Tsitana and her children: a story of a family from Kherson

Who is she, the Ukrainian woman – a warrior goddess or a gentle muse? In 2018, long before the Russian invasion in February, Oleksandr Vakulenko, president of the Ukrainian Psychological Association, tried to find an answer to this question.

The fact that Ukrainian women are characterized by determination, the ability not to obey to any circumstances and to take matters into their own hands is confirmed by history and folklore. Everyone knows about Anna Yaroslavna or Roksolana; we can mention Marusya Bohuslavka and Bondarivna (also from Bohuslav). And, of course, Marusya Churai who is the embodiment of Ukraine’s singing soul.

According to Vakulenko, our women’s craving for independence and the ability to take on “unfeminine” matters is determined by historical circumstances. Cossacks often died in battles, died in foreign lands or returned home maimed – and the entire burden of housekeeping and raising children fell on a woman. And they also had to cultivate land and harvest crops to feed their family and, if necessary, defend their home to the last. That’s what made the Ukrainian woman like this: “as gentle as a lamb, but as solid as a rock.”

There is an old, rich village of Stanislav in Ukraine, where land merges with estuary water, and the dawns are the most beautiful in the world. It is called a place of happy people, because that’s where Kuzma filmed his famous music video. On one of the high Dnieper cliffs stood a house of a very happy family. It is still there, although the windows in the house are broken and the wind has been moving through the rooms for months. The war scattered everyone who lived in that big house across Ukraine and they all do one great thing – fight for their home land.

There is a story to tell about each of them, but these stories are closely intertwined, like the Dnieper bays, which then merge into the estuary, next to which the house stands. So the story will be one for all – like the war, like Ukraine, which they defend.

The center of a large family with four children is Svitlana. She calls herself Tsitana. She took her name from childhood. That’s what her granddad used to call her – Tsetka, Tsitana. And the name is very becoming to her. This fragile woman is the heart, soul and singing voice of her family. She talks about her today’s life, as if singing a song:

“I have four children. Three granddaughters. My husband, Vasyl Havryliv, is a marine, now on the front line in the east.

My eldest son Ivan, born in 1990, is also a marine. I got a message that he had died in Mariupol on March 15, at the Illich plant. We are looking for his body, but we haven’t found it yet. I hope he’s alive. He has a daughter, Emilia Ivanivna…

My son Oleh, born in 1997, is an officer at the Defense Academy in Kyiv. He also has girls, Solomiya and Lyuba, my granddaughters.

My son Maryan, born in 2005, is a schoolboy and a smart boy. He’s very strong.

My daughter Vasylyna, born in 2007, is the best daughter and a wonderful person. She’s a schoolgirl, very smart. And, of course, a beauty. My hands, memory, conscience, unparalleled in every way.

I’m more demanding of my family than of others. And of myself – three times as much. I trust few people, but I’m open to everyone. Before the war, I had seven projects that were operating at full capacity. My working day lasted 20 hours, but it was worth it. I managed to do everything. And there were such plans for life… And then the war came.

It did not come – it hurled on us, a beast, with all its stinking body. It made everything stink of fuel oil, of diesel. It flooded my lands with fire and blood. It opened its foul-smelling mouth at my children. There are orcs in my village.

I grabbed my kids and drove along the steppe roads. Now we live between Mykolayiv and Kherson. I’m a volunteer. My kids are with me and help me. I have been a volunteer since the time of ATO. I’ve never told anyone about this part of my life. I drive my old car to everyone. I believe it won’t last long.”

Svitlana is sitting in a small kitchen in a Kyiv apartment. She came on business for a few days. She goes there to identify the bodies brought from Mariupol. Short hairstyle, coral beads, black outfit. I compliment her on her hairstyle, and Svitlana says that she used to have a luxurious braid, but after chemo, she had to cut her hair short. She has been fighting cancer for several years. And she grew so tired of it that a few months ago she fell into depression, did not want to live. But it’s war, no time for illness now… And the kids…

They call her and say that her granddaughters are waiting, they are cooking borscht, and she drinks coffee and recalls the happy days when her kids were young and talks about them as only very loving mothers can talk. And about her Vasyl…

My Vasyl was in Chonhar

“I woke up on February 24. I live on the estuary shore, with the Dnieper on one side and the Bug on the other – and heard thunder… as if thunder… And then my husband Vasyl called. He was in Chonhar, and a battle was going on. He shouted: “Russia has attacked us. The war has started,” and hung up. That day they went out of encirclement twice. They were showered with crushing fire from the opposite bank and from the air. Few survived. There were many dead and wounded.

