In the night the war started, Polina and Maria had just danced to the music of Michael Jackson. The two young women from Kharkiv were visiting a friend’s apartment. He had been warning her for days that Putin would attack Ukraine. He had heard Putin’s speeches and researched them on the Internet. But when there was suddenly a loud crack early in the morning, Polina and Maria initially thought of fireworks. “We just didn’t believe that Putin was really doing it,” says Polina.
Now the two 19 and 20-year-old women are sitting together with their friend Cynthia, who also comes from Kharkiv, in the “welcome tent” in front of Berlin’s main train station. At that time, all three fled headlong from Kharkiv to the countryside from the rockets and bombs of the Russian army. They lived in a basement for a week. Then they got a seat on a train that was taking people out of town. They drove to Berlin for a week via Romania, Hungary and Austria – this is where they wanted to go because one of Polina’s sisters lives here.
Hope until the last second
The majority of people in Kharkiv still believed that Putin would not order an attack, says Polina. Some who were better informed and could afford it left the city a week before the war began. But most residents would have shied away from the unknown. Although everyone knew that Russian troops were at the border, they were afraid of losing their jobs, homes and friends. Now all three are worried about their relatives who are still in Kharkiv; only part of Cynthia’s family managed to escape to the Czech Republic. Polina’s mother was a real estate agent in Kharkiv, selling and renting apartments. “These apartments no longer exist.” On the Internet, they see the destroyed streets and houses where they lived and grew up. “It’s very difficult to watch,” says Polina. “We want to go home,” says Maria.
The war did something to them, say the young women. “We understood how much we love our homeland.” Kharkiv is 95 percent a Russian-speaking city, “but that doesn’t make us any less Ukrainian,” says Cynthia. She is now “very negative” about the Russians. She no longer wanted to have anything to do with them, “except with those who oppose the war”. She is particularly angry with the Belarusians for taking part in the war. “Half my family is from Belarus, how can they do that?” Maria, half Armenian, is more forgiving. “You have to differentiate between the government and the people,” she says.
“Zelenskyj is a real person”
They don’t think much of the political system in Russia. “We have freedom of speech in Ukraine, but there isn’t in Russia,” says Polina. She hopes that Ukraine will eventually become “a cool, modern country”. And that for people in the West it is no longer a country “somewhere close to Russia”. They are pleasantly surprised by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Nobody expected him to perform so strongly. “He may not be the most experienced politician, but he’s a real human being,” says Cynthia.
What are you up to? First of all they want to help the arriving compatriots at the main station, after all they can speak Russian, Ukrainian, English and a little German. If they can’t go back, they would like to study in Berlin. They are young, their generation does not want to be a burden on any state, says Polina. Berlin, where she has already visited, is a cool city – a bit like Kyiv, which she loves so much.
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