Caroline Burke / Gavel Media

Fighting For Truth: How One Ukrainian Student Has Confronted Her Right to Exist

Sitting on Boston College’s campus, nestled between manicured flower beds as the sun peeks out from behind lush green trees, the destruction of entire towns and the sirens that fill Ukrainian air seem to exist only within our phones as we scroll through news feeds. For Helga Tsymbal, the only student born and raised in Ukraine on BC’s campus to her knowledge, this war seeks to not only destroy homes and businesses within her country, but her entire Ukrainian identity and the hope it holds.

While other students spent their summer breaks at competitive internships trying to boost their resumes, Helga Tsymbal, CSOM ‘24, returned home to find her city desolate. She drove through military checkpoints where men with machine guns checked IDs to ensure drivers were Ukrainian and listened as sirens that warned of incoming airstrikes pierced the air. 

“The Ukraine I saw was so different than the Ukraine that I know,” Helga said as she sat with her legs curled in front of her, recounting her summer in Kyiv. “My home is just ruined.” Helga recounted the history between Ukraine and Russia that led to this war with the wisdom of someone who has become accustomed to the physical and emotional destruction. She described returning to Kyiv to find it unrecognizable, and that “it was empty and it felt so dead and sad.”

Although relieved to return to her family she once feared she would never see again, this joy was stolen from her every time the sirens blared. “My heart just stops,” Helga said, as she held her hand over her chest. Her brow furrowed as she relived the constant fear. During the three summer months she spent at home, Helga commented that she never felt safe. 

While the war has endangered her family and their home, this animosity was not always present. She described growing up without a national identity and listening to her parents tell her stories of the Russian propaganda they grew up with. As a first grader, Helga was confident that Ukrainians and Russians were the same. Now that she is older and wiser, she confidently announced that “came from USSR propaganda.” She continued, “it also came from the fact that people just didn't care.” It seems impossible that this historical portrayal of one nation has transformed into a violent war that seeks to squash any semblance of a Ukrainian identity.

As a child, Helga remembered waking up every morning and thinking, “I’m so glad Russia is our brother, or that we were part of Russia.” Her family felt similar: “I remember my mom telling my grandma that Ukraine doesn’t exist as a nation and that we were all the same. We're all Russians.”

At the time, this messaging that targeted the withholding of truth “felt normal,” Helga reflected. “You cannot see if it's the truth or not, you just live in that kind of bubble and you don't really care or want to find out the truth because you think that is the truth.” 

She compared this shift in national identity from Russian to Ukrainian to looking at a tree: “if you grew up knowing that's a tree and someone tells you it's not a tree, you're gonna be like, oh no, that's like a tree for me.” Her comparison demonstrates the great difficulty in rejecting propaganda fed to civilians by the Russian government, as it requires leaving behind everything you have been sure of and taught to see as indisputable fact.

When the revolution in Ukraine began in 2013, the home she loved and the person she thought she was crumbled around her as the truth she thought she knew was gone. “I felt sad that my whole life, I literally felt Russian and then I felt cheated on.” She attempted to put into words how she reacted to learning of her warped sense of reality. “It was like I've been lied to my whole life.” 

Russian propaganda is once again targeting Helga’s Ukrainian identity and seeks to cover up the destruction and death she has lived through. She sat up in her chair, animated, as she described how images and videos of bombings in Ukraine are twisted and presented by Russian news as Ukrainians bombing themselves. “They call us neo-Nazis and call us crazy people who want to join NATO and invade Russia,” said Helga. 

The coverup by Russian news has shown her that “Russians don't really care, they don't really see the truth and they don't really want to listen.” Helga’s frustration grew as she described how her fear has been invalidated. “My people are dying just because they are Ukrainians and I feel so much hate.”

While Helga spoke with great poise as she answered my questions about what damage this war has caused, the situation she faces has only left her with questions. “I don't know why, like why do you trust the guy?” she asked. “They wanna be Putin’s slaves and I'm like, why? Why?” Helga questioned as her frustration and powerlessness to confront the Russian propaganda peaked. 

Although the Ukrainian news shows the actual truth of the war, Helga is skeptical of the hopeful image they paint as they often say, “Ukraine will win, just hope, and I understand why they do that. You need to do that, but sometimes people get too hopeful and then nothing happens.”

Sitting with Helga I was struck by her resilience and strength in how she eloquently described a deep and ongoing trauma in her life. While we were both juniors, she had already grappled with a loss of identity, a loss of truth, and the loss of her home. Her conviction was interwoven with a heavy sense of defeat as each day more of her home is burned and more of her people are killed as Russians erase the truth that Helga and other Ukrainians live every day.

Making being from the PNW a personality trait.

Comments