How the Russian army helped to nationalize my country of Ukraine

EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2018-19, Ukraine native Zhora Papoian was a foreign exchange student in Charleston WV, as a part of Future Leaders Exchange Program. Back in Ukraine, he and his family have witnessed first-hand the destruction rained down upon their homeland after the Russian army invaded in late February 2022. .


Zhora Papoian

By Zhora Papoian | For WestVirginiaVille.com | June2022


Although it was too late when I realized it, the war in Ukraine had touched me way before February 24, when Russia launched its invasion. I was born and raised in Mariupol. When pro-Russian referendums started to take place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, many separatists of my city also showed up, demonstrating their desire to be a part of the Russian world.

I remember a tank driving through our main avenue on May 9. I remember clashes going on between the two sides: the ones who thought they were ethnically Russians, and the ones who did not. I remember military helicopters flying above our heads. And, so, only four months ago did I unfortunately realize that we have been at war for eight long years.

As the first bombings broke out at the end of February, I was reassured nobody from among my friends and relatives was going to believe in “friendship with Russia” anymore. Many people were angry. Some panicked. Others tried to appeal to Russians. To ask them about the reasons they were not trying to overthrow their government, to protest.

No one believed such things could happen in a civilized world.

The truth was that many Russians had no interest in protesting the invasion. The prevailing part of them seems fine with it.


How does it feel to go seek water at the risk of being killed?


Destruction can be seen everywhere in Mariupol and this is “90% of what the houses and the yards in Mariupol look like,” says Zhora. | Associated Press photo

I am relatively okay. Right after it all began, I hid from possible shellings for two weeks in an underground parking lot with my girlfriend and her family. The scariest morning happened when a missile hit a house right in front of us. But apart from that, staying in the garage during those times was not the worst option.

My family—my mom and dad, my elder brother and granny—lived in Mariupol prior to the invasion. For two weeks, they hid in a bomb shelter with 300 other people. When the shellings would occasionally grow quieter, men would go out to seek food in stores (even as all the stores in Mariupol were probably looted). They went out looking for water. How does it feel to go seek water at the risk of being killed?


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One day, when Russians got hold of the larger part of Mariupol, their troops made it down to the bomb shelter and told people they should evacuate, including my family. Their car, unlike hundreds of others, was not hit with a missile. They managed to escape. They are in Armenia now, staying with relatives. They have to restart their lives, since their home is no longer theirs. My granny is 85; her health worsened after the events she went through, and now she is receiving treatment in the hospital.

The majority of families who survived the siege of Mariupol share a similar kind of a story. All those people are left with no home, no job, no city. Too many citizens of Mariupol did not survive.



The days to come


The war is at a very crucial period. Russian troops, of course, are not acknowledging it themselves and are pulling back, hoping to lay siege along the way. A few cities got occupied: Kherson, Melitopol, Energodar, and sadly, Mariupol. These are the places where they establish their self-declared governments, provide Russian news, mobile service and television. I know Ukrainians who, of course, feel like they were left behind and nobody is coming to help. But the way this war flows makes me think Russians are staying there on a very temporary basis.

Ukrainians all over the country are so united! Never have I ever seen or heard of a nation whose people so desperately wish to volunteer, donate, work, and offer help toward victory. The Russian Amy came here thinking they would de-nationalize us. Well, 90% percent of the population are now nationalists.


The Russian Amy came here thinking they would de-nationalize us. Well, 90 percent of the population are now nationalists.


After the rage lessened, many young men are concerned about being drafted. It is not necessary for now: there are enough service members currently. Yet although I am not in the army, the fear of death is always somewhere near.

My girlfriend and I are volunteering at a kitchen. We arel ooking for ways to shoot two projects for the film program at the university in Kyiv where we are studying. We had a philosophy class there. I often wonder: What would Sartre think of this situation? I am looking at what is left of my hometown, the place where I have so many memories. The place that made me. I am looking at the horrors of Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Volnovaha, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, Chornobaivka…

And I ask myself: how can all of this happen today? Thousands of murdered people, more than 500 children killed or injured. Thousands of Ukrainians displaced and many emigrated.

So many numbers and nothing to answer.

Just the emptiness. The despair.

How can people live in such conditions as they do in Russia? How can their money from their pensions and taxes be taken to produce the weaponry? And how after all the hoaxes they were put through, can they still support the government and Vladimir Putin?



I constantly think of the military forces who for 80 days stood their ground in Mariupol. It is truly impossible to imagine the hell they went through. The commander of Azov said the limbs of some wounded soldiers had to be cut off without anesthesia, their wounds had to be rewound with bandages used several times.

These people have seen so much. These people will never be the same.

Recently, the soldiers of Azovstal started to be evacuated to the Russian side, and it is said that from there they will be exchanged for Russian captives. I hope they all get home safely. There was footage from the spot, showing Russian soldiers checking their bags and looking at their tattoos. And after all those men went through, I watched them smiling. This gives me hope.

The only thing I know is that we are yet to make it to the end. We have to keep fighting, since fortune favors the brave.


The dead in Mariupol “have been buried right on the playgrounds and in yards,” Zhora says. | Associated Press photo

Zhora Papoian is a second-year student at the Kyiv National Karpenko-Kary Theater, Film and TV University, studying film and TV directing.


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