Anastacia Stanko is a Ukrainian journalist. This is her diary from the months after the Russian invasion. To learn more about Stanko, her work and the challenges of being a journalist in Ukraine, read this accompanying piece by Laura Secor.
A month ago, my best friend died. In truth, I went to the front because he was there. A friend in the military called to tell me the news, but I didn’t pick up the phone in time. When I looked at my phone, I saw that there were two missed calls. When you have two missed calls from a man on the front, it is clear right away—your friend is dead.
A month ago, there were a lot of dead. Every day another person I knew. Every day. I returned a missed call. Every day I was told what I already knew: that Vitalik was dead. I was shaken, but I did not cry. I had a tactical medicine training class to get to, and I didn’t want to be late. That same evening, I had tickets to a stand-up comedy show where my husband was supposed to meet me.
I was making a tourniquet in class while I tried to solve my dilemma: would it be okay to go to stand-up comedy when Vitalik was dead? Would it be okay to laugh when they were transporting Vitalik to the morgue in Bakhmut? Would I find anything funny when my friend was going to identify the body? Was I spending my time wisely when it turns out the morgue in Bakhmut didn’t have space for Vitalik’s body, and only later, I would find out he had to lie for three days outside in the sun, because there were too many bodies to keep in the morgue. They had to bury him in a closed casket.
Before the show, my husband and I ate well at a buffet, and then at the show, we laughed. Do you understand how absurd this is? I wanted to disappear, to fall away, stop living, stop breathing, even more to simply stop eating, stop laughing. But what choice do you have? You are alive.
• • •
My mom came to visit me in Kyiv. My mom likes sushi, so we went to a spot for sushi. While we were eating, my brother called to tell us they were sending him to the Eastern front. My dad was already fighting. My mom was now all tears and sniffles. So was I. What are we supposed to do? Eat sushi? Then my mom stops crying and turns to me.
“You know what we should do?’ she said.
“What?” I say.
“We should ride the Ferris wheel,” she smiles. “But first, let’s go buy some wine.” So we went on this Ferris wheel, drank wine and reminisced about everything—and some things in particular. We even laughed.
• • •
Intimacy with my husband is difficult these days. I am always thinking of the stories of Ukrainian women and children being raped by Russian soldiers. I can’t stop myself. My husband and I had to let go of our dreams. Before the war we had wanted to buy a bigger apartment, for us to live with our small son. We even went so far as to invest in a really nice neighborhood, with playgrounds, a pool and trees and greenery everywhere. But at the end of March, our future neighborhood was shelled. Our future apartment didn’t suffer, but we decided to give it up anyway; we’ll never get back part of the money. But we always joke that we survived those first six months of war very pleasantly.
Intimacy with my husband is difficult these days. I am always thinking of the stories of Ukrainian women and children being raped by Russian soldiers.
My husband is a reserve officer. Every day, we talk about how lucky we are that we are alive and well. But we also talk about what will happen if he is drafted. We can’t help but tell the darkest jokes; they all circle around death. We laugh. Then we talk about what will happen if I die. Here, the joke is always the same. If I die, my husband won’t be mobilized, because he will be the single father of a small child. Problem solved. We laugh again. We are especially glad that our son doesn’t understand anything. He is, thankfully, too young. But he is growing, and the war continues. We don’t think about the future anymore.
• • •
I travel again to report from the front.
The worst moment is when I have to hug Ostap goodbye. He clings to me with his tiny hands. And doesn’t want to let go. I don’t cry, ever. But every time at this moment, I think: if I die, my child will be left without a mother. This is irresponsible.
In July 2021, I decided to quit my job as a journalist and dedicate my time to my six-month-old son. Then on July 23, 2022, I went to the independent media channel, Hromadske, and offered my services as a war correspondent, in case something started. I thought that not doing this was irresponsible.
I now spend close to two weeks a month on the front and two weeks at home. Every time I take a trip, it is about 1000 kilometers there and back. Every time, I both want and don’t want to go to the front, and every time, I think I might die. At the same time I think that it’s irresponsible to leave my small child a half orphan.
Every time, when I wait for a long time near the front for permission and papers to do my work, I think: God, what am I doing here? Who needs this reporting? It would be better if I studied tactical medicine, maybe then I would save someone.
• • •
The truth is I am frightened.
