A year of despair and defiance

| February 25, 2023

Over 8 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland during this past year of war since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To me, these are not just numbers. My family and friends are among them.

I am a Ukrainian American political scientist. As a specialist in Eastern Europe, I have evaluated this war over the past year from my professional perspective. Yet this war is also deeply personal.

It is certain that Ukraine and Ukrainians will be affected by this war for generations. Not a single Ukrainian, in Ukraine or abroad, has been left unscathed by this war.

But one assured outcome to the war’s devastation is strengthened national unity and pride. I know, because I research this topic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected that Ukrainian leadership would run away, intimidated, when the invasion began.

A younger and an older woman, standing in front of a fountain and stately building on a sunny day.

The author and her mother in front of the Lviv National Opera in Lviv in Ukraine in May 2017.

When Ukraine’s leaders stood their ground, Putin addressed Ukraine’s soldiers, urging them not to obey Ukraine’s government and instead “come to an agreement” with him.

Ukrainians had other ideas.

Ukrainians overwhelmed military recruitment centers, organized territorial defense units and prepared to defend their country and neighborhoods with Molotov cocktails and jars of pickles. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when asked by the U.S. if he wanted to evacuate from the capital city, Kyiv, to a more secure location, famously declared, “I want ammunition, not a ride.”

Putin had miscalculated. He thought he confronted a corrupt regime, like his own. Instead, he faced a nation.

Refugees inside and outside

On the night of Feb. 23, 2022 – which was already Feb. 24 in Ukraine – I checked Twitter before going to bed and found a message that Putin was speaking. I ran to the living room to find my mom, who had arrived from Kyiv in December of 2021 to help me with my infant son.

We watched Putin’s speech in horror. The war had started. Russian artillery opened fire on several Ukrainian cities. We messaged my sister and aunt in Kyiv. In reality, the war had started eight years earlier, when Putin annexed Crimea and invaded parts of Eastern Ukraine, but now Russia had moved to a full invasion.

During the first days of the invasion, we did not sleep. It was largely expected that what Putin called a “special military operation” would last a few days. Some experts believed that Kyiv would fall in 72 hours.

While my mom was with us in the U.S., the rest of my family was living in Ukraine, in Kyiv and in the Poltava and Chernihiv regions. During the siege of Kyiv in February and early March, my sister, my aunt and younger cousins remained in the city. Kyiv’s metro stations became bomb shelters.

We begged all of them to get out of the city. “We are staying home,” they said. I heard this reply for several months, despite my pleading.

Millions, mostly women and children, did flee, packed tight into crammed train cars. A childhood friend headed to the Polish border with her 3-year-old. “Sardines in a can have more space to stretch out,” she told me with characteristic humor, “but compared to people in the east, we are on vacation.”

Kharkiv was being leveled to the ground. Poltava and the cities in the region were overwhelmed by an influx of internally displaced people.

One friend and colleague, a professor of history in Poltava, headed the territorial defense unit of the city. It helped the internally displaced to find accommodations, supplied the refugees with food, water and other necessities and organized patrols of the neighborhoods.

In the following weeks and months, the news of the atrocities committed in occupied Bucha, Irpin, Izium and Mariupol shook me to the core.

The dark authoritarian past

In my research I’ve analyzed the legacy of the Soviet Union, a communist totalitarian state that included Russia and Ukraine, which existed from 1922 to 1991. I have studied the political views and attitudes of different generations of people in Ukraine and Russia. I cannot help but reflect on this war from that perspective.

I see a war between the very different world views: one stuck in the authoritarian past, one belonging to the future and democracy.

During his almost 20 years ruling over Russia, Putin has attempted to create a new ideology that glorified the autocratic Soviet past – including the genocidal rule of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Those daring to oppose Putin’s official history – and who shed light on the USSR’s atrocities, like human rights advocates known as “Memorial” and the Helsinki Group – find themselves persecuted and prosecuted.

The new generations in Putin’s Russia are indoctrinated into that backward-looking ideology from an early age. Moreover, Putin’s ideology denies Ukrainian sovereignty.

A woman with two children in a dark place that has a subway map behind it on the wall.

This Ukrainian family found shelter in one of Kyiv’s metro stations, used by many women and children to escape Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.  

A bright democratic future

In Ukraine, the story is different. Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has embraced democracy. The war only strengthened this commitment.

The people of Ukraine, since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, have had a chance to reevaluate and in some cases rediscover their history. Thus, the Soviet worldview forced on Ukrainians, which included reverence of the USSR as part of the country’s history, is fading.

Ukraine’s new generations have a distinct Ukrainian identity, forged by years of independence and the revolutions of 2004 and 2014.

In 2004’s Orange Revolution, Ukrainians refused to accept the results of a rigged election that would have delivered a pro-Kremlin candidate. In 2013-14, the Revolution of Dignity ousted the pro-Russian corrupt President Viktor Yanukovich.

