From a Soviet pedestrian to a patriot defending Ukraine: the story of one independence
8 September, 2022
Photo: Tetiana Kostik / hromadske

It’s a late evening. My interlocutor is searching for a signal for a long time so that we can talk. He is in the military, and communication is difficult in the places where he is now. But thanks to Starlink and Elon Musk, the signal is there and we talk until midnight.

In three hours, we cover the path from childhood in the semi-closed military town of Bobruisk in Belarus in the 70s and 80s to Perestroika and Kyiv of the last Soviet times. From the 90s to the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity. From the memories of his grandparents who fought, to his own memories of his military father. From studying at a military school to working at the front as a rifleman after February 24, 2022.

This is the story of internal transformation — from an ordinary pedestrian of the vanished Soviet times to a conscious citizen of Ukraine and a deputy company commander.

Kyiv. August 1991. Coup. Act of Proclamation of Independence

On August 19, at his work, everyone was talking about the coup[1] and the performance of “those miserable rebels”[2]. And in the evening at home, Valentyn heard the roar of helicopters over the center of Kyiv. He ran to the balcony. Huge Mi-6 amphibious transport helicopters were flying in the sky.

Something has started,” the man thought then.

In the morning, he escaped from the house for several hours. Two weeks ago, Valentyn and Svitlana’s daughter, Dasha, was born - he had to rake the mountain of diapers and help his wife with the baby, there was no time for the coup, but he still got on the trolleybus and went down to Zhovtneva Square (now Maidan Nezalezhnosti).

I expected that there would be some rally there. A year ago, what was later called the Revolution on Granite took place there. I came to Kyiv then and saw those boys and girls who were starving. And now there were people with national flags. Not too much. Probably half a hundred.

At the time, I was either surprised or even somewhat condemned. I mean, there was something disturbing. Probably, this is how the vatnyks look at the yellow and blue flags now. All the time I heard chiller-dillers about ‘nationalists’. It's funny now, but at the time it was strange to me that all those people spoke Ukrainian. I was even afraid that they would drive me away or throw some slogans at me,” Valentyn shares his memories of August 21, 1991.

That day, he went to the Verkhovna Rada together with the activists. He still had no attitude towards the events that were taking place - neither positive nor negative. Just a Soviet reflection: oh, some nationalists. At that moment, for the first time, Valentyn calmly communicated with nationally conscious people and was even ashamed that he could not speak Ukrainian. At the Rada, everyone stood confused around those who had a radio receiver. Valentyn did not stay there for long.

The coup, which scared everyone so much on the first day, very quickly turned into a shameful and dying Soviet-era punch. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, the rebels were arrested, and I sat down for drawing caricatures. One depicted Gorbachev swinging on a hook over a sewage pit. Something dirty flew down from him. That is, he was pulled out of shit.

The hands of journalists with microphones reach out to him, and he blurts something out of this hook about the new Soviet treaty. On the other, I drew a sincere Ukrainian, as I imagined him at the time — wearing a vyshyvanka on the house of cards. I mean, I was also skeptical about this,” says Valentyn.

On the morning of August 22, he went to the headquarters of the Movement[3] with these caricatures. The organization then had an office on Peremohy Square. The Movement activists liked his drawings. Instead of the Ukrainian's head, they printed Leonid Kravchuk's head on the photocopier. Postcards were distributed throughout Kyiv. Today, Valentyn regrets that he did not save a single copy for history.

“What I didn't like at that time was the attitude of the Movement activists to the events in Moscow. It was the television broadcast of the rally of the victorious Muscovites. They watched TV and mocked the Russians, and spoke disparagingly about them. I got angry. In my view, the events in Moscow were a joint victory, without division into ‘yours’ and ‘ours’. Under the single word ‘together’.”

Two days later, on August 24, Valentyn stood on the threshold of his mother-in-law's room, where there was a TV. There was footage from the Council. Deputies carried a large blue-yellow flag. And the Act of Proclamation of Independence was read from the rostrum. Everyone looked at it as ordinary news.

“I remember well what I said then. That a great event took place, Ukraine would become an independent state. And I couldn't believe it myself, because it changed everything. And I couldn't imagine what it would be like.”

In December, the Union collapsed. And according to Valentyn, it happened as if Thursday changed to Friday - nothing special as if it was meant to be.

