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The war has exposed each one of us. It took everything from some but left them with a big heart; it drove some far from home, giving rise to meanness only. However, it has become an incentive for most people to discover their true selves. Everything that used to be hidden behind artificial employment, social roles, and far-fetched natures, now manifests itself in full force.
One night in the multi-story parking garage changed everything for Oleh Halaidych, a 31-year-old biophysicist from Kharkiv who studied peripheral pain and worked at the Kyiv Institute of Physiology. He is currently in Lviv. He is shooting a documentary and believes that he will be able to return to the field of science.
This interview was conducted within the Ukrainian Catholic University’s “Little Stories of a Big War” project. The project aims to introduce the world to the hundreds of human destinies that the war has empowered. Having lost everything, they grew in faith and found their true selves. None of them is a Marvel superhero. They are ordinary Ukrainians. There are millions of them. They did not freeze in anticipation of victory; they did not panic; and they did not give up. They just do what they can here and now, so that they can celebrate the triumph of good over evil together with the whole world one day.
— Oleh, what did your first day of the war look like? How did you feel?
— In the morning, my neighbour, with whom I rented my apartment jointly, woke me up. Initially, I did not understand what was happening. More or less, everyone knew that there was a possibility of a war outbreak. The city was a buzz with activity; it was seemingly “floating” in the air. Everything was surreal. There were a lot of reports from the media, from the United States. But still, on the morning of February 24, there was a moment of shock. After recovering a bit, I quickly packed my belongings up. My first idea was to run from the Left Bank of the Dnipro to the Right one. That was because all the administrative buildings and most of the people I would like to stay with, in case of danger, were on the Right Bank.
You may be surprised, but I did not hear any explosions. We spent the first night of the war in the basement of the parking garage, and I realised that I should leave the city. But I heard a lot about the war. My parents lived in Kharkiv and spent a lot of time in the basement, so I know very well how it is. They have only recently arrived in Lviv.
How did I get through? Well, I haven’t got through yet. There are still a lot of thoughts in my head: “What should I do next? How long will it take? Where to live? Where to work?”. The university where I work is situated in Kyiv, in the very centre, in the government district. Now there is no opportunity to work, and there are very few places with such professional specifics in Ukraine. You need to adapt somehow and find your place. Let’s see how it develops, how long it will last.
— How did you find yourself at the Les Kurbas Theatre?
— I am a scientist, but documentary is my hobby. Right before the war, I worked with my friend at Serhii Boikovskyi’s documentary film studio. When we arrived in Lviv, we had to find our place. I got on the military register but realised that my turn to mobilise would not be soon. And finding a spot to fit in was quite challenging. I visited a location where “Lviv Smoothies” [Molotov cocktails] were mixed, but there were enough volunteers. I went to donate blood, but I wasn’t helpful there either. It was possible to weave camouflage nets or unload trucks with aid from Poland. But I wanted to do what I was skilled at. Documentaries came to our mind; shooting what’s happening for the sake of history. I found some kind of camera equipment with more or less stable sound and images. My friend came up with the idea for the film. Now I’m filming how the theatre workers reacted to the war, how they set up shelters where refugees live, and where they collect humanitarian aid. I am shooting in three theatres: Les Kurbas, Lesia Ukrainka, and Maria Zankovetska. Each of them has its specifics, which is very thrilling.
— Tell us more about this project of yours?
— At first, I tried to convey the current atmosphere in theatres. In one theatre, they have a special focus on immigrants. Another theatre, Maria Zankovetska, undertook humanitarian aid and weaving nets. In the Lesia Ukrainka Theater, a distinct youth group cooks food and delivers it to railway stations, queues at military registration offices, etc. There is also a small temporary shelter for people there.
Now I am trying to get closer to people and volunteers and to choose the main characters. Actually, everything becomes more interesting at this point. Honestly, I don’t know the timing – will it it be short-term or long-term? I think time will tell. Just a couple of hours ago, a friend of mine offered to apply for a grant. I can’t even say what foundation it is yet, but the grant is aimed at helping young people who make films. This would be a pleasant encouragement for the development of our project, both financial and organisational. So far, it is solely my personal initiative.
— What were your plans before the war?
— My life consisted of two essential activities: research and documentary. I have been studying science, physics, and biology throughout my adult life: studying, then postgraduate studies in the Netherlands, and returning to Ukraine to work here. Outside of my employment, I took cinematography and documentary film directing courses. When the war started, it was the middle of the week, and we were doing a master class in documentary film. There is an IndiLab school sponsored by the United States Embassy. About ten documentary projects are pitched every year. My girlfriend and I had the idea to make a documentary short film about people singing in the subway: street musicians and singers. This is a fascinating phenomenon present in almost every city with a subway. We wanted to explore it and make a poetic essay about it.
I took a week off from work and immersed myself completely in documentaries. Just a week before the war, we had 2 or 3 masterclasses where we were taught how to think about the film’s structure. It was extremely exciting. We devoted the last day to sound recording, various types of microphones, etc. At night, it all started. Unfortunately, the masterclass ended abruptly for us, and a completely different reality began, which borders on fantasy or science fiction.
We didn’t know who Russians were, we didn’t know who we were. I guess many of us were surprised at how strong our Armed Forces are, and how the entirety of Ukraine reacted and how it was united.
