Ukraine’s past and present intertwine as a war historian seeks refuge

Ukraine’s past and present intertwine as a war historian seeks refuge

Viktoria Naumenko, a war historian, fled the devastation of Kharkiv in early March. She stayed briefly in Oswiecim, Poland, close to the former Nazi German death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Ukraine’s past and present intertwine as a war historian seeks refuge

Ukrainian historian Viktoria Naumenko has devoted her career to the study of war. Nothing prepared her for Russia’s invasion of her homeland.

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OSWIECIM, Poland – In late February, on a cold night in Kharkiv, Viktoria Naumenko caught a bus to a bar where two of her closest friends were waiting to tell her about their engagement. Outside, she lit a cigarette to calm her nerves before stepping into the noisy cafe. She texted a friend in Canada: “I feel like this might be the last time I’ll see my friends alive.”

Naumenko, 39, had been warning those around her since the beginning of December that war was imminent. A war historian who spent 20 years interviewing survivors of past European conflicts, she thought she knew what was to come. She stocked up on food, urged friends with children to leave the eastern Ukrainian city, and sent all of her research to her boss in the U.S. for safekeeping in case something happened to her.

Most of the people she knew listened patiently, but dismissed the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion. To placate her, some of them booked tickets out of Kharkiv and then quickly cancelled them. Naumenko’s boss insisted war was unthinkable — but seeing how worried she was, he paid her two months’ salary to put her mind at ease.

“Nobody believed me,” Naumenko said. “Even my parents laughed.”

The morning after the engagement drinks, Feb. 24, Naumenko was jolted awake by a call from another friend. It was 5:30 a.m. “Vita, the war is starting, what will we do?”

Kharkiv, less than 50 kilometres from the Russian border, was one of the first Ukrainian cities in the line of fire of Russia’s invading army. Within three weeks of that wintry night at the bar, Naumenko’s youthful and vibrant home was reduced to rubble. Days after celebrating his engagement, her friend, Viacheslav Saienko, was dead.

Ukraine’s second largest city has been under near-constant shelling since the start of a conflict that the Kremlin calls a “special military operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine. Though it is difficult to find an accurate death toll, Kharkiv’s morgues are overflowing and hundreds of the city’s residents are among the victims. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.

For those who remain, the danger is more acute than ever: Russia has redoubled its efforts to capture the east of Ukraine since its forces retreated from the region near Kyiv at the end of March.

Saienko, 34, was working as a volunteer in the Territorial Defence Force in the centre of Kharkiv when he went missing. For more than a week his friends and family tried to find him, calling hospitals and posting pleas for help on Instagram, even searching among the more than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland. Saienko’s body was finally found, buried under rubble.

Anastasiia Hriaznova and Viacheslav Saienko celebrated their engagement on the eve of Russia’s invasion. Within days, Saienko was dead. Handout via REUTERS

Although Naumenko spent two decades studying European conflicts, the reality of war always seemed far removed — something that happened to other people. As a historian, she interviewed hundreds of survivors of Nazi German aggression and Soviet occupation. But listening to them describe the horrors they experienced, she never fully grasped how aerial bombardment felt. She had not expected the explosions to be so loud — so all-encompassing that it felt like you were dying again and again at the centre of the blast.

“I believed that if somebody dies because of military action, it's over in a second and that you can't feel anything. But now I understand: you can feel it. And a single second can feel like an hour,” she said.

When she decided to leave Kharkiv, in early March, it took her 28 hours to reach the western city of Lviv, largely beyond the reach of the Russian bombardment.

Disembarking the train in Lviv felt like going back in time. The station, with its vaulted glass ceilings and long lines of mothers with children queuing to board departing trains, resembled the black and white photographs of World War Two refugees. In those images, the faces were blurred and indistinct. Now, Naumenko was in a similar crowd, a nameless face in a mass of people all desperate to get away.

“I fled Kharkiv and I'm trying to survive in Auschwitz.”

Viktoria Naumenko, war historian

She was one of the 10 million displaced Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by Russia’s invasion. Her newfound status felt alien, something belonging to the elderly survivors she’d interviewed from decades-old wars.

