I’m scared for my family near the Crimea border, but Ukrainians will stand defiant against a Russia invasion

I was born in Kakhovka, the south of Ukraine, about an hour and a half away from the Northern edge of Crimea. I have lived in the UK for almost 20 years, but my parents still live in Kakhovka, right by the river Dnipro. My older brother and his family are in Kyiv.

We spoke Russian when growing up. Most people in the south and east of Ukraine did – the closer you were to the political centre of the USSR the more systematic the erosion of Ukrainian language and local culture. That’s why people in Western Ukraine still have the language and traditions and we in the South have almost completely lost it.

To call the recent and ongoing concern that Russia will invade Ukraine “triggering” would be an understatement. The spring of 2014 was one of the toughest periods of my life. When Crimea was taken, I was in London, just me and my two year old son Sasha, in our small rented flat in Turnpike Lane. I am normally quite a fearless person, but that month I was consumed by terror and anxiety. I remember waking up at 3am and scrolling through my phone, anticipating the news that the “polite green men” (as Russia refers to its soldiers) had moved inwards.

To explain my intense anxiety, apart from the obvious reasons, my region of Ukraine, Khersonshchyna, supplies Crimea with water and electricity. I was convinced there would be a further encroachment. But the speed with which all fences around Khersonschyna have been painted blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag, and the lack of separatist support in the area may have served as a deterrent. Or perhaps it was just baby steps and the next stage of Russia’s plan is unfolding now.

The physical exposure of the Ukrainian steppe means that we have learned to live with the sensation of threat forever throbbing on the country’s fluid borders. For centuries, I feel, the perpetually simmering fight or flight has been in our genes, the fear existing on a cellular level.

This also means that we have adapted and numbed. So my initial, blind panic a few weeks ago has now grown into defiance and stoic calm. We realise that the build up at the border is partly a psychological attack, so my family and I have resolved not to succumb to fear. And I think many people in Ukraine feel the same way.

When I asked my mum, through tears, if they had a contingency plan, she said flatly, “If they bomb, we will flee. If they come in I will stay here in my home and defend myself however I can”. She may have mentioned a cast-iron frying pan being the best weapon as a joke, to cheer me up. My family are extremely stoic and strong. I think because their parents and grandparents went through so much during the Soviet rule – deportations, land and houses taken away and imprisonment – that Putin’s actions don’t phase them.

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A lot of people mention the US and the UK rattling their sabres back at Russia. Some commentators say it’s a mistake to feed into Putin’s massive theatrical performance. But I am not sure, it’s so hard to know what the best thing to do is. Was it the West’s feeble reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine that is partly responsible for what’s happening today?

It is difficult for me to speculate. Despite my degree in politics, it is hard to give a cold analysis of the situation when your immediate and a huge and widely dispersed extended family is sitting tight in Ukraine while the current events are unfolding. I have had fantasies of hiring a van and driving to the Polish-Ukrainian border and rescuing them all if the worst happens. To cope with my anxieties I do things with my hands. I cook, I embroider and darn moth-eaten jumpers. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really helps. I am also actively planning fundraisers to help Ukrainian charities and organisations to send aid.

Whatever the future holds, I ask you the reader, to follow that old, slightly beaten British slogan to “keep calm and carry on”. We need to keep our energy preserved and wits together.

Olia Hercules is a food writer, chef and author of Mamushka, Kaukasis and Summer Kitchens

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