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“I’m ashamed to be gone”: Ukrainians in France celebrated Easter in a difficult context

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Sitting on a bench next to her daughter, Nadia, 44, cut a good figure. She smiled, chatted, enjoyed the sun… but her heart wasn’t really in it. Like all Ukrainians who came this Sunday, April 24, to Saint Volodymyr the Great Cathedral in Paris, the forties celebrated Easter. But this year the party had a bitter taste. That of war.

Eastern Christians who follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar celebrate Easter after Catholics. This is the case of Orthodox Christians but also of those who claim to be Greek-Catholic, such as the Ukrainians of the parish of Saint-Volodymyr the Great. This year, their Easter celebration took place two months to the day after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This did not prevent this cathedral in the 6th arrondissement from changing into a Ukrainian enclave in the heart of Paris, for a morning. Arms laden with baskets filled with chocolates, fruits and traditional cakes, the faithful came to sing, pray and have their food blessed, as tradition dictates.

Volodymyr Zelensky:

But it was not enough that his tongue resounded all around her for Nadia to feel at home. Arrived in France three weeks ago, after passing through Poland, this resident of kyiv fled her country with her son and daughter, aged 14 and 12. The rest of the family did not make the trip.

“My mother decided to stay. You know, she’s lived her whole life there. It’s the first time I’ve been separated from her and my husband for Easter. I can’t call it a party. This is not our home.”

Nadia came to France because she could join friends there. And if she says she is relieved to know her children are safe, she remains entirely focused on Ukraine. Evoking with admiration the Ukrainian women who remained in the country, she compared them to “suns” before letting go: “I am ashamed to have left”.

With modesty, Nadia described the grief that does not leave her, the administrative difficulties that make life difficult for her in France, and the fear of not seeing her country again for a long time. “I thought of leaving my children here, in safety, to return alone to Ukraine. It’s my role to be there, I know I could make myself useful. But I have to think about my son and my daughter, about their education. We need the next generation to be strong, because everything will have to be rebuilt”.

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A “stupid war”

From the height of her 81 years, Tetiana also bases all her hopes on youth. “It’s our future, they will spread Ukrainian culture,” she said, pointing to the children running in the cathedral garden. Born in kyiv, this Ukrainian violinist taught at the National Conservatory of kyiv but also at the Sorbonne. She has lived in France since 1989 and when she talks about Ukraine, her voice vibrates with pride.

“Our civilization is older than that of Russia”, she underlines in the back cover of her book, the “Dictionary of lovers of Ukraine”, to be published by Plon editions, on May 12. “For more than three centuries, we have been considered the province of an empire [l’Union soviétique, ndlr] who took us even to our name”.

“The Ukrainian nation has always continued to exist through folklore, traditions,” Tetiana explained. This is why it was important to celebrate Easter this Sunday. To “show support for the brothers and sisters ‘out there’. Show that we are there. We are resisting.” This “stupid war” will sound “the end of Russia”, the old lady is convinced of it. “You will see, she predicted. It may not be tomorrow, but it will happen.

This defeat of the Russian invader will undoubtedly go through European solidarity with Ukraine. “France did not disappoint me,” said Tetiana. But the help provided, although valuable, may be “a little late”. “The West could have woken up earlier, with what happened in Crimea and Georgia,” said the former professor.

An opinion shared by Dima. Came to France 6 years ago, as part of his studies in international law, this 28-year-old young man notably underlined the “strategic fault” committed in 2008. During the NATO summit in Bucharest (Romania) this that year, Germany and France, led by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy respectively at the time, spoke out against the launch of the accession process for Ukraine and Georgia.

But, “the French position is changing today in a positive direction”, according to Dima. He refers to the military aid given to Ukraine, as well as the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. The young man notably bases a lot of hopes on the embargo on Russian oil, mentioned by the French Minister of Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire.

The challenge of the French presidential

A crucial step, but which could not have seen the light of day without the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election, according to Dima. Because this other issue of the day of April 24 did not escape the Ukrainians of France. Even if there would be “many things to reproach” the candidate president, the young Ukrainian was convinced: the victory of Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen was important for Ukraine, but also “for the Europe and for the world”.

This speech resonated again with that of Tetiana. Highlighting the “European vision” of the candidate LREM, the latter also expressed her doubts about her opponent. “Madame Le Pen says that she supports Ukraine and that she does not entirely agree with our neighbor (Vladimir Putin, editor’s note). But can we believe her?

To this question, Nadia clearly answered “No”. Evoking a “very close contact” between Marine Le Pen and the Russian president, she scratched the candidate of the National Rally: “She cannot say that she wants to help Ukraine while wishing to maintain economic exchanges with Russia. It’s as if she had two faces.

With a lump in her throat, this 44-year-old Ukrainian refugee tried to express the sense of urgency that crushes her. “People need to understand that Ukraine is just a bridge to Europe. Putin is a second Hitler, he wants to show his power to the whole world. Ukraine is just unlucky to be a neighbor of Russia. We must stop all contact with Putin, he is a terrorist”.

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Sitting on her bench in the garden of Saint Volodymyr the Great Cathedral, Nadia was sorry: “There is no longer any security anywhere in Ukraine”. As the faithful gradually left the premises, she ventured to formulate a wish: that of being able to return home “in a year”. Until then, we will have to wait. Waiting and being “very strong”, as “Ukrainian women” know how to do it.

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