“I was born in the city where the war was,” Anastasiia Demenkova said. “I lived in capital of Ukraine one year before the war. In Kiev, it’s safe there; there’s no war there. But still I had to go to the city to visit my grandmom, and they started bombing the city, so it was pretty scareful [scary]. I was there for couple weeks, but it was enough for me. It was a super bad time; I had to say goodbye to my teacher–he died apart of the bombings, the second of June. Then I came back to Kiev, and then went to Dubai for two months. I wasn’t there for whole war, but those couple weeks were enough for me.”
These are just some of the memories junior Anastasiia Demenkova recounted about her experiences in Ukraine during the Euromaidan Revolution, a time when north-west and south-east Ukrainian ideologies clashed in a power struggle over whether influence in Ukraine should come from the European Union or Russia. The Revolution, or the “war” as Demenkova described it, began in November 2013, when violent protests erupted between demonstrators and police officers. In March 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the peninsula of Crimea militarily, further leading to political unrest in Ukraine.
Demenkova was born and raised in Ukraine. In June 2015, she moved from Ukraine to here in the United States, after her mother married a U.S. citizen. Demenkova now lives here, and plans to go to college in Michigan. Despite some misconceptions, she is not a foreign exchange student.
Demenkova said the whole process happened very quickly to her and was unexpected.
“I was living in the Ukraine, like from, when I was born. And then it was like ‘one, two, three, America!’”
Demenkova went to apply for her visa in April 2015. Since the war, Demenkova said, they ask many more questions of Ukrainians and turn away 10 to 11 people out of 20. She and her mother weren’t planning on staying in America for more than two weeks, Demenkova said. In fact, they even bought tickets back to Ukraine. However, Anastasiia’s mother was proposed to during their two weeks there, and they decided to stay.
Before the Euromaidan Revolution, Demenkova said Ukraine was a peaceful country without much conflict.
“Of course we didn’t have that good economic position, but it was just simple country, simple people. We just had a simple life,” she said.
Demenkova does some professional sports like fencing. She said she had a professional team in Kiev, and it was her plan to participate in a World Cup. She said she had plenty of friends in Ukraine and had a normal life.
She said no one expected what would happen.
“Then it just started slow, in March 2014 to April. It was just unexpected for everyone. A lot of people moved to different cities, countries. They just left their houses, apartments, because it was just really super dangerous to stay in the city, in small cities in eastern Ukraine. You could just walk down one street and see at least about 10 houses that just no one is there anymore. And people left everything there–you could just come in and do whatever you want–cars, everything they had.”
Demenkova said there was a lot of panic. People created groups on the internet to communicate to see who was there, who was okay.
“I knew what was happening every day a lot, because I wasn’t there–I was in different city. But my grandmom, she was there [for the] whole war–for weeks she lived underground with her neighbors. It was pretty scary, but that’s what she told me. It was just unexpected, scary, a lot of people died, a lot of parts of cities were bombed, still even now she’s there. We [her grandmother] are communicating every day. But still, prices for food, just huge, prices for everything, huge. Some people just don’t get enough food now, especially retired people. Their retirement pay is just small. They can’t buy some sausages or some meat because it’s unbelievable, prices three or five times more than usual.”
Demenkova said she was not scared, except for her grandmother, who lived in the city where a lot of the fighting was.
“It was super scareful [scary] when one day we call her, while we’re in Dubai, and this time she’s crying and she says ‘I’m running down underground because I see some planes and they are started bombing.”’
Luckily, her grandmother was not hurt. Demenkova said her grandmother lives in an apartment in the center of the city, so she had time to get to safety as the planes bombed the edges of the city.
Demenkova said she and her mother helped her grandmother to buy a train ticket to a different part of Ukraine where it was safe. She said she ended up in a small village, where she lived with her sister.
“But she was safe there, and we were calling her to make sure she was alive,” she said. “She was shocked; she almost didn’t talk for three to four days. We were scared for her. We were scared for other people. We were just thinking: ‘why is this going on is our life?’ In our city, because of this war, we lost about 10,000 citizens–it was just scary. War is always scary.”
Demenkova said she does not view Ukraine as the same country.
“It won’t ever be the same country. Before war, and after war, it’s different countries. Just like every country. It’s different now, its economic position is super bad. People just try to move somewhere, they just move to other countries just to work, just to earn money, continue studying.”
Demenkova said she “knows” she won’t come back to Ukraine to live there.
“I will just go to visit my friends, my relatives, but I won’t live there anymore because you won’t find any progress there.”
Despite not wanting to return, Demenkova still misses aspects of her old life in Ukraine.
“I miss my country, of course. I miss everything from there I– miss all the different types of foods there, especially some products, of course I miss it. American food is tasty, but still. If you want to go to Russia and try to order some spaghetti with cheese, or macaroni with cheese, no. You won’t find it. I miss food, I miss my house, I miss my friends, of course. I love American people, I have friends here. They’re my friends, and I miss them. My fencing team, I miss them so much.”
Demenkova believes that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is more complicated than a lot of Americans think. She shared that the culture between the two countries used to be intertwined although now they are separated by war.
“When you said ‘Ukraine’ it meant ‘Russia.’ And when you say ‘Russia’ you meant ‘Ukraine’ too. My friend, my best friend, lives in Russia. And we could visit her anytime we want, she was just 4 hours by bus. And it’s not so far. But now we can’t go there because it’s closed, and you can’t go. Now it’s like two different countries that never communicated. Before it was one, peaceful country, and people were communicating, helping each other.