Caught in a sea of refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border, Naumenko had no idea where to go next. She met up with her sister’s family, who’d fled Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine after Russian forces attacked the nuclear plant there. Volunteers eventually took Naumenko and her relatives to a youth centre, dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, that operates 2 kilometres away from the former Nazi German death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz in World War Two.

As birch trees swayed in the small courtyard, Naumenko inhaled a puff of a menthol cigarette and looked up at the birds.

“I fled Kharkiv and I'm trying to survive in Auschwitz,” she said, marvelling at her own path to escape war. “I never really wanted to emigrate,” she said. “I see the problems my country has but I didn't see any reason not to live in the country I love.”

A once vibrant city

Born in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Naumenko grew up in Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city known as a centre of manufacturing. One of her earliest memories is of her father, a school principal and staunch believer in Ukrainian independence, teaching her his own version of a then-popular satirical verse that mocked past and present Soviet leaders. “It went something like: I’m a little girl, I don’t go to school, I haven’t seen Lenin and I never want to,” Naumenko said, smiling.

She left home at 17 to study history at Karazin Kharkiv National University, later completing her PhD thesis on economic policy in Nazi-occupied Ukraine and spending over a year in Freiburg and Berlin buried in archival research.

At the same time, Kharkiv, the former capital of Ukraine known for its imposing constructivist Soviet architecture, was going through its own rebirth.

In recent years, the city had become a magnet for young entrepreneurs and a hub for academia and the arts. Rather than leaving after graduating university, young Ukrainians and foreigners were staying in Kharkiv to open small businesses, cocktail bars and cafes — all across a city once known for heavy industry.

On Feb. 24, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “special military operation” against Ukraine, Naumenko stood on the balcony of her ninth floor apartment as fires flared in the distance. Below her, air raid sirens howled along the city’s wide and empty avenues.

On March 2, a Russian plane flew low over her building to bomb an apartment block 200 metres away. Her room shook violently from the blast.

Viktoria Naumenko sheltered in the cellar of her apartment building in Kharkiv as the city came under heavy shelling. Safe in Poland, Naumenko shared this photo with Reuters. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

“Every morning I have this one minute when I don’t remember anything. It’s only one minute. Then reality hits.”

Viktoria Naumenko, war historian

For two days afterward Naumenko lived underground, shivering under a flower-patterned duvet in a dank basement of a neighbouring building. Shelling continued all day and late into the night. Though her house was full of food that she had stockpiled before war began, she found herself unable to eat. On March 3, Naumenko finally made a decision to leave.

“I felt like a traitor. But I understood I couldn't help my country by being in this shelter, doing nothing,” she said a week later, sitting in the noisy dining room of the youth centre in Oswiecim. She flicked a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and exhaled deeply.

“Every morning I have this one minute when I don’t remember anything. It’s only one minute. Then reality hits.”

Before the invasion, Naumenko was a coordinator of an annual academic conference in various cities across Europe with scholars from Belarus, Russia, Germany and Ukraine. During these gatherings, historians would compare perspectives on World War Two and keep in touch afterward.

When the Kremlin launched its incursion, some of her peers from Russia reached out to her on Facebook, telling her how guilty they felt about the conflict. One former colleague told her he didn’t know what to do to help Ukrainians, adding it was “unbelievable” that the two countries were fighting when they had so much in common: language, culture, history.

For Naumenko, the notion that Russia and Ukraine are inexorably linked and Ukrainians are part of the Russian whole was precisely the misconception and misreading of history that she and her colleagues had been trying to dispel. Her Russian colleague meant well. Naumenko felt she had no energy left to argue with him.

For hundreds of years, the Ukrainian language and any expression of Ukrainian culture and independent identity were quashed, first under the Russian empire and later by the Soviets. Millions of Ukrainians perished during Holodomor, or death by starvation, in the 1930s as a result of Joseph Stalin’s efforts to collectivise agriculture and root out Ukraine’s fledgling nationalist movement. Putin has said modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia” and Ukraine has no tradition of genuine statehood.

People queue for bread in Kharkiv in 1933 during Holodomor when millions of Ukrainians died of starvation. Alexander Wienerberger/copyright Samara Pearce
A teenage boy begs for food in 1933 during Holodomor. Alexander Wienerberger/copyright Samara Pearce

“That’s why we have this war,” Naumenko told her Russian colleague. “Because you still don't understand that we are not the same. We are two different nations with two different identities.”

