Nikita Grigorov (Harriman Resident in Paris, ’22 – ’23) was a student in the Department of Russian Philology at Donetsk National University when Russian-backed separatists invaded Donbas in late March 2014. That summer, he fled to Kyiv by train with his father, his mother following a few months later, and enrolled at Taras Shevchenko National University, majoring in Eastern European Studies. Since then, Grigorov has become a journalist, editor, writer of fiction and screenplays, playwright, and an independent filmmaker. He was also a volunteer with the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital.
Currently, Grigorov is our Paul Klebnikov Fellow at Columbia Global Center (Paris) and the Institute for Ideas and Imagination. He’s working on a book about his military medical experiences, and the experiences of the doctors and volunteers he’s worked with.
Grigorov and I spoke over Zoom in English and Ukrainian (with the generous help of Mark Andryczyk, who volunteered to interpret) on February 15, 2023. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. An expanded version will appear in a forthcoming episode of our podcast, Voices of Ukraine.
[You can meet Grigorov at our March 27 event, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture, which will highlight the work of Harriman residents in Paris!]
— Masha Udensiva-Brenner
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Can you talk about what your life was like in 2014?
Nikita Grigorov: I was an ordinary student at university studying literature. I wrote articles, read books. I wasn’t thinking about the political situation. But when the Russian provocation started and the local separatists took over, I was shocked.
It was tough for me, because I really liked Russian literature and I always thought of it as something that represented a higher cultural civilization.
MUB: What do you mean by that?
NG: What I meant is a higher level of humanistic ideals. There’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Russian philosophy. All of it focused on idealistic topics—God, moral things. And it rang true for me. And when I saw these people who came to Donetsk, it was terrible. They were absolutely immoral.
I’m not surprised about the massacres in Bucha and the destruction of Mariupol. Because I had already seen these people. And they’re very scary.
MUB: Can you describe some of the things you saw in Donetsk?
NG: I remember when I first saw the Russians, it was late May and I was at the university studying in the Russian philology department. It was in the center of the city. After my classes, I went out and I saw a huge group of people in tracksuits with bats and brass knuckles. I could tell they weren’t from the city because they seemed disoriented. And that’s the first time I saw the Russians.
MUB: What did the ensuing weeks look like?
NG: There were all kinds of demonstrations. Crowds organized near government buildings to protest the new Ukrainian government, to protest what had happened on Maidan. Then there were two or three pro-Ukrainian protests, tens of thousands of people gathered.
But the pro-Ukrainian activists were attacked, several killed, and it became very dangerous. One of my close friends from the lyceum where I’d studied had his skull cracked during the fighting. He survived, he’s a famous political analyst now.
MUB: Did you participate in the protests?
NG: I wasn’t in the square. But I went to the protests at some cafes and our university. It was a real struggle and nobody understood what was happening. We had lived thinking that the Russians were our brothers. Our best friends. Almost the same as us. It was normal in our region to say you were Russian.
But here they were, going into Ukraine and killing people. Some of the cleverest people in this region, this country. It was absolutely crazy.
MUB: Can you describe the attitudes in your immediate circles?
NG: I studied Russian philology and most people in this major were pro-Russian, of course. And this was the main reason why we started to fight with them. One time they caught me and dragged me to a government building where there was a torture chamber. Before this, we were really close friends, and they said, “You were our friend. We will give you one more chance.” And they let me go.
NG: Yes. These were Russian literature students, and they couldn’t separate their studies about culture and literature and the political process in their own country. For them it was sacred, like the cross. It was Russian ideology. If you speak Russian, you are Russian.
One of my closest friends supported Maidan. He understood the sense in the Revolution of Dignity. But when Russians entered Ukraine, he started to support them, because his family did and he felt a lot of pressure to change his mind. It was very painful for me.
MUB: You were in the same department, why do you think you had such a drastically different view of what was happening than your classmates did?
NG: That’s a really difficult question. I read a lot of Western literature. And I didn’t understand it clearly, but I knew that another point of view existed. I had friends outside of the department who held different views.
MUB: And what did your family think?
NG: My parents and I relocated together from Donetsk in 2014. My father and I left first, in July 2014, after the mobilization started. The idea that we could be mobilized by these Russian militants, by these absolutely evil people, was the most horrible thing. We left on the last train from Donetsk to Kyiv. It was really dangerous because the train station was being bombed.
MUB: Did you know at the time that it would be the last train?
NG: No. No, of course not.
MUB: Can you describe what your last weeks in Donetsk looked like? The Ukrainian government started to retaliate. I imagine there were explosions and threats all around you. Can you talk about that?
NG: Yes, we didn’t understand clearly what was happening to us. We lived near the Donetsk airport; it was maybe three bus stops away. And near us was the Putilov Bridge, a very important bridge that was bombed at the start of the fighting.
