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A couple torn apart by landmines, a student stuck in limbo, an underground theater: The ‘brave people’ of Ukraine receive Sakharov Prize

Representatives of the invaded country on Wednesday accepted the European Parliament’s highest honorary award in the name of citizens ‘who are not just fighting a war of independence but fighting a war of values’

Ukraine war
Sergii Mikolaiovich (left) with his children and his wife, who died on July 19 when she stepped on a landmine.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

Sergii Mikolaiovich, 69, and Luvob Shevchenko, 65, were walking in the countryside near their home in Mila, outside Kyiv, on July 19. They were trying to make up for time lost to the war, after their apartment was shattered in a bombardment on March 3. They were picking raspberries in an area that had been occupied by Russian forces but which, after the invaders were pushed back by a Ukrainian counter-offensive in April, had once again become familiar territory for the evening strolls of the married retirees. Suddenly, Luvob was thrown into the air, screaming amid a cloud of smoke. “I ran over and saw her legs were shattered,” Sergii recalls. The paramedics dared not advance to the scene for fear of mines like the one that had just exploded under Luvob, who had to be dragged from the blast site by her husband and some policemen with the aid of a makeshift stretcher provided by the medical responders. It took about an hour to get her out, Sergii reckons. On the way to the hospital, Luvob’s life was snuffed out forever.

On December 14, the Sakharov Prize, the most important award presented by the institutions of the European Union, was delivered to “the brave people of Ukraine,” in the words of European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. “The Ukrainian people are not just fighting a war of independence but fighting a war of values. The values which underpin our life in the European Union and that we have long had the luxury of taking for granted each and every day.”

Without seeking it or being aware of it, Sergii Mikolaiovich and his late wife are, therefore, two of the award’s recipients. Mikolaiovich may not be aware of the existence of the prize, inaugurated in 1988, but he surely knows who Andrei Sakharov was: a nuclear physicist who after making the USSR’s first hydrogen bomb became a dissident and a human rights activist, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. As part of the mourning, Sergii himself helped the authorities mark the area where his wife was fatally wounded and which is now off-limits to visitors.

Sergiy Mykolayovych
Sergii Mikolaiovich, 69, in front of his building, which was damaged by a Russian attack on March 3. Luis de Vega

There are hundreds of stories on the ground that serve to explain Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion launched on February 24 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The battlegrounds extend far beyond the front lines of the two opposing armies. The war has plunged the country into a painful catharsis, broken up thousands of families and galvanized a civil society spread across the more than 600,000 square kilometers (230,000 square miles) that Ukraine’s territory occupies. The 15 million Ukrainians who have been displaced – half of them beyond the borders of their country – already represent the largest population movement in Europe since World War II.

Oleksii Rudenko, 25, was in Lithuania studying a doctoral program in history when the invasion was launched. Like many others, he immediately got to work with a group of friends and acquaintances and improvised a funding chain from Poland. “We have raised a total of 10 million grivnas (around $250,000) for uniforms, bulletproof vests, helmets, GPS devices, tablets and night vision equipment,” he says by phone from the Kharkiv region, where he is now. Soccer players and bands such as Kalush Orchestra, the Ukrainian group that won the last Eurovision Song Contest, have participated in his campaigns.

Rudenko returned to Ukraine in August, but has not been able to leave again, either as a student or to participate in events to which he is invited through his philanthropic activity. “A week after I came back it was announced there were many fake students trying to leave, so border security and the government decided to close the borders to all students, even if we had all our documentation or, as was my case, it was just a matter of continuing our studies abroad,” he says. Other young people consulted by EL PAÍS confirm that many managed to flee the country to avoid being drafted by falsely enrolling in universities overseas. This in turn has affected students who had been awarded Erasmus scholarships and who have not been able to leave Ukraine to take up their studies in other European countries. “There is no reason why in cases like mine we should not be able to leave, but we have to comply,” Rudenko says resignedly, but with a determination not to waste time complaining.

Kristin Milward
British actress Kristin Milward during her performance at the ProEnglish Theater in Kyiv. Luis de Vega

The heroic resistance recognized by the Sakharov Prize also also extends to the cultural scene. The Kyiv basement that houses the only theater in the country where plays are performed in English is no longer just a refuge in which the residents of the neighborhood sought shelter in the early days of the war. The imminent danger of Russian occupation of the capital has been seen off – if not the bombing of the city, which is constant – making it possible for activities at the ProEnglish Theatre to be resumed. In a further twist, last week the small theater was the stage for the Ukrainian premiere of the English adaptation of a work by local playwright Neda Nezhdana: Pussycat in Memory of Darkness recounts recent history of Ukraine under the shadow of the conflict that erupted in 2014.

The only protagonist, unnamed, is portrayed in a powerful performance by Kristin Milward who, after performing the play in London, has traveled to the Ukrainian capital. The British actress, who gets to raise her fist from behind a barricade while wearing a helmet and waving the Ukrainian flag, brings tears to the eyes of some of those who see a conflict that they are experiencing first-hand being represented on stage. Milward herself ends the show with an emotional message: “I feel very fortunate. It is a privilege, an honor. Thank you for your generosity,” she tells the audience.

With considerably more coldness, Sergii Mikolaiovich pulls out the prized possession that is the family photo album, in which his wife plays an essential role. The volume contains a compendium of Ukrainian life over the course of more than a century, from before the birth of the Soviet Union in 1922 until the present day. Sergii lingers on the images of his wedding, held in 1985 under the shadow of the hammer and sickle. He also points to the first snapshot of the entire family. It was taken after the birth of the couple’s son in 1988, two years after their daughter.

His son was the first person he called from the ambulance on July 19, when a paramedic turned to cover Luvob’s body so that her husband would not witness the final breaths of her life from the passenger seat. The two tourniquets that Sergii improvised in the middle of the forest from a bag strap and by hastily cutting his own pants to try to stem the bleeding of Luvob’s amputated limbs had proven futile. “My wife was still conscious. I gave her some water”, he says, not wishing to blame the emergency services for not entering the minefield with the ambulance. “Russia is responsible, nobody else.”

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