By Franciszek Dziduch
Around 11 million Russians have relatives in Ukraine. Sasha Sushko is one of them. A third-year AUC social science major, Sushko has observed the Russian invasion of Ukraine from afar. Still, the war has taken a great toll on her, and has made her reconsider who she is.
Before the war, Sushko had never realised the intricacies behind her identity. It was only when the Russian invasion began in February of this year that she became aware that what she identifies as is not that simple: her mother was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, while her father was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Only later he moved with his family to Russia. Sushko spent her childhood years living in Moscow, and in 2008, at the age of six, she moved with her mother and brother to Crimea, which was still under Ukraine’s control at the time. Sushko’s mother wanted to move somewhere warmer and closer to nature. The decision to move was also influenced by Russian president Vladimir Putin. As his presidency turned increasingly authoritarian, Sushko’s mother wanted to raise her children outside of the regime. “The rest of the family thought my mom was crazy, moving from a big city to a tiny town,” Sushko says.
Living in Crimea, Sushko witnessed the complicated relationship of the two countries first-hand. She had been taught some classes in Ukrainian, although everyone outside of classes spoke in Russian. Most of the time, she spoke Surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. In Moscow, she was told that she must be from the South, while in Crimea, people guessed that she was from Russia’s capital.
During the 2014 Maidan revolution that advocated for Ukraine to join the European Union, Sushko would be condemned in the pro-Russian Crimea for supporting the movement. After the Russian annexation of Crimea that same year, she moved back to Moscow for two months, as her mother feared for her safety. Around this time, Sushko and her mother made a decision that Sushko must leave Russia and settle in the West. In 2018, she moved to Italy on her own to attend high school there, which opened the doors for universities within the European Union. Since 2020, she has been a student at AUC.
On February 24, 2022 Sushko woke up to a text from her friend in Crimea that Russia had attacked Ukraine. She spent the entire day sobbing and calling her family, unable to leave her room. She tried going to classes, but experienced severe dissociation: “My world and life had ended as it were before, it felt like they ended completely.” Soon, she contacted her Ukrainian friends, offering them to stay in her apartment in Amsterdam. She also met up with her Russian friend from high school in Italy and spent the night together, trying to process what was going on.
“I felt as if there was a split between me and everyone else around me,” Sushko continues. Her friends would invite her to parties so she could “loosen up”, but this triggered her even more as she found the offers insensitive. She goes on to say that because of the war, she had suicidal thoughts. She would spend hours crying on the floor, not being able to process the guilt that she felt having a Russian passport. She remembers repeating to herself: “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault…”.
Sushko remarks that what helped her the most were her friends’ actions, rather than conversations, as she felt that here in Amsterdam, “no one could fully understand what I was going through.” Her best friend and fellow AUC student Margaux Bouniol remembers that Sushko initially shut herself off. “My room became a chill zone for Sasha,” she says. Her strategy was to distract Sushko from the war, taking her on long walks with her dog or cooking meals together, as Sushko was unable to properly feed herself. Another friend from AUC, Caroline Skäringer, recalls that she “felt powerless and didn’t know the best way to help her”. Rather, Skäringer tried to listen to Sushko and acknowledge that she cannot fully comprehend her struggle. She was ready to accommodate her in any way, also financially. Skäringer turned her New York Times notifications on, explaining that “the least I could do was to stay informed,” knowing when Sushko may especially need support.
Sushko found herself in a difficult position, financially and legally. Being a vocal opponent of the war, she would post pro-Ukrainian content on her social media. One day her grandmother, who lives in Moscow, called her and said, “You need to shut the fuck up.” Her grandmother continued that Sushko should not criticise Putin, otherwise she would stop paying for Sushko’s tuition. Knowing her grandmother as a kind person, Sushko was distraught by her behaviour and believes to have witnessed the consequences of Russian propaganda. Although they are now on good terms again, they deliberately avoid the topic of war.
Her other grandmother, who also lives in Moscow, has a completely different attitude. Being extremely anti-war, she cut ties with her friends and listens to Ukrainian news everyday with her windows open. Sushko, while admiring her greatly, wishes that she stops: “Her neighbours may complain and I am afraid she would be put into prison.”
The rest of Sushko’s family is scattered all over the world: her brother, fleeing from mobilisation, lives in Uzbekistan. Her mother, stepfather, and other brothers, fearing for the worst, moved to Greece a week before the war started. Her father and stepmother have been living a nomadic lifestyle for years, currently residing in Turkey. Her stepfather’s sister, living in Kyiv most of her life, moved to Russian Crimea to take care of her mother, while the rest of her family remained in Kyiv. Her aunt and uncle claimed their Jewish identity in early November and moved to Israel.
Sushko, in turn, continues to settle down in Amsterdam and does everything she can to help Ukrainian refugees. Together with third-year Science major Agne Cepaite and 2022 graduate Dasha Protsenko, she collaborated with Students4Ukraine, collecting material aid for Ukraine at AUC and helping Ukrainian refugees to settle in Amsterdam through raising money for bikes. She organised charity events such as Dance For Ukraine, and promoted the student-led committee Right2Education that teaches refugees in the Netherlands English and Dutch within the Ukrainian refugee community. So far, she has hosted four refugees in her apartment.
Sushko believes that “true activism does not come from a sense of duty or pity,” but rather, it is appreciation for Ukrainians and their culture that drives her actions and sustains her power to persevere. “My mom always said, there is no ‘what if’ in history. The least I can do is to help those who are less lucky,” she says.
In the near future, Sushko plans to enrol in a Master’s programme in the Netherlands, hoping to obtain Dutch citizenship. This means that she would need to give up her Russian passport, which she “wouldn’t think about twice.” Not having been back in Crimea or Moscow for over a year, she knows that it will be a long time until she visits her homeland again. “For now, I am seeing my family and friends from the region in the countries that are in-between,” she says. Once the war is over, Sushko expresses a desire to go to Ukraine and help rebuild it, but fears she would not be welcome there, being part-Russian. She hopes for Ukraine to win the war and believes that although at first the country will be traumatised, “it is going to flourish, get a lot of support, and join the EU”. With Russia, she is not so hopeful: “So many intelligent people left, and there is no law functioning anymore.” Sometimes, she dreams about going back; other times, in her dreams, her Russian passport is burning.