Andrey Shirokih, 13, resting after playing tug of war at Stoyanka near Kiev on May 11, 2023.
They wear old helmets, and their weapons don’t kill anyone. And yet the war they’re playing out is very real to Ukrainian kids.
With its trail of destruction and suffering, the Russian invasion has affected the way children play and the way children interact.
“I really like to play war. I want to grow up to be a real war hero,” says Maksim Mudrak, a 10-year-old boy, in a child-size uniform with a helmet that is too big for him and a plastic ‘s gun. ,
Maxim’s father, who was not in the army, was killed near Kiev at the beginning of the Russian invasion, one day he was out to deliver supplies to volunteers, the family says.
The boy’s grandmother says that since the start of the invasion and the death of his father, Oleksiy Mudrak, on March 4, 2022, at the age of 40, Maxim has become increasingly interested in the war.
Her 72-year-old grandmother Valentina says, “She was very affected by her father’s death. Maxim thinks about her all the time. He goes to the cemetery and starts crying.”
For Maksim, becoming a soldier is a way of perpetuating the memory of his father, and he has a very clear idea of who the criminals were.
“I see Russians as my worst enemies,” says Maxim, who lives with his grandmother near Kiev in Stoyanka, and maintains contact with his mother.
– Russians are ‘bad’ –
The war meant for many Ukrainian children the loss of loved ones, separation from their schools or their homes, and exposure to all kinds of horrors.
Similarly, according to UN figures, more than 500 children have died since the invasion began.
Psychologist Katerina Goltzberg points out that children have always played war in conflict situations, and this resourcefulness is a way of processing their experiences.
And while all Ukrainian children have been affected by the war to a greater or lesser extent, it remains to be seen to what extent these experiences will lead to lifelong trauma.
Lesia Shevchenko says the only thing her 8-year-old daughter Dana asks when she meets other kids is: “What’s your name? Let’s play!”
But on a family trip to the Bulgarian coast, just after the invasion of Ukraine began, Shevchenko noticed that her daughter began to grapple with another question: country of origin.
In the case of the Russian children, Dana turned and quietly walked away.
“I don’t feel like talking to them, that’s all. Maybe because I think all Russians are a certain way, and because they’re bad for me,” explains Dana.
His mother, a 49-year-old dentist, says she didn’t teach him this behavior, and on the contrary, showed him that he couldn’t blindly hate himself.
But Dana is traumatized by the war, and the bombing has left her very frightened by the loud noises.
– “I want revenge” –
In another vein, Irina Kovalenko has instead taught her children that Russians are collectively responsible for the war, and that those who are “good” must prove it.
His 6-year-old daughter Sofia tells it this way: “My mother told me that they are dropping bombs on Ukraine from Russia.”
“Mom also told me that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is very bad. When he was a kid he beat cats and dogs and then when he grew up, he started killing people,” she said.
That’s how Kovalenko, a 33-year-old nurse, addresses her children. “They need to know who they live with. Ukraine will always have a border, and Russia will always be our neighbor.”
One of the boys playing war with Maksim, the boy who lost his father at the start of the invasion, goes further.
“I really want to avenge the soldiers who died at the front,” says 13-year-old Andrey Shirokih, in homemade armor and a military uniform.
He dreams of being a soldier, and states that he has no interest in going to school except to learn military tactics. He said, “I want to do to the Russians what they’ve done to us.”