Oksana Riwnyj remembers life under Soviet rule. “When I was at university, I wasn’t allowed to speak up and say what I think. We couldn’t go to church or celebrate Christmas. It was very tough, especially for the young people,” the 58-year-old primary school teacher said.
Now, the news of Russia assembling troops on the Ukrainian border triggers memories that bring her to tears. “I never thought something like this could happen. It’s too horrible to even think about,” she said.
Riwnyj is one of about 70,000 Ukrainians living in the UK who are watching anxiously to see what will unfold over the coming days.
The mother-of-two lived for the first two decades of her life in western Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, which was toppled in 1991.
She moved to the UK after meeting her husband, Stefan, a gas engineer, 25 years ago, and has a happy life in London, where – as a teacher at St Mary’s Ukrainian Saturday school – she is at the heart of the expatriate community.
But while safe on UK soil, as the crisis in her home country intensifies, she is struggling to carry on with life as normal.
“I’m trying to go about daily life but it’s a very stressful and worrying situation,” Riwnyj said. “I can’t sleep because all my family are over there.”
For Diana Palamarchuk, 17, who grew up in Ternopil Oblast in western Ukraine but moved to the UK six years ago, watching the crisis play out on screen is difficult to take in.
“It doesn’t really feel real because I haven’t been there and seen it with my own eyes. When you’re watching it on TV, it feels like you’re watching a film,” the A-level student said.
While teachers at her school ask her how she is, most of the other pupils have no idea what’s going on in Ukraine.
“Some of my friends know about it but not many,” she said. “The only thing people know about Ukraine is Chernobyl, and lots of people think Ukraine is poor, with dumb people. But it isn’t. It’s a beautiful country and Ukrainians are good people.”
She said seeing what was happening was “really tough” because she still has family there.
But she has been heartened by statements from British and US politicians warning Vladimir Putin of the potential consequences of any aggression. “Hopefully, it will make Russia think twice about it,” she said.
Iryna Pereginyak, 41, a learning support assistant, is also trying to remain positive. But her brother, 34, remains in Ukraine – and faces being called to fight if there is a war.
“I am a very hopeful person but we are living in fear and anticipation of the worst,” she said.
“Sometimes I have to just switch off and escape and watch a film, but there is no feeling of complete peace. It’s constant.”
Vlodko Pawluk, an administrator from Barnet, London, and chair of the London branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, is coordinating efforts to raise money that could be used to pay for supplies for those affected if the worst does happen, including soldiers serving on the frontline and people displaced by conflict.
He said he was grateful for support from the UK and the US, but that many Ukrainians felt a little “bitter”.
“Everybody knows this has been going on for a while, since the annexation of Crimea. But it feels like for eight years, the west has done nothing,” he said.
“These sorts of conflicts belong to the last century, not in Europe in 2022. This could be a full-scale, bloody war.”
Natalia Ravlyuk, 41, a retail manager originally from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, described the situation as “very scary”.
“I don’t know what to say to my relatives. I’m chaotically thinking, ‘What can we do here?’ We are demonstrating every week near the Russian embassy and at Downing St.
“I personally feel guilty being here because they are unsafe there and I’m safe here,” she said.
Watching events unfold from 1,400 miles away, she feels “helpless”.
“I just want to do something and everything will be back to normal,” she said. “But what can we do?”