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Opinion: I grew up in Ukraine and Russia. Here’s what I say when people ask where I’m from

Editor’s note: Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and author of the debut novel, “Your Presence Is Mandatory,” which spans seven decades leading up to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. She grew up between Ukraine, Russia and the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are the writer’s own. Read more opinion at CNN.

While for most of the world the war in Ukraine has been going on for two years, for my family it’s been 10. In the spring of 2014, my family in the Donbas watched out of windows as separatist fighting broke out and then turned to shelling that never fully stopped.

Sasha Vasilyuk - Courtesy Christopher Michel
Sasha Vasilyuk - Courtesy Christopher Michel

As a journalist and author who was born in Ukraine but spent half of my childhood in Russia and had relatives in both countries, witnessing that conflict shifted how I understood my identity, my two homelands and their complicated past. Back then I wrote an essay about the Donbas war called “Don’t Worry, Grandma, This War Will Last Forever.” But I didn’t realize how prophetic my title would be.

The Donbas conflict killed an estimated 14,000 people and created roughly 1.7 million internal refugees between 2014 and 2022, including my cousins and my little nephews. But after several months of grabbing international headlines, the outside world forgot about it, letting it simmer in the eastern corner of Ukraine.

That is until February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unchecked ambitions turned from the Donbas to the entire nation of Ukraine. To me and my family, what’s happening today feels like déjà vu: a stalled war effort, waning international interest, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, and millions of families that will never be the same.

In his speech before the full-scale invasion, Putin made paranoid references to denazifying Ukraine to rally Russians to support his war, twisting history to serve his purpose. Putin’s history lesson came off as bizarre to many observers, but for a man who grew up in the shadow of World War II and came of age during the Cold War, this was only the latest, most radical step in trying to drag us all back into his version of the past.

If anything useful can be gleaned from the recent Tucker Carlson interview with Putin, it is that the past plays a leading role in how the Russian president decides the future.

Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has invested a lot of resources into glorifying the Russian and Soviet past, selectively choosing what to leave out of history and enacting several laws that dictate how the past —particularly World War II — can be portrayed. The result isn’t just the language in history textbooks. It’s now on the ground, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

I first noticed the dangerous manifestation of his strange obsession with resurrecting the bygone Soviet era when I visited my family in the Donbas in 2016, two years into the start of the troubles. What I saw in the formerly booming, modernizing city of Donetsk were empty buildings, bomb shelter signs and shuttered newspaper kiosks ridden with bullet holes. But it was the billboards that struck me the most.

They were all designed in the exact style of Soviet propaganda posters and used the same cheesily patriotic language, extolling defenders of the Motherland. One popular one said, “We made it to Berlin. If necessary, we’ll do it again.” Walking the streets, it was no stretch to imagine myself plunged into Stalinist times.

It was after that trip that I began writing a novel called “Your Presence Is Mandatory” that spans from World War II to the war in the Donbas. It is centered on the story of my Ukrainian Jewish grandfather who’d kept a lifelong secret about his traumatic experience of WWII due to his fear of the Soviet government’s persecution. I wanted to explore the role that fear and silence play in an authoritarian society, then and now.

Having grown up with Russian history books that peddle a patriotic narrative, researching my novel taught me there were a lot of darker sides to Soviet history that had been hidden away. My grandpa’s story was both unique and simultaneously one of millions of similar stories that could have combatted that revisionist history, but instead died with them. I dreamed of one day publishing the book in Russia and Ukraine because, I felt, most families there have kept similar secrets spawned by the Soviet culture of repression.

I was editing the last chapter, when Putin ordered the invasion in February 2022, thereby giving my novel an eerier gravitas.

As Russian tanks rolled through Ukraine, life quickly turned upside down. Most of my relatives — both in Russia and Ukraine — became refugees (some for the second time in just a decade), while my novel was acquired in several countries. Ironically, though, it won’t be available in Ukraine or Russia: in Ukraine because they are busy fighting a war and don’t want to read about one and in Russia because the novel counters several of Putin’s laws.

In light of all this, the invasion has forced me to rethink my own relationship to my two homelands. Though I’m not ethnically Russian, before the invasion I used to call myself Russian American, a catchall moniker for all Soviet émigrés (many of them Jewish, and many from Ukraine) that I had used since I had landed in the United States in the 1990s.

But, unlike Putin, I can no longer hold on to the past. The world where Russia plays the role of the big sister to Ukraine has been shattered. Calling myself Russian now means feeling deeply ashamed for aiming to destroy a place that has every right to exist. It also means being afraid for what would happen to me if I ever stepped foot in Putin’s version of backward-looking Russia.

In the past two years, I’ve sometimes referred to myself as “post-Soviet.” As an identity that stems from the same past that Putin is trying to recreate, it’s far from ideal. And so, now when people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Ukraine and Russia. I say I had family in both countries, but now they are scattered.

I say this war will last forever unless we recognize where Putin is trying to lead us and stop him before it’s too late.

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