«This war exposes the truth about ourselves,» – Canadian volunteer Ustia Stefanchuk

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In the first hours of the full-scale invasion, being a resident of Canada, she decided to come to Ukraine. Since then, her life has been deprived of sleep and peace. But despite constant trips to the frontline and numerous losses, Ustia still finds it easier than staying overseas.

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Why is war not the time for democracy, but the time to finally start communicating in Ukrainian, why it’s not the best time for Ukrainian issues in Canada now, how do Ukrainians take advantage of programs for refugees and support abroad? In our studio, we spoke with Ustyna Stefanchuk, a Canadian of Ukrainian origin, collector and volunteer.

You’ve just arrived from Canada and tomorrow, you are going to the front line again. Like in the Ukrainian idiom, «from the ship to the ball», though I am not sure whether it’s appropriate to call the war a ball.

When pronouncing, it sounds even scarier than it actually is. I’m not sleeping at all, only running around. I’ve just bought some nails and staples for the dugouts and have to buy some more in an hour. This is my second day in Lviv – and all the time, if not in the «Epicenter» store, I find myself at some car depot, if not at the car market – then at the radio market.

You write a lot about your ancestors in Lviv. I think they suffered a lot from the Russians in the last century.

In general, like any Galician family. Both on the paternal and maternal lines – Siberia, Kazakhstan, ten years of logging... Somehow like that. Then – wandering in a foreign city. Although Lviv was their place of birth, after returning from exile, all acquaintances and relatives shunned them, the «enemies of the people». It happened, but I think, this is by no means a unique story for Lviv.

What are your plans for this visit?

You know, it will sound trite, but I try not to talk about plans. Because in the area that I am currently engaged in, it is bad for two reasons: firstly, I cannot announce the locations and directions where I am to go. Secondly – I am merely afraid to voice any of my plans at all. Because all kinds of bad things happen to my friends, to me, around me. So I don’t want to say much about it, if you know what I mean.

War generally makes everyone superstitious...

Hopefully next week, I will be able to make it to the Belarusian border and it will be interesting.

This is your second return in this big war which began on the 24th of February. How did you find out about it? When did you realize the desire to come?

I realized this on the 24th. I was in Canada, there is a 9-hour difference between Ukraine and the place where I live. We still had the late evening of February 23, when it was already the morning of the 24th in Ukraine. Before going to bed, I usually scrolled through the Facebook feed and noticed that many of my friends from different parts of Ukraine were writing quite weird things like «we are under bombing», «something is exploding». People were running somewhere, some very strange videos appeared.

I’m an extremely choleric person, but to be honest, something untypical for me happened at that moment – numbness. I sat in the kitchen on the floor for probably 12 hours in a complete «comatose». And when I got out of this state, my husband somehow tried to bring me back to consciousness. He asked if everything was okay, or if maybe we should call an ambulance. That is, I sat and did not react to anything at all. It’s hard to call it a shock, it was something strange. It may sound corny, but it felt like something inside me had actually died.

I immediately wrote to my supervisor, my direct manager, informing her that I was to go to Ukraine. Immediately. She wrote back: «Maybe, you consider it first?» Then I realized that I needed to complete my contract and finish what I had undertaken. That’s why I departed in April.

Didn’t your husband try to refuse you?

He was shocked. Literally, all this time. But it’s impossible to refuse me. He knows me quite well and understands that any conversations are useless, because I decide it myself.

Do you tell him everything: where you were, what happened to you?

Of course not [Laughs]! I hope he never hears or sees this.

We were supposed to talk back in the summer, but it was a difficult period and you said you needed a time out.

Well, you know, my friends were dying every day. Right when you messaged me in the summer, the guy to whom I was taking shoes, a uniform, a shoulder bag, and some other «goodies», died. It happened a few hours before I arrived at the position.

Have you already lost a lot of people you knew personally?

Just yesterday, I was thinking about it. What I am going to say now is very scary: I am at the stage of stepping over bodies. It sounds horrible, I know, but it’s a fact. Otherwise, I simply cannot move on, cannot help those who are still alive, cannot do what I do at all.

It is said that all the best men and women of this country take part in the war, that the best people have gathered there. Do you feel it?

Well, inspired and patriotic, I will say «yes». But if serious, then rather no. There are damn many different things, different people... I had to see various things, which I won’t voice for some reasons, as I don’t know if now is the time for it, or if it will be interpreted correctly, not taken out of context. I don’t mean you here, but in general – some conversations, questioning of this war, the purity of our intentions in it, the purity, some kind of crystallinity of those people who defend Ukraine. This may be an unpopular opinion in certain progressive circles, but I believe that this is not the time.

