A jar of tomatoes, a ghost, and Ukrainian self-determination

A month into the ongoing war in Ukraine and it seems like we’re pulled between a dichotomy of omnipresent, unflinching documentation of every battle scene versus an utter surrealism. Outside of Ukraine, who really thought this could happen? Outside of Ukraine, who thought they would actually hold on longer than a few days? The truth is every Ukrainian knew it in their bones that they would win; they would preserve their freedom and sovereignty. They knew this time would be different than 2014 and they were ready.

The Ukrainian resolve (and audacity) has already birthed many memes and legends. We’ve seen farmer after farmer armed with their tractors haul away Russian war trophies like the $2M tanks littering the countryside. We heard about the old woman who torpedoed a military drone with a jar of pickles (who later came forward to correct the rumors, that it was in fact a jar of tomatoes). We’ve seen communities come together in true solidarity even becoming seasoned mixologists of Molotov cocktails producing the fiery concoctions by the thousands.

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Zelenskyy (and all the spellings) has even become a household name and emblematic of wartime leadership. I’m pretty sure the Ghost of Kyiv will be immortalized as a comic book character or a Grimm’s fairy tale for future generations; a fighter pilot so mysterious and evasive that he shot down six Russian planes during the initial attacks on Kyiv. As a morale boost or in complete sincerity, Ukraine’s Air Force insists this man is actually real and even getting upgraded weapons. I, for one, choose to believe.

Ukrainian self-determination has also become legendary. In western spheres, I think Ukraine has been overshadowed by Russia’s bold presence and its continuous pursuit to return to Soviet Union imperialism. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the country beyond Crimea’s annexation and I even lumped it in culturally with Russia before actually becoming friends with some Ukrainians. I didn’t realize that by land mass, it’s the largest country in Europe and home to over 44 million people. It has a long rich history that actually precedes Russia. Kyiv celebrated its 1500th birthday awhile back and is 600 years senior to Moscow. The country is glittered with eclectic architecture such as brightly colored buildings and 1000-year-old cathedrals topped with gilded domes, which somehow managed to survive WWII. The Independence Monument overlooking the central square in Kyiv symbolizes the birth of a new state and is the embodiment of Ukrainian self-determination. Since 1991, Ukraine has finally had its sovereign borders and freedom to pursue democracy, diplomacy and a modernized economy.

If you’re in the software industry and needed contract developers, there’s a high chance you’ve stumbled across some Ukrainian talent. Before the war, Ukraine had ambitions of becoming Europe’s IT hub, with many tech professionals concentrated in Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Dnipro, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol (the last 3 heavily targeted by Russian occupiers). Mariupol, once a city home to many startups, incubators and educational institutions has become the city under siege. For the past 3 weeks, Russian troops have effectively held the entire city hostage denying its citizens food, water, and medicine. Now the atrocities are closely on par with the Siege of Leningrad as the city has faced constant bombardment and indiscriminate killings of those seeking escape through supposed “green” corridors. Drone footage shows Mariupol practically in ruins and similar to scenes coming out of Kharkiv.

Ukrainians are incredibly resilient. I can say this confidently with firsthand knowledge as I have the privilege of knowing a few incredible Ukrainian men. They were not allowed to leave the country once martial law required all men between 18-60 years old to remain and potentially fight in Territorial Defense or enlist in the military. Fortunately, they’ve been able to only volunteer when they can and even continue to work.

Oleh
I first met Oleh in 2019 when I quickly needed to find developers to support my side hustle. The agency I was working with had completely dropped the ball and a friend recommended Oleh and his company. I will say initially my bias gave me doubts as Russian hackers were still in the news and I had yet made that cultural distinction between the two countries. Oleh was incredibly accommodating with my immediate needs and provided clear communication and was highly accessible. I will say that after having varied experience with contractors, Oleh and his agency had achieved unicorn status. It’s incredibly rare to find a pool of talent that also provides such project oversight and accountability. Over the years we have become good friends and professional partners; he’s never failed to deliver even during the onset of WWIII.
Towards the end of 2020, I started working with Roman on website development. He came in smart, cool, and collected. Roman could instantly dissect the inherent mess of an old website, fix all the bugs and inject custom code where needed. He’s also mastered any visual builder like Divi or Elementor and knows all the basics of site hosting and configuration. Roman has been absolutely integral to my marketing team and my new venture in founding Holistic Thought Labs. We have a routine and rhythm and collaborate most work days. I’ve gotten to experience vicariously some aspects of the war through Roman (and Oleh).
Roman
Weeks prior to the war, we speculated on the likelihood of a regional or full-scale invasion trying to make sense of Putin’s thinking, hoping it was all just a bluff. Roman said that his dad, who formerly was in the military, knew to prepare for a full-scale invasion; it had been in the cards for many years. What still amazes me to this day is how adaptable Ukrainians are and how they immediately accepted this new reality and did whatever they had to do: pack up the kids and evacuate, stay and fight, stay and volunteer, keep on working in the craziest of times.
I was surprised when Roman said he was still willing to work even between air raid sirens. He even kept me updated during his trek across the country to help his dad get his younger siblings to Lviv and then across the Polish border. It initially took them 21 hours non-stop to get from central Ukraine to Lviv. It took 25 hours for his dad to drive his siblings 6 miles to get across the Ukrainian border. As it stands now, roughly 3.5 million people have left Ukraine into surrounding countries and upward of 10 million have been displaced within the country.

Our days are marked by monitoring updates on official Ukrainian Telegram channels and stressing over the latest air raid alert, which now happens multiple times a day. Luckily Roman and Oleh are in safe cities for now. And this is where politics gets personal for me. We can’t let the Russo-Ukrainian war become noise in the background.

I was surprised when Roman said he was still willing to work even between air raid sirens. He even kept me updated during his trek across the country to help his dad get his younger siblings to Lviv and then across the Polish border. It initially took them 21 hours non-stop to get from central Ukraine to Lviv. It took 25 hours for his dad to drive his siblings 6 miles to get across the Ukrainian border. As it stands now, roughly 3.5 million people have left Ukraine into surrounding countries and upward of 10 million have been displaced within the country.

Our days are marked by monitoring updates on official Ukrainian Telegram channels and stressing over the latest air raid alert, which now happens multiple times a day. Luckily Roman and Oleh are in safe cities for now. And this is where politics gets personal for me. We can’t let the Russo-Ukrainian war become noise in the background.

This must stay top of mind as there is a dictator at the helm using any excuse to advance his imperialistic whims. I invite everyone reading who also can’t make sense of the constant bombardment of cities, indiscriminate killing of civilians and even forced relocation of Ukrainians to Russian “filtration camps” (certain historical parallels cannot be avoided)… to do anything they can to help Ukraine. I’ve included a link to a crowd-sourced information platform, which covers all donation and volunteering opportunities. There’s even a job board for remote workers. If your company needs any tech work, I highly recommend searching for Ukrainian contractors on sites like Upwork.

We can all do our part to match the resolve of the Ukrainian people. They will win and Putin will be stopped.

About the Author
Alex Leupen is the founder and CEO of Holistic Thought Labs. She is an avid researcher and brings a wealth of knowledge from her 15 years experience in sales, business development, and marketing particularly centered on B2B technologies.
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