‘People from my country came to kill me’ Every year, thousands of Russians move to Ukraine. Putin’s invasion has turned their lives upside down.
It’s now been more than two weeks since Vladimir Putin launched an all-out war against Ukraine. Russian troops began rolling across the border on the morning of February 24, immediately after Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” (a Kremlin euphemism for invasion). In an address broadcast on state television, Putin claimed, among other things, that he wanted to bring to trial “those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.” During the first week of the war, Meduza spoke to five Russian nationals who moved to Ukraine in recent years and made the country their home. Here’s how the war has upended their lives — and why they intend to stay in Ukraine in spite of it.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on March 1, 2022. The people mentioned in this article are only identified by their first names, to shield Meduza’s sources from felony prosecution under Russia’s new law that punishes the spread of “fake news” about the Russian military.
“Get up, there’s a war!” — this was the first thing Daria heard on the morning of February 24. Her husband was pulling her by the leg, trying to wake her up. She couldn’t believe what was happening.
Shortly beforehand, Vladimir Putin had given an address to the Russian people, announcing the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Its purpose, Putin claimed, was “to protect the people who had been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for the past eight years” — including “Russian citizens.”
Immediately after Putin ended his speech, missile strikes were launched against a number of Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Sumy, Dnipro, and Mykolayiv. The Russian Defense Ministry stated that they were targeting Ukrainian airbases. But civilian infrastructure, along with civilians themselves, were also affected by the bombardments. Russian troops rolled across the border into Ukraine and began advancing toward Kyiv.
Between February 24 and March 11, the United Nations recorded 1,663 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 596 civilians killed and 1,067 injured. The actual number of civilian casualties is believed to be “considerably higher.”
“When you live in peace and you’re told, ‘tomorrow there will be war,’ you can’t imagine it until it happens — until you really get bombed,” says Daria.
Four years ago, Daria, who was working in Moscow as a chef, got an offer to come to Kyiv for a couple of months to make a menu for a new establishment. “I had just left my job and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel free — not in my words, my relationships, or my work, not in anything,” she says. “I decided to take this project and then figure out what to do next.”
But the first two months were followed by several more. And in the winter of 2017–2018, Daria packed her bags in Moscow, telling her then-boyfriend: “I’ll probably be back in a couple of months.” She didn’t come back.
“I started a brand new life, one that gave me such a high. I didn’t need a therapist. I was so happy in Kyiv, which I couldn’t say about Moscow,” she explains. Daria soon met her future husband Ilya, a Ukrainian citizen. And a year and a half ago, they had a son.
On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Daria was planning to go to the spa. But instead, at seven in the morning, she stood in line at the pharmacy with her son. It took 4.5 hours for her to finally be able to get the medication she needed. In the meantime, her husband ran to the store to stock up on food and water. Then, the couple moved in their son’s nanny, who lives alone. Another three hours were spent at the gas station. “We were probably the last ones to get a full tank of gas,” Daria speculates. “I don’t think there’s any gas available anywhere today.”
Daria says that she began to receive text messages urging people to hide in bomb shelters — Kyiv’s subway now serves as the biggest one. But people also began hiding from rocket attacks in the basements and underground parking lots of their apartment buildings. Daria and her family, their nanny, and two dogs went to one such parkade.
“The parking lot was packed with cars, icy cold with no ventilation, water, or bathrooms,” she recounts. “The dogs started panicking and my son was stressed, too. We are both very conscious parents and are good partners. And here we are, running from our home, with only have cold milk that we couldn’t even heat up because there are no outlets. We sat there for six hours.”
They decided to spend the night at home. They packed their bags with the essentials, taped up all the windows in the apartment, set up a nursery in the bathroom, and went to sleep next to each other. But Daria didn’t manage to fall asleep that night. She was sitting on the floor, writing an Instagram post, where she talked about her love for Ukraine. And at that moment, she remembered a dream she had a year ago.
“I’m sitting by the door, writing the post, and then our window explodes,” says Daria, recalling her dream. “I was terrified, so I woke everyone up and asked them to go to the shelter,” she says. “Everyone, of course, said I was out of my mind, but we went to the shelter.” A few hours later, Daria, lying on the cold floor of the parking lot, heard explosions.
