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What is trauma? In layman’s terms, trauma can be defined as the psychological and physiological consequences of a distressing event; a shock to the system that changes you sometimes in a permanent way. An individual can be traumatized and if they are able to access the right kind of help they need, there is hope for healing. But what happens when an entire group of people is traumatized? What do they do? Collective intergenerational trauma is when a group experiences the consequences of distressing events. This trauma is passed down and contained in their identity, in their collective memory. It takes generations to try and liberate themselves from the shackles of their past, and this is no easy feat. It’s even more difficult when the distressing events continue on while trying to heal. The Ukrainian people are living with the consequences of collective intergenerational trauma. We have suffered centuries of russian oppression and our collective mental health and well-being has taken a significant toll. The recent brutal russian invasion of Ukraine is only perpetuating our suffering. This article aims to paint a picture of the traumatic consequences of russian colonization and oppression through my personal lens by shedding light on some of the historical events stored in our Ukrainian collective memory. 

I was born in Ukraine but my parents and I immigrated to Canada when I was a child. It was the 90s and the Soviet Union had just collapsed. At least externally. But internally, nothing much had changed. The corruption continued, the violence continued; fear, paranoia, anxiety, and sadness permeated our society. This prompted my parents to leave in search of a better life for our family. Even though I grew up in Canada, my parents raised me as Ukrainian. I went to a Ukrainian school, spoke Ukrainian at home and did Ukrainian extracurricular activities. I learned about the rich culture yet grim history of Ukraine at a very young age. These stories are a testament to our resilience and very important to our self-preservation. I remember countless evenings of my parents sitting around the dinner table with their friends talking about Ukraine; their conversations, passionate yet laced with poignancy. I remember learning about widespread serfdom, a type of forced labour, in Ukraine during russian imperial rule. I remember learning about the banning of Ukrainian language and caricaturization of Ukrainian culture. An attempt to russify and further colonize our land and minds. 

I remember watching graphic films at school that depicted the 1932-33 Holodomor. This was Stalin’s man-made genocidal famine, where Ukrainian people were intentionally starved. I remember learning about cases where people were so hungry they went mad and resorted to cannibalism. Roughly 10 million of us starved to death (although reports speculate much less, another attempt to deny our existence even posthumously). I remember learning about russian soldiers coming to my great grandmother’s house, looking for members of the Resistance that she was helping and when she did not give them up, they placed a gun to the side of her head and fired a warning shot that permanently deafened her. I remember learning about Siberia, a cold and desolate wasteland where Ukrainians were and to this day still are being deported en masse to labour and die. I remember marching for freedom in solidarity with those in Ukraine during the 2004 Orange Revolution. I remember marching for freedom in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution. I remember the illegal annexation of Crimea. I remember the illegal occupation of Donbas and the ongoing war. There is so much more to remember, a lot of it violent and filled with pain and over time this weighs heavily on the mind, body, and soul.

The war in Ukraine right now is undoubtedly taking a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of all Ukrainians, the ones living at home and abroad. This fight for freedom is not new to us and since what feels like the beginning of time, our right to exist peacefully within our borders has been under constant threat. It is no wonder the love for freedom is woven into the fabric of our collective identity. We were all taught that it is worth fighting for. 

Ukraine is resilient because it had to be to survive. But constant survival mode is an unsustainable frame of mind and way of life. Underneath all that resilience we are hurting. Our collective trauma runs deep and its mental health effects can be seen in our mistrust of institutions and others, and our anxiety and decreased self-worth. It can be felt through our insecurity when it comes to our identity, feeling embarrassed of our language because years ago during the attempted russification of our country, it was brainwashed into us that Ukrainian is the language of poor lowly peasants and russian is the metropolitan language of high society. Finally, trauma rears its heavy head through despair, poor coping skills, and worst of all, our apathy.These are the consequences of our survival under russia’s sadistic thumb. Now, just as we are beginning to better understand ourselves, our mental health, and specifically our intergenerational traumas, we are taking yet another hit. It’s the same violence and oppression, but a new generation of Ukrainians left to suffer the consequences. It’s exhausting, mentally, physically, morally, and spiritually. But there is no other choice than to keep going; we must keep fighting for our lives. As a Ukrainian saying goes, “tears never granted freedom to anyone.” 

The war has been going on now for months, my emotions yo-yo from full of hope to immense despair. Grief has made itself a permanent home in my heart, my stomach is in knots and the feeling of helplessness and guilt permeates my existence. Why am I even feeling this? I’m not the one living under constant threat of bombs and missiles…but my family is. A seething rage hides behind the curtain waiting for its cue to come out, I am filled with hatred towards them, the aggressor. Some days I feel so mentally unhinged. This is not normal. It’s not normal for a human being to revel in the sights of enemy corpses, decapitated, and burnt to an unrecognizable crisp. But how can I feel any different? Given everything that is happening, how we are being brutally tortured, raped, and slaughtered in front of all our eyes. War strips away any sense of humanity. Lately, every day the news gets heavier and heavier and it’s hard to believe in anything anymore. The worst part is the victim shaming, the absurd demands from Western countries and their so-called intellectuals, living safely in the comfort of their homes free from bombs, writing open letters and petitions, demanding that Ukraine surrender. Saying that our military is putting civilian lives in danger but for some reason failing to acknowledge that we are merely defending ourselves and it is russia that is purposely targeting and killing countless Ukrainian civilians. 

It seems like everything happening in the world right now makes no sense, and I can’t for the life of me understand how humanity has sunk this low. I used to think that money was the root of all evil and that if we just did away with money then people would become good, but now I recognize the naivety of that belief. Money is not the root of evil, rather greed is. Greed and the insatiable thirst for more. I have no faith in humanity to overcome this greed, at least not in my lifetime or the lifetimes ahead of me. This is an inside job, it is the responsibility of the individual to overcome this greatest demon and for collective change to occur from the bottom up. Until then, the curse of intergenerational trauma carries on and our mental health will continue to plummet until there is nothing left of us. There will be no justice for the common man and we are doomed to a fate of horrific repetition.