Ukrainian Australians On Watching The War Unfold From Afar

“We’re dismayed, we’re devastated, we’re sad, but we’re also incredibly, incredibly angry.”

Ukrainian Australians

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When Ukrainian Australians think of their homeland, they are reminded of a longstanding history of duty, persecution, and endurance.

It’s not the first time they’ve seen Ukraine under siege from nearly 13,000 kilometres away, and while the current events unfolding are still surreal to see on the news and online, they remain united in their patriotism as Russia’s invasion presses ahead.

“Evil Of One Man”

“There aren’t enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe how we’re feeling at the moment,” spokesperson for the Ukrainian Council of NSW Andrew Mencinsky told Junkee. “We’re dismayed, we’re devastated, we’re sad, but we’re also incredibly, incredibly angry.”

“There’s a lot of rage that Ukrainians are once again being persecuted — the evil of one man, the arrogance of one man, is causing untold suffering to Ukrainians.”

In the 20th century alone, Ukraine has gone through the famine and genocide known as Holodomor in 1932, KGB abductions a decade later, and the persecution of political prisoners well into the 1980s at the hands of the Soviet Union. Even as recently as the last decade, Russia launched a ‘special military operation’ into their neighbouring country after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Most Australians didn’t have an alternative narrative apart from the disinformation being pushed out by the Soviet Union and Russia…”

Mencinsky has spent his whole life fighting misconceptions about his country, his language, and culture, which has been interchangeably mixed up with Russia. “What a lot of Australians don’t understand — but I think are beginning to understand — is that Ukraine is not Russia, it never was, and never will be.”

“Most Australians didn’t have an alternative narrative apart from the disinformation being pushed out by the Soviet Union and Russia, which is, Ukraine and Russia — they’re the same. Ukrainians — they’re Russians, they’re the same.”

He says having people truly understand the difference, and struggle of his people as the current crisis continues to unfold is a relieving comfort. “To me, that’s a very small silver lining on an incredibly dark cloud,” he said.

Watching On Wearily

Anastasiya Matantseva was in a gallery in Melbourne when she first heard Vladimir Putin had declared war on Ukraine. Her cousin had messaged to let her know they were packing their things and leaving Kyiv because the capital city was getting bombed.

“Obviously I felt like a fucking idiot being in the gallery,” she said. “I thought, why am I here? This is so irrelevant. My family is running for their lives. It’s difficult.”

On Tuesday, Russia was accused of detonating thermobaric vacuum bombs on a makeshift shelter in a Ukranian preschool. The death toll in the country so far is just under 200, and an estimated 680,000 people have fled Ukraine for neighbouring countries.

Matantseva said it’s sad and enraging to see people in Western countries joke about being conscripted into WW3, when the violence has real-world implications for Ukrainians.

“I feel like people don’t really understand the significance of the situation since we are so far removed from it. We’re from a privileged country, so I guess it is difficult for people to empathise and understand the reality of events.

“My friend has been standing for 13 hours in a queue at the Ukrainian-Polish border with her child,” she said. “My cousin and uncle will be conscripted to join the army and fight. My cousin is only 19, he’s never been trained. He’s currently so depressed. He doesn’t talk or eat. He’s scared.”

The 28-year-old said that at the same time, she still wants Ukrainians to defend their country, noting that Russian soldiers and occupants have unable to justify why they’re there. “We know what we’re fighting for — our country, our sovereignty. So we actually have something to fight for,” she said.

Australia’s Response

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has vowed what he calls ‘lethal aid’ to assist with Ukraine’s efforts. On Tuesday, he announced $70 million in military assistance, including missiles and weapons, as well as medical supplies and cyber support to the Ukrainian Government.

“Russia must pay a heavy price…and we will continue to add to that price, as we consider every single option that is in front of us,” said Morrison over the weekend. “I am taking nothing off the table.”

Mencinsky described Australia’s economic sanctions against Russia describes as an “incredible start”, but hopes that Australia won’t need to do more in the event that hopefully, Putin backs off. In the meanwhile, he reiterated that Australia is a world player, and needs to continue “to do our bit”.

The Morrison Government also committed to accelerated visa applications for Ukrainians in Poland who want to settle in Australia, on top of the existing annual humanitarian allocation, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Australia will also prioritise “skilled” migrants and students to help support the economy.

Anastasia Radievska from Sydney told Junkee that seeing what’s happening in Ukraine has reaffirmed her solidarity with all oppressed people in the world — including refugees and First Nations people who are poorly treated in Australia already. “I’m acutely aware that if it wasn’t for my mum’s strength and random luck, I might never have left Ukraine, and I could be sitting at home right now watching tanks outside my window.

“It makes me sick, it makes me feel guilty, it makes me feel angry. Any one of us could be a refugee, a victim of state violence, or a soldier,” she said. “We’re not special, we’re just lucky.”

She’s called on the Morrison Government to take in more refugees, replace temporary protection visas with citizenship, abolish detention centres, and fast-track humanitarian sponsorship “not just for Ukrainian refugees, but for all those fleeing violence in their home country”.

“I don’t want the Morrison Government getting a single bit of props for showman refugee rhetoric while denying people the ability to live in true safety and security,” she said, also shaming how Australia still buys Russian oil, and therefore is helping fund part of their war efforts. “That’s why it’s up to all of us who feel shocked, angry, and scared by what’s happening in Ukraine to hold [the Federal Government] to account, and to demand better for refugees.”

Show Of Support

A string of rallies have been held across the country in the last week, including in Sydney and Melbourne. Ukrainian Australians continue to ask people to show up to anti-war or refugee rights protests, write a letter to local MPs, or donate to vetted humanitarian aid groups on the ground.

“Check in on your Ukrainian Australian friends. Listen if they need to vent. Ask if they need help organising any logistics for family in Ukraine, or who have fled Ukraine,” said Radievska. She said it’s also important to be there for Russians here and abroad as well, as many of them don’t want Putin’s war either.

“Ukrainians, Russians — we are all people suffering in exploitative political and economic systems. This war is a time to remember this, and do what we can to combat it.”

Photo Credit: Ukrainian Council of NSW/Facebook