United in Courage is a series of interviews conducted and translated primarily in April 2023 by the Feminists of Kyiv team, featuring members of feminist and LGBTQ+ communities currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
We invited the participants of the series to tell us about their lives before the full-scale russian invasion and what motivated them to join the army. We also discussed the different experiences and challenges they face in the Armed Forces, as well as the sources of support that sustain their resilience in the ongoing war.
We hope that this series of interviews will mark the beginning of an anthology in which Feminists of Kyiv media will amplify the voices of women and queer people who are defending Ukraine. You can support us in this effort.
Editor and translator: Bozhena Makovska
Visual artist: Michael Tulsky
My name is Daria, I am 23 years old, I am from Kharkiv and Sievierodonetsk. These cities, both eastern ones, have shaped my identity, and in many ways influenced my decision to go to war. Before the full-scale invasion began, I worked as a journalist and was also involved in activism, particularly LGBTQ+. I used to identify myself as bisexual and gender free. Now I’m more inclined to say that I am a pansexual person. Here, at war, it is difficult to reflect on my gender identity, so now I perceive myself simply as a human being. In general, I don’t want to think about myself in any of these concepts, categories, or labels. I just want to be.
My civic activism started in 2018, a year after I moved to Kharkiv. It was a revelation for me to discover the existence of a community centre for LGBTQ+ people in the city — the Kharkiv Pride Hub, which unfortunately closed its doors. What they were doing for the Kharkiv community was very important to me as a young activist. Then, at the age of 18, I was just discovering the movement for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people at the level of civic position and self-awareness. I volunteered for the first time at the Women’s Solidarity Weeks, and for the first time I went to the Pride in Kharkiv in 2019.
People often ask me why I joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces, given that war is an aggressive environment. Looking back on my life, I can say that my activism and work as a correspondent hardened me; I was unconsciously preparing for war on various levels.
I grew up and spent a significant part of my life in Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk region. Now the city is under russian occupation for the second time. I didn’t seem to have the option of running away again.
Rereading the diaries I wrote a month before the full-scale invasion, I see that even then I had thoughts about serving in the Armed Forces. The tension felt in society during the escalation was affecting me. I thought that with just a little more time, I would sign the contract, but the decisive trigger was russia’s physical invasion. It was not a difficult decision for me. I understood that the sooner my friends and I go, the sooner it will be over. And if we wait for someone to stop the russians instead of us, we might never see it happen.
On 24 February 2022, I was in an apartment in Kharkiv with a person who did not live in the east and for whom it was the first day of the war. I woke up to a strange knocking and said to her: “Did you hear that knock?” She replied that it was just an old balcony. But it was not a balcony. It was the same balcony I had at home in 2014. I immediately realised what was happening, and for a second, I had a flash of despair. I wanted to sit and cry, but I decided to pull myself together and do something instead. After a couple of days, I got used to this idea, looked for options, and my friend, also a representative of the LGBTQ+ community, and I went to the Kharkiv Defence Headquarters. Later, our paths diverged, but we are both in the ranks of the Armed Forces now.
In the beginning, the Defence Headquarters was the official coordination centre for volunteers. We had weapons, support for volunteers in the form of uniforms and food. Later, the headquarters turned into the Territorial Defence Forces, and then the unit joined the Main Directorate of Intelligence. Now I serve in a different unit, but it so happened that I served in the Territorial Defence Forces, the Armed Forces, and the GUR. The service experience can be very different depending on the unit you will be assigned to. Therefore, I would advise everyone who sees themselves in the Armed Forces and plans to serve, to carefully consider the issue of choosing a unit. It affects everything from material support to mental state.
There is a problem of sexism in the military, it also largely depends on the unit. I don’t want society to put on rose-coloured glasses and assume that women and queer people already feel good in the army.
When I got to the Territorial Defence Forces, they asked me what I wanted to do. I replied that I know a little about unmanned aerial vehicles, I just need some basic practical training; I am engaged in self-education and will learn everything. And the commander said to me: “Why bring a sin on my soul, let’s make you a cook.” I had to fight for self-perception and prove my qualifications.
There are the same inappropriate statements that can be heard from different commanders. For example: “You look a lot like my daughter, so you will not go to the front line. I will do everything to ensure that you never find yourself at 0.” I’ve heard this before, both in my own direction and in the direction of other women. But I’ve never heard anyone say to a man: “Listen, boy, you look like my son, so you’re not going anywhere. You will be a secretary at the headquarters”. It’s an overused phrase, but women in the army really have to give 200% to be perceived as equal to men.
