”Nobody will come to solve everything for you.” Olena Chekryzhova left Donetsk in 2014, founded her own English language school, and now teaches Ukrainian fighters — hereʼs her story

Yuliana Skibitska
Tetyana Lohvynenko
”Nobody will come to solve everything for you.” Olena Chekryzhova left Donetsk in 2014, founded her own English language school, and now teaches Ukrainian fighters — hereʼs her story

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

The Ukrainian Armed Forces are rapidly moving to the standards of NATO armies. Military personnel receive Western weapons and study with foreign instructors. For this, soldiers need to know the English language, and especially military terms. So far, the Armed Forces donʼt have the opportunity to organize training for everyone, but this may change soon. Olena Chekryzhova is 34 years old, she started teaching English to the soldiers of the 2nd battalion of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, and it turned out that the demand for such education is high. So Olena is considering the possibility of cooperating with the General Staff and scaling up the project.

It all started with her own online school. Olena opened it in 2012 in Donetsk. And in two years, after the "referendum" on the independence of the "Donetsk Peopleʼs Republic", she left the city and moved to Kyiv. With the beginning of full-scale Russian invasion, Olena volunteered and looked for a way to be as useful as possible. And she found it. "Babel" editor Yuliana Skibitska visited the English language classes for soldiers and talked with Olena about her life until 2014, the ins and outs of working with the military, and how the war changed her views.

"Babel" tells the stories of women leaders during the war within the project "If not us, then who?" together with UN Women in Ukraine, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Canada and the government of Denmark.

During the day, there is almost no one at the base where the battalionʼs soldiers live — the soldiers are at the classes. Three men in pixel pants and t-shirts are sitting at the table in the gazebo. They are bent over their notebooks and are carefully pronouncing English words. Their instructor, Olena, a young black-haired woman, stands at a makeshift blackboard and corrects the fighters when they make mistakes.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

— Lebid, what form do we use when we talk about the present tense? — Olena addresses the young man with shaved temples and a ponytail tied back in English.

Lebid begins to answer in English, but quickly switches to Ukrainian. Elena gently interrupts him and tells to speak only English — this is the main rule in her lessons. Tall and thin Phantom, sitting across from the lebid, prompts him. While the military is dealing with the questions, another fighter — in full gear, face covered by tactical goggles and a buff -- rund past.

— Serhiy! — Olena calls him. The fighter waves to her and shouts that he will now take the notebook and come to class. In a few minutes, he returns, already in his pants and jacket.

— Serhiy, tell us where you were, — Olena addresses him.

— I attended tactical orientation classes, — the fighter answers a little awkwardly, carefully choosing his words.

— And how did it go? Are you satisfied? — Olena continues.

— No. Because the commander told me to go to English classes.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

The fighters laugh. The atmosphere more reminds of a regular high school class. Olena gives the task to write five examples of what the men did before the army and donʼt do anymore. Serhiy laughs:

— Before the army, I walked wherever I wanted, but now I donʼt!

Lebid echoes him:

— Before the army, I slept as much as I wanted, but now I wake up early.

Everyone likes the task — men interrupt each other.

— Before the army, I ate different food, and now they eat what Iʼm given!

— I went to the army in different clothes, and now Iʼm wearing a pixel!

Petrщ, the oldest of those present, completes the task. He says:

— Before the army, I worked in Poland — and now I protect Ukraine.

Bakhmut — Horlivka — Donetsk

Olena Chekryzhova spent most of her life in Donetsk oblast. She was born in Artemivsk (now renamed to Bakhmut), studied at the university in Horlivka.

— Do you think that the fact that you were born and lived in this region somehow influenced you? — I ask Olena. We chat during the breaks between her classes.

"I think it definitely had an effect," she answers. — Now I analyze my childhood a lot, I think why it turned out that way with the Donetsk region. Indeed, in our region there was a slightly prejudiced attitude towards the Ukrainian language, towards Ukrainian-speaking people. For some reason, when I was a child, I thought that children studying in Ukrainian schools were somehow worse than me.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

In Horlivka, Olena completely immersed herself in student life. In the second year, she became the head of the student self-government of her faculty, then the deputy head of the higher self-government.

— I even have a diploma called "Golden Elite of Donbass". It hangs somewhere in Bakhmut, which is under fire from Russian missiles, says Olena. — It was a very solemn ceremony, two or three people were chosen from each university. And I entered this list. I was very busy in the mass cult sector, I wanted to create an organization that would help students and improve their lives.

After graduating from university, Olena went to Donetsk. She worked in several foreign language centers, and in 2012 she started her online project.

