At the beginning of the war, my husband and I gave King Edmund and Prince Caspian an old chair to play with. King Edmund and Prince Caspian are rams on our farm southeast of Kyiv in Ukraine.
As these two old warriors rammed and rammed and rammed, I imagined that their play was a battle between the Ukrainian army and Vladimir Putin’s empire.
The chair is now in pieces, but the war the Russians initiated continues, and I am not certain which country will suffer the same fate as the chair. I want to believe that it is Putin’s Russia, but the Russians are still sitting on their thrones — less dazzling thrones, perhaps, due to sanctions, but they are still sitting there nonetheless.
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My entire life has led me to this moment. I’ve made my choice to remain with Yurii, my brave Ukrainian warrior. He’s ready to fight to keep Ukraine independent. At age 64, he has joined the territorial defense.
In our eyes, the war in Ukraine is a battle to keep the whole world independent.
A path to Russia, and then to Ukraine
My interest in Russia was kindled in 1985 in Elk River, Minn., when my ninth grade social studies teacher taught us about the Soviet Union. I had just seen the movie Rocky IV, in which the fictional Rocky Balboa defeats a menacing Russian opponent. And though the movie portrayed the Soviet Union as evil, my social studies teacher taught me that the Soviets were people just like us.
My wide-eyed idealism led me to study the language, fantasizing that this simple (yet highly complex!) act could help bring peace to the world.
Later, I took my studies to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wanted to be a Russian teacher and give the gift of language and culture to a new generation. The Cold War had ended, and there was work to be done. If the world could understand each other, I reasoned, peace could last. But when I took my proficiency test, the Russian professor told me that I did not have the aptitude to learn Russian. I was devastated — but never lost my interest in the language.
Years later, I tried again. In 1997, I moved to Moscow and dedicated myself to learning the language. Within two years, I was ready to enter the master’s program in the linguistics department at Moscow State University. After completing my degree, I moved back to Wisconsin and was privileged to work as part of Milwaukee Public School’s bilingual program at Milwaukee Education Center and Allen-Field School.
After 10 years, though, I was ready for something new and moved to Armenia to teach at an international school.
From there, I transferred to Kyiv.
Even under stress, Ukrainians remained optimistic
My first days in Ukraine shocked me.
I had expected another smile-less, somber, former Soviet Republic. Instead, I found Kyiv full of friendly faces and optimism. This was the summer after the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which led to the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. In the midst of terrible loss, how could they be so happy? But they were.
In Ukraine, I found everything I had been searching for but could not find in Russia.
I found reverence for homemade food, for clothing, for embroidery and crafts. Ukrainians highly value gardening and animals (just like me!).
And I found love.
When I had finally settled into my new world, in walked Yurii Potapenko.
I wasn’t interested at first, but he was stubborn — not unlike our rams — and he won me over. He was quiet, shy, and fiercely patriotic.
At this point, you may be thinking — why didn’t she get out! Let me try to explain why I could never do that.
The main reason is this: This is my life now — and I say that with pride. Together, Yurii and I have built a life we love on our two-acre plot of land. We take care of our sheep, and dogs, and cats, and bees, and gardens — and Yurii’s 88-year-old mother, Maria.
Since the war began, we take care of his relatives, too. They live with us now after losing their home in the city of Irpin.
Irpin is where my husband was born, and it is a sister city to my dear Milwaukee. Now, Irpin looks like our old chair, the one the rams destroyed.
When I think back to the steps I made in junior high, and how I pictured my future, I would not have imagined living on a hobby farm in Ukraine. And I would have never imagined the Russians would invade the country where I have chosen to live my life.
I feel betrayed by Russia, a country where I thrived for five years.
It is difficult for people, like me, who grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota to imagine Ukraine’s tortured history with Russia. Three times in a century, Ukraine has been invaded by its neighbor. Each time, Ukraine has resisted tyranny.
And like those other times, my dear Ukrainian frien
ds will rebuild as soon as they can. They will open up the schools, hospitals, factories and stores. And all of us will help. I am still teaching primary aged children math, science and English everyday at my school.
My friend, Olga, and her family lost their home in Donetsk in 2014, and now they have lost another one, in Irpin, in 2022. And yet she keeps teaching, too. And her brother, a marine, keeps fighting. And her father, a protestant pastor, keeps preaching. They are temporarily living with family in a Ukrainian town near the Slovakia border. Eleven people in one apartment.
My friends, Anzhelika and Robert, have lost their cookie factory in Irpin, and yet they keep searching for ways to support their 750 employees and begin rebuilding. They are with family in France waiting for the signal that it is safe to return to Irpin.
I know that the sheer will of the Ukrainian people will bring Ukraine back.
If we can win the war.
As spring comes, signs of hope
Amid the wreckage, and all the losses of this tragic war, I see hope.
I see it in the bursts of colorful crocus and daffodils that our bees are enjoying after the long winter. I see it in our fruit trees. Yurii has cultivated more than 100 of them, including 30 apricots, and heaven knows how many types of berries. His greatest pride — his 80 blueberry bushes.
As these start to bloom, we hope that the fruit will be eaten in a peaceful Ukraine this summer.
I see hope in the two mama sheep on our farm, nervously caring for their lambs, which prance across the lot in a way that is not so different from the playful, wide-eyed children that I teach every day.
I see hope in a Ukrainian people who have remained strong and resilient, whose army has turned back the Russian advance near Kyiv. And in the support from my beloved United States and citizens from around the world.
And finally, I see hope in our old chair — hope that dictators can be unseated. Hope that there is strength to unseat them.
My rams are the Ukrainian army, and the Ukrainian army will destroy all obstacles to freedom. And that old broken chair? It represents Putin’s throne. It cannot represent Ukraine. That alternative is unacceptable.
Diane Baima, a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, now teaches at a village school southeast of Kyiv, Ukraine.