I am angry that Russia might get away with what it has done to Ukraine, that my friends and loved ones are constantly in danger. But I have no way to release this emotion, so it builds.
JULY 12, 2022
About the author: Veronika Melkozerova is a journalist based in Kyiv. She is the executive editor of the New Voice of Ukraine, an English-language news site.
In early June, I met Natalya with her husband and stepdaughter in downtown Kyiv. The family had arrived the day before from Dnipro but had been living in Mariupol, which by then had been destroyed and occupied by Russian forces, and were spending a few days in the capital before heading on to western Ukraine, where they had been promised jobs and a new life. She had gotten in touch after reading some of my stories about evacuees from Mariupol, and we planned a day together in Kyiv before they continued on their journey.
The prior few weeks had been a catalog of horrors for Natalya. Her hometown had been subject to unending bombing; her apartment had been destroyed by shelling; her 21-year-old son had, much like 1 million other Ukrainians, been forcibly taken to Russia; her elderly mother was caught in territory occupied by Russia and its proxies; she’d watched as her friends and neighbors either died from starvation, dehydration, or the brutal cold, or were shot and killed by Russian snipers.
So when I walked up to them at St. Sofia Square, I expected to see deeply traumatized people. Instead, they were calm, happy, even—seeming to be ordinary tourists. Natalya was wearing a summer dress; when she saw me, she smiled and gave me a hug. We talked about life in Mariupol, but quickly moved on to our itinerary for the day. The family was particularly keen to see Kyiv’s Glass Bridge, a tourist attraction that opened three years ago with a transparent floor.
As we headed on our way, we passed by Mykhailivska Square, where the authorities had put on an exhibition of destroyed Russian tanks, vehicles that had been commandeered by Ukrainian forces near the capital, hoping to remind us all—as if any reminder were needed—that the Russians may have been held back in their assault on Kyiv, but the war was still raging.
Natalya froze for a moment. Then she rummaged through her handbag, took out her lipstick, and rushed to the nearest vehicle, a mobile missile launcher. burn, russia, as you’ve burnt my mariupol, she wrote in red.
No one, including me, tried to stop her.
For the past several months, since Russian forces launched their latest invasion of Ukraine, we have tried to stay humane, to be better than our enemy. All of us at Mykhailivska Square that day knew that it was wrong to wish for an entire country to burn. But Natalya’s words spoke for us. We cannot stay the perfect victim—liberal, forgiving, kind. Secretly, we yearn for revenge. Well, perhaps not so secretly now.
More than ever, I find myself angry and hateful. I am angry that Russia, the aggressor, might get away with what it has done to Ukraine. I am angry that my friends, my loved ones, and I are constantly in danger. But I have no way to release this emotion, and so my anger and hatred build.
Some 53 percent of my compatriots feel anger, rage, and hatred, as a result of the invasion, according to polling conducted in May by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Just 2 percent of Ukrainians have any positive feelings toward Russia, compared with 34 percent before the invasion.
None of this is shocking. Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded our land, killed our countrymen and women, and seized our territory. Russia justified its invasion by claiming that Ukrainians hate everything Russian. That wasn’t true, until Putin made it so with this invasion. In fact, it still isn’t: We don’t hate Russian culture, or the Russian language—we have shunned both because we hope that doing so will protect us.
We’re angry at the wider world, too. We are of course grateful for Western military and economic support, which is how we can still fight Russia. But why do so many countries, Western ones among them, still buy Russian oil and gas, providing money that the Kremlin then uses to fund the destruction of Ukraine? Why do Western commentators call for Ukraine, and not Russia, to stop fighting and to make concessions, to give up our land to those who invaded it? Why is the Ukrainian economic and food crisis—to say nothing of our pursuit of justice—less important than inflation or Western well-being?
I get angry when I see journalists or politicians seize upon the “good Russians” narrative—that not all Russians are bad, that the state and its people are different things, that ordinary citizens in Russia are suffering because of Western sanctions. We should, we are told, praise those Russians who protest against the Kremlin’s policies, who are openly critical of Putin. Take Marina Ovsyannikova, the television journalist who held up a poster on Russian state TV criticizing the government, or the theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has long spoken out. These people were praised, labeled as brave. Yet Ovsyannikova has called for sanctions to be lifted, arguing that Russians are as much victims of Putin’s actions as Ukrainians, and Serebrennikov has called for help to be directed to the families of Russian soldiers forced to fight.
I watch this hunger for “good Russians” and want to scream out my window, “They are killing us! They are looting our land! They are torturing our people!” Putin may have ordered this invasion, but it is not he who is killing Ukrainians with his own hands—that is being done by ordinary Russians. They came here to kill our relatives, burn our books, and destroy our heritage. (And don’t tell me these Russians didn’t have a choice. We’re the ones who didn’t have a choice. All they had to do was disobey orders, and refuse to take part in Putin’s “special military operation.”)
Before the invasion, I had never hated anyone, but now my anger eats at me from inside. I don’t know how to live with it. I’m not even sure how I would behave around Russians were I to meet any. Until this year, even though their troops had annexed Crimea and Putin’s proxies had taken control of parts of the Donbas, I didn’t hate Russians as people. But now I avoid discussions with them on social media. I can’t even fully appreciate the sacrifices being made by genuinely good Russians, people who have defected to Ukraine and fight alongside our soldiers, or others who stand with us.
I acknowledge how bad this attitude is—for me, for my loved ones, for my country. A Russian journalist living in Ukraine who has published remarkable stories analyzing the shifts in the war told me that he regularly receives emails from readers who say, as I might, that there are no good Russians. “A person might write me that my work helps him to keep believing in Ukraine’s victory,” said this journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities of his job “and after that immediately say that all Russians should go to hell.” I would not want to effectively turn into my enemy, becoming a target of hatred for ordinary Russians because of the happenstance of my nationality and my consequent desire to live outside Putin’s empire.
To some extent, what my compatriots and I are feeling is normal, given the circumstances. “Russians violated not only our geographic but also our mental borders in an extremely violent way,” Andriy Kozinchuk, a military psychologist, told me. “What you described as hatred towards the enemy is in fact a desire to restore our borders.” Kozinchuk recounted how some of his patients had admitted that they found comfort in looking at photographs of dead Russian soldiers, experiencing a sense of safety in the notion that the invaders have failed.
Where many of us struggle, he said, is in lacking a release. Seeking therapy is becoming more common among Ukrainians but remains taboo on the whole. And few actions are available to those of us not fighting on the front lines.
Natalya found her release in lipstick graffiti scrawled on a destroyed Russian war machine. After walking back to me, facing away from the tank, she admitted that, for the first time in months, she felt great.
“You would think I’m crazy,” she told me, “but I feel as if I finally stood up for myself.”
Veronika Melkozerova is a journalist based in Kyiv. She is the executive editor of the New Voice of Ukraine, an English-language news site.