The People’s Army in Ukraine Includes Rock Stars, TV Hosts, and Playwrights

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Marson headlined “In Ukraine, a People’s Army Includes Rock Stars, TV Hosts and Playwrights”:

Dancer Oleksiy Potyomkin was supposed to be leaping across the stage of the Kyiv Opera this month as the prince in the ballet “Lileya,” a Ukrainian classic. Instead, he grabbed a gun and a medical kit and joined the resistance battling Russia’s invading army.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms or otherwise sought to support a nationwide resistance movement against Moscow’s offensive, which Kyiv says has already left thousands of Ukrainian noncombatants dead.

The broad mobilization includes people from all walks of life, including prominent figures from a playwright to a lawmaker, a rock singer and TV host, who have rallied to defend their country’s independence, as the Russian military has moved to encircle and pummel Ukrainian cities.

“There are all kinds of civilians serving with me,” Mr. Potyomkin, 33 years old, said. “We’re united by wanting to do something useful rather than sitting at home wasting time.”

Some, like Mr. Potyomkin, have picked up weapons. Others are feeding troops and working in medical-aid stations. Still others are sending the world information, pictures and videos about what is happening.

In the west of the country, far from the front lines, people collect food and medications and send them eastward in cars, which return packed with women and children. Women make camouflage nets and knit balaclavas.

One prominent casualty is Pasha Li, a film actor and TV host, who was killed during shelling on the front lines on March 6, days after joining a territorial-defense battalion. But that hasn’t deterred others.

“The biggest mistake of Putin was that he thought they would fight with only the Ukrainian army or some ‘nationalists,’” said Serhiy Prytula, a comedian and TV host who runs a charity organization that provides equipment and supplies to Ukrainians soldiers. “They fight with the whole nation.”

Mr. Prytula said he was receiving donations from Ukraine and all over the world and placing orders for equipment in neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as farther afield in Spain and Australia.

He began helping the army in 2014 when Russia first invaded, gaining trust from other Ukrainians who saw him visiting soldiers in the trenches on the front line and delivering them aid.

On Tuesday he ordered 2,000 helmets and bulletproof vests for $2 million. Another organization has bought drones and night-vision goggles for the army. The soldiers respond with gifts of their own: Mr. Prytula’s office is now adorned with a piece of a Russian warplane that one unit shot down recently.

Ukraine’s volunteers say the country’s grass-roots resistance is strong and flexible and will be hard to break.

“This is an army of free people, each of whom is not afraid to take the initiative,” said Maksym Kurochkin, one of Ukraine’s best known playwrights, who joined a territorial-defense battalion on the second day of war.

He said those bearing weapons alongside him include entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, journalists, designers and programmers.

It is an approach first honed in 2014, when mass protests against government corruption led a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country.

Demonstrators set up a tent city in Kyiv’s central square and defended it from attacks by police and pro-government thugs. After Mr. Yanukovych left, Russia invaded and seized parts of the country. Volunteers flocked to the front lines to fight and supply the then-threadbare army.

The most prominent celebrity defending Ukraine is President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian and actor. His transformation into a wartime leader has been applauded by foreign governments that support Ukraine and even by his own critics.

“He is really brave,” said Mr. Prytula, who went into politics himself a few years ago because he was worried about the direction Mr. Zelensky was taking the country. “It’s good for all Ukrainians that he is staying in Kyiv. He is like a lighthouse for us. I agree with him that we will fight to the last bullet.”

Andriy Khvilyuk, from the rock group BoomBox, was supposed to be on tour in the U.S., but instead is helping police patrol Kyiv and posting regular updates on Facebook. A video he made singing an a capella version of a Ukrainian folk song with a rifle slung across his chest in front of St. Sophia’s Cathedral went viral.

In a recent video, he addressed fans in Russia, where his group stopped touring in 2014 after Moscow first invaded. “We are waiting for you in every house, in every window,” he said, speaking in Russian. “The last, oldest granny will beat you with a ladle, with a shovel, to try to kill you.”

Mr. Potyomkin, the dancer, joined defense forces in Odessa at the start of the war under command of a friend, a veteran who goes by his nom de guerre, Samurai. They patrolled their district, looking for anything or anyone suspicious. After evacuating his family to Lviv in the west, Mr. Potyomkin joined a team of medics.

“To be honest, it’s all terrifying, but we keep ourselves in check,” he said.

Politicians, including Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko, are also pitching in. Kira Rudik, a lawmaker and former business executive, picked up a gun and gathered a group of a couple of dozen party members and friends at her house, sleeping on sofas and on the floor “a bit like a summer camp,” she said.

“I looked at my house, my family, my home, my cat, and realized that everything I love is here,” she said. “Why should I leave? Because Putin decided to take what was ours?”

They train on basic weapons skills in her garden every day with the help of veterans. The neighbors were startled at first, she said, until they understood what was happening. Ms. Rudik says her gun-handling skills are improving and her group works to investigate reports of saboteurs, help evacuate the elderly, or aid in the aftermath of a bombing.

Now, she is trying to get her group more organized, with breakfast at 8.30 a.m. and dinner at 8.30 p.m. and a strict alcohol ban.

“We were in shock for the first days, now we are getting organized,” she said. “I got tired of the summer camp situation. We need to be more like an army.”

James Marson is European Security Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, based in Brussels. He previously worked as deputy bureau chief in Moscow and as a correspondent in Kyiv. He has been writing about Ukraine for 15 years and speaks Russian and Ukrainian.

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