The legend of Saint Olga of Kyiv is widely well-known in the European continent. The story of revenge and redemption of a Queen who set out to avenge the death of her King and protect her kingdom is not your typical medieval fairytale. The gripping story has become more than ever a source of inspiration for the testing times Ukrainian women have had to face in the past few months. At any time in the history of mankind, women and children have had to bear the biggest brunt of war.
So when we look at the brave Ukrainian women, we see unwavering courage and unnerving strength. Many of them have volunteered to join their nation’s territorial defense forces to protect their homeland and families just like their predecessors did centuries ago.
This exceptional story of bravery and strength has brought us to our next human who hails from the valiant town of Berdychiv in Ukraine. So here’s introducing our next human in the series, Anna Olizarivska, a customer support specialist with a keen interest in Emotional Intelligence analysis and research. She has dabbled in various volunteering works for mental health organizations and is an art aficionado who has been campaigning ardently on all platforms against misinformation and falsified facts about her homeland.
Growing up in Berdychiv
The idyllic town of Berdychiv is where Anna grew up. She narrates to us how her hometown had several iconic and religious monuments and among them is a 17th-century icon of Mother Mary. The revered icon has been famous for its association with miracles and has become a symbol of what the town represents. This historical town also has a unique Jewish background and Anna fondly recollects working in a Jewish Museum in one of her earliest jobs.
She gleefully describes how the famous French novelist and playwright, Honore de Balzac, got married to his lover Countess Hanska in the Church of St. Barbara in Berdychiv. Her love for the town she spend most of her childhood in is reflected in the vast knowledge she has gained through the years working in art galleries or museums as well as studying art history.
Her school was located on the outskirts of the city and was called ‘School #7’, which is a unique way of identifying schools in her homeland. She remembers how a lot of people did not even know it existed.
She would say, ‘Our school was small and cozy but we were smart kids who would compete in a lot of national-level competitions.‘
The bright young Anna represented her school in many competitions ranging from dramatics to quizzes. And her class teacher, the amazing Tolkovets Olena, would encourage them to get involved in different activities.
One of her favorite mentors was her geography teacher in school, Melnichuk Olga, who encouraged her to explore the country. Her fondness for Ukrainian literature and language has been passed down from Tarnopolska Olena who taught the subject and her intrigue in historical studies stems from her history teacher Lysak Katerina.
These wonderful troop of teachers heavily influenced the young Anna to explore the world of art and history. And she was always the favorite of her teachers.
‘I really liked studying back in those days.‘ , she would confess.
But it wasn’t always sunshine in her life.
She narrates how her parents divorced when she was two. She would stay with her mom in Berdychiv while her dad shifted base to the eastern part of Ukraine where he has research work. Her mom would work various odd jobs to take care of the family. And her doting grandparents Olga and Victor would try their best to fill their home with laughter and warmth.
The loving Olga and her husband Victor had a unique love story of their own. They met in a dormitory of a sugar factory during the Soviet times. And have been inseparable for almost fifty years now. Their union has seen them face their differences with grace and patience and has taught the younger generation what true love looks like.
Her grandparents come from different religious affiliations. Her grandma is from the Orthodox church while her grandpa is a Catholic. And Anna fondly recalls celebrating both Christmas and Easter holidays as the family honored both their respective traditions and she was glad to have such a harmonious setup while growing up.
She would say, ‘I was really happy to celebrate both holidays as I would get a lot of presents.’
She remembers holidays vividly in her grandparent’s home which was nearby a river with lots of free space for kids to run around. On such occasions, the caring Olga would always keep aside two kinds of potato dishes — a mashed one for little Anna and a fried one for her cousin. She recalls giving small little performances of singing or dancing for her grandparents and would get rewarded with coins.
‘We would head out to the shops nearby and get ourselves sweets or Colas‘, she reminisces.
It was indeed the best childhood she could ever have.
University life in Kiev
Her university days exposed her to a new environment far away from her idyllic hometown. She recalls how the initial days were hard being so far away from family and friends. She had applied to the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which had quite a low acceptance rate, on the insistence of her beloved babusya ‘Olga’.
