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

Fighting under a foreign flag :: My cousin, Vasyl Taras

Vasyl Taras on 20 April 1957The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. My uncle and aunts and cousins on my mother’s side were living in Lwów voivodeship in what was then eastern Poland. The Red Army seized the territory, and Stalin annexed it to the USSR. My grandfather, Michael Taras, had emigrated to Canada in 1928, and he lost contact with his one brother and four sisters the moment Stalin’s army invaded. I found out what happened to them 75 years later.

The story of my great-uncle Vasyl Taras in World War II is remarkable. He had a wife and four young children when the war began in 1939. His two oldest boys, Volodymyr and Olexandr, were both killed in World War II. I have not learned any more information about them than that. It is unbearably sad to think about how very young these boys had to have been when they died. Vasyl Taras was conscripted into the Red Army in 1940, and he was 34 years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

In 1941, Vasyl Taras was caught in one of the great encirclements where the Germans captured many soldiers of the Red Army. He was sent to a German concentration camp. Vasyl escaped from the camp, but when he made it back to the Soviet lines he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and sent to prison by them. His crime, in the eyes of the Russians, was that he had been captured and that he was Ukrainian. Then, with the German advance, the NKVD prison where Vasyl was held was overrun, and he was free again. But when the Germans found out he was an escaped prisoner from one of their concentration camps, they sent him back again, but this time to a camp with a stricter regime.

Nevertheless, Vasyl broke out of this camp, and escaped from the Germans a second time. He joined a group of Soviet partisans in the woods. When the Red Army started to push the Germans out of Galicia, the guerrilla group that Vasyl was with joined up with the regular troops. The NKVD was still distrustful of Vasyl, because he had been in a German concentration camp and was Ukrainian. He was sent to a special military unit that was given no weapons, and was made to assault the German positions unarmed, but with armed NKVD officers ready to shoot him if he did not move forward. During this attack, Vasyl Taras was lucky to have been wounded, not killed, and then sent to hospital. At the end of the war he was in Königsburg, East Prussia, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia.

After the war, Vasyl Taras returned to Staryi Yarychiv, his home village. Between 1939 and 1945, the foreign flags of Poland, the USSR, Nazi Germany, and once more the USSR had flown at Staryi Yarychiv. As a veteran, Vasyl Taras was made the chairman of the agricultural committee, out of which the collective farms in Yarychiv were formed. These collective farms were made up of land that was stolen from my family by the Soviets. Vasyl died in 1969 at the age of 62.

My great-uncle, Vasyl Taras, was made to fight under a foreign flag: the hammer and sickle flag of the Russian invaders and occupiers of Ukraine. He was awarded many medals, as Stalin developed the “Great Patriotic War” selective memory cult about the war, which Russia re-wrote as happening from 1941 to 1945. Free, independent, and democratic Ukraine is today coming to terms with the real war, which is a war that lasted from 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, to the mid-1950s, when the last units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were defeated by the foreign invaders and occupiers from Muscovy.

Volunteer battalions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

Ukrainian Armed Forces, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Volunteer battalion soldier, 2014-2016. Ukrainian patriots – some who had already spent months on Maidan confronting the corrupt Yanukovych regime – joined the volunteer battalions which formed immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2014. The “sotnyas” of Maidan became the vanguard of Ukraine’s defence of Europe from Russian aggression.

Translation of poster text: The victory of the Revolution of Dignity at the end of February, 2014 put an end to the hope of Russian Federation leaders to hold Ukraine in the sphere of its geopolitical influence with the help of pro-Russian leadership in power. That’s why they took efforts to overthrow or weaken the position of the new Ukrainian power by destabilizing the situation in some parts of Ukraine. In Crimea, the rise of the pro-Russian separatist forces was strengthened with direct military intervention by the neighbouring state. This process ended in occupation and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia. In other parts of Ukraine, except Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the attempts to seize power by pro-Russian forces have failed.

In April 2014, a sabotage armed group arrived from the territory of the Russian Federation and took control of state institutions in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk region. Soon after, militants took control of some more territories in eastern Ukraine. In response to that, the acting President of Ukraine Olexandr Turchynov signed an order to launch the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine were very weakened due to lack of financing and positive reforms for many years, and turned out to be unable to quickly and effectively defend the state. At the initial state of the conflict, volunteer battalions were the first to stop the aggression. The core of those battalions were the former activists of the Revolution of Dignity and other patriots who reacted immediately to the aggression and hybrid war started by the leadership of Russia against Ukraine.

At the start of the conflict, the volunteer battalions did not belong to any state department or have any system of control. Some of them were formed as battalions of territorial defence (BoTD) of the Ministry of Defence, others were controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as special militia battalions or units of the National Guard. There were also some volunteer units which were not subordinated to any law enforcement departments, changed departmental affiliation, or were grouped into formations with a different departmental affiliation. At the beginning of 2015, the majority of the volunteer battalions were formed into mechanized infantry battalions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In the course of their development some volunteer battalions were formed into regiments.

During 2014-2015 over 30 volunteer battalions were formed. The most well-known among them are “Donbas”, “Azov”, “Aidar”, “Dnipro-1”, Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “Right Sector”, “Crimea”. A lot of foreigners have been defending Ukraine as fighters in those battalions: Chechens, Georgians, Belarusians, Russians, etc.. At the start, the volunteer battalions were equipped with small arms and didn’t have uniforms. Only months after fighting on the frontlines did the battalions get heavy weapons and equipment.

