Ukrainian perspectives on the 2022 Russian Invasion: “We get up in the morning and we see our flag is still there. We are still there. This is our country. We have nowhere to go.”

Tatyana says goodbye to her child after joining the military to fight against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Courtesy photo)

By Janice Barniak

SG Star-Times Editor

[email protected]

Sergiy Fesenko, three-time Olympian from Ukraine and Indiana University alumni, had been watching the national news for days like many Ukrainians in the United States, as tensions elevated with Russia, when he learned, on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin had begun bombing his country.

Fesenko lived in Bloomington eight years and has since moved to Cincinnati. His wife is from Ukraine, and his grandparents, friends and sisters are still there.

Ironically it was Putin he was watching when he got the call.

“That was the most cynical thing.”

Putin was on the news giving a speech about changing the maps of the world and Russian nationalism.

“It was like Hitler,” said Fesenko. The speech was not over before he had a call from people in Ukraine, telling him they were being bombed.

“My ex-wife called and said, ‘War began. War began.’ I said, ‘I know I am watching Putin here.’”

“They said, ‘We hear a lot of real big explosions,’ and that was basically when they (Russia) decided to iron us with all the weapons they had.”

His ex-wife lives on the outskirts of Kyiv. She was an NCAA swimming champion at IU. Their village is currently being used by Russians to bomb Ukraine. The Russians would not let people leave their house to evacuate.

It’s around 20 degrees and people have been seven to eight days in their houses, not allowed to go out, without food or electricity. 

Her parents live in Kharkiv and it’s dangerous to go outside. So, they climb to their roof once a day to send a text to their daughter.

“‘We are alive.’ My ex-wife is waiting for that text every day.”

Hitler began his invasion of Poland at 4 p.m., and Fesenko said he doesn’t think it is a coincidence Putin began bombing at 4 p.m. 

“Ukraine is his Poland.”

Professor Sofiya Asher teaches Russian at Indiana University and was also watching the news when she heard.

“I was sitting on my couch watching news, exactly where I am sitting now. At that point I was checking news excessively. It seemed it had reached a critical, critical point,” she said.

When she heard, she sent a message to her niece in Kyiv — “Is it true?”

“Then I just started crying,” she said. “I guess I was secretly hoping this escalation would end.”

Asher was born and grew up in western Ukraine, then met her husband Andrew teaching English in Poland. She’d asked her niece to evacuate to the west three days before, but her niece was unwilling, saying that they had a car and could leave any time.

“It wasn’t as straightforward as she thought it would be. A two hour wait to fill the gas tank,” Asher said. 

Many people don’t keep full tanks in Ukraine. Everyone was leaving at once.

Her niece had promised a ride to someone on the other side of the city. She and her husband debated whether they had time to pick up the person.

Driving out of Kyiv to western Ukraine took the family 22 hours instead of eight.

Asher said the family are safe for the moment but don’t know for how long, and they now wonder whether to move on to Poland.

Canned foods are bought out many places; a friend reported that going from Kyiv to western Ukraine, they’d stopped for food. All the cold cases and all the shelves were empty.

Curfews are imposed and alcohol is currently banned to keep citizens alert.

With nuclear explosions feared, stores have sold out of iodine, which is said to protect from radiation.

When Asher talks to her students about the possibility of a nuclear explosion, she said it’s difficult for them to picture what an explosion with the power of six Fukushimas would mean.

She tells them to picture instead of vacationing in Europe there’s no Europe left to go to.

There are rumors of Russian soldiers hanging people, raping them, and other atrocities, but she said people are unsure whether it is a misinformation campaign to scare Ukrainians into surrender.

Fesenko’s grandfather already survived the German attack on Kyiv in World War II.

“People 74, 75-year-old have this broken childhood, and now to handle this at the end of their life, too,” he said.

He said he has a Russian friend who no longer answers his calls now that he’s tried to tell him what is happening in Ukraine.

Soldiers have no choice either, he added.

“Occupants are being shot in their back if they don’t want to go. If they don’t want to kill us.