It is more frightening than the beginning of 2014 in Donbas, more frightening than when I was held prisoner in separatist captivity, more frightening than in 2016 in Avdiika, when two soldiers died in front of me.
I ran away from a position on the front a few days ago; the very position I had asked to be allowed to go to with my videographer. My throat was already dry when we arrived at the spot to report. I got out of the car and was informed that I still needed to walk another kilometer and a half to the final position. I had a panic attack and just left the videographer there. A month earlier, I had been close to this same spot, walking just the last kilometer to my position when we were shelled. There was no other choice but to turn and walk back to the car through the shelling. That was the most frightening hour of my life. As I walked, I took hold of the hand of the general who was leading us. I had convinced myself that a rocket would hardly dare kill the general. He had experience, and if I was with him, I’d be okay. You tell yourself lies so as not to drive yourself crazy with fear.
• • •
What saves you most from fear is shame.
Shame when you face people—military or civilians, doctors, police or firefighters—people who continue to do their work no matter what. They hold onto their weapons and shovels and stay at their positions. When they are fired at from all sides, they fly forward into smoke and explosions, they evacuate the wounded, perform surgery while rushing to the hospital. They pull a neighbor out of the rubble of a building when it is about to collapse, they share food and water, they feed the cats and dogs of an entire high-rise building when all the residents have left, and they don’t leave, because “To whom will I leave all of this?”
It’s shameful to be weak. It’s shameful to be frightened.
Every Ukrainian feels shame. There’s no need to instruct us from New York, Quebec or Berlin about what is the right way to act during war.
The worst moment is when I have to hug Ostap goodbye. He clings to me with his tiny hands. And doesn’t want to let go.
Those who left are ashamed because everyone else stayed. Those who didn’t leave are ashamed because they moved or live in relatively quieter regions, where there is less shelling. Those who live in dangerous regions are ashamed that they aren’t volunteering. Those who are volunteering are ashamed that they aren’t fighting. Those who took up arms are ashamed that it isn’t in the most threatened city. And so it goes, on and on. Beyond the shame, there is hate. Hate toward Russia and its citizens. Hate of the Belarusians.
• • •
There are still some thorny discussions about “good Russians.” There is a joke these days that the only good Russian is a dead Russian. Some people debate whether we ought to hold some kind of dialogue with those Russians who are against the war—because Russia will always be a neighbor: our large neighbor with its population of 145 million. How do you establish a dialogue with someone who gets a tattoo that says “no war” and thinks that they did enough? It is incomprehensible. And they think that they are risking a lot getting such a tattoo. Some of them don’t even write “no war,” but instead wrote “** ***.” Meanwhile, Ukrainians risk our lives simply by living in our homes.
What does this “no war” mean? That everyone must simply stop firing and go home? Will the Russians who simply stop firing go? Will they leave all our lands, or only what was taken after February 24, 2022? And what about our people, kidnapped and taken thousands of miles away, far into Russia? How are they faring? What about our dead, the ones buried in the yards of their own houses? What about our violated men and women? What about our stolen grain? The stolen tractors? The looted paintings in museums?
• • •
All of those who claim to be wise and moral, those who always claimed to be for rights, democracy and freedom are starting to make me angry. Especially the Western liberal media.
The New York Times decided to open a bureau in Kyiv. A wonderful idea. Finally, they are trying to find out what is happening in Ukraine from Ukraine. Earlier everyone tried to find out about Ukraine from the Moscow bureau. Seriously. In 2002, there was the Sknyliv air show disaster near Lviv. At an air show, a plane crashed onto the spectators. 77 people were killed; more than 250 were wounded. Where did the Western media write about this? From the bureau in Moscow. But enough of this. The same thing is true of The Washington Post. Isabelle Khurshudyan, who will be heading the office here, also worked in the Moscow bureau.
“Is it necessary for you to have experience in London to write articles from Mumbai, or experience working in Paris to write about Algiers?” my colleague on the appointment of a Moscow journalist to work in the Kyiv bureau. This is an example of a usual assumption that Ukraine is somewhere in Russia’s shadow, in its orbit, in its sphere of influence, and that if you lived and worked in Moscow and know Russia, then you will easily assimilate here in Kyiv.
• • •
I am often glad that my grandmother and grandfather didn’t live to see this war. My father’s parents each spent 10 years in the Gulag. They met and married in Magadan, where they were exiled after Stalin’s death. They hated Russia all of their long lives, even though my grandfather had to fight in the Soviet Army, liberating Europe from fascism.