The volunteer battalions played a crucial role in the first months of the ATO. Volunteers suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014. They took part in all major battles in the first half of 2014, defended Donetsk Airport in 2014-2015, and they fought in the Battle of Debaltseve in the winter of 2015.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army

Ukrainian Insurgent Army, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldier, 1940-1950s. My mother’s first cousin, Teofil Adamovych, served in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and fought the Soviet Russian occupiers of Ukraine until his arrest in 1955.

Translation of poster text: During World War II, most Ukrainians had to fight under the wrong banners and in the interests of others. Only the 100,000 fighters who were in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) were fighting for an independent Ukraine. Insurgent armed units were formed in 1942 to defend the local population from the occupation Nazi regime and to oppose Soviet partisans. At the end of that year they united into the Ukrainian Insurgent Army . The symbolic date of its creation was October 14, 1942.

The UIA was structured as a regular army. The flexible structure allowed for the effective distribution of human and financial resources, adapting to variable military realities, and to achieving success in military operations.

The sphere of UIA activities was divided into general military districts: UIA-“North”, UIA-“South” and UIA-“West”. Each of them had a regional leader and headquarters, and was divided into territorial military parts.

The main tactical unit of the UIA was “sotnyas”(companies). It comprised three “chotys” (platoons) which were formed by three squads. A squad had 10-12 fighters armed with one mortar, 2-3 automated machine guns and rifles.

The UIA had a functional system of command position designations (squad leader, platoon leader, company commander, kurin’ commander [a kurin’ is approximately a battalion], brigade commander or tactical sector commander, regional commander, Supreme Commander of the UIA).

One of the main problems the UIA high command had to face was a shortage of senior officer staff. Some training schools were opened secretly.

The armament level and military-political situation determined the means of UIA military activities: avoidance of general battles and partisan tactics, raids and sabotage actions. UIA activities were aimed at resolving a few tasks; supply themselves with all the necessary equipment to continue fighting and protect the locals from occupants.

Volodymyr Kravchuk, first Kyivan officer killed in the defence of Donbas

Memorial to first Ukrainian officer killed in the ATOIn this building lived Volodymyr Serhiyovich Kravchuk, the first Kyivan officer who was killed during the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation], 19 June 2014

This simple memorial is on the side of a simple apartment building in the Troyeshchyna district of Kyiv. A bed of flowers has been planted beneath. There is a quiet but fierce patriotism reflected here. Officer Kravchuk was only the first of many Kyivans who have died defending their homeland from Russian invaders in the east of Ukraine. The war rages to this day, and more memorials like this have appeared and will appear in the cities, towns and villages throughout this indomitable country.

Art-Factory Platform in Kyiv

Art-Factory PlatformArt-Factory Platform is a creative space in an abandoned factory in the Darnytsya district of Kyiv. It houses IT workers, sports events, a food festival, and artists, and is a part of the creative renaissance in Ukraine that has picked up tremendously since the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14.

Art-Factory Platform, "Separation"The most evocative piece among the installations in the exhibition space was “Separation,” created as a collaboration of 12 artists. The theme was clearly the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and what has happened there since Russia invaded in 2014. The coal on the floor shows one of the major industries of Donbas. Coal runs through the installation, but it separates the two sides of the space; coal runs through Donbas, but free Ukraine is separated from the coal in its occupied territories.

Art-Factory Platform, "Separation" detailThe personal toll of separation is hinted at in this detail. Trenches run from Stanytsya Luhanska in the north-east to Shyrokyne in the south-west, like trenches ran from the English Channel to Switzerland during the First World War. Just under 2 million people are internally displaced by the Russo-Ukrainian War — they’re refugees in their own country — and the people who are left are the old and the poor. Elderly parents are separated from working-age children and grandchildren. Without words, “Separation” evoked some of the awfulness, some of the injustice, some of the inhumanity, of what is happening to Ukrainians because of Russia’s invasion.

Volunteer Combatant statue in Kyiv

Volunteer Combatant statue in Kyiv

     Ми на своїй
 Богом даній землі!
We are are on our own
   God-given land!

A new statue has been erected in the Troyeschyna district of Kyiv, Ukraine. It is to the Volunteer Combatants of Ukraine in the Russo-Ukrainian War (2014 – ). Soon after Russia invaded Crimea, volunteers joined up to a hastily-formed National Guard to defend Ukraine. They were not in time to save Crimea, but they stopped Putin’s hybrid army in Odesa and Kharkiv and have been fighting him to a stalemate in Luhansk and Donetsk. Originally made up of EuroMaidan veterans with no combat experience mixed with a handful of army veterans, the National Guard is now a formidable fighting force.

It is appropriate that the statue is in Troyeschyna district, as it is a working class area from which many of the volunteer combatants are drawn.

Their task is not yet done. Invaders from Russia illegally occupy Crimea and Donbas, and they are shelling Ukraine’s defenders all along the front line in eastern Ukraine. Daily casualty figures tell the toll the dead and the wounded, bringing the total to nearly 10,000 killed and over 20,000 wounded since the Russo-Ukrainian War began. A disproportionate number of these are the volunteer combatants: defenders of Ukraine, of Europe, and of the West.

Canada is United for Ukraine

Patches: Canada for UkraineMy second cousin is a soldier in the 24th “Iron” Division, a mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces. Last winter in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, he defended against the Russian invaders. Now, he has gone into the reserves, and his younger brother is on active duty defending Ukraine. I got these patches from a Canadian group which is supporting the welfare of soldiers who serve in the 24th “Iron” Division. The Ukrainian armed forces need all kinds of support, and that has to come from the Ukrainian government, allied governments, and individual supporters of democratic and independent Ukraine throughout the world.

My dear Ukrainian cousins: Canada is with you … Канада з вами … we are United for Ukraine!