oDR: Opinion

On the edge of a European war, who gets to defend the state?

In Ukraine, the story of women like Maria Berlinska can help reevaluate what it means to “defend the state” during wartime. Read in Ukrainian

Olesya Khromeychuk
14 October 2020, 12.01am
Maria Berlinska
Image: Kleopatra Anferova

The war in Eastern Ukraine has been going on for over six years. A public holiday, Day of the Defender of Ukraine, was created soon after the outbreak of hostilities, and has since been celebrated on 14 October. It is mostly military men who are hailed as the embodiment of the “defender of the nation”. The events of the past six years, however, have shown that civilians and frequently civilian women are just as likely to take up the defence of statehood when it is threatened.

“You only call me ‘Maria’ when you are cross with me. Are you cross with me?” Masha asks after I use her full name on Skype. I was cross with her then. I don’t remember why now. Probably because I noticed that she had been too friendly with the radical nationalists, and I thought that that was dangerous for her, for her cause, for her reputation. I thought it was wrong. She didn’t think it was right either. But she was either less naïve or less self-righteous than I was.

It’s funny that I normally call her Masha. We are both from western Ukraine, where the name Maria can become “Marichka” or “Marusia”, but not Masha. Masha is the Russian diminutive and if you use it, it suggests that you are a Russian speaker, which neither of us is. But that is how she was introduced to me when we first met and Masha is the name I use when I’m not cross with her.

I first contacted Masha to interview her in 2014, as I wanted to know about her involvement in the Maidan protests. It was soon after the demonstrations had finished; the protest camp city still stood in the middle of Kyiv, some fires were still smouldering, crosses and other makeshift shrines had started to appear where people had been shot. Central Kyiv looked post-apocalyptic. It looked as if a war had just ended. In fact, the war was just beginning, but we didn’t know it yet.

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Masha waited for me in a hipstery little café for two hours. I kept texting her that I was running late, and she waited. I had been held up by my previous interviewee, a far-right activist who turned up very late to the interview smelling of alcohol even though it was ten in the morning. The interview turned out to be pointless and I didn’t use it in the article for which I had collected it. The interview with Masha was quite the opposite: I collected enough material to fill a book. But most importantly, I acquired a new friend.

When I finally got to the café, I saw a striking young woman. Tall, with a long, messy ponytail, Masha looked younger than me, but projected such confidence that I muddled my words as I tried to introduce myself and apologise for my lateness.

“So, you are a British scientist then,” she said sarcastically when I told her I was from the UK. “British scientists” is a phrase that is abused by the media in Ukraine whenever a new invention is being promoted, and is often used as a joke. Sarcasm did not seem like a good start to an interview. But I didn’t really know how to fix things.

She got up and said: “Let’s go outside. I need a smoke.” I followed her obediently. Masha chain-smoked and told me the story of her involvement in the protests. It was only then that I noticed that her deep green eyes were still seeing those images of death and destruction. She looked shell-shocked and searched for the words that could adequately describe what had just happened to her and her country.

Eventually, Masha forgot that she was speaking to a British scientist, or maybe just warmed up to me. She relayed her experiences of the Maidan the way they had etched themselves in her mind. This was her first interview. She didn’t realise it at the time, but she would be asked similar questions again and again by researchers and journalists for years to come.

Masha is well-known in Ukraine now. It’s the sort of fame that people gained quickly and unexpectedly for themselves when Maidan had just finished and the war was just starting

Masha is well-known in Ukraine now. It’s the sort of fame that people gained quickly and unexpectedly for themselves when the Maidan had just finished and the war was just starting. Between Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country and the new presidential elections, activists and volunteers replaced the state and in many ways turned out to be more efficient than the government. Volunteers collected everything that the army needed, demanded punishment for those who had shot at civilians during the protests, and many joined the army and went to the front.

Masha did everything she could during the protests. She made Molotov cocktails and gave speeches on gender equality. After experiencing discrimination from male protesters, she secured permission to talk about equal rights from the Maidan’s central stage. Eventually, late in the evening when the stage was finally free, as she was about to be given the microphone, several men stopped her and said:

“You know, what I have between my legs, and what you have between your legs are two different things. You should do what you do well: borscht, sewing.”

Masha was having none of that. She went up on the stage and delivered her speech. As it turned out, it was the first of many about women’s rights.

When the war started, Masha packed up and went to the front. She taught herself to fly drones and then set up an organisation that taught others to fly them. She argued that in the 21st century we should not be fighting with people, we should use technology. And it’s not as if the Ukrainian army lacked technology. Volunteer organisations like Masha’s, the Ukrainian diaspora all over the world and western governments provided a steady supply of drones for the army. But a combination of untrained soldiers, overly cautious officers and corrupt generals meant that sometimes these drones either never made it to the frontline, or ended up somewhere in storage to make sure that they didn’t get broken. As Masha pointed out, some officers in charge were worried about being told off by superiors for damaging army property. Damaging people was less risky, it seems.

Masha wanted to change all this. She organised free training courses for others and flew drones herself at the front. She enjoyed the best of both worlds: she went to the frontline every few months and felt like she was making a contribution to the war effort. But she didn’t sign an official contract with the army and thus couldn’t be totally controlled by it. The state also benefited from this situation: it had someone who provided free training, drones and risked her own life at the front. If something happened, the state bore no responsibility. In Masha’s flat, on Masha’s desk, there was a pile of requests from various army units asking her to train their personnel – for free, of course.

