Asa volunteer working alongside the Red army as they fought their bloody battles against Nazi Germany in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, Livdmyla Lishtvanonva, 99, would pick up unexploded shells and ammunition with her bare hands to help clear the streets for the fighting men and women. “Even off the roofs of buildings,” she recalls with a smile. “We were fighting for our land.”
Kharkiv, eight decades ago, as it is today, was the location for fierce battles in which many lives were lost and Lishtvanonva says that she and her mother, a nurse, had to leave their home city for a village on their outskirts after their apartment was destroyed in a bombing raid.
Lishtvanonva laments that the last two months, particularly the sounds and sights of shelling, have brought such memories flooding back. This weekend, as Ukraine quietly marked a day of remembrance and reconciliation and Russia prepared for a more raucous Victory Day to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany, those reflections are all the more poignant.
But there are new memories now.
From the window of her sparsely decorated room in the Kyiv nursing home in Chaiky village, on the western outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, near the now infamous and devastated towns of Irpin and Bucha, Lishtvanonva watched just a few weeks ago as a neighboring business center went up in flames after being hit by a missile.
Like the other 160 residents at the home, she spent days in its dusty and dark basement at the height of the battle and later had to be evacuated to the city center when Russian soldiers on 8 March climbed over a perimeter fence to launch their drones from its leafy grounds.
“We had a problem with rubbish as it wasn’t being collected so I was digging a big hole in the ground to put it all in when suddenly I saw Russians climbing over the fence”, recalls Evhen Kryvtsov, 38, the director of the institution. “I was in a big hole with a shovel. I thought my time might be up.”
Thanks to the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv, the Russian stay at the home turned out to be brief, and Ukraine’s victory in battle allowed everyone to return three weeks ago. Tetiana Rudyk, 42, the home’s deputy director, laughs as she admits that the staff had checked behind every curtain and in every room for hiding Russian soldiers. But there is deep grief felt by the three women living here who are old enough to have memories of the war with Germany.
Lishtvanonva, who lives in room 407, says she has always thought of herself as Russian and “won’t pick a side”. “It is like any other war – it is two political parties fighting because someone wants to be noticed,” she says. But Lishtvanonva adds: “We were fighting for peace [in the second world war]. I just want peace. Building is a lot more difficult than destroying.”
Maria Lebid, 94, in room 406, who picked up a gun for the Red army is too ill to talk at any length, but cries when the war is raised, as does Valentyna Lits, 94, in room 444, who says she cannot understand how such brutal conflict has again come to the country – and via Russia of all places.
Lits’ father, Pavel, was in the artillery corps in the Red army during the fighting around Kyiv in the 1940s and she remembers a letter he wrote in which he spoke of being ordered to shell an area in which Russians soldiers were in close combat with the Germans. “He said that he did n’t know if his own people had survived,” Lits says.
She has two grandsons in Russia in their 40s. They don’t talk about the conflict with her when they call, she says, although one of them appears to believe in Putin’s “special military operation”.
Yet, Lits’ who has interrupted her reading of some old newspaper cuttings about healthy living in order to reminisce and share her thoughts, appears almost embarrassed to admit that what she reads and hears about in the news has filled her with an emotion that had been alien and unthinkable to her until now.
“Throughout my life, I was fine with Russians,” she says, pausing to control her emotions. “I took some anxiety pills before you came but it isn’t working,” she adds, before continuing: “My husband was from the far east of Russia and his mother didn’t want him to marry a Ukrainian but I was fine with Russians. Now, I see and hear what is happening, the murder and rape, the death of children, and I feel hate, I am filled with hate. And I never thought I would hate Russians, never.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism