An activist from eastern Ukraine reveals how Russia’s violence shaped her life

Media Fellowship

“You cannot take democracy for granted,” Maria Kurinna tells National Journal in Warsaw.

protestors make Ukraine flag
Teaser Image Caption
From the Lugansk Euromaidan protests in 2014.

WARSAW, Poland—When Russia began shooting missiles into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Maria Kurinna knew precisely what was at stake.

The 34-year-old native of Lugansk, a city in eastern Ukraine that Russian proxies have occupied since 2014, had lived through the tumult and chaos of Moscow’s attempts to control her country since she was a young girl. Her whole adult life was shaped by it.

“My family was always on the Ukrainian side and wanted to be involved in all parts of the democratic process,” said Kurinna. “It was very different in Lugansk than in Kyiv because there was always a lot of Russian propaganda and pro-Russian politicians. It was tough being a warrior for democracy there.”

But in early 2022, Kurinna’s life in Kyiv was finally settled. She was working as an international-advocacy manager for a Ukrainian human-rights organization and enjoying her job. Soon, though, she’d find herself fleeing her home and Russian violence for the second time in her life.

During Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, when large-scale protests prevented the Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the presidency in 2004, Kurinna’s parents had been outspoken advocates for democracy. But their activism came with significant personal risk. The regional authorities in Lugansk often harassed them. One of their politically active neighbors was murdered, and his body was hung in the neighborhood for all to see. Kurinna’s parents saw his death as a warning, she said.

Despite the danger, Kurinna wanted to plan her future in Lugansk. She was teaching the Japanese language at a university in the city, and she loved her colleagues and students. She dreamed of building the school’s first Japanese cultural and language center. In 2012, she traveled to Tokyo on a six-month scholarship and returned with suitcases of Japanese-language books to share with her students.

By that time, the Kremlin-aligned Yanukovych had made a political comeback. Kurinna was still focusing on her career as an expert in the Japanese language. She traveled to South Africa to take a short-term job as an interpreter for private businesses. She wanted to be an example for her students and show them how they could use their Japanese-language skills later.

But when the Euromaidan protests broke out in the winter of 2013 in response to Yanukovych’s decision to cancel a trade agreement with the European Union and align the country more closely with Russia, Kurinna said she knew she had to go home. The Euromaidan protests spread across Ukraine, and protesters were getting into violent battles with Yanukovych’s security forces. In Kyiv, hundreds of demonstrators died fighting for the country’s European future.

“I saw my students and colleagues risking their lives and going out, and I was watching from afar. In South Africa, there was a lot of Russian propaganda and Russian narratives. Even my colleagues in South Africa thought Ukrainians were Nazis,” she said. “I was shocked. It was so painful.”

In early 2014, Russian-backed forces slowly began to take control of parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, known as the Donbas, and declared them independent of Ukraine.

Kurinna returned to Lugansk as the occupation of her region by Russia’s proxies was starting to solidify. Pro-Russian elements had infiltrated all layers of society, including the security services and the police. Kurinna’s mother tried to make phone calls to officials in Kyiv to warn them about what was happening, but no one listened.

Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Moscow in February of that year, and Ukraine hadn’t yet elected a new president. Officials in Ukraine’s capitol assured the Lugansk residents that everything was under control. But there was a power vacuum in the country.

“We were all very naïve at that time. It was the beginning of the occupation, but we didn’t understand that,” Kurinna said.

In May 2014, three months after Yanukovych fled Ukraine, the country held snap presidential elections. Kurinna went to her local polling station in Lugansk city and found it closed. When she asked local security guards what was happening, they told her they didn’t know what election she was talking about.

Kurinna spent the day going from polling station to polling station only to find they were all shuttered. It wasn’t until later that she realized how dangerous that was.

One of Kurinna’s friends, a journalist from Lugansk, had traveled to northern Lugansk to monitor the elections. The area still wasn’t occupied by pro-Russian proxies, and the elections were taking place there. But when he was traveling home, he was stopped by pro-Russian forces. They held him in captivity for days and beat him until he sustained traumatic brain injuries.