Her grandma would say, ‘ Just apply and we will see.’
She expresses how her babusya has always been a source of strength for her through the years. And manifesting Olga‘s unwavering faith in her granddaughter’s abilities, Anna did get accepted into the prestigious college.
As a young eighteen-year-old, she recalls how clueless she was in choosing the subjects she wanted to major in. She had taken cultural studies as she had really loved reading and discovering new details about her heritage in her history and geography classes at school.
She would express ,’I wanted to study something that interested me.’
The faculty’s method of teaching and the curriculum were new to her and she recalls how she had to work hard to keep up with the pace of the class. Her classmates were from the best schools in Ukraine and she struggled to keep up with the exposure they already had to their subjects. Being taught by world-renowned professors and experts on their subjects did give her a new perspective on the unique cultural heritage of her country.
Her love for the arts and literature stems from the influence of her wonderful teachers like Prof. Olexandr Ivashyna.
She would say, ‘The professor’s viewpoint on life and history was very provocative. And we had endless debates and conversations in his class.‘
He gave them space to form their own thinking and all their perspectives were respected . She recalls working on several projects with the professor and he has been one of the most influential mentors in her life. She describes how he was the only teacher willing to take on her project about ‘Selfies‘, while the more conservative teachers stayed away from taking on such a millennial invention. He taught her how to break new boundaries and her fondest memory of Uni revolves around his refreshing classes.
Art and history have always fascinated her ever since she could remember . She recounts volunteering in youth camps and getting an opportunity to travel across the country. The experiences she affirms made her realize the rich history that has always surrounded Ukraine.
She would say, ‘History made us connect with people.‘
She recalls an incident in Moldova where she had to correct a museum guide about the famous ancient Cucuteni–Trypillian culture , which is considered one of the oldest civilizations to exist in Europe. She laughs and insists how it was a pain to hear facts about history that are completely false and she couldn’t just let people go home with wrong information.
Her Uni did give her exposure to many such invaluable experiences and one such experience she recalls was in organizing cultural festivals and charity events. She would go on to be involved in several NGOs which gave her a chance to volunteer for organizations tackling mental health issues.
Diving into the tech world
Her passion and interest in the art world did not necessarily translate to great employment opportunities. She recalls the hours she was putting into managing art galleries and how working on art projects did not give her the gratification she was looking for.
Within a couple of years, she felt burnt out and her willpower was hanging by a thread. She remembers how that phase was really tough on her.
She needed a reset.
So she took a gap year and volunteered for an organization in the Netherlands that deals with mental disabilities. Her work with patients dealing with Down’s syndrome and Autism really inspired her to find the answers she was looking for in her life and career.
Anna was now determined to find a career that she would be interested in for the rest of her life.
She would say, ‘Our work takes a huge part of our lives. I wanted to do something that motivated me.’
The tech industry was something that always fascinated her. Her educational background in arts limited the roles she could apply for but it didn’t stop her from applying for several opportunities that had limited technical skills required.
It was in those uncertain times that her family’s unwavering faith in her would keep her spirits up.
The wise Olga would tell her , ‘Захочеш — будеш.’
‘If you want to be — you will be.’
She recalls reading up about computer science and various technologies till the wee hours of the morning to crack her first job interview. The initial stages were hard but she was resilient that this time around she will work for something she was passionate about.
And that’s how she would get into the customer support world.
Customer support services is a unique domain in the world of tech that involves interacting with users or customers of products and services. And she describes how important it is sometimes to know how to handle testy situations and learn to see the bright side of things.
She would say, ‘People are unpredictable. You never know how tomorrow will be.’
And that’s where she would find her passion for research in Emotional Intelligence/ EQ which has become an indispensable topic in the booming tech industry. This particular domain is something she would love to explore more in the future as the field of Artificial Intelligence(AI) continues to grow in leaps and bounds.
She would express, ‘I believe that technology has to work for humanity, not against it’.