One day, I walked out of my house and saw a big car with people, all of whom had been killed. There was a lot of blood and corpses. It was the first time I saw dead soldiers. You know, you have your smartphone, you have McDonald’s, you have social media, you have books, and then one day, you just come out of your house and you see dead soldiers. It was just impossible.
And now, things are much more dangerous all over our country than they were in Donetsk in 2014.
MUB: And how soon after you saw that car of fallen soldiers did you leave Donetsk?
NG: Maybe a month? It was really chaotic. I remember planes. Military planes. Street shootings. One time my father walked through the street and tripped over a Russian sniper.
There was a moment when Ukrainian troops entered Donetsk and we thought they would just take back the main government building and it would be finished. Because these militants, they were really weak, socially unstable—alcoholics, crazy people. But then the Ukrainian troops just left. And we didn’t know why. If Ukraine had a stronger army at the time, stronger leadership, they could have fought off the Russians.
MUB: And when you were leaving Donetsk with your father on the last train did you think that you would be coming back anytime soon?
NG: Yeah. We thought so. We hoped that our army would liberate Donetsk quickly. And my mom worked as a hospital doctor and stayed behind because she really liked the job, and we thought we were leaving for only a short time. But then we finally understood it clearly: this was going to be a long war. So, my mother left.
MUB: How did people in Kyiv treat you?
NG: There were various reactions. Some people didn’t want to speak to us because they thought we bore some responsibility for the former president of Ukraine [Viktor Yanukovych, who is from Donetsk] and for the war. That we didn’t fight hard enough. But there were other people who understood it clearly and they’re nice guys.
MUB: Did you eventually adapt to life there?
NG: I adapted at a minimum level. I don’t really like Kyiv. It’s a city where I had a lot of big problems—hunger, living without a home. And of course, when I lived in Kyiv, every street, every building, every cafe, reminded me of all these things. I always wanted to leave.
MUB: Where did you want to go?
NG: Lviv, for instance, it’s a very nice city. But my father, he’s an artist, and in Kyiv he had the opportunity to sell his paintings, and this was really important for my family. This is why we didn’t move. And we bought our apartment in Irpin in 2020. And when the invasion started, my parents didn’t want to believe it. It’s the second apartment their lives from which they’re facing the same scenario.
I decided we had to evacuate, and I just took them, basically by their necks, and just forced them out into the street because they didn’t want to leave this apartment. But I understood it was very dangerous. And our apartment was destroyed a bit, but my cousin’s apartment nearby, was completely destroyed. There’s nothing left. Only one green vase.
MUB: When you evacuated, what was happening in Irpin?
NG: The situation was changing every minute. And we fled like in a movie: explosions, shootings. We spent all night in a shelter, and the guys from the Territorial Defense told us we might never be able to leave because Russian troops were already in the city and there were no lights. It was the last day it was under Ukrainian control. But we got out and I brought my parents to one of my friends in Ivano-Frankivsk, who’d been a volunteer since 2014 and runs a big house for refugees. And then I returned to Kyiv and started working in a military hospital.
MUB: The Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital you’re writing a book about?
NG: Yes, I’ve knows this guy for many years, since it was first established.
MUB: Can you talk about what you did there?
NG: I volunteered as a security guard for the hospital at night, I did some writing about the hospital and its work, we made a documentary film about it. In the first part of March, we thought Kyiv might be occupied by Russia. We saw the first killings. And I knew a man, a really good person, a translator who knew a lot of languages and was interested in literature and philosophy, who strapped explosives to his body and detonated a Russian tank.
MUB: That’s horrifying. How long did you stay in Kyiv working for the mobile hospital?
NG: Until July, when I crossed the border and went to Paris. I had obligations in Prague where I studied for two years at Charles University before the full-scale invasion, mainly remotely from my kitchen in Irpin because of COVID.
MUB: How did you get across the border? How were you allowed to leave Ukraine?
NG: Because of this Harriman residency and also because I was a student, and students were allowed to cross the border.
MUB: What has it been like for you to be abroad while the war is happening?
NG: It’s very hard for me. Part of me is relieved, because there’s a high level of social pressure in Ukraine, and it’s a really difficult atmosphere. Of course, nobody wants to get it in their shoulder. At the same time, I have this feeling of guilt. One of my closest friends from Kyiv, a classmate from university who’s a beautiful poet, is a soldier now. When the invasion started, I was in the hospital in Kyiv, and he was trying to get a position in the Territorial Defense. We were in the same position, performing the same level of civil activity.
But now I’m in Paris, I’m living a busy life and he’s on the frontline. I have a lot of friends who are fighting now or doing other useful things.
I am also trying to be useful. I’m working to promote Ukrainian culture, which has not been visible to the Western world. But it’s not the same, of course, when you are in Paris and not in Ukraine.
Grigorov, along with his fellow Harriman Residents, will join us at the Institute in late March for two campus events: an evening of discussion and celebration at Low Library, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture (March 27), and a poetry reading and discussion, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow: An Evening With Ukrainian Poet Natalka Bilotserkivets (March 31).