‘If Russia dropped a big bomb on Ukraine, nobody would give a shit.’
For as long as I’ve known them, my partner, Anna, has been waiting for the day they can shed the albatross of their Ukrainian citizenship and get the German one. Their experience of being Ukrainian in the wider world has been frustrating and degrading.
Switching citizenships may seem to some like an extreme measure, especially now there’s so much open admiration for Ukrainian bravery. However, it is, in fact, a necessity, if one is to allay the effects of being treated as a lowly post-Soviet transplant in Western Europe. You see, Ukraine currently ranks 34th in the overall world passport index, while Germany—where we both reside—chillaxes in second place.
For a lot of immigrants settled in Germany, getting German citizenship isn’t just about being able to vote in German and EU elections, apply for loans, and consign anxiety-inducing residence permit renewals to oblivion. It also represents more opportunities, with the world opening up to you for travel and work, demanding less of a performance from you to prove you are deserving of rights that others are simply born into by accident. In other words, it means being shown an inherent, arbitrary respect that shouldn’t exist. The fact that in the vast majority of cases, Germany does not allow naturalised citizens to keep their original citizenship, means that this irreversible step into a more economically advantageous life actually becomes an existential, emotional question.
I am a British citizen. So, in terms of geopolitics, our relationship is lopsided. Yet, by that same token, it’s also almost perfectly symmetrical: my bratty country elected to leave the EU just two years after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, in which 108 of Anna’s compatriots literally died for the chance of one day being considered a part of Europe. (In fact, before we’d even ordered coffee on our first date, Anna asked me what I thought of Brexit, in order to determine whether we’d be a match.)
Since we’ve been together, my eyes have been opened to how the ability to visit your partner’s place of origin is actually a total privilege. Anna and I got together in mid-2019, and they were approved for a six-month UK tourist visa to accompany me on a trip there in December that year. Then COVID hit, which was not just a blow because of all the time and money now down the drain, but it also knocked out the prospect of any further trips for a couple of years.
Getting this visa is one thing, but actually using it is its own unique, delicate process. It wasn’t just the cost that was a factor; we needed to make sure we could do enough UK trips within the allotted timeframe to make it worth the trouble of applying for it, also accounting for annual leave allowance and various phases of illness and unemployment.
Despite these obstacles that may make a switch to the more powerful citizenship seem like a no-brainer, many immigrants from countries like Ukraine spend a lot of time interrogating their national and cultural identities, weighing up all the possible scenarios in which they might end up regretting giving up their ties to the past and their families. One such scenario might be a full-scale war.
I have never been to Ukraine. In January 2022, we finally started planning a trip there for the spring. We’d fly from Berlin to the beautiful seaside city of Odesa, which I’d long dreamt of visiting because of its rich literary traditions and unique demographic heritage. Then we’d take the overnight train to Anna’s hometown of Poltava, before travelling on to magnificent Kyiv.
‘I wouldn’t book anything yet,’ my mum cautioned as I gushed about our tentative plans. ‘It’s looking a bit wobbly there at the moment.’
Anna laughed it off; typical sheltered Western twitchiness! Meanwhile, we asked their father what the mood was like on the ground. I was taken aback by how relaxed he was. The consensus: we’ve been in this situation before, we’ll be in it again, all we can do is get on with our lives.
This attitude astonished me, but at the same time, it made total sense given all the intense hardships Ukrainians have survived, the layers of national generational trauma Anna had described to me. How it innately hardens you, growing up in Ukraine. My impression of it was a country with a rich, atavistic folk culture, but also, by dint of its exit from Soviet repression and the spectre of recurrent Russian authoritarianism, a struggling, unpredictable place that one simply couldn’t be sent back to. Not as a queer person, not as someone who otherwise didn’t fit the carved-out societal mould.
A complex country of which, until the 24th February 2022, the world was largely ignorant.
