Journalism student says Ukraine is ‘more united than before’ Russian invasion

Elena Konavalyuk and her family had a comfortable if not indifferent attitude towards Russia before all this. Some family members have even felt some nostalgia for the Soviet Union over the years. But no more. Not after living under attack by Russian soldiers who occupied the Kherson region in Ukraine early in the war, she slept for months and frightened in the bunker and Konavalyuk, her mother and grandparents finally made a perilous escape from their homeland.

Ukrainian soldier Petro, 32, walks into a trench at a position occupied by the Ukrainian army between the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson on June 12, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
(Genia Savelov/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was a fight for survival,” she said of living under Russian occupation last winter, something she never imagined could happen to her or anyone she knew. The port city of Kherson, north of Crimea, was the first major city to fall to the Russians in their 2022 war. “I don’t have that adrenaline right now. Then all my thoughts were about standing in line for six hours for a slice of bread. You’ll see. The corpses of your neighbors are lying outside your house. It was mentally and physically difficult because you needed to acquire new skills just to survive.”

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This past winter and spring I posted some of what Konavalyuk had shared with me during her time underground, and I never used her name out of fear for her safety. In fact, she says, Russian border guards checked her phone and extensively interrogated her on her way out, and were as suspicious as every Ukrainian fugitive. Her memoir, “Diary of Survival,” reads like poetry with a description of what it feels like to forget the smell of fresh laundry and the taste of jam.

A fisherman watches smoke rising after Russian forces launch a missile attack on a military unit in the Vyshhorod district of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 28, 2022.

A fisherman watches smoke rising after Russian forces launch a missile attack on a military unit in the Vyshhorod district of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 28, 2022.
(Associated Press/David Goldman)

Konavalyuk is a journalism student. Documenting what was going on in her hometown and teaching herself what explosions corresponded to the type of gunfire in order to know when to run, and how to respond to the constant noise and bombardment around her, she says, helped her get through the long haul. And months are terrifying. Now, in safe Europe, she sometimes finds it difficult, she says, to see people enjoying a life free from the worry of those who are not at war.

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And Friday was a particularly sad day for people like Konavalyuk who hailed from Ukrainian lands, Russia had just declared its territory, annexed Kherson and three other regions which together account for fifteen percent of Ukraine’s territory. The official annexation came after what were widely called illegal referendums.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(Alexander Demianchuk, Sputnik, Kremlin Pond photo via Associated Press)

“People were forced to vote at gunpoint, arrested in the street. They came to their homes and threatened them,” Konavalyuk said. So it is very easy to refute this referendum.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in the Kremlin’s chandelier-filled Georgievsky Hall, whose glossy wooden floors looked in stark contrast to the grim-faced government officials who filled the hall, said Russia would never return those lands. Konavalyuk has a different view, that Ukraine will regain its territory, but says that “the fact that this will now be considered an attack on Russia complicates matters,” she said, adding, “It will be difficult for us to recover the Kherson region and the rest of the occupied territories.”


When I ask who will fight, and who will return Kherson, she says, “Different Ukrainians from different regions are fighting for Kherson. The most incredible thing for me is that Ukraine is now more united than before. There is absolutely no difference now – if I was from the south or from the west. In other words, we are united as one people in giving back our lands. We are also one people.”

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