Living in paradise in the middle of hell
Oleksandra Starodubtseva has two daughters who live on a different continent with their families. She also tried to move there and live in the comfort, love and wealth. But she returned to Ukraine when the war started. “It's impossible to live in paradise when your home is in hell,” she says. Her tiny apartment in downtown Bakhmut, former Artemivsk in Donetsk Oblast, looks more like a museum or an art gallery. Oleksandra has been doing embroidery since she was 4. There is no free spot on her walls. A professional tour guide, Oleksandra speaks about her life based on the embroidered images on the walls. “This is a family tree. And here is a moving violin with a rose – it's the story of my daughter Inna moving up the music ladder,” she shares. “She now teaches kids music in Quebec. Here is an image of Venice for my younger daughter Mila. Traveling had been her dream since early childhood; she learned foreign languages. When she entered the university, she traveled to various countries and met her husband in one of them. They now live in Washington. I lived with them for three years. But I realized that I can't live without Ukraine. Here is an image of a lonely tree. It's about nostalgia and my life in emigration.”
Today, Oleksandra makes handmade folk rag dolls and embroidered shirts for her 4-year old granddaughter in the United States. That's a tradition that spans generations. Her grown-up grandson speaks for languages. To chat with his gradma over skype he uses Ukrainian only.
As the war raged close to her home, Oleksandra could not bear to simply stay at her lavishly decorated apartment. She decided to wage her own, very original war. For over six months, under the summer sun or in the winter cold, she would go out to the central trolleybus stop every morning with a handmade poster. It featured Vladimir Putin toasting with a glass of champagne and a slogan: “To idiots! Without you, I wouldn't be here!” Oleksandra's friends begged her to stop: this is not exactly safe in a town that's a dozen kilometers from the frontline. The poster fueled heated verbal battles: Oleksandra recalls that the people she appealed to recognized themselves momentarily. The police was forced to put an officer next to this oneperson protest to make sure that the woman is safe. One time, however, somebody pushed her badly. Oleksandra got sick and quit her attempts to appeal to the locals.
Meanwhile, she has many other important things to do. She has just finished an embroidered portrait of Dmytro Cherniavsky, the first resident of the Donbas killed at the pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk in 2014. The portrait is now going to the local museum where a section on the ongoing war is being set up. She now focuses all of her energy, connections and opportunities on helping the children whose parents sacrificed their lives to protect their country. It has been over a year now that Oleksandra has been helping the family of a volunteer killed near Bakhmut in 2014. His partner was not officially married to the deceased volunteer, so their little son Oleksiy has no assistance from the state. Meanwhile, the family is poor and needs help, especially because the child has disabilities. After the military doctors serving in Bakhmut hospitals have helped send the boy for diagnostics, he is receiving monthly allowance for treatment that Oleksandra collects. Thanks to this care, the family managed to find and rent a place to live in Dnipro Oblast after fleeing their home in the occupied territory. Oleksiy's mother works at a kindergarten. Almost every month, the kid gets goodies from “grandma Oleksandra”. The warm winter clothes, toys, books and painting kits may be a small thing, but this is an important bonus for the young boy.
Also, Oleksandra writes letters to the frontline. Her health condition no longer allows her to go anywhere beyond her apartment. But it can't keep her indifferent: “My dear children,” she writes to the soldiers. “I want to shelter you in my arms and protect you from the enemies! I want to help you somehow but I'm so old that I only have energy for words. My dear children! Thank you for keeping the old and the young alive. You should know that you are shedding your blood for our land, the best land in the world.”