Олена Костенко Olena Kostenko

* 1973

  • It was around the 20th of February. As soon as he [Viktor Yanukovych] fled, it was over. Kerch was taken over almost immediately. The border detachment was blocked. That was probably the scariest thing. Every day... I had a dog... Kerch is a very long city stretching from the ferry crossing from the Kavkaz port to Kerch and on toward the Crimean peninsula. It's essentially one road, the main street. It runs through the whole city. I lived off this street but would walk to the sea and the park with my dog. So, I crossed this road twice a day, every day. Every time, no matter what time it was, I saw these convoys, constantly standing and waiting for some APCs [armored personnel carriers], BMPs [infantry fighting vehicles], or those, with soldiers, to pass. On the other side, we used to go to the steppe for a walk, and there is a railroad that also goes from this crossing to the peninsula. There were whole echelons [of trains]. I counted up to 40 tanks. They were not covered. So it was just a demonstration, a very vivid one. I saw that all the people were very depressed. It was really scary, nothing was clear. It was clear that something very catastrophic was happening to us, but it was very unclear what to do about it. Then I saw, about two years later, for sure, how people had changed. Those new neighbors of mine, whom I remember when I arrived and when I met them. They used to plant heaps of flowers all the time. All over the yards. It's the south, and in the middle of February there are crocuses and tulips and all you can think of. The yards are very, very beautiful because they are Ukrainians, and when they see a little bit of land somewhere, they start sticking something in it, and it all blooms. Later, when the peninsula was occupied, these people became very withdrawn. It was impossible to talk to them about anything but these flowers. They chose this — it's a safe topic, we don't talk about anything else.

  • I couldn’t find a job because... Actually, I was invited to teach cultural studies at DSEA [Donbas State Engineering Academy], but the then-rector of DSEA disliked the rector of the KIEH [Kramatorsk Institute of Economics and Humanities] and said, “No one from KIEH will work for me.” That’s where my career ended. I think I spent a year looking for a job, any kind of job at that. Any job at all. It was impossible. Because [19]98, I think, was... Maybe it’s just how my life turned out. For me, that year seemed the most severe. There was almost no money. I even remember sending my mom [away] for two months in the summer... I already had a son. I was married… I was in a civil marriage. It quickly fell apart, but I had a son. He was about four years old at the time. My mom had just retired. It was such a moment — I'd graduated and wasn’t working, my mom had already retired and had a small pension. I sent them to Zaporizhzhia to relatives — my mom’s favorite sister lived there — and said, “Stay there until they just kick you out.” I lived on my mom’s pension, which was very little money. I remember only being able to buy eggs and bread, perhaps, and that was it. It was summer. I even had this shameful moment when I would ride a bicycle to the fields to find something to eat. I would pull out a carrot here, a zucchini there. That’s how I lived that summer.

  • We came to school at the beginning of the school year, and we didn't go to class, we just lined up... How many were there... It seems there were four parallel [classes], no, three parallel [classes], ninth and tenth grades. We just stood on the parade ground for the assembly, not entering the school, demanding... We created some kind of commission that was supposed to go to the principal, inviting the principal to talk to us. We stood like this for two or three lessons until they made some [concessions]. I remember they didn't meet all our demands, but they made some concessions. That satisfied us. — Did they call your parents to the school afterward? — Not mine because I wasn't a Komsomol member. Maybe there was some [information passed] along these Komsomol lines, of course. Because I remember that the class Komsomol leaders were very sad about this. — Did all the children support the idea of the strike? — Yes, because it was a matter of principle. I remember we spent a long time persuading these Komsomol activists. We argued that it was also better for them, making them more visible, not just extras running errands for the school administration. They could lead this movement and become... They were children like us, watching the same movies. They wanted to be important.

  • My family was very poor. This is probably the most vivid memory of my childhood. I remember all these queues: queues for butter, meat, basically for everything. So, these [holiday] dishes were very-very simple. It was usually potatoes, mashed potatoes. There were some meatballs because you could add bread or something else to the meat to make it bigger. That’s usually. Of course, festive dishes mean the Olivier [salad]. I remember having Olivier only twice a year. That's New Year’s and my birthday, that’s in late January. Those were my two times. Also, there were two Olenka chocolates. Also, for New Year’s and my birthday.

  • My grandmother was born in 1916. She passed away when I was 11, so I only had my childhood years to talk to her and ask something. But those were Soviet times. I clearly remember that my grandmother did not want to talk about how they used to live. I had to piece together their life from small bits of information. It was a very hard life in the village. She survived both holodomors [famines]. In [19]32, she was 16 years old. She never spoke about that Holodomor. I remember, even when I asked, because I knew something like that had happened, she would press her lips tightly together. She was afraid to talk about those times until her death. But it must have been very difficult because she would collect every crumb. There were all these superstitions about bread, that you shouldn't cut it but break it instead. That you should gather every crumb and never throw anything away. These were her very painful memories. My mother, on the other hand, remembered [19]47. They were small children, my grandmother had five children. All around the same age, just one or two years apart. My mother said they used to go to the forest during winter, which is the hardest time during a famine. They dug up whatever started [to grow], maybe some plants. The children would dig and eat these little roots, the first bits of green, because there was literally nothing else to eat.

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    Kramatorsk, Donetsk region , 12.04.2024

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“Living by my choice” in Kramatorsk

Olena Kostenko, 2022
Olena Kostenko, 2022
photo: Personal archive of Olena Kostenko

Olena Kostenko is a cultural scholar, media professional, and worker at a non-governmental organization. She was born in 1973 in Kramatorsk. Her parents met on board a Pacific Ocean liner where they both worked but separated before her mother returned to Ukraine. Olena Kostenko grew up in Kramatorsk, attended art school, and developed a passion for rock music in the late 1980s. In 1989, she participated in a school strike. Her high school graduation coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December 1991, at the age of 18, she voted for the first time in the referendum on Ukraine’s independence. Unable to enter higher education immediately, she worked as a postal worker. In 1993, she enrolled in the Kramatorsk Economic and Humanities Institute to pursue cultural studies. After graduation, she couldn’t find a job in her field, so she had to sew clothes and work as a secretary at a car service station. In 1999, she convinced the management of a local radio station to create cultural content. Since then, she has worked in the media sector. In 2013, she moved to Crimea, becoming a witness to the peninsula’s occupation. After living in the Odesa region and Lviv, she returned to her hometown in 2017. Immediately following the full-scale invasion, she moved to the Vinnytsia region but returned in the summer of 2023. As of 2024, she works at the Community Development Fund, an organization that aids internally displaced persons in Kramatorsk.