This is the story of Ganna Shevchenko – a story about acknowledging one’s own roots, coming to terms with the concept of home, and the search for one’s own identity.
The driver stopped the van and asked us twelve occupants to get out to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. In principle, I have no problem with it, but the fact of doing it in the middle of the night, on the run from war… I wondered what the driver, who had revealed himself more and more as a hardline fascist with every kilometer, would do to me should I forget the lyrics. Fortunately, my little sister stood out while singing: Oksana wants to be an opera singer and has internalized the hymn. She was amazingly relaxed while I realized I was holding her life in my hands.
It is complicated to answer the question about my origin.
On paper I am Ukrainian, but I have Polish-Tatar, Mongolian and Chinese roots. I am descended from two groups of indigenous tribes, American and Siberian. In addition, the blood of a lot of Ukrainians and Russians flows in me…. In this respect, it is complicated to answer the question about my origin. I am interested in my roots and don’t want to have to deny them just to be able to say I am 100 percent Ukrainian.
I am from Odesa and I’ve been studying in Berlin since 2019. In August 2021, I returned to the Black Sea coast for an internship and moved back in with my parents for a few months. They own an apartment in Odesa, which they restored themselves. Oksana, our four cats and the dog also live here. My parents are creative people: My father paints, my mother is in the fashion industry. She has been in business for 26 years, selling luxurious brand shoes and accessories. For March 2022, we had planned to fly to Paris Fashion Week together – but with the outbreak of war, that was out of the question.
My mother was born in Russia, but has a Ukrainian passport.
Since my mother has lived in Ukraine for more than 30 years, she now has Ukrainian citizenship. Her special sense for art and her individual fashion taste sometimes made life difficult for her: Thus, my mother’s creative spirit often collided with the pragmatic mind of her father, an army general. Both are very strong personalities – both are the heads of their families. My maternal grandfather was born in Ukraine shortly after WW2, but his family was sent to rebuild Siberia. As a Ukrainian general of the highest rank, he was sent throughout the Soviet Union, his wife and children following him wherever he went.
My parents urged me to return to Berlin as soon as possible. In March 2022, I had only one semester left to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t care, I wanted to stay in Odesa. My parents were ready to die in the war as long as they knew the children would be safe – a romanticized idea of family boundaries. “Do it for Oksana, she is so young, you have to take her to a safe place!” my mother insisted while trying to take care of my father. She is of the opinion that he cannot live without her…
My father was born in Siberia and has a Russian passport.
In the nineties his family moved to Ukraine, where he met my mother. They both looked strange for their time, they were self-confessed free spirits: my mother wore her hair shaved short and dyed blue, along with a neon blue fur coat. My father had found a denim jacket somewhere and sewed the lettering LOVE in pink glitter on the back – an affront to the state: the university forced him to exmatriculate because of the jacket, on the grounds that he did not have correct political convictions…
On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, my father went to get flowers for my mother. I have no idea how he did it and to this day I wonder, “Where can you buy flowers in wartime?” Yet he came back with a bouquet of flowers for my mother. It was the first and last time my father went outside for seven months. As a Russian citizen he was not allowed to cross the country’s borders, and with a Ukrainian wife he could not join the army after all! My family is pacifist – we are against any military involvement.
To this day I wonder, “Where can you buy flowers in wartime?”
In the meantime, some neighbors had also begun to rail against my family. They stood in front of the front door on the ground floor and loudly insulted us. It was only a small gathering of five people, but as you know, there is always the possibility that a larger group will come and join the small one. The problem is that the war is nationalized, it follows a patriotic idea. I have nothing against patriotism per se, but we all know from history that when something becomes too extremely patriotic and national, it leads to problems….
Finally, on March 9th, 2022, I went on the run out with my sister. Oksana was born ten years after me and yet we are like twins. She is brighter than I am and sometimes I feel that she is much smarter: So she was the one who packed socks and underwear for the escape (something I was very grateful to her for later), while I thought exclusively about my camera equipment. On the way to the border, we had to stop every few miles for blockposts. The armed guys looked very stressed – I suspect many of them had never held a gun before. When one of them saw my bag with three cameras, he started asking questions, “Who are you? Do you work for Russia?” Taking pictures was allowed only with an authorized press card – I assured them that I was a student, had a visa and would accompany my little sister.
My ancestors once looked like a mixture of Asians and Slavs.
My maternal grandmother (the wife of the army general) is part of a tribe of native Siberians. This tribe split centuries ago: one part moved towards Alaska or Canada, the other part stayed in Siberia. So my grandmother is of indigenous descent and my ancestors once looked like a mixture of Asians and Slavs. You know, in the Soviet Union, indigenous people were considered Russians and the government tried to get rid of all documents that testified to people’s indigenous roots.
So now, a century later, I’m sitting huddled with my sister in this van and what are the passengers discussing? About questions of pure blood, of straightforward origins, of Ukrainian origins. “Should you speak Russian in Ukraine or not?” For me it was exhausting because they had a black-and-white view on controversial issues, and I believe in grey-areas:
I don’t support Russia,
its politics and government –
but there is always something in-between.
There were a lot of older people on the bus and I think they needed some kind of stimulation to stay energized. You can be awake for a day or two, but if you don’t have adrenaline to keep you going for six days, eventually you’re going to be at the end of your rope. Obviously, those conversations kept them awake and hopeful. It was probably also a survival tactic – people were trying to make sense of this bizarre situation, this escape was hard to comprehend. But for a person like me, who is open-minded and peaceful despite my different roots, it only complicated the debates. So I stayed out of everything and pretended to be asleep.
I will never be able to forget the tattooed driver.
The escape proved to be a long, arduous journey of five days. I was so desperate. I mainly remember my irritation at the conversations and an overwhelming tiredness. At some point I just shut down, feeling close to a blackout. However, I will never be able to forget the one driver, the one with the radical nationalist attitude: Not because of his strange, ego-driven heroic stories or because he sang the Ukrainian national anthem with us, but because of his tattoos, which he proudly presented to us at the end of the ride: He had a huge map of Ukraine tattooed on his back – a huge map of Ukraine with a huge swastika tattoo emblazoned over it.
Interview & Photos ©: Sandy Bossier-Steuerwald