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Ukraine has a large elderly population – one in four people is over 60 – and most of them are women. Some lived through World War II as children, only to see their lives turned upside down again in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine began.

When Russia then launched its full-scale invasion last February, many of these women were unable or unwilling to leave. Of the 4.8 million Ukrainians who have registered in other European countries as refugees since the start of the war, most are women and younger children, while older women have remained in Ukraine.

Here are some of their stories, edited for clarity and brevity.

Valentina Tokarova, 85, was born in Russia. She lived in Donbass in eastern Ukraine for 60 years until 2014 when she fled to Kyiv:

I am Russian by birth, born in Novosibirsk. So in my head I still don’t understand how it happened and how there can be a war. I thought it was impossible.
I arrived in the Donbass in 1962. I was 23 years old and followed a young man. It’s not worth telling you about it. We lived together for seven years, then he abandoned me and our son.
For 60 years I have lived in Ukraine. I worked all my life for Ukraine, it’s my family, my home, it’s my country. I am Ukrainian now. I consider Ukrainian culture as mine.

Yulia Hermanovska is 79 years old and has lived alone in kyiv since the death of her husband five years ago:

I have stage four cancer. I have been fighting him for three years already, this is my fourth.
My doctor evacuated at the exact time I was supposed to start my treatment, in February 2022. She didn’t come back until May. I felt really bad at the time, but at the end of May I started intensive therapy. I feel so much better now! When I was diagnosed in 2020, I was told I would be two to five years old. We will see.
I always liked the Ukrainian language more, but I had to speak Russian because it was not modern and popular to speak Ukrainian at that time. It was considered a village language.
The last seven and a half years of my career I worked as a librarian at the Kyiv-Mohyla National Academy. When I had the job interview, they told me that if I wanted to work there, I could only use two languages: English or Ukrainian. So I had to switch back to Ukrainian at the age of 50, after speaking Russian all my adult life.

Klara Rozkishna, 94, spent 40 years teaching chemistry in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. She lives in kyiv with her daughter:

We left Donetsk on May 29, 2014. Once we saw Russian tanks, we left immediately.
Donetsk was a beautiful city. It was called the city of a million roses. It looks like a mining town, but there were so many roses! We lived downtown and I loved walking along Pushkin Boulevard. It was very green. My husband and I lived in a house near the Kalmius River. It was such a beautiful place, so many flowers!
We left everything we had there and closed our apartment. My husband died in 2009 and is buried in Donetsk. I even bought myself a seat right next to him. But the cemetery was bombed. Because it’s not a war. This is a slaughterhouse. They are barbarians.
But it’s okay, Ukraine will win – I’m sure.

Read more stories of Ukrainian women here.


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