A Russian-American’s lament

Katya Ulyanov

I am terrified that my 18-year-old second cousin will be drafted into the Russian military. I am terrified that he will be ordered to murder the 18-year-old cousin of my childhood friend, who has already picked up a firearm to defend his hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine. I am terrified.
A few weeks ago, a fellow Record writer reached out to me for comment regarding the Russia-Ukraine situation. I was aware that the number of Russian troops on the outskirts of Ukraine was gradually increasing, but I thought it was a ruse. So many others believed Putin would not actually follow through. “No, I don’t have any comments at the moment, but I do wish you the best of luck on your article, and look forward to reading it when it’s published,” I wrote.

And then, last Thursday, the Russian military invaded Ukraine. The numbing disbelief I experienced when reading the news, the subsequent white-hot fury I felt — and still feel — is indescribable. How dare I believe I can stay silent on this issue? 

For context, I’ll attempt to provide a crash course on the history of Russia-Ukraine relations: 

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has fluctuated between Russian and Western influences. While Ukraine — though its history is not free of controversy and conflict —  gradually became more democratic, Russia became more totalitarian, attempting to keep Ukraine under its influence: In 2014, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, and fighting broke out in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces. In 2021, when Ukrainian President Zelenskyy urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to accept Ukraine’s request for membership in response to increased Russian military threat at the Ukrainian border, Putin demanded NATO bar Ukraine from membership, which NATO refused to do. 

Last month, violence again escalated in Donetsk and Luhansk. On Monday, Feb. 21, Putin denied Ukrainian statehood while formally recognizing the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). He sent more Russian troops to the Russian-Ukrainian border, claiming to carry out a “denazifying” and “peacekeeping” mission to protect the separatists who were, according to him, suffering genocide under the Ukrainian government (these are false claims according to Public Broadcasting Service).

On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 24, Russian troops began crossing the Ukrainian border from the north, east, and south, advancing towards Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Ukrainians awoke to the thundering of missiles upon civilian buildings. As of Feb. 28, at least 352 Ukrainian civilians have been murdered. (Russian state-controlled media has not announced the number of Russian casualties.) The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union responded to Russia’s actions by enacting sanctions targeting Russian banks, oligarchs, and Putin himself. The United States and its allies remain in a precarious position and must proceed carefully. 

Meanwhile, protests in support of Ukraine have broken out across the globe. I was especially touched by the news of protests in prominent Russian cities calling for an end to the war. The Russian protesters were, of course, met with opposition by Russian police forces —  Over 3,000 Russian anti-war protesters have been detained as of Feb 27. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy thanked Russian anti-war protesters for their solidarity in a Facebook video on Feb. 25 and encouraged them to keep protesting: “Russian citizens who come out to the protests, we see you. That means you have been heard. That means you believe us. Fight for us. Fight against war.”

How should we, as Americans seemingly safe from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, interact with these current events? As I wrote in my first article regarding Russian politics, I implore you to take the time to educate yourself, and again stress the crucial influence news and social media have on our view of the world. Be mindful of the media you consume: Read unbiased news sources that avoid diluting facts with opinions and sample news from all ends of the spectrum to understand the “other side.” Don’t “sympathize.” Empathize. 

It infuriates me that there are people defending Russia’s actions on social media, mindlessly brainwashed by Russian state media into believing whatever excuse Putin is using to “justify” the killing of innocents in a frankly Orwellian display of power of the state over the mind of the individual citizen. However, it is important to note that the brainwashed Russian people are not the enemy — Putin is. As Meduza, an independent Russian newspaper — labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government —  puts it: “The invasion of Ukraine was started on behalf of Russian citizens but against our will.” 

Yes, we in America are safe from state-sponsored propaganda. We are not, however, immune to the lull of social media, whose flashy graphics and short-attention-friendly hashtags lure us into believing everything that is presented. Investigations have already found that TikTok has been spreading misinformation regarding the war. Think critically about what you’re consuming and don’t rely solely on social media posts. Furthermore, while showing your support via a quick Instagram post or 24-hour story in support of Ukraine is thoughtful, it is not substantial and, frankly, is also performative. If we Americans have learned anything, it’s that thoughts and prayers are worthless. If you really want to help, you can donate to organizations that are helping Ukrainian refugees. 

And to those joking about “getting drafted for World War III:” Stop. You cannot begin to imagine the emotional suffocation Ukranians and people like me, whose families and friends remain in Ukraine, have undergone in the past few days. People use humor as a coping mechanism — I get that. But if you have no personal connection to this crisis, you are not coping with a tragedy, you are exploiting it. 

I have shed tears daily since Thursday. Tears of mourning. Tears of rage. Tears of powerlessness. My heart breaks for the innocent Ukrainian civilians whose blood has been shed. My heart breaks for the Russian soldiers fighting and dying blindly under a sadistic, power-hungry tyrant. 

I hope I speak for all the Russian and Russian-heritage students on campus when I denounce this hellish war and extend a hand of solidarity to all Ukrainian students whose lives have been upturned and destroyed. I recognize that they are emotionally closer to the conflict, and pray that those most deeply affected by the current events can get the support they need during this time. 

I desperately want to believe that this will end soon. Seeing the antiwar protesters in Russia, who risk detainment for going against the president, gives me hope that there still remain Russian citizens immune to the brainwashing of state propaganda that convinces people that  Putin’s sadistic decisions are justified. 

My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine. 

Katya Ulyanov ’24 is from Stamford, Conn.