The following testimony is one of several stories of forced migration gathered by Research Fellow Dr Diana Vonnak. Here Oleh and Sasha discuss their experiences of living as a Russian-Ukrainian family in the Donbas, of their separation and internal displacement due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of their move to Scotland to escape the war.
Oleh, Sasha and their two children are a young family from Lyshychansk, whose life was upturned by war not once, but twice: first when Russia-backed separatism took hold of some of the Donbas, and the second time in February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The Donbas is a border region, where, as in many similar contexts, people might have families on both sides of the border. Sasha is a Russian citizen who has lived in Ukraine since she was 4 years old, and Oleh is a Ukrainian citizen, a native of the Luhansk region. Both have Russian and Ukrainian ancestry, and both mostly spoke Russian, and to a lesser extent a Russian-Ukrainian creole called Surzhyk.
As they recount their journey from the Donbas to Scotland, they circle back to the war that had already started eight years earlier. It is allegedly in their name, in the name of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine that Russian president Vladimir Putin wages the war, and they want to share their story to show who they really are and what it had meant for them to call the Donbas home.
Although Sasha and Oleh hold different passports, their family histories are rather similar. Oleh’s family on the maternal side is Ukrainian, and they have lived in the Donbas for as long as the family remembers, in and around the town Svyatove. He carries a photo of their house from the forties: ‘Look, such a typical Ukrainian house, look at the windows!’
On his father’s side Oleh has Russian roots from Nizhny-Novgorod Oblast: his grandfather came with his toddler son, Oleh’s father, to the Donbas after WW2 to work in the mines.
‘My grandfather died a few days after he retired. Put the shovel down, and that was the end of it. He wasn’t some Russky Mir [Russian World] guy, that didn’t even exist then. Guy came, worked, that was it, until this banditry started, there was nothing more.’Oleh in conversation with Diana Vonnak
Sasha’s mother is a Ukrainian from Lysychansk, her father Russian. When they married they moved to Russia, and Sasha was born in nearby Belgorod. When she was 4, her father died in a work accident, and her mother decided to return to Ukraine to her family, so Sasha grew up in Lysychansk. On the father’s side, Sasha has both Ukrainian and Russian roots: some people were born on one side, some on the other. When the USSR collapsed, Sasha and her mother automatically received Russian passports. She didn’t think much about this until the Russian incursion to the Donbas, when separatist rhetoric started to instrumentalise these differences.
The years of the Donbas war
Oleh and Sasha met in Lysychansk, a city of 100,000 people in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. Sasha is a Russian citizen, but she grew up close to the Ukrainian border just a short drive away. She came to study in Lyshychansk as a young adult. Oleh says: ‘Until 2014 this meant no problem whatsoever; it was not even something that could be identified. She spoke Russian, but so did I and many others. There was no difference between Russians and Ukrainians then. Nobody even cared who spoke what language, there was no discrimination.’
Oleh worked in sales, and Sasha was still studying when they met. Soon they moved in together, and their son was born. When the Maidan revolution started in 2013, Oleh was happy to see then-president Yanukovych ousted: any power that became entrenched for long enough would become increasingly corrupt, he thought. He did not go to protests, but he was hopeful about the changes it could bring. Soon, going around his daily chores, he would notice small groups of people gathering with pro-Russian slogans. Initially he took them for local petty criminal networks, or some old communists; he didn’t really know or attribute much importance to it. “They looked more like Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings than politics. Or like amateur interest groups.’
As he followed the news about the annexation of Crimea, he could barely believe his eyes; but then those small gatherings turned into street shootings in Lysychansk too. It grew almost imperceptibly. ‘It was pure banditry’, Oleh says. Local police tried to deal with them, but in April, the separatists captured the city. More serious military action started in July, when the Ukrainian army retook Sloviansk and the Ukrainian army stabilised the situation of Lysychansk too. ‘It was an anti-terrorist operation then, it did not feel like civil war or anything like that, these bandits took power, they needed to be get rid of.’
