A year on from invasion, I’ve learned what it means to be Ukrainian, writes ANASTASIA KOMAROVA

My birthday celebration in Autumn 2021 was at a glamorous rooftop bar in central London. I was with my friend Natalya and her mother.

They gave me beautiful gifts and it was a fun evening for all of us, enjoying the glittering night-time view across the city.

A few weeks later, I was in another fabulous cocktail bar with Maria, toasting her family’s purchase of a new apartment in Dubai.

These girls were the daughters of the Russian elite and it was only natural that we had become friends when we ran into each other in London. Though I was born in Ukraine – I moved to England when I was ten – I had spent my early years speaking Russian.

We were taught in Russian at school and though we all spoke Ukrainian, we mainly spoke Russian at home.

Ukrainian national Anastasia Komarova reflects on the first anniversary since Russia launched its invasion

At the university where I studied, there were lots of Russian students — mainly children of Moscow and St Petersburg’s rich — who had come over in their mid-teens to be educated at British private schools before moving on to university.

I shared a flat with two lovely Russian girls, Elena and Katerina (though as with the girls mentioned above, these are not their real names).

I actually lived in Moscow for four months as part of my course as I was reading French and Russian and loved every minute.

I went to St Petersburg three times and to all the places Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin write about. I met so many interesting people…

But, sadly, my Russian friends and I don’t speak now.

The morning I woke up, just over a year ago on February 24 to find that war had been declared on my country – or rather Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ had begun – my life changed in an instant.

My friendships are just one part of my life that has been blown apart by Putin’s invasion.

Now based in north London, Anastasia (pictured on Kyiv's famous Glass Bridge) says she and her countrymen never expected to go to war with their neighbours

Now based in north London, Anastasia (pictured on Kyiv’s famous Glass Bridge) says she and her countrymen never expected to go to war with their neighbours

The night before Russian tanks rolled over the border, war could not have been further from my mind. Yes, Putin’s troops had been gathering on the borders of Ukraine but that felt like posturing. No one I knew seriously thought he would invade.

I arrived home late after an evening of drinking and dancing with some girlfriends and threw myself into bed.

My phone was on silent, so I was not aware of having 53 missed calls, nor the message from my father saying, ‘Hi. A war’s started in Ukraine. We’re OK’, until I woke next morning.

I was shell-shocked. Discovering that my beautiful homeland was being attacked and my family in danger was the worst moment of my life. In three days, I was due to fly to Kyiv to see my family – back to a city where I had recently been lunching with friends and getting my nails done.

Now I wondered whether I would ever see my birthplace, or my Ukrainian family, again.

Would my kind, gentle father Kostyantyn, 57, have to take up arms and go to war? What would become of my step-mother, Olena, 46, and my half-brother, Mykhaylo? Kyiv’s railway stations were already overwhelmed by thousands of people trying to flee the city.

I was glued to social media and to news reports. I cried over what was happening and often still do.

'I have lived through the war by proxy. Through the Telegram messenger app, I get air raid warnings on my phone in real time'

‘I have lived through the war by proxy. Through the Telegram messenger app, I get air raid warnings on my phone in real time’

Since then, at home in London, I have lived through the war by proxy. Through the Telegram messenger app, I get air raid warnings on my phone in real time. I have never actually heard the air raid sirens, but as I try to focus on my job with a digital agency or writing for The Mail+, I know the moments they come, when everyone has to run for the basement bomb shelters or into the corridors of their building to hide.

My poor half-brother, who has just turned 17, was terrified when the sirens started. He spent hours in cold, musty, underground shelters, shaking with fear, listening to music on his AirPods, trying to forget his surroundings.

Now, like my father and Olena, he has given up on that because it was so claustrophobic and uncomfortable. They trust to luck, reckoning that if a bomb hits their building, being in the basement was unlikely to save them.

Mykhaylo should be at technical college but he studies remotely, concentrating in IT and learning to code. If I ask him how he’s doing, he says ‘Oh, fine…’ but everyone feels that knot of fear as the sirens go and they move away from the windows.

Even my father’s pet parrot, Gosha, has learned that sirens mean danger. When he hears them go off, he flies to a shelf to hide behind some object or other or settles on my father’s arm for comfort.

It’s strange because in some ways the year has gone so quickly, but in others it feels like ten years. Only now am I realising this is reality. A year ago, if I heard that Russia had launched 100 missiles at Ukraine, I would be frantically calling everyone I know. Now I just call my dad and it’s: ‘You OK?’

‘Yup, you?’

‘OK have a good day.’

We’ve grown used to the war. My father goes out to work every day in Kyiv where he manages a food store. There are fewer electricity blackouts recently but Ukrainians have learned to be adaptable – if there is no electricity at home, they go to a friend’s house or to a café.

Anastasia's paternal grandmother and her aunt, pictured in their apartment in Kyiv on New Year's Eve 2021

Anastasia’s paternal grandmother and her aunt, pictured in their apartment in Kyiv on New Year’s Eve 2021

The people I worry most about — my immediate family and that of my godfather, Serhiy – are safe so far. But there are shocking and unexpected reminders of the tragedy being played out.

Last March, I read that a Fox News cameraman and a Ukrainian colleague had been killed. It was only when I saw a picture of the girl – Oleksandra Kuvshynova – that I realised, to my horror, that I knew her. She was a friend of a friend. Only 24 years old, the same age as I was then.

When I saw a picture of the atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers in Bucha – burned bodies, with hands tied behind their backs – I had to run for the bathroom.