Bobruisk. May. 1970. Victory Day Parade

In old black-and-white film stills, soldiers march in columns in parade uniforms with flags. Pioneers in white shirts and ties recite poems and give flowers to veterans. May 9, 1970. Victory Day parade on the territory of the military airfield.

All this is filmed by Ihor, a military engineer of electronic systems, a graduate of the Mozhaysk Institute, the successor of the military dynasty, and Valentyn's father. For a brief moment, Valentyn himself appears on the video. He is three years old and next to him is his five-year-old sister Natasha.

The girl grew up and married a military man and went with him to Russia: a standard scheme for girls who grew up in a military town. First, Valentyn entered an art technical school, but dropped out and went to a military school - when your grandfather and father are in the military, there are few chances to be someone else.

“I lived among officers, it's a kind of caste. My dad was filming. It was a good childhood. My parents were creative people. They met in the Officers' House. Dad played musical instruments, and mom sang, she is very artistic and bright. My mom lived in Bobruisk from the age of 10, her family moved from Bila Tserkva. People made fun of her Ukrainian accent because she said ‘five’ in Ukrainian. In Belarus, almost no one spoke Belarusian, and dad was sent there to serve. He was born in Russia.”

Bobruisk — Sevastopol — Oryol Oblast — Kyiv. Last years and breaths of the Soviet Union

Valentyn remembers well the funeral of annoying Brezhnev, strict Andropov, worthless Chernenko, and how everyone rejoiced that the new leader of the country, Mikhail Gorbachev, was finally not an old man, but could speak without a piece of paper. Valentyn was 18 years old at the beginning of Perestroika.

“Then I entered the military school. In the first year, the management reported on the percentages of those that had already ‘reconstructed’ and those that had not. It is funny that this was considered classified information, but soon Mikhail Gorbachev proposed glasnost’. This is something similar to freedom of speech, but only about what is allowed. And this became a mistake of Soviet civilization. Then I gradually became a stubborn anti-communist, but still with a party membership card in my pocket. To make it clear, one could not graduate from our school without becoming a member of the CPSU.

During the last few years of the Soviet Union, Valentyn finished his studies, got married, went to the place of service in Oryol Oblast, and a year later he was discharged from the army; in 1991 he moved to Kyiv and began working as a painting restorer. In Kyiv, he recalls, he was impressed by Ukrainian — a living language. During his entire life in Belarus, he heard Belarusian only once. And here - signs were in Ukrainian, and people in markets, sometimes, communicated in Ukrainian.

Not pure literary language, but alive one. And there was some kind of radio, newspapers, and most importantly, people in the subway who read books in Ukrainian. Someone from Russia would see only colorful differences in this, but I immediately understood that this is a living culture. It was very interesting.

I tried to speak, but I encountered ridicule for my Belarusian pronunciation and terrible mistakes. The desire to learn the language immediately disappeared, and for the next fifteen years, the language and I lived in parallel worlds, with almost no contact.

But from the first months in Kyiv, I worked with experienced painting restorers who were real representatives of the national intelligentsia. We drank tea from handmade ceramic mugs, talked, and for the first time I heard the main meanings that distinguished Ukraine even from the positive meanings of the cultural space of the country with the capital in Moscow.”

In the harsh nineties, the Act of Proclamation of Independence, which Valentyn perceived as a great event, was lost in everyday troubles, the search for work and money. Coupons replaced rubles. They lost value in the eyes. Barter replaced money. On Kiltseva Road, gasoline was exchanged for vodka: one liter per bottle. There were huge queues even for milk. From all this, the marriage was on rocks and fell apart in the end.

Valentyn's question to himself about who a person born in Belarus is, whose father is from Russia (an officer of the Soviet Union, which no longer exists), and whose mother is a Ukrainian who has long forgotten her roots was also lost. The time of the citizen of the Soviet Union seemed to have ended. The time of the citizen of the new state of Ukraine has not yet come.

Photo: Tetiana Kostik / hromadske

Kyiv. November. 2004. Orange Revolution

It was November 2004. The Kyiv Maidan was orange not from the leaves, but the flags. Valentyn stood among the people with his second wife. A huge crowd took to the streets to oppose the falsification of the presidential elections and to support the presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. People sang hymns with inspiration. After the national anthem, Valentyn suddenly looked at his wife and said: “Liena, I'm Ukrainian.” At that time, he was 37 years old.

