Light in the Fieldsby Yuliya Shirokova
Light in the Fields (in progress, to be published by Blue Ear Books) is Yuliya Shirokova‘s memoir of growing up in post-Soviet Ukraine and later in the United States.
Yuliya and her friend Ana, age five, circa 1986 or 1987, in front of the apartment building in Kyiv where Yuliya’s younger sister Irene still lives.
“Although I made my first notes for this book in the fall of 1996,” she writes, “the inspiration came to me several years before, on August 24, 1991. I was nine years old, and the now independent Ukraine was celebrating its first Independence Day since the fall of the USSR. The main artery of Kyiv, Khreschatyk Street, was closed to cars, so all you could see was a sea of people celebrating, framed on both sides by giant chestnut trees. The crowd seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon. Ukrainian pop stars and bands were giving a free concert. As night set in, there was a huge fireworks show. I have never felt such collective happiness. On that day I felt extremely proud of my country, and I wanted to stay in that happiness forever. But inside me I felt anticipation that one day soon I would have to separate from my people.”
Yuliya, Irene, and their grandmother, Odessa oblast, August 1996, a couple of weeks before Yuliya returned back to Kyiv before emigrating to live with her father Tacoma, Washington, USA.
Yuliya on leave from boot camp, with her father in Tacoma, Washington, December 2009.
Yuliya with her sister Irene, Aunt Valentina, and Uncle Igor on Khreschatyk Street, Kyiv, January 20, 2022.
The following excerpt was also published, in two parts, in the Blue Ear Books Substack newsletter on February 24 and March 3, 2023.
I came home from work completely exhausted. For the past couple of weeks, getting anything done at work had been a herculean effort. Today, though, all the tasks seemed to very effectively fall into place. I did not need to negotiate, search, beg, or bargain with anybody. Yet I felt completely drained, and it was only the middle of the week! Mechanically, I went through my post-work routine. Feed the dog, change clothes, walk the dog, prepare lunch for tomorrow. Nothing was shaking the melancholy, the feeling of worry inside me. Almost like an anxiety attack, deep sadness kept filling my chest, making it hard to breathe. I wanted to talk to my mom or sister, but it was still too early in Czechia and Ukraine. They would be getting up for work in a couple of hours. I guess I will be going to bed very late today, I thought to myself.
It was now 9:30 p.m. and I was sitting in my backyard, under the gazebo. My garden lights were glimmering around me, and the cold evening seemed warmer, with its peaceful windless quiet and the complementary light coming from my neighbors’ windows. I was halfway through a glass of red wine and a cigarette, but the usual calming of the mind that I look forward to was not coming. The feeling of sadness just seemed to intensify. I still had to wait at least half an hour before calling my family, so I called the other person closest to me, my childhood friend who also lives on the West Coast. I knew she was probably putting her kids to bed, so I did not expect her to pick up. I was already thinking of who I should call next, but she startled me by answering.
“Oh! Hi!” I stuttered. “How are you?” I was going to follow it up with, “How is your family?” But she abruptly interrupted me.
“How do you think I’m doing?! The parents are at their dacha, and they are bombing Hostomel airport!” I was trying to catch up with what she was saying. Who was bombing whom? Hold on, where is her parents’ dacha? Bombing? Had I heard her right?
The realization washed over me like an abrupt full body submersion into ice water: “The Russians have crossed the border! The war has begun!” She began to say something, but I mindlessly interrupted her. “How are your parents? Do they have a cellar? How about food? Do they have an option to leave?” All the questions came out of me in one breath. Her parents were okay for now. They were hearing the explosions and shootings very clearly, and were seeing the color of the sky change with all the artillery shots and explosions on the other side of the forest line. They had moved their bedroom to the ground floor. This was the only full cement part of their house, with no large windows and all the preservatives Aunt Tonya had made over the past year. They should be good on food for a while. For now, they were refusing to leave. “Let these kacapy come here! We will show them whose land this is!” This was just like Aunt Tonya and Uncle Vasya. It made me smile, but it also made me worry.
