Escaping Ukraine, Fleeing to Russia, Three Refugee Families Interviewed by American Orthodox Priest

"There were explosions, planes were flying, like you could hear it all. . . . Some houses were on fire. Some houses were just missing . . . They were shooting heavily."

Originally appeared at: Moving to Russia

"People in Ukraine who think they are fighting for freedom . . . they don't understand what freedom is."

"There were explosions, planes were flying, like you could hear it all. . . . Some houses were on fire. Some houses were just missing . . . They were shooting heavily."

"This [Metropolitan] Philaret is scary . . . it was shown on TV, he stood in front of people, in church, and said, 'Don't feel sorry for those people who are in Donbass. You don't have to feel sorry for them.'"

"In Ukraine, when people disagree with what the authorities are doing, they are dealt with . . . They just come and take a person away, and that’s it. Nobody knows where he is."

"When I left home, my father gave me a psalter. There are two particular psalms which are very, very helpful in cases like these. I read them, and they were reading them at home. So, believe it or not, even though almost everything nearby was destroyed, our house was left almost completely whole. My parents were constantly reading the psalms."

Sergei & Liya, with their children Evgeny and Ekaterina, were living in Volnovakha, a town of over 20,000 people in the Donbass region of Ukraine. They had been present for the referendum, when nearly 90% of the region's residents voted to cut ties with Ukraine. They survived the Maidan revolution of 2014 and the eight years of military hostilities that followed afterwards. In February 2022, when Russian troops entered the area to liberate the region from the neverending Ukrainian attacks, the Ukrainian military responded with even heavier shelling of the area. This family's hometown has now been almost completely destroyed.

The Church of St. Nicholas in the town of Volnovakha (Donbass region) in 2018

Sergei & Liya needed a safe place for their family to live, and they didn't want to stay in the Donbass region any longer. Now refugees, they made the decision to settle in Russia. They came to Yaroslavl, one of the key cities in Russia's Golden Ring.

This is where I met them, in a village not far from Yaroslavl. Finally able to sleep at night, no longer waking up to the sounds of shelling and gunfire, they seemed peaceful, content. Sergei and Liya proceeded to tell me what their life had been like, while still living in the Donbass region:

Liya: Our family, of course, didn't live through all the horrors that touched the residents of Mariupol and Volnovakha. You could say we were lucky. Despite this, it was still very scary, and we finally decided to leave.

Fr. Joseph: Is it still dangerous there?

Liya: Yeah, there's still shots flying over there.

Sergei: The shots and missles keep flying over the town of Volnovakha. They tell us when people die. Just on Monday some reports said that two or three were hit, other reports say four people are dead. And all the time there are strikes...

Sergei & Liya, with their children Evgeny and Ekaterina

Fr. Joseph: How long has it been dangerous to be there? Just recently, or for many years?

Sergei: It was dangerous in 2014, when the Ukrainian soldiers were riding APCs through the village, with machine guns sticking out in every direction.

Fr. Joseph: Before Maidan, before 2014, was Ukraine a peaceful place to live?

Sergei: Yes, relatively safe.

Fr. Joseph: So the danger did not only begin in February this year.

Liya: In addition, we can say that we were there for the referendum, for the independence of the Donestk and Lugansk republics. We saw it, and there were a lot of people. There were just endless crowds in every locality. In our particular region, only about 13 percent were against it, and all the rest were for it, it was close to ninety percent. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian news claimed that there was no referendum. Later, they claimed that there was one, but that no one came, and that everyone was against it. That’s what I heard on the news, but I saw what was really happening, I was involved myself. I saw it, and I told my children not to leave the house at that time, because it was dangerous.

Fr. Joseph: And that was in 2014.

Liya: Yes, 2014.

Fr. Joseph: So, the trouble didn't start this year, the trouble started in 2014. Now, was it only difficult for that one year, or did it continue to be dangerous and troublesome all the way up until this year?

Liya: The bottom line here is this. For everyone who was involved in politics, it was more dangerous for them, and the danger built up gradually over time. The Maidan revolution happened in 2014. And what we saw in 2014 was a group of people making a mess — the same group that is making it a mess today. They say, "It's all about freedom, everything will be fine, we're for freedom, we're with the EU." All right, you go to the EU, and we will go to Russia. But no, they said you can't go to Russia.