That is the whole tragedy of the situation…Many in the Russian army do not want to fight. They prefer to become prisoners of war.”

Russians within the country are blocked from seeing international news coverage, instead being directed to state-sponsored coverage.

A new law prevents anti-war speech with a punishment of 15 years in prison. 

Ukrainians have a complicated relationship with the news, and fake news, said Asher. Long before “fake news” was trending in the U.S., there were warnings of Soviet propaganda, and even when news is true, Asher knows the way news cycles work — the public eventually moves on.

She explains she was telling the story of her niece’s evacuation to a young journalist, and when she told the story she mentioned they have a French bulldog. She remembers the relief of the girl to know the bulldog is fine.

Likewise, the stories of people having no choice but to abandon their pets at the train station in order to board a train touches people in a way that people boarding trains and leaving their homes does not, and she added that it is not a criticism of Americans. She is, herself, an American.

But, take the story of the woman who took down a Russian drone with a pickle jar — it’s a good story, repeated everywhere, but it’s not enough for a person to survive war. Holding the media attention is a matter of pickle jars, for example. And pickle jars are not enough of a weapon.

“What resistance can you put up to an air raid or a carpet bombing,” she asked. “People are doing things I never imagined they would do.

Standing in front of tanks. The resistance is fierce. I think it’s impressive but it’s tragic it came to that. I wish they did not have to be heroic in this way.”

Fesenko has a friend, Valeriy, a Ukrainian wrestling champion with two children, one of them is Fesenko’s godson. While his friend is built like a bear, his wife, Tatyana is a tiny woman with a big heart. They both enlisted in the Ukrainian army, sending their children, ages 4 and 11, to a safe place in west Ukraine.

“She is always telling (Valeriy) what to do. She is holding the pants. She made him go and she signed up too,” said Fesenko. He received a picture of the family at departure. 

“When Tatyana hugs my godson, her son Pavel, there is tears in her eyes. It was heartbreaking to see it.”

He said before the invasion, Valeriy was somewhat pro-Russia. He would point out which parts of Russian politics worked.

“Now everything changed, even for him.”

Fesenko talks to them daily. If something would happen to both of them, Fesenko has agreed to take in their children.

Another couple he knows are living in a brand new concrete building in Kharkiv, and daily they see from their ninth floor window planes coming down, and explosions. They sleep in the bathroom, the safest room in their house.

“They don’t even go to the bomb shelter. You saw the story where the rocket came to the house but didn’t destroy the house? He feels invincible in his house,” said Fesenko. “I say ‘Go to the shelter as soon as possible.’ He says no. That was him as a swimmer. He was never afraid, very headstrong.”

For Fesenko the story of the Ukrainian people is summed up in people with no weapons, standing in front of tanks with only the Ukrainian flag, telling the Russians to go home.

The first day of fighting, Fesenko went to his wife and mother and told them he wanted to go fight in the military action. 

“It was a very long, very difficult conversation of two to three days,” he said. He and his wife have three children, and the family did not think leaving was the right action for him. He decided he would do what he could from the United States to support those who were fighting.

“My heart is hurting. Maybe they need another hand to hold the rifle. But these hands are here,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m not going to go for sure.”

Ukrainians in the U.S. are gathering money and warm clothes for the army, he said. He wants more American people to hear their story.

“All across United States, Ukrainians are standing as one big wall in front of your government,” said Fesenko. The message of Ukrainians to Americans is to not forget Ukraine surrendered nuclear weapons with the promise their border would remain the same.

“We don’t want tyranny and dictatorship to come to our houses, to beat us in the street…this is so against our will. People cannot take it. They are going to fight until their last breath,” said Fesenko.

“This is our 1776,” he said, referring to the American Revolutionary War. 

“We get up in the morning and we see our flag is still there. We are still there. This is our country. We have nowhere to go. If Ukraine gets destroyed, we are not going to have our identity anymore.”

Sergiy Fesenko in a uniform from his past time serving in the Ukrainian Air Defense force. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)
Sergiy Fesenko in a uniform from his past time serving in the Ukrainian Air Defense force. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

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