The Revolution of Dignity was a fight against internal corruption and Russian meddling in Ukrainian internal affairs. I see this drive for democracy and sovereignty reflected in my sister and her generation. Born after Ukraine regained its independence from the Soviet Union, she is unencumbered by the Soviet worldview of Ukraine as a Russian colony. She is a free Ukrainian.

After much begging from me, my sister and her two cats finally arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 2022. With her came our 13-year-old cousin. His mom and older siblings, one of them disabled, stayed in Ukraine with our grandmother.

Other relatives in Ukraine stayed behind. They are working, volunteering and some are involved in territorial defense. All support the armed forces of Ukraine.

This trend is evident in the public opinion that points to Ukrainians’ overwhelming support for their armed forces and President Zelenskyy, as well as their faith in victory.

Trust in victory

On New Year’s Eve, the seven of us sat around my small kitchen table. We watched President Zelenskyy on YouTube, summarizing the year, which for all of us started in February.

We hid tears from each other. In three days, my aunt, who came from Ukraine for the holidays, would be traveling back to Warsaw by air and from there to Kyiv by train.

Every time I think of her going back, my heart skips a beat. Russians have deliberately and systematically attacked civilian infrastructure, leaving cities without electricity, heat and water. My aunt will return, carrying a collection of solar-powered lights.

I often hear people ask why Ukrainians stay, why do they not get out. There are several reasons for this. Some simply cannot. Others, like many of my family, colleagues and friends, are determined and defiant.

“Ukraine is home,” my sister told me. “We have to rebuild it. I want to be part of that effort.” For now, in the U.S., she’s taking English classes and works part time. She has met other Ukrainian refugees. Some have lost their loved ones, and some have no homes to go back to.

I think back to the conversation I had in March with an acquaintance, herself a refugee from Bosnia. “We all wanted to return,” she said. “Few did.”

As a political scientist, I harbor no illusions that this war will end soon. There are expectations of a new Russian offensive.

Like so many Ukrainians, we brace for the future – and trust in victory.

This article was published by The Conversation USA.



  1. green hammer

    February 27, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    I wonder if Lena supports the push for diplomacy to end this

  2. Open Forum

    Open Forum

    February 28, 2023 at 1:42 pm

    The war would end tomorrow if Russia withdrew its troops and respected the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as it agreed to do in the 1990s. A peace deal which gave Russia territorial gains and time to rebuild for another assault would only ensure further bloodshed in the future. Permanent peace can only come from a Russian withdrawal or defeat and the overthrow of Putin’s dictatorship.

  3. green hammer

    March 1, 2023 at 9:59 pm

    “The war would end tomorrow if Russia withdrew its troops”

    Not going to happen. Over to you – what next?

  4. Open Forum

    Open Forum

    March 2, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    Russia will be defeated on the battlefield, Putin will be overthrown, and hopefully democracy will flourish in Russia, just as Argentina’s defeat at the hands of the British in the Falklands heralded the overthrow of the military junta. The Russian military does not want to take endless losses in Ukraine, they’ve already run out of trained troops and are relying on conscripts, mercenaries and convicts. Why do you support Putin?

  5. green hammer

    March 2, 2023 at 3:13 pm

    Russia will be defeated on the battlefield, Putin will be overthrown,”

    I understand that this is what you wish but how do you know this will happened ? Are there events taking place now that has convinced you?

  6. green hammer

    March 2, 2023 at 3:15 pm

    And why do you assume that those advocating fir an end to the conflict through diplomacy is pro putin?

  7. Open Forum

    Open Forum

    March 2, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    Because a ceasefire now would reward Russian aggression with Ukrainian territory. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius put it well recently when noting “Peace at the expense of the attacked, just because someone is afraid, I’m sorry, that’s not possible…because then the next victim will wait in line”. I get the impression that you’re not anti-war, you’re just on the other side. If you’d like to outline your thoughts in more detail please feel free to submit a blog to the editor for the site.

  8. green hammer

    March 2, 2023 at 4:33 pm

    There is no pathway for Ukraine to defeat russia but there is a pathway for a nuclear 3rd world war which would mean the end of the f@@@king world!!! Only a psychopath would be advocating that pathway

  9. Open Forum

    Open Forum

    March 3, 2023 at 7:05 am

    The only psychopath threatening the world with nuclear destruction is Vladimir Putin, the same man who is solely responsible for attacking Ukraine and creating this disaster in the first place. Everyone else wants to live in peace, he is the problem. Surrendering to a maniac wouldn’t bring peace, only ensure a greater conflagration. If Ukraine can’t defeat Russia then why would Russia feel threatened enough to use nuclear weapons? Your argument seems to change with every comment, each one less informed, and more morally bankrupt than the last.