On February 24, 2022, at 3:40 a.m., the Russian army crossed the Ukrainian border on several fronts. The elite Russian soldiers who would later become infamous as the sadists of Bucha crossed the Ukraine-Belarus border in the north. On their way to capture Kyiv, one of their first orders was to capture the Hostomel airport, to ensure safe arrival of their airborne squads. I had to look at a map to assess exactly how near Hostomel is to the border. Ana’s parents had spent their whole life and most of their savings building this home, where they were living in semi-retirement. They might lose everything they had worked for, but they needed to leave. The conflict was only going to intensify, and the Russian troops were just too close. Ana said that was exactly what she was explaining to her parents. I asked her to let me know if there was any help I could offer, then we said goodbye. What I had most feared was under way.
In my backyard, under my gazebo, with the soft lights of the garden surrounding me and the crisp night enveloping my face and hands, I looked around, feeling the loneliness and silence of the night. I was numb, and at the same time I was full of fury. I called my sister. She picked up immediately, and I could tell that she had been awake for a while.
“I just spoke to Ana,” I told her. “The bombing is at full force over in Hostomel. Her parents are there now. She is trying to persuade them to evacuate.”
In a shaken but calm voice, Irene said: “I am listening to the news and paying attention to a couple of news channels on Viber and Telegram. Depending on where you are in Kyiv, different things are happening. We are getting air raid sirens throughout every hour, but so far no bombs. A lot of aircraft activity from Zhuliany. The basement in our building has been prepped as a bomb shelter, so next time there is a siren, Dasha, her parents, and I will be going down there.”
I heard the familiar ding sound in the phone and our mother joined the call from the Czech Republic. She was getting ready for work and did not realize that the full-scale Russian invasion had begun just two hours earlier. She asked why we were on a call so early and if everything was okay. My sister and I both paused. A moment of silence. “Girls, what’s wrong?!” Overcoming the tightness in my chest, I said: “They have invaded.” She asked: “Who?!” and I said: “The same ones that have been standing at the border.” We stayed quiet. Mom was processing. “You mean the Russians?” All I could muster to say was: “Yes.” So much rage and paralysis was in my body that I could not even pronounce “Russians”. Still could not believe it.
I tried to stay calm and went into solution mode, sharing every lesson I had learned from my training in the U.S. Army about active theater. We made a plan. We would stay on the phone whenever my sister was not in the shelter, to make sure we stayed in touch. Irene was refusing to evacuate. Her reasoning was that if everyone ran, then who would be left to rebuild the country? I understood her logic, but at the same time could not believe this was the reality. Another siren began, and we had to hang up. Irene would text us once she came out.
It was now 1:30 a.m. The garden lights had long since turned off, but I had not noticed. The neighbors’ dim nightlights and the waning crescent moon were the only light showing through the darkness. The tears finally burst out of me. My body began to shake. I was sobbing and trying to keep from screaming. Living on a different continent from my family, having trained for war, and growing up on my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s stories about the war and the Holodomor, I had thought about this many times. Now its potential became very real: I might never see my family again.
I’ve had a lot of adventures in my lifetime, so generally can anticipate what my reaction will be in many different circumstances. But nothing could have prepared me for this. I felt all air leave my lungs as if someone had punched me directly in the solar plexus. Nausea filled my stomach and spread through my body. I took a series of small breaths. This was not the time to panic. I just knew that I could not just sit here and wait for the unknown. So many thoughts flooded my mind that I could not focus or identify even one. I began with reaching out to my uncles, aunt, cousins, and friends just to find out if they were okay. I sent all of them a link to a money-transferring app, so they could reach out to me for help if they chose to. Thoughts were continuing to invade, but no clarity was coming.
My sister’s phone call to our shared group interrupted this paralyzing jumble. I jumped on the call. The threat of air bombing was temporarily off, she said, so she had come back up to her flat to take a shower and reset. Mom, Irene, and I stayed on the phone for maybe twenty minutes and together heard the siren come back on. It was time for Irene to go back to the shelter. I don’t know how many times this pattern repeated that night. Every time Irene went into the shelter, I comforted my mom who was at work. When Mom had to tend to patients, I fruitlessly attempted to at least take a nap. I was left one on one with my thoughts, which I later shared during the next call from my sister. I discussed with them whether it was better for Irene to stay in the flat or go to the shelter. The shelter was underground, beneath a sixteen-story building, whereas in her flat she might have the ability to get out and avoid being crushed by the rubble. On the other hand, there were other people in the shelter. Rescuers would know to dig for them there, but would not know that my sister was in another part of the building. I gave her tips on how to be safe in each scenario, how to cover during shootings versus bombings, and what to put into her emergency backpack. To my and Mom’s great relief, Irene did want to go to the shelter. As the night went on, we mostly just stayed on the phone while each looking at our different news sources and sharing if we heard anything from there or from somebody we knew.