When the rocket fire stopped, the family decided to leave Kyiv. They gave their warm clothes away to the people who were staying in the bomb shelter. “The highway [was] at a complete stand-still. Every three kilometers, we saw wrecked cars. Someone had been in an accident, others had been shelled,” says Daria. “The roads were broken from tanks driving over them, two Russian fighter jets flew overhead, and rockets were exploding nearby. It was horrific.”
A village close to where Daria and her family were staying came under fire. They were forced to continue their journey, which took almost a full 24 hours. Now, Daria and her husband, son, nanny, and dogs are in a relatively safe place in Ukraine, but she wouldn’t disclose their exact location.
“I never thought I would live through something like this. Bombs are terrifying — a huge shock wave that flies through and destroys everything,” says Daria. “It’s scary that just two weeks ago, you had a great life and you can lose it all so quickly. You’ve already lost it, as life will never be the same after this. The very fact that you’re running away, leaving everything you’ve worked for, leaving your son’s favorite toys and buying him some crap at the gas station… Leaving everything that was your home, your comfort, your life. I realized this when our house was no longer within walking distance.”
After Daria left Kyiv on February 25, the area where she lived was shelled. She does not know whether her house was hit.
‘It was shocking to see that people could be happy about war’
“I go out for a smoke and I hear explosions and sirens,” says Yulia. Until a few days ago, she lived in Kyiv, but after Russia attacked Ukraine, she and her friends moved to the suburbs.
“My emergency suitcase is not very big,” Yulia says, listing her essentials: “Some documents, warm socks, sweatshirts, three face creams (ha-ha, I haven’t used them yet), chargers, a laptop, a power bank, prescriptions for medicine (I have bipolar disorder), an e-reader, and some other little things.”
“I wanted to take a pillow that’s in the shape of a unicorn, which a friend had gifted me,” says the young woman. “But it didn’t fit in the bag.”
Over the past few days, Yulia tells us, she has become accustomed to the sounds of explosions and has developed a fear of planes. She’s also started going to bed fully dressed, having packed some of her essentials for the bomb shelter, in case of another attack.
Yulia says that she always wanted to live in Ukraine. She was born in Arkhangelsk, but her paternal grandfather is Ukrainian. In 2014, when armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea, Yulia began going to more protests — and thinking about emigration more often.
“It shocked me that, all this time, I was walking among people who could be happy about a war and the seizure of other people’s territories, and not understand the consequences of these actions,” she says.
After moving to Kyiv, Yulia admits that she thought about going somewhere else — she wouldn’t have had problems with work, as she has a small startup in St. Petersburg. But as time passed, she lost her desire to leave. “Kyiv is the best city I’ve lived in,” Yulia says. “I consider myself part of Ukraine.”
“Here, the food grows on trees. It shocked me, especially the first time an apricot fell on my head while I was waiting for friends outside my house. People here are nice and open, the concept of ‘friend’ seems broader here than it is in Russia,” Yulia explains. “After the war [in the Donbas] started [in 2014], people in stores, for example, called me a ‘gem’ and other terms of endearment. Everyone is somehow very close-knit and comfortable.”
In Kyiv, Yulia lived near Kurenivskyi Park, where she bought an apartment. This park, she says, is her favorite place in Ukraine.
“I used to walk there with my dog. It had Sakura trees, green lawns in the winter, and a flat fountain, where kids would run through in the summer (well, I would too, what’s the point of hiding it?),” says Yulia. “Yesterday, corpses were lying in front of this park.”
‘Odesa is like a little St. Petersburg’
It is not known how many Russians are currently living on Ukrainian territory. The website of the State Statistics Service of Ukraine provides information only on the number of migrants from Russia for 2019 and 2020 — 5,304 and 3,691 people, respectively.
Russian authorities did not offer evacuation assistance to any of Meduza’s interviewees who have Ukrainian residence permits. It also appears that Russians without residence permits who found themselves in Ukraine after the start of the “special military operation” didn’t receive assistance either — we know of several such examples.
Some Russians have also been left without passports, says Nikolai, a lawyer from Odesa. “There are Russian citizens who submitted documents for a new passport at the Russian consulate in Odesa at the end of December. They were supposed to be issued passports in late February or early March, but on [February] 23, the consulate packed up and left. And these people did not receive their passports,” Nikolai explains. “For example, I could evacuate to Moldova right now if I wanted to. But I don’t know how they could do so without a passport.”
