Annie Komarova reflects on her struggles with identity since leaving Ukraine in 2008
‘Hey, you must be so excited to be going home tomorrow!’ I said enthusiastically as I stepped into Anna’s bedroom. She was returning home after a long first term at university. I could tell she was ready to go, she’d been talking about it for weeks.
‘Yeah, now that these tests are over, I can finally go home and see everyone’, she replied, smiling as she placed her rushnik into her near-empty case.
‘Why is your case so empty? Aren’t you taking more clothes? It’s going to be freezing!’, I nodded towards the suitcase, surprised at its bare contents.
‘No, I won’t need much’, Anna replied with a smile, ‘I’ve got tonnes at home’.
And that’s when it hit me. A huge wave of nostalgia overwhelmed me as I longed to go back home, to Kiev. It’s been a year since I last visited. I remember sitting at the terminal in Heathrow, waiting to board. It was the first time I’d gone back in 3 years. When we touched down in Boryspil Airport, I cried. I never understood what the words “happy tears” meant until that moment. When I saw my ten-year-old half-brother holding a bouquet of my favourite pink roses, wearing a smile so familiar yet so different: I cried again. The 3-year absence made me not only realise how little time I had to spend at home, but also appreciate the fact that I could come back home at all.
But where was home these days? It seemed to be an unanswerable question that I’d been asking myself since March, when, on a visit to Lyon to see my godmother (and to practice my French) a classmate of her daughter’s made a comment that has stuck in my head ever since. We’d been speaking Russian between the two of us briefly when Pascale interrupted:
‘Wow’, he quipped, ‘So you’re a Ukrainian, who lives in England, who came to France to speak Russian?’
At first, I just laughed and forgot about the incident almost immediately. However, as I continued to toy with Pascale’s seemingly unimportant phrase, the resonance his words had with my reality unnerved me.
I was nearly 11 when I moved to England, having never visited before our relocation in 2008. Learning English from as long as I could remember, (I started age of 2 and a half), and being unaffected by change as a child, I didn’t bear the brunt of this huge change in my life until my teens.
I still remember the morning we left. It was an ordinary, cloudy, autumnal day. Nothing seemed out of order. Except that my life was about to change forever. I’d said goodbye to my classmates, friends, relatives as though I was going to see them in just a week or so. Instead, it was going to be the longest year and a half of my life…
I guess it’s natural for someone to long for their motherland when they move. And don’t get me wrong, I did. Everything was different: the people, the atmosphere, even the driving! But what surprised me the most, as the plane descended into London, was the landscape. Gone were the classic golden cornfields one sees on a postcard. Gone too was the cornflower-blue sky garnished with the cotton ribbons of airplanes’ trails. Instead, I had only the misty fog and the 10-degree gloom to welcome me.
I distinctively remember shivering. Would I like it here? I don’t recall worrying about making friends. In fact, I was pretty relaxed about the whole situation. And why shouldn’t you have been? One would ask. For a young child, adaptation comes easily (in most cases). I knew the language better than most Ukrainian kids my age- my mum made sure of that. Every Ukrainian/Russian mother seemed to have an innate obsession with their young child learning languages. English was in top demand in the early 2000s. It was almost as though my mother was preparing me for the journey that lay ahead, because 8 years’ worth of intensive English classes would finally come into use.
In 2008, the chance to emigrate finally arrived when she was offered a job transfer to Southampton. She accepted without second thought. Corruption, an unstable and rather weak economic situation, teamed with trouble brewing in the East, all contributed to my mother’s decision to leave. To this day, I still wonder what my life would have been like if we’d stayed. Although, I remind myself how lucky I am to be living and studying in the capital of England, and that all the opportunities I’ve had over the last 8 years that have found me where I am today: my younger self couldn’t help but think about the ‘what ifs’.
Whilst my friends back home envied me and the life I was leading, supposedly “having everything anyone could dream of”: I was miserable. Yes, my life seemed idyllic on the surface, compared to the financial, economic and social crises affecting most of the population in Ukraine since first gained independence in ‘92. My misery was not constant or so powerful that it stopped me going about my daily life, but it was omnipresent; lying beneath the surface, like a gnawing wound that only healed each time I returned home, returning the moment the inbound flight took off. Every. Single. Time.
The Ukraine I left over 8 years ago, is nothing like the country we know today. I left behind a peaceful, beautiful land, still majorly corrupt but; seemingly on the verge of a break-through, made possible by the promise of closer ties with the EU. A nation on the rise from the weak state it had become after the collapse of USSR. What I came back to in late 2015 was a country crippled by post-war trauma, loss and grief. I could never have imagined something like this happening. On TV, you see these terrors suffered in countries like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and you think: ‘this would never happen in Europe’. But it can, just like it did in Ukraine.
The Scenes witnessed by citizens of the Donbass region mirror those of Syria. The crumbling ruins of the newly refurbished Donetsk Airport could easily be mistaken for the worn torn city of Aleppo. Some 900,000 people have been displaced and scattered across Ukraine and its neighbouring countries, labelled: war refugees. What appeared to be a peaceful student protest in Kiev in late November 2013, like the Orange Revolution in 2004, quickly escalated into an international crisis.
And whilst my old schoolmates, my family and my friends were suffering the hardships of this war, I was 2260 kilometres away, safely tucked away in the heart of the English countryside, and was only able to witness these atrocities on a TV screen. The severity of these events didn’t really hit me until I stood at the place where Maidan had occurred: where the barricades had once towered, and where the burning tyres scored streaks onto the frozen concrete of the main square. It wasn’t until I walked the length of Khreschyatik Street that I was finally able to grasp the scale of the disaster. When I reached the memorial of “the Heavenly Hundred”, the first 100 people that had died in the protests, my eyes filled with tears. Until that cold December day, I had not fully understood what had happened to my country over the past 3 years. Back in England, it had very much felt like a horrible nightmare: one that could be forgotten the moment you turned off the TV. But when you stand in the middle of a battlefield, reality sinks in pretty fast.
That day, I realised something else too: the years I’d lost in my time away, could never be retrieved. I would never get to grow up in Ukraine; or go to high school- or university. I would never get to live in Ukraine, like all my friends did. Every time I board the plane back to England, I never know when I will return. The brief moments of time I enjoy at home, are so irregular that I hold onto the memories for months at a time: sometimes years. When my children’s passport ran out in 2014, and I gained my British citizenship: we celebrated. Meanwhile, 2000 miles away- the crisis continued.
My family and friends have changed, and are constantly changing, too. Each time I see them, it is just another reminder of how much I am missing out. The news, memories that forge and bond them together, don’t include me. I try to keep in touch, but talking to the ones you love through a screen, is nothing like spending time with them in person. My closest friends joke that I have a British accent, yet my friends in England still pick up on my Ukrainian twang every now and then: a marker that distinguishes me from them.
So, what am I? To be honest, I don’t know, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot claim to belong to a single nationality, or one country. I am not quite British, yet I consider English my first language. I am not quite Ukrainian either; I last spoke it over 6 years ago! But I am learning, and each day I try to balance my many identities. This is my reality.
Today, nothing is certain: or guaranteed. We are constantly forced to adapt and change to the circumstances imposed on us by those in power. But, no matter where fate or chance takes us: we must never forget where we come from.