And so when they were leaving, I was working for a company, and they offered for me to go to Austria. I said, I'm not going to Austria, because I would then have to leave my husband and son in Ukraine, so I'm not going through Ukraine. "All right, go through Russia." I said, I won't go through Russia either, I'll stay in Russia. "Why? You understand if you live in Russia with your family, there won't be a future for your children." I asked why? "Because now in Europe, Russian students and those who live in Russia, even if they are not Russian by passport, they are kicked out — there was one particular girl in the EU, and just because she was Russian, they wouldn't let her go to school." I told them that I don't want to live in a society where these things are happening, because that is Nazism itself.

Fr. Joseph: So, what was your reaction whenever Russian troops actually entered your country? Were you thinking this is a terrible thing, or were you thinking this is a good thing? Were you thinking it would be better if it had never happened? What is your reaction to the military operation?

Liya: We have been waiting eight years for something like this, because when it all started in 2014, we thought our people would be supported. We thought we would go through this once, and then we would all be in Russia. And yet it was dragging on for eight years, Ukraine kept screaming that the slightest thing, any problem anywhere, was all because of "Putin", it was all because of "the Russians". We were so tired of it that we were already waiting for the horrible end, rather than there being no end in sight. They kept testing Russia. Around the twentieth of February this year, shots were being heard on our territory, that is from us, from our side, from Ukraine in the Donetsk Republic. My daughter was at home, and I was scared to let her go. I said, "Stay at home, because something serious is going on." And indeed, on the twenty-fourth we woke up to the sound of gunshots. To say that it was some kind of horror - no, more like astonishment, "O God, really, finally the truth?"

Fr. Joseph: So you're basically saying the military operation didn't just start in February, but has been going on ever since 2014.

Sergei: We've heard these bursts all the time, we've seen the occasional glow of shelling, so for us, we're kind of used to it.

Liya: We didn't even pay attention to it.

Fr. Joseph: For the sake of readers in America and in England, how would you describe the connection between Russian history and Ukrainian history? Are they different in the same way that Germany is different from England, and France is different from Italy? Are Russians and Ukrainians distinct peoples with separate histories, languages, and cultures?

Liya: Look, the history of Ukraine and Russia is so intertwined that it's hard to separate it. Even Kiev is called the mother of all Russian cities. How does one divide it? Even considering the current territory of Ukraine today, there have been such movements of people, such mixing, that I can't even say who has what nationality.

Fr. Joseph: It's a tricky subject, yes.

Liya: I'd probably say that Russia and Ukraine have one history, because if you try to divide it up, then each province would have a different history. What's actually much different is Western Ukraine. When they speak Ukrainian, you know, then we have "two" languages — not one Ukrainian language, but essentially two. Sometimes we match and we understand each other. And there are a lot of different words, so there are times that we don't understand them. They're probably more like a dialect of Russian to us. Of course, they are more Catholic and Western, while we are Orthodox.

Again, it's more of a political thing, this one, Philaret, what's the right way to call him... metropolitan, yes. Yes, he is a schismatic, he was anathematized, but, read the history of his activities, it is very politicized. What horrified me, when Maidan started, after Maidan, when there was fighting, he stood, it was shown on TV, he stood in front of people, in church, and said, "Don't feel sorry for those people who are in Donbass. You don't have to feel sorry for them." They're being shelled, and then here is a metropolitan, a priest speaking. We look at it with our own eyes as a clergyman says these things. And people are listening and nodding, "Yeah, that's it, that means it's right." This "priest" [Philaret] is scary. There is an Alley of Angels in Donetsk, yes, there are names, pictures, of children who died. It turns out they deserved it, according to him.

Fr. Joseph: So, there are some people in the West who try to present the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as if it is oppressed and under the control of Moscow, and as if they need freedom from that. Patriarch Bartholomew claims, as you know, that he had the authority to take Ukraine away from the Moscow Patriarchate, and he started this new thing called the "Orthodox Church of Ukraine". So now they claim that the church in Ukraine is free, because now Ukraine can have its own national church that's not connected in any way to Russia. How do you feel about these claims made by Patriarch Bartholomew and by many people in the West?

Liya: Well, frankly, it seems to me that people in Ukraine who think they are fighting for freedom, including the Ukrainian church, they don't understand what freedom is. To them, "freedom" is to follow the West. That is, it is essentially to sit at the post of the master. I don't consider it freedom. Real freedom is independence, real independence. Because, we lean toward Russia not because it has better living conditions, or favorable conditions, or some other reason, but because we consider ourselves to be one people. I mean, that's what it's all about.

Fr. Joseph: So, for religion, for the Orthodox Church, do you feel like Patriarch Bartholomew and this new Ukrainian church [the "Orthodox Church of Ukraine"], do you think it has helped things, or has it made them worse?

