find herself in civilian life again.
Later, Alina started working with a Member of Parliament. The work was so exhausting that she didn't even have time to ponder anything else. However, constant questions from acquaintances like "When will you return to the front line?" got the best of her.
Then Alina started avoiding communication with acquaintances, worked a lot and spent time at home. However, in the end, she decided to seek help from psychologists experienced in working with veterans. For about six months, she worked with two psychologists: one in person, the other online.
"It was a long journey for me. I don't know how, but after a while, I simply let it go," she says.
People around her often think that it was easy for her to return from the war, but only Alina herself knows how it really was.
"Recently, at one of the public events, an acquaintance of mine said, 'Alina is a shining example of a person who has returned without any trauma.' However, that is not the case. Just because I didn't talk to anyone doesn't mean that things were easy for me. I worked for days on end and only dreamed of coming home and going to bed so that no one would bother me," she says.
She knows first-hand what an assassination attempt is. In 2017, Alina's commander went to the rear to pick up fighters from the train in the field in her official car. On the way, the car was fired on twice. It remains unknown to this day, who made the attempt.
The memory of the sudden deaths of those around you still hurts, Alina explains.
It is difficult to witness constant losses. A fighter died in my unit: in the morning you drink tea with him, and then he doesn't come back. When you constantly live among this, you do change.
Alina Mykhailova at the Kyiv City Council meeting. Photo: Alina Mykhailova / Facebook
A new war
Alina has been a deputy of the Kyiv City Council for a year now. For some of her acquaintances, this step seemed to be a surprise, but for Alina herself, everything has been logical and obvious. She has a master's degree in political science and a second degree in public administration. Alina chose her specialty at school and now fulfils herself as a politician. Deputy work, volunteering, the Maidan, and war share one common purpose in her eyes: to drive change despite the obstacles.
Last year, during the election campaign, she heard sceptical accusations: "Oh, a girl! Come on, so young!" She approached the people, told about herself, explained what she wanted to do, and persuaded them. Of course, in her opinion, there are many stereotypes in society about women in politics, but little by little, they can be overcome—at least by example and action.
And it did work. People gave her their votes, so for the past six months now, Alina has been representing their interests.
Alina Mykhailova came out to check the scandalous building on Mykilska Slobidka. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
She is involved with the problem of illegal constructions, helping local residents deal with people who organize construction on municipal land and defending the rights of the community. She ran her campaign on a bit different platform: on work with youth and veterans, culture, and so on. But, according to her, when she saw that most of the issues voted for by deputies concern land and construction, she decided to delve into this topic.
"I am not someone from this sphere, but what choice do I have? If a city is being overrun with construction and the community is being attacked by developers, how can this be ignored?" Alina explains.
Now her phone is full of various documents about buildings and land in Kyiv, cadastral numbers, and the like. And friends rarely invite her for a walk in the city center, because it can always end in finding out whether some cafe had permission to build a patio up to the roadway. Alina's watchful eye notices when such capture of the territory interferes with pedestrians. Colleagues, according to her, are angry that sometimes the girl refuses to go somewhere with them. But Alina stands her ground.
According to Alina, her military past sometimes affects her work and how her colleagues perceive her: "When I show emotions—even in the Kyiv City Council or at meetings—my colleagues say:,'Yes, she was in the war, that explains everything.' But I've always been like that, it doesn't come from my experience at the front line," Alina says.
Alina washes her favorite dog in the bathroom. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
The work of a deputy in the Kyiv City Council is a volunteer job, for which Alina does not receive a salary. She says that deputy work takes up most of her time: sometimes she doesn't even have time to eat and is constantly on the road because meetings with the community (and visits to illegal construction sites) are in different parts of Kyiv.
This year, Alina transferred to study at the Ukrainian Catholic University, so she has to be in Lviv four days each month. Besides that, she does shifts as a social media manager, for which she receives about $600-700 a month. This covers basic expenses, while her parents help with the rest.
"It's easy to say: 'We don't get paid, our work ends in the voting hall’, but deputy work goes beyond that," Alina explains. "This is about coming to the community at midnight to put up the barricade so that the developer can't bring equipment through municipal land. I don’t have to do that, but if I [made a conscious decision to become] a deputy and I feel a responsibility to the people who voted for me, then I will do just that."
According to her, at times she still wonders: shouldn't she just go back to the war and return only for Kyiv City Council sessions? However, she is already taking root in Kyiv.
"I went to study in Lviv for a few days, and people asked me, 'Where did you go? We haven't seen you, we thought you had already abandoned us.' I can't leave this [life] any more—my conscience and responsibility won't allow me to."
Alina gives the impression of a person who devotes herself to any work, no matter what she does: whether it is providing medical care for wounded soldiers, working with students, or waging a war against illegal construction in Kyiv. She considers her activities in the City Council difficult, as her colleagues often lobby and vote for decisions that are in their own interests.
But Alina thinks that the main thing is to position yourself correctly and stand your ground, despite all the challenges:
The fact that you are a girl should not limit you at all. When you love your job, when you show people the real results of your work, they eventually start appreciating you for it.
/ The project was implemented with the support of UN Women Ukraine, the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine.