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The Carletonian

A conversation with Artem Yushko ’25

With the Ukraine War reaching its one-year mark, I asked Artem if I could interview him on the entire Ukrainian experience. What was life like before Russia’s invasion? How does he interpret the causes of the war, and how is his family dealing with it? What does he think of Zelensky, Kyiv, the EuroMaidan Revolution and his country’s future? Here’s what he said: 

Going into the environment in the few years before the war, when did you first hear the name Volodymyr Zelensky? 

I watched his comedy shows when I was like thirteen or fourteen. He is a good comedian — like, those shows were genuinely funny. Some of those works were like, second- or third-tier, but he made good political satire before he became the president. But my parents actually voted for Poroshenko; none of us ever actually fancied Zelensky. I’m still convinced that he’s not a good president and that he’s like a far better “face of the fighting nation” than he is an actual ruler of the people. 

Before the war, from 2019 up to early 2022, what did you think of him (Zelensky)? 

I really disliked him. His handling of COVID was terrible. The way he communicated with foreign partners, the way he managed foreign debts that the World Bank gave to Ukraine — it also did not make a lot of sense. I think he’s objectively worse than Poroshenko’s government was. Of course he did a few good things: the country became a lot more digitized, he did a lot of things to make bureaucracy a lot less of a problem and he really promoted the Ukrainian language and culture — that’s what he actually did really well. But he spent a lot of money on building the roads when it could have gone to more pressing issues, like education and healthcare, so I genuinely think he’s not a good president and I really hope he will not be reelected after the war. 

From the interviews I’ve heard of different Ukrainians, it seems like there are two opposite views of the leadup to the conflict. The first is that no one in Ukraine expected an invasion to happen, and the warnings and military buildup that was taking place in the West was seen as alarmist and provocative. The other is that it was clear a war was coming but the West was ignorant and unresponsive. As someone who was in Ukraine in the months leading up to the war, what was the feeling you got? Did people start to talk about what to do if there was a Russian invasion?

[Invasion] was definitely considered as a possibility. I wouldn’t say that it was considered to be the most likely outcome though. One of the factors that was probably the most beneficial to a full-scale invasion was that it was not the most logical option, and because of that, not everyone was prepared right away. If Russia had destabilized the economy for a year and then started the invasion in the Donbas, they would have had a much better chance at succeeding than they do now. I would say that was the general feeling in the weeks before the war. The last time I was there, which was January 2022, the city was actually very peaceful. Most of the people did not believe that the war would actually start in February, and most people were not adequately prepared for it when it started. 

When did you first hear about the invasion? What were some of the first things you did?

I remember I was preparing to go to the Social Dance Club, and then I washed my hair—it was a good hair day and I was excited about that. And then I started reading… you know how you’re like a part of a lot of group chats you almost never read? Something pushed me to go through one of them as I was dressing up, and I saw that Putin had recorded some kind of a speech that was being played live, and everyone was watching that speech. I was listening in too, because I’d heard before that Putin had recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, and I listened to that Putin speech, and I knew the invasion happened. I woke my parents up and told them what had happened; I scrambled an email and sent it out to Carleton almost right away. Then I started working on different fundraisers. I think I wrote an article to the Carletonian in support of the fundraisers. Those were the first things I started doing. Of course, I still feel a strong connection to Ukraine. I’m a Ukrainian citizen, I’m a Ukrainian person, and so of course I wanted to help to the best of my ability, and the most I could do as a student abroad was setting up the fundraisers. 

Why do you think Russia invaded Ukraine? 

Russia has never been a democracy, it has been under authoritarian rule for all of its history. Because of that, Russia has always had imperial ambitions—they’re deeply ingrained in the culture. There are a lot of jokes, a lot of TV series, which portray Ukraine as a failed state, a joke state, that’s kind of a little brother at the border. They do not perceive Ukraine as a sovereign country that’s really different from Russia, that does not want to have ties with Russia. 

What were the first weeks of the war like for your family? 

My dad signed up for Territorial Defense, which is one of the volunteer units which was supposed to defend Kyiv from the invasion. He drove my mom and my little brother almost to the Polish border, up to Lviv Oblast, and then he volunteered. He’s got some experience as an engineer, so he started building fortifications around the city in the northern and the northeastern parts. He made anti-tank devices, pillboxes, turrets. They spent more time in the bomb shelters than at home for the first two, three weeks of the war, but they eventually moved back to our apartment. 

They’re doing alright now, they’ve got a decently warm apartment and more than enough to get through the winter. They know they’re going to survive it. My little brother doesn’t care at all, he just complains about hearing the air siren and having to go take shelter. Sometimes they joke about it, but I can tell they’re still anxious whenever I call them or talk to them on Zoom. 

Do you know anyone who has joined the army, and what they’ve experienced? 

One of the people who played on stage with me joined the army and was killed in combat in April, somewhere near Severodonetsk. A lot of people joined the army who were part of the Kyiv music scene, like one of the best sound engineers I’ve ever worked with—he’s in Bakhmut right now. It’s really difficult, really emotionally tiring. It’s not like you’re afraid all the time, it’s actually like you start getting tired of all the emotions you can feel. You want everything to be over, and realize that things are only going to be over if you do your job really well. I have a lot of respect for those people. 

Teresa Bo, a journalist who has been in the country since the invasion, recently said “even though in the past they (“they” being the people she’s spoken to) wanted peace, what they want right now is victory.” Do you think this statement is accurate? 

Yes. At this point, everyone understands really well that if the conflict is going to be frozen, it’s going to continue at some point, that Russia is not just going to leave us alone and get out, that a temporary peace is just like a halt that only means the fighting is going to continue later. Because of that, nobody wants to continue the fight later; everyone just wants to finish it now, and just live their lives afterward. Some kind of peace agreement isn’t going to actually release anyone from what they’ve had to endure because of Russia. It would just continue. 

How do you think people find hope within this conflict? Hope for peace, hope for victory, when it’s clear by now this is going to be a very long struggle? 

It’s more about not having a choice. It’s more about actually accepting that the war is going to go on, and the most you can do is keep the economy going, support your family, support yourself, support everyone around you, and then support the army. People…they just know that they don’t have a choice, and most of them have already accepted that by this point. The Ukrainian propaganda also works really well by fueling people with the drive to fight, because nobody wants us to be a part of Russia. Everyone knows what will come with Russia: the torture chambers, the execution of civilians. They know all the tumult that’s happened in Luhansk and Donetsk, how they destroyed that region of Ukraine. There’s no choice, but we’re doing alright. 

Well, those are all the questions. Thank you for doing this. 

Thank you so much for having me! I really appreciate that people are still interested about the details of what’s going on and that they still support us. Right now, the US is definitely our biggest ally, and we definitely were able to hold much stronger thanks to your help. All of this means a lot to me and my people, so thank you for supporting us.

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