“My parents left Kyiv on the second day of the invasion. They escaped to my father’s workplace where he treats wounded soldiers… They don’t go away, they don’t run away. They stand… This is Putin’s fault.”
Oleksii Burov is a 22-year-old UEA student in his third year of studying International Relations and Politics. Hailing from Kyiv, he is watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a keen eye, not least because his mother and father have had to evacuate their family home.
Oleksii and I met through a mutual friend who mentioned he was a Ukrainian international student willing to talk about the escalating conflict in his home country. Our discussion takes place online, mere days after news of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine reached the UK. It’s Oleksii’s birthday today, though it quickly becomes apparent that the day has soured for him.
He has been in touch with his parents a handful of times over the last few days, enough to know they are working in a private clinic which has now become a makeshift military hospital. I ask who his father has been operating on, but Oleksii is adamant in conveying the anonymity of treatments.
He believes they are members of the Territorial Defense Forces, groups of volunteers instrumental in defending specific residential areas. However, in a calculated measure to protect the Ukrainian fighters, the soldiers aren’t required to show their tags to staff at the hospital. If Russian forces acquired the data, they could trace the movements of their enemies and sabotage the hospital. I push for more information, but he shakes his head: “I can’t say anymore because neither he nor I know”.
Their residential area is supposed to be a dead zone for the assaults. The main road is being extensively blocked and their neighbourhood is relatively quiet, with a small railway and a few bridges. A very different picture is being painted in the capital city of Kyiv. A vast convoy stretching 40 miles is closing in on the Ukrainian people as they prepare for a gruelling siege.
Oleksii cannot return home to Kyiv. His planned flight home for Easter was cancelled yesterday. The Kyiv airport is being targeted by missiles fired from Belarus. It’s apparent from his resigned remarks that this is exactly what he was expecting. Most of those returning to Ukraine are from the adjacent EU countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. The rules for those trying to return from the UK are considerably less clear.
Oleksii predicts the coming days, weeks, or even months will be a “bloodbath” for Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko. He knows that the rising death tolls for both Russia and Ukraine will antagonise both sides, but is emphatic in saying: “It’s not the people’s fault. We need to be angry at Putin. It’s not Ukraine’s fault, it’s not the West’s fault, it’s Putin’s fault”.
Public unrest in Ukraine, Russia, and across the globe mounts as the number of deaths continue to increase. Oleksii says the only way out of this war is to show public condemnation on the international stage: “it will be a prolonged conflict, but I don’t think it will be a victory for Putin.” He has been present at the Norwich City Hall protest and has helped in the planning of the campus protest this Friday, saying it is his “civic duty” to do so.
He is emphatic in conveying the need for movement and lobbying surrounding the current visa policy. A family migration visa allows for family members of British nationals who usually live in Ukraine to reside in the UK. Though fleeing war is currently not included in a standard visitor visa which costs £95 for up to six months, this is the main alternative for those without UK family links. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have announced a further relaxing of rules which could allow the number of Ukrainians eligible to enter the UK to double.
The Russian people are also protesting against the war in Ukraine and human rights group OVD-Info claim to have tracked 6,440 political arrests during protests in Russia over the Ukraine war. It is clear that those under Putin’s rule won’t take this lying down. He brings attention to a big question mark over the reach of state-controlled propaganda, saying he believes it is “incredibly unlikely” that Putin’s high command will stage a coup.
As for the Ukrainian leadership, Oleksii speaks with the first hope I have seen from him. He is surprised by the resolve demonstrated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who has quickly become a fan favourite across the globe. Oleksii voted to re-elect former president Petro Poroshenko who ran against Zelensky in the last election but was not surprised by the latest polls which indicate he is supported by 91% of the Ukrainian people. Far from Oleksii’s expectation that Zelenskyy might leave Ukraine after the first few days, taking up the United States’ offer of evacuation, he has continued to lead the country from the capital.
Oleksii leaves me with a final, lasting image for those reading our interview. He says he recently saw a video in which tear gas was used on a civilian road blockade. He admires their passion, their refusal to give up, their fierce commitment to Ukraine: “Nobody left the line, they stood. They cried and they spat, but they stood. They don’t go away, they don’t run away. They stand.”