Volodymyr Rafeyenko: "We Are a People Who Give Birth to Ourselves"

Documenting Ukraine

Freedom, seen as an essential need to express one's true self, is the foundational and determining element in the lives of individuals and the nation. This is called independence. We claim our independence and, thereby, our freedom. However, life, as we know it, is an ongoing endeavor that spans time. In this sense, personal freedom and the nation's independence require constant nurturing. Neither freedom nor independence are guaranteed to anyone. They cannot be attained in a single stroke for posterity. Willpower is acquired, freedom is embodied – and we reembark on this path daily.

In the midst of a dreadful war – a war that cannot be lost by our nation, regardless of any circumstances – we are free. First and foremost, because we have our own identity (let our friends recognize it and our enemies fear it), namely our language and culture, which are firmly rooted in it. Secondly, we independently choose our path in what is called history (this history is about a nation which for centuries was denied the right to have its own language, culture, and state). Thirdly, we live in a situation where everything has reached a final threshold: either we will triumph and emerge as a European state, or we will cease to exist entirely.


A free person is distinguished by the ability to extract light from darkness, and to provide hope and joy for others despite the bitterness and despair of their own life. Freedom is the light of an individual who has learned to rely on values, such as conscience, goodness, or beauty. And this is more challenging than it may seem at first glance. It's not something that can be taught. Everyone picks up on this individually, but only some people grasp it.

So, let's consider the question: What is conscience? Who knows. On the one hand, we sometimes hear its whisper in our souls. On the other hand, such a thing clearly doesn't exist in the world. Just like God, actually. There is no God, no conscience on a tangible level. The Creator of all existence is not an old man in a gold-inlaid chair. You can't touch your conscience with your hands. But what is that whisper, then? One can learn to ignore it, especially if no one hears it except you. One can become accustomed to the emptiness that has formed where their heart used to be.

But at the very moment when you irreversibly do this, you will disappear as an individual and cease to exist. This revolves around some internal forces, those that remain unseen. While you continue to live, this phenomenon escapes your conscious awareness. Delving into these subtle complexities isn't your thing. It's a complex and frightening journey, riddled with uncontrollable chaos... Yet, on occasion, something extraordinary happens, and you find yourself succumbing to the influence of an enigmatic force. This force can only be defined by a bewildering yet undeniably accurate term — God.

I look at a portrait of Victoria Amelina (a Ukrainian writer who, at the end of June this year, was the victim of a Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk. She was with a delegation of Colombian journalists and writers, and her severe injuries led to her death), and I cry. I cry, and strangely, I also feel some joy. I'm joyful, but the sorrow and pain won’t let go. Yet in this portrait there is something much more important than all my emotions combined.

Her eyes, gentle voice, intonations, laughter, a knack for friendship, role as a writer and mother, integral presence in our culture, and humanity encompass an immensely precious, entirely invisible, and unequivocally tangible force in my perception.

We are destined to constantly prove to ourselves and to the world that we exist, we are here, and we are indeed Human. Nothing is assured in each moment, every day, and every second of this world. Regardless of how beautifully we traversed the paths of yesterday, the following day demands the commitment of actualizing your freedom and anchoring your personal engagement in the realm of valuable principles. And this task cannot be undertaken by anyone other than yourself. Beyond you, there exist no others to assume your position. This time and space are your responsibility. To act according to your conscience, goodness, beauty, and truth in this realm can only be accomplished by you. If you can't do it, then nobody else can. Goodness depends solely on whether each of us, in our time, can stand in the light of existence and hold onto the light that wishes to flow through us.

Vika radiated goodness, light, and hope for everyone who knew her. In that sense, the very presence of hope and love in the world is unconditional proof of her immortality. Physically, Vika Amelina is not with us, much like conscience or, let's say, God. Yet, despite this, she undeniably exists. And this fact is unquestionable to me. Victoria Amelina fulfilled her role as a free person, and nobody can revoke this, not even death itself.


Fortunately, goodness and beauty are more than just specific objects. To be good is an art form. Beauty is entirely based on the ability of the human eye to see what’s invisible. When you truly experience love, you see something your heart can recognize. This task cannot be accomplished relying solely on the world and its objects. Maintaining our humanity during hard times is impossible, but it’s essential.

We continue to maintain a connection with Ukraine no matter where we are, and we do so at our own risk and peril. We ache along with its pain, suffer from its deaths, and rejoice from its happiness from morning till night. We are free, and that’s why we can be recognized by the sound of air raid sirens from our smartphones. At that moment, we are synchronized, and our breathing and our lives coincide entirely. And on morning trains in many countries worldwide, there are people who read the news from Ukrainian Telegram channels and cry. You’re not alone in your tears, in your anger, in your despair, and in your hope. You cry, and someone next to you also cries as they look at their smartphone. There’s no need to ask – that’s a Ukrainian. Girls and boys, men and women, old and young…

We all cry because we are born into the world. It's a pain that is both the body giving birth and the fear of the soul being born. It's an enormous labor, and no one can do it for us.

We are a people who give birth to ourselves.

What is dignity? Again, there's no specific thing to point to because dignity isn't an apple that falls at your feet. But you can see it with your quiet inner eye. It's the main factor that structures our lives. It forms a circle of people who are genuinely ours. It helps us see those giving birth and being born alongside you.


During wartime, a country's independence becomes a personal matter. The freedom of every Ukrainian is inseparable from the country's freedom as a whole. Independence is no longer a mere formal recognition of our statehood – it's an incurable pain. It's light and hope. It's tears of joy from a soldier who has returned from captivity. It's cries for help from under the rubble of civilian buildings destroyed by Russian rockets. It's air raid sirens and our air defense system, working like a godsend. It's destroyed cultural landmarks and stolen children. It's Ukrainian kittens and puppies that perished due to the Russian explosion of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station. It's Ukrainian drones flying over Moscow, doomed to crash in their dirty and ill-fated marsh. It's the Ukrainian infantry carrying out the most difficult and crucial task of our lives. It's the happiness of being a tiny part of a nation, a political entity that has the will to be itself and earns that right in an unprecedentedly challenging war.

Independence is the blood that flows for hundreds of days on end. It's the ashes of our cities and the cries of burnt birds. Independence is the portrait of young boys and girls who will forever remain youthful. It's their parents, spouses, and children.

It's the Ukrainian flag, where both land and sky reside, for that's the very function of its symbolic purpose: to bridge the gap between visible and invisible worlds. The blue hues symbolize the heavens and the Creator, a gray-haired old man in a gold-inlaid chair adorned with Ukrainian Armed Forces patches. The yellow represents the wheat field that will inevitably flourish where now only death and war exist.

Text originally published (in Ukrainian) by Suspilne Kultura as part of a collaboration with Documenting Ukraine. 

Translated by Kate Tsurkan