Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. She has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. Her work on Ukraine is supported by the IWM project Documenting Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Long nights with the promise of a miracle: December is the month of fairy tales, when we peer into the darkness only to be reassured of the “happily ever after.”
“We used to joke that our life was like a dark fairy tale inclined towards a happy ending. And now it’s over,” says Ievheniia, a displaced Ukrainian woman in Poland who this December is nursing her two-month-old son – and raw grief for the child’s father.
On November 18, Ievheniia’s husband Denys was killed in action while defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. The 47-year-old died at the site of some of the war’s heaviest fighting, near the city of Bakhmut in the east of the country. Ukrainian forces have been holding the line there for months; soldiers waist-deep in mud amid trenches, bomb craters and charred trees.
With a newborn baby, Ievheniia was unable to travel back to Ukraine for her husband’s funeral. She asked relatives to livestream it for her. But Russia’s continued attacks on critical infrastructure has made Internet connection in Ukraine unreliable – what she got was a few short recordings. Denys was buried in a closed coffin.
A fairy tale told via video link
In this dark Ukrainian fairy tale, pivotal moments – from marriage ceremony to funeral – take place via video link. This is what love looks like in a time of war, shifted to the digital space and disrupted mid-plot.
And so it was via a video call that Ievheniia, a 36-year-old PhD candidate working as an IT consultant, told me her story. She trusted a stranger with her pain to raise awareness about the fight which, since the start of Russia’s invasion in February, has claimed the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.
In the streets of Warsaw, her temporary home, the festive season is well underway. “Christmas is coming. People don’t want to be reminded that someone somewhere is suffering,” Ievheniia said. “And yet, they must be aware that this fight is unfolding right next to them.”
For many Ukrainians like Ievheniia, the war didn’t start this year but in February 2014, when Russia invaded the east of their country and annexed Crimea. Her brother volunteered and served for four years in the Ukrainian Armed Forces; he too was killed on the front lines in 2018, as the international community turned a blind eye to Russian aggression.
A sports medicine physician and reserve officer, Ievheniia has too been ready to join Ukraine’s army these eight years, if called upon. “I am not the kind of person who flees,” she explained.
But her story had another twist to come.
A war, and a pregnancy
The day after Russia launched its full-scale attack, both Ievheniia and Denys, among thousands of Ukrainian men and women, queued to enlist in the army. Denys signed up straight away, but convinced Ievheniia to first evacuate his relatives from Kyiv to western Ukraine.
After driving westwards across the country under Russian bombardment, Ievheniia finally arrived at an enlistment office. She was interviewed on a Friday and told to return the following Monday to sign a contract with the Armed Forces.
On the weekend, she decided to take a pregnancy test, just in case. “With war and evacuation, the ground was slipping under one’s feet,” she said with a laugh. “On top of that, it turned out that I was pregnant.”
The pregnancy test provided that plot twist: the woman who planned to defend her homeland instead joined the flow of refugees looking for safety in Poland.
Separated by war, Ievheniia and Denys sought to validate their partnership in the eyes of the state. The everyday ingenuity of the country at war was at work; now, Ukrainian servicemen are allowed to marry via a video call. “Instead of (by) boring civil servants, we got married remotely by a handsome man in a uniform. I had nothing to complain about,” Ievheniia said.
A brief moment of magic
Over the following months, Denys kept the magic alive via the Internet, with flower deliveries and professional photoshoots ordered for Ievheniia from the trenches.
He managed to take leave once and meet his pregnant wife in a sleepy town at the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Still there was room for another near escape in their story: a rare pregnancy complication almost took Ievheniia and her baby’s lives.
When one morning she did not pick up the phone, Denys raised the alarm all over Warsaw and a rescue squad found Ievheniia unconscious in her rented flat. A delay could have resulted in death. A Caesarean section followed. Because the baby was born two months early, the father was able to meet his new son.
Under martial law, Ukrainian men of fighting age, let alone servicemen, are not currently allowed to leave the country. Yet as is appropriate for a fairy tale, Denys got permission, crossed the border, and spent five days with his family.
“It was a magical time filled with ordinary things: shopping, registering with a pediatrician, laughing, talking. Then he left. It was his birthday on November 17 and we sent him greetings,” Ievheniia remembered. “The next day he was killed.”
Ievheniia cried while finishing her story. The conventional happy ending has not been served.
Italo Calvino, the celebrated Italian journalist and editor of folktales, among other works, called them “consolatory fables” because it is that a rare fairy tale ends badly. If it does, it means the time to be consoled has not yet come. Instead, it is time to act.
As we hurry to bring gifts to our loved ones, enchanted by the flickering of Christmas lights, we must remember the country in Europe plunged into darkness by Russia’s barbaric imperialist war.
And we must not be deluded by the narrative logic of a fairy tale. The wily kid will not defeat the monster with the aid of magic. Like ten months ago, Ukrainians need military aid sufficient to bring a decisive victory over Russia, not just prolong the fight with enormous sacrifices. Ukrainian victory depends on our collective effort.
“As a teenager, I was reading a lot of fantasy books and wondering how I would act in a fight against absolute evil. Would I be able to turn away and proceed with my daily life?” Ievheniia told me. “Today, all of us have a chance to find out.”