At the beginning of June, I met Natalya with her husband and daughter-in-law in downtown Kyiv. The family had arrived the day before from Dnipro but were living in Mariupol, which had by then been destroyed and occupied by Russian forces, and were spending a few days in the capital before heading to western Ukraine, where they had been promised jobs. and a new life. She had made contact after reading some of my stories about the Mariupol evacuees, and we had planned a day together in Kyiv before they continued their journey.
The previous weeks had been a catalog of horrors for Natalya. His hometown had been subjected to endless bombardment; his apartment had been destroyed by bombardments; his 21-year-old son had, along with 1 million other Ukrainians, been forcibly taken to Russia; his elderly mother was taken to territory occupied by Russia and its proxies; she had seen her friends and neighbors die of starvation, dehydration or brutal cold, or be shot by Russian snipers.
So when I met them in Place Sainte-Sophie, I expected to see deeply traumatized people. Instead, they were calm, happy, even, seeming to be ordinary tourists. Natalya wore a sundress; 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 moved forward, we passed Mykhailivska Square, where the authorities had held a display of destroyed Russian tanks, vehicles that had been commandeered by Ukrainian forces near the capital, hoping to remind us all – as if a recall was necessary. – 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 reached into her purse, pulled out her lipstick, and rushed to the nearest vehicle, a mobile missile launcher. Burn, Russia, as you burned my Mariupolshe writes in red.
Nobody, including me, tried to stop him.
Over the past few months, since Russian forces launched their last invasion of Ukraine, we have tried to remain human, to be better than our enemy. On that day, all of us in Mykhailivska Square knew that it was wrong to wish for a whole country to burn. But Natalya’s words spoke for us. We cannot remain the perfect victim – liberal, indulgent, kind. Secretly, we yearn for revenge. Well, maybe not so secretly now.
More than ever, I find myself angry and hateful. I am angry that Russia, the aggressor, can get away with what it did to Ukraine. I am angry that my friends, loved ones and I are in constant danger. But I have no way to release this emotion, and so my anger and hatred increase.
Some 53% of my compatriots feel anger, rage and hatred following the invasion, according to a May poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Only 2% of Ukrainians have positive feelings towards Russia, compared to 34% before the invasion.
None of this is shocking. Vladimir Putin’s forces have invaded our land, killed our compatriots and seized our territory. Russia justified its invasion by claiming that Ukrainians hate everything Russian. It wasn’t true, until Putin did it with this invasion. In fact, that’s still not the case: we don’t hate Russian culture or the Russian language – we’ve avoided both because we hope it will protect us.
We are also angry with the rest of the world. We are of course grateful for Western military and economic support, which still allows us to fight Russia. But why are so many countries, including Westerners, still buying Russian oil and gas, providing money that the Kremlin then uses to finance the destruction of Ukraine? Why are Western commentators asking Ukraine, not Russia, to stop fighting and make concessions, to cede our land to those who invaded it? Why is Ukraine’s economic and food crisis – not to mention our quest for justice – less important than inflation or Western welfare?
I get angry when I see journalists or politicians seizing on the narrative of “good Russians” – that not all Russians are bad, that the state and its people are different things, that ordinary citizens in Russia suffer because of Western sanctions. We should, we are told, congratulate Russians who protest Kremlin policies, who openly criticize Putin. Take Marina Ovsyannikova, the television journalist who held up a poster on Russian state television criticizing the government, or theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has long spoken out. These people were praised, described as courageous. Still, Ovsyannikova called for the sanctions to be lifted, arguing that Russians are as much victims of Putin’s actions as Ukrainians, and Serebrennikov called for aid to be directed to the families of Russian soldiers forced to fight.
I look at this thirst for “good Russians” and I feel like shouting out my window: “They are killing us! They are plundering our land! They are torturing our people! Putin may have ordered this invasion, but he’s not the one killing Ukrainians with his own hands, that’s what ordinary Russians do. They came here to kill our loved ones, burn our books and destroy our heritage. (And don’t tell me those Russians had no choice. We were the ones who had no choice. All they had to do was disobey orders and refuse to participate in “the Putin’s special military operation. ”)
Before the invasion, I had never hated anyone, but now my anger is eating me up inside. I don’t know how to live with this. I don’t even know how I would behave with Russians if I met any. Until this year, even though their troops had annexed Crimea and Putin’s proxies had taken over parts of Donbass, I didn’t hate Russians as people. But now I avoid chatting with them on social media. I cannot even fully appreciate the sacrifices made by genuinely good Russians, people who have defected to Ukraine and are fighting alongside our soldiers, or others who stand with us.
I recognize how bad this attitude is – for me, for my loved ones, for my country. A Russian journalist living in Ukraine who has published remarkable articles analyzing the changes in the war told me that he regularly receives emails from readers who say, as I might say, that there are no good Russians. “A person might write to me that my work helps them continue to believe in the victory of Ukraine,” said this journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of his work “and after that, immediately say that all Russians must go to hell.” I would not want to become effectively my enemy, to become a target of hatred for ordinary Russians because of the chance of my nationality and my consequent desire to live outside of Putin’s empire.
To some extent, what my compatriots and I are feeling is normal given the circumstances. “The Russians violated not only our geographical borders 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 admitted to finding comfort in looking at photographs of dead Russian soldiers, feeling a sense of security in the notion that the invaders had failed.
Where many of us struggle, he said, is not having release. Seeking therapy is increasingly common among Ukrainians but remains taboo overall. And few actions are available to those of us who aren’t fighting on the front line.
Natalya found her release in lipstick graffiti scrawled on a destroyed Russian war machine. After coming back to me with her back to the tank, she admitted that for the first time in months she felt fine.
“You might think I’m crazy,” she told me, “but I feel like I’ve finally fought back.”