Ukraine: Narrative of war’s atrocities is ‘forging a nation together’

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Ukrainian teacher Oleh Azarov and 10th grade student Maryna Basyuk hug as they see each other for the first time since Russia invaded in early February, in front of their school in Bucha, Ukraine, April 20, 2022. Mr. Azarov, who remained in Bucha during its occupation by Russian forces, expects renewed interest in the civil defense course he teaches given Ukrainians' shared wartime experiences.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Before the war, Oleh Azarov, a teacher in the Kyiv, Ukraine, suburb of Bucha, taught a civil defense course called Defending Ukraine. In addition to such pragmatic topics as first-aid techniques, the course had an ideological component mentioning national pride and dignity that at times made students’ eyes roll.

But that was before the war, which is now reframing and reinvigorating Ukraine’s national identity.

Why We Wrote This

Traumatic as they have been, Russia’s wartime atrocities have created a visceral shared experience for Ukraine. That is feeding a grand historical narrative, which some say had been missing.

When invading Russian forces approached Bucha, Mr. Azarov chose to remain. “They were very intense days and nights,” he says of the occupation of Bucha, from which gruesome images reverberated around the world after Russia’s retreat.

Mr. Azarov was not alone in witnessing the atrocities as they occurred: A handful of his students also stayed. Now he’s planning to harness those shared experiences in his classroom. It’s a challenge other Ukrainian educators are also facing: how to integrate this story into Ukraine’s historical narrative.

“I don’t know what I will be able to tell them, what I will be allowed to tell them, and what they can hear,” says Mr. Azarov. “I feel like some of my pupils saw even more than I saw.”

The Ukrainian teacher appears haggard, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the trauma of witnessing Russia’s deadly military advance on his hometown of Bucha, the suburb northwest of Kyiv whose name has become synonymous with Russian cruelties in Ukraine.

As the Russian troops arrived, Oleh Azarov recalls, he helped wounded and retreating Ukrainian soldiers, even as he feared local infiltrators. Going outside was terrifying, he says, because “you never know how this will finish; people were being killed in the streets.”

“They were very intense days and nights. ... I stayed to see it with my own eyes,” Mr. Azarov says of the occupation of Bucha. Later, the gruesome scenes of bodies left in the open by withdrawing Russian forces – often with hands tied behind their backs and shot execution-style – reverberated around the world.

Why We Wrote This

Traumatic as they have been, Russia’s wartime atrocities have created a visceral shared experience for Ukraine. That is feeding a grand historical narrative, which some say had been missing.

But Mr. Azarov was not alone in witnessing the atrocities as they occurred: A handful of his students also stayed in Bucha. Now, the teacher is planning how to harness those shared experiences in his classroom.

“I don’t know what I will be able to tell them, what I will be allowed to tell them, and what they can hear,” says Mr. Azarov. “I feel like some of my pupils saw even more than I saw.”

By chance, while speaking to this reporter in front of Bucha’s General Education School No. 1, Mr. Azarov sees one 10th grader for the first time since the war began.

They hug each other warmly, and Mr. Azarov wipes away tears, because Maryna Basyuk has survived.

“The first days we cry; then we tell our stories. ... Everyone is telling stories now,” says Mr. Azarov.

A physical education instructor, he also teaches a civil defense course once known by its Soviet-era title, Defending the Motherland. A year ago, its title became Defending Ukraine – and Mr. Azarov anticipates new interest in concepts like national pride and dignity.

“This situation,” he says, “is forging a nation together.”

Visceral shared experience

Indeed, the combined power of those individual stories is creating a new national narrative in Ukraine, of citizens discovering the will to resist against an overwhelming Russian military force, in a nation that gained independence in 1991 amid the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims Ukraine “does not exist” on its own. Instead, he says, it’s part of a neo-imperial collection of Russian-speaking peoples called Russkiy Mir, or “Russian World,” that in Ukraine’s case must be “liberated” from Western enemies.

But Russia’s war is instead reframing and reinvigorating Ukraine’s own national identity, forged with the value of a visceral shared experience – traumatic though it has already been.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Oleh Azarov in front of General Education School No. 1, where he teaches physical education and a course called Defending Ukraine, in Bucha, Ukraine, April 20, 2022. The Kyiv suburb has become a symbol of Russian military cruelties.

For Ukrainian educators, the challenge is how to teach that story in the future, how to integrate it into Ukraine’s national history as a watershed event that catalyzed a unity of purpose and strength of resolve.

Martin-Oleksandr Kisly, a historian at Kyiv Mohyla Academic University, says the magnitude of Russia’s invasion is prompting “a new grand historical narrative for Ukraine, because we still lack it.”

“Through all the period of independence we lacked that grand historical narrative, and now there is a possibility of securing it,” says Mr. Kisly, who is from Crimea and is considering an oral history project of the current war. “How we teach it in five years will be different from how we teach it in 10 years – it depends on how this war is finished.”

And, he says, who writes the history.

Varied experiences

Even establishing the record of events will be a challenge. Mr. Kisly is concerned about “re-traumatization” as Ukrainians recount their personal stories, which could affect his own oral history plans.

Every Ukrainian who stayed in Bucha – as well as citizens along front lines across the country – has stories of survival, bravery, fear, and resolve that now echo across the nation.