Liya: Well, of course it has made things worse. But tell me, in America, in the Protestant church, among Protestant clergy, how do they feel about this LGBT movement and homosexuality? How do they react to it?

Fr. Joseph: So, there are many thousands of different Protestants. So many different opinions. Sadly, some of the bigger Protestant churches have decided to agree with LGBT. And so, in some of the churches, you will have a Lesbian "priestess" or a homosexual "pastor" of a church, and it's horrible. But, there are also many churches in America that are Protestant, where they say this is terrible. They say, "We should not accept this. Marriage is only between one man and one woman." And so they're teaching better things. There are just so many different kinds of Protestants in America. So you have both. It's confusion. A lot of confusion.

Liya: Yeah, we keep forgetting that Protestantism goes in so many different directions. For us, there's Orthodoxy, there's Catholics, and there's Protestants. And it keeps slipping our minds that Protestantism is so multi-faceted.

Fr. Joseph: They think the only truth is "I, myself."

Liya: Yes, yes, yes.

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Next, I spoke with Andrey, Natalia, and their nine children, who were living in Berdyansk, by the sea of Azov.

Andrey & Natalia with their children

Andrey: We are from the Zaporizhzhia region, from the city of Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov. We had our own plans for life. I worked in construction. I even spent some time in Poland . . . I saw the Western model, how they see the world, and how they think. Even though Poland is not as messed up yet [as other Western countries], I still saw the LGBT community loyalty. Of course, for a normal person, such things are unacceptable.

I remember when the hostilities began. Initially, we didn’t run anywhere, we weren't hiding in basements, I don't know, we were calm inside, and just watching how it was... We lived near the sea, right near the port, and a Russian ship was blown up five hundred meters away from us. A lot of people died there, one hundred and fifty people wounded were brought to the hospital, ammunition was fired, and it kept on going for two days. There were other warships there that were damaged too. The anxiety was there... then they cut off our gas.

We were sitting there with no lights, no gas, cold.

Yeah, then they turned it off altogether, the whole town switched to electricity, and then the power grid couldn't handle it anymore. We had a big gas tank there, I made a stove in the barn, you know, we have a big family, we needed some source of heating. Then we got electricity, we had an electric oven and we baked bread there.

I went to fetch water from the store. We have no such water in town, we only have store-bought, purified water. I go in, and there is bread in the store. Well, my wife was sitting in the car, so I took two loaves. Good thing I had a certificate showing that I have a large family, I carried it with me all the time.

So I go to the cash register, and there's a guy who runs up and says, "Well, whose two loaves of bread did you take?" I said, "What do you mean? I have a big family, so I got two." He says, "No!" and rips it right out of my hand, but it's the shopkeeper. He took the bread right out of my hands. I said, "Are you a normal person? There's my wife sitting right there in the car." He says, "No, put it down," and that's it. And then I showed him my document.

So, there are people standing in lines for bread, and people are angry. I would like to say that this time of hardship shows who is who in this world.

Fr. Joseph: Why did you decide to bring your family to Russia?

Andrey: In Ukraine, when people disagree with what the authorities are doing, they are dealt with by the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine). They just come and take a person away, and that’s it. Nobody knows where he is.

The regime, the power omnipresent, the first thing it did was remove the opposition — information channels that were covering certain aspects of society. That was the first signal that the state was becoming authoritarian, and nothing good would come of it. It's not democracy anymore. Although, if we talk about democracy, the democracy of Western countries is not democracy either. It's also authoritarianism. And as a result, we have come to war — to a war that is taking people's lives.

Fr. Joseph: So, once the fighting stops, what is your hope for the future? Do all of you want to go back to Ukraine where you were, or are you wanting to stay here?

Andrey: If we ever went back, it would only be to visit. When we were there last, there was an explosion at 2:30 in the morning, and that was it — we were done. We got our backpacks ready, we packed everything. As we decided to reconsider our options of where to move, we turned our attention to Yaroslavl. We started looking at the region, looking at how it's doing economically, how it's doing culturally, and how much development is going on there. We saw that it really is a really good region, plus it's in the golden ring.

Everything was already arranged for us in advance. We were met by people by minibus at night. We were picked up, brought to a hotel, slept there overnight, and cleaned up in the morning. The car came again, another one. We were taken to the canteen, we had breakfast, everything was organized for us, and the United Russia deputy in Yaroslavl — Anton Anatolievich Kopralov — is a very nice man. He organized everything for us. And thank goodness, everything is wonderful, it’s hard to complain. We're starting to work a little bit, we're earning money. It’s a good experience.