Honestly, until 2004, I did not ask myself the question of who I am. I mean, I understood that I was a citizen in the legal sense - I went to the elections, but I felt aloof from almost all national issues. After all, for this, you need to feel the context, to be part of the community. And how is this possible if I was not born here? In addition, in the cultural and linguistic spheres, it was possible to live in Ukraine without noticing each other. Especially in the 90s.

I still can't speak Ukrainian fluently. I mean, I cannot speak naturally, or joke, which is easy for me to do in Russian. I don't know idioms and everything else that appears in childhood, from children's books, and most importantly - from the talk around. But I write on social networks mostly in Ukrainian. I am checking for errors. And correspondence with his wife, who is evacuated abroad, is only in Ukrainian. Although we usually talk as before. It's difficult for us,” Valentyn shares.

But then on the Maidan in 2004, he clearly felt himself a citizen of the society that gathered there.

I saw the ideal of the society I aspired to, and I wanted to be a part of it — cohesion, organization, honesty. There was a feeling that we are Ukrainians, we can do something.”

Kyiv. November. 2013. Revolution of Dignity

Exactly nine years later, Valentyn went to the same place again. With his adult daughter. There was a revolution again in Kyiv — and again on the Maidan.

I told Dasha: I'm afraid to imagine what's starting now. It will not resolve just like that. There will be such a collision here that I am afraid to look into this abyss. I was afraid to tell myself that this could even lead to war, but those were the thoughts that came to me.

Century-old problems collided there. I understood this, although at that time I did not consider myself to be such an upgraded’ Ukrainian, a citizen of the state, as classic patriots. Just a real citizen of Ukraine. And all the time I try to have a detached view so as not to lose my head. This remains even now. But in other respects, I am supposedly already upgraded’.”

One day Valentyn was driving from the Maidan by car. He was emotionally exhausted. He stopped and decided to call his closest person in the world — sister Natasha. For a long time, each of them lived their own lives: he lived in Kyiv, and she lived in Moscow. They met either in the Russian capital or at their parents' house in Bobruisk.

Natasha has always been a wonderful person, sensitive and kind. She was the first to send a large amount of money when Valentyn's daughter had an accident and needed expensive treatment. For Valentyn, Natasha was a person whom he considered a part of his heart.

“Natasha, something is starting here,” I said into the receiver, “it's very important for me to talk to you.” She cut me off, started shouting that she didn't want to hear, and added: people pull each other's hair out because of politics, and we would only have family relations.”

And then there were shootings on the Maidan. And there was Crimea. And a call to his mother. And her answer: “So Crimea is Russian. They always sang so beautifully about sailors there.

Valentyn then fell silent. But a month later he had to go to his mother's for the anniversary. Relatives from Kyiv, Moscow, and Bobruisk gathered around a large table. Valentyn tried to explain something about Maidan, but no one wanted to listen to him.

Girkin has already captured Sloviansk. I arrived, I was shocked, I was worried and I didn't understand what to do - whether to go to war, whether someone will give me a weapon... But when you come there, to Belarus, there's peace and grace, cakes, greetings, nobody wants to know anything," the man recalls.

Then he felt how the closest people became distant. But he continued to wait: when some other event happens, they will surely come to their senses and understand everything.

Here is Zelenopillia - she will definitely see. Next, Ilovaisk - she will definitely see. And you call, and she doesn't know anything. I am telling her: “Natasha we were fired upon”, and she says “who, what are you saying? No one fired at you.” And you understand that dialogue is impossible. After Ilovaisk, she said: “I'm not stupid, I watch TV.” And these words still ring in my head. I shut down completely and reminded her of these words on February 24, 2022.

In 2015, his son Illia went to war. Valentyn then went to his mother again and told her where and why her grandson was. Oleksandra Serhiivna even ran to pharmacies to look for Celox (hemostatic drug - ed.), it seemed that he was breaking through the wall bit by bit. Then even his sister appeared.

In the winter of 2015, she unexpectedly called and said: “I respect you and your opinion, you are a patriot of your country, and I am a patriot of my country.” She said then that as a patriot she would definitely go to Crimea. In fact, she went to Turkey.

