Ukraine’s Russian ‘Liberators’ Are Seeing That We Live Better Than They Do
In early April I walked into Andriivka, a village about 40 miles from Kyiv, with my battalion in the Ukrainian territorial defense forces. We were among the first Ukrainian troops to enter the village after a Russian occupation that had lasted about a month. Shell casings and boxes of ammunition were scattered everywhere, and the houses were in various states of ruin. In one of the yards we passed there was an abandoned burned-out tank sitting on the grass.
The Russians killed civilians in Andriivka, and they ransacked and looted houses. The locals told us something else the Russians had done: One day they took mopeds and bicycles out of some of the yards and rode around on them in the street like children, filming one another with their phones and laughing with delight, as if they’d gotten some long-awaited birthday present.
A few days earlier we were in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv that was subjected to an infamously brutal occupation. The people there told us that when the first Russian convoy entered the town, the troops asked if they were in Kyiv; they could not believe that such idyllic parks and cottages could exist outside a capital. Then they looted the local houses thoroughly. They took money, cheap electronics, alcohol, clothes and watches. But, the locals said, they seemed perplexed by the robotic vacuum cleaners, and they always left those.
One resident, who told me that she was taken hostage by the Russian soldiers in her house, said they could not get over the fact that she had two bathrooms and kept insisting that she must have more people living with her.
This war is Vladimir Putin’s fatal mistake. Not because of economic sanctions and not because of the massive losses of troops and tanks but because Mr. Putin’s soldiers are from some of the poorest and most rural regions of Russia. Before this war, these men were encouraged to believe that Ukrainians lived in poverty and were culturally, economically and politically inferior.
Now the invaders have seen the reality: The Ukrainians live better than they do.
The war has brought that reality home to me, too. When Ukraine and Russia left the Soviet Union about 30 years ago, we had the same resource-based economies, the same endemic corruption and poverty. Foreigners would often think Ukraine was part of Russia, and even Ukrainians did not always understand the fundamental differences between Russians and us. But at some point, our paths diverged.
I grew up in Avdiivka, in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. When I fell ill as a child and had a high temperature, my grandmother called an ambulance. When it didn’t arrive, we called again, and they told us they did not have enough gas to reach us. I remember that hospital, with its floor covered in tattered and bristling Soviet linoleum. People had to bring their own cotton wool. And I remember our neighbors, who worked at a chicken factory. When the business didn’t have cash it gave them a salary of chickens. Numberless chickens ran all over the yard.
I left Avdiivka in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists declared east of my city to be the Donetsk People’s Republic. The roads I left on were covered with deep holes that nobody had ever come to fix, so people filled them with the remnants of the coal they burned on their stoves at home. You could lose your car in those holes. But this spring, when I left Kyiv to head back east to Avdiivka and the front line, I drove about 460 miles of perfect roads in less than ten hours.
When I saw the hospital again, I felt as if I were in a hospital in a small Western European town. The building had been completely renovated, and lots of the equipment looked new. I got a similar feeling when I visited a local school that was damaged by shelling in 2015. It, too, had been renovated and equipped with modern computers. (Both the school and the hospital were recently almost completely destroyed by the Russians.)
Ukraine has learned how to build roads, schools and hospitals. Ukrainians have been able to travel to the European Union without a visa since 2017. And when Volodymyr Zelensky, a political outsider, was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption, pro-European platform, the previous president, Petro O. Poroshenko, conceded immediately.
Of course, Ukraine still has its problems. There is still corruption. We cannot say that we are satisfied with our justice system: Our courts are not independent. Before the war, large numbers of Ukrainians left to work in Poland and other countries every year. We still have a long list of work that needs to be completed.
But these problems are not the same as those in Russia, where Mr. Putin has been more or less in charge for more than 20 years and elections are basically meaningless, where badly maintained roads crisscross the country — except when they just end — and where a person can be sentenced to prison for merely expressing an opinion, like Aleksei Gorinov, a member of a local council who was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking out against the war in Ukraine.
Ten years ago Ukrainians could drink beer with Russians after the European Championship soccer matches, but we didn’t realize then that Ukraine was moving forward and Russia was moving in the opposite direction. Ukraine was trying to build a path to freedom, and Russia was building a path back to the Soviet Union with Kremlin TV and petrodollars. Eventually we grew too far apart, and something snapped.
Every day for months I have been carrying Ukrainians who have been wounded in the fight to protect what we’ve built. Now the invaders have seen what we’ve built, too. That’s a truth that they can take home with them.
Yegor Firsov is a medic in the Ukrainian military. He was a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from 2014 to 2016.
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