Sasha Dovzhyk: “Our Current Resistance Is Rooted In History”

Documenting Ukraine

I was involved in two roles discussing Ukraine after the full-scale Russian invasion. Firstly, I started working with international journalists in Ukraine and saw how everything was happening on the ground. And secondly, I taught Ukrainian literature in London.

About media interest

At the start of the invasion, I accompanied journalists to Kyiv, Lviv, and the Kyiv region as a fixer. It was imperative for me to subtly guide and refocus their attention. For a two-minute segment, journalists are obviously searching for the most emotional human stories, meaning they can repeatedly ask a person who just escaped Russian occupation questions like “How do you feel about this?” If tears appear, then their job is done. I wanted to do my part to ensure that the people being “prodded” in this way did not feel as if they were being treated like an object, only to be left alone with their emotions. In this case, the role of the fixer and translator often becomes a shield between the person being interviewed and the person conducting the interview.

Thanks to this experience, I got a better understanding of how media interest works. And every time I’m being interviewed, I try to add a personal story because I know that without this connection to personal experience, journalists’ interest will evaporate, and they definitely won’t listen until I get to the call to action, as Olesya Khromeychuk calls it, and start highlighting key points. Exhibitionism of one’s feelings and experiences is not enough. It’s necessary to include a “dose” of personal information so that the audience feels that all of this is about people, that it’s a human story, and we're all experiencing the war on a deeply personal level. But at the same time, viewers need to hear what can be done to change the situation. That’s why I'm convinced that connecting personal experience with a call to specific actions is crucial.

About individual “human stories”

I wanted to share a story that is unrelated to my work as a fixer. It’s the story of my hairdresser from Kyiv and, perhaps, about my biases. I had long hair, so one day, I decided that with everything around me changing and feeling like a completely different person, it was time to cut it. I randomly walked into the first salon I found and ended up with a lovely girl who looked like an angel. She was very young. 

She only talked to me about hair. Meanwhile, I was so full of adrenaline, boiling in a cauldron of emotions, that I couldn’t process how a person could talk about hair when such events were happening in the country. Where was the political awareness? This girl was obviously about fifteen years younger than me, and I barely restrained myself from posing that age-old question to the younger generation: How do you reckon your life's gonna turn out, kiddo? 

It’s awful. I tried not to let it all out, so I settled for talking about curly hair instead. But something about this whole experience bothered me. Here was a young woman who seemed not to react to external events at all. So, I returned to her shortly after. She asked me what I did for work. I said I was currently working as a fixer, to which she replied, “I also worked as a fixer in Bucha.”

I was amazed. She calmly explained, “Well, we spent several days in the basement. And acquaintances connected me with a journalist who was in Kyiv, so I, to some extent, helped him cover these events.”

She was sitting in a basement in Bucha, with the Russian army overhead. She could hear their conversations. She heard they were looking for young women to rape. She was there with her mother and grandmother. At some point, the women realized their prospects were pretty grim: they would either be found in that basement, and nothing good would come of it, or their house would be bombed...

They decided to escape. The unique aspect of this story is that they had four trained German Shepherds. Thanks to their dogs, they managed to escape from the occupied city. The whole family followed these four trained German Shepherds, who could sense the enemy, and they led people through the forest all night until they reached Ukrainian positions at dawn.

While they were on the move, this girl heard the screams of people being tortured and assaulted. She still has nightmares about it – still. What’s remarkable is that this is a person who constantly smiles. She has a very broad smile, absolutely radiant and joyful. I realized how wrong I was in drawing conclusions about a person based on their appearance, giving too much credence to that first impression... We come across these stories in totally unexpected places because practically everyone in Ukraine now has such an experience. And we need to work with it. For example, my divine hairdresser does not seek any help to process the trauma that she lived through. And she, like 90% of the people I meet, says, “What therapy? I’d rather do something, help someone, donate.”

On one hand, it’s logical. On the other hand – and this is the time for a call to action – it’s clear that discussions about social support and psychological assistance are being postponed indefinitely when action is needed now. There is too much pressure on the Ukrainian state. For those on the outside who have not yet come to terms with the fact that the best humanitarian aid is military aid, this is a great opportunity to step in.

About teaching Ukrainian literature

As for my other professional work, I was invited to teach Ukrainian literature at University College London for one academic year. I accepted this invitation because I firmly believed that leaving a critical mass of London students without knowledge of Ukrainian culture during Russia’s full-scale invasion would be unreasonable. I traveled to Ukraine during breaks in my teaching schedule. It was important for me to talk to people and see how the situation was changing every day because speaking to people around the world about the war against Ukraine, based on what I saw there two months ago, never sat well with me.

Teaching is an entirely different experience – discussing the likes of Shevchenko and presenting his monument with a bullet-riddled head in Borodyanka, for instance. I explained that those who carried out this attack understood the symbolic weight of Shevchenko for us. My first-year students were most struck by the realization that a poet could hold such symbolic significance two centuries later. They read his poems through the prism of what they saw: Shevchenko’s monuments vandalized by Russians, his poems written on the doors of bomb shelters helping Ukrainians endure the horrors of war.

Ironically, I used to dislike Ukrainian literature during my later school years precisely because of the victim perspective from which it was taught to us. Now, a different view opens up: It’s not victimhood but a struggle that fuels our current resistance.

It’s also intriguing to engage students in discussions about Gogol and Shevchenko – one writer aligned with the empire and the other with resistance, marginalization, and, to some extent, a deferred engagement in world culture.

As for my London colleagues who have taught and continue to teach Russian culture, it’s important to me that they ask themselves questions about the relationship between their discipline and the genocide of the Ukrainian people. You can’t teach Shalamov, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky in a vacuum because we find ourselves at a specific point on the historical timeline where a full-scale war and genocide in Europe have redefined the course of the 21st century. If we talk about Dostoevsky from the perspective of the text’s stylistics without asking ourselves questions about the cultural legacy of Dostoevsky and genocide, then such a conversation can be discarded as irrelevant.

About culture as a witness

When we reflect on several generations in Ukrainian culture, we come to understand that our current resistance is rooted in history. It not only gives us strength but provides us with context and an understanding and vision of the future. That’s why I adhere to the idea of culture as a witness. It involves collecting testimonies, part of what I’m engaged in in Ukraine. It’s also about situating culture in a broader perspective, facilitating the integration of our current experiences.

It’s crucial not to oversimplify the wide range of diverse experiences by reducing them to a single image of suffering, which we might easily grow accustomed to and inadvertently erode the unity that has developed within the Ukrainian community and spread worldwide. We need to hold on to what binds us together and empowers us, and that’s our shared struggle. This is why I believe that all of us are legitimate narrators of contemporary Ukrainian history because it’s not just one story; it’s an abundance of stories. We’re all trying to do what we can to survive.

Sasha Dovzhyk is a writer, literary scholar and curator from Zaporizhzhia. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London, and is a Special Projects Curator for the Ukrainian Institute London. Since Russia's full-scale invasion, she has been splitting her time between London and Ukraine where she is involved in a number of humanitarian initiatives. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and others. As well as her work on Ukraine, she has written widely on fin-de-siecle culture, and is editor of Decadent Writings of Aubrey Beardsley (2023), Ukraine Lab: Global Security, Environment, and Disinformation through the Prism of Ukraine (2023), and London Ukrainian Review

Interview conducted by Kseniya Kharchenko, Documenting Ukraine Project Manager

Translation by Kate Tsurkan