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The Unrelenting Spirit of Ukraine

“We seek democratic values, human rights and freedom, which is just the opposite of what Russia wants for us in this war.”

This article originally appeared on pages 108-109 of the Spring 2023 issue of Coulture Magazine.

It’s been over a year since Russia officially invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Ever since, international headlines about Ukraine have been filled with stories of destruction and despair. Those stories are an important reminder of the suffering inflicted on the people of Ukraine, but there is more to the picture than the damage of war. Ukraine is a beautiful and flourishing country with a resilient spirit that refuses to be stamped out during this trying time.

Sofiia Khalik is a first-year student at UNC-CH studying psychology and German. Born in Ukraine, her very first time coming to the United States was in August, just prior to attending new student orientation. She shared her experiences of life in Ukraine  before and during the war, highlighting the enduring spirit of the Ukrainian people.

Nicole Moorefield: Tell me about your hometown.

Sofiia Khalik: I spent my entire childhood in Novopillya, a little town in central Ukraine. It is close to the highly industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, where my parents work and where I studied and attended extracurriculars. At 16, I started attending an international high school in the country of Georgia, so I visited my hometown only for several months for two years.

The climate in my hometown is quite moderate, with hot, dry summers like North Carolina and cold and sometimes snowy winters like D.C. My town is rural, and a lot of people are either farmers or have vegetable and fruit gardens, so I was raised in quite a green neighborhood. Our part of the country is especially known for fertile soil, so we have a lot of fields, especially wheat fields. If you look at them, you’ll see a big yellow part that goes up to the blue sky — a landscape depicted on our national flag. Because of its fertile soil, Ukraine is one of the world’s major grain producers. So a lot of fields, like in my area, became a target of Russian missiles in a futile attempt to block the exports and halt sanctions imposed on Russia.

A lot of my immediate relatives still live in that town and in Kryvyi Rih, but my family migrated in the first days of the full-scale invasion to the West, as Russian troops advanced from the south and east. But their offensive was stopped some 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the south last March. 

NM: What are some of the most interesting places you’ve visited in Ukraine?

SK: With my family, and later by myself, I traveled a lot across Ukraine, to many regions and major cities — and it’s impossible to describe with just a few words. 

Ukrainian geography is quite diverse, with mountains on the West, steppes in the central part, two seas and even a small desert on the East. Some of my most vivid memories are from my time spent in the Carpathian Mountains, created in dense forests and traditional wooden-hut villages, now transformed into museums open to tourists and showcasing a variety of Ukrainian traditional delicacies, clothing and other items. 

But if you travel to urban cities, your experience will be drastically different. Having visited the beautiful western city of Lviv several times, I could see its exciting transformation through the seasons. From summer to fall, Lviv is a tranquil city of coffee, diverse street music, Gothic/Renaissance European architecture and Greek statues. In the winter, its streets fill with the sound of Christmas carols, the smell of mulled wine and many goodies from street fairs.

Kyiv is more of an industrial city, which also has a rich historical and cultural background. Walking through the city, you can see massive churches and historical European buildings smoothly flowing into high-rise offices or residential buildings. This fast-paced city attracts crowds of young students seeking an education and life in the capital. Therefore, it is a place where many political and social movements are born and largely developed. Cultural life also flourishes here — besides numerous museums, theaters and public buildings, there are historical sites and many festivals, national holidays and celebrations occur here on a large scale.

NM: While there are some cultural differences between the eastern and western parts of the country, there is now more than ever a unity among all Ukrainians in response to Russia’s attacks. Could you explain some of the differences and,  more importantly, the similarities between the regions?

SK: Cultural practices across different regions of Ukraine vary significantly. While some regions are predominantly rural or industrial, others serve as tourist attractions presenting the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture, and some are hubs of innovation. Growing up, I, like many other children, was aware of this diversity, and it is quite hard to describe all the nuances of these differences.

One of the major differences between the eastern and western regions is language. Coming from a central part (closer to the east), I grew up in a predominantly Russian-speaking area, while some of my friends from western regions were raised in more Ukrainian-speaking cities. However, this wasn’t an obstacle in our friendship and communication, as we know both languages. It might be assumed by some media that this aspect can divide us, but most people truly want to live in Ukraine as an independent state and not some Russian province. This is our deliberate choice, as we have our own distinctive culture, history and traditions that many believe should exist within a sovereign land. With a Russian full-scale invasion, this idea was even more supported, as Russians started to attack civilian objects, including thousands of cultural sites and living houses. In fact, for the majority of people, this was the last straw to cut connections with Russia. The decision to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian on a daily basis became one of the ways to do that.

NM: Do you have any Ukrainian traditions or cultural practices that you continue to participate in here in the United States?

SK: We continue to participate in various Ukrainian customs, whether it is daily practices or holidays. For instance, we sometimes prepare borshch or varenyky, dishes with a long-standing history in our culture, and wear traditional items to school or work. In Ukraine, we even have a holiday called Vyshyvanka Day, where people wear traditional embroidered shirts, indicating their Ukrainian heritage. Also, during Easter, we make pysanky, a centuries-old tradition of decorating eggs using natural colors and wax.

NM: What makes the spirit of the people of Ukraine unique, and how is that spirit reflected in the Ukrainian response to the war?

SK: Personally, I think of the aspiration of people for an independent nation, recognizing its diversity and the ability to have the freedom to influence its course. We seek democratic values, human rights and freedom, which is just the opposite of what Russia wants for us in this war.

The resistance happens in many ways, like switching to Ukrainian from Russian, creating songs of resistance commemorating the stories of brave people and cities or volunteering. My experience last summer in Ukraine, like many other people my age, was making masking nets (a form of camouflage) for the front. It continues to be an unspoken rule to donate to the Armed Forces, volunteers or places where people are in need of resources. And these fundraisers close quite fast.

Abroad, many Ukrainians also continue to help. Here in Chapel Hill, I volunteer with the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina — a nonprofit that fundraises for humanitarian aid. Recently, we also established a student-led club called Friends of Ukraine and organized our first fundraising concert on March 25 to get a truck for a mobile medical unit rescuing wounded first responders in Bakhmut.

The war should not be romanticized, knowing how much people have lost in it, but humor was especially significant to cope with trauma during the first months of the invasion and continues to be important today. Some funny but real stories went viral. In Kyiv, a woman knocked down a Russian drone from a balcony with a jar of cucumbers. One video shows a farmer stealing a Russian military tank with his tractor. This image later became a meme, as well as a popular image on tote bags, t-shirts and pins.

Traveling through Lviv during wartime, I could definitely see its traces embedded in each corner of the city. But even the signs of war showed resilience and strength. Many cafes turned into volunteer centers, feeding territorial defense members or delivering food to the front lines and to liberated towns for those in need. I saw sandbags covering the windows, doorways and architectural monuments, but I also distinctly remember those statues covered and surrounded with banners stating, “We will admire the original after victory!” 

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