The last time I saw Andriy he was wearing high heels. Now, like many of my friends, he took up arms | Diana Berg

OWe didn’t want to believe that a real massive invasion would happen because it’s so illogical. But Putin is illogical and crazy. I was torn between a rationalization – what benefits will Russia derive from this invasion? – and a memory of eight years ago, when my city, Donetsk, was occupied and my house was taken from me.

It was a tense month and we prepared for any type of scenario. Every day we were ready to go, to escape. You drink too much coffee in the morning to stay focused, and in the evening you crave alcohol but are afraid to do so. What if you have to drive your car urgently at night?

But on Tuesday there was nice rain in the evening and it smelled like spring, and I thought we could at least relax for the night. They wouldn’t invade Mariupol in the rain – so I finally drank that beer. Another mistake was to be sure that Mariupol would be the first place to be invaded due to our proximity to the occupied territories and Russia.

I woke up to hear that the main towns were under attack. We had also heard shelling, gunshots, but I’ve been hearing that for years – the front line is very close, 15 km away. And there were a lot of shootings last week. But I can’t imagine the feeling of those in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy that morning…

I was starting an artistic residency project. We were waiting for the artists to arrive. My first thought – it sounds funny now – was, “Are we canceling the project? because I am very responsible. But of course the artists were coming from a city that was being bombed, so slowly that I realized that was probably not going to happen.

Instead, we had a security coordination meeting to discuss our occupation plans. Someone said they were leaving for western Ukraine at sunset. My husband and I discussed what we were going to do, as I am on the Russian wanted list.

We had talked about this flight idea many times before. My idea was that in the event of a real invasion, we would take the car and leave. But as it happened, I didn’t feel like that yesterday. And I don’t feel like that today.

I remember fleeing Donetsk eight years ago. They scared me away – I didn’t want to go. I had been part of a rally, a grassroots group, Donetsk Is Ukraine. The pro-Russians attacked our meeting; they distributed information about those of us who organized the movement and posted our portraits all over town. It even became dangerous to go out into the street.

It was my mother who convinced me to go there because they were looking for me. “Just for a week,” she promised me. If she hadn’t begged, I would have been put in jail. All the activists who remained were imprisoned.

I first went to Odessa and then to Lviv in the west. I spent three months there because obviously I couldn’t go home.

I just remember the feeling of being far away, scrolling through the news, even though Lviv is very beautiful, safe, picturesque, with Ukrainian flags everywhere. (In Donetsk, we could be killed for carrying this flag.)

I imagine if I run now I’ll feel the same way. I will live in a safe, beautiful and peaceful Lviv, but my heart will be here.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very scary. The Russian army is very powerful and has already taken many places. And while there aren’t enough penalties (the no-fly zone still isn’t in place and Swift still works), they don’t care.

But during these three days of war, I have also seen something new, something beautiful, powerful and inspiring from all Ukrainians – who feel this instinct to stay home and fight for the nation. I am amazed at how brave the Ukrainian people are. I didn’t expect so many regular civilians to join home defense. Everyone I know in Kyiv went to register.

Many of my friends are artists. I’ve always been an artist and an activist and sometimes I made fun of my artist friends a bit, thinking they’re beautiful, very philosophical but basically toothless.

Turns out that’s not true. The last time I saw one of them, Andriy, he was wearing high heels and sequins, modeling for this crazy and provocative fashion theater by freak designer Mikhail Koptev. He went to enlist in the army, but they didn’t take him because he has a Russian passport (he is from St. Petersburg). So he went to another nearby town and was hired.

So Russia has brutal power. And these Russian soldiers, they are just meat for Putin, sent to die. There are many, many armors and our heavens are open. We are really vulnerable.

But we have the spirit. They can take us brutally and violently, but they cannot take us back. Even the elderly, those Ukrainians who might have a certain Soviet nostalgia, will have changed their minds after that.

After the death of the soldiers on Snake Island, targeted by a Russian warship, no one will forgive him. We will also not forget the man who blew himself up to destroy a bridge and stop the Russian advance. And, unfortunately, there will be others like them.

Each of these sacrifices will distance us from the Russians. They might close in on us, but mentally we will drift away, our identity further and further away.

Diana Berg is an artist and activist. She directs the artistic platform Tu (https://tu.org.ua/pro-nas/) and collaborated with the German cultural organization ifa (ifa.de)

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