Voices of Ukraine: stories in times of unrest


Andrew Ulstad

Muir Hamilton translates comments made by Vasilisa Gorislavets at the panel to support Ukraine on Oct. 28. L-R Dr. Volha Isakava, Vladislav Bulgar, Vasilisa Gorislavets, Muir Hamilton.

Andrew Ulstad, Staff Reporter

Vladislav Bulgar went to bed somewhere around 1-2 a.m. the morning of Feb. 24 in his hometown of Odessa, Ukraine. He awoke to his grandmother barging into his room with tears in her eyes. He remembers that she simply said, “Vlad. They come. It’s war now.”

Bulgar had stayed out late on the night of Feb. 23. He said he spent the night and early hours of the morning skating with his friends in Odessa, the third most populous city in Ukraine.

His story is not a unique one in war torn Ukraine. Vasilisa Gorislavets, a film director from Kyiv, said she saw Feb. 23 as just another night on set.

Dr. Volha Isakava, a Russian language professor and chair of the department of world languages and culture at CWU, works with Ukrainian refugees in central Washington. She said that although most people in the west believe the war started with the invasion on Feb. 24, Ukrainian people have suffered under the thumb of Russia for centuries.

Isakava said the history of Ukraine is complexly intertwined with Russia. 

“Ukraine has been a colony and has been suppressed by Russia for centuries,” Isakava said. “It has always had emancipatory colonial struggles.”

This history has created a sense of rebellion in the former soviet state. Bulgar describes fighting with cops as a right of passage among Ukrainian teenagers.

When Russia launched their full scale invasion, Bulgar said this sense of harmless rebellion took on another meaning, one of fortitude and resilience.

As those who could fight prepared to, an even larger population prepared to flee. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 7.2 million people have been granted refugee status as a result of Russia’s invasion.

A fleeing artist

Gorislavets worked in film production in Ukraine. On Feb. 23, she had been working on set late and got to bed around 4 a.m. on the day of the invasion. 

She awoke to the text from CWU Russian language student Muir Hamilton, with whom she had formed a bond while Hamilton was studying abroad in Kyiv, Ukraine. According to Gorislavets, the text read simply, “The war has begun. You need to leave Ukraine.” 

What followed was days of moving in packed trains and buses, trying to get from Ukraine to Poland and eventually out of Eastern Europe. Gorislavets said the environment at the Ukrainian train station was tense on that first day.

“Nobody is really, at that point, thinking with their head because … there is a real threat of death,” Gorislavets said. 

The first leg of her trip, a train ride from Kyiv to the Polish border, would normally have taken around 10 hours. Gorislavets said that it took closer to 16 hours because the train would frequently stop and turn off all lights to avoid being targeted by airstrikes. 

On that train towards Poland, she said she witnessed a moment common to many refugee families: saying goodbye. Gorislavets said she saw a family of five huddled together, the father staring out the window.

“At one point [the father] said ‘Dear, I cannot go any further. I am a man and … I must defend the country’ and he left the train and went to the front,” Gorislavets said.

Gorislavets said the Ukrainians fighting this war are regular people; friends, brothers and waiters who answered the call. She said she fears for the mental wellbeing of those returning from the front after witnessing so much death firsthand.

Her older brother is one of those fighting on the front lines. The last time she saw him Gorislavets said, “I have known this person a very long time, so I can see the psychological effects [of fighting].”

Skating by in a war

Bulgar described himself as a pretty average Ukrainian teenager. When his country was invaded by Russia, Bulgar said he stayed for around 5 months. 

Bulgar, an avid skateboarder, was given a medical exemption from military service due to past skating injuries to his leg. Meaning, even though he was 18, he would not be allowed to join the defense of his home country.

On the day of the invasion, Bulgar said he was set to begin an internship with a restaurant. He took a bus into the city to learn that his employment would be put on hold due to the war. Rather than simply turning and heading home, Bulgar decided to visit the city park and listen to music. 

Over his rock music, he heard his first explosion of the war. 

“I [ran] to the bus station, and I see no buses…I see flying anti-aircraft rocket flying in the center of the city,” Bulgar said. 

These kinds of strikes became commonplace in Bulgar’s life over the next few weeks. During his speech he recalled one incident where he saw the flash of a bomb through his closed eyelids in bed. After waiting a moment to hear the explosion, he got up and looked off his balcony.

“I see suddenly a missile flying across my house…maybe 100 and a half meters [away],” Bulgar said. The missile then hit a gas station down the street, he said this was the moment he knew that he had to leave Ukraine.

His mother agreed Bulgar needed to leave. After contacting a beneficiary in Seattle, she sold her cosmetology tools, her car and even her business to raise enough money to get Bulgar out. Bulgar said his mother sacrificed all this for him to escape from Ukraine and study at CWU.

A central connection

Both Bulgar and Gorislavets are now among the student body of CWU. According to Isakava, they are not the only Ukrainian refugees to come to the Central Washington area.

This war, although thousands of miles away, has rippled out to affect our community and others like it all over the globe. There have been over 12 million cross-border movements in the eight months since the invasion, according to the UNHCR.  Bulgar and Gorislavets’ stories serve as reminders that there are real lives behind each of those statistics.

Many nonprofit organizations have created dedicated programs for the Ukrainian people. Global Giving, World Vision and Heart to Heart International all have funds set up for civilian aid. The national website of Ukraine has resources for donating directly to the military, rebuilding efforts or medical aid at war.ukraine.ua. Web resources such as charitynavigator.org have been set up to vet the authenticity of nonprofits.



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