Editor’s Note: Nonna Stefanova is a journalist at Channel 5-TV in Kyiv. She is a television director and a lecturer of TV and cinema at Kyiv’s Karpenko-Kary National University of Theatre, Cinema, and Television. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Monday, Russian missiles scorched a children’s playground in Kyiv that my family calls “our playground,” leaving behind a gaping crater. Later, people gathered to take photos of the rocket’s footprint in the upturned soil, where bits of twisted metal lay scattered just a few feet from the brightly-painted climbing frame and merry-go-round.
A sunny autumn morning. Moms in Ukraine – and I am one of them – rouse their children with words like “Wake up, dear! We have to hurry to the bomb shelter!” Or “Hurry up honey, it’s the air raid sirens again!”
This week’s missile attacks on the capital were some of the deadliest since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February. I’m a good person to ask for that comparison – as is my husband, our 9-year-old son Askold and my parents. When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on February 24, we decided not to leave our home, trusting in the strength and resolve of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
In the more than seven months since, we have heard almost all of the previous missile attacks on Kyiv, but Monday’s strikes were the loudest and closest to us.
Our playground is in Shevchenko Park in the center of the city, and is very well known to every Kyivan. Close to my parents’ home, it’s the park where I went for my first walk with my newborn son. We’ve visited almost daily in the years since, continuing to do so to this day.
The park itself, named after Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, has become Askold’s main playground, remaining so, eerily deserted, in late February and March, when Russian tanks stood a mere 25 kilometers away.
During that battle for Kyiv, we wanted to continue giving our child as normal a life as was possible – with a good sleep, even in a bomb shelter, learning and leisure time, karate workouts and a daily walking and running routine in between the wailing of air-raid sirens and before curfew.
Askold would take his “weapon” – a wooden sword – to the usually empty playground, much to the bemusement of the National Guard securing the park. He could choose any slide, see-saw, or merry-go-round that he wanted, but the abundance of choice was dampened by the lack of playmates, most of them having left Kyiv with their parents.
Apart from the National Guard and our family, on some days the only “human” in the park was the imposing yet welcoming monument of Taras Shevchenko (not then protected by a concrete enclosure – that would come later).
The statue is located some 75 meters from Askold’s playground, gazing approvingly at the striking red-columned entrance to Ukraine’s largest university, which also bears Shevchenko’s name.
The park had become Askold’s “territory,” a space that he was helping the National Guard to defend against the invaders.
Struggle on – and be triumphant!
God Himself will aid you
These words from Shevchenko’s poem “The Caucasus” are some of the most cited passages in Ukrainian literature.
Did Shevchenko somehow know that Russians would turn playgrounds into battlegrounds in Ukraine – playgrounds right here, in a carefully-groomed park named after him? That portions of Kyiv’s National University, along with the monument to historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, regarded by many as the first president of Ukraine, would also be hit by shrapnel? I like to think he probably did.
The resistance of Ukrainians and other subjugated peoples against the Russian empire is one of the core themes in Shevchenko’s poems. In their missile attacks on Kyiv, did the Russians want to destroy his monument as a symbolic gesture? This was a hot topic Monday on Ukrainian social media, as people desperately tried to cope with the shock of missiles striking the capital’s city center.
“Why does Russia bomb us, mommy?” On this morning, more than any other, I had to find a good answer to my son’s question.
Would I tell him that Russia is using old maps? Because it wants to destroy monuments of Ukrainian history and culture? Or, just simply, because it can?
This question from my son was also among the first he had asked early on the morning of February 24. The full-scale war was a huge shock but unfortunately not a big surprise for us.
The Revolution of Dignity, also known as Euromaidan, began when Askold was 7 months old. A few months later, Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in the east of Ukraine. We always knew that one day war would come to our home in Kyiv – and in 2022 it did.
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“Why does Russia do it?” Askold asked again, devastated, looking at pictures and videos of the crater where his favorite swing in the playground used to be.
I told him the truth: because the Russians don’t want us to exist. I felt that I was ready to say these words to my son – after all, we had taken him to visit the sites of mass graves in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, where he saw what no 9 year old should see. But I knew we had to.
It’s because he must understand why he goes to a bomb shelter instead of his classroom; why Russia intends to destroy Ukraine, with its playgrounds, parks and Shevchenko’s poetry. And why the weapons in the hands of the National Guard in the park are not wooden – but utterly real.