oDR: Feature

This is how teenagers feel about the Russia-Ukraine war

Young people from Moscow, Kyiv, the US and elsewhere tell openDemocracy how they have been affected by the war

Levon Nurijanyan Noemi Eliott
15 March 2022, 11.20am
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a school in Valsylkiv that has been hit by Russian missiles
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Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected children and young people on both sides of the conflict and beyond.

Now, nine young people from across Europe and the US – including Russians and Ukrainians – have shared how they feel about the events of the past month.

openDemocracy asked teenagers from Harbingers’ Magazine how the war has affected their lives.

They have written of sadness, anger and anxiety, while those most directly touched by the war have told of their anguish. But they have also written about their hopes for the future.

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Eva, 18, a Russian-Ukrainian in Spain: ‘I feel incredible pain, and yet I’m ashamed that it is so’

Ukraine and Russia are two of my homelands. I feel incredible pain, and yet I’m ashamed that it is so. Because as I’m writing this, my family is hiding from bombs. I don’t know when I’m going to see them again.

Before this nightmare started, I could call my cousin, who is really my older sister, and ask for advice. I had been in doubt about my future more than once, and she would always say: “If everything goes wrong, come to Kyiv, we’ll meet you with open arms.” Kyiv is my capsule of freedom and acceptance. Now I don’t know if it is ever going to be there for me again.

I’m incredibly angry. At Putin; at people who don’t even believe that there is a war. It is especially frustrating when people call Ukrainians ‘fascists’, or people who need to be ‘saved’. It is physically nauseating to write it, even inside quotation marks.

The amount of stupidity and delusional views that the war in Ukraine has exposed makes me sick to the stomach. When people in Ukraine were woken by the sound of sirens in the midst of a national emergency, one New Zealand magazine decided it would be a great choice of words to title their newsletter: ‘Hashtag World War 3 is trending’. There are countless people around the world on whom this conflict has had no direct impact, yet they have the nerve to claim how ‘tired of living through historical events’ they are. I know humour is a ‘coping mechanism’. But please, leave the jokes for your drafts.

Despite all this, I also see miracles. I see it in people who help, I see soldiers who are protecting their motherland. I want to believe that there will be a consistent effort that will bring about the end of this dark part of history, so we’ll be able to tell our children and grandchildren that the whole world came together and that kindness won over evil. And that this kindness will pass on through generations, instead of trauma and the ruin of the country that once proudly called itself Ukraine and stood up to the bully.

Valeria*, a Russian volunteer in Ukraine’s territorial defence, Kyiv: ‘I had never seen war up close’

I am a Russian citizen. Seven years ago, I moved from Russia to Ukraine, a wonderful country where I instantly fell in love with the power, bravery and resilience of the people.

Ukraine changed my life. I started having thoughts about the future, something that is a privilege in Russia. For these years that I lived in Ukraine, I felt like I had finally found my place in this world. I was happy.

On 24 February, my life turned into a total nightmare. I had never seen war up close. I had never heard windows shaking, or seen this many people hiding out in bunkers. Everybody has forgotten about coronavirus because in war you can die in a way that is much faster and much scarier. Even if you survive, you might never see your apartment or your house again.

Clockwise from top left: Mary, Noor, Ilya, Daria, Eva, Natasha, Noemi, Dylan

Clockwise from top left: Mary Stabinska, Noor Bejjani, Ilya Kan, Daria Badger, Eva Smolokovskaya, Natasha Banga, Noemi Elliott, Dylan Yip

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Harbingers' Magazine. All rights reserved

The most horrifying thing about this whole situation is that people are mercilessly shooting at each other. Normal people, regular citizens, are taking weapons and ammunition to defend their houses.

I saw 18-year-old Russian soldiers who do not even want to be there. They were told that they were going to free people from the ‘Nazis’ or guard the border, when in reality they were on their way to occupy my country. They are crying and surrendering because nobody wants this war.

Wherever you are, I want you to know: this war is real and it is happening here, right now. I also want you to know that if this war continues, someday it might come to your house.

Tamara, 17, Moscow: ‘Don’t listen to our government – Russians want peace’

Throughout the 17 years of my life, I have lived in Russia, a country that I infinitely love and will do so in the future. But it is the country that I love, not its government. I love Russia for its nature, for Dostoevsky, for Kalinka-Malinka, for Russian crepes, and for the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

At this moment, our government is trying to take everything away from us, the Russian people. The Russians never wanted war. Almost every single one of us has family or friends in Ukraine, so the news we woke up to on 24 February was a complete shock.

