I am a freelance photographer and visual artist based in Saint-Petersburg, Russia working with National Geographic Russia, VICE UK/USA, De Volkskrant, Takie Dela, Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, others. My photographic practice primarily focuses on the...
Five million people have already left Ukraine since the beginning of the war. One of the countries where people sought safety was Moldova: almost half a million Ukrainians crossed the border with it. Among them are people who survived the WWII.
These people are now very old and did not think that they would have to go through the horrors of wartime again. They live in a former covid hospital in Chisinau - in the Moldexpo exhibition complex, which was converted for medical purposes during the coronavirus epidemic. Their new home is plastic boxes without ceilings and doors, but they do not complain, on the contrary, they are thankful even for these ascetic conditions. Doctors are on duty here around the clock and refugees can contact them in case of health problems.
I worked in this shelter for more than a month and a half and was able to get to know these people better. I talked to them about the two wars that had circled their lives.
One day, a man was brought into the shelter - he no longer walked on his own, could not speak, and only drank water. His daughter said that he was 94 years old and he participated in the fighting in Kharkiv in 1943. I don't know if he is alive now. It is terrible that a person who deserves his peaceful time, has lost his home and forced to travel many kilometers away his home town.
In the post-Soviet space, on May 9 Victory Day over fascism is celebrated, but this year everything is completely different.
Vladimir, 92 years old, Nikolaev
"The War began when I was 12 years old. In August 1941, there were already Germans in our village near Nikolaev. My two older brothers went to war, and my carefree time was over. The Germans cleaned their uniforms and military equipment in the Bug River, where my brothers and I fished and swam. They did not touch us. A year later, the Romanians came - the Magyars, the Germans promised them this territory after the end of the war.
The occupation lasted three years. Mentally, it was a difficult time. Parents received news from the front that the older brother was killed and the middle brother was wounded. I talked to my older brother in a dream for a while, I remember it very well. Under the Romanians, we did not starve, I want to note this. They treated all the children of the village with sweets from time to time. They even had some parties at the local club. They were somewhat similar to us, to Ukrainians, in terms of character. Maybe they felt it themselves. In 1944, the Vlasovites came to us, they beat people, shot them, committed rapes. We had to bury the sister in straw so that they would not find her. It was good that they spent only two days in the village and left.
After the end of the war, in 1945, famine began: there were no harvests, the fields were burned. Dad died beacuse of hunger. I worked as a plowman. I was 15 years old, but I worked on a par with adults, providing for my family, because the middle brother could not work after being wounded. In 1946, they began to raise heavy industry throughout the Nikolaev region - and I was transferred from the collective farm to the shipyard, where I worked as a blacksmith. So I forged all my life - 51 years of experience, without leaving anywhere. I was in the convocation of city deputies of my native city twice, and now I have become a refugee.
In March 2022, shelling of Nikolaev by Russian troops began. To be honest, I was not afraid for myself, but for my daughter. They bomb - I sit quietly, drink tea. I just have hearing problems, I almost didn’t hear them, and Katya shudders. We hid in the basement - my daughter and neighbors helped me down there: they took me by the arms and carried me up the stairs. And in the basement we slept on mattresses. Once I saw a bright orange flash from the window, a rocket flew right over the house. In the end, Katya and I decided to run away. I didn't want to, my daughter persuaded me. We gathered in 20 minutes, Katya didn’t even finish the borscht. We got to Odessa, and then through Palanka to Chisinau. I was in Moldova in 1980, so I knew where we were going.
But I am very worried about my grandson. He fled from Mariupol when the Germans entered there - oh, not the Germans but the Nazis (this is how Vladimir calls the troops of the Russian army that entered Mariupol). But how can you say that he is safe? His mother-in-law was killed by a shrapnel - she went for water with a can and did not reach the entrance of her house. They were buried there, somewhere in the garden. Some of our relatives were taken to Russia, their documents were taken away, and now they can't even be contacted. It’s scary to talk about it, because we didn’t see anything like this even in 1941. I'm waiting only for death, nothing else will save me."
"During the War, my grandmother and I lived in a village near Izmail (a city in the Odessa region). The Germans entered very quickly, no one warned us. Life in the basements began, we constantly hid and were very hungry. People were dying, the Germans occupied their houses, took away their livestock, tanks stood right in the gardens, corpses lay on the roads.
