Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War

Invisible Battalion screening in OttawaWar 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.”

Invisible Battalion poster

Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності

Road to Independence concertUkrainian-Canadian choirs sang in Ottawa to commemorate 100 years of Ukrainian independence. A “Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності” concert was held in Dominion-Chalmers Church on April 22. The performers were the Vesnivka Choir, a Toronto-based Ukrainian women’s choir; the Canadian Bandurist Capella, a Toronto-based Ukrainian male choir accompanied by the unique harp-like sound of the sixty-five string bandura; and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir. “Road to Independence 1918-2018” was a presentation of Ottawa Chamberfest in partnership with the Capital Ukrainian Festival and Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

The photo shows the Canadian Bandurist Capella performing “Hetmany” (music by Mykola Lysenko; lyrics by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko). The soloist is Pavlo Fondera. The concert featured 17 songs, ranging from traditional songs of hundreds of years ago to insurgent songs of the Ukrainian National Republic from a century ago. Instantly recognizable was “Shchedryk” by Mykola Leontovych, a song which was translated into English by Peter Wilhousky to become the immensely popular “Carol of the Bells.”

The Ukrainian National Republic was proclaimed on 22 January 1918, but did not exist past 1920 and the invasion-occupation by the Bolshevik Russians (which would persist for the subsequent 71 years). Much of Ukrainian music has a haunting, greatness-denied quality about it. It’s Romantic, in the Byronesque sense of the word. The depth of history is felt in every note and in every musical phrasing. The three choirs, made up of Canadians from the Ukrainian diaspora, did a magnificent job through their music of conveying that felt and shared history to an appreciative audience.

“What Does Never Again Really Mean?”

Genocide Awareness Month reception, Parliament Hill, OttawaApril is Genocide Awareness, Condemnation and Prevention Month in Canada. A panel discussion was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on the topic: What Does “Never Again” Really Mean? The Importance of Genocide Education in Fighting Hate. The event was endorsed and sponsored by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes against Humanity and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The weather on the evening of April 16 was miserable, with freezing rain, and that kept attendance low. But the panel discussion in the Confederation Room of the Centre Block was lively and engaging, and at times heart-wrenching. Toronto-area MP Ali Ehsassi, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes against Humanity, introduced the panel. Dr. John Young, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, moderated the discussion. Speakers were Marta Baziuk, executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (a member organization of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress), as well as representatives from the Humura Association, the Armenian National Committee of Canada, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Canada officially recognizes as genocides the Holodomor of 1932-33 (the forced-famine genocide committed by the Stalin regime of state terror against the Ukrainian people), the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the genocide of 1915-23 of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, and the Holocaust of 1933-45 (the genocide committed by the Nazi regime of state terror against the Jewish people).

A conclusion of the panel was that education about genocide is essential, especially given pervasive ignorance about these overwhelming crimes against humanity. With education comes the possibility of prediction. We can say, for example, that a nation with a history of committing genocide – and of never acknowledging guilt or shame in it – is most likely to commit crimes against humanity again. Russia condemns Canada for recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide and Turkey condemns Canada for recognizing the Armenian Genocide as a genocide. When it comes to genocide and crimes against humanity, the Russian nation and the Turkish nation cannot be a part of “never again” until they acknowledge the past, across the generations, as the German nation has done with respect to the Holocaust.

Each genocide is an almost-unimaginable horror in its own particular way. We know what the Russian occupation regime did to the Ukrainian people in the Holodomor of 1932-33, and what it did to the Crimean Tatar people in the Deportations of 1944. But this does not help us prevent the crimes against humanity unfolding today in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. Education, in itself, does not stop genocide and crimes against humanity. Genocide Awareness, Condemnation and Prevention Month got the first two elements right. The third – prevention – demands urgent action, for the sake of humanity.

Winterlude 2018

Riduau Canal Skateway 2018The Winterlude festival is on now in Ottawa. The 2018 edition is the 40th. I used to think that Winterlude was just about the canal ice conditions getting very good for my skate to and from Carleton University, when I was a student there. Now, it’s a whole lot more. It has become a tradition to check out the ice sculptures in Confederation Park, and now Winterlude has become a stop on the international ice sculpture competition circuit.

