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Slava and Artem, livestream their "Kyiv Father-and-Son 8 pm Workout" to encourage traumatized Ukrainians to hug each other and live well amid war. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

Ukrainians join the battle against Russia from their living rooms

By Liu Zhixin

Through a grant from the United States Agency for Global Media, Radio Free Asia collaborated with The Reporter, a Taiwanese investigative news outlet, to produce a series of stories about the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The aim of the project, also being published in Mandarin language, was to provide Chinese readers greater clarity about the conflict.

In the third installment of the series, The Reporter and RFA spoke to residents of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv who are backing their country’s fight against Russian invaders in their own personal ways–cooking meals, countering Russian and Chinese disinformation, and teaching wellness on live-streamed videos.




Interior designer wears many hats for Ukraine

Before the Russian invasion, 62-year-old Tetiana was an interior designer in Kyiv with a daughter living in Moscow.

Now, her living room has been transformed into a small makeshift factory churning out candles, posters and other items to support the Ukraine war effort. She has cooked in street kitchens, helped foster dogs left homeless in the war, and joined social media campaigns. Her daughter moved to Berlin, and Tetiana visited the German capital in summer 2022, but resisted her plea to stay and came back to Kyiv.

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Kyiv interior designer Tetiana in her kitchen, filled with candle-making equipment, materials, and half-finished candles after she converted her home to a candle factory to support Ukraine’s war effort. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

“When I learned that the war has begun, I was afraid, too. My mother had gone through war, so I know what it is about. I told my daughter who lived in Moscow to leave immediately, but do not return to Ukraine. As long as my daughter is in another country, I could feel some sense of peace.

Yet I wanted to stay. It's not because I wanted to safeguard the house or my property. You can always redesign a house, wherever it may be. I stayed behind because I want to contribute to my country. I want to be a useful Ukrainian. I asked my daughter to respect my decision. I made a promise to her that whenever the air raid siren goes off, I would check in with her.

Ever since the first day of the war, I tried to join the Territorial Defense Forces. However, situations in the first three days were very intense. The government had ordered all civilians to stay home. I could only listen to the radio while feeling very anxious. Then when we were allowed to leave the house, I'd drive around to look for enlisting stations. I stopped a soldier on the street and asked, ‘Where can I enlist in the military?’ Never in my life would I have imagined myself saying this.

Finally, I found the National Territorial Defense Forces office, but they looked at me and said, ‘You are already 62; the supervisors probably will not let you in.’ I continued to beg them. ‘OK, then leave your phone number here. I'll see what I can do.’ This is how I finally made it into the wartime kitchen.

Of course I am very scared, but I feel better when I am with everyone, and I feel I am useful; if I were to stay home alone, I wouldn't know when to run, to hide, to cry, nothing. I was surprised that so many came to help, which leads me to believe that as long as we unite together, we can be strong and powerful.

Our kitchen is on the street, and it's cold out there. I like to make tea and coffee for everybody; I'm now a tea-making expert. We later developed a frontline convoy that delivers meals to other places. We're in charge of three vehicles, each of which delivers 200 meals. The morale is very high.

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Candles made of cardboard and wax poured in tin cans are used by Ukraine’s front line soldiers to heat up food and to stay warm. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

On our way to Kyiv, the condition of the highways told us the damage the Russian invasion and attacks have caused to Ukraine’s infrastructure. The weight of Russian tanks caused road surfaces to crack. There is a very noticeable humming sound when cars drive over those roads.

I like to see people finally being able to smile, and how they gather by the fire to drink tea or coffee.

I found another job on social media, that is, to gather resources for the military and the kitchens. When the Russian forces left [in April], and the kitchen did not need me anymore, I found another job, which was to assist volunteer groups in occupied areas such as Bucha and Irpin.

You can't use a single word to describe ‘volunteering’ precisely. When a person wants to do something for their country, they will have all kinds of creative ideas, and this has saved me from falling into depression during the war.

A month ago, the 138 people did not know each other at all; now we make candles together, and we give lessons to teach more people to make candles. We have become one another's partners.”