Some time after the start of the War, a mass grave appeared in the village, where our neighbors also found themselves - I saw it all. I remember this difficult time and I am very grateful to my parents: they thought only about safety of their children. We were angry with them because they wouldn't let us play outside, but now I remember it fondly. The Romanians came in 1942, I was 8 years old then. We crawled out of the cellars, but still lived in fear.
When the invaders left this land, there was nothing left. They took everything with them, including some people. This mainly concerned young women. Russian soldiers came, with whom the restoration of farms began. We were working together. Gradually, after the first harvests, the situation improved, people got the opportunity to buy livestock. My parents worked on their land, they were individual peasants, they planted and harvested all by themselves. We even had a mill, they ground flour. I was a little girl, but I had to go to school and help my parents with the housework, there was no time for games and entertainment.
I got married early, at the age of 18 and went to Odessa with my husband, where I worked at a factory as a cleaner, but received decent money. Closer to 30, I began to have severe problems with my nerves, I recalled the war and what I saw. This, of course, left an imprint on later life.
Our marriage produced seven children. At 50, I was left a widow: my husband died of cancer. The mental problems worsened, and I had to go to a psychiatric hospital. The children left one by one, for various reasons, I don’t want to remember, only one remained. He is already 68 years old, and he forced me to leave Odessa, put me on a bus. I took only a handkerchief and all my medicines with me - a whole pharmacy - it is necessary to survive. The son stayed in Odessa. He said that he would go to war despite the fact that he was a pensioner. “I have a rank, I was in the army, if I leave, I will feel guilty,” he said.
I never thought it would happen again. We were all one with the Russians in the past. My daughter married a Russian, and I was just glad. Everything is mixed. You show me who has no relatives in Russia. Everyone has. It turns out that brother attacked brother and no one knows what will happen tomorrow. God forbid, everything will fit, I will go home, I will die there."
"I remember, at the age of 2, I independently left the yard in the village, there was ice. I slipped, got scared, screamed. My grandmother was a young woman then, she came running and took me away. But I distinctly remembered how the Germans were marching down the street in formation - with their boots bang-bang on the ice. For some reason, it stuck in my memory, their steps were like the sound of train wheels. And I also remember the fires - all the neighboring villages near Nikolaev were blazing - and acacias with a small groove under them, we hid there either from the bombings, or from during hide-and-seek - the children also played war.
After the War, my father returned from the front - he was a pilot. He was sent to Leningrad to continue studying, and my mother and I went with him. I went to the first grade there. Then the Germans were finishing rebuilding our dilapidated school. I and other children treated them with donuts. Then we returned home to our native village, the parents separated: it didn’t work out. It’s just that mother was a paramedic, and father held a high position, he apparently needed a woman by the rank.
Mother dressed me in white trousers, a shirt, canvas shoes rubbed with powder. The village boys greeted me with a cry of “Take off your underpants!”, They took me, smeared green with dung (pressed and dried manure) - a village childhood, but I remember it with fun.
As a teenager, I moved to Nikolaev - my mother worked there in the regional hospital and took me away from my grandmother. I joined the army, served, met a woman - Lena. Well, in general, like many other boys. And then there was a black period in my life - Afghanistan, I lost all my nerves and legs there. The worst time of my life, which I regret, I was fighting for Russia.
About a month and a half ago, those damn bombings started. Sirens howl. Explosions. Whoever has legs, they quickly go to the basement, and I'm sitting in the apartment for myself. This may be due to age, but most likely, I just hardened in Afghanistan. My daughter has an acquaintance from Moldova, she called him - and he himself offered to pick us all up, said that he could come literally in an hour and a half.
My wife and I have been living in this shelter for a month now. I'm fed up with this war and these horrors in the news, but I still read them. I can't stop reading, my hand reaches for the phone itself. It's constant stress. There is only one good news for me now - this is when the column of Russian forces was defeated. You know, in my youth I loved to travel by car, I was in many places in Russia, I saw how Russians live, I saw their villages. They would have put their own things in order, but they came to us.
Uncertainty lies ahead - if this continues, where will we live if our house is destroyes. I want to go home. I have a workshop near the hut, I did needlework there, I liked to sharpen something with my hands, I made keys for friends for free, just for fun."