Nikolai moved to Odesa from the Belgorod region of Russia in 2010, right after graduating from university. He says that he fell in love with the city when he visited it with his family as a child. “Odesa is like a little St. Petersburg. They were built almost at the same time, with very similar architecture. Only here, the weather is much better, there is the warm Black Sea in the summer and cheerful people.”
On February 24, Nikolai woke up in his apartment near the airport to the sounds of explosions. “I wrote to friends, acquaintances. They confirmed that explosions were being heard all over the city,” he explains. “We’ve already talked it all over with each other, so it’s already become routine for us. There was an explosion just now as well, and the sirens were blaring 15 minutes ago.”
Nikolai expected that Russia would attack Ukraine, but he did not prepare for war. “I’m not even prepared today, I don’t have an emergency suitcase ready,” he admits.
He says the city is deserted, as many people have already left. But Nikolai sees no reason to leave. He spends most of his time at home — only occasionally going out to the store and “to get some fresh air.” He watches the news and reads updates on Telegram channels.
“I’m not a very emotional person, so I just accept the reality of what’s going on, and view it as a terrifying period of my life. My friends and I chat, support each other, share some news and memes, and that’s how we entertain ourselves, so we’re not constantly bogged down by negativity,” says Nikolai.
But despite his outward calmness, he doesn’t feel safe: “I don’t know when the rocket will fly, where they will go, or if they will come at all.”
‘My grandmother said Putin did the right thing when he started bombing Ukraine’
“When I first moved here, despite the economic downturn, I felt a little lighter in Ukraine. I can’t explain what it felt like, and how this feeling manifested itself, but I felt free, like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Nikolai. He adds that even today, despite his Russian citizenship, he can — for example — publicly and without consequences criticize the Ukrainian government.
“One can breathe more freely here,” says Yulia, who echoes Nikolai’s point. “And people seem to be more responsible for themselves. For example, villages in the country look completely different, not like the ones in Russia, and this is not because of the government (or only because of them). Residents do it themselves: they improve their own houses and land. In Russia, it feels as if everyone is waiting for someone else to take care of their house, their future, and their democracy.”
“It’s such a spirit! I just realized that Ukrainians are my people, they aren’t afraid to say anything. There’s freedom of speech here — and that’s probably the most valuable thing,” says Daria.
Other people Meduza spoke with also described this feeling of freedom upon moving to Ukraine. Most of them do not speak Ukrainian, but they have not encountered any serious problems because of their language, or Russian citizenship.
But the Russian invasion has changed everything. Now Russians (and Belarusians) cannot withdraw money from Ukrainian bank accounts, a decision made by the National Bank of Ukraine. Three of Meduza's five interviewees have already had their cards blocked.
“The level of hate increases every second,” Daria says. She shares a story that happened to her in a grocery store after she left Kyiv.
“I’ve been trying to speak Ukrainian now, but I don’t speak it very well and have an accent. A woman heard me, came up to me and started to push me. She made me say, ‘palyanytsya.’ I say it, and she pulls out a knife, yelling at me: ‘You’re an occupier! I’ll stab you and won’t even blink an eye.’ My husband helped de-escalate the situation, but they took our phones, checked our messages, and deleted the photos that I took along the journey, which I planned to send to my mother.”
Now, Daria tries not to leave the house. “I can understand people. Their husbands are dying at the hands of our people. It’s very hard for me to condemn this aggression [towards Russians],” she says. “But at the same time, I have a residence permit, I have a full right to live in this country. I pay taxes, my son is Ukrainian, my husband is Ukrainian.”
Daria also feels negativity from some relatives who are living in Russia. “I’m between two fires,” she says. “My mother already understands what’s going on, because I send her pictures of what’s happening, and share up-to-date information. But she, for example, sends me Russian posts that Ukrainians are shooting at Ukrainians, that prisoners have been released in Kyiv and are handing out weapons. It’s all just crap.”
“And my grandmother,” Daria continues, “said that Putin was right to start bombing Ukraine… I replied that I wouldn’t call her again anytime soon.”
‘Where would I run to next?’
