The perimeter of the war is limited not only territorially; it is also primarily about the edge of humanity. While soldiers mark it with ammunition, volunteers and everyone who cares about it do with their actions. Significant changes are the sum of small deeds, so the daily efforts of the rear help the Ukrainian military manoeuvre and bring Ukraine closer to victory. Courage lives not in movies, but among ordinary Ukrainians. Little Stories of a Big War, a project by Ukrainian Catholic University, tells about such people and their selfless deeds during the war.
Our hero, Hryhorii Prystai, headed the icon-painting studio of St. Anthony in Lviv before the full-scale war, and now he transports medical equipment from Lviv to Kyiv and helps the military. In more than forty years, he has never come to spend some free time in the capital. Paradoxically, or quite in keeping with the spirit of the Ukrainians, Hryhorii went to Kyiv only for the revolution or, as these days, for the war.
The war shifted the emphasis, marking the material as secondary and the help commitment as vital. Hryhorii keeps saying that the Ukrainians will win. His faith is sincere as well as his admiration for the Ukrainian military. Although the man talks about his activities routinely, he actually takes risks every time he goes to Kyiv under fire. Hryhorii’s motivation is simple: “… Our folks are dying there, and someone has to do it.” And Hryhorii does not hesitate to act accordingly.
— How have your plans changed since the beginning of the war? What was it like before and what is it like now?
— There has been anticipation and still disbelief that this could happen to this day. Everyone was aware that this abscess would rupture one day. During such upheavals like the previous revolutions, you have to work hard and do what you can. Upbringing in Ukraine means you must be ready to do literally anything for its sake. Someone is doing everything for the military, but as you are not a soldier, you should help in any field. Me and my folks, like others, did our best from the beginning, and we continue to act so.
— What were the first thoughts with the beginning of the war? What did you consider doing to help?
— First of all, chaos. Then the person more or less calms down and thinks everything through. For example, my acquaintances from abroad wrote me that I should donate my icons for auction. It’s physically impossible, so I created a web page with photos of several icons. They can be paid for now, and all the money will be transferred to the needs of the army or migrants. After the victory, we will send icons. So far, it hasn’t proved to be very functional. The web designer said that it is spread mainly in Ukraine. I don’t know if it is a good idea for me to take up arms, but I know I am much more helpful this way.
We also drove people from the train station. I made posters with the addresses of the district councils where refugees are hosted and a website with a minibus schedule. When we installed them, people approached, read and didn’t need to asked volunteers anymore.
— What does your volunteering look like now?
— It was reported that expensive medicines should be taken to the front line for our military. To be honest, it’s scary. On the other hand, our guys are dying there, and someone has to do it.
— What was the first raid like?
— As they say, “Only fools and dead men have no fear” There was an episode in Kyiv. We came out near Sofiivska Square, and there was not a single soul, just some of the military men around. One can hear gunshots as artillery fires. It’s scary when you go to bed during curfew, and friends send messages that the capital will be bombed from 4 to 7 am.
At the same time, there is an encouraging spirit. When you see soldiers and pass them thermal imagers, money, medicine, they are all thankful. You understand that the supply chains work, and you are one of the links, so there will be a victory! You see how our guys hold on strong on the front line, and it’s incredible.
I have not seen the occupiers, and I do not want to see them. Our military has a mega-cool outfit, like in the movies. Calmness and confidence are noticeable. It convinces me that everything will be fine. People are ready to stand for victory and continue the struggle.
— How did Kyiv change?
— It’s hard to say because I’m not from Kyiv. Unfortunately, I always come to Kyiv during the revolution or, like now, during hostilities. I’ll just have to visit Kyiv someday. I travelled all over the world, but I didn’t travel much in Ukraine. So I can’t answer how did the capital change. It was like the “Need for speed” gameplay: you choose a city and walk the empty streets. There are three road lanes and not a single soul, just occasional sirens and explosions. I talked to the people of Kyiv who stayed in the city, and they were calm. There is no other option – only victory.
— Have you thought about going abroad?
— No, never. This is fundamental. I was also asked in peacetime, offered to emigrate for study, travel, experience. In my youth, I had the opportunity to live for six months in Warsaw. It was difficult for me. When you cross the border, your heart breaks.
— What have you been thinking about lately? What thoughts bother you?
— I understand that there will be a victory and then plenty of work in the East: everything must be rebuilt. I am considering new projects. These are plans for the future after the victory.
The beginning of the war is a bit distant from the moment when it affects you, acquaintances, or family. When you worry about your friends, you realise that something could happen to them, then anger arises.
— Has war changed your plans?
— Probably everyone’s plans are changing. You realise that the things you’ve focused on before are nothing. Even these days, money is just a piece of paper. People from abroad ask me whether they should transfer us some money, and what should one do with it now?! I ask to buy and transfer bulletproof vests and helmets — they make real difference. This is especially noticeable in Kyiv: you have money, and you can’t do anything with it. Now it’s the same with plans when you don’t know if you will live to see the morning. They are nothing.
At the forefront, the boys were dining, joking, and, most importantly, praying. I did not understand before why my mother and I went to the grave to pray as children. Now I understand.
— How has the environment changed? Did anyone among your relatives and friends support the Ukrainian position?
— I have relatives in Tyumen. Dad’s sister is in touch with them. I don’t hate a particular person, but when they say they’re “deeply concerned,” I’m sorry, I’m neither warm nor cold.
— What is the first thing you want to do when the war in Ukraine ends?
— To go fishing, probably (smiling).
Interviewers: Natalia Starepravo and Petro Didula
Translator: Andrii Myroshnychenko
Proofreader: Shari Henning Garland