"Despite the fact that I was very young when the War began in 1941 - it would be more accurate to say that I was born with the first bombs - I am convinced that I absorbed all the grief of what happened. Children are very actively developing at this time, and the psycho-emotional background is important. Then there were people around who were suffering very much. When I was a month and a half, I was taken to the evacuation: my grandmother insisted. We set off with my parents, spent a month and a half on a freight train, through Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea on a barge under bombardment, and then to Siberia. Mom and dad were fourth-year students then, quite children too. I can't imagine how they got through it all. When we arrived in the Arctic, a local took us to her place, caring people met refugees right on the platform. Mother got out of the car completely exhausted, she couldn’t think of anything, and I had typhus. We were spotted by such a big Siberian Katya. Grab! - and she put me in her bosom, my mother under her arms and brought us to her dwelling, despite the fact that she had her own children as many as eleven. She soldered me with cunning coniferous drugs.
And my father taught all of Katya's children to read and write as a token of gratitude - their father died at the front.
Kharkiv was liberated in 1943, we returned a year later - but our house was gone. My grandmother had a small summer house near Kharkiv, we went there. A couple of years later, my father got another apartment, in the city itself, and they took me there. I went to school - first a girl's school, and then, at the suggestion of my father, I was transferred to a physics and mathematics school. Dad believed that nothing develops a person like these sciences. But I didn't follow in those footsteps. I was very fond of singing, and at one of the evenings at a local club, my parents, who were sitting in the auditorium, were given a note: it said - "we want to audition your daughter at the conservatory for the especially gifted". As a result, I was taken on a trial period of one year, and after it finished they left me. When I graduated, I immediately became a teacher at the school and worked all my life in this position, until a deep retirement, which I do not regret a bit. It was a great time in a beautiful, the best city in the world.
I knew that the war would come. After all, we were aware of the events, read the news, but it was difficult to fully believe in it. My daughter also did not fully believe until she heard the first explosions. Firstly we ran into the damp basement and into the subway. The stations were packed, scary. All this greatly affected my daughter - she is a very sensitive person. Some people don't care, but she started having panic attacks. It was the same with my mother - after that old War, she became afraid of fireworks, plugged her ears with cotton and sat at home, while my father and I went to watch. This is to say that my daughter would have completely lost her mind if she had not left a month ago. I myself would never run away from my hometown - I am hardened, I have seen many human destinies. As they say, to die, so with music!"
"I am a child of War. I was born in 1941 in Nikolaev. My parents told me about those times, but very little. I myself didn’t particularly ask, somehow I didn’t want to return them to those times, I myself now understand that it is very difficult. One day my mother remembered an interesting moment - just before the release, I saved a woman. Imagine, in two and a half years! Our family almost did not know her - a friend of acquaintances, she was childless, and women like her were taken to hard labor. She approached her mother on the street and begged for help, said that The Germans were coming for her. My mother told me to take this woman by the hand and call her "mother". As a result, they fell behind - apparently, there was no time for document checks. They barked something and left.
After the War, famine began, there was a drought. Grandmother collected some crumbs, like a mouse, to feed us with the brothers. There was nothing, not even a piece of bread. But we survived somehow.
In 1962 I got married and had two children. I worked in the market - on shoes, then in a large store - on clothes for 10 years. In 1973, I got a job as a teacher in a kindergarten, where I had stayed for a longer period - 23 years. In 1996 - pension.
And now... I remember how my daughter comes running from work from the market and says: martial law has been introduced. My heart sank! Then came shelling, getting worse and closer every day. We were under bombs for almost a month. We ran into the corridor and closed all the doors to the rooms so that nothing would fly to us from the window. But there is a limit to everything - we left with my daughter and granddaughter on March 20. Our administration has allocated five free buses, and we were lucky to squeeze into them.
Unfortunately, now there is no way to return home. My granddaughter's husband stayed there, he keeps us up to date with what is happening, says that we should sit in Moldova. In this place we have no ceilings and doors, but at least we are safe. Old age turned out to be sad, all my brothers diee, my son died in a car accident and now there is another war. I was born exactly in the first year of the War, and now I'm dying during another one. I just want peace, silence. Just sit and look out the window. At home, a beautiful maple grew in front of my window. I looked at him all day long.
It doesn’t fit in my head that these people are fighting against us. The pressure is rising, I just can't deal with it. Still, there is more hope than hopelessness. After all, young people should live happily and in peace - not only my daughter and grandchildren, and not only Ukrainians. Everywhere."