II. Translator fights Russian and Chinese disinformation

Kyrylo Chuyko, 30, is an accredited translator and interpreter of Chinese, who has rendered many Chinese official book titles into his native Ukrainian. The Mariupol native has studied in China, and also speaks Greek, German, Spanish and Kazakh.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Chuyko posted videos and ran livestreams, translated into multiple languages, to inform the world about the situation on the ground. He was surprised when his posts and videos were deleted from the Chinese internet, while his Chinese friends blamed Ukraine for the conflict and accused the Kyiv government of bombing its own people. China’s full-throated endorsement of Russian disinformation about Ukraine showed that “the gap between people living in a democratic country and those who live in a totalitarian country cannot be bridged solely by translation,” he told The Reporter.

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Translator Kyrylo Chuyko presents videos and livestreams in Chinese and other languages to present the war through Ukrainian eyes to audiences exposed to Russian disinformation. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

“Is this ‘special ops?’ Or is this a true invasion into Ukraine? Is it really that difficult to differentiate? Look at the Bucha massacre! Do you still think that it's Ukrainians killing our own people? Then you should come take a look

Look how many videos there are from other sources – I don't ask that you believe me; you do not have to believe me. But I am a Ukrainian. I came from Mariupol. My home was destroyed, and 80% of my city was destroyed – by the Russians. My hometown, Mariupol, was becoming more and more developed into a cultural-rich city. The Russians did not care about cultural and artistic development; they even bombed the churches. They bombed the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater – even though they knew there were people in the structure; even though they knew there were civilians and children. They still bombed the theater! What kind of behavior is this?

So I told those Chinese internet users, ‘If you don't believe me, then come over. Experience it yourself. I'll be your interpreter.’ I have said it many, many times. You just come over, and I will show you who's killing whom. I will show you who is invading Ukraine. I will also show you whether there are really ‘Nazis.’

But my Chinese friends said, ‘Chuyko, you don't know politics. This is what politics do. Who can you blame since Ukrainians chose to side with America and the West? Chuyko, you don't understand. You were wrong, because you created dangers for the Russians, so they want to preemptively attack you.’ I thought we were good friends, and my Chinese friends would believe me. I said, ‘You have all visited Ukraine before. Don't you know what our lifestyle is in Ukraine? It is an open, inclusive and peaceful society. Still, they still said, ‘Chuyko, it was you who doesn't understand.’

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Chuyko's residence in Kyiv, where the graduation photo he took with his parents still hangs on the wall. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

Okay, I don't understand, but I absolutely do not accept your kind of ‘understanding.’ I am totally disappointed with these people. I have no comment about their thinking pattern. To this date, I don't know how to describe their reasoning. How can a normal human being remain silent about the invasion?

I'm not a political scientist; I'm not an economist; but as an ordinary Joe, let me ask this: when your homeland is invaded, when you don't have any weapons but the invaders come with guns and in tanks, would you say, ‘Welcome, come over here, welcome? I get killed by you, I give all my belongings to you, and you destroy my entire home, and that's all OK.’ Would you say this?

Normal people would safeguard their homes. Wouldn’t Chinese people do that? But they still think that it was the Ukrainians fault. Can I still believe that you're thinking straight? What we're doing right now is protecting ourselves. We are defending our country, nothing else.

Would you sit quietly and watch your friends being killed? Some Chinese people, after watching the videos I made or reading other news, still dared not speak their minds. Even if they knew the truth, they didn't dare say it, because they're afraid.

Some of my Chinese friends told me privately, ‘Chuyko, I support Ukraine, but I'm only one person and my power is limited. What I say doesn't make any difference. Sorry, sorry, I can't be of help.’ I said: ‘Are you happy living in this kind of reality? Don’t you feel helpless and powerless when you cannot express your own opinions and thoughts?’ They did not respond. I do not even have the energy to be angry at them.

III. Eastern Ukrainian father-and-son duo livestream exercise sessions to boost morale

Journalist Slava, 48, and his son Artem, 17, have been livestreaming exercise and self-care sessions every night at 8 o’clock, encouraging fellow Ukrainians to join them online for a mix of advice on fitness, emotional wellbeing, abdominal breathing and eye exercises.