Ukrainians say the new national narrative, to be credible and relevant, will need to incorporate their varied experiences.

Those voices are evident along the Bucha roads where the Russian armored column was destroyed, where the charred hulks of Russian vehicles – and the bodies on sidewalks and street corners – have now been cleared away.

“I think we should listen to every witness, and collect all the information,” says Olena Viktorivna, a courier driver in her late 50s, who is walking where the ruins of Russian armor once lay.

She describes “bodies piling up” during the Russian occupation, and volunteers refusing to collect them because it was “too dangerous.” Neighbors – her house is around the corner – made holes in backyard fences to move around without stepping onto the street.

But Russia was not the only one responsible for destruction, she says. The Russian column was destroyed, Ms. Viktorivna notes, but it was Ukrainian airstrikes that destroyed it, wrecking civilian houses in the process.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Maryna Goncharenko weeps and holds flowers and a portrait of her father, Mykola, as he is buried one and a half months after the family says he was shot and burned in his car by Russian soldiers, at a cemetery in the Kyiv, Ukraine, suburb of Irpin, April 21, 2022. Family members say they identified the body after Russian forces withdrew from the area only because a volunteer found the remains and tagged them with the car's license plate number.

The Ukrainian voices include those of the Goncharenko family, which finally could bury its patriarch, Mykola, last week. He was killed March 4 when Russian troops shot up and burned his car, says Ludmila, his wife, who survived the incident. The family could only identify the remains, weeks later, because a volunteer had written the license plate number on a tag.

Saying its final goodbye, this distraught family cries and carries red carnations, in a scene now all too common in Ukraine.

Those voices are evident, also, at the Bucha morgue, which continues to grapple daily with an overflow of bodies collected from across the region. Officials now say that toll tops 1,000 dead civilians.

“We are working day and night, 24/7,” says an overworked volunteer. He asks a visitor if they will suit up in protective gear to help.

His name? In a rush, he says, “It does not matter.”

“Only real facts will be taught”

In Borodianka, some 15 miles northwest of Bucha, Ukrainian Lt. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, commander of the Kyiv military region, describes the damage in the district to the Monitor.

“Everything is destroyed,” he says. “Now you can see Russkiy Mir.”

In this town, the front of the building seized by Russians as their military command center is painted with skulls and the letter V. The front yard is carved with sandbagged trenches.

Despite rain, residents inundate a nearby Orthodox church for clothing donations. A few doors down, at a school-turned-volunteer center, the prices of municipal coffins are taped to the door, along with the location of the prosecutor’s office inside: Room 46.

“This situation has united our country, our people, our nation,” says Lieutenant General Pavlyuk. “In 1991 we got our independence in a peaceful way, and now we are paying with our blood.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Two Ukrainian women walk beside destroyed buildings in the aftermath of weeks of Russian military occupation in the Kyiv, Ukraine, suburb of Borodianka, April 21, 2022. Ukrainian civilians describe killings, torture, and abuses at the hands of the occupying Russian forces.

In the future, he says, “Only real facts will be taught, and everybody sees a real situation, a real picture. We shouldn’t tell any fairy tales.”

In Bucha, Maryna, Mr. Azarov’s student, recounts how she spent most of the monthlong Russian occupation in a basement with three families. They cooked for each other with a wood stove, and hid a generator from the Russians that they used to draw water from a secret well.

Her older brother, Oleksandr, was a target of potshots when Russian troops first arrived. A neighbor’s apartment was wrecked.

And a Russian sniper was placed on the ninth floor of a nearby building, its lower floors lined with mines. Russian soldiers smashed the residents’ mobile phones, Maryna recounts, and warned people they would be killed if the sniper’s position was revealed.

“I had never been feeling myself a big patriot, but now I feel hatred for the Russians because no one did what the Russians did, and everyone should know about it,” says Maryna. After taking little notice which language she chose to speak, the lifelong Russian speaker now prefers Ukrainian.

“I am much more aware that I am Ukrainian,” says Maryna. “I feel like I grew up a lot in this time.”

Changed syllabus

Such sentiment means Mr. Azarov expects a “dramatic increase of interest” among students in his civil defense course. Defending Ukraine still uses Soviet-era books, and emphasizes how to pack an emergency bag and first-aid techniques as well as coping with chemical warfare and handling assault rifles.

But there is also an ideological component – which in the past made students’ eyes roll – that is likely to elicit renewed interest in national pride.

“A main goal is to understand why we learn this, and why you would need to love and defend your country,” says Mr. Azarov. “I am sure it will change a lot.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Stone plaques memorialize three former students, killed fighting Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, at the door of General Education School No. 1 in Bucha, Ukraine, April 20, 2022.

Maryna is already converted.

Bolted near the school’s front door are three basalt plaques, etched with the images and names of three former students who joined the Ukrainian military and died fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas – the same eastern region where war began in 2014, and where Russia today is launching a new offensive.

Maryna, subjected to war herself at the hands of Russia, says she now has a greater appreciation for the price those Ukrainians paid.

“I want to thank them,” she says, noting that the middle plaque belongs to the father of a classmate.

“They were defending us. They died for us, for what we have now.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Ukraine: Narrative of war’s atrocities is ‘forging a nation together’
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today