Overnight, it started watching. Masses of people fleeing the war began to arrive at Berlin’s transport hubs daily; studies suggest that by the end of 2022, over a million people had fled from Ukraine to Germany. Someone at work started a #ukraine Slack channel, where colleagues earnestly discussed how we could aid refugees and mitigate this situation on our doorstep. (Nine months later, when I noticed that some colleagues had left the now dormant channel—from the comfort of their homes with a plentiful supply of electricity and water, protected under international security agreements signed decades before their birth — I had long since become disillusioned by the nonchalance of the unaffected.)
Prior to all this, I’d known of Telegram only as a WhatsApp alternative. But as Ukraine’s most popular messaging app, it turned into an indispensable medium for the diaspora to not only organise demos to put pressure on the German government to increase sanctions on Russia, but also to coordinate donation drives and volunteer shifts for welcoming arrivals. Whenever Anna wasn’t working, they could be found on the couch, scrolling the list of all their Telegram channels and conversations, almost each one marked with a circular profile picture divided into a blue a yellow hemispheres: the Ukrainian flag, symbolising the sky over a field of wheat. Hundreds of unread messages, twenty-four hours a day, in a minimum of four languages, from strangers offering and seeking, announcing and ranting, lamenting and commiserating.
One day in March, through one of these Telegram groups, Anna went to meet a teenager from Odesa arriving at Berlin’s main train station, for whom a familiar cadence would be an antidote to this strange and fraught setting. Krystya* is tall, thin, and has a baggy, grungy sense of style. Estranged from her parents, she came to Berlin all alone. At first, she temporarily lived with somebody who’d opened up their home to refugees, but this would be just the beginning of a very tumultuous, ongoing journey to finding more stable accommodation.
Even though there are only 12 years between them, Anna started to refer to Krystya as “like a daughter”. First, I wondered whether the age difference wouldn’t make Krystya more of a niece or a little sister. But in this extraordinary situation, did it actually matter? Weeks later, Anna told me of their intention to become a legal guardian for Krystya. I was filled with pride, but this also felt startingly adult. What would this make me: a stepmother?
I wondered how Krystya’s presence would affect our non-heteronormative, childfree life. Up until now, we’d always referred to our cats as our kids. Anna and I decided a long time ago that we don’t want to have children. Not only do neither of us particularly harbour the desire to become a parent, but in general, the question seems equally as ridiculous as “do you want to move to the moon?”. Firstly, conceiving isn’t nearly as straightforward for us as it is for most couples, plus, according to current, discriminatory German laws, only the birthing parent would be considered the legal mother, while the other would have to go through a rigorous process of adopting the child. Secondly, we rent a one-bedroom apartment in a capital city with a housing crisis. Thirdly, how are we supposed to provide adequate emotional support to a baby when we respectively have our own struggles with this ourselves?
Another realisation robbed me of breath for a moment: my hypothetical children would be Ukrainian. Therefore, as long as this war went on, I would be personally implicated, in some ancillary way.
Ukrainian childhoods are being taken away by Russians. As reports started to come in of Russian war crimes, it became exceedingly clear that they do not discriminate by age; as of 1st June 2023, Russia was confirmed to have killed 535 children in Ukraine and injured almost three times as many. Notably, in March 2022, it attacked a maternity hospital in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which underwent a brutal siege and was captured by Russia two months later. In July 2022, a Russian cruise missile hit Vinnytsia, Western Ukraine, killing 23 people including three children, one of whom was four-year-old Liza, a girl with Down syndrome. The picture of her lifeless body in her overturned stroller, with blood everywhere, haunted me for days. That was the moment I understood I couldn’t look away from these images any longer. I had a stake in this, a responsibility to help make sure Ukraine won the war.