They did not expect their group exercise sessions, which also included online chats featuring Slava’s movie recommendations and new music picks by Artem, would find such a wide, fast-growing audience. But before they knew it, the "Kyiv Father-and-Son 8 p.m. Mind-Body Workout" was a hit with soldiers in Mariupol, refugees who escaped abroad, injured soldiers in military hospitals, and exiles in Israel, Japan, Lithuania, the U.K. and Canada.

Russia’s war against his country began eight years earlier for Slava, who hails from Eastern Ukraine and covered Russia’s occupation of the Donbas region in 2014. That year, Slava and a photographer were passing a checkpoint run by Russians and local separatists and witnessed Russian troops open fire and kill civilians. Arrested as suspected spies for Ukraine, they were taken to a spot under the bridge to be executed. They were spared when the would-be executioner recognized Slava through his driver. Refusing to pledge allegiance to Russia, Slava was tortured and left with injuries that required three weeks in the hospital before he could walk.

Slava and his family also hosted techno parties and seminars promoting Ukrainian identity in eastern Ukraine before full-fledged war began. He told The Reporter he wanted to counter the image that Russian media was spreading of "an anemic eastern Ukraine waiting for Russian salvation."

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Slava has vowed to grow his beard as long as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

Slava

2014, our home has been part of the war, and we have shouldered the society's sentiment. My son wanted to continue to do livestreaming, and I will support him. We will work together. This is not something unique to our family only. Collectively, Ukrainians are living an abnormal, unhealthy life, but life continues to move forward; it does not stop. I think we always have a choice.

We always have choices. At that time I could choose to die, but I could also choose to live. I saw a counselor to treat my PTSD, and that's how I learned the workout we do at the livestreaming. Therefore, what had happened then and the war over the past eight years have made me braver and stronger. I told myself that I would bring positive energy to Artem and to the people around me. It's just that now the entire Ukraine has been turned into what eastern Ukraine was like. I never expected that our livestreaming would help so many people in need.

I of course love the life I used to lead, but after being tortured by the Russian soldiers, I understood it. I realized that the bad guys who wanted to kill you will not give you any foretold warnings. Therefore, we must cherish life – if there is anything you want to do, do it now, don't wait.

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Artem (right) doing live streaming with his father Slava (left) in their living room in Kyiv. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

Take the magazine that we started in 2021 for example, though it was first published during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still carrying on. Even with the war, we still managed to publish them in the bomb shelters.

Russia began its brainwashing campaign in eastern Ukraine in 2010, claiming that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia, with which they share the same culture and same identity. But that is my hometown, and I will fight back with publications.

Memory and history are important. In our magazines, we introduced Ukrainian songs from the Eastern Ukrainian region. We invited authors from Eastern Ukraine to contribute. My favorite Ukrainian singer came from Eater Ukraine. I want to break the stereotype of ‘Easter Ukraine only speaks Russian’ and try to present Eastern Ukraine from a variety of global, European, and Ukrainian perspectives. I also brought in DJs from London, Lithuania, and Norway to host techno parties in Eastern Ukraine to make life there fun.

This war has taught people to cherish every simple thing: a warm bed, warm food, those of which we used to take for granted but are hard to come by now. The experience of war is painful, but we must know how to use memory and history of this painful period to build a new Ukraine. We can't leave it as just a piece of memory.

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Artem, 17, has been creating drawings and digital art since he was small. He posts his artwork on his Instagram account @BananaShampoo. (Photography/Yang Zilei)

Artem

To me, going online to do livestreaming was everything in the first three months. I didn't know whether I'd be going to school tomorrow. I didn't know what it'd be like tomorrow when I woke up, But I did know that I would be doing livestreaming with my father – this was the only thing I could be sure of.

After the war began, I was afraid that I'd become too ‘shut down,’ as if I had been nailed in a coffin. I even began to think, like ‘why did others die but not me?’ I wanted to die, too. ‘I am the one who should die, not them.’ But in some way, this livestreaming project let me fulfill my duty.

I helped others. I'm not just someone who survived. I had an opportunity to become a hero who joined the collective efforts and to become a better person.




Written and reported by Liu Zhixin
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Translated by Min Eu
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Photos by Yang Zilei
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Edited by Paul Eckert, Mat Pennington, Jim Snyder
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Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
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Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
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Produced by Radio Free Asia
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© 2023 RFA
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