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OPINION

No Ukraine without victory. Why any reports of defeatism among Ukrainians are off the mark

On March 4, Meduza released Russian emigre journalist Shura Burtin’s risqué article describing fear and depression as the only correct mood for Russians under the present circumstances. Burtin argued that “hope for the future is harmful,” making quite a splash among readers in the process. The Insider leaves it to Russians themselves to judge how accurate Burtin’s perception is. Earlier, the journalist penned a similar piece about Ukraine, attributing the same defeatist attitudes to Ukrainian combatants after having spent a couple of months interviewing wounded soldiers. However, Andrey Volna, a Russian doctor who moved to Kyiv after the start of the full-scale war in 2022, and who currently works as an trauma surgeon at a Ukrainian military hospital, shares his observations attesting to the contrary, at least so far as Ukraine is concerned.

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More than two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the list of notable media reports about the conflict includes Shura Burtin's long read titled “You Sit on Corpses, You Eat on Corpses, and It's All Very Hard on the Brain” (available in Russian on the Meduza website and in German on Reportagen). Burtin's trip to Ukraine caused the author to draw extremely grim conclusions: that Ukrainian society is split between the military, who are tired of fighting, and civilians, who could not care less about the war; that Kyiv lives as though nothing were happening; and that propaganda calls for military heroism while the nation at large has shut itself off from the fight. One would be tempted to dismiss this perspective – it's just one article, after all – but the foreign reader has lately been bombarded with pessimistic reports of the state of affairs in Ukraine, playing into the hands of Putin's propaganda.

In justification of my overall impression, I will cite some of Burtin's statements and comment on them as a doctor and a civilian who lives in Kyiv, where I interact daily with both wounded military personnel and ordinary residents of the Ukrainian capital. Here is one of the author's assertions:

“There are no signs of war in Kyiv. For Kyiv, the war has become a distant backdrop.”

During my tenure at the military hospital in Kyiv, I have been able to see the city and do things outside of work. I've been to the theater three times. One of the productions was a cheerful musical, “Hutsul Girl Ksenia,” at the October Palace. The performance started with a 40-minute delay due to an air raid. Everyone descended into the bomb shelter. At some point, the performance was paused for a few seconds, and Oleksii Hnatkovskyi, one of Ukraine's most celebrated actors, announced: “Dear friends! I ask you to keep in mind that right now, we only have two options: we are either in the Armed Forces of Ukraine or exist for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Remember that.” His words were met with a standing ovation. On the way out, the spectators’ path was dotted with donation jars, and not a single jar was left empty.

“Right now, we only have two options: we are either in the Armed Forces of Ukraine or exist for the Armed Forces of Ukraine”

Another production I saw was a stage adaptation of Remarque's “Three Comrades.” Theaters usually ask you to turn off your cell phones before the curtain goes up. This time, however, the announcement was different: “Dear audience, during the performance you will hear the sounds of explosions, air-raid alarms, and machine gun bursts. Please do not be alarmed. This is the soundtrack to the production. In case of a real air raid alert, we will make an additional announcement and direct you to the nearest bomb shelter at the Khreshchatyk metro station.”

How can you say there are no signs of war if you go to a theater and descend into a bomb shelter before the play? If using sounds of combat in a stage production requires a warning, and performances are interrupted with calls for donations to the armed forces?

It may not be obvious to an outsider, but every Ukrainian can distinguish different types of air alerts by ear, easily guessing whether it is an air force redeployment, bombers over the Caspian Sea, or missiles.

How can we say “war is invisible” if schoolchildren are ushered to bomb shelters during every air raid? They are lucky if they have one at school; otherwise, they must rush to the nearest subway station or large basement. Even in Kyiv, it can happen several times a day. In Kharkiv or Dnipro, it’s even worse. There is war in every step and every glance.

How can you “not notice the war” when you walk to your car in Kyiv's Holosiivskyi District, setting out for a scheduled surgery at seven in the morning, when the air alert sounds, the sky overhead explodes as if God had rendered it asunder, and not far away something or other is collapsing in wisps of smoke? And then it happens again and again. It's not until you get inside your car and turn on the music that you can create a sense of false security. When I got to the clinic, there was another air raid. Only unoccupied medical personnel are allowed to vacate their posts during the alert. However, in wartime, hardly anyone is ever unoccupied, so everyone just keeps working.

This war is an inescapable everyday reality for all Ukrainian cities. But people cannot spend all of their time suffering. They go out for coffee and meals, take care of their kids, and go about their daily routines.

This war is an inescapable everyday reality for all Ukrainian cities

Burtin also writes:

“The heroic effort of the first few months is long gone. I was astonished to learn that most Ukrainians had shut themselves off from the war. My friends live in a kind of timelessness. People have pushed the war to the back of their minds, but the fabric of peaceful life has not recovered either. It is as though life were devoid of a vector: everything is frozen… Soldiers returning from the front line are a strange intrusion of war, some other reality that has already become a ghost that everyone in Kyiv would rather forget. There is a schism between the Ukraine that is fighting in the east and the Ukraine that is anxious for the war to end, and the schism is getting wider and wider.”

