As Russia bombs Ukraine, some of its people are providing refuge to their neighbours, with a woman in Malta welcoming her distant relative into her home as she grapples with guilt feelings.
Natalie, who preferred not to disclose her full identity in fear for the safety of her family in Russia, has opened her doors to her Ukrainian relative, “horrified” by the atrocities of the war between the two countries she compared to “Malta and Gozo” in terms of their closeness.
“When the war broke out, I told my family in Ukraine to try to come here if they managed to get out,” said Natalie, who is their only relative in Europe, having lived in Malta for 17 years.
Now a Maltese citizen, it is hard for her to digest what is going on and to distinguish between the warring countries. Her mother’s side of the family is ethnic Russian from the border between the two countries, once both part of the Soviet Union, while her father’s side moved to Russia from Ukraine, highlighting the “mix”.
“I visited Ukraine every summer as a child,” Natalie said of the closeness between the two and how her Russian friends and family feel about the absurdity of the war.
Born and bred in the Soviet Union, Natalie said “the moral values were much higher then”, insisting there was nothing more valuable than human life. “I feel horrible and an immense sense of guilt even though I did nothing. It makes me feel very bad.”
Natalie cried her eyes out in the first week of the Russian invasion at the end of February, calling her relatives constantly and checking her mobile phone first thing in the morning to see if they were online, meaning they were still alive. “Then I understood I cannot change things; I cannot wipe up all the tears even though I wish to.
“This is the least I can do. I am applying the theory of small, good actions… I am just happy I could help someone get out of that nightmare.” That person is disoriented Violetta Piliaieva, 24, from Kharkiv, who left the war-torn country for the first time in her life and found herself in the apartment of her stepfather’s Russian cousin, whom she had never met.
Travel was not on the young nurse’s agenda – so much so that she did not even have a passport. On the day the war broke out, she was due to start an X-ray lab technician course. But her alarm woke her up to the sound of explosives, marking the end of her career plans. Instead, she retreated to a basement for shelter, then fled west before moving onto Poland.
Eventually, after a “worrying five days in limbo” and fearing she would run out of money, the displaced woman got to Malta from Warsaw, leaving her entire family behind to be embraced by a stranger.
Kharkiv, located just 32km south of the Russia-Ukraine border and predominantly Russian-speaking, is the second-largest city in Ukraine, considered a major target for the Russian military. The battle there has been described as one of the deadliest in the invasion. Until the first Russian bombs fell in the city centre, Piliaieva said she was not planning to leave Kharkiv – let alone Ukraine.
But before she knew it, she embarked on what became a two-week-long journey to safety that was like “something out of a horror movie”. The only reason she did leave the country was because she had somewhere to go, and she admits she was not only sad but also feeling guilty that she is now safe.
When the two relatives finally greeted each other at the airport in Malta, Piliaieva’s stepfather back in Ukraine – “a big strong man” – bawled tears of relief, said Natalie.
For the first two weeks since her arrival, the meek woman was in quarantine, and Natalia said she spent most of the time asleep, exhausted and overwhelmed by the uprooting and life upheaval she has had to face. “It requires lots of courage and despair,” Natalie said, as she does all she can to be the family Piliaieva never knew, hugging her tight throughout the interview.
The refugee has been constantly checking in with her family, although the internet can disappear for 24 hours due to no electricity. Over the weekend, the Ukrainian ventured out for the first time and the “big plan” was to do some shopping, head to Mdina and go by the sea, said Natalie, who was trying to instil some excitement and make her new ‘daughter’ feel at home.
Piliaieva left behind a new flat she had just been doing up. She took with her just a tiny suitcase with the basics, travelling in proper snow boots for sub-zero temperatures. These were her only shoes, but the petite woman has already been provided with some mid-season clothes by Natalie’s friends.
The next step is to sort out her passport and legal status so that she can build a life, Natalie said about the “baby steps” they are taking to settle. Full vaccination is on the cards, and she is also helping her brush up her English.
Meanwhile, the invitation is open from her network of friends to host other Ukrainians, although some cousins refuse to leave their homes and the males under 60 are ready to fight. Her elderly cousins have told her that if they are going to die, they want to die there, despite her efforts to persuade them to leave.
“Many Ukrainians have lost their homes and life and I cannot see how they can be friends with the Russians anymore,” said Natalie, expressing doubts about whether the once strong connections between the two countries could ever be restored. “Evil has no ethnicity and nationality. There are good and bad people in the world. We try to be as good as we can. Sometimes we are weak.”
Many Ukrainians have lost their homes and life and I cannot see how they can be friends with the Russians anymore- Natalie, a Russian who has lived in Malta for 17 years
Speaking about Russia’s “repressive machine”, which is now in full motion, Natalie said many of her co-nationals were fearing to say the truth, and others had been brainwashed. But she believed there would be “an awakening” and it would be horrible for everyone.
“As a citizen of a so-called unfriendly country, I would not want to cross the border and get arrested. I want to see my elderly mother again,” she said about her own anonymity and the far-reaching effects of suppression.