Here’s a view of the canal, which is called the Rideau Canal Skateway when it’s flooded and maintained for skating along its length from the Rideau Locks near the Parliament Buildings to Hartwell’s Locks near Carleton University. That’s 7.8 kilometres of skating in one direction (more, if you skate around Dow’s Lake). The tourist bumf calls it the world’s largest skating rink. I took this picture from the Mackenzie King Bridge. The hut on the ice where people are queuing and lacing up skates is where you can rent skates and sleds. Skate rental is for folks “from away” – whether they use them or not, every Ottawan owns a pair of skates! Farther along, spanning the canal, is the Laurier Avenue Bridge, which opened in 1900. It’s been modernized this century, but the original iron arches are distinctive in green. The Cartier Square Drill Hall is unmistakable beyond and to the right of the Laurier Avenue Bridge. It was built in 1879. Ottawa men signed up for Canadian expeditionary forces fighting in the Boer War, the First World War, and the Second World War from this drill hall. The Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa are based at the Cartier Square Drill Hall. During the summer, they march from here to Parliament Hill in their red tunics and bearskin caps. Taking pictures of the changing of the guard ceremony is a highlight of the trip for visitors.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is a big part of Ottawa life in the winter. All Canadians talk about the weather – probably too much – but when Ottawans do we include a canal ice conditions report. On my skating commute to work in the morning, when I walk to the office carrying my skates I’m often asked, “How’s the canal?” Skating on the canal is a small town aspect to city life. Have fun at Winterlude!

Canada 150 Rink

Canada 150 rinkThe Canada 150 celebrations are over – the end of 2017 marked the end of the sesquicentennial year. But the Canada 150 Rink on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is still going strong, while the cold weather lasts. I always do the traditional Ottawa thing, which is to skate on the Rideau Canal. I even skate to work when I can. The rink on Parliament Hill is unprecedented, though, and I had to make a point of getting a skate in, before it’s dismantled and gone for good.

Skating at the Canada 150 Rink is free, but you have to get a ticket – online, of course. I picked a beautiful, sunny, cold day for my skate. I don’t usually skate on ice surfaced with a Zamboni – I’m used to the rough surface of the canal. What a pleasure it was to skate around and around, looking at the East Block and the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. The music was a mix of English and French songs. The whole experience of skating on the Canada 150 Rink said: “Canada!”

Canada 150

Michael at Canada 150, Ottawa150 years ago the British North America Act made Canada a self-governing Dominion. There was a big celebration in Ottawa in 1867, and there was a big celebration in Ottawa in 2017. By the Good Fates I was born in Canada. I didn’t earn the privilege, but I do what I can to live up to it. I have lived in England and in Ukraine, worked all over the United States, and visited 38 other countries. Canada … my Canada … is the greatest country in the world.

Doors Open Ottawa, 2017

Exhibits at Parks Canada Sheffield Road Collections Storage FacilityDoors Open in Ottawa gets bigger and more popular every year, and it’s a challenge to visit new buildings and not wrestle with big crowds and long queues. Parks Canada opened the doors of its storage facility on Sheffield Road, a warehouse filled with exhibits and reproductions from historic sites. Here’s a table with an interesting sample of items: a rejected version of the Canadian flag, a pair of skates, a jacket from the destroyer HMCS Haida, and memorabilia related to Dr. Norman Bethune.

MiG 21, Canada Aviation and Space Museum, OttawaThe Canada Aviation and Space Museum is at the old RCAF Station Rockcliffe, and for Doors Open Ottawa the museum opened its reserve hangar. Inside are aircraft that are undergoing restoration or that just won’t fit into the limited space of the main exhibit hall. This is a MiG 21 fighter that was built in the Soviet Union and flown by the Czechoslovak Air Force. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, this airframe was acquired by the Canadian Armed Forces and came into the possession of the Aviation Museum.

Stadacona Hall, OttawaStadacona Hall in Sandy Hill was built in 1871 for lumber baron John A. Cameron. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, lived here, and Lady Agnes Macdonald was famous for keeping peacocks on the grounds. Today, the mansion houses The High Commission of Brunei Darussalam in Canada.

