The latest Substack instalment from Belarusian-born, US-based activist Darya Zorka had a part that I really identified with:
Since I don’t live in Ukraine, I had a choice to carry on as nothing was happening, but I also didn’t. I couldn’t ignore the war and stay aside. Not only because it directly affected my family but because it was the only right thing to do in the face of such terrible injustice and evil. I chose to live a war life even though I lived in a peaceful place because I suddenly realized how fragile my peace and safety were. However, I kept telling myself that this war life was temporary and not a “real” life, that my real life was put on hold, and it would return as soon as the war ended. This summer, I realized that my old life doesn’t exist anymore and that my “temporary” war life is, actually, the only life I have.
This realization sounds depressing, but in reality, it felt liberating. I finally accepted the change that happened. I finally became aware of my life. I stopped skipping it, delaying, and trying to wait it out. I also accepted that some things, such as the world’s lack of acknowledgment of Russian colonialism, may not change as fast as I want.
Indeed, this is the only life I have.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, I have been posting Instagram stories about it on my private account. Afterwards, I add them to my highlights for future reference (it’s worth mentioning that I only created those highlights a bit later, when I realised that me posting about Ukraine had turned into a thing). The stories tend to fall into the following categories:
- Spreading awareness about what is happening in Ukraine, including the intensity and frequency of attacks and the severity of Russian war crimes in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine;
- Sharing content from Ukrainians about their personal experiences in the war and the world’s treatment of it;
- Sharing information about fundraisers and demonstrations;
- Dissecting some aspect of cliché-based Western reporting or the proliferation of Russia-centred narratives and lies;
- Debunking well-meaning but unhelpful misconceptions about Ukraine and Ukrainians that are expressed by foreign supporters.
The first ever story I posted was a screenshot from a photo posted by local Ukrainian NGO, Vitsche. It shows a person at a protest in Berlin, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and holding up a cardboard sign that says DEPUTINIZE RUSSIA.
The second and third stories, posted that same day, were written by me:
At the time I had no idea just how long this war would go on. I also didn’t know just how much these words would actually set the tone for my work. While there are parts of it I’d now slightly reword, the general sentiment has remained. In fact, it’s only intensified.
I never knew what my “mission” was. I never planned to post over 700 stories about this. Actually, in spring 2022, what I was supposed to be doing on Instagram was posting photos from trips to Kyiv, Odesa, and Poltava. Not sat in Berlin, tapping away arguing with people about having basic empathy with victims of the unthinkable, and about the insidious way in which Russian propaganda has soaked into Western leftist circles.
So, all I knew was that I needed to try and add my voice in a useful way.
As I wrote in a pinned Instagram grid post for anyone who somehow missed the reasons I keep going on about Ukraine: I’m not an academic or journalistic expert on this (though I do read quite a lot of books and articles, and obviously I follow the news closely). I’ve never even been to Ukraine. I am simply someone in a relationship with a Ukrainian. By dint of that, I have perspectives and resources available to me that the average onlooker doesn’t. So it is my duty to share them.
2022 and 2023 have been years of firsts for me.
Never did I think I’d have to cut people I otherwise generally agreed with out of my life, due to a single “issue” and their stubbornly cynical attitude towards it.
Never did I think I’d post subtweety stories calling out so-called friends who’d not only never once asked how I was, despite my relative proximity to the war, but who also had a habit of viewing one story, then checking out of the rest after they saw it was related to Ukraine. While some thankfully sympathised with my frustrated posts about this, I’m sure others probably thought, “damn, she’s unwell”.
Never did I think it would be so alienating to be the only one making continued efforts to get people at work to at least just support refugees in their own city. I couldn’t help but resent the white German colleagues who started casually and shamelessly leaving the company’s #ukraine Slack channel once the war stopped making news. When I told a colleague about how I felt, they suggested that maybe these people had to do it “for their mental health”.
(I almost had to laugh. If their level of engagement with Ukraine was indeed intensive enough to be compromising their mental health, then they would understand precisely why they couldn’t leave the channel.)
Never did I think I would end up learning the names of different types of missiles, drones, and other weapons that Russia uses day and night not just to destroy Ukrainian life, but also to try and intimidate the population into submission. (Spoiler: it’s achieving the exact opposite.)
Never in my life did I think I would find out what a charred or decaying human corpse looks like. Actually, in general, I never planned to see a close-up even of a hand of someone who definitely didn’t die in natural circumstances. And absolutely never did I imagine being exposed to a photograph — thankfully blurred out — of a decapitated head on a stake.
