Allow me to introduce you to one of my dearest Ukrainian friends: Sophia. Everyone on the base loves her. She is our Ukrainian grandma. She loves playing with the kids and even helps out in the kitchen sometimes! She is always finding ways to help and take care of us. She is patient and kind and doesn’t mind using Google translate when we run into a language barrier. We met Sophia when her family first arrived from Ukraine and we all lived in the guest house together. As a result, we saw them often and started building a relationship. Sophia graciously allowed me to interview her and tell me her life story. I told her I wanted to start telling people’s stories, to help people get a glimpse of what life was like in Ukraine before the war. She was of course very eager to help out! This is Sophia’s story.
Her grandparents on her mother’s side were Kulaks, the wealthiest class of peasants. Kulaks owned several acres of land and usually could hire laborers and lease land. In some cases, these small farms resembled a capitalist system. By 1917, Kulaks made up 12.2% of peasant households. Sophia’s grandparents had started with little but worked hard together until they had rightfully earned the title. But following the revolution and rise of communism, Kulak farms were taken in the name of collectivism. Sophia’s grandparents lost everything they had worked so hard for and ended up moving to the town in Kharkiv region Kupiansk to start their lives over.
Sophia was born in 1953 in a small town called Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region. Her mother was married once before and had a daughter from her first marriage. Unfortunately, her husband did not return home from WWII, so she remarried and went on to have a son and four more girls. Yes, Sophia was one of SIX children. She remembers a happy childhood with her siblings, although none of them liked waking up early and do housework. Some things never change, right? They worked in the fields, growing vegetables and grain crops, and helped graze cows and pigs. She also went to a Ukrainian school, not a common occurrence in the Soviet Union. As a result, she grew up speaking Sourjek, a blend of Russian and Ukrainian grammar and vocabulary. She and one of her sisters were left-handed like their mother, but were hit on the hands in school if they didn’t use their right hand. But it wasn’t all work. The kids enjoyed playing sports, particularly volleyball. Her and her siblings made up five out of the six players in the local team. Sophia also enjoyed competitive cycling and skiing.
Like her grandparents, Sophia’s parents were hard workers. When she was 8, they were able to build a bigger house with 4 bedrooms: one for her parents, one for her brother, and the other two for the girls. Remember this would have been 1961, still in the height of communism. This was a big deal, a luxury most people didn’t have.
Although Orthodoxy and religion were suppressed under communism, it still existed. Sophia’s family has always been Orthodox, as far back as her great-grandparents at least. She remembers going to church frequently. Her mom sewed all the girls matching dresses for Easter. Sophia smiles as she talks about her family and childhood; you can tell she has many fond memories.
She continued doing cross-country cycling competition, and even placed 1st in some of the city-wide competitions. She went on to represent Ukraine in a competition with other Soviet Union countries, although she said she didn’t do as well in those races. When she met her eventual husband, he didn’t think her sports were very lady-like, so she had to stop.
She picked up competitive shooting instead.
Sophia married in 1977, on the same day (albeit different year) that Yuri Gagarin went to space for the first time. She will never forget that date, she laughed. Both she and her husband worked in a chemical factory in Severodonetsk (Luhansk region). She managed the water-pump cooling station working in 3 shifts: one in the morning, one starting at 4pm, and one at night. It was extremely difficult and dangerous work, especially once her daughter Svitlana was born in 1979. Next year Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, died and when Svitlana had her first birthday they couldn’t celebrate properly because of the mourning around the Soviet union. So they hung thick curtains at the windows and celebrated quietly, in private.
But like her grandparents and parents before her, she worked her way up. Sophia started studying economics and got a better position at the factory as an economist. The factory did have free apartments for their employees, although there was a waiting list. At this point Sophia and her husband had divorced, so they each got a separate apartment and Svitlana was still able to see her father.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed. I asked Sophia what it was like.
“There were a lot of negative emotions. Of course, nobody wants the Soviet Union anymore, but at the time it was hard.”
Svitlana was turning 11 that year.
When they split the republics, most of the resources ended up going to Moscow so it was very hard to rebuild. Ukraine has a lot of factories and a good climate for growing food, but for the factories to continue working, they had to import supplies, usually from other countries of the Soviet union. And to buy some good clothes, people saved up money to travel to Moscow to buy things because they didn’t have good quality or prices in Ukraine. At the factory where Sophia worked, there wasn’t always the money to get paid. Store shelves were empty. Sophia said she and her family felt very strongly Ukrainian, and they wanted to be independent. But times were hard, and they were still heavily dependent on Russia. Many people had gotten used to their free apartments and cheap gas, water, and electric. Nobody wanted to change, and many wished the Soviet Union would return, a sentiment that is still around today, though not as many hold that belief.
In a sense, life had to start over again. Most people couldn’t afford what was considered simple things like a TV, car, washing machine, or take a vacation.
Meanwhile, her daughter Svitlana had finished her secondary schooling (up to 9th grade), and was studying medicine, originally wanting to be a nurse. When she was a witness for her cousin’s wedding, she met her husband, a best man. They married in 1998 when she was 18 and her daughter Valeriia was born two years later.
Around the same time, Sophia was able to retire early from the factory due to the dangerous nature of her earlier job and decided to go to Moscow to work. For five years she stayed in Moscow working as a nanny, an elderly caretaker, and held a job at the market.
Svitlana worked as a histologist laboratory assistant at the pathoanatomical department after finishing her studies. In 2002 she went to university. Her university was in Donbass, but she was able to do correspondence course and only go in for exams. She graduated with a degree in technological engineering, and began working at pharmaceutical companies. She started out simply packing the medicine, then worked her way up to overseeing quality assurance. But it wasn’t easy, especially with a young baby.
“Mom, I need you.”
Sophia made the arrangements immediately and moved back to Kharkiv in 2005. They sold their respective properties and were able to rent an apartment together. Sophia took care of Lera until she was old enough to go to school, then started nannying in the city. They have lived there ever since. Sophia’s siblings also still lived in the Kharkiv region, Kupiansk, and Donbass.
“A large part of our life is connected to Donbass and Kharkiv.”
When the war started, they debated on what they should do. Lera’s father thought they should stay. Nobody knew how long it would last. But Lera insisted that they should leave. The final point came when they all got sick. Sophia and Lera both had high fevers, but they couldn’t find medicine anywhere. So reluctantly, they left their home after 10 days of the war. Looking back, they are glad now that they got sick when they did. They don’t know what would have happened if they had stayed. Donbass and a part of Kharkiv region are now occupied. Nobody can live there anymore.
Svitlana and Lera are able to continue working remotely from Romania. Lera’s father is currently safe in Lviv and working too, but unable to join his family. Because he is living in the west of Ukraine, he has learnt to speak more fluently in Ukrainian, and even thinks in Ukrainian now. Sophia, Svitlana, and Lera are trying to switch too, but it is difficult. They can understand and speak both, but Russian has been their primary language. For now, their house is ok. But they don’t know what will be waiting for them when they go back.
“Life is now divided before and after war. Our whole life was destroyed by the war.”
The emotion is still real, even 6 months later. But there are still smiles. There is still laughter. There is still hope. In the end, they’ll figure it out and make it work and win. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. That resilience is in their blood.
Many thanks to Sophia, Svitlana, and Leera for sharing their story. And special thanks to Leera for translating and helping me make sure I got all of the details right. It was such an honor to sit with them and talk.