I admired her determination. But I also realised that the more Masha and people like her did the job of defending the state, something that should have been done by the professional military, the more the state would feel that it needed to do nothing. When I reproached her for enabling the state to take a passive role while the volunteers did the hard work, she asked me how her stopping flying drones or training others would help the people at the frontline. When I told her to be careful with her friendships with radical nationalists, because, after all, they tend to see feminists as a threat to national security and are the most ardent supporters of patriarchy and gender discrimination, which she so passionately tried to fight against, she replied that there were only two categories of people at the frontline: decent people and arseholes. Nationalists could be found in both camps; she tried not to hang out with the arseholes. When I tried to persuade Masha to take a break from saving Ukraine and look after her health, she smiled in response and said she would. I wasn’t convinced by any of these answers.

In her attempt to help those at the frontline, she tried to have the laws on army recruitment changed in order to stop (or at least minimise) discrimination of women. When Masha first started to go to the war zone, she noticed that women were doing everything from kitchen duties to taking part in combat and were often responsible for both at the same time. Because of restrictions in recruitment law, the majority of army positions - and not only combat ones - were inaccessible to women. As a result, female snipers were registered as administrators and female combat fighters as seamstresses. The state again was happy to use people’s willingness to risk their lives at no expense to its budget.

These women were completely unprotected when it came to frontline injuries: how do you explain a firearm wound received by an administrator? They were not remunerated adequately, because you don’t pay a seamstress additional money for participating in combat. The status they enjoyed was nowhere near that of their male colleagues. Indeed, if things went very wrong and a servicewoman with a semi-legal status was killed, her family would get no compensation. The woman could be blamed for going to the frontline out of her own choice; she should have known that it’s “no place for women”. And, of course, they were vulnerable to frequent sexual harassment and violence from their own men, not to mention the enemy if they were unlucky enough to be captured.

Masha wanted to change all this too. Like flying drones, she thought she could do it from within the army. I told her that you couldn’t reform such a patriarchal institution from inside, because you would only legitimise it by joining it. She disagreed. We had many heated discussions after which I sometimes thought that she would never speak to me again. Other times she found my arguments persuasive. Despite my scepticism she persevered: she lobbied the Ministry of Defence, encouraged women veterans and servicewomen to demand their rights, and became an outspoken critic of the military as an institution while supporting the frontline daily. And her efforts paid off. The discriminatory laws were altered as a result of the campaign she had started and led. She did not achieve gender equality in the army, but she made a vital first step towards it.

When I called Masha to say that my brother, Volodya, had been killed while serving in the Ukrainian army in the Donbas region, she happened to be at the front. She said that she’d go to the unit where he had served to pick up his stuff and bring it to me. On her way back from Luhansk oblast, her car broke down. A walking stick in one hand - she was suffering from an injured leg - my brother’s belongings in the other, she boarded train after train and eventually made it to Kyiv. A few days later, when I arrived in Kyiv from Lviv after my brother’s funeral, we sat in her little kitchen in an old Soviet-style apartment and went through my brother’s things together. There, on her kitchen floor, lay my brother’s life of the past two years, and we had to sift through it piece by piece.

Masha and I met as researcher and respondent. But we became friends, because only a friend can bring your brother’s things from the frontline, help you go through them on her kitchen floor, and find out the details of his death

After the funeral and a week of bureaucratic hell, I thought the worst was over, but I was wrong. Masha, my mother, my partner and I went through everything carefully, sorting it into three piles: stuff that could be useful to others (uniform, boots, rucksack, etc.), stuff that could be thrown away (which wasn’t much, you don't accumulate much clutter at the frontline), and stuff we wanted to keep. I took his phone, documents and a khaki scarf. My mother kept the helmet liner with the hole in it, the one he must have been wearing when the shrapnel pierced it, and we kept a t-shirt for my other brother. That was it. The useful pile was quite sizable, and Masha was tasked with finding a volunteer who could pick it up and make sure that it was given to those who needed it. She did this in minutes. I saw the experience acquired through her frontline volunteering in action. She dialled a couple of numbers and in a business-like tone said:

“I’ve got a family of a fighter here. He was killed in action. His family want to make sure that his things can serve others. Can you sort it?”

Someone came to her flat almost straight away. This was such a relief: we didn’t have to carry my brother’s belongings somewhere or pack them up and take them with us, simply not knowing what to do with them other than go through them later and cry again. Masha dealt with it all quickly and efficiently. We were grateful.

Another time I saw her war experience in action was when she called my brother’s commander, whom she knew from her volunteering. A business-like tone again:

“Hello. I’ve got one of your fallen fighters’ families here. Can you tell me how he died? Okay, I’m turning the loudspeaker on.”

I would never have found that number myself and if I had, I wouldn’t have had the courage to dial it. I wouldn’t have thought that the commander had any obligation to tell me what had happened in the war zone. Nor would I want to traumatise him by making him tell me the details. But the phone call she initiated was very helpful – because we did want to know how Volodya had died, even if we didn’t want to ask. As with the belongings, she allowed us to take the back seat while she sorted out the rest. We were grateful again.

As it turned out, my brother’s last job was to stand in a trench, watch where enemy shelling was coming from, and pass the information on to those who could return fire. He managed to pass on the details of three attacks. The fourth one killed him. This was no job for a human. This was a job for a drone. Perhaps one of those sitting in storage not being damaged. Perhaps one of those Masha could have trained another soldier to use. My brother, perhaps.

My brother’s defence of Ukraine ended. Masha’s, however, continued.

Masha and I met as researcher and respondent. But we became friends, because only a friend can bring your brother’s things from the frontline, help you go through them on her kitchen floor, and find out the details of his death. We try to stay in touch even if time difference and our busy lives make it difficult. We argue about many things. But in the end, I still almost always call her Masha.

Maria Berlinska, Olesya Khromeychuk | Source: Author

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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