“I haven’t figured out yet how I feel about having my [Russian] passport. I’ll think about it later,” says Yulia. She doesn’t think she will ever go back to Russia. “And I’m very sorry about it, because my family is there, including my grandmother, who doesn’t have a passport. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do, but I’ll probably do it in Ukraine.”
Alexander also doesn’t know what to do next. “I do not want to leave Kyiv. And I expect I won’t leave until the very end. I’ve lived here for too long and I have too much here for me to just turn around and say that I don’t need it all,” he explains. “It’s not because of any material possessions here, but where would I run to next?”
Alexander is originally from Perm but moved around a lot because he is a chef. He's lived in Moscow and the United States, but moved to Kyiv at the end of 2013.
“I was invited [to work] in Ukraine for six months,” Alexander recalls. “Then I ended up with pneumothorax, a collapsed lung. It’s wasn’t particularly serious, but because it happened on the eve of the Maidan [Revolution] and hospitals were filled with people, I had a difficult time. Usually, the operation takes half an hour, but I was operated on for four hours. I was clinically dead.”
What happened next, Alexander continues, had a profound impact on him. “The total strangers who invited me to work in Ukraine treated me better than many of my relatives. It was an interesting moment that allowed me to reflect on my life,” he says, describing how he came to the decision to stay in Ukraine. He also mentioned another “very big bonus” of living the country: “There’s a very pleasant and warm winter here without snow.”
Upon hearing about Russia’s invasion, Alexander packed in two minutes (“I took almost nothing with me”) and left his apartment. The apartment building where he lives is in the center of the city and is now surrounded by the Ukrainian military.
“It’s quite frightening to stay here because there are security facilities nearby that the are targets [of shelling],” Alexander says. Now, he spends most of his time at his friends’ apartment. A curfew has been imposed in Kyiv, from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
During the hours when people are allowed outside, Alexander and his colleagues feed people. “You have an empty restaurant with lots of food, you have to do something with it,” he explains. “Yesterday, for example, we cooked for the soldiers who are defending the city. You always have to help in such situations.”
He did the same thing during the Maidan Revolution, cooking for people who gathered on the square to protest what was happening in the country. The job that got him invited to Kyiv in late 2013 was delayed, and he says he “was just trying to be as helpful as he could at that point.”
“It was a very strange time. I’ve seen a lot of things, but when you have a central street littered with garbage, tires, a bunch of people sitting in tents… A lot of people have connections to Maidan, and everything revolves around that. There’s still a street there that was never opened [for passage]. For many people, it’s a very meaningful place that is significant for Ukraine’s history,” says Alexander.
Suddenly, Alexander interrupts: “Oops, I hear shelling.” In the background, you can hear distant booms. “To be honest, you get used to it. You can get used to anything, as we’ve learned,” says Alexander.
“Any war is absolute stupidity, and it doesn’t lead to anything,” he says. “You sit in the middle of town and you know that on your usual route, which normally takes 20 minutes by car, there’s a battle going on. You know where they’re giving out weapons in the city. You watch a video of the outer boroughs — and there’s a tank going by. You watch a rocket hit a house. And you realize it’s not all that far away from you. It makes it hard for you to call this a ‘peaceful’ invasion for the rights of Russian-speaking citizens.”
“There, do you hear it?” Alexander asks. It’s the drawn-out sound of a siren. It continues throughout our conversation. But Alexander doesn’t seem fazed — he’s in no rush to get to a bomb shelter.
“I just remembered a funny story,” he says. “When I received my residence permit [in Ukraine], an SBU officer asked me: ‘But if the Russians enter Kyiv, who will you feed?’ I laughed. Now, of course, I don’t think it’s funny anymore.”
‘We want to stay here until the very end’
“At the end of the first day, when Russian troops were not yet in Kyiv, we spent the night in a bomb shelter. At this point, we believed that this mad tyrant was willing to do anything just to impose his ‘Russian world’ on all his neighbors.
Our apartment is right in the government quarter. That’s why we left immediately, to stay with friends. Their apartment is around the corner from the shelter. There, we can at least take a shower and go to the bathroom (at the shelter, the toilet was clogged during the first night). But that’s only if there are no sirens. They often go off, and we don’t always have time to wash — we go straight back down to the shelter.