When street fights intensified, Oleh packed his family and his mother into a minibus and they left the town. They went to Sasha’s family in Russia, hoping to ‘sit it out’ there, until the separatists were dealt with by the Ukrainian army. They had not expected it to turn into the long war it did.
‘I served in the army and even there we had no new uniforms; but as we were leaving, these bandits occupied the bridge so well, they had all their stuff, their nice green-yellow uniforms. I was thinking ‘where did they even get these from?’ Well, I think history soon enough gave me an answer.’
People in Belgorod region knew what was going on right across the border, they felt it. Sasha says it was frightening even from there, although there was not fighting going on. They also say that it was impossible not to know that what was happening in the puppet republics was being done with Russian support. The border changed significantly: before, people would cross both ways, and many lived off cross-border trade; but this stopped with the onset of separatist violence and the establishment of the so-called ‘people’s republics’.
The family only returned to Lysychansk in 2015, after their daughter was still born in Russia. When they returned and their children went to kindergarten and school, they attended Ukrainian-language school for the first time. Beforehand, parents could choose between Russian and Ukrainian schools, and the majority of the classes were Russian-language. Now Russian was taught as a foreign language, but the language of instruction was fully Ukrainian. This and a similar shift in the public sphere were possibly the biggest sign of the changes; Lysychansk remained under Ukrainian government control.
They have relatives in Russia who buy into separatism, but most of their network in Lysychansk never held much support for it:
‘We learned to live with this… how to put it… disease. You know what it’s like when you have someone with drug use problems or alcoholism in the family. You learn to live with it. (…) I have an aunt in Russia whom I visited at one point, and she really felt sorry for us until I told her that it isn’t Azov and these battalions that are terrorising anyone, but rather it is these separatist bandits. Nobody ever beat up us for being Russian speakers; anyway most people speak Russian in Lysychansk.‘ (Oleh)
‘My cousin and my aunt on my mother’s side were like that. They lived in Luhansk. They were not against Russia coming here. Then in 2014 they became refugees, they left because it was dangerous to stay there.’ (Sasha)
‘There are many people like what Sasha describes. They long for their LRN in their soul, but as soon as it comes, they run away.’ (Oleh)Oleh and Sasha in conversation with Diana Vonnak
When their lives returned to normal, they felt quite calm about the future, even though the frontline was still near and the self-proclaimed republics held out. Oleh: ‘We didn’t think there would be escalation to the extent that we bought a new flat, did renovations. We thought it was all over, calmed down, there was no shooting anymore for years.’
Sasha was visiting family in Russia with the children when Russia invaded Ukraine. Oleh was finishing painting work in their flat, and had a train ticket for a trip to the Polish border: he often went for several months at a time to work as a driver in Poland, and it was from this work that they managed to pay for their renovations on the flat.
Oleh went to bed on 23 February, but woke next morning to a message from a friend saying that war had started: that ‘the president of that country, the aggressor country, announced a war, not even a war, a special operation’. He had called a taxi the previous day to take him to the station. The taxi did show up in spite of the news:
‘I don’t know what to do. I call my mother, she can’t believe it is happening either. I thought first that I should get water, they will turn off the water, that there would be no electricity. I thought it would be fast: we are 7 miles from the line of control with LNR, they will be coming, our city is the first they will come to. I ran to the other flat, filled the bathtub with water. Kept thinking what to do. Tanks will come, planes, there won’t even be a huge fight, they will just capture it. Then the taxi comes, war is happening and he comes on time, I ask him, haven’t you heard that the war started, and he says, yes, I heard something like that. We go to the station. Then a rocket flew in. Lots of planes. Then I board the train, we depart, we get to Kharkiv, the train is almost empty.’
