What is the problem?
"There is a war in my country, and I cannot be useful"
Anastasiia Sihnaievska, who is 25 years old, lived in Zhytomyr before Russia invaded Ukraine. She had higher education and worked in sales, leading what she describes as "an absolutely average life of an average citizen." However, her attitude towards civil matters was ingrained in her from a young age.
"Growing up during times of revolution and the national struggle for the right to be Ukrainians in independent Ukraine, I experienced orange-colored times when Ukrainians were fighting for fair elections [the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 – ed.]. During my schooling, my school was actively involved with volunteer organizations. Then, sadly, in 2015, my uncle passed away while serving in the war zone in the Donetsk region. Although the war was already close, it suddenly became much closer on February 24th, 2022," Anastasiia recalls.
Anastasiia SihnaievskaIn February 2022, she got a promotion and was preparing to transition into a new job. "By February 24th, it would have been two weeks since I had a full day off. I'd planned a typical day filled with regular errands," Anastasiia remembers.
All their plans fell apart when a full-scale war broke out. Anastasiia's father decided to fight for Ukraine, so Anastasiia and her sister packed their emergency suitcases and went to stay with a friend in another part of Zhytomyr so they wouldn't have to be alone and face the uncertainty of what would happen together.
"I was terrified, and deep down, I had a glimmer of hope that when the world saw how we were heavily bombed, people would come together and, put it simply, without going into political processes, say it should not be allowed, and it would all be over. I had a sense of reversed reality; I could not believe that in the 21st century in Europe, near the borders of the European Union and NATO, it was even possible for such a huge war to continue," Anastasiia says.
But the miracle didn't happen. Anastasiia and her sister did all they could to help – they gave blood donations, spread facts from trustworthy sources, and connected those in need with those who could help.
Anastasiia Sihnaievska's Facebook post about needing help for the wounded in the military hospital was shared over four thousand times. After that, she started working with one of the state humanitarian aid centers. At first, interaction only happened online. But a long air raid started when Nastia [short form of "Anastasiia" – ed.] had to meet the other volunteers in person. She was contacted and told it was safer not to go anywhere.
"And I was sitting in this basement, crying during the air raid because I couldn't volunteer or do anything helpful. All my contacts and organizations already had teams formed for the war efforts, and I didn't feel brave enough to start something on my own. I could only be available online to do things like post, send requests, and find resources. And at the same time, it seemed to me that I was doing little. There is a war in my country, and I cannot be useful," Anastasiia remembers.
It was later revealed that the Russians had bombed a school in Zhytomyr, close to where the gathering was supposed to take place. The girl described the incident: "The bomb dropped at 8:59 a.m., and I had a scheduled meeting for 9 o'clock."
Then, Anastasiia Sihnaievska decided to move to the Czech Republic. She had already been working overseas and decided that earning money to provide for her family, make donations, and support herself would make the most sense. "I chose the Czech Republic as a refuge because I had already been there and knew what it was like, so I felt it was a safe place for me," the activist says.
What is the solution?
Help where you are
"When I went abroad, the feeling of survivor's guilt intensified even more," says Anastasiia.
The girl said it was hard for her to accept that she was safe while people in Ukraine were under attack by missiles. She wished she could influence the course of events. "I found a message on Facebook that teacher assistants are needed to help Ukrainian children learn the Czech language," Anastasiia remembers. "I went to the interview with just a basic understanding of the language. I started volunteering with children before I was earning money from it. Because of the need to learn the fundamentals of the language and to create lessons that would engage children, I could only get four or five hours of sleep at that time. At first, I worked with elementary-aged kids in 3rd-5th grade while my Czech language skills were improving through special courses I was taking. Later on, I taught 6th-9th graders.
Anastasiia returned to Ukraine for the first time since February 24 after being away for three months. Upon arriving, she noticed that the anxiety, shelling, and fear made her feel out of place and unsure if she'd be able to be productive. Ultimately, she returned to the Czech Republic and found solace in volunteering.
Anastasiia saw rallies in Prague in support of Ukraine but never heard any announcements about it – she only came across photo reports.
"On July 29, after the incident in Olenivka, I saw an appeal to come out onto the streets. I went to Prague, met the people behind the demonstration, and started by joining a chatroom where they discussed the organization of it. Slowly but surely, I led the movement," Nastia shares.
"The voice of all those who uphold the principles of freedom, peace, and perseverance"
Anastasia slowly grew to become one of the organizers of rallies and a co-founder of the Voice of Ukraine initiative.