My grandfather fought in the Second World War so that I could live in peace. Everything he fought for has disappeared in the blink of an eye. It is a horrible thing to say, but I am happy that he is not alive to witness it.

I planned to enrol at a university in Russia and hoped for a scholarship. But if I go to an anti-war protest, I know I won’t be able to get a job. In Russia, millions are afraid to say anything because of beatings and imprisonments. Yet thousands continue to take to the streets and chant “no to war”.

Don’t listen to our government – listen to us, the Russian people. We want to see our friends and relatives from Ukraine again. Most of all, we want peace.

Ilya, 18, Kazakhstan: ‘I feel like our two sister-nations are at war’

Growing up in Kazakhstan, I’ve always felt a sense of ‘brotherhood’ and familiarity with the other post-Soviet republics.

Only a couple of decades earlier, we were all one large country. Back then, one could easily travel from Kazakhstan to Armenia, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia without going through customs or getting a visa.

When my friend and I attended a Yale summer camp in 2019, the very first people we got to know were two boys from Ukraine, Alex and Yegor. To my surprise, we didn’t have to go through the usual small talk. We said we were from Kazakhstan and they said they were from Ukraine. That’s all we really needed to know. We instantly understood each other.

Situations like these show just how connected our countries still are, even though we have drifted apart politically.

Everybody has forgotten COVID, because in war you can die in a way that is much faster and much scarier

In Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, I cannot help but feel like our two sister-nations are at war.

People in Almaty, my home city, went out on an anti-war protest, even though the city is still recovering from the ‘Bloody January’ unrest earlier this year, which ended with Russian military forces entering Kazakhstan – they left only a few weeks ago.

In Kazakhstan, like any other former Soviet republic, there is a strong feeling that the Ukrainian struggle against Russia is going to define our fate as well, no matter which way it goes.

Isaac, 19, Hungary: ‘Hungary is not joining the West in its assertive response to Russia’

Hungary shares a border with Ukraine. Like many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, it was part of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. But this country, ruled by the strongman Viktor Orbán, is sympathetic to Putin’s Russia.

As a member of both NATO and the European Union, Hungary has taken a very different path from the rest of the West. Not only has it decided to stay out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict but, on 28 February, foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said it would not allow lethal weapons to be transferred through Hungary to Ukraine, citing the “security of Hungary”.

Budapest is doing its part in supporting refugees coming from the war zone – although the more than 150,000 Hungarians living in Ukraine may be a contributing factor to that. Apart from that, the Hungarian government clearly does not plan to join the West in its increasingly assertive response to Russia.

Also, many Hungarians feel that the 1920 Treaty of Trianon was unjust, viewing much of their neighbouring land as having been stolen from Hungary – which is stunningly similar to Putin’s views of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

Neither Hungary nor Hungarians could be accused of a lack of sympathy for Ukraine, and there is definitely no support for war and cruelty as such.

But Hungarian anti-Western sentiment, combined with the country’s understanding of the Russian cause, means that, if Moscow were to have an ally in its plans to redraw Central European borders, Orban would be the person to probe – to the horror of the country’s strong pro-Western minority and the majority of Hungary’s youth.

Mary, 18, Poland: ‘Anger directed at the Russian nation as a whole is unjustified’

In response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the West has imposed severe economic sanctions on Russia. Western powers are trying to apply pressure on the Kremlin to withdraw its forces, but reasonable steps that may increase the squeeze on Russia’s budget are being augmented by a number of nonsensical ideas.

While composers Shostakovich or Rachmaninoff probably wouldn’t mind not being played on Polish radio, the world has taken to expressing its anger on the Russian nation as a whole.

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Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine has been surrounded by Russian troops for more than a week. These are the voices of some of its residents

Piotr, a Russian-Polish citizen, spoke to me on condition of anonymity, concerned for his safety. He was born and brought up in Poland, but had lived and worked in Russia for many years. The Russian state apparatus that he described to me is complex, maleficent, invincible – something the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ would envy – and serves only those at the very top. As for the people? “We don’t want this war,” he stressed.

The West should remember that while freedom of speech, opinion and the right to protest are enshrined by law in democratic countries, the Russian Federation has enjoyed only a bit of democracy, and only a long time ago. Therefore, anger directed at the Russian nation as a whole is completely unjustified – it is under the control of an omnipotent tyrant, who sent out the military under his own accord.

It is important to remember that many Russians are now willing to endure extreme hardship – not to support the Kremlin, but to see the end of Putin’s rule.

