Along Ukraine's northern border with Russia, some young people fear losing newfound identity

Some of the young people in Ukraine who grew up near borders with Russia speaking Russian have turned their backs on that identity in favour of a more Western and Ukrainian one. They fear a war could pull them back.

Prospect of a Russian invasion has some young Ukrainians in northeastern border region feeling nervous

Many young people in Ukraine — including Anastasia Pomasan, left, Roman Vydro, centre, and Katerina Pereverzeva — grew up near its border with Russia and spoke the language. But some have turned their backs on that identity in favour of a more Western one. They fear a war will pull them back. (CBC)

There was little talk of the crisis currently holding Ukraine in its grip as people lined up at a small kiosk selling coffee and cigarettes on a Kyiv street Tuesday morning.

It was Adele playing on the radio, not analysis of — or excerpts from — the speech delivered the night before by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing Ukraine as a Russian creation that had never really been an independent state. 

But people were still taking note.

"Before this I thought that maybe we haven't a war," said 60-year-old Roxanna Kharchuk, who was walking by the kiosk. "Now I am convinced that the war will be." 

When Kharchuk was growing up, Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Roxanna Kharchuk, 60, grew up when Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. She is convinced there will be a war. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

She says she understands Putin as a product of that world very well. 

"When [the war] will be I don't know. How it will be I don't know. But it will be." 

In a widely anticipated move, Putin recognized the self-declared pro-Russian breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on Monday. Russian troops have already been spotted heading toward them.

In a letter to the Ukrainian armed forces on Tuesday, Ukraine's defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Putin's actions constituted another step toward the Kremlin's goal of reviving the Soviet Union.

"The only thing separating it is Ukraine and the Ukrainian army," he wrote.

Despite her belief that war is now inevitable, it doesn't scare Kharchuk.

"I am an old woman," she said. "Life is behind me."

'I like the way I live now'

But the prospect of a full-scale war in Ukraine, beyond the one that has simmered in its east for eight long years, is harder for younger people to grapple with.

"You know, I like the way I live now," 24-year-old Anastasia Pomasan said over the weekend in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. It's situated just 40 kilometres from the Russian border, in the northeast.

WATCH | How residents of border city Kharkiv are feeling:

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Many residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine, near the Russian border, are still living with the effects of the war in the Donbas region as they manage fears of a new invasion.

Pomasan was attending a rudimentary first aid course offered by volunteers, a precautionary measure to guard against what might come. 

She admits she's struggling with anxiety.

"I have family. I have friends. I have future plans, business for example. And I don't want to lose it," she said. Asked if she was afraid, she became visibly upset.

"I'm just disappointed, yeah. And afraid a little," she said, wiping tears away and apologizing.

A Ukrainian national flag waves over the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, on Feb. 16. The city is just 40 kilometres from the border with Russia, where thousand of troops are amassed. (Mstyslav Chernov/The Associated Press)

Most Kharkiv residents, including Pomasan, are native Russian speakers.

When pro-Russian rebels first declared their self-styled "people's republics" in Donetsk and Luhansk to the southeast after Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, many people thought Kharkiv was destined to follow.

Separatists had attempted to seize Kharkiv, too, at one point raising their flag in a regional government building in the centre of the city.

In the eight years since, the city of more than 1.4 million has turned away from Moscow, and toward the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the West.

Pomasan, a native Russian speaker, says she has chosen to now speak only Ukrainian since the latest escalation began.

"It's more about being patriotic," she said. "This is about being united with your country. With people, you know."

If psychological warfare is part of Moscow's calculation in its military buildup around Ukraine, there's plenty of evidence that it's working, although partly assisted, say some, by Washington's repeated warnings of an imminent Russian invasion.

Young soldiers in Kharkiv take part in a memorial for the more than 100 Ukrainians killed during the so-called Maidan protests against former Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

Embracing Ukrainian identity

On Saturday, even before Putin took his decision to recognize the breakaway republics, members of a co-op called the Garage Hub held a party to help combat nerves and feelings of isolation.

The co-op is a series of workshops located below a Kharkiv strip club. It offers shared space to engineers, designers and artists, helping them to transition into small companies or start-ups if they want.

Pereverzeva says she has grappled with her identity as a child of Russian and Ukrainian parents. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

Katerina Pereverzeva is a graphic designer and photographer. The daughter of a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, she grew up in Donetsk until the rebels took it over. 

Her family fled the fighting when she was 11. The current situation can act as a trigger, summoning memories of the uncertainty they lived with before then.

Like Pomasan, she's refusing to speak Russian, saying conflict forces you to choose an identity.

"Before I would identify myself, like I'm half-Russian, half-Ukrainian. And after the beginning of the war, I decided that I should kill [the] Russian inside me, and I became the full Ukrainian."

Despite her anxiety over a potential Russian incursion, Pereverzeva says she won't run again if there is one.

"Because I lose one city and I'm not ready to lose another," she said.

One of the Garage Hub founders, 27-year-old Roman Vydro, is impatient with all the talk of an invasion. He says widespread worry over a potential war has damaged consumer confidence considerably across Ukraine — a big problem when coupled with a global pandemic.

Roman Vydro, 27, says the fear of war has hurt business in Ukraine, which was already hurting in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

"I see people freezing, changing their lifestyles right now," he said. "Just sitting at home and feeling anxious. And I feel like this is actually the goal that the aggressor is pursuing."

"It's okay to worry, I'm also really anxious about the situation," he said.

"But while everyone is sitting and waiting for actual traditional warfare to come to our door, we are just now starting to realize that [this phase of] the war has already begun."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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