"We refer to ourselves as a Czech-Ukrainian initiative since this initiative was not only created in the Czech Republic but also had a notable amount of Czechs driving it," the activist stresses. "Today, Voice of Ukraine is the voice of all those who uphold the principles of freedom, peace, and perseverance and who believe that they should be able to live in peace on their land. This includes everyone who supports Ukraine today, no matter if they are Czechs, Ukrainians who had to flee due to invasion, or people who have emigrated a long time ago."
Right now, Voice of Ukraine is a volunteer project without funding.
"We have formed a team of six people responsible for keeping an eye on the political situation in the Czech Republic and events that affect Ukraine. We are also trying to establish connections between Ukrainian organizations in the Czech Republic and collaborate with Czech organizations as much as possible. We have created a multifaceted synergistic relationship to achieve victory," the activist shares. "It is also essential and valuable for us to cooperate with one of the oldest diaspora organizations in Europe – the European Congress of Ukrainians."
In addition to advocating for Ukraine, Anastasia works at a factory producing car parts. She started as a worker on the assembly line, then was promoted to the office in the quality assurance and standards division.
Anastasia admits that sometimes, she only gets three or four hours of sleep daily to keep up with everything. "In wartime, you can't complain about the conditions you have," the girl believes. "We balance between the work that brings us income and all the tasks that we undertake on our own initiative."
How does it work?
Making the invisible visible
"The outcome of the rallies can't be felt physically or quantified in any way; however, we can create precedents that encourage the voicing of important topics in the informational space," Anastasiia says.
One of the first mass events organized with the participation of Anastasia Sihnaievska was a rally under the building of the United Nations' representation. There, Anastasia met another activist in the Czech Republic, Yaroslava Burko.
Anastasiia and Yaroslava had already met before — in the chatroom where they coordinated rallies. Yaroslava really stepped up when it came to organizing events. Whenever slogans, clothing, and rally posters were brought up in the group chat, she could pull it all together and get everyone on the same page.
"There was definitely a special connection between us at the UN rally," Yaroslava recalls. "I could see Nastia taking over organizational moments, giving the people instructions on improving their performance, even though she wasn't the one in charge of the event."
Yaroslava and Nastia noticed that the protesters had nowhere to gather and coordinate and that just chatting with activists wasn't enough. That's when Nastia thought to create social media accounts to help address this need.
"At first, a squad of social media and copywriters was brought together out of enthusiasm, and then it progressed to the point where Nastia took over managing all the social media accounts. We would've eventually given up if Nastia and I hadn't had each other. We can't let that happen because we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to keep going. We understand that too much is at stake here," Yaroslava says.
Anastasiia Sihnaievska and Yaroslava BurkoSince then, the activists started coming together to hold rallies — and did it in a more organized way, thinking about a strategy for the movement to grow and become the voice of Ukraine that the founders envisioned.
On Independence Day in 2022, Yaroslava and Nastia hosted a commemorative rally in Prague, which drew in more than a thousand attendees. Over time, the initiative was improved and developed. The Czech Yuliia Levkova took care of the visual side of the gatherings. The activists contacted Czech organizations and opinion-makers, brainstorming what might attract the media's attention and ensuring that as many outlets as possible covered these events.
When Volodymyr Zelensky came to the Czech Republic for a visit, Anastasia and her colleagues found out about it barely two hours later but still got ready for the meeting in a hurry, brought people together fast, figured out where to put them, made posters "Ukraine in NATO," which then caught the eye of the whole world's media.
While skimming through the news, Anastasiia stumbled across an article in the Associated Press about their rally. The event, which Anastasia and Yaroslava had put together, had made it into one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world.
The poster that made it into the global news
Unfortunately, later came the understanding that people tend to get used to events, which poses new challenges on the way to results. Indeed, the rallies are still effective, but not like they were at the outset.
Anastasiia and her colleagues met the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation founders at the advocacy forum of Ukrainian organizations in Europe in Brussels. The center's team was set up during the Revolution of Dignity, and they've gotten much practice in researching hybrid warfare and Russia's economic influence on political decisions. Anastasia Sihnaievska got involved with this center and was appointed their representative in the Czech Republic, acting as an expert on Russian influence and disinformation.