“He lost his short-term memory. He will tell the same joke over and over,” Kurinna said. “But he is a really amazing person.”

In the following weeks, Kurinna and her parents started to receive threats. They were outspoken about politics on social media and began getting anonymous messages and emails that warned them to stop being so vocal.

Kurinna knew the threats were serious. The violence in the region had also begun to ramp up as Ukrainian forces tried to liberate the area from the Russian proxies. There were constant fights on the streets and heavy shelling in the old town where Kurinna’s family home was located.

Photo of Maria Kurinna
Maria Kurinna

“I kept asking my parents what their plan was. I asked what we should do if our house is targeted or searched. They didn’t have an answer. They just kept saying that it is our home,” she remembers.

Even though her parents didn’t want to leave, Kurinna knew the best option was to flee while trains out of Lugansk were still operating. On June 19, 2014, she boarded a train to Kyiv. It was full of women and children who were similarly escaping the violence.

Years later, Kurinna learned that her mother had been abducted by armed men when her father dropped her off at the train station. Like Kurinna’s friend the journalist, her mother was held in captivity and tortured.

Her parents didn’t tell their daughter what had happened until years later because they didn’t want her to worry.

“She still won’t talk to me about the details,” Kurinna said. “She didn’t want me to be traumatized.”

After that incident, Kurinna convinced her mother to follow her to Kyiv. Her parents left most of their belongings behind in Lugansk. In Ukraine’s capital, the family thought they would join a like-minded community of people who wanted Ukraine to be a democratic country based on the rule of law.

Instead, they faced discrimination and hate speech from people who blamed them for the war raging in the country’s east. It was difficult for the family to find an apartment to rent, and it took several years for Kurinna to find a full-time job.

“I understand that people were frustrated, and they associated us with the war happening,” she said. “But it broke my heart. I didn’t expect it.”

Kurinna eventually found refuge by volunteering in a military hospital for people affected by the war in eastern Ukraine. She made friends with combat veterans and other volunteers. In the hospital, no one blamed her for the war or asked about her origins. Her presence there made it clear which side she was on.

Over the next few years, Kurinna began to enjoy her life in Kyiv.

But when U.S. officials warned that Russia planned to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she knew she should prepare to flee again. Kurinna noticed several suspicious groups of men roaming around Ukraine’s capital, and she warned her friends that they looked like the reconnaissance groups she saw in Lugansk before the occupation. She bought bottled water, filled her car with gas, and prepared an emergency backpack to escape.

“My colleagues were all saying that we would be in big trouble if there [were] an occupation,” she said. “But all my friends in Kyiv, in the beginning, thought I was crazy preparing for war. They thought I was traumatized by what happened in Lugansk.”

Kurinna fled Kyiv on Feb. 28, several days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After spending some time in Western Ukraine, she eventually decided that she could better serve her country by relocating to Warsaw, which she uses as a base to advocate for her country.

“If I’m needed more in Ukraine, I will go back immediately,” she said.

For months she and her mother lived together in a communal house with other female civil-society leaders from Ukraine.

“I sometimes feel like I’m in Ukraine here because all of the Ukrainian civil-society leaders here. My community gives me energy,” Kurinna told National Journal during a conversation in Warsaw in late September. “You can meet people in the street, and when they find out you’re Ukrainian, they always say something nice. People in this country fought so much for their dignity and freedom that they really understand. I feel so much solidarity.”

Kurinna frequently travels internationally to discuss the war in Ukraine and Russia’s ongoing occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, including promoting tougher sanctions on Russia and the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute Russia for its aggression. The years of war she experienced have shown her that peace is worth fighting for, and she plans to focus her career on being an advocate for her country.

“You cannot take democracy for granted. You cannot take peace for granted,” Kurinna said. “And we need to win this war.”

This article originally appeared in the National Journal. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Washington, DC.