All of this cruelty is absolutely calculated and intentional. Over 16,000 Ukrainian children from occupied places like Mariupol have been systematically deported to Russia, in order to be assimilated into families there. In May 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a decree making it easier for Russians to “adopt” Ukrainian children and turn them into Russian citizens without consent of their legal guardians. This is not only a shameless act of russification — with which Ukraine has a long, painful, and above all recent history — but also an act of genocide, according to Article 2 Section E of the 1948 Genocide Convention. They will stop at nothing to actualise russkiy mir, which is the term used in Russian propaganda for the imagined Russian world order. (Ironically enough, the word mir also translates as “peace”.) As a result of this, Putin, along with the so-called Commissioner of Children’s Rights in Russia, was issued with an international arrest warrant in March 2023. Although it may be easy for some to see this as a cause for celebration in terms of holding them accountable, the truth is that war crimes are being carried out and cheered on by far, far more Russians than just those at the top.
All the same, to even get to this point of being a potential parent of a Ukrainian child, I have had to ask myself some tough questions. Previously, I had pretty unreservedly aligned myself with the left, but it didn’t take long after February 2022 for me to find that many of my peers were expressing opinions that, consciously or otherwise, were designed to expedite Ukraine’s defeat and undermine public support for it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, they’d never said a word about Russia’s annexation of Crimea nor its creation of two illegitimate “republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, eight years prior to its declaration of war on Ukraine as a whole.
The sheer range of their assertions was almost impressive: from loud, unthinking opposition against NATO-allied countries supplying Ukraine with help to halt the Russian offensive, to straight-up spreading narratives that were cooked up in the Kremlin, and even engaging in antisemitic conspiracy theories. A couple of those I had previously considered friends stayed silent about horrific war crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers — such as the civilian massacres in the Kyiv region, discovered in early April 2022 — yet were quick to repost armchair opinions from US pundits about how the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, was a terrible person for appearing in a Vogue feature. Not to mention my favourite type of wolf in sheep’s clothing: “I do feel sorry for the people, but Zelenskyy needs to make some compromises. #NoWarButClassWar”
All of this exists in rejection of the lived experiences and generational trauma of people who lived under decades of Soviet oppression, or at least who inherited its aftermath. This, in turn, has forced me to interrogate my own journey in realising the world doesn’t actually exist in some neat, convenient system, where the imperialist wrongs of the USA mean that no other superpower could ever be committing premeditated evil.
On a 2015 trip to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius — several years before I met Anna — I stopped at the KGB Museum. It is housed in a former prison where Soviet authorities violently murdered over 1,000 people from 1944 to the early 1960s. As I read the information board outside, I caught myself thinking: Okay, it wasn’t perfect back then, nothing is. But this? How do people I respect just gloss over these atrocities ordered by Stalin, or even deny them? Since the Soviet Union spanned such a long period, it is an inextricable part of the shared history of countries such as Lithuania and Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean the violence and repression perpetrated by that regime should be normalised. Especially not when Russian right-wing totalitarianism, built on ideas that perpetuate precisely that past, is actively shaping the 21st century.
At some point in 2021 — a year or so into COVID-related restrictions — I had started to get the feeling that a lot of people didn’t really care about others: objects of protection, like masks and vaccines, were now being recast as tools of oppression. So when social media influencers dropped their initial concern for Ukraine like a hot potato, and the general public started mocking it and holding its people to impossible standards, without even once condemning Russia, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Mentally, I still keep a list of people who have shown me, either directly or indirectly, that they Get It. And I cherish them. This may be a family of a different kind: not even a chosen one, exactly, but one that came together organically, on its own. Its members may not even be aware of one other’s existence, yet for somebody — me — they form an unwitting support system that gets me through hopeless days.
Despite us being queer, I’d never imagined our relationship would be political. Early on with Anna, I learnt that foreigners should refer to the capital as Kyiv, not Kiev (many news outlets have altered their style guides since February 2022). For an English-speaker, this involves some more intentional pronunciation. The first vowel in the word involves tensing your throat, and the second vowel is a release that forces you to smile very slightly. Київ: even the Ukrainian spelling of it, with the diaresis-topped i, one of the Cyrillic letters that differentiate the written language from its Russian counterpart, resembles a little tiara hovering over the word.
