Tougher or traumatized? Optimistic or unrealistic? Determined or distressed? In this series, regular Ukrainians will answer the questions of Pete Shmigel of the Kyiv Post about how the war has changed them and their country. We share the views and voices of soldiers, schoolteachers, surgeons, railway workers, and others who have experienced the last 12 months of the full-scale invasion and how they see the future.

Oleksandr P has just marked his sixtieth birthday. Many people turning 60 spend theirs with family and friends, and perhaps grandchildren.

Sergeant Oleksandr P spent his being decommissioned from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as 60 years old is an accepted, if no longer mandatory, cut-off point for service in Ukraine’s military.

In a Lviv buffet, he is still in his military uniform, but with his unit insignia removed. His hair and beard are pure white, and his hands shake as he slowly tries to eat a cabbage salad.

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After he agrees to talk to me, he explains that there’s still some paperwork left before he is fully out. He is in between war and something else.

At age 59, Oleksander -after sending his family to safety in Poland - signed up at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He has served across Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson. We agree not to list specific engagements he has participated in, or his unit’s name, but they are familiar. Places no one knew existed which are now featured regularly on CNN and BBC.

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He speaks slowly and sadly. He has put politeness to a journalist before his apparent pain.

What has been your experience of the war?

It is hell. The worst part is not the constant artillery, or living in a bunker for months, or being in combat; the worst part is not even fearing for your own life. The worst part is fearing the death of your brothers.

One minute you are talking to your brother, and the next minute his guts are hanging from a tree. In one battle, from my section of 36 men, only three of us survived, and you are looking at one of those three.

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We’re not fighting ‘Russians.’ We’re fighting ‘zeks’ (convicts), Kadyrovites (Chechen mercenaries) and half of Siberia. Moscow and St Petersburg are further from this war than New York or Paris. It’s not about fascists or Banderites – it’s about their greed.

What has been your role during the war?

I am a sniper. I have killed and I would kill again. I have done it because I think to myself: “if not me, then who?”

This is not what I wanted, but I had to do it. And, I had to before in 2014 when I volunteered for the ATO (anti-terrorist operation) - which is different from 1984 when I was forced by the Soviet Union to go to war in Afghanistan.

This is the third war for an artist. I am a member of the National Union of Artists of Ukraine and a maker of artistic jewelry.

Earlier this year, we were moving - changing positions - and our vehicle hit a mine. It broke three of my ribs and caused me permanent spinal damage. I have been in hospitals from east to west, but at least my hands are okay and for that I am grateful. Others have had it worse. 

What will you do in the future?

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I’ll return to Kyiv and to work turning metal into beauty.  The techniques I practice are not prevalent among younger jewelers so my boss is supportive of my returning – even with my shaky hands and this limp.

How has the war changed you? How has it changed Ukraine?

You can’t go through hell without changing. It’s not realistic. When you have to kill while someone is trying to kill you, you change.

For me, there is no more fear in life. I saw death and I caused death. It has made me strong – even in this broken body. With my family, I am the same as I was. But outside the family, I can no longer step back into being the same man.

It’s like that for Ukraine too. This all had to happen. It was always going to. Now, it has and it has made us stronger and united. We have broken their back, and now they can only try to have us stuck in a permanent conflict.

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As I look at Oleksandr’s creased face and dark brown eyes, I am reminded of a former Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) operative I knew in my youth. I believe that he had survived UPA’s ‘raid’ through Communist-held territories to the West in 1948. Mykhailo Chereshnoivsky had been both a member of the nationalist underground and a graphic artist who designed stamps and insignia for the movement. The designs survive to this day.

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He would offer to teach us diaspora kids wood carving and lithography, but we preferred football and the bars of the neighborhood. His was an ‘old man thing’ to us.

Perhaps, it’s there – in creating things and making beauty – that the old men of war find their solace. As Oleksandr picked up his military-issue backpack, excused himself and limped away from the table and the moment we briefly shared, I hoped that to be true.

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Comments (4)

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Koko
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Good story to read,, please keep it coming

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John Hercules USA
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Pete Shmigel, excellent story, would like to hear more of this type. You are very good with people obviously. I don't know if my people would do what Oleksandr has done.

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Florian Danzinger
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I hope he soon will enjoy victory and peace

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Peter Jackson
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This is excellent reporting - please keep them coming.

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