It scares me now to think that when I lived in Moscow I walked past people in the street who are now killing Ukrainians – and that I was probably surrounded by people who felt our country had no right to exist.

My beloved grandmother, Liliya – my father’s mother – did not want to leave her home in Kyiv, a lovely, three-bedroom apartment with a warm, welcoming kitchen that was one of my favourite places in the world. However, at the age of 83, she was persuaded to board a train across the country to the border to Slovakia where we had a tearful reunion last March. I was still in a state of shock back then. The Russians were only 20km away from the city and a bomb had fallen by the railway station.

My grandma now lives with my aunt in Serbia. We speak regularly and cook borscht together on video.

We’re a lot closer than we were in a funny way and we talk about everything – much more serious things than we used to. Not the meaning of life exactly but conversations with my family are no longer just ‘Hi, how are you?’ We talk about how much we mean to one another and we lean on each other for strength.

Now Mykhaylo has passed his 17th birthday we are on a countdown till he turns 18 and is eligible for conscription. Though only regular soldiers are fighting right now, it is another, nagging worry. My dad, who’s very calm, reassures me, ‘We’ll get through this’ and I have to believe him.

Though it’s a relief to know they are safe, so many people I have loved all my life are now scattered. My godfather’s parents are in France and others have found temporary – or maybe permanent – homes in Serbia. I don’t know when I will be able to visit Ukraine. I look back on our Christmas celebrations with nostalgia for how it was and I wonder, are we going to get that again? Will I be able to make more memories there? I don’t know.

Putin’s rationale for war was based around the idea of Ukraine being part of a wider union of ‘Russian-speaking people’ and to stamp out the ‘Nazis’ trying to prise Ukraine from Moscow’s grip.

In reality, though I grew up regarding Russia as a friendly neighbouring country, I have always seen myself as Ukrainian.

Putin’s action has done nothing to bring us together – quite the opposite. I rarely speak Russian now, for instance, and the same goes for my Ukrainian friends.

My childhood home was on the 16th floor of a block with an astonishing view across the Dnipro river to the St Sophia church complex, a world heritage site. The view hasn’t changed but the significance of the monuments has. The Klitschko Bridge was hit by a missile but withstood the impact as it was made of steel from Mariupol — a city that has since been destroyed. The Arch of Friendship, which used to symbolise the affinity between Ukraine and Russia, is now the Arch of Freedom.

Streets named after Russian poets and filmmakers have been renamed and statues of Dostoevsky and Lenin removed.

It’s not that we hate Russians – though I think a lot of Ukrainians do now – but we need to emphasise that we are a separate country. Before Volodymyr Zelensky became president he was a comedian and a friend sent me as old sketch of his. Historically, Russians have seen Ukraine as a ‘mother’ nation and Zelensky says Russia is like the child who never leaves the nest – most adult children move out but no, this one insists on staying home with us.

Some Ukrainians like to see themselves as Russian but that makes me think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and how ‘all animals are equal but some more equal than others’. That’s how it must have been in the Soviet Union: Russians were more equal than everybody else so people aspired to be Russian.

As we reach a year since the fighting started, it breaks my heart to think of the carnage. According to UNICEF, education has been disrupted for more than five million Ukrainian children – let alone those who have been killed, injured or shipped off to Russia to be ‘adopted’.

And it’s too easy to think that this is just Putin’s war. Dominic Lawson wrote in this newspaper last week about the level of support for the Russian president – that the ‘cold reality’ is that 70 per cent of the Russian people support the action – and I fear he is right.

When the invasion started, I had so many British and international friends messaging me and posting their support on social media that I didn’t even realise at first that the Russians were silent. Within hours, they went on the defensive. One girl messaged me saying: ‘Check your sources. There’s going to be a lot of propaganda in the next few days. Just make sure you are posting what’s actually happening.’

I was livid. The whole world could see what was happening.

Others were equivocal: ‘Of course I don’t support what’s going on, but..’ There could be no buts for me. It was day one and I probably overreacted. I blocked the lot of them. I simply couldn’t face having conversations about whether it was a war or a ‘special military operation’ as they were calling it, in line with Russian convention.

Natalya, the girl I was with on my birthday, tried to argue it out. She kept asking: ‘What did I do, what did I personally do to you? I’m just as scared as you are.’

I said: ‘It’s my family being bombed, not yours. Your family is fine, safe in Russia. You’re saying that because you think that’s what you should say not because you care’. That’s how I saw it.

In the wake of the invasion a lot of Russians left London. That girl went home on a visit and, while she was there, posted a picture of an event she was at on social media with the caption: ‘Russians do it better.’

I thought: ‘You know what you are saying will affect me but you do it anyway. At least have the decency to hide how you feel.’

I told her: ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t feel we have anything in common anymore’. Because she’s in this protected bubble, she doesn’t know what grief is. She’s a product of her upbringing but I am also a product of mine.

Over the last year I have re-evaluated a lot of my relationships. The war has changed my perspective. Things that used to upset me seem irrelevant. I look at everything with a colder head.

In the first few months, I was depressed. I hardly ate: everything tasted like cardboard.

Then, slowly, I began to come out of my shell. But that means learning to live with guilt – at continuing to live in safety while others are dying or at spending money on a night out when there are people in Ukraine without water.

I’m still processing how to have a normal life. There’s no point in me going back to Ukraine – that would just add to my family’s worry. But being here and just carrying on as normal feels like a wound that doesn’t heal.

I’ve learned the hard way that people my age know nothing but Putin and, when trouble comes, they won’t speak out. I have to hope that one day that will change.

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