Interviews

How they celebrate at the frontline

30 December 2023

Soldiers have told the Ukraine War Archive how they celebrated winter holidays at the frontline in 2022, what presents they dream about, and when greetings from civilians can be inappropriate. As a bonus, we’ve also talked to a priest from the church which was the first in Ukraine to switch to the new calendar.

 

Vladyslav, soldier in the Donetsk area

For me, New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and my birthday is just another day when I need to survive. Last year I was very lucky with my brothers in arms, because I was at home in Kyiv already on 31 December, but this year I still don’t know where I’m going to welcome the new year.

I believe that civilians should go on with their lives, give each other presents, but never forget about those who are in the trenches right now. Only your support and donations are the best present for all the holidays. And brothers in arms who are alive, and dinner with my family. I don’t need anything else. Although, no, I want government funding to be spent on the army rather than Christmas trees in cities which will just end up in a landfill in two weeks. Public officials should think about the army first and foremost, and only then about Christmas lights and trees in the streets.

If you want to greet a soldier on a holiday, first write to them, “Hello, how are you doing?” You never know, what if he just was on a battle mission an hour ago and half of his fellow soldiers were killed, and your greetings will be inappropriate. So it’s better to ask if everything is alright, and only then send your greetings.

For me, the meaning of all holidays has changed, now I want to celebrate them with my family, in peace and silence. Without alcohol, parties, presents. I’m not judging anyone, but I believe it’s inappropriate to post stories from clubs, parties, carefree life on social media, because someone at the same time doesn’t know if they’ll come out of a mission alive, if they’ll be able to write to their friends. Before you publish it, think how appropriate that content is, who it’s for and what it’s for.

I’m happy that civilians can be with their families, value every moment, because life is beautiful! But always remember about those who are no longer with us and those who are fighting for our Victory.

 

Denys Kurta, member of a non-staff tactical medical centre of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

How did you celebrate the new year 2023?

During last year’s holidays, we were on a mission in the Kupyansk area. The guys and I were cleaning our rifles on Christmas Eve. We didn’t decorate anything, but there was a holiday atmosphere, because there was light, warmth, and good company.For those who are with me and who I’m with, rest is a relative concept. It’s more about mental and physical recovery. The best rest for us is changing the type of activity. When we’re not teaching, we’re learning. When we’re neither teaching nor learning, we participate in evacuation missions.

We have only one faith, in ourselves and in victory.

We were very close to the confrontation line, we worked with combat medics who studied with us and then went to their positions. On Christmas Eve, they were evacuating guys with serious wounds, and in the morning they returned and studied. My best winter holiday memories are that I’m with like-minded brothers in arms in as good conditions as possible, and I’m where I’m needed. The smell of rifle oil, good New Year’s mood, and one goal — the fairy tale and magical things that we can idealise right now.

Plans for the holiday season

We’ll go to work, just like last year. Right now we have a huge workload, a lot of requests. Our work has several vectors: evacuation, where you work with your hands and can monitor if the wounded soldier’s condition has improved. And then there’s work which you do for the future and you can’t monitor it: high-quality tactical medicine training. Unfortunately, in this case we can’t fully evaluate the fruits of this work. By now our unit has trained more than 22,000 military personnel. On the one hand, it’s a huge number, but it’s disastrously insufficient to cover all the needs. Sometimes we meet our “students” somewhere on a hospital porch and they thank us for the training — this is the best story, because you can see feedback, and it’s inspiring.

Ideal New Year’s celebration

With my beloved wife and children, in a cosy holiday atmosphere. With frost and snow outside. In quiet, when nobody frets to check their phone in apprehension of bad news.

 

Oksana Rubaniak, machine gunner in the 72nd Brigade


Photo from Oksana Rubaniak’s personal archive

I welcomed the new year 2023 on the position, I was starting my watch and then I was replaced at 4 a.m. At 10 p.m., the Russians shelled us with artillery fire, and then we started sending them “greetings” at exactly midnight. At that time we were waiting for them to break through, so we were in a fighting mood, but luckily it didn’t happen.

I took some tinsel and a garland to the position and wrapped my machine gun in it to create at least some holiday atmosphere. We make holidays for ourselves even where there is no holiday. I also took some nuts with me, it was my holiday dinner, but twenty small mice decided to munch on my delicacy. I celebrated the New Year not only with my brothers in arms but also with mice in my backpack.