"At that time, online was a kind of wildness for people," Olena recalls. — They looked at me as if I were obsessed and mad. They said: "English on Skype? Really? Is that possible?". There were some difficulties, because the market was just being formed. And at that time there were almost no such projects, thatʼs for sure in the Ukrainian-speaking environment. So, you can say, I was one of the first to occupy this niche.

Euromaidan — war — escape

On November 21, 2013, the then Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, announced that the government had stopped preparations for signing the European Association Agreement. Olena remembered this day well.

— At that time, I was teaching at an IT company. They had an office in the center of the city, on the top floor, from where you could see all of Donetsk. I liked to stand there, look at the city and plan my life. Guys come in and say: "Did you hear, did you hear? Azarov did not sign any agreement there." And I was so excited about that deal, I was already planning how I would celebrate the New Year. At that time, I did not think at all that it could apply to me in any way.

In the evening of November 21, several hundred people gathered on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv. Later, students joined them, and some of the protesters made a tent city on the square. On the night of November 29-30, security forces of Berkut cleared the square and brutally beat peaceful protesters. Since then, actions for the European integration of Ukraine have turned into anti-government and anti-presidential protests. There were also pro-Ukrainian actions in Donetsk. Olena went to them, but admits that she continued to think — it still does not affect her. Until roadblocks with armed men appeared in the city.

"I remember the day of the "referendum"; in Donetsk," Olena recalls. — Before that, I lived in an adequate environment that supported Ukraine. And I thought that all people are like that. Only later did I see the day of that "referendum" and how many people went to it. I was shocked. Then I began to think that I might have to leave here.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

- There were no such thoughts before?

- Probably, I didnʼt want to think about it. Someone was already leaving, somewhere they were shooting in some neighborhoods of Donetsk, but we continued to pretend a normal life. We went shopping, to gyms. No one believed that he could go so far. I didnʼt believe it. Then I didnʼt even think how the situation could be resolved. It is certain that someone will come and decide for you. I think most people think so now. I went through it myself — and no, this approach does not work. No one will come and decide anything for you. Or he will decide, but not at all in the way you want.

She left Donetsk on July 5. It was on this day that the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated Slovyansk, and a convoy of equipment with militants moved to Donetsk.

"In the morning, I still pretended to have a normal life, I went shopping somewhere," Olena recalls. — Roadblocks are already everywhere on the streets, machine guns at every intersection, but we pretended that nothing was happening. Until the information arrived that a column of enemy equipment knocked out of Sloviansk was moving to Donetsk. And then I understood — I have to go. I was leaving Donetsk, and Russian vehicles were coming towards me.

Olena came to her parents in Bakhmut. It was controlled by the Ukrainian government, there were no hostilities here. Most of the people who left the cities captured by the militants at that time thought that they would soon return. Olena also thought so. But on July 17, the Russians shot down a passenger Boeing. Olena saw on social networks how the militants were bragging about the things taken from the dead passengers and realized that she would never return to Donetsk.

Kyiv and a full-scale invasion

Olena met her second war already in Kyiv. Like many, she woke up to the explosions on February 24. I understood that the war had reached here.

"I lived in this state, which people felt [on February 24] for the first time in their lives, for 8 years," Olena says. — When at any moment you can take your purse and leave forever. Therefore, on February 24, I took it calmly. Here is my file folder, here is my anxious suitcase. I watered the flowers, realized that I had eight hryvnias in cash. I went to the bank, stood in line there, the bank did not open. I thought: "Okay, itʼs okay." She returned home, transferred the salaries to her employees so that they would have money — because she did not know how the banking system would work and whether it would work at all.

Olena moved to Kyiv in November 2014. He recalls that at first it was difficult, especially to rent an apartment — many people, hearing about the Donetsk registration, immediately hung up. But there were no problems with work — the experience gained in Donetsk came in handy. Olena quickly got a job in the company, while simultaneously developing her online project.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

"Kyiv squeezed me out of myself," Olena admits. — It was difficult for me. I came, I had no acquaintances, no friends. More precisely, all my friends had the same post-traumatic stress disorder as I did. Everyone was trying to find something, to hide somewhere, it was difficult for us to communicate. Everyone built their lives from scratch.

On February 24, Olena decided that she would not leave Kyiv.

"I didnʼt want to go through this [evacuation] a second time," she explains her decision. — The first experience was very difficult, I probably subconsciously did not want to return to this state again. Therefore, she chose a different path and from the first days of the war, she thought about what to do and where to put her energy.

Olena started volunteering. At first, I just helped locally — I brought food to people in bomb shelters, bought food for retired women I knew from the yard, unloaded onions in a supermarket. It was almost impossible to leave the left bank, where she lives, in the first days of the invasion because of the closed bridges.