Natasha, 17, London, UK: ‘The war in Ukraine has crawled into young people’s minds’

At first glance, nothing has changed. Underground trains are severely delayed, the weather is horrible, fewer and fewer people are wearing masks.

Yet it is apparent that the war in Ukraine has crawled into young people’s minds. We, the youth, are rapidly developing the knowledge, understanding and vocabulary to talk about it.

The first announcement created a silence of shock among my peers. No one could believe it. My classmates were making jokes about being drafted. One person speculated that girls wouldn’t be called up. Someone mentioned how they wished for someone like Winston Churchill, the prime minister during the Second World War, to be running the country instead of ‘BoJo’, Boris Johnson, the dishevelled leader of the Conservative Party who has inhabited Number 10 since 2019.

I take all this as an attempt by the powerless to cope with the colossal anxiety caused by Putin’s war.

The war has also rapidly become a subject of serious discussions in my social circle. For example, one of my friends raised the issue of the media’s depiction of the war in Ukraine – how racist and unfair it is in comparison to other countries that experienced war and did not receive likewise support from the West.

But these concerns are not in any way standing in the way of genuine feelings of support for Ukraine. Powerless as we are, a sense of support for Ukraine at my school has consoled the handful of Ukrainian and Eastern European students. A bake sale and a non-uniform day have been organised to raise funds for refugees from Ukraine.

Also, our Russian friend has not been harassed in any way – apparently, at least where I am, there is no need to explain that regular Russian people have nothing to do with Putin’s actions.

The war has made it to the curriculum, too. During economics lessons, we have discussed how it will affect the average British consumer through inflation, elevated costs of living, and increased energy and food prices. This class made me yet again understand how lucky I am not to be immediately affected, either by the horror of war or by its economic fallout.

Daria & Noor, 18, United States: ‘Half the young people we surveyed first learned about the war from social media’

Despite residing across an ocean from Europe, adults and teenagers in the United States have demonstrated solidarity with Ukraine by altering their profile pictures and banners on social media to include a blue and yellow flag and sending relief funds through NGOs online.

The study we conducted on 4 March is not intended to reflect the overall American population, but rather a group of local high school students we interviewed locally (79 responses from students aged 14 to 18).

Just over half (50.6%) of the students said they had first heard of the invasion through social media, and 46.8% of those following the invasion said they were primarily doing so through social media.

The majority of students who participated in the survey indicated they knew little or nothing about Russia and Ukraine's history before the invasion, but more than a quarter (25.4%) stated that they had known a lot.

I take my peers' comments as an attempt by the powerless to cope with colossal anxiety

When asked if they had seen social media posts detailing the present situation in Ukraine, 93.7% of the young people said yes.

“I have seen a few videos of what’s going on in Ukraine. What’s happening is just heartbreaking. That these innocent people are being attacked,'' one student stated during one of our conversations. “It’s sad to see what’s going on over there,” another observed.

The most often expressed feelings in our poll about the influence of this media on youth were sadness, anxiety and anger.

Especially interesting was the spread of donation links, for the purpose of supporting humanitarian aid and relief in Ukraine, along with social media posts. When asked if they had donated to one or multiple of these funds, only 8.9% indicated that they had. When asked about the speculated legitimacy of some of these funds, 57% expressed that they were unsure of which relief funds were trustworthy.

Dylan, 16, Hong Kong national in the United States: ‘There is no way I can understand how Ukrainians are feeling’

I was first exposed to the Russia-Ukraine conflict not long before the present Russian invasion started, when I was preparing for a debate tournament on the topic of war between the two countries. I did nearly a month of research on the history of the conflict since 2014. But it in no way prepared me for the news as I watched videos of what was unfolding in Ukraine.

During a recent all-school meeting, three Ukrainian students shared with us their perspectives. Seeing them tear up on stage as they struggled to express how none of the school community could possibly understand what they were going through hinted at the depth of their distress.

When protests erupted in Hong Kong against the 2019 extradition bill, I was deeply affected. I was distraught seeing protesters storm government buildings, and elderly people get hurt during fights between the police and protesters. My international friends had no idea how much these events impacted Hong Kong citizens; they simply sent around jokes and memes about the protests.

Seeing Russia invade Ukraine also made me worry about the future of my homeland Hong Kong; could a similar situation happen where China invaded us? My attempt to compare the Hong Kong protests and the war between Russia and Ukraine made me realise how clueless I was about the Russian invasion.

I know this much: there is no way I can understand how Ukrainians are feeling right now, just as none of my international friends could entirely understand how I felt during the Hong Kong protests.

*Name has been changed

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