Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, Berlin has seen a significant rise in the number of Ukrainians who have found a home — whether permanently or just temporarily — in this vibrant capital city.
For weeks after the shocking onslaught began, thousands of Ukrainians would enter Berlin through the city’s central train station. Almost every train from Warsaw in the first three weeks was packed with those trying to find refuge in Germany, or attempting to use Berlin as a transit point to other places in western Europe.
I’ve heard countless stories from Ukrainians over these past few months, recounting the grim environments they found themselves in back home, bracing from aerial bombardments as air raid sirens blared across their cities. Bewilderment, confusion and shock were the general sentiments expressed — yet there always seems to be a sense of hope that eventually they will return to their homes.
Today, I met yet another Ukrainian trying to restart her life in Berlin. Hailing from Dnipro, 23-year-old Natalia laughed as she wondered why the Russians thought it was worth bombing the city’s Metro, which she called “the biggest joke of an underground system in the world” (it consists of only one line and six stations).
Natalia recalled that for two weeks she, her mother and her cat refused to budge as millions made the decision to leave Ukraine. Eventually, her mother’s concern forced her to reconsider her decision to stay. The three packed up and left the country, initially heading for Bulgaria.
Relieved to be out of harm’s way, Natalia’s tone changed when she recalled how her family — scattered across Ukraine and Russia — is divided over the war. Her entire family speaks Russian. She conveyed a sense of pride when talking about her grandfather, who sacrificed his life in World War II, in the ranks of the Soviet army as it fought against Hitlerite fascism.
Yet, it seems to be the misuse of this historic legacy by the modern anti-communist and reactionary Russian state that has most divided her family.
Echoing the propaganda on Russian state media, Natalia’s family members living in Russia refuse to believe that a war is taking place in Ukraine. She described to relatives being under a hail of bullets, and they replied that this was nothing but “Nazi propaganda”. When she told them that Russia was bombing residential areas, they did not believe her.
They did not empathise with her plight, and insulted her for insinuating that such a thing could be true, saying: “You are fascists! The media is right about you all!”
“I wonder, how they can really believe we are all fascists,” Natalia said. Do they not remember our family’s support for the Soviet military?”
There are indeed neo-Nazis in Ukraine fighting on behalf of the government — a reality grossly understated by a western mainstream media that would rather gloss over such a difficult reality.
A recent BBC segment on the far-right Azov Battalion tried to sanitise the group. However, it is also true that the existence of neo-Nazis within the Ukrainian military and government is vastly exaggerated by the Russian government in order to provide a palatable pretext for its neo-Tsarist, ultranationalist war.
In fact, some of the groupings that fought on the pro-Russian side — whether in an official capacity or for the so-called People’s Republics in Donbass — represent a myriad of Nazi-esque forces.
Natalia is still coming to terms with the terrible reality of being cut off from family members in Russia. Although not old enough to remember when the borders between the two republics didn’t mean much, she mourns the psychological borders that have been erected in recent weeks. She wonders if they will ever speak to her again. At the moment, she isn’t particularly hopeful.
Still, Natalia is one of the lucky ones considering the hundreds (maybe thousands) of Ukrainians that have perished since the war began.
Boris Romantschenko died in the early days of the war, in Kharkiv, under a hail of bombs and bullets. He was held prisoner by the Nazis during WWII and was vice president of the International Committee Buchenwald-Dora and Commands for Ukraine (IKBD). He survived Hitler’s fascist regime, yet he could not survive the rockets being fired by the modern Russian state.
This so-called “Special Military Operation” looks more like a barrage of heinous war crimes being committed under the pretext (and lie) of Great Russian Chauvinism.
This was evident in President Vladimir Putin’s pre-war speech, where he claimed that Ukraine was not a real state and blamed its existence on Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, whom he labeled as criminal for undermining historic Russia, and ceding too much to the oppressed nations of the former Russian Empire.
Ukrainian Marxist organisation, the Coordinating Council of the Working-Class Movement (KSRD) said of the war: “Back at the very beginning of our organization, in the 1990s, we warned about the true nature of Russian great-power chauvinism, which at the time was often disguised under slogans of ‘revival of the USSR’. Even today, the aggression of the Putin clique is covered up by slogans of ‘anti-fascism’ and references to the Soviet past.”
An old song expresses the historical unity of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (three of the four founders of the Soviet Union), called “Three Sisters”, which is also the name of the point where the three countries meet. If they were indeed three sisters, then Putin’s gamble that Ukrainians would welcome his troops with open arms and flowers would have likely paid off. Instead, his forces have been met with resistance, showing how out of touch he is with the Ukrainian people he deems to be his own.
With the inability of push forward, the Russian forces — increasingly frustrated — have turned to indiscriminate bombing attacks.
The very existence of Ukraine is at stake in this war. We should not conflate the resistance taking place to the Russian occupation with support for the right-wing and anti-communist regime of Volodymyr Zelensky. However, the war has certainly helped rally people behind him.
When the United States engaged in the criminal and illegal war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, the fight to expel the occupiers — labeled an insurgency in our media —consisted of some supporters of the fascistic Ba’ath regime. However, it mostly consisted of those opposed to Saddam Hussein’s rule or not favorable to it. It wasn’t the Ba’athist dictatorship that was hanging in the balance — it was the sovereignty of Iraq as a whole.
Noting the resistance of the Ukrainian masses to the invasion, the KSRD reported that, “Many peaceful people are taking revenge on the aggressors, forming partisan detachments and attacking Putin's troops and equipment behind the lines, in the best traditions of the Red Partisans of the Great Patriotic War. But the essence of the war remains the same: it is a struggle between Putin's new-imperialist regime and Western imperialism, fought on the territory of Ukraine and at the expense of the lives of ordinary people.”
We can argue about whether Russia fits the definition of an imperialist power. What should be obvious, and beyond dispute, is that there is nothing objectively “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” about it. This “special military operation” is a brutal, reactionary, chauvinist, heinous war to force Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, or eliminate its existence.
February 24 should have been the day when those who still believed that Russia was merely a counterweight to western imperialism — some sort of nasty but acceptable enough state for that purpose — finally threw those illusions over the deck.
History will judge us very harshly for our missteps if we attempt to view the world through a reductionist Cold War-era lens today. It requires a much more sober analysis of the geopolitical dynamics and the ideological framework that props up the reactionary Russian state.
However, none of this is to say that the solution lies with NATO. We must also be as vehemently opposed to the aggressive alliance that exploits the suffering of Ukrainians for their own geopolitical and expansionist aims.
It is really no coincidence that Ukraine is the centre of today’s power struggle to re-divide the world, as it is being wrestled between the ever-hawkish US Empire on the one hand, and the chauvinist Russian state, on the other. It isn’t particularly new, either, as it was already at the heart of events in Ukraine back in 2014.
Yet, for the Natalias in Berlin, like those in Warsaw, Chisinau, and elsewhere, this war isn’t about support for Zelensky or NATO. It is about defending their identity as Ukrainians — about their right to exist and not be forced into submission under the Russian flag.
This is the flag Natalia’s relatives in St Petersburg have rallied around, but she believes it is a misguided decision, endemic of the chauvinism that has trampled on and violently denied her country’s sovereignty. As she puts it, “This war has divided us. I used to go visit them every year in Russia, but now I feel that I am no longer welcome. I never thought speaking Russian was something I would question, but now I am even wondering whether this should really be my language.”