We have a good shelter, especially judging by the many pictures I've seen these last few days. It's clean, we have plenty of space, we're warm, and we have ventilation. Many people take shelter in basements or in the subway, where it's cold and crowded with people.
We are also lucked out with our neighbors. We discuss the latest news, if we have to, we share our chargers and water. We have a good supply of water and food. The problem is that for the last few days, the food tastes like cardboard and we literally force ourselves to eat it.
We have a car with a full tank in case things get really bad, but we want to stay here until the very end. We hope that we won’t have to go anywhere and leave Ukraine. We heard explosions all night long. I understand that we need to save ourselves —take to our heels and run somewhere. But that’s very hard to do, especially when you love your home.”
This is what Margarita tells Meduza when asked about her experiences since the Russian invasion began. She’s writing via text messages, as her cell service is unstable. Sometimes the flow of the text is interrupted. “Right now, for example, we are going up to the roof and checking to see if there are [strike] markers for military equipment because there are reports that these are being placed on civilian buildings,” she explains.
Margarita was born in Timashevsk, a small town in Russia’s Krasnodar territory. When she was 15 years old, she started chatting with her peers from Ukraine on VKontakte. Two years later, during the 2012 European Football Championship, which was held in Ukraine and Poland, she found herself in Kyiv for the first time. “I liked it very much, and I decided to come here to study,” she says. “No one, of course, could understand this decision, including my friend, acquaintances, relatives, or parents. They say Ukraine is a poor country, and that there’s nothing to do here.”
Margarita didn’t end up graduating from university in Kyiv. After a year of studying, the Maidan Revolution began, and because of her family’s fears for her safety, she left for Moscow, where she began working as a copywriter: “My mother and I could barely speak to one another. She told me about the Banderites and Nazis, recounting what was supposedly happening on the Maidan, although I was in town and saw everything with my own eyes.”
In Moscow, she continues, Margarita began to frequent peaceful protests — and she increasingly thought about how nothing seemed to be changing in Russia. “One day [in the summer of 2019], I went out to the courtyard, I lived near Kitay-Gorod at the time. While walking to the store, I saw a lot of police officers. I couldn’t pay with my card in the store because they were jamming the network — they were trying to snuff out that wave of rallies. That day, I realized that I was tired of fighting a pointless battle, and I decided to move to Kyiv as soon as possible.”
Shortly after she moved, Margarita married a Ukrainian citizen whom she had met on VKontakte nine years earlier.
Despite her participation in Russian protests over the events in Ukraine, Margarita says she has always felt guilt and shame about the actions of the Russian authorities. She still feels it now.
“As someone who has lived in Russia and knows how people are tied up in police vans, I still can’t justify [people's passivity]. People are getting arrested because not enough people come out to these protests, because they put up with this kind of life, and to some extent, they are consenting to the government’s actions,” says Margarita. “Putin has been in power for 20 years, the people have allowed this to happen. I’m very sorry about it, but that’s the way it is. Although, the last thing I would want is for my loved ones in Russia to be in a bad situation. Right now, I advise everyone to leave the country as soon as possible, at least for a month. I am very much afraid that Russia will become the new North Korea.”
Margarita says she has decided to give up her Russian citizenship.
Nikolai from Odesa made the same decision on the eve of the Russian invasion. “I had already started drawing up [the documents] but didn’t have time because martial law was imposed, and the shelling began,” he says. “I don’t want to have the citizenship of a country I don’t live in and whose policies I don’t support. Even when I visited Russia in 2018, I understood that these were already different people, with a different worldview, and I, unfortunately, have nothing to do with them anymore.”
“I want to start the procedure to renounce my citizenship, because Russian people, people from my country, came to kill me,” says Daria from Kyiv.
When the war is over, she wants to return and participate in the reconstruction of the city. Because Ukraine, she explains, is now her home.
In the meantime, Daria is supporting those who, like her family, were forced to flee, helping them find food and shelter. “I am very ashamed of my country. It’s a monstrous place. I can’t even say in my head that my homeland is doing all of this. I don’t know how we can go on living with this. The only thing left to do is to help the Ukrainian people — the people who have lost their relatives, their loved ones, and their homes.”
Translation by Ruty Korotaev