In this regard, I can’t help but recall the city of Lviv, which is much further west than Kyiv. I recently stopped by Piana Vyshnia (“Drunken Cherry”), a popular bar in Lviv that serves a low-alcohol tincture. Outside the bar was a sturdy guy in a wheelchair, with skinny legs and a steaming cup of hot tincture in his hands. His wife, a young woman, is squatted on the pavement in order to meet him at eye level. Their child is running around. This scene is the epitome of today's Ukraine. There are no “two Ukraines.” There is only one.

At the military hospital, we treat severely wounded soldiers who have various civilian specialties, from tractor drivers to IT guys. I had many conversations with an Azovstal defender who was a Russian-speaking employee of a logistics company before the war. He did not start learning Ukrainian at home until recently. He fought in Mariupol, was wounded, and was taken prisoner. He and his fellow soldiers have told me enough hair-raising stories to make anyone say: “What on earth is going on there on the line of contact? Such mediocre commanders, such poor leadership.” No soldier has anything heartening to share about their frontline experience because war consists of terrible things. No soldier can honestly say: “We’ve settled in comfortably.” When you talk to people fighting on the line of contact, they never have anything nice to say about this war.

No soldier has anything heartening to share about their frontline experience

It can only look neat on maps covered with flags that political analysts and journalists like to move around. In reality, war is filth, blood, stench, strenuous work, and death. It can only be called art with regard to the art of killing: you must either kill your enemy or take him prisoner. There is no preferable option. It is ugly, bloody, and scary for the grown men fighting there.

The reference to timelessness, on the other hand, is correct. The country is stuck in limbo because it is peace Ukraine wants, not war. It is not the nation's acceptance or tolerance of the war that causes this sense of timelessness, but the opposite. And as long as the war goes on, no one can figure out what to do with their lives, as the planning horizon has shrunk to less than a week.

Another hot topic in Ukrainian society is justice – but not in the sense the author presents it:

“The articles in The Economist and Time have greatly demoralized everyone. Things that were discussed off-the-record have come to light. The situation on the front is very difficult. There are huge numbers of draft dodgers, and few are willing to fight. Before New Year's Eve, Zelensky announced plans to mobilize another half a million people, but all branches of the government want to absolve themselves of responsibility. Zaluzhnyi said: ‘It's not us.’ Zelensky said: ‘It's the military.’ The parliament said: ‘Why should we do someone else's dirty work? Let the cabinet decide.’”

First, the very claim that Ukrainians pay great attention to articles in The Economist or Time is an exaggeration. If they have free time, they will go out for a glass of beer or a bowl of borscht rather than spend it on reading Western press.

Second, Ukrainians have a legitimate interest in the fair distribution of the burden of military service and terms of rotation for active duty personnel. But Ukraine has mechanisms to address these issues: namely, the democratic governance bodies mentioned by the author. The law to demobilize the first wave of servicemen has already been passed. We Russians have lost the habit of openly discussing such issues in society or expecting that the country’s democratic mechanisms can intervene in the discussion.

And are there any draft dodgers? Of course there are. Both draft dodgers and deserters are all the more numerous because Ukrainians are not as obedient as Russians. And this problem is openly discussed, too.

Are there any draft dodgers? Of course there are. Both draft dodgers and deserters

Some highly qualified professionals, whose skills are particularly relevant to the government, are exempted from active duty. Others say: «We want to go on vacation, too, and we want [military duty] to be more evenly distributed.” But even in tense times, this doesn't lead to clashes between citizens. Fortunately, Ukraine has platforms for social discussion, including independent media and the parliament. As much as the Verkhovna Rada is criticized, it is still a functional, democratic institution.

As for the “unwillingness to fight,” I have seen more examples to the contrary. I have seen a wounded soldier who avoided amputation but cannot use his ankle joint anymore. It's hard to explain to him that he can't be drafted because he can’t run or jump anymore. He refuses to accept his limitations: «I have to go back because they killed two friends of mine there.” He is taking this war personally. We told him: “You won't pass the fitness test, but there are plenty of things you can do in army logistics.” “But I have to be on the frontline.” “They won’t let you near the frontline.” “But I have to do my job.” “There are plenty of jobs you can do for the army.”

Azovstal defender Nikolai, with whom I talked a lot and who struck me with his rural good-naturedness – a stark contrast to the way Putin's propaganda paints him and his fellow fighters – still has a few surgeries planned, yet he is already working at the Hostomel airfield.

I haven't seen a single person who has been relieved by the loss of a limb. If you have any understanding of what goes on in the mind of someone crippled by the war, what do you expect them to do? Such soldiers are very likely to develop a compensatory reaction, as their brain is struggling to process the fact of losing a leg or both legs. Under the circumstances, they may well say something like: “At least I'll never go to the front again.” But trying to spin it as “no one wants to go to war anymore” is an insinuating interpretation.