Sir John A. Macdonald Building in Ottawa (former Bank of Montreal)The former Bank of Montreal building on the O’Connor Street block between Sparks Street and Wellington Street has been closed and under renovations for as long as I can remember. At last it’s open, as a House of Commons meeting or reception hall. First opened in 1932, the renovation kept the architectural features of the great banking hall.

Wellington Building in Ottawa (former Metropolitan Life Insurance Company)The former Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building on the same block has also undergone extensive, years-long renovations. Built between 1924 and 1927 in the Beaux-Arts style, original features that were kept were the building’s facade and the entrance hall off of Wellington Street that has an elaborate mosaic in the vaulted ceiling. The praise of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was over-the-top: speaking of the Great Metropolitan Mother the mosaic proclaims: “Death and Disease Give Way Before Her.” Wow.

Michael in the witness seat, Wellington BuildingThis is me in the chair’s seat in a high-tech committee room. This can be said to be my proper and natural habitat. I’m not wearing a suit and tie, but I am wearing my Canada 150 t-shirt. 2017 is the sesquicentennial of the signing of the British North American Act and of Canada as a self-governing Dominion.

View of the West Block of the Parliament Buildings from the Wellington BuildingFinally, this is a view of the West Block of the Parliament Buildings, taken through a window of the Wellington Building. The Gothic Revival architecture of the Parliament Hill precinct in Canada’s capital is absolutely magnificent.

The Capital Grannies Golf Tournament

Michael at Metcalfe Golf ClubThe Capital Grannies are the Ottawa branch of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, an initiative of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. They raise funds to support grandmothers in Africa, raising their grandchildren who are orphaned by the deadly epidemic of HIV/AIDS. Over 300 projects in sub-Saharan Africa get support, and they’re all of the ground-level, micro-finance kind.

The 10th annual golf tournament, with a dinner, was held at Metcalfe Golf Club today as a fundraising effort by the Capital Grannies. I went with my parents, who are long-time supporters of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The photo is me at the tee on the 8th hole. It’s a par 3, and you’re looking at my follow-through on a nice drive that put me on the green. The golf was fun, the dinner was superb, and the Capital Grannies raised a sizable amount of money that will be spent in Africa in a way that will do some real good. Find out more about The Stephen Lewis Foundation.

Third anniversary vigil for the Heavenly Hundred

Vigil for the Heaven's HundredThree years ago, the Maidan protests that became known as the Revolution of Dignity reached their conclusion in Ukraine. On February 20, 2014, snipers from Viktor Yanukovych’s security services (trained by Russian special forces) shot many Ukrainians who were exercising their rights of free assembly and free speech. By the time Yanukovych fled Kyiv, 130 people, mostly civilian protesters, had been killed. They became known as the Heavenly Hundred.

There have been several protests and memorials in Ottawa about these events. Yesterday, we gathered on Parliament Hill for a vigil to commemorate the third anniversary of the Heavenly Hundred and also the thousands of people who have been killed since in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk. Sadly, the Heavenly Hundred have been joined by over 10,000 killed and around 1.8 million made homeless in Putin’s war. The organizer spoke in measured but angry terms about Yanukovych’s crimes and Russia’s aggression. Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada spoke about people he knew who died on Maidan. He held the picture of a man who when he died had no identification; they called a friend on his phone and that’s how they found out who he was. We all held pictures of some of the men and women who were killed on Maidan. A priest delivered a prayer of remembrance. The mood was one of remorse, but also determination that they shall not have died in vain. Maidan may have started as a student protest in favour of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, but it evolved into much, much more. When it became the Revolution of Dignity and won, millions of Ukrainians had become activists for a normal life and a good life in their homeland.

Digging out

ShovellingThe Ottawa Valley was hit with a couple of big snowstorms last week, and an above freezing Sunday provided the opportunity to begin digging out. The whole family was at Mont Cascades to celebrate my brother Robin’s birthday — belatedly, because a blizzard put off our plans last week. I was on call to prepare the traditional feast of pirohi, as usual, but first there was some snow shovelling to do. Handyman Chris and his sister Megan came by, and the three of us tackled the mountain of snow at the front of the house so people could at least get in and out of the door. As you can see, the weight of snow and ice sliding off the roof took off the eavestroughing in places. When it snows again I’ll cry, but until then I’ll take pride in the good work we did. Such is life in Canada.