One year on, Ukrainians are full of anger and a sense of duty. But the overriding feeling is guilt | Nataliya Gumenyuk

During the first months of the Russian invasion, in one of the frontline villages in the southern Kherson region, I met several firefighters – ordinary Ukrainian men in their 40s or 50s. Their prewar tasks involved putting out fires in the local wood or occasionally buildings.

Since the Russian invasion, they save houses burning from missiles and retrieve their dead neighbours. One of the men began to cry during our conversation. He left embarrassed, but shortly returned. I comforted the firefighters, explaining that even governors and mayors sometimes sob during interviews.

In the following months, I travelled from one frontline town to another. I met doctors, policemen, railway and communal workers, journalists, electricians, civil servants, government officials whose relatives are fighting and dying in the army. They escaped or are still living under Russian occupation, their houses and apartments destroyed. They acknowledged that they were emotional, often angry, horrified, but driven by a sense of duty. In the end this would help them move forward, and even be proud of what they did.

Russia invaded Donbas and Crimea in Ukraine in 2014; the country already knew what the war was. But since 5am on 24 February last year, all citizens have learned how to survive when a foreign army uses its might to destroy the peace. They have discovered how to act during an air-raid warning; how to live and work through blackouts; that they should not walk at night because of curfews. They have learned to forget about planes, as airports are closed, and how to be separated from family. People have adapted to many things, and also learned how to deal with emotions: that tears are nothing to be ashamed of. The initial shock and sadness have transformed into a bigger confidence and determination.

As for today – besides hope in victory, national pride, solidarity and compassion, which you see on the surface – one of the prevailing feelings among Ukrainians is guilt that we are not doing enough. In non-frontline towns and in Kyiv, life has returned to a kind of normal. We are preoccupied with thoughts of those who live under constant shelling or occupation. Those who are not in the army think of those who must fight daily; soldiers who survive think of the fallen. Those who left the country feel guilty about those who stayed.

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I recently visited a standup comedy performance in a suburb of Kyiv. Self-depreciation is back following months when society was unable to joke about the war. One of the most popular gags is from a comedian comparing his efforts to those of soldiers and veterans. After Ukraine’s victory, he jokes, he would tell his children he spent the war sitting in an Odesa basement, tweeting that Nato should help by “closing the sky”.

Thousands of crimes have been committed by Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil. The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office says it has registered at least 71 000 violations of the customs of war. Since then it has become harder to talk to Russian colleagues. By colleagues I mean not propagandists, but just journalists who oppose the Russian invasion and Putin’s regime.

I still communicate with them, but many exchanges end with excuses about why Russian society can do nothing. They think that those who are against the war have nothing to do with the actions of their state. I do believe guilt is not collective, but shared responsibility exists.

Before Russia’s invasion I reported on totalitarian countries: Iran, Syria, China, Belarus. I understand how dangerous it is to protest in a state that is ready to kill its own citizens. The Ukrainians fought against this in revolutions in 2004 and 2014. In the end we built a government that defends its citizens.

It feels paradoxical that Ukrainians, who defend their homeland and are under attack, feel guilty for not doing more. Meanwhile, Russians who are opposed to war are uncomfortable speaking about personal responsibility, stressing that nothing depends on them. This can be explained not by a lack of empathy or bitterness, but by disempowerment and the detachment of Russian citizens. This is something the Kremlin wants from Russian society. Russians who oppose the war must transform their lack of empowerment into action, and find their strength.

Ukrainians have defended their country for 365 days without a break. They have saved many lives from Russian troops. Our task now is to transform a sense of guilt into a sense of duty. We need to preserve our strength.

Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist, and co-founder of the Reckoning Project

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