Scrolling through social media on her phone in Poland, she saw how misinformation and propaganda about the war in Ukraine proliferated on Russian-language posts. Civilian deaths in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol were dismissed or even blamed on Ukrainians themselves.

“As a historian, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, I never thought that having the internet, having new communications, people could be so influenced by propaganda,” she said.

A survey by Russian pollster Levada Centre found that support for Putin among the public was at 83% in March, up from 71% in February. The same poll found that 81% of respondents supported the actions of Russian armed forces in Ukraine.

Before the Russian bombardment, Naumenko and her employer, Jochen Hellbeck, a history professor at Rutgers University, were working on a book based on testimonies of Soviet survivors of the Nazi occupation. Now, she wonders if such first-hand accounts will help when even live video of missile attacks and photographs of civilian deaths don’t seem to change the views of supporters of the Russian onslaught.

“We should have done it before the war. Perhaps some people, after reading it, may have changed their minds,” she said of the book, to be published next year.

She felt hopeless now about reaching those so swayed by propaganda that they can no longer “hear” anything else.

“Really, as a historian, I feel like I lost.”

After spending a little over a week in her temporary accomodation in Oswiecim, it was time to move on. A former colleague in Germany found apartments where Naumenko and her sister’s family could stay. Again carrying her two small backpacks and her cats, Naumenko boarded a long-haul bus, this time to Berlin.

Berlin is at its most beautiful in spring, but Naumenko saw none of the city as she spent her first days haggling with local bureaucrats, who wanted additional documents to prove she already had a permanent residence in Berlin.

“Really, as a historian, I feel like I lost.”

Viktoria Naumenko, war historian

It took her two days to register for temporary protection at the interim refugee centre set up at the former airport in Tegel, where a well-meaning volunteer kept insisting there was “no point'' in her ever returning home.

“She was like: ‘Okay, and what are you going to do there? Because for at least 20, 30 years there will be nothing in Ukraine’, and so on,” Naumenko said. “It’s really difficult to hear such things.”

Under a European Union directive, Ukrainians fleeing war are eligible for temporary protection status, which gives them residence permits as well as access to state services, including social welfare.

After days of being constantly on the move, the stillness of the large flat was unnerving. She quit smoking and took walks around her new neighbourhood near Bersarinplatz, a square named after the Soviet officer whose troops were first to enter Berlin at the end of World War Two.

Whenever she had a moment to pause, Naumenko thought of Kharkiv.

But looking through photos of the city posted on Facebook or Instagram by residents who stayed behind, Naumenko no longer knew her city. The streets were deserted and its once busy centre was in ruins. Apartment blocks resembled doll houses, their facades ripped away revealing ordinary lives suspended in time: cluttered kitchen tables, a child’s high chair toppled over, ripped curtains fluttering in the wind.

“I hear the name of the street I know very well but I can't recognize it anymore,” she said.

Almost half of Kharkiv’s 1.5 million residents have fled, including Saienko’s fiancee, Anastasiia Hriaznova, who now lives in Poland. Around 100,000 people are hiding underground, sleeping in Kharkiv’s subway stations to avoid the incessant shelling. Russia denies targeting civilians.

As of April 8, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed some 3,800 civilian casualties in Ukraine, but the official count is likely to climb in the coming weeks. In the besieged port city of Mariupol alone, the local mayor has said that 5,000 people are thought to have died and been buried hastily in mass graves.

Naumenko, who spent her life studying the past, was not sure if she could still call herself a historian. Would Ukraine even need historians after the war, she wondered. Certainly, it was far less important than more practical professions needed to rebuild the country.

“I don’t have pity for destroyed buildings because I understand that we will rebuild everything,” she said, her face lit by the soft morning light that filtered through her window in Berlin.

“But my dream is that my people will survive.”

Sitting among someone else’s furniture in a country that was not her own, Naumenko felt certain of only one thing.

“I left everything. And it doesn't matter if I ever have it again. The most important thing is to have this possibility to return and I want to return very, very much,” she said, tears rolling down her face.

“It’s my dream to return.”

Additional reporting by Fabrizio Bensch in Berlin and Thomas Peter in Kharkiv

Putin’s War

By Mari Saito

Photo editing: Simon Newman

Art direction: Catherine Tai

Edited by Janet McBride