Trying to spin it as “no one wants to go to war anymore” is an insinuating interpretation

I've noticed that journalists who cover the war without experiencing it first-hand are more tired of it. By contrast, those who have seen it are more victory-oriented, for all the fatigue.

Further on, the author addresses the alleged divide in society and the role of propaganda:

“Civilians see very few soldiers. The soldiers are all at the front. Instead, all they see are well-equipped, broad-shouldered men on billboards advertising service in assault brigades. The propaganda that aimed to mold fighters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine into invincible heroes did its job. Ordinary people tend to think: 'Well, you're military – so go and fight.’”

Of course, there are plenty of billboards in the street and frequent radio announcements detailing options for military enlistment and ways to donate to the army. They have become as mundane as mayo and ketchup commercials – but this mundaneness signifies unity rather than division. Among private donors, no one does as much for Ukraine’s defensive needs as Ukrainians themselves.

And while it is true that the war has become routine, the reasons for this are completely different from those that Burtin presents. Petro, a doctor I know, shared his experience of Bucha and Hostomel: “We had our share of thrills and excitement. You finish a surgery, and then you're on hospital perimeter security. You get a firearm and a sector to monitor. We thought [the Russians] might reach the hospital. Then you got some shut-eye, and in the morning they brought in new wounded.”

Everything was in short supply. Trauma surgery is a resource-intensive specialty. We need hardware, such as plates, nails, screws. Now, thanks to Western aid, hospitals have enough of these items, and there is a lot to choose from. And speaking of routine, there used to be more disorganization and fear. Today, we do have a routine: everyone involved in this war performs their duties consistently and competently. Everyone knows their job.

Sure, war has become routine but in a different sense: everyone knows their job and does it

The author insists that Ukrainians are “reluctant” to pay attention to the war:

«People are massively unaware of what's going on at the front. They follow media reports, but they use the same primitive template, extolling the successes of the Ukrainian armed forces and listing civilian casualties. Detailed, authentic accounts of the hostilities are scarce. Most of the truth is told by Western media. There are plenty of scary combat videos on TikTok, but the only thing the viewer can glean is that the frontline is a crumbling mess one should stay away from.”

Inside the operating room, surgery consists of several stages. There are moments of acute concentration, but later, when you close the wound and perform standard procedures, you can talk. A lot of jokes are told, of course, but we also sometimes discuss what's going on at the front. And everyone has a good grasp of the situation there. I don't have anything to say about TikTok, as my colleagues don't use it, but apart from television, everyone reads Telegram channels and knows where to get information.

Of course, taking footage from the battlefield is regulated, but nothing happening there is “interesting” to begin with. When people discuss the war, they cover topics other than panic, despair, and boredom.

I recently met a doctor who was my colleague back in Siberia and who has also moved to Kyiv. He said: “You know what's the scariest thing for me? The feeling of joy when I see Russians, my enemies, getting killed. I never thought it was possible. Even back in the early days of the big war, it made me feel uneasy. But after the first few months, after Bucha and Irpin, and even more so after two years, if I see it, it makes me happy.”

This kind of insight can be shocking.

As for people's desire to distance themselves from the front, Petro recalled that, when his wife and children had left for Austria, his wife had said: “I feed the kids and tuck them in, and then I quietly cry because I know what the Russians are doing.”

Has the war become routine for military personnel (and for the medical staff, who are also at war)? Of course it has. The two long, bloody years of full-scale fighting – unavoidably made this timeless present the everyday reality for all Ukrainians.

But there is a huge misconception that persistently makes its way from one article to another: the attempt to present the routinization of war as a dropoff in morale, as the loss of a concept so vague as “faith in victory.”

I do not fully understand their notion of “morale.” As for faith, it is always irrational. So I will try to put it in simple words, without metaphors. No one – not a single person I have spoken to – can imagine a future without Ukraine’s victory. “Without victory,” they say, “Ukraine will cease to exist. And then where will we live? How will we live? If we even survive. But I don't think we will. They will kill us all.” I’m not sure this can be called “the routinization of faith in victory.” Perhaps it can, but only because, in place of faith, there has come a certain understanding: without victory, there will be nothing and no one; no one and nothing will be left.

No one – not a single person I have spoken to – can imagine a future without Ukraine’s victory

For me, it is what I see in the hospital: the everyday heroism of the team. The heroism of the wounded soldiers and the medics. But if you try to get them to talk about it, I don’t think it will work. It's hard — day in, and day out. A daily struggle, if you will. A quiet struggle of strong and confident people who believe in themselves and their country. As for their heroism, it is up to us to notice — in their every movement, their every act, their every word. Ukrainians find it hard to own this kind of heroism. They simply do not see it. Faith as an abstract, otherworldly phenomenon is absent. I am not even sure it ever existed. Did we, at one point, have it here “on the ground”? I don't know. It was probably always just a journalistic cliché. Instead of faith, there is knowledge –- an understanding that victory will come. It has to, for without victory, there will be nothing and no one. And so the fight continues – for without a fight, there can be no victory.

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