"We are currently working on identifying factors that circumvent sanctions. One of our latest projects is work on the family of Russian rocket engineer Boris Obnosov. His son-in-law and daughter live in Prague; they are not under sanctions. We conducted an extensive information campaign. It is no longer just going out to stand with flags or posters. We did some research and analysis to determine how people get put on sanction lists, who's responsible for it, and what the sanctioned list in the Czech Republic looks like. In June 2023, only three people were on the list: Patriarch Kirill, who doesn't have any assets, property, or money in the Czech Republic, and then the other two were father and son Yevtushenko, who were conducting business there," Anastasiia explains.
Activists started pushing for adding those who work for Russia to the sanctions lists. In particular, from a legal standpoint, they're currently writing formal letters requesting that Boris Obnosov (a Russian mechanical engineer from the Soviet Union) and his whole family be included on the sanctions lists.
"We headed to one of the family's homes and projected a movie about the war crimes caused by the missiles manufactured by Tactical Military Arms. We put together a video showing footage of the damage: this includes a shopping center in Kremenchuk, a house in Dnipro, and Uman. These rockets bring income to this family, destroy homes, and kill people in Ukraine. We are trying to emphasize that these people are not just getting rich from Russia's criminal terrorist regime and are close to Putin's regime but are the perpetrators of all war crimes against the civilian population and infrastructure. Every such family involved in war should be restricted."
Anastasiia during a rally near Obnosov's house
Only 7% of European companies actually left the Russian market
"We were quite taken aback when we analyzed and investigated open sources that only 7 percent of European organizations had left the Russian market despite the European Union's 11 rounds of sanctions against the Russian Federation. In Europe, 30,000 Russian companies remain in operation. So they're still making money in Europe, paying taxes to the Russian government, which gets turned into missiles that kill Ukrainians. There are over 1400 companies owned by people on the EU sanctions list that are still doing business in Russia. Despite the sanctions, some workarounds help the sanctioned persons continue their activities. Take, for example, Tactical Military Arms – it's on the sanctions lists, but the CEO wasn't on those lists until the middle of July 2023. That made it possible for them to move money to accounts held by overseas companies, buy fancy real estate abroad, or even let his daughter stay in Prague, where his rocket wouldn't reach her," Anastasiia Sihnaievska says.
The efforts of activists paid off – on July 17, the Czech Foreign Minister published a revised set of inner sanctions that included both Obnosov and his family – Olga and Rostyslav Zorikov. As a result, the Czech government prohibited Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in competitions on the country's territory.
In July, the Russian tennis player was told to leave the Czech Republic – so she didn't attend the international competitions. Prague also called off the performance of opera singer-Putinist [Putin's supporter – ed.] Anna Netrebko.
"We shouldn't be passing on war to our children as a legacy."
Anastasiia says that at the beginning of the activities, during the rallies, the activists had difficulties with the locals due to the language barrier.
"Once, the police asked me my date of birth. I showed them the numbers and months with my fingers because homophones can be confusing. For example, we have "kviten" in Ukrainian, which means April, and in Czech, "kveten" is May. I'm now so proficient in Czech that I can give interviews to major media outlets in the language, comment for journalists, make introductions during campaigns, run social networks, and converse with the police without any difficulties," the girl smiles.
"No matter where Ukrainians are, they face a big problem – Russian influence, fans of Russia, or even Russian people themselves. For example, on the anniversary of the defenders of Mariupol escaping from Azovstal into enemy captivity, we had a demonstration on the Charles Bridge. We used illustrations by various artists and made a performance where people's hands were tied with a rope in the most touristic place in Prague. One Czech lady, obviously having pro-Russian views, called the police to stop our rally. In fact, it is both pathetic and funny when people with a clear accent try to threaten Ukrainians in Russian, thinking that we will be afraid of it. The lady who filed the complaint with the police was walking by us and shouted, "Get out of here! Leave!" But we have all the relevant permits, and events are always coordinated with the police," Anastasiia says.
Anastasia Sihnaievska believes that the highest price that Ukrainians pay in exchange for independence is people who sacrifice themselves in the name of the country's future and the peaceful lives of others.
"I believe that the task of every conscientious Ukrainian now is to ensure that there are fewer deaths and sufferings so that the deaths that have already happened are not in vain. I have the chance to not sleep under missiles, but in return, I must do everything I can to make sure this war ends in victory. I fully agree with my father, who said that if the young men are going to fight, then I must also go and fight for my country. The main goal of this fight is to ensure that we do not pass on war to our children as a legacy. We can't let these deaths keep happening, and I want to return home to a victorious peace," Anastasiia sums up.
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