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IDEAS

The riddle of identity in wartime

The war in Ukraine has shown us that nothing strengthens a sense of who we are like conflict.

A Ukrainian flag waved over a house destroyed by shelling in the village of Moshchun, in the Kyiv region, on June 2, on the 99th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.SERGEI CHUZAVKOV/AFP via Getty Images

My friend Anna and I come from the same country. We were born in the same year and were wrapped in identical baby blankets tied with pink ribbons upon our release from nearly identical maternity hospitals. We didn’t know of each other’s existence until our teens, but we grew up speaking the same language, watching the same movies, reading the same books, and learning from the same textbooks at school. We learned the same history. When we were about 10, the big country where we lived split into several. Thereafter, there was a border between us. The split happened without much animosity, so we didn’t feel it very strongly at the time — at least not on my side of the border. Anna and I still spoke the same language, watched the same movies, read the same books.

When I was 15, I boarded a plane in my hometown of St. Petersburg alongside other teenagers, each of us part of a program that let Jewish teenagers from Russia and the former Soviet Republics emigrate to Israel ahead of their parents. Our plane made a stop in Kyiv, where Anna and some other kids boarded. I don’t remember that part of the journey very well because I was busy throwing up. I do remember that when we landed in Israel and were waiting to be picked up by the representatives of our boarding schools, it turned out that Anna and I were going to the same school. And so that’s how we met and became friends. We’re still friends, 25 years later.

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Until recently, I didn’t think very much about the curious fact that Anna and I were born in the same country but now come from different countries. After all, Anna, like most Ukrainian Jews, belonged to the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Whatever our differences, they were never as much at the front of my mind as all that we continue to have in common.

Yet our differences are very much on my mind lately.

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Before the war, people would sometimes mistakenly say that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are from Russia, using “Russia” as a synonym for “former Soviet Union.” Anna and other Ukrainians would be annoyed but would brush it off. Since Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion began in February, however, Anna, like other Ukrainians, finds the same mistake unbearable. There is a real-time lesson in the political geography of Eastern Europe going on right now.

Like many Russians, I also have ties to Ukraine. Actually, it is perhaps a fluke that I grew up in Russia and not in Ukraine. My whole extended Jewish family lived in the Mykolaiv area for generations. My parents were the only ones who relocated to St. Petersburg, after my father lost his job due to antisemitic discrimination at work. (Not that Russia offered any respite from antisemitism.) We visited our family in Mykolaiv every summer until emigrating to Israel. Given my family’s roots in Ukraine, Putin’s war hurts me deeply, too. But it’s not the same for me as it is for Anna.

After all, I didn’t have to witness on TV the demolition of neighborhoods where I grew up. I didn’t have to coordinate a logistically complex long-distance operation to get my elderly father out of Kyiv and to Israel via Romania. When another uninformed Russian posts a comment on Facebook that says “It’s not as simple as it seems,” I get upset, but Anna gets furious.

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Every day that this war continues, I feel myself becoming more “from Russia” while Anna becomes more Ukrainian, even though neither of us has been to our country of birth for 25 years. That’s because nothing strengthens a sense of identity like conflict.

Ultimately, just as antisemitism over the centuries helped define Jewish identity, the tragic irony of Putin’s horrific war is that it is helping to define the Ukrainian identity that the Russian president wants the world to believe is a fictional concept.

Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer in Israel who grew up in Russia. She is working on a memoir about language, identity, and belonging. Follow her on Facebook.