A woman participates in a military drill for civilians. Photograph: Wyatt Dilley via unsplash

Last time Andriy was in high heels - now he’s taken up arms

It was a week when Ukrainians saw their lives upturned. The celebrated artist reveals her fears but also the pride felt in the resilience of her peers.

This article was first published on the website of The Guardian on February 27, 2022.

We didn't want to believe that a real, massive invasion would happen because it's so illogical. But then Putin is illogical and insane. I have been torn between a rationalisation – what will Russia benefit from this invasion? – and a memory from eight years ago when my city, Donetsk, was occupied and my home taken from me.

We became ready for any kind of scenario

It has been a tense month and we became ready for any kind of scenario. Every day, we were ready to go, to escape. You drink too much coffee in the morning to stay focused and at night you really want to drink some alcohol but are afraid to do so. What if you have to drive your car urgently at night?

But on Tuesday there was beautiful rain in the evening and it smelled like spring, and I thought we could relax at least for the night. They would not invade Mariupol under the rain – so I finally had that beer. A further mistake was to be sure that Mariupol would be the first place to be invaded because of our proximity to the occupied territories and Russia.

A woman hiding in a cave during Russian bombings. Photograph: Tetiana Shevereva via unsplash

Security coordination meeting instead of an art residency project

I woke to hear that the main cities were being attacked. We'd also heard some shelling, some gunfire, but I've heard that for years – the frontline is very close, 15km away. And there has been a lot of firing in the last week. But I can’t imagine the feeling of those in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy that morning…

My husband and I discussed what we would do, because I am on the Russians’ wanted list"
Diana Berg

I was starting an art residency project. We were waiting for the artists to arrive. My first thought – it seems funny now – was: "Are we cancelling the project?", because I'm very responsible. But of course the artists were coming from a city that is being shelled, so slowly it dawned on me that it probably wasn't going to happen.

Instead, we had a security coordination meeting to discuss our plans for occupation. Someone said they were leaving for western Ukraine at sunset. My husband and I discussed what we would do, because I am on the Russians' wanted list.

Arts activist Diana Berg had to flee the Russian army twice in a couple of years. Photograph: O. Sosnovskyi

We had spoken about this idea of flight many times before. My idea was that in case of a real invasion, we would take the car and just go. But as it happened, I didn't feel like that yesterday. And I don't feel like that today.

Activists who stayed in Donetsk were jailed

I remembered fleeing Donetsk eight years ago. I was made to flee – I didn't want to go. I had been part of a rally, a grassroots group, Donetsk Is Ukraine. Pro-Russians attacked our meeting; they distributed information about those of us who organised the movement and posted our portraits all over the city. It became dangerous to even go out in the streets.

It was my mother who convinced me to go because they were looking for me. "Just for one week," she promised me. If she hadn’t begged, I would have been put in jail. All the activists who stayed were jailed.

I went to Odesa first and then to Lviv in the west. I spent three months there because obviously I couldn't go home. I just remember the feeling of being far away, scrolling through the news, even though Lviv is very beautiful, safe, quaint, with Ukrainian flags everywhere. (In Donetsk, we could be killed for carrying that flag.)

I imagine if I run now, I will feel the same. I will be living in safe and beautiful and peaceful Lviv, but my heart will be here.

More and more Ukrainian civilians are arming themselves and fighting the Russian army. Photograph: Dominik Sostmann via unsplash

I am amazed at just how brave the Ukrainian people are."
Diana Berg

Don't get me wrong – it's very scary. The Russian army is very powerful and has already taken many places. And though there are not enough sanctions (the no-fly zone is still not implemented and Swift is still operating), they don't care about them.

"In Donetsk we could be killed for carrying the Ukrainian flag"

But during these three days of war I have also been seeing something new, something beautiful, powerful and inspiring from all Ukrainians - who feel that instinct to stay at home and fight for the nation. I am amazed at just how brave the Ukrainian people are. I never expected so many regular civilians to join the territorial defence. Everyone I know in Kyiv has gone to enrol.

Many of my friends are artists. I have always been an artist and an activist and sometimes I'd laugh at my artist friends a little bit, thinking they are beautiful, very philosophical but essentially toothless.

It turns out not to be true. The last time I saw one of them, Andriy, he was wearing high heels and glitter, modelling for this crazy and provocative fashion theatre of freak designer Mikhail Koptev. He went to join the military, but they wouldn't take him because he has a Russian passport (he's originally from St Petersburg). So he went to another town close by and was taken on.

So Russia has brutal power. And those Russian soldiers, they are just meat to Putin, sent to die. There are a lot of them, a lot of armour and our skies are open. We are really vulnerable.

But we have the spirit. They may take us brutally and violently, but they cannot take us back. Even the older people, those Ukrainians who might have some Soviet nostalgia, will have changed their view after this.

After the death of the soldiers on Snake Island, targeted by a Russian warship, no one will forgive that. Nor will we forget the man who blew himself up to destroy a bridge and stop the Russian advance. And, unfortunately, there will be more like them.

Each and every one of these sacrifices will make us more distant from the Russians. They might close in on us, but mentally, we will move further away, our identity ever more removed.

About Diana Berg
Diana Berg

Diana Berg (1979, Mariupol, Ukraine) is a Ukrainian public figure, curator, cultural manager, and conceptual artist. She is founder of the Mariupol TU platform – the centre of social changes and promotion of human rights and freedom through arts and culture. Born in Donetsk, Ukraine, she has lived there untill 2014 as a graphic designer and teacher. After Maidan she become an activist and initiated a pro-Ukrainian movement in Donetsk in spring 2014. She then had to flee from her occupied hometown. After settling down in Mariupol, an industrial town at the Azov Sea close to the frontline, she felt the need of changing her country. Now Diana is based nowhere, as she lost her home a second time because of Russian aggression.