There are also various issues related to everyday life. This is what you need to prepare yourself for. You won’t always have the opportunity to solve some of your problems or simply wash yourself. I generally like to play this “survival” game, and sometimes I get pleasant impressions from it. Although, perhaps, this is a protective function of the psyche — to find something pleasant in attempts to escape an uncomfortable situation.
I am the only person in my unit who is not a cis man. I can’t say that I feel completely comfortable, but I have comrades I can trust. They’ve read my articles, they know that I am a feminist, and they respect that. I consider myself lucky to have adequate people by my side. In my previous unit, there was a situation when I received verbal threats because of my views. It was a personal dislike of me, and fortunately, it did not escalate into bullying.
There are different people in the army and you don’t have to like everyone. The main thing is that it does not turn into conflicts that can cause danger to other people. After all, it is a war and you are accountable for each other. The manner of reacting depends on the specific circumstances of each situation — there is no singular algorithm for action. But I think it is important that a few people close to you know about the conflicts that occur due to hatred or the non-acceptance of views.
I enjoy remembering how, when the invasion started, in my previous unit, a guy came up to me. I didn’t know who he was, but he shook my hand and said: “I’m sorry that we have been messing up your office.” It was related to the attacks on the office of Pride Hub and the people who were in it. I won’t attribute it to any organisation, but it was obviously some kind of right-wing radical movement. He also said, “I see that you are here, next to me, serving in this war. I respect you for that.” I was very pleased to hear this. It gave me hope that we will gradually move away from hostilities in society.
Every month I learn about another friend of mine who comes from the leftist, feminist or LGBTQ+ community and has now joined the Armed Forces. So I think that the representation of people with left-wing views in the Ukrainian army is a matter of time. I understand that this war is going to last for a very long time, and one way or another, it will affect everyone. This worries me because if all my friends go to war, there will be no one to continue our joint projects.
For example, Bilkis: last spring, they moved from Kharkiv to Lviv and were intensively involved in helping women, nonbinary and trans people in need. Now they organise pickets, cultural and educational events. I look at the activism of my friends and I am convinced that I really have something to defend. It is a big motivation to know that they are continuing our great cause.
But the war should be our common issue, not of some group of people or a region. Until we pay enough attention to the war, it will not end. Everyone should actively contribute to the victory. If it is done as part of organised structures, the result will be more noticeable.
Often, I don’t have the opportunity or the energy after a hard day to adequately represent myself on social media as a person with left-wing views or as a member of the LGBTQ+ community fighting for Ukraine. However, representation is very important. It is necessary to move away from the stereotypical notion of a military person as a burly man. Perhaps it used to be that way, but not anymore. Personally, it was crucial for me to find individuals whom I could consider role models. I believe this is what many of those who are hesitant to join the Armed Forces lack. When you see soldiers who look like you, you realise that you can do it too.
People are very tired now, and they can react harshly to things that are new to them. You should always consider this context when you do something. As well as not standing aside, it is important not to do something “about us without us”. For example, I am waiting for someone to raise the topic of channelling donations, because there are urgent needs, such as medicine, vehicles for combat units, night vision devices, and other consumables. I don’t want to count someone’s money, but it makes me cringe when I see people splurging and buying expensive branded boots for the military. It is important to talk about the expediency of using funds, and I think we should be ready for this conversation.
I often see in the media that the international community considers the war in Ukraine to be some kind of “quarrel between two fraternal nations”. This opinion is completely out of the context of the history of our centuries-long oppression by russia, the soviet union and the russian empire. This war has been going on not for a year, not for 9 years, but for much longer. And this is a very clear situation, so if you look at the history, there will be no desire to “reconcile” us. There have already been enough cases of violation of all agreements by the russian federation to understand that such methods do not work, and that such a conditional “peace” will only satisfy the interests of the aggressor.
The russians are taking all Ukrainian books out of the occupied territories and bringing in books in russian instead. This is also happening in my hometown. This leads us to the question of whether the issue is really about the territories, or whether it is about the identity of Ukrainians and russia’s attempts to erase this identity. Ukraine, and Sievierodonetsk in particular, is my home. I grew up here, I became myself here, and I will defend it.