I didn’t go looking for those images. Rather, I’m mentioning them because I truly do not think the majority of people in countries like Germany are aware of the harrowing extent of the ongoing Russian genocide of Ukrainians. It is an undertaking based on a carefully constructed fascist ideology, widely celebrated both in Russia’s state media and on the streets of its cities. Equally instrumentalised in this undertaking is not only the Russian looting and reappropriation of Ukrainian culture, but also Russian cultural artefacts that are widely celebrated abroad, such as its classic literature. It is why I will keep on saying it’s a privilege to be able to regard the monolith of “Russian culture” as some innocuous thing separate from the atrocities it will commit today, tonight, and tomorrow, until someone is brave enough to give Ukraine everything it needs to stop it in its tracks.
Those pictures all show people who had lives and dreams and loved ones. Who, up until a Russian soldier made a decision to enact evil, felt pain just like you do. The pictures show people who, even in death, are all too easily belittled and dismissed even by their neighbours, and that is what has shaken up my trust in humanity as a whole. I don’t believe there is any going back from it.
On the other hand, in 2022 and 2023, there have been some other firsts.
I never guessed I’d be interested in learning the Ukrainian language, which really is as lovely as people say. I’d always presumed I could get around in Ukraine speaking Russian. Safe to say that is not something I would try anymore, though it will take some work not to get the words mixed up.
I never thought that for the friendships I lost, I would feel an enhanced strength in the ones I kept. Not only with my Ukrainian friends, whom I’m grateful to keep learning from, and who hopefully feel supported by me. But also with the non-Ukrainian friends who don’t mute me, who I know read every word of my stories, who have offered support and have also generally shown solidarity with Ukraine of their own accord.
While I did previously have some interest in the issues faced by people in other countries that had been in the USSR, I never thought I’d go on deep dives into their histories. This has given me a greater understanding of the enduring Russian imperialist and colonialist mindset, and therefore not only of what’s truly at stake in this war, but also of my own place and privilege in the world.
It is painful to take stock of the ways Russia’s war of annihilation on Ukraine has changed my life, even as someone sitting a couple of thousand kilometres away from the front line — although, of course, missiles land closer than that. It’s painful to realise again and again that so many people do not care to understand it, even when patiently and generously offered the opportunity to do so.
For example, it has changed how I interact on social media. I feel self-conscious about posting a balanced ratio of Ukraine content to “cheerful” content, not only to put up an illusion of me still being the person I was, but also for the infamous algorithm. Also, I’m now much quicker to block people for my own peace of mind.
In contrast, when buying books, I am now much more slow and deliberate about whose work I will support, for these reasons.
When I’m walking down the streets of Berlin, I feel attuned to every poster and sticker I see… and in Berlin, there are a lot of those. Even an illustration of a dove can raise my hackles, because I know how many people here equate that image with their self-righteous notion of peace; a purely theoretical peace that is somehow supposed to materialise without armed resistance. A false peace where civilian lives do not factor in at all, thus validating the aggressor’s aims and permitting it to carry on.
My relationship with my British family, too, now has some added tension — and not for the reasons you’re probably assuming.
I am grieving the life that’s not coming back. I am traumatised by the various harsh truths that have come to light and the tumultuous changes in my personal life. For a long time, I felt I had no right to claim words like “grief” and “trauma”. But if I’m to keep doing this work, I have to be honest with myself.
I’ve had many discussions about the guilt surrounding my feelings with my Ukrainian partner. One thing’s for sure: we are in this together. Through properly acknowledging my emotional state, more than 18 months in, I am approaching something like acceptance that things will never go back to how they were. Obviously, this doesn’t mean an acceptance for how they are now. On the contrary, it motivates me to keep pushing for change. The time of sitting back is long gone.
Darya Zorka’s latest dispatch concludes with this:
I think that war and the change it brings is experienced as loss because you lose everything you had before: the way you lived and perceived the world; your friends and loved ones, not necessarily to death, but also to betrayal and detachment; your dreams, goals, and the way you think of the future. After losing a family member in 2021, I spent lots of time reading about loss and grief. I remembered a phrase by Nora McInerny: “We don’t move on from grief. We move forward with it.” This phrase helped me to process the loss of a close person two years ago, and it helped me to process the recent loss of my old life that the war brought. This summer, I’ve realized that I will never move on from everything that happened, but I will move forward with it.
This is very relatable to me, too. The war has coincided with other types of loss I’ve been experiencing, and it is all so tough right now. I can only try to move forward.
Nobody can say for sure when the war will end, but I only know that Ukraine must be victorious. I will keep focusing on not just on how I can help that happen, but also on how I can help myself help make that happen.
Please consider making a donation to Helping to Leave to support the evacuation and care of people and animals living around the front line in Ukraine.