BY FREDA MIKLIN
When The Villager sat down with Olga Ipatova, 38, she told us, “All my life, I was proud of my last name, which is my father’s name. I never imagined that I would feel this way, but I’m not proud of my last name now because it is Russian.”
Olga came to Colorado in 2013 from her native Ukraine. She owns a medical spa in Highlands Ranch and is the mother of three-year-old twin boys. Her husband is Iranian and owns a body shop. Olga’s mother, an ethnic Bulgarian who was born in Ukraine, came to Colorado to help her when the twins were born. Then COVID came and now there is a terrible war, so she is still here, but Olga has an uncle, two aunts, five cousins and many friends who are still in Ukraine.
Olga’s father was born in Siberia and came to the south of Ukraine to study to be a sailor. There he met her mother, who was a teacher. That area of Ukraine, Olga told us, has people of “more than 30 different nationalities and no one ever divided people based on who was Russian and who was Ukrainian.”
Olga left Ukraine before Russia took the Crimea peninsula (population 2.4 million) in 2014. When that happened, she told us, “I cried my first tears and began to recognize myself as Ukrainian. It made me understand what Ukraine means to me.”
Olga became emotional when she said, “It’s my home. It’s my heart. I still have a very strong connection with Ukraine. I go there once or twice every year. I still have a house over there and I was planning to take my boys to Ukraine this year for the first time and spend May and June there. I want them to know my culture.”
When she came here three years ago, Olga’s mother had an apartment in the city of Kherson, “a region which borders Crimea. I told her to go back last May and sell it. I knew the Russians would come there because Kherson borders Crimea and they had trouble with water, so they needed to build roads to bring water to Crimea, and to build roads to connect the Donetsk and Lugansk region with Crimea through Kherson. My mother didn’t believe that Putin would come and overtake that city. Even I never imagined it would turn into a war like it has. My twin brother’s son was living in Kherson with his mother. When the Russians came, they spent three weeks in a bomb shelter at a school. They had no fresh water and could not shower. There were many people hiding there. The conditions were so bad, they still won’t talk about it. Finally, the women organized a line of cars to leave together. When they were finally able to get out, they headed toward the city of Nikolaev. A trip that usually takes one hour took them 12 hours because they had to keep stopping as the Russians were already bombing.” Olga’s nephew, age 12, and his mother kept driving south and are now living in a dormitory in Bulgaria. They hope to be able to return to central Ukraine when the war is over. They don’t think that they will ever go back to Kherson because it will not be a part of Ukraine anymore. Due to its strategic location, Olga expects that “the Russians will create a fake referendum saying that the people of Kherson want to be a part of Russia,” to justify annexing it. To make that possible, she said that they have closed the roads now out of Kherson so that there are people left “who the Russians will say voted in this fake election.”
Olga told us about a close friend of hers from Kyiv, where she lived for 15 years before coming to the U.S. His mother is from Mariupol, “which is totally occupied by Russians,” and she is still there today. He could not reach her for two months. Just as he was about to give up hope, he got a message from his mother saying that, after two months of not even having water to shower and cooking outside over a fire, she and other civilians were finally starting to be being allowed to leave, but only to go to Russia. She told him that she and the others with her will have to go through a filtration camp that was built in the late 1930’s during Stalin’s time. There, they will be questioned by the Russians for three hours. Their documents and even their phones will be inspected to make sure that the phones don’t contain any messages that indicate “they have any pro-Ukrainian position;” that there is no sign that they are not happy that Russia “came to Ukraine to free them.” She added, “If you have anything on your social media that shows you support the Ukrainian government, you’re in trouble. You should prove that you are happy that Russia came and gave you a chance to live in Russia.” Olga read us a part of her friend’s mom’s message that he shared with her. It said, “We have been burying our neighbors who died, in the front yards of houses here. There are 4,000 people waiting in line to go to the filtration camp where they take your documents and look at them.” She was very worried about how long she would have to wait in that line. If she made it through, she planned to make her way to Georgia, then get back to the western part of Ukraine.
Another friend of Olga’s was living in Bucha, the site of a Russian massacre of Ukrainians, and was almost ready to give birth when Putin invaded. She spent two weeks hiding in her basement. Then she and her husband finally decided they had to try to leave. While driving “in a column of cars, the car just in front of her and her husband that had white towels on it with a sign that said ‘children’ was shot at and all the people in it were killed. She didn’t think she would survive but she is now in Germany where she gave birth to her child. She left cameras in her home. Two days after she left, Russian soldiers came into her beautiful home and drank and smoked everywhere, making a big mess. Then they found the cameras and destroyed them.”
In monitored communications of Russian soldiers calling home, Olga told us, “They were shocked at how well people in Ukraine lived because they were told that people in Ukraine were poor and didn’t have anything. Their wives said it was because America was helping them, not because people in Ukraine work hard. We still have corruption in Ukraine, but the average population lives much better than people in Russia, who are very poor, except for the people in Moscow and St. Petersburg…On Russian TV, they say that people in Ukraine are super-poor and if you don’t want to be like them, you’d better support Putin. My friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg know what is going on because they have the internet. They feel bad but they also feel helpless. They don’t know what to do. I have one friend who has 100,000 followers on Instagram and she sometimes speaks out, but she won’t go to a demonstration because she has two kids and she is afraid she will be arrested. Fifteen thousand people have already been arrested, but most people in Russia have been prepared to believe what Putin tells them for the last 15 years, and they support the war.” What about Russian soldiers, we asked—did they know what they were sent to do? “Maybe they didn’t for the first week, but after that, they all knew,” Olga told us.
Olga believes that about 70% of the people in Russia don’t even know that there is a war in Ukraine because they don’t have access to news other than the propaganda that their government tells them, but what makes her sad is that, “Lots of Russians here in Denver, some of whom were my friends, who came here for political asylum 20 years ago, support Putin. They say that what is being told here is fake news, it’s a war between America and Russia and Putin is doing the right things. They watch Russian TV channels here and they believe what they hear.” But it is very different with the Ukrainians. Olga told us, “Ukrainian people all over the world, including the huge community in Colorado, have helped so much. During the first two weeks of the war, I went to all the Walgreens in the Denver area and I bought everything that they had, all the medical supplies that the people could use, dried food, camping equipment like sleeping bags…we are sending money to support the army. At the spa where I work, people give money and I send it directly to support families who’ve lost their homes and need to move from the eastern part of Ukraine to the western part. It’s hard to go to the store there, so volunteers get the money and buy what people need, then drive and give it to them. All the money transfer companies, Western Union, MoneyGram, PayPal are all charging zero fees to send money to Ukraine. There’s also a way to send money directly to people’s credit or debit cards. We also send exact things that are needed. I heard that the Ukrainian army needed bulletproof vests. We found whatever vests were available around the country and people put them in suitcases and traveled to Poland, where volunteers who have come there from all over just to help, drove them to the soldiers.”
We asked Olga what she thinks the future holds for her country. “Some people are saying that Ukraine will be like Israel, always ready to get shot in the back by your neighbor. And they will know, from the day they are born, that they must be ready to protect their country if it is needed.” For herself, Olga told us, “I want to raise my kids here. I don’t know in what country they will choose to live, but I miss the cultural life in Ukraine. My dream is to go back to my country in my older years and live in downtown Kyiv next to the opera theatre and be a fancy European grandma who goes to the theatre every week.”
Olga told us that the organization Come Back Alive, launched in 2014, is the best place to send donations for those who wish to support the armed forces of Ukraine. Their website is comebackalive.in.ua