“People now have an internet war, much more than the weapon war, and it’s really super bad. After the war, people just separated Ukrainians from Russians, before it wasn’t like that. If you were Ukrainian, it means you’re Russian. You’re Russian, it meant you’re Ukrainian. You didn’t have patriots who were willing to kill for either Ukraine or Russia. Now we have.”
Demenkova said she respects Russian president Vladimir Putin as a leader, but also said people who call him “hypocritical” are not necessarily wrong.
“A lot of people say he is super bad; he is so hypocritical. Maybe. Maybe he is bad, but still it’s a bit cool how he can control Russia, one of the powerful countries in the world, for that many years. I just respect him, that he controls such a huge country, and a real powerful place. I just respect him.”
For the majority of her life, Demenkova has lived on the east side of Ukraine, a region where favorability and influence with Russia is high. She had some friends from west Ukraine, but they share a different opinion of Russia than she does.
“I know a lot of good people, but they’re from west, and we always have arguments, and I would be like ‘Hey, guys, war is somewhere out there. But we are friends, let’s communicate like it was before.’ We are communicating now, but still they will always prove that Ukraine is Ukraine, and they are Ukrainians. They just always separate that Russia is different country, and they’re enemies now.”
Demenkova said education in the U.S. is “completely different” from Ukraine. First, the building for her entire school district was the length of one Gull Lake hallway. She said all of middle, elementary and high school share the same school, but at different times.
“It’s a lot of people. And what I don’t like is, a lot of elementary kids, and they’re running and small and you’re afraid to just step on them. Especially when they’re playing and rolling, and they’re on the ground and you have to jump over them to get to your classroom.”
Demenkova said she witnessed a lot of corruption at her school in Ukraine. Teachers who lacked training, teachers who picked favorites, etc.
“At Gull Lake, every teacher is good. Every teacher tries to help you. But in Ukraine, no. About 80 percent of teachers there are not just teachers–they’re somewhere from outside or relatives of someone, and they just want to earn money. Or they’re super bad. They just yell or they just find a favorite student of the class, and doesn’t matter what that student does, he will put down for him ‘A’ and for you he will give you ‘E.’ Doesn’t matter what you know. Just in every school, every single school, you’re either favorite or neutral or you’re almost enemy. If you’re enemy, good luck, but you’ll have much lower grades. But it’s everywhere.”
“In America it’s completely different, and it’s much better for me. Teachers respect every student, they take care of every student. They see what is your level, and they don’t pressure you with homework. And it’s what I like. Here, my grades are much better than what they were in Ukraine. And just, American way of studying is much better for me. But maybe you’ll find three students out of 30 that like Ukrainian way of studying, and they like to work hard. But usually the students are children or grandchildren of teachers, and when they’re born, they already work hard. So they just have habit. They work hard, no sports, no nothing. Just eat, sleep and study. So they just like it. For me, no. American way is much better for me.”
Demenkova said she sees herself having a better future here.
“Colleges here are 100 percent more expensive than Ukrainian schools, but I know that knowledge Americans give here is 200 percent more than Ukraine.”
Demenkova said you have a very low chance of getting a job from graduating from a university in Ukraine.
“But if you get American degree from college you’ll get a job everywhere. So of course, it’s much better. I do like equestrian now, professional. So my goal is Albion or Michigan State University. I don’t know how I will get there. I guess I have to pass SAT.”
Demenkova said America is definitely the most different country she’s ever been to.
“Americans, you’re completely different. It’s not bad, I love America, I love American people, but America just different by a lot. 14 hours to here from Ukraine, I think it’s easier to get to the moon,” she said. “Everything is different. The way you eat, the way you drive, the way you speak, everything different.”
Demenkova likes America, but there are a considerable amount of societal differences between America and many European countries she’s used to.
“I love this life that I have here, and I’m happy that my last two years at high school will be spent here, it’s super cool. I learned a hundred new words. America is super cool country. But you’re just, you know, different,” she said. “It took me half a year to get used to how you speak, how you communicate, how you even say ‘hello.’ Because for me, when you talk to Russians, when you ask someone ‘Hello, how are you?’ It means you’re really interested, and you can talk about your problems. But here, if you ask ‘how are you?’ you can just count on someone saying ‘good’ and that’s fine. For us, no, it’s like ‘good? You’re always good!’”
Demenkova said she hasn’t had problems making friends in America, but she said people have had problems making friends with her.
“I don’t have a lot of friends. Honestly, I don’t trust whole lot of people. And if I just one time sit with you at the same table doesn’t mean that we are friends. It just sometimes confuses me. A friend to me is a person who I trust, who I say all my secrets to, maybe problems, maybe just my success, just anything. That’s a friend. Friend is a person who spends with me some time. A friend won’t be someone I spend one lunch with, no. These things just confuse me sometimes, most of times. But now it’s much better.”
Anastasiia said she likes it here, and enjoys having a future and looks forward to gaining more experience.
“In America, in just 10 months, I got huge experience. In America, I got my first full job. I’ve met a lot of people, and everyone gave me a lot a lot experience. Much more than I would get somewhere else, maybe. I just learned a lot here. I absolutely understand what I want and which are my dreams and goals. I’m just happy I’ve met many people that I’ve met here. Everyday I have new adventures. A lot of life lessons. So I’m glad that I’m here.”
By Dylan Grosser