It may be easy to assume that Anna made a targeted decision to move to Berlin because it’s widely considered a queer capital city, but in fact, it was not the original destination. Returning to Ukraine after a year-long exchange in Minnesota with the support of FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program), Anna felt increasingly that Poltava — or Ukraine, for that matter — was not a place where they belonged. But moving to the US as a Ukrainian without the sponsorship of a powerful organisation like FLEX is nearly impossible, unless you’re rich according to Ukrainian standards. Anna knew enough people who had applied for a US visa and spent all their savings on it, only to be denied the visa after the embassy worker had taken one swift glance at the applicant. Many had a theory that their fate truly depended on the mood of that individual.
Anna kept their American dream alive by hanging out with Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Poltava. Even the thought of overstaying a J1 student seasonal work visa briefly crossed Anna’s mind. But after hearing about bad job experiences from fellow Ukrainians who’d successfully got the J1—and not wanting to risk deportation and thus banishment from the Land of Opportunity—they decided against it.
A new plan was concocted: learning a Western European language and going to the next best thing, a Western European country. This still took a lot of deliberate planning, perseverance, and patience: at that point, until 2017, Ukrainians still needed a visa and proof of funds even just to transit through EU Schengen countries. This was not a task Anna could accomplish on their own, so they took German language courses for three years before spending two years submitting numerous applications to the European Voluntary Service. Germany was naturally the main focus, but at this point Anna felt desperate to leave, and so they applied to multiple countries. Eventually, Germany accepted.
Some, such as Denmark, point-blank told Anna: we don’t take Ukrainians.
In contrast, my move to Germany was uncomplicated and far less desperate: in the sense that I had other options, in the sense that I had a place to go back to. Living here for almost a decade, I’ve come to think of my visits back to the UK not as holidays, but simply part of the way I have my life set up. That is not to say these visits are a complete chore, but they often end up an irritating reminder that I can’t really call one place home (when I’m in the UK, I feel forever 23, and not necessarily in a good way).
Similarly, it was implicit that the Ukraine trip we’d been planning wasn’t so much a vacation as a chance for me to finally bear witness to Anna’s provenance: the stories, for better or worse, would come to life. Even more unspoken was the fact that Anna would also be going there for closure: to confront the difficulties of the past with their family, difficulties that I will likely never have access to. Because of the war, that closure would have to be postponed indefinitely.
‘This is just one more thing the Russians have stolen from us,’ Anna said to me on an autumn walk when I once again expressed sorrow about our non-trip and, as had become the case, felt disgusting and selfish in doing so.
In this way, Ukraine has become this negative space between us. Previously, it existed only in our home: cultural tidbits and veganised traditional dishes became part of our domestic fabric, where we had Ukrainian friends come to visit from time to time; the ones Anna had met by chance through hospitality jobs, the ones who’d come to Berlin via a similar path. Soon after Anna and I got together, I reignited the Russian-learning project I’d started in my teens. These days, it’s a language that I have an uneasy relationship with. Despite the fact it’s the one I use to communicate with Krystya, for example. Despite knowing that millions of Ukrainians loyal to Ukraine speak it as their primary language.
I used to count any acquisition of foreign vocabulary as an inherent win. Now I regret that having expanded it in certain areas this year, I can understand more of that Russian propaganda: at best, nonsensical, at worst, barbaric.
In such a short space of time, our private, interior lives have become the prey of the outside world, and I have found myself torn in these different directions. Ukraine may be a household name now, but this doesn’t translate to feeling settled and satisfied that Ukrainians are being treated with justice. By appearance they may be mostly white, but even in a Western white supremacist society, this doesn’t stop more privileged people muting and trivialising the daily horrors of the war, making casually cruel remarks about those in unthinkable situations. If Europeans can’t even show basic compassion for their immediate neighbours, I hate to imagine what they truly think about people on other continents who are in peril. I have joined this fight now: I am fuelled by my anger and frustration at people who’ve got it all wrong, both online and offline, yet don’t hesitate to spread their shit everywhere.