I continued to try to take cat naps in the periods between sirens, but just could not will my body to let go enough. As morning drew closer, the clarity of my thoughts manifested through intense feelings. I began to feel guilty, disgusted, sad, and angry. Why was I feeling all this instead of just anger? Many times I have heard my Jewish friends say that the reason many Jewish families have three kids is to make up for the parents, plus for one Jewish person killed during the Holocaust. I now understood what that meant. I felt deep guilt for choosing not to have biological children earlier in life. Once again moscali were attempting to annihilate my nation and heritage, and I had done nothing as a woman to help preserve the nation, traditions, and history. Disgust came from realizing how previously, inadvertently and unsuspectingly, I had abetted Russian propaganda by not correcting people when they called me Russian, and by staying silent when I heard friends make statements like, “I know Putin is basically a dictator, but I can’t help but respect him.” They felt comfortable saying it to my face after the invasion of Crimea, and in shock I just stayed quiet.
These thoughts kept pulsing through my mind, as though on a closed loop. It was now 4:15 a.m. on February 25. The times that Irene was out of the shelter broke this loop for small breaks, but after hanging up with her the intensity picked right back up. I felt helpless, drowsy, nauseated, angry, and helpless. Wait, I thought: why helpless? I have served the U.S. as a medic, and I could do it now for my family and first homeland! With this realization, the release of tension throughout was immediate. This would be a perfect way to contribute to the Ukrainian victory, be close to my kin, be a part of a solution, and release my emotions. Having come up with the plan, I decided to let my family know of my decision as soon as we talked again, and to begin preparations for the move.
A few minutes after the decision, no matter how hard I fought it, my mind and body finally gave up. Relieved that there was a solution in place, I dropped off to sleep on my couch, still wearing my work clothes from the day before. I missed two phone calls from my sister and suddenly woke up around 6:30. Drowsy, eyes swollen and red from tears and lack of sleep, with a pang of deep guilt and fear in my chest when I realized that anything could have happened in the past hour and a half. I frantically looked through all the Ukrainian, American, and British news. The fight continued. NATO and the allies were watching to see which way the full-scale invasion would be leaning. A wave of loathing for this abhorrent behavior from Russia and everyone watching again washed over my spine and neck. I had to join the fight.
Quickly I texted my immediate family to see if everyone was okay and jumped into the shower, since work still needed to happen. The only time I had taken a shorter shower was on the first day of boot camp when all fifty-plus of us girls had only thirty seconds to shower, but I wasn’t thinking about that at this time. The goal was to wash as quickly as possible, so I could see if everyone was okay in the responses to the texts. Toweling off, I looked at the texts. Everyone was okay. I took two more minutes to brush my teeth and dress, and immediately called my mom and sister. Thankfully, they answered at the first ring. We lovingly greeted each other, and they gave me a summary of the last two hours’ news. For now, it was still unclear which way the pendulum of war was swinging. Thank God for our upper leadership! They were still in Kyiv and putting out communications to the people. I was now in my car, on my way to work. I had to tell them about my decision.
I said: “Girls, I thought about this, and I will begin preparations to go to Ukraine to join the army.”
Without missing a beat, my mom said: “Me too! I won’t be able to be in the fields but I can be at a hospital. You know, I used to be a reserve medic during the USSR. Back then it was forced, but now, I thought about it all day too, and I want to help!”
My sister began to talk, but her voice broke. Holding back tears, she loudly made her mind known. “Are you fucking kidding me?! I am living here with the air raid sirens, never knowing where and when the next bomb will come, and you two want to be running around the fields?! Do you want me to die sooner?!” She paused. Then, in a calmer tone, she clarified her thoughts.
“It is not that I don’t want to help our troops fight,” she said. “It’s just that I believe that both of you could do more in the long term from where you are at. Plus, it would bring me some much needed peace at this point. Right now, there are more people standing in line to sign up than the military can process. Please, for now, let’s think about what you can do from where you are. Then, when the need is there, I promise I’ll support you fully.”
My mom and I had to take a pause to process. We loved each other too much to bring on any additional pain. Both of us agreed with Irene and agreed to talk in our next call about what we could do, from where we were, to help Ukraine and everyone we knew.
I was now parked and had to go to work.