The tech space has led her to meet wonderful mentors such as Sophia Tovstolis, who represents the increasing number of tech-savvy women in their homeland. These wonderful humans are navigating a space heavily dominated by one gender and making a mark in their own way.
Being a proud feminist, she describes how tackling the sexist world is still a task and how toxic masculinity has to go in the times we live in. The various issues in the tech domain have made her realize how important it is to stand up for equality and representation.
She would express, ‘We need to believe in ourselves more.’
Fighting a hybrid war
War in the 21st century is no longer limited to the conventional ideas of warfare. It has become more complicated and cyber-warfare is redefining the meaning of war in the increasingly complex technological world we live in.
She would confess how her background in history and her knowledge of the Kyivan Rus has helped her to be a part of a team that tackles propaganda and misinformation about her country. The war isn’t just limited to the battlefields anymore.
She would say, ‘We are all trying to do our part in our own way.‘
Everybody that she knows has been volunteering in different ways. Some have opted to join the territorial defense while others have joined the IT army. Each one of them trying to contribute with their best abilities to defend a country they have known their entire lives.
Her role as she describes is the war on misinformation and she has been zealously campaigning on several digital platforms to bring out the truth about her homeland. She recalls being invited to speak on Australian radio stations, Brazilian TV shows, some blogging sites and various Youtube channels. Some of them have been broadcasted to seven million viewers and she admits it has been an intense global campaign to bring out the facts and truth about what Ukrainians are fighting for.
‘We all have our battlefields.’, she declares.
She recalls how the tech space in Ukraine was thriving before the war started. Her homeland had been one of the flourishing breeding grounds for start-ups and new inventions. Some of the famous startups that have come out of this nation include Preply, Gitlab, Grammarly, and Ajax systems to name a few. And this promising tech ecosystem has immensely helped the country defend itself in cyberspace.
The one-of-a-kind Ukrainian ministry of digital transformations has shown the world the importance of technology in governance. Its successful digital defense projects have thrown light on how the world needs reformation in cybersecurity.
Hopes of rebuilding a nation
Being raised by a strong-willed single mother who with her quiet assurance made Anna feel like she could do anything, they had created a world they could call their own. The resilient Ludmila had finally set up her own kindergarten school and had got back to her love for teaching. The doting grandma Olga who firmly believed in her beloved granddaughter had seen her successfully switch jobs and make a mark in her workplace. That was until the war tear up all that they ever knew and built over the years.
She would exclaim, ‘We will do whatever it takes to rebuild our nation.‘
She lives in the hope that someday they will get to rebuild all that they have lost. It’s a hope shared by millions across the globe who have found their homes destroyed in a war that they didn’t choose to be a part of.
The legendary feminist writer and poet, Lesya Ukrainka, had beautifully written about the importance of having hope in her famous poem ‘Contra Spem Spero‘ which can be loosely translated as ‘Against all hope I hope’.
On this poor, indigent ground
I shall sow flowers of flowing colors;
I shall sow flowers even amidst the frost,
And water them with my bitter tears.
And from those burning tears will melt
The frozen crust, so hard and strong,
Perhaps the flowers will bloom and
Bring about for me a joyous spring.
Unto a winding, flinty mountain
Shall I bear my weighty stone,
Yet, even bearing such a crushing weight,
Will I sing a joyful song.
–Lesya Ukrainka (Contra Spem Spero/Без надії сподіваюсь)
Just like their historical counterparts in the olden days of the Kyivan Rus, the women of Ukraine are fighting a battle once more for their existence, their rights, and their lives. Sometimes wielding guns for protection, sometimes providing solace to people that have lost loved ones and children that have separated from their families, sometimes volunteering to feed thousands that have become homeless, sometimes sitting in front of their computers tackling a world of misinformation and cyber attacks, sometimes nursing wounds of brave soldiers and civilians caught in the war zone and sometimes quietly wiping off their tears as they bury people close to their hearts.
This is their reality.
This is their battlefield.
Like a medieval princess had shown them the way centuries ago to fight for what you love, there is no stopping the brave Ukrainian women from fighting for their truth and freedom.
Contra Spem Spero
A hope against all hope.