Father Ivan (Rybaruk), Kryvorivnia village

Our village was the first to celebrate Christmas on 25 December back in 2022. For me it was a civilisational choice. God gave me a head and put a brain in that head, and allowed intelligence to work in that brain. I can’t just go with the flow. They say only dead fish go with the flow, and I thank God that I’m alive. So I couldn’t go with the flow. I did this work consciously. In my parish, of course. Delicately, but persistently. Here, people say that if Rybaruk starts something, everything must go his way. Things go my way only when my way is God’s way, but when my way is just my way, it usually doesn’t work out.

People were alright with the switch to the new calendar. Although there were a few opposing voices. Some were scared, “Oh, how is it that we’re going to switch but everyone else won’t?” Others were superstitious, or cared about their own business. For example, they say, “I was born on St. Andrew’s day, and now St. Andrew’s won’t be St. Andrew’s but another day.” Here, their ego is put in the centre, “How will I, such a big cheese, cope with not having my birthday match my name day?” That’s silly. Generally everyone was alright with it, because it’s about reason.

Last year, we had 5,000 people on Christmas, there was a three-kilometre queue of cars, people couldn’t reach the church, many were late. The weather wasn’t Christmas-like, but it was totally God’s weather. Because God showed us a rainbow, a powerful two-level one. There are no rainbows during snowfall, only during rain. So God had to give us rain to show us a rainbow. And what’s a rainbow? It’s a sign of God’s peace with people. God saw how good we were doing, the first ones to switch, many people came, and He showed us a rainbow. 

For us, Christmas celebration is a sacred act that engages the whole village, every house. Our Koliada singers would go to the frontlines when they were allowed to. Our last Koliada was in 2021, but next year we weren’t allowed to go, for understandable reasons. Our guys from Kryvorivnia, Verkhovyna and other nearby villages who joined the army after the full-scale invasion created a Koliada party, a combat group, and sang Koliada songs right on the frontline live on air.

In the past few years, the composition of Koliada singers changed, there are more young people, school students, because many of the adults are now fighters. We already have five school Koliada parties, from each school year starting with year six. It is our life. For us, Christmas is not a celebration in the sense of entertainment, it’s a celebration in the sense of a cultural and spiritual victory. It’s what we fight for.

Do you know that there isn’t a single Koliada song in russian? They just took our Koliadas, rephrased them and added a few russian words. All of “their” Koliadas are Ukrainian, there are no organic russian Koliadas. Because the muscovites haven’t been born as Christians yet, and they’ve demonstrated it with this war. So their people can’t celebrate Jesus’s birth with a Koliada yet. It’s the only Christian community in the world that has no Christmas songs in their own language. If a people hasn’t been capable of creating a Koliada song, it hasn’t been born as a people yet, so they’re not Christians, they’re a sect. It’s just for show.

Their religion is military Christianity. Of course, they have saints, I’m not denying that. They were always persecuted by the same russian state. And those who aren’t persecuted pander to the Tsars. So they don’t experience Christmas deeply. I say that their Christianity is military because they’ve built the Main Temple of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Where in the world can it happen that the main “sacred place” contains Hitler’s cap? It’s like storing the devil’s tail!

Header photo: Photographer Oleh Arkhanhorodskyi. Infantrymen of the 24th King Danylo Mechanised Brigade are holding positions near Horlivka, a city in Donetsk Region that has been occupied since 2014.

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This article has been created by the Ukraine War Archive project with support of the International Renaissance Foundation. from ISAR Ednannia as a part of the.And also by ISAR Ednannia within the framework of the Initiative for Sectoral Support of Civil Society project

Ukraine War Archive* is a field of work implemented in cooperation between NGO Docudays (Ukraine) and Infoscope Ltd (UK); it stores documentation of the events of the full-scale invasion. An important part of the Ukraine War Archive project are interviews with witnesses of war crimes and events of the war which can help with future investigations and the eventual punishment of russians.


If:

– your house has been damaged or robbed by russian troops;

– you were forced to evacuate from your hometown and start building your life from scratch;

– you were an eyewitness of violence against civilians;

– you have witnessed crimes committed by russian troops;

– you know what it is like to live under occupation;

– or you want to share a story about your experience of living through the war,


join the collection of information about the events of the full-scale invasion. If you are prepared to share your experience of the war with the project team, fill out the form — https://bit.ly/war-archive-witness-form — or simply call the number +380669996633. Every story is important!


*Ukraine War Archive is a non-public resource. Access to it can be obtained after a background check and authorisation. Information in the Archive has three levels of access to materials. This ensures protection of personal and sensitive information. The Archive exists in several copies. Access to the platform is regulated by cyber security protocols and instruments.


This means that the provided testimonies are safely protected from outside eyes. Only selected Ukraine War Archive employees and its partners — human rights advocates and law enforcement agencies — can access them. The testimonies can only become public with prior consent of the respondents.

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