Svitlana Tuchynska and her husband Yevgeniy Ikhelzon – “Call us Lana and Eugene, if you like” – did not vote for Volodomyr Zelenskyy, because the former journalists saw a TV celebrity spouting populist rhetoric and making impossible promises, “Trumpish-style”.
That all changed when Russia invaded Ukraine and the former comedian - once famous for playing a president on his hit TV series Servant of the People - became a global symbol of leadership and resistance. Now they support him unwaveringly.
“He is president of Ukraine,” Yevgeniy says plainly. “He has really tough times now, so we should support him. We will talk about his shortcomings after we win this war.”
Svitlana and Yevgeniy met in 2004, when they worked together on Segodnya, Ukraine’s largest daily newspaper, and they have two children, David, who is five-and-a-half, and Damien, who is two-and-a-half. For the past decade, Yevgeniy has worked on his travel website, mynameis.travel, and Svitlana has worked as a freelance journalist. They were in Turkey when their home was invaded, and they decided to come to Ireland, a country they had never visited, but they had heard it was a nice place, with nice people.
Svitlana’s mother, Halyna, travelled with them, and she is “Babusya” (Granny) to David and Damien.
A friend of Svitlana’s had come to Ireland before them, and when they arrived here just under a month ago, she put them in touch with Georgina Cooney, from Castletownroche, who put them up in her mother Mary Rose’s beautiful house.
“We were overwhelmed by the welcome we received from Georgina and Mary Rose,” Svitlana says. “On the first night we arrived after midnight to a fully-stocked fridge and cupboards, and there was one room filled with children’s toys and books. We cannot say thank you enough for this warmest of welcomes.”
Rural Cork is a big change for a family previously resident in Kyiv, and transport may yet prove a problem, but they say they love their new home and are adjusting to a new pace of life, with David starting school before the Easter holidays.
Yevgeniy suggests most of the Ukrainian people coming to Ireland tend to be middle class, those who have English, and who have already travelled in their lives. Most people, Svitlana suggests, prefer to stay closer to Ukraine, in a more familiar country. Before the war, two million Ukrainians were living and working in Poland.
“Polish people went to work in Ireland, and Ukrainian people went to work in Poland, because compared to Ukraine, Poland is our rich neighbour,” she says.
Yevgeniy says Ukraine did nothing to deserve the Russian invasion: “We are a peaceful people, we do not want to kill, and now we rely on the help of the West with weapons. We sacrifice our people, and I think we Ukrainians protect not only the Ukrainian land, but something much more valuable, we protect the values of the free world, we’re protecting free speech, democracy, freedom, the basics of human rights, something that is more important than just land.”
Svitlana says she has pacifist friends who feel Ukraine should think about the lives at stake and, for the sake of peace, surrender to Russia.
“How can you not defend your family?” she asks. “For us it is very shocking to hear people talk like this, but fortunately the majority supports us.”
She says Putin sees the West as one homogenous enemy, and sees himself as the embodiment of Russia’s glorious destiny: “He believes he is a Tsar, and he must have his empire.”
Ukraine’s history has seen centuries of Russian aggression, Svitlana says, and this latest invasion is nothing new. “We were always crushed by them, and they feel that Ukraine is part of Russia, that it belongs to Russia, and Russia is not complete without Ukraine.”
Yevgeniy says this thinking is apparent in Putin’s recent claims that Ukraine is not a real country. “Imagine if someone said to you ‘There is no Ireland, you speak English, you look like British people, confess! Confess that you are British!’” (Svitlana interjects to laughter: “And you drink tea!”)
“But that is what they saying to us, ‘Confess that you are Russian, and be loyal to the Tsar’,” Yevgeniy adds. “In Ukraine there is a language, spoken by 30 million people, there is a culture, literature, democracy, traditions, and a tolerant, multicultural way of life.”
Svitlana believes that many older people in Russia yearn for a perceived golden age of the Soviet Union, when the world feared Russia, and she feels Putin appeals to that nostalgia for an illusory past, while simultaneously depicting the West as a decadent dystopia and demonising LGBTQI+ people.
“At the same time, the daughters of Putin live in Europe, and all the children of the elite live in the West, because they know this is just a lie they feed the masses.”
She feels Putin has disregarded Russia’s own best interests and put his country on the road to a North Korea-like existence, a pariah state shunned by most of the world, and she says this will not suit the wealthy Russians who support Putin and benefit from his rule.
“Young Russians want to travel and to be included in the world, the wealthy want their children to learn English in London, and German in Berlin, and they will not like it when the world shuts its doors.”
Svitlana says life has changed completely for her family, as it has for millions of Ukrainian families since Putin’s troops invaded.
“One of the hardest things for us is the total uncertainty, we don’t know what will happen and when, where will we be, where will our children be. I was always a planner, and now I just have to learn to live with just today.”
Yevgeniy agrees, saying they are very lucky to be amongst good friends and neighbours in their new home in Castletownroche. “Now is not a time to make plans, because too much is uncertain, and everything depends on the Ukrainian army, and on what supports they get from NATO and from the European countries.
“We’re just trying to live our lives here for now, and if things change, we will think. If the war stops, it would be better to be in Kyiv, but for now nobody knows, and we are safe thanks to our Irish friends.”