I agree. Although there is an Anglo-Saxon tradition: they shared all losses during the Second World War from its very beginning. This is what our media does – it keeps a conscientious count of everyone who died in the Lviv region.

But it is not only about losses. I’m talking about the very ugly face of war – not just Moscow’s deviations or anything on their side. We also have quite a lot of different things... I understand the idealization of all this, and it’s correct under these conditions. But I see other things that are really, extremely bad.

Read also: An individual state can play a crucial role. Professor David Ellery about Ukraine, British experience and the victory

Can we say that all people, all Ukrainians are now fighting for one thing? And what are you doing it for, what is your sense?

No, I don’t think it’s one. What about me?... I can’t answer, for me it’s just as inherent as blinking. I can’t imagine how it is possible not to be in this war.

This is something that concerns me internally, deep to pain.

That is, there is Ukraine and there is Muscovite, right?

Yes, it is something genetic for me. I just don’t have any other default options. Sometimes it even seems to me that my whole life until now has been a preparation for this moment: upbringing, books that I was given to read in childhood and which I later read myself.

You’re doing a lot of volunteering now. Has the volunteering movement changed since the beginning of the war in Ukraine? And if it has, then how?

First of all, it’s heterogeneous. Second, is this further about idealization or not? I say this as a person who cares. There were times when I was still in Canada collecting money so that I could buy something later. I didn’t wash, I didn’t brush my teeth, I didn’t eat, I sat at the computer 24 hours a day. So, as a person who has experienced this, I understand that people need to live, someone needs to feed their family. Accordingly, there is a phenomenon of paid volunteering. Here, perhaps, the question of conscience is what the share of this payment is. I just can’t do it like that. But I have completely different life circumstances: my husband supports me, and I am happy about that. But there are people who are not in such a winning situation.

In general, I try not to judge, and if I really want to, I try to go in the other direction, because it distracts from the main goal. All these conversations, the absorption of what I see around, is now superfluous for me.

In our previous studio program, Oksana Mukha said very powerfully that when she was hearing the Russian language in Rome, her instinctive reaction was to hit that person, although this thought didn’t please her. And she always refrained because that person might have been from Ukraine. What is your attitude to it?

I really hope that you won’t talk about this topic, as it is my trigger.

Read also: «They chose their Ukrainness every day in the Russified cities,» – Oksana Mukha about Donbas, concerts for the Army and Ukrainian language

What she is talking about is one thing. But there is also a second, I would say, question for me. In the Kharkiv region, where I went to during the entire spring, I know people who cannot leave, will never leave, and who now, in fact, have nowhere to go. Because all places abroad, near and far, are occupied by Lviv residents, who are not threatened by anything. Do you understand what I mean? And this is what pisses me off the most. Because I know people who just really need to leave because they have nowhere to reside. They live in ruins, but they have nowhere to go because everything is taken.

It’s easier for many Lviv residents because they have often been abroad. And there, as I understand it, many people have never travelled outside the region, for them this is a big event.

This too. However, I am talking about Lviv residents who left at the beginning of the war. And about people who have already been abroad, which is also interesting. Canadian Ukrainians have many local chats for communication, including in my city. So, very often, there come the people who before the war lived well in Poland, Italy or anywhere else, until suddenly they move to Canada under refugee programs. Like refugees from Ukraine, from the combat zone! What a combat zone in the Polish city of Katowice?!

People took the opportunity to solve their social problems. I understand that they took other people’s places, but such is life: someone just moves faster...

If we treat it this way, then the Muscovites will beat us just because that’s life. For me, there is a concept of dignity, justice, the higher justice in particular. And there is also «assholeness». I thought about it a lot. Being afraid and being an asshole are different things.

But many of those who left found it really unsafe to stay or had nowhere to return.

Many or most? I can’t talk about fractions, I just know a huge number of examples that make me very sad.

Maybe that’s not a big problem. Journalist Oleh Manchura recently wrote: «Maybe, we shouldn’t be saddened by the people who so easily left their own Motherland?»

Maybe. My experience in the Donetsk region taught me a lot. I had never been to those parts, further from Kyiv, in the east. It was a virgin territory for me, some kind of exotic experience... But you can’t even imagine! In the Donetsk region, we were spat on, had our tires punctured, were kicked out of a supermarket, blamed as child killers.


In May, June, and July.

People to whom you brought help?

I’m not engaged with civilians, never. There were just people who identified us as volunteers. Although, on the other hand, some wanted to treat us, invited us, offered to buy us food, drink, and something else.

