Far from the postcard palm trees of St. Croix, Russian soldiers walk two-by-two through the streets of Yulia Ivanova’s hometown, shooting at anyone protesting or wearing the yellow and blue national colors. Few in Kherson speak out now, she said.
Ivanova’s cardiologist father walks winding side streets to the hospital. Soldiers harass drivers and confiscate cars. Her brother, once an auto mechanic, now spends his days searching for food for his pregnant wife in this region once called Europe’s breadbasket. His auto shop is too far to walk and near the site of an intense battle when Russia invaded the city on March 3.
In a way, Ivanova feels lucky. Her hometown Kherson is short on food and medical supplies but at least her family is alive, not actively being bombed like so many of their countrymen. On the other hand, she wants every Russian soldier photographed, their names and crimes recorded. Those alleged war crimes now include tying up civilians and shooting them over mass graves.
“Everyone has to be punished,” the 30-year-old English teacher said from her Carambola home Wednesday afternoon. “We see these soldiers as criminals.”
Ivanova moved to St. Croix in 2021, marrying local lawyer J. Russell Pate earlier this year. What should have been a time of joy and tranquility is anything but. She doesn’t sleep much, spending 18 hours each day consumed with the news, replaying missed opportunities to get her family out before the invasion.
Her outlet is a blog: PlantSunflowers, where she posts links to news from inside Ukraine and translates Ukrainian-language stories into English. It’s vital for the world to know what is happening inside Ukraine as Russian forces do what they can to spread misinformation and squelch descent, Ivanova said.
She reads, translates, and shares reports of Russian troops’ looting, raping, and murdering.
Local leaders — mayors, city council members, anyone with the public’s ear — have been kidnapped and almost certainly killed, Ivanova said. The photos on her website pull no punches, showing in detail people killed on their bicycles, in their cars, buildings reduced to rubble, and bodies dumped in ditches.
She resisted the urge to call her website “HangPutin,” opting instead to invoke the Ukrainian national flower quickly developing a double meaning. Early in the invasion, Ukrainians were reportedly urging Russian troops to carry sunflower seeds in their pockets so when they died their bodies would be useful fertilizer.
As important as connecting outsiders to what’s happening in Ukraine, Ivanova is a lifeline to those inside with no other escape. When she’s able to reach friends and family in the occupied regions, they delight in jokes and casual conversations. This modicum of normalcy is a luxurious link to a world away from the war.
“Little conversations mean a lot. My cousin is taking care of two kids, and she says, ‘Yulia, there’s no one I really can talk to so can you please just talk to me. I’m scared,’” Ivanova said.
Although the fighting in Kherson is essentially over, Ivanova’s father told her of times wounded Russian soldiers were brought to his hospital. They were not asking for assistance; they were demanding it at gunpoint. A few days ago, one military leader, a general, her father said, fired a pistol into the ceiling of the hospital when a nurse entered his room.
“They’re very hostile,” she said. “They don’t have doctors. That’s the thing.”
The invading forces might feel more comfortable in Ivanova’s hometown because most people there speak both Russian and Ukrainian. Located in the east, along the Dnipro River, Kherson used to be a favorite of regional tourists on summer holiday. It’s also less than three hours’ drive from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, essentially starting the war that vastly escalated in February of this year.
To Ivanova, the most noticeable change after the invasion of Crimea was the checkpoints on roads south of the city and the great proliferation of yellow and blue Ukrainian flags in the area.
“People put up Ukrainian flags to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want what happened in Crimea to happen here.’ I remember that everyone was very, very concerned,” she said. “Thinking back to that time, I remember that my only thought was, oh my gosh, I hope what happened to Crimea doesn’t happen to my region.”
Her father, like many around the world, thought Russia would never be so bold as to try the same land grab on a country as vast as Ukraine — a geography and population only slightly smaller than Texas.
“He said, ‘Yulia, this is really stupid to attack Ukraine. There will not be war. Trust me,’” Ivanova recalled.
Now, with world leaders denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, his propaganda machine is denying the targeting of civilians and painting Ukrainians as neo-Nazis. Ivanova is pushing for the truth to be told.
She’s found support in her adopted U.S. Virgin Islands community. Most people are curious and sympathetic when they learn she is Ukrainian, which she appreciates. But a few have turned their sympathies into concrete action.
St. Thomas attorney Peter Lynch, who described himself as a friend of a friend, helped Ivanova set up the PlantSunflowers website, both to counter disinformation and help gather and disseminate supplies for Ukrainians.
“She was a natural person to go to, to connect these key people to get the word out,” Lynch said. “It’s a matter of getting information out so that people know the opportunities for giving assistance. I think people want to; they just don’t know how.”
Would-be donators want to be confident they aren’t giving support to scam artists, he said, so he has vetted organizations accepting donations through the website, making sure any support — money, supplies, manpower — will go directly to where it is needed.
The website is also an avenue to spread truth to areas that are only receiving propaganda.
“This is, hopefully, an opportunity to get through to the Russian people and others who may not have any other opportunity to see this as what it is. Obviously, we don’t have a problem with the Russian people, it’s their totalitarian, blood-thirsty leadership,” Lunch said.
He and his law partner at Fuller & Lynch Advocacy Group are looking to help people displaced by the war.
“This is not going to be fixed overnight. We’re looking at the long term and how we can give assistance, whether that’s looking for host families or possibly attorneys who can donate their efforts to craft some sort of visa application. The landscape is changing as we speak,” Lynch said.