Oleh got to Kyiv by the evening, but then trains were turned back and he made his way back to Poltava, found a dormitory. In Lysychansk it was already very dangerous by then, so he stayed in the dormitory in Poltava. He kept moving around in Ukraine, and ended up in Dnipro in the end. All that time he was waiting: Sasha told him she was coming back with the children.
Sasha was coming back because their younger child had been diagnosed with type-1 diabetes after month of being hospitalised after the invasion started. This disability meant that her father, Oleh, would be exempt from military service, and, taken out of the military registry, he could leave the country. The diagnosis was done back in Russia, so there was no proof of it in the Ukrainian healthcare system. In order to receive the paperwork, they had to go back to Ukraine to do the necessary examinations and receive all the permissions they needed.
‘I am so grateful to her. All these women are going the other way, leaving behind their husbands, and this one is coming back for me. You really understand who she is from this. She is coming back with her Russian passport for me, so that we can all leave together.’
First Sasha didn’t say much to the children; she wanted to spare them from what was happening. Later on she explained it to their son, who at 9 years old could already understand the scale and severity of what was happening, and Sasha did not want him to be confused. They travelled to Latvia from Russia, then onwards to Lithuania, Poland, and back to Ukraine. As a Russian citizen it would have been difficult for her to enter the EU, but because she had long-term residence in Ukraine, and her children were both Ukrainian citizens, she was let through. Sasha arrived in Ukraine on 1 June.
‘I had to get a transit visa in Latvia, I got it, thank god, and they let me through all the way, we got to Poland and they let us through to the Ukrainian side. There I had issues. They moved us aside, sat us down, we had to wait for a long time for them to check everything, they asked me questions because of my passport: Why am I coming to Ukraine, what for. We had to wait quite a long time, but in the end my residency was proven and they let us in.’Sasha in conversation with Diana Vonnak
They went to Lviv, and from there took the train to Dnipro to meet Oleh. Many people were going the opposite direction; people were evacuating from the east, and at every station they saw help centres and tents with volunteers. They were reunited, and started the paperwork. These were difficult weeks: there were rocket attacks on bigger cities, and the dormitory for refugees in Dnipro was near a factory. Many factories had been targeted, so they were afraid that this proximity might be dangerous.
They bought tickets to Przemyśl in Poland, once all the papers were done. Sasha’s phone was checked before they could buy the tickets. ‘It is normal, I understand why, I don’t mind, but it was very stressful.’ They read about the Scottish Government Sponsorship program online, and decided to apply for in from Poland.
Sasha, Oleh and the two kids received their visas, and, after some wait, Sasha flew to Glasgow with the children, while Oleh drove so that they could bring some of their belongings. Now they live on a cruise-ship that stands on the river Clyde in Glasgow. The children go to a local school, and they are both trying to catch their breath. Lysychansk, after heavy fighting and large-scale bombardment, is under occupation. Their home is destroyed. They keep to themselves, worried about possible hostilities that Ukrainians might feel, seeing Sasha’s passport. They tell their daughter not to mention the fact that she was born in Russia. They have not met anyone else from the Donbas, although they know of people from the eastern regions of Ukraine.
They don’t have kitchens, just small cabins, but the shared spaces are huge, and they are given food on the cruise-ship. There are small shuttle buses that take them to a nearby shopping mall, from where they can catch transportation to the city centre of Glasgow. They are happy to be safe, happy for the children to go to school. Glasgow, with its post-industrial atmosphere reminds them of home, they say.
‘I think a person can just live their life to the end, live just like that, in a useless way. Or he might really live. My wife is more neutral, but I think I am some sort of an optimist. I want to tell our story, because I have some hope that however small, a part of this story will maybe help someone, anyone, to make a better future.’Oleh in conversation with Diana Vonnak
There must be a war trial after the war is over, Sasha and Oleh assert. ‘Every single atrocity they committed, they should be punished for. They should know what children feel, what parents have gone through. They should be held accountable.’