It’s disorienting to not know which part of it is really mine — if it ever was, having never breathed Ukrainian air. But if we had a kid, I would be part of it, in a very concrete way. Like many countries in Europe, Ukraine’s citizenship law includes the jus sanguinis principle: that is, your citizenship will be determined by your parentage. That applies to adoption, too. In September 2022, Krystya turned 18 and was thereby no longer the charge of the German youth office. She no longer needed a guardian. She became her own person. But having raised herself since the age of 14, she is prone to getting herself into all kinds of shenanigans. She still needs Anna to act as interpreter at appointments.
In short, she really needs a family and she has one, in us. I have given her money to travel to Frankfurt for a passport renewal (which she duly repaid out of the measly sum she receives from the state). Her friend Vasya*, a bleached-blond guy she knew back in Odesa from a hairdressing apprenticeship, has cut my hair in my home. Krystya and her roommate Dasha* joined us on Christmas Day; they are fussy eaters, so instead of Anna’s delicious home-cooked vegan dinner, we got them frozen pizzas and they chatted happily as they tried to ward off our cats’ interest in their food.
At the moment, adoption rights do not extend to same-sex couples in Ukraine. The lack of openness and acceptance towards LGBTQI+ people was one of the factors that originally drove Anna and some other Ukrainian friends of mine out of Ukraine in 2014, fresh off the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Things seem set to improve in Ukraine, though; while the Constitution cannot be amended while martial law is in place, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that the possibility of legalising equal marriage will be reviewed after the war is over. This is something that progressive Ukrainians will definitely hold him to.
All the same, even if your country seems to hate you, you’ll fight for it when its very existence is under threat: whether that means in the most literal sense of military combat, or becoming acutely aware of the thread that connects you with other Ukrainians, and even with Eastern Europeans, Caucasians, and Central and Eastern Asians who have suffered varying degrees of Russian occupation and genocide.
Whether our hypothetical children are biological or adopted, and whether Anna would parent them as a Ukrainian or a German citizen, effectively matters little. What matters is the shared memory and the values that will be passed on; those same values forged by descending from survivors of the horrors that Ukraine has experienced, over the 20th century in particular. This is what cultivated the spirit that the world sees in its people today, represented by Zelenskyy, who was named Time Person of the Year 2022. But while the adults navigate these immense questions, the future of Ukraine, like any nation, depends on its children. In the current context, with the current war crimes, this is even more urgent.
Clearing out old papers in our apartment recently, I found a piece of paper in Ukrainian. It was a printout of an email from the embassy in Berlin, dated from May 2021, concerning Anna’s application for a passport renewal. It would be the first of many planned visits to the embassy if they were to go through with the naturalisation process, which requires as much paperwork from the infamously bureaucratic Germany as it would from the Ukrainian side. Most bizarre, in Anna’s eyes, is that Zelenskyy himself would have to sign the denaturalisation form. Right now he has bigger fish to fry than a distant citizen who, in Ukraine’s time of most urgent need, has apparently decided to discard their legal connection to it. But, it’s a different country — one that itself carries a very heavy historical responsibility — that has made this complicated dance necessary. Not Anna and not Ukraine.
In the end, being Ukrainian is about survival and resistance. It’s not about the passport you hold. Not as long as I have Ukrainian-born friends who have given up—or plan to give up—their original citizenship in order to have more security, yet are some of the most vocal in their activism. Ukraine not only deserves to be peaceful, independent, and sovereign, but this never should have been called into question in the first place. As long as my prospective children will be Ukrainian, I’ll fight for them. And even if that should ever cease to be the case, I’ll continue.
One thing is for certain: our family — however it may look — would not survive within russkiy mir.
*Names changed for privacy and protection of refugees.
Please consider making a donation to one or more of the following Ukrainian charities, who did not hesitate to carry out life-saving missions in the wake of Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on 6th June 2023: