War veterans, filmmakers, and audience members sing the Ukrainian national anthem, The Glory and the Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished, at the Ottawa screening of Invisible Battalion on 30 April 2018.
I wrote the following article for Radio Lemberg, originally published on 1 May 2018:
Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War
Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 01.05.2018
“Every woman has the right to defend her country. I think it is our duty to fight and to get victory. That’s all.”
A right and a duty … with those words, Yulia Matvienko summed up what it is to be be a woman and a patriot in Ukraine being invaded by Russia. She is a sniper with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, and is one of six subjects of the documentary film, Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War.
The documentary Invisible Battalion was shown in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, on Monday evening, April 30. A screening of the Ukrainian Canadian Film Festival, it was held across the street from Parliament Hill. James Bezan, Member of Parliament for Selkirk-Interlake, hosted the event. Many Members of Parliament who are friends of Ukraine were in attendance, as were members of the diplomatic community in Ottawa, military members from the Canadian and Ukrainian armed forces, and a sizeable turnout from the Ukrainian-Canadian community in the National Capital Region. Ottawa came out to see this film to hear the truth about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of women in that war.
Invisible Battalion started as a Department of Sociology research project at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, directed by Maria Berlinska. A sociological study was being conducted into the role of women in the Ukrainian armed forces, including discrimination against women in combat trades, post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment of women veterans. Six stories stood out and became the subjects of Invisible Battalion. In her remarks introducing the film, Maria Berlinska said: “An invisible battalion has to become visible.” These are stories of Ukrainian women at war.
It is well known that in 2014, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was decrepit and corrupt. Most of its senior officers were not psychologically prepared to face up to Russia as an enemy that must be defeated in battle. What is less well known is that the Ukrainian army discriminated between women and men when it came to combat trades, and did not have a gender-neutral equal opportunity system like the Canadian army does. This is why Ukrainian women who wanted to serve their country in combat to stop the Russian invaders joined the volunteer battalions. Even then, they were not officially registered as combatants.
Andriana Susak told the audience in Ottawa: “I am a woman, I am a Ukrainian, and I am an assault trooper. Officially, I am a seamstress.” The absurdity of this bureaucratic lie is heightened during her segment in the film, when she gives commentary to a video of her unit, the Aydar Battalion, taking enemy fire at Metalist after liberating the town of Schastia from Russian invaders. Andriana Susak pointed out where she appeared in the video, and noted the call-signs of her comrades as they were wounded or killed all around her. “I lost 100 friends in three months … and that’s just me,” she said.
In the film and in the remarks to the audience, the veterans expressed a common theme: the year 2014 marked a turning point. There was the life they had before 2014 (which some of them can barely remember), and then came the Revolution of Dignity and the war of national salvation against Russia. Women stepped forward, in a way that sharply challenged the paternalistic and Soviet mind-set of the Ukrainian army as it was before Russia invaded Crimea and Donbas. Women had to be twice as good as men, the women veterans said, because they had two battles to fight. Andriana Susak put it like this: “We have two fronts: in the east of Ukraine, and in civil life.” Ukrainian women will fight, as equals to men, because they must: “We will fight … because we have children, and children must have a future,” she said.
In the question and answer session, the audience asked the panel of filmmakers and war veterans what Canada can do and what the Ukrainian diaspora can do to help Ukraine at war and to help women in combat. Yulia Matvienko, the sniper, gave a very telling answer. She responded: “Ukrainian-Canadians apologize for not being in Ukraine. But you are closer to us than some people, who may be traitors, living in Ukraine.” She said it is uncomfortable for her to be among traitors in her own country – to be among the people who invited the enemy in. Another of the protagonists in the documentary, Julia Payevska, a medic, spoke about how Ukraine doesn’t seem to be a country at war when one steps away from the front. Speaking to the camera, she said she didn’t expect every Ukrainian to fight. “But if people would just think about the war and remember it more often, that would be great,” Julia Paevska said.
Invisible Battalion was a sensation in Ottawa, and received a long standing ovation. By telling six stories about Ukrainian women at war, the documentary convincingly established what the producers were saying in their introductions. Co-director and renowned writer Iryna Tsilyk said at the screening that “Russia is a very dangerous enemy, especially in the information war.” Russia will be defeated in that war not by better propaganda, but by telling the truth effectively. Invisible Battalion does that.
This is the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine. To date in Putin’s War, 21,363 Ukrainian women have served as combatants in Donbas. Changes to the law mean that 63 combat trades are now open to women. But this is not enough. The urgency of war must push the Ukrainian army to full gender-neutral equal opportunity. The full participation of women in combat is not an abstract question of equality of the sexes: it is a matter of life-and-death for Ukraine in a war of national salvation against Russia. The two women veterans present at the screening of Invisible Battalion in Ottawa agreed that the highest ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces must be open to women. But they both said that it is far more important that fighting officers, with experience in combat against enemy Russia, rise in the ranks to take the top positions, and usurp the places that are wrongly held by the Soviet-trained and Russia-compromised officer corps.
”Ukraine, as Russia’s neighbour, cannot afford being weak,” said Invisible Battalion project director Maria Berlinska. The film the project spawned illustrated her observation to an audience of Canadians: “We have a common enemy, the Russian Federation.” But that common enemy, Russia, will in the end be defeated primarily by Ukraine – with whatever help it can get from friendly countries. “We ask that the whole civilized world come together to help Ukraine, by sanctions and by effective support to the Ukrainian army.”
Russia at war with Ukraine is the common enemy of the whole civilized world. Invisible Battalion is a powerful statement for all of us to do what we can and fight. Speaking about the Russian enemy, Yulia Matvienko says in the film: “You know another reason I hate them? I can’t even cry properly.” Another sniper, Olena Bilozerska, leaves her mother and father to go to war, as countless soldiers have done before her. It is an emotional parting. But at the front there is no time for tears. As she cleans her weapon, shellfire heard in the distance, she says: “In wartime, one just needs a rifle. Faultless. Beautiful.”