Tanya was born in Volnovakha, a town outside Donetsk, in 1978. She turned 11 the year the Berlin Wall fell and was 13 when Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to break away from the Soviet Union. She says she was the first in her class to resign from the Pioneers, a Communist version of the Girl Scouts. She’d always hated the propaganda about “Grandpa Lenin” and the expectation that she should never let her brightness show. Back then, panties came in one color: beige. “If you wanted it black, you had to dye it,” she told me. The dye stained her mother’s midriff. Somehow, Tanya knew that better underwear was out there, even if she’d never seen it.
She learned the Ukrainian language in college when she was 20. She’d always been told that it was the tongue of country bumpkins; educated people spoke Russian. Nonetheless, Tanya fell in love with it.
But she didn’t actually feel Ukrainian until 2013 — at age 35 — when protests in Kyiv swept President Viktor Yanukovych from power after he backed out of a trade deal with the European Union. Tanya agreed with the protesters, but her parents were outraged that Mr. Yanukovych — a president they’d voted for — had been chased away by an unruly mob. They dismissed it as a coup that had been financed by the United States. They joined a protest in the city square. “Putin, come and help us,” they chanted.
In 2014, her parents voted to break away from Ukraine and form the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and the war in that region began. “I call it the Donetsk Retired People’s Republic,” Tanya told me, rolling her eyes. Pro-Russian separatists had been battling the Ukrainian Army over the city for months, when Tanya packed her car and moved to “Free Ukraine,” like nearly every other young person she knew. She eventually settled in Mariupol, a charming city by the sea that was home to some 400,000 people.
Tanya fell in love with an American she’d met online and moved to the United States in 2020. Her sister took over her rented apartment. Then Tanya helped her buy a cozy house in the center of Mariupol, a block from City Hall. Tanya kept in close touch with her parents, too, although she avoided talking to them about politics. During the pandemic, her parents sent her videos from Donetsk, of their rooster and the apple trees, at the house where windows had once been shattered by a mine explosion during the years of conflict. The war over Donetsk seemed endless. Tanya’s parents blamed Ukraine, complaining that it was trying to kill them to avoid paying for their retirement.
Nobody Tanya knew in Mariupol expected Russia to invade. They all thought the Russian troops amassing on the borders were a bluff. Tanya urged her sister to stock up on food, just in case. She watched the mayor of Mariupol encourage city residents to stand strong, as the Russians attacked. She heard from friends in Kyiv who were signing up to fight. She decided that she had to do something, so she collected supplies for Ukraine. A group called Sunflower of Peace gave her medicine. She bought more with her own money. She filled three huge suitcases with drone parts, insulin, painkillers, tourniquets and a brand of coagulant called BleedStop.