— I thought: "Well, I donʼt have a car, Iʼm on the left bank, but I know who has a car and who isnʼt on the left bank." I decided to create a volunteer community for transportation. I wrote a post on Facebook — it was March 6 — that I was coordinating transportation around Kyiv, send me applications in Telegram. People started writing, I communicated with the drivers and already on the second day I could not cope with the number of orders. She joined another friend of hers, and we started doing it together.

The girls transported people around Kyiv, helped them evacuate. Usually they were elderly people or people with animals — it was difficult for them to get to the station on their own. When the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated Kyiv Oblast from the occupiers, they helped people leave there. During all this time, Olena says, almost one and a half thousand people were transported.

English for fighters

In the evening, Elena has a meeting with the fighters she has recruited into a new group. Elena quickly explains the rules to them — classes will be held six times a week, for one hour, and it is better not to miss them. The boys joke and tease each other. This will be Elenaʼs fourth group.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

— How did you come up with the idea of teaching the soldiers English? I ask.

— My friend Volodymyr Demchenko, who is currently in charge of educational and informational work in the battalion, turned to me. He had the idea to launch such a course for soldiers in the battalion. We started thinking about different formats, how it can be done. And it came to the point that I just need to come, see what and how, conduct testing of fighters and understand whether it is possible to introduce such a course here. I came, looked, spent. There were a lot of volunteers, about 90-100 people volunteered in the first wave. And we decided that we can try. I try to combine teaching the soldiers in the unit and my main work.

Olena did not even hesitate when she was offered to teach English to the soldiers and live with them at the base.

"I immediately saw the support coming from the west," she explains. — It was clear that English would be very necessary. Therefore, I did not have a question about whether to go or not.

Teaches Elenaʼs fighters for free. He says that the boys learn quickly — after five or six lessons, those who have never spoken English already begin to speak fluently in class. Those who already have some level discover specific military terminology.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Kholodny is a fighter who goes to Elena for lessons. Before the invasion, he worked in the IT field, so he had no problems with English. Now he says that he wants to connect his future life with the army and study further — so it will be difficult without military English.

"Olena is a good teacher," says Kholodnyi, while he has a few minutes to talk in the break between training sessions. — She explains well, everything is clear and interesting. It feels like a professional. Itʼs nice.

Most of the fighters say that they need English for basic things — to read the instructions for the sight, or to talk with fellow foreigners or foreign instructors. During the three months that Elenaʼs program is designed for, fighters receive a basic level of language knowledge — enough to, for example, communicate with a native speaker. Boys come to classes with different levels of training — thatʼs why Olena tries to form a group so that the fighters can help each other and train.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

I ask Elena how working with the military differs from teaching civilians.

"I anticipated this question," she laughs. — First of all, it is uncertainty, because the military themselves live in an atmosphere of uncertainty. At any moment, something can happen. It is difficult to plan something so that it is guaranteed to happen. When we plan classes, they might have some kind of military training or some event going on. Therefore, it will be necessary to change on the go. Secondly, it was with the military that I envisioned a moment of discipline and subordination. I thought about it when I was preparing to come here. But I realized that it is in this unit that the people are very disciplined and organized. And in order not to jinx, really, there were no such problems that I expected, that someone told me about or that I imagined myself.

— And what kind of problems did you expect?

- Well, that they will treat me not seriously, because I am a woman and I came to teach someone. Or that there will be some contemptuous attitude. But I donʼt see that. Everyone with whom I communicate treats me and my work with respect. That is, there is subordination, everyone clearly understands why I am here, why they need English. And I feel that I am really being listened to and obeyed.

Further, the plans are to expand this work beyond the borders of the battalion. Many soldiers are already writing to Olena, offering to come and teach in them.

"But I explain to them that this is not a tour," the girl continues. — I am teaching here now, I need to prove my students. When we work out this program on the fighters of this unit, then we will think about how to scale it to other units. Perhaps we will go to the General Staff with this idea.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

- How would you describe your students?

- I see them as ordinary people. They come to classes, throw off their armored cars — and ordinary men who want to develop, who understand the importance of this development not only for themselves, but also for their team, for their unit and for Ukraine in general, sit down at my table. They are best characterized by tests. I give them the task of writing a few sentences about themselves in English. They write about their family, their dreams, about Ukraine, about their children. If you compare training in civilian life, there people progress much more slowly. And here, in the war, everything happens very quickly, and we also work at a fast pace.

The girl pauses for a while and continues:

— And I also see how they themselves need these lessons. Youʼve seen how they behave — they joke about something, fool around sometimes. In classes, they are not only formidable fighters and our defenders — they are just people, students. And they can be distracted and return to normal life a little. I think it is psychologically very important for all of them.

Elena is currently looking for support for her project, so if you are interested in this, write to her . Well, you can help "Babel" as always:

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