For the past three nights, I have had nightmares about the war in Ukraine.
I’m Russian-Ukrainian with family in both countries, and I’m terrified. The first dream was of watching my grandmother’s house as she, unsuspectingly cooking inside, was hit by a missile. The second was of her falling to her knees in front of a Russian tank. I don’t remember its ending. The third was of me crying after she was shot dead on her way to the market. In my dreams, my 83-year-old grandmother, who survived a three-year long Nazi occupation during World War II, couldn’t survive her brotherly nation’s attack on her homeland.
After the third nightmare, I woke up in cold sweat. It was midday on a Saturday. I scrambled out of bed, got dressed, and headed to 9 East 91st Street, the Russian Consulate in New York, where I moved for college. I didn’t have a reason to go—I just went. I stood across the street from the colonial building with the red, blue, and white flag mounting above it. A line of visitors wrapped around the block. “I should’ve worn valenki,” an elderly woman in a knee-length mink coat croaked loudly to herself. A few men ahead of her did, in fact, wear valenki to brave the two-hour wait in the freezing temperatures.
If you were to judge the current political climate in Russia from this quiet street, nestled between Madison and Park avenues, it would appear as though the country were doing business as usual. But just this Saturday, on February 12, President Biden and President Putin held a phone conference to discuss, as Biden put it, “swift and severe” consequences for Russia if its government dared to invade Ukraine.
“It feels like the US turned Ukraine into their puppet,” Anastasia Fetisova, a 20-year old Russian said. “Russia hates how the US asked Ukraine to join NATO, which would move the American army too close to our border. But, then again, Putin has been making very aggressive foreign policy moves.… I don’t believe this will be beneficial to anyone. In my opinion, both Russia and the US should be blamed here, whereas Ukraine was simply turned into a pawn.”
The current escalation of tensions between the two countries began in November 2021, when satellite imagery of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border was leaked. Since then, the American government has involved itself in the conflict, garnering, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, unnecessary panic. The risks of invasion were both downplayed and presented as feasible by both Russian and Ukrainian governments at different points in time, causing continued confusion and restlessness among civilians.
“The war is very scary and makes me uncomfortable to even talk about it sometimes,” Daria Ordynat, a 20-year-old Ukrainian, said. “The idea of losing independence is difficult. It’s something a lot of Ukrainian people fear. It feels very real. It feels very unfair.”
Ordynat herself moved to the United States to attend George Washington University on the premedical track, and she hopes to return to her native Ukraine after graduation. “I do feel rather homesick,” she said. But with the prospect of war with Russia, which Ordynat opposes vehemently, her future remains unclear. Would it even be safe to go back? What would traveling into a war zone look like? These questions, with no answers in sight, readily come to mind for the young people in both countries.
Her concerns of uncertainty were echoed by George Papazov, a 22-year-old Russian and a senior at New York University.
“I was going to take a medical leave this semester,” he said. “My father told me I might be unable to return to the states in a semester’s time. Russian colleges were advised to limit their collaboration with foreign ones and getting American visas had been hard.… I ended up staying.”
Papazov has already missed a few of his family’s milestones because of his inability to travel to Russia. His American student visa ran out a year ago. While it’s legal for him to remain in the States as a full-time college attendee, leaving the country might render him unable to return. He has already missed his brother’s and his cousin’s weddings. Papazov fears the war will not only lead to death and destruction but will also worsen the state of things politically, a fear shared by Maria Zubenko, a 22-year-old Russian citizen.
“Any chance of war in the European region makes me question if we actually live in a civilized world,” Zubenko said.
Zubenko, who does not “support war with Ukraine in any way,” worries about the likelihood of escalation consistently. Her fears range from the loss of life in the conflict to the way her family’s life in Russia will be impacted. With Russia already not being the international community’s darling, Zubenko knows her loved ones’ lives will become unbearable under whatever new sanctions the global powers might impose on the state. If the ruble continues to crumble and businesses of different sizes shut down, Zubenko sees a bleak future for the country and her family, who might find themselves needing to flee Ukraine to chase a more stable life. But, above all else, she’s dwelling on her loved ones’ safety.
“I hope my brother does not receive a draft letter to war like many young men received theirs during Chechen conflicts,” she said.
While my father, 60, and my brother, 32, are too old to be drafted, my cousin and friends are not. If war happens, they might get drafted.
I imagined my curly-haired veterinarian friend Pasha swapping his T-shirts with tacky animal puns and his colorful bow ties for a camouflaged military uniform. If he gets drafted, he might die, I realized. “I love you,” I texted him, interrupting a conversation we were having and bracing myself for new nightmares of his dead body falling on the ground in front of me.
To Vasilii, a 22-year old Russian, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym out of personal safety concerns, the situation has felt hopeless for a while now. The war has been on his mind since the Crimean annexation and the initial conflict washing over Donbass and Donetsk in 2014—a point in time the current tensions can be traced back to. He doesn’t currently live in Russia—in part because he is eligible for the draft.
“I have friends and family in both countries, and don’t want to lose anyone,” Vasilii said. “I don’t support the war.” He wishes yet doesn’t have much hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. For him, the right way to end this “bloody mess,” as Zubenko called it, lies with Putin removing the troops from Belarus, the Black Sea, and the eastern Ukrainian border.
While many Russian and Ukrainian youths might have worries other than the looming threat of war, as was written in Al Jazeera, a lot of us wake up in a cold sweat from realizing the invasion might actually take place, knowing our loved ones might get drafted or shot in their own backyards. As I go to bed tonight, I expect nothing less from my dreams than to witness my friend Pasha’s body be ravaged by artillery fire.
Today, my mother told me she sent money to my Ukrainian grandmother—who got Covid-19 two weeks ago and was having a hard time in recovery, needing quite a few pricey medications to get back on her feet. After hours in line at the post office, the transfer was completed, and I sure hope it wasn’t in vain. This war isn’t worth the lives of our grandmothers, our brothers, or our friends.