POV: you fled Ukraine

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, we revisit the Ukrainian TikTokers who went viral after documenting the war’s brutal realities.

Alina Volik was 18 when Russia invaded her country. And it was her down-to-earth documentation of what life is like when a superpower attacks that helped bring the daily reality of Putin’s assault to the attention of the world – far more than any carefully curated news report could.

Volik was one of a cadre of creators who took it upon themselves to post through it all, from the first tanks rolling through Ukraine’s countryside to the first fatalities, as Russian soldiers perpetrated unspeakable horrors against friends and family members. The immediacy and personal connection brokered through apps such as TikTok brought closer to home the reality of life in a warzone, while separating Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine from the 2022 version.

During the first week of the war, videos on TikTok tagged with the hashtag #ukraine were viewed 928,000 times a minute.

We were watching people like Volik, who lived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, and Marta Vasyuta, then 20, who was living in London while sharing footage scoured from friends and social media in her home country.

Volik quickly went viral for an everyday video titled POV: you live in Ukraine, in which she shrugged off an air-raid siren and decamped to an underground shelter where she and friends exchanged WhatsApp videos. The mundanity of it all was designed as a fuck you to Vladimir Putin and his army: Ukraine would be bowed but not defeated.

I wanted to show the world what we feel and how our daily routine looks,” she told THE FACE last year. Since then, as war became an everyday occurrence for Ukrainians, Volik’s world has transformed. She moved to Madrid to study at university, thanks to a full scholarship granted as part of the international community’s attempt to show solidarity with the beleaguered people of Ukraine.

My life has changed a lot,” Volik, now 19, admits. In general, my life is fine here.” But she still worries about the situation back home.

Now she’s in a different country, Volik’s TikTok and Instagram accounts have adapted from showing the drumbeat of war in Ukraine. These days, she’s more likely to post about her life as a student than what to pack during an air raid. It’s a deliberate choice to allow her to move on with her life, but also to ensure that her audience of nearly 75,000 on TikTok don’t get weary of a profile full of war imagery.

I think mostly people are tired of this content when you’re constantly reposting news,” she says. Instead, she’ll nod to her heritage through videos celebrating Ukraine’s independence day, or of her blasting Ukrainian music in the street with friends on new year’s eve. But if something happens that’s particularly horrific in her home country, she makes an exception to use her platform to raise awareness of war crimes.

Despite her fears that the world has grown weary of the Ukraine war TikTok, Volik’s non-university content still seems to do well. One short video summarising the sheer length under which Ukraine has had to toil since Russia’s 2014 incursion was seen by 787,000 people. That’s considerably more than her average view numbers.

The challenge of reminding people that Ukraine still struggles under occupation without turning off an engaged audience also weighs heavily on Vasyuta’s mind. In some ways, the decision has been taken out of the 21-year-old’s hands, she tells me from London, where she’s been for the last year after being granted a visa.

I have problems with different shadowbans,” she says. This issue has blighted her experience on TikTok throughout the Russian invasion. Many of her videos have either been deleted or put under review for what Vasyuta claims is weeks or months”. (TikTok declined to respond to a request to comment for this story, but has previously lifted bans after I contacted them when Vasyuta told me that some of her videos had been blocked.)

It’s really depressing that I cannot show what’s happening in Ukraine right now. Everything’s just going down – no views, no likes, nothing,” she says. It was my mission from the beginning to keep people informed as a Ukrainian. But now it’s impossible.”

Vasyuta has seen interest in Ukraine war content on social media wax and wane with the seasons. There was a slump in late spring, as people began to move on from getting daily updates on how the war was progressing. But interest began to peak again in autumn, when massacres brought the story back onto the front pages of news websites.

But whether people are interested or not, Vasyuta won’t stop posting clips from her mother country. I will continue to raise awareness because the war is still going on,” she says. And then we’re going to have to rebuild the country.”

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