— Do you have acquaintances from Russia? Do you keep in touch with any of them?
— Yes. Until 2014, I studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). This institute had a Kyiv branch. Thirty-five students who performed well in physics and mathematics contests were selected annually for studies there. After all, MIPT is one of the most best institutes of physics and mathematics in the post-Soviet sphere. I had many friends from the institute. But after the Maidan, some of these friendships somewhat faded. There remain three people I talk to often. One of them is in the Netherlands, in the same city where I was in graduate school. Another one has retrained himself as an economist and now works as an associate professor in Hong Kong. The third became a philosopher, currently finishing his dissertation in Germany, the city of Wuppertal. I keep in touch with them. They are against the war and conduct an active information campaign on their social media.
— How has your attitude towards Russians changed personally? Do you feel fear, hatred?
— At first, there was fear, a lot of anger, and hatred. Nevertheless, now everything has changed. I try not to watch all these videos with the bodies and corpses of Russians. Maybe it encourages someone, but my psyche functions in such a way that I don’t want to see it. Now I am becoming more cynical and perceive the Russians as an enemy that needs to be eliminated. A lot of people in Russia are deceived. They are under the influence of propaganda. Many acquaintances apologise, saying that they are ashamed. But now, I don’t even care about that. I understand that there is nothing they can do. The threat level has changed our lives so badly that I do not care about apologies and sorries.
— What are your thoughts now? What questions do you still not have answers to?
— How long is it going to last? Are we to withstand? Will the same thing happen to Kharkiv as happened to Aleppo? Will I have to rearrange my entire life? Look for another job? Will I be able to do science? Will I be able to return to my city? Will it turn into the same bombed Berlin, say, or Dresden? Apparently, all thoughts about the future, how life will change and how to arrange it, will most likely not be as it used to be. There are a lot of thoughts. At the same time, you think about ways to be helpful and what to do now. Lots of thoughts.
— As a promising scientist, have you thought about moving to the West?
— Well, first of all, they can not release me as I am 31 years old. And, secondly, I would not leave. I wanted to be here, and I have never regretted making that choice. I came back from the Netherlands, where I could live in peace and continue my scientific career. But all my life, all that worries me for real, is here, and I would be happy to stay here too.
— What have you learned about the country where you were born, about your relatives in the last 10 days? How do you see the future of Ukraine?
— I am a committed optimist. It seems to me that if we hold out and win, interesting days will await us. The solidarity struck me. It struck me how Russian-speaking, pro-Russian people realised that this is our country, and we are all one. We understood that we need to act, not bury our heads in the sand, but help in any possible way. It is unbelievable that this is happening, our military progress and queues at military registration offices. When we overcome, I think we will have an exciting future.
— How do you imagine this future?
— I hope so much that Russia will become too weak and collapse both economically and politically. Our task is to rebuild our cities. What are the prospects? Develop, only forward. We all understand the price of peace, and we would all like to build a normal country. It is difficult to say more precisely now. I can say more about myself. I want to focus all of my efforts on science, education, and films, because this is an essential part of my life.
— What do you have nostalgia for but you know it is impossible to get it back?
— It is hard to say because I was not in Kharkiv during the destruction. Everything I know is perceived through a phone screen, which creates the effect of parallel reality. Sometimes I have to “pinch” myself to see if it’s real. I understand that we will need years and a lot of financial help to restore everything. I lived in Kharkiv for the first 18 years. Kyiv has become home for the last two years. I really want to return to the Left Bank (Dnipro), where all my filming equipment is. I want to return to the institute, especially to the vivarium, where the animals live. Unfortunately, we did experiments on animals. Now there is only Andrii there who supports them. There are problems with feed delivery because no one wants to bring feed for the rats and mice there. Nostalgia, nostalgia for everyday life.
— And what do you miss now?
— I can’t complain. I have a place to live. Good people are hosting me. I continue to do my favourite thing. But I miss the life that was before.
— What do you want to do first when the war is over?
— I don’t know, I haven’t come up with it yet. For the first five days, I had a strong desire to shave myself. Very banal, such simple things.
— What past life circumstances do you think we will not return to after the victory?
— I hope, I very much hope, that we will overcome the illusions about our neighbour Russia. It was difficult to take seriously the words that the Russians were the new nazis, that putin was the new hitler. And now you understand that, in fact, that’s the way it is. Humanitarian crises, shelling of residential areas. It becomes evident that they do not adhere to morals. They are not there. They want to seize Ukraine at any cost. Only swearing comes to mind to describe putin. He is a reckless and deranged person.
We will be able to recover the buildings, but we will never bring people back. It is thought that people who go through war become different. They have such an “inner core” and are less hesitant later in life, living a full life every day. On the other hand, my friends and I used to say that “grey (ordinary) days are so bad.” Now we understand that so called grey days are cool.
And yet I come back to the thoughts of Andrei Tarkovsky, who spoke of his predecessors he studied, for instance, Oleksandr Dovzhenko and others: these are people who went through a war, had an inner core, lost their infantilism, and knew what they lived for and what they wanted to do for their lives.
— Do you have this core?
— I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Perhaps it is still taking shape. We do not know what lies ahead and what challenges are coming.
Interviewer: Natalia Starepravo
Translator: Andrii Myroshnychenko
Proofreader: Shari Henning Garland