The last time they saw each other at their mother's house was in 2018. Their mom underwent a complex operation, so Valentyn tried not to touch on thorny topics. But before leaving, he accidentally blurted out: “I want to reassure you, there are no scary Banderites, they are made up to scare you. Natasha then said that she is against any war, and supports those people who participate in demonstrations in Moscow, but she will never go there herself. Then I realized that she was not fully stone-cold, hugged her, and said: “Natasha, come to me.” But she refused. Because “her acquaintances with Moscow license plates were pelted with tomatoes in Ukraine.” The dialogue did not start again.”

Photo: Tetiana Kostik / hromadske

Kyiv. War. From February 24 and until now

On February 24, Valentyn woke up from a powerful explosion. “War!” wife Olena asked frightened: “What war?” “The real one. With Russia”. She didn't follow the news very much, besides, Valentyn himself was sure until the last that nothing stupid would happen, and calmed her down. But at three o'clock in the afternoon, he was standing in the courtyard of the Military Commissariat.

Suddenly a message came from Moscow: “Are you alive there?” He felt like a person on whom the roof had fallen, and he was being asked if he was alive. And he texted back as politely as possible: “I don't know what to answer, and I don't want to.” The answer immediately came: “You don't need to. 2014 was enough for me. Your pursed lips, constant dissatisfaction in your face, speaking through your teeth.”

Then the battles for Kyiv occurred. He, an officer with a military education, was taken as a simple rifleman. His son, Illia, also went to the front for the second time. His wife in Kyiv was hiding in a bomb shelter, there was no time for relatives in Moscow. But suddenly they reminded of themselves. Natasha texted that she does not understand Olena, who let her almost 55-year-old husband go to war.

Olena did not hold back and answered: “My husband went to war to protect me from your dwarf who has lost his mind. And all this happened because you all stuck your tongues in your asses and remained silent”. And then she added: “When there will be no combat Buryats left, your sons will go to war.” Later, Valentyn’s sister will remind them of these words.

Until July, Valentyn avoided contact with Natasha. But one day his mother called him: “Valik, everything is difficult. Natasha wrote you a letter.And I broke down - it was difficult until February 24. And now everything is simple. There is black and white. And then I opened this letter, I read it - damn it, Andrei (Natasha's eldest son - ed.) went to fight. There’s no mobilization there, he wasn’t taken by force. So he went himself.

In the letter, Natasha assured that she prayed for all the soldiers: for him, her brother, her nephew, and her own son, and put three candles in the church. Valentyn discreetly asked his sister: “Why did Andrey go to fight? Did someone attack you?

And he added that Natasha should delete his and his son's names from the list of prayers. And she broke down and wrote back with clichés from Russian TV - that Russia is fighting Nazism and the collective West for the liberation of Donbas, but that in any situation one must remain human. And at the end, she added “Krymnash” (Crimea is ours – ed.) and “Glory to Russia”.

And she also reacted to Olena's words: “There are no more combat Buryats, it's my sons' turn.

The only thing I regret a little,” says Valentyn, “is that I responded according to this pathetic narrative with the words at the end: 'Farewell, sister.' It had to be neutralized with the usual assessment of the usual stupidity. That is, ‘fool’. Because that's it and nothing more.

I'm probably wrong, but I love her. This is a part of me. And it hurts. It hurts so bad. Since 2014, it was terribly difficult for me, I went crazy. I repeat, my sister and I were very close people. But in eight years I got used to her absence. I grew out of the self I used to be. I realized that I lost her."

Today, in places, the geolocation of which is not shared, he is in the company of completely different men - company owners, IT specialists, colonels. A former Russian from a Belarusian town with a gun in his hands defends Ukraine and knows exactly the answer to the question “who am I?"

The small blue and yellow flag is not only on his uniform, it is etched into his heart and skin, which is scarred from unhealed personal wounds. Because to become a Ukrainian, some had to say goodbye to a part of themselves and even cut it alive.


[1] The August Coup was an attempted coup d'état in the USSR in August 1991, when the self-proclaimed State Emergency Committee (SEC) tried to remove from power the President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev

[2] The members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency in the USSR, a self-proclaimed authority that was created on August 18, 1991, to preserve the USSR and remove from power President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose actions the committee members considered unconstitutional

[3] People's Movement of Ukraine is a socio-political organization founded in 1989, a political party since 1993