Next, I was able to hear from Victoria, a mother with two young sons, from Mariupol:

Victoria: On February 23, everything was quiet and good, everything as it should be. On the 24th, there were explosions. A house was hit, not far away from us. There were casualties right away, there was no preparedness here. Everyone started hustling, gathering documents, but we weren't ready. I mean, when it started it was really a shock. Everything was so close and loud that it reminded us of the first time, in 2014, when we were shelled. There were long lines everywhere.

We began our journey. There was a nearby school with a shelter, and we took the children there. Of course there wasn’t any food. My parents came and brought food to us. We didn’t have electricity. All we had was a bed to sleep on. Two days later, they said the fighting was about to increase heavily. Well, naturally I panicked. With two children, what was I supposed to do? We went driving, and the streets were all empty.

It was scary when we encountered two APCs and the Ukrainian military. We were in our own car, with my dad, mom, and my two boys. It was clear that we were civilians. As we drove closer to them, two of them pointed a machine gun at us. Well, I just closed my eyes, because I was scared. Thankfully, they let us pass.

We arrived at my uncle’s house and stayed with them for a few days. They had electricity, gas and water. Three days later, there was no light and no water, only gas remained. People were already starting to loot the stores because the food was starting to run out. When they would cut the power and there was a curfew, we went down to the basement and sat there with a candle. My parents decided to go back home, because we had pets there.

We very urgently started packing. When we got into town, it was clear that there were explosions, planes were flying, like you could hear it all. And when we got to the center of town, it was a mess, just, well, I mean, people were all very angry. Some kind of rush, someone was always going somewhere, and most of the stores weren’t open. People were trying to find things any way they could. Some houses were on fire. Some houses were just missing, just entire entrances of two-story houses already. They were shooting heavily.

We drove out of town with my brother and spent the night at their house, and realized that the fighting kept getting closer and closer to us, so we spent the rest of our time in the basement of a five-story building. There were such sounds, words can't express, and five times I thought for sure we were goners. We ended up sitting in that basement for about three weeks, without a break.

When people began to disperse, it turns out that our relatives had gone to Ukraine, and we were left by ourselves. The Donetsk military came to us and helped us get out of the basement, and finally we got into Russia, and went to Yaroslavl. We decided to move as refugees, and we understood that things would be better. It took two days to make the trip. Here, everything is well organized.

For a month I didn’t get any news from my parents, and they didn’t know where we were. Of course everyone was nervous about it. Finally, I found out that they are back home. In general, they are ok, and the house was not badly damaged, so thank God!

When I left home, my father gave me a psalter. There are two particular psalms which are very, very helpful in cases like these. I read them, and they were reading them at home. So, believe it or not, even though almost everything nearby was destroyed, our house was left almost completely whole. My parents were constantly reading the psalms.

Fr. Joseph: In America and the West, a lot of news reports say that things had been peaceful and safe in Ukraine, and that Russia came unprovoked, attacking Ukraine in February. So in America, Western Europe, and even places like Georgia, a lot of people are waving Ukrainian flags saying "We support Ukraine!" and "We love Ukraine!". America and many other countries are sending money and weapons, and all of them are saying, "We stand with Ukraine, we support Ukraine!" The way you see things, are America and Western Europe helping Ukraine? Do you think they're actually helping Ukraine, or not?"

Victoria: Of course they're not helping. The fact of the matter is that this conflict started back in 2014. It was very long and drawn out. People were given a chance to solve the situation correctly, but they didn't do it, so this is what they got. That's it. That is why I think it is necessary for them to sit down at the negotiating table and use their brains to solve this in a humane way, because children have been hurt, people have been hurt.

When it was time to wrap up the interview, I asked a question to everyone in the room, and Liya chimed in with a thoughtful response . . .

Fr. Joseph: As somebody who has lived your life in Ukraine, as someone who knows what it's like because you've lived there, what do you wish you could say to help Americans and Westerners in Europe? What do you wish you could help them understand, that they don't understand about Ukraine and this whole situation?

Liya: Probably first of all, that Ukrainians and Russians are not as separate from each other as some may want to pretend. To convey the fact that we are still one people, with a common history, and these divisions are artificial, and this war is contrived, and imposed on us. And imposed by whom? Guys, rewind the tape of time, and look who came to Maidan in 2014? Victoria Nuland was there, European officials were on the Maidan. That's who imposed all this on us. Because of this, there was a split, because western Ukraine is more drawn to Europe, and eastern Ukraine, of course, it is clear where it is drawn.

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