My grandmother was 10 years old when her father was killed in the war, near Berlin. He also fought in the Soviet Army. The death notice came on May 9, 1945, exactly on Victory Day. We never celebrated this day in our family. After Victory Day, my great grandmother lived with three kids in a bombed-out house where she did her best to run the household. But the Soviet powers took everything she had: the horse, the cow, the pig, even their passports. They were the newest serfs.
• • •
I remember a story from my childhood that my mother would tell. When she was little, she went to a Soviet school. One day at home, she was telling her father about the history lessons they had learned in school. It was all about the 1930s and Soviet collectivization, the New Economic Policy that led to plentiful harvests and grand industrialization. My grandfather shook his head and told her that no, those years in Ukraine was the time of the Holodomor, when people were starving so badly that they ate their own children. Mother raised her eyebrows, not believing her own father, because there was nothing like that in the history books. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union fell that she understood that her father was right, and the history books lied. And our whole lives were a lie.
I think about this now, traveling to report from the Kharkiv oblast.
• • •
Kharkiv was the second largest city in Ukraine before the war, with 1.4 million residents located about 35 kilometers from the Russian border. During nearly six months of active military action, there were only 10 days in which Kharkiv wasn’t shelled.
In the city, it’s impossible to ignore the war. It has touched every part of the city and left destroyed buildings everywhere. In March 2022, there were hardly any people in the streets. All those who didn’t leave lived in basements or in the subway. They ventured out only to go home and wash up, or get something to feed their pets, or to run to the store or to get humanitarian aid.
Finally in May, life in the city returned a bit. I even found myself at a concert one day. The Ukrainian military freed 23 villages around Kharkiv, and the residents who had left started to think about returning. But a week later, the Russians didn’t gain their position; they began shelling again, but this time with more intensity. Now there isn’t a day when someone in Kharkiv doesn’t die from shelling.
I head to the front, just two villages from Kharkiv. Just as I arrive, a tank is firing, a mine-thrower is firing and there are air strikes all at the same time. On the road to the hotel, I see an open shop that isn’t a grocery store. Kharkiv is now a city of broken windows. Aside from stores that sell food and medicine, everything in the city is closed. But here is a store that is selling clothing and shoes. I entered. The owner tells me that yesterday was the first day they had opened since February 24. “We’ll see what happens,” they say. I buy a pair of colorful Tommy Hilfiger sandals. I have absolutely nowhere to wear such sandals, but I really wanted to buy something from them. The same day I bought the sandals, in a neighborhood nearby a Russian rocket killed a 13-year-old boy at a bus stop.
And every day it is like this. You live, you eat something, you go to a restaurant, you go about your business—because you are alive, for now.
• • •
Later, I had a phone call with an editor from one of the big global media companies. He knows that I just returned from the front. But he starts the conversation with small talk. He is calling from London. He tells me that it’s very hot in London. “Did you see news about this?” he says. “There’s a heat wave now in Europe. It’s terrible what’s happening.”
I think of the road from the front to the hotel where I’m taking this call. Holes from missiles, a blown-up bridge, burned-down village houses, dogs that wander because the owners either left or died. How can I keep up a conversation about the heat in London? Near Kharkiv there is also a heat wave and yet at the same time, grenades are flying, a tank fires and a mine-thrower, and even planes are bombing. I have enough news here without the London heat wave.
• • •
There is a video going around on social media of a Russian mercenary cutting off the genitalia of a Ukrainian prisoner of war with a box cutter. That night, I could not sleep.
My 57-year-old father-in-law was mobilized into the armed forces. Right now on the front, a dozen acquaintances and some friends are fighting. I have buried five close friends during the first six months of the war. Other friends are in captivity. I haven’t had any news from them for a few months. Every morning after watching the news, where there is shelling overnight, my first thought is: how many of us were killed? I write to all my close friends on the front.
Hi, how are you?
I am just waiting for them to say “okay.”
Then I kiss my son and go to make breakfast and prepare for the next trip to the front.
Anastasia Stanko is а journalist and TV presenter. She is a member of the “Stop censorship” movement, made up of journalists and media organizations in Ukraine. In 2013, she co-founded the independent media channel, Hromadske, which is registered as a non-governmental organization, and where she currently is a member of the General assembly.