I think this war is such an exposure of the truth about ourselves, about Ukraine, part of which was terra incognita not only for me, but also for many of my compatriots for a long time, until 2014 and after. Therefore, I think it’s very good. I believe in transparency, a clean page, a kind of tabula rasa, from which one must build something further. And I love that we get to know our real selves. I find it healing.

And what if it turns out that our real collective portrait is very different from the one painted by Ukrainian poets Tychyna or Sosiura?

It’s not an «if», it’s an accomplished fact, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s great. You just need to continue working with it properly. All this is mostly a consequence of the failed informational education policy. This huge difference between different parts of Ukraine is, to some extent, my and your responsibility too.

Should Ukraine still become more Ukrainian? What does it even mean to be a Ukrainian Ukraine now?

I guess I don’t know what that means. It’s very black and white for me at this particular moment. That is, there is Ukraine, and there is an enemy, according to this wonderful slogan «Love Ukraine or f*ck you...» That’s it, there are no other conversations! In one way or another, you work for Ukraine, supporting the economy, you work for the army or for some volunteer mission, you work in any way to bring this victory closer. And then, there will be other conversations. Now it’s just primarily a link in Maslow’s pyramid, the Ukrainian one.

You have a very awe-inspiring attitude towards the Ukrainian language, at least it was like that before the war.

Just before the war, it was very liberal for me.

We often have to hear: «I will not speak Ukrainian simply because our guys at the front speak Russian.»

They have the right to speak even the language of the natives of Papua New Guinea. And you either speak Ukrainian, or go to the place where you are «closer» in terms of conversation. I know it’s very radical, that it’s black and white, but I’m telling you honestly how I feel. That is, I can tell here and now that everyone has the right to give definitions, historical circumstances, all these things – it’s all very interesting.

You can say: «We are democrats, we want to go to Europe.»

No-no-no, now there is no democracy, now there is war! This cannot be. This is a question of survival, in general, of the future existence of Ukraine. Democracy will come later.

You returned after your first trip and spent several months in Canada. How did you do there, did you recover?

I was very uncomfortable, ashamed, because I knew how much was happening here... I constantly browsed, browsed Signal, where I correspond with my boys and girls. I constantly looked at what needs they wrote about, and understood that I needed to buy more... And I’m sitting here [in Canada], though I have to bring it all in... It was very traumatic. I definitely couldn’t relax. I had already relaxed when I came to Lviv again, exhaled and said to myself: «Well, everything is cool, let’s go to work!»

In Canada, do people really understand what is happening?

I would say no. Like anywhere, in America in general or in Europe, it differs much. Many conflicting narratives have long been pushed by various groups of influence. In Canada, it is difficult from the point of view that anti-government sentiment is very strong there. Everything related to the Trudeau government, his initiatives regarding Ukraine in particular, are becoming unpopular. There is Khrystia Freeland, who is Ukrainian. But there have been rumours for a long time that her grandfather, Mykhailo Khomyak, was the editor-in-chief of «Krakow News» during the German occupation. Therefore, he is a «collaborator, a Nazi», and hence, she is a «Nazi» too. And since Khrystia Freeland is Ukrainian, then, accordingly, all Ukrainians are Nazis. Such a scheme, logical for someone, is very purposefully built with a specific goal.

Ukrainians also have an idealization of Canada as some kind of «correct» Ukraine. We do not always understand that Ukrainians are not as influential in Canada as we think.

To be honest, not influential at all. I would very much like the Ukrainian representation to be stronger, perhaps even more aggressive, and generally broader. Now, in my opinion, is not the best time for any Ukrainian issues in Canada.

Recently, the Pope said that Russians cannot be evil or bad, because there is Russian humanism, which he observed in Dostoevsky’s works. Is the sentiment, that this humanism will save the world, popular in Canada? What to do with it, and how to explain what seems so obvious from Lviv?

Purposefully, gradually, methodically – yes. But will it really be possible to somehow change this in people who for decades and centuries were brought up on Russian literature, art, and culture, which replaced the culture, art, and literature of many other countries? I don’t know how this is even possible.

I am trying to answer this question for myself as a person who has read quite a lot of Russian literature, knows Russian music well and until a certain period, listened very often to Shostakovich, whom I adored and perceived as a terribly profound [composer]. For me, this answer is: all of Shostakovich, all the literature that I was interested in has already been lost, they are invalid. If this entire volume of universal knowledge and ethics ultimately gave rise to what is happening, then it is worth a damn.

Andrii Saichuk spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, translated by Vitalii Holich

Collage by Dmytro Taradayka

Photo by Ivan Stanislavskyi/ Tvoe Misto

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