It is not true that the Kherson region was not defended. Yes, it was captured very quickly, but it was fought for, and we will take everything back. And we will definitely win. Do you know why? Because we have real men in our army.

Recently, we have rarely seen each other. My Vasyl is from Lviv. We got married in 2005. We were married in church because I believe that making a vow before God is very serious. I was very afraid to tell my children about it. But when I plucked up my courage, fifteen-year-old Ivan was happy that someone else in the house would do the dishes. We lived in Lviv, and then moved to Stanislav. Everything was fine: we had a large farm, raised children, had various projects. And then he went to war. He’s been fighting for six years. And I’m waiting and praying…

Recently we met in Zaporizhzhia. We each came for our own reasons: he – from Donbas, and I from Mykolayiv. We spent two days together at a hotel. He asked me how I felt. I said I didn’t even want to think about it. I have no time for that. War is a lot of work. And there will be even more after the victory.” 

My eldest son Ivan was in Mariupol

“Ivan, my eldest, did not serve conscript duty. In 2008, he signed a contract with the famous 95th Airmobile Brigade. He was a bit of a dunce, but charming, gifted, though lazy. The army fixed all that.


My son took after me. When I jumped with a parachute, Ivan was waiting for me on the ground.  I developed my sons’ love for weapons, explained to them the difference in calibers. They grew up as warriors, so they make life easier for their wives: they can do everything and always help them. Ivan’s mother-in-law said that she had never seen such a man before – he is the one who usually washes the dishes for his family.

On February 23, on the eve of the war, when I was depressed, Ivan wrote to me: “Your son commands an entire platoon, a stronghold. I have 26 boys under my command, we have decided that whatever happens, we will not give up. Do you want to give up or crash in a car? Maybe I should give up too. Should I go to the enemy trenches? It is not far – 160 meters. Mom, stop being silly. You have three granddaughters, sons, and your husband. We are not at home not because we do not want to, but because we have been brought up correctly by you. And we will help you. I can’t call you now, I have to sleep while I have a chance. I will try to call tomorrow.” And tomorrow the war began.

Ivan was in Mariupol, at the Illich plant. The last message came on March 3: “The night is over, we are alive.” On March 21, I was informed that my son had died. Three months have already passed since the date indicated in the notice of my son’s death. His body is still missing… I can’t bury him…”


My middle son Oleh became an officer

“Oleh is a smart guy. He went to a private school in Lviv. He graduated from two universities, one of them – theological. He was one of Philaret’s twelve subdeacons. But then a sharp turn – and now he is an officer. I brought up my sons with prayer, before going to bed we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. All my children grew up in the Church. They believe in God, but they are not immersed in religion. They are open to the world.

Oleh now lives in Kyiv, works a lot. He involved me in volunteering. He sent me foods – I first handed them over to social services and the church, and then I started sending them to soldiers via Nova Poshta.

I have been doing this since 2016, and now, when Stanislav is under occupation, it has become my main business. On February 25, I brought food to those who defended Antonivskyi Bridge. Our whole village collected food. People really wanted to help. Now I take care of refugees from my villages (more than 300 people). I also have boys from the Armed Forces under my care in two places on the front line between Mykolayiv and Kherson. That’s how I live. I see Oleh when I am in Kyiv on business. And then I relax – I walk with my granddaughters. They don’t consider me a grandmother, because I can dance rock and roll with them.”

Svitlana and Oleh

Younger Maryan and Vasylyna are growing up

“I have very independent children. I am a strict mother; I taught them to do everything by themselves. When I went to trainings, I left them in charge. They coped. I didn’t wash the floor at home – my husband and children did it. When I go on my volunteer trips, I get very tired. Children help me, let me rest. I tried to give the younger ones everything that I hadn’t given to the older ones. I stayed home with them, and then I realized that two lazybones were growing up. Then I came to my senses and corrected a wrong course.

Maryan and Vasylyna are my adopted children; I took them from the hospital when they were babies. This is a long and rather unpleasant story. They know about it – “good” people told them. But this has not changed anything – they were and will be my own children. We left the village only when ruscists started to scare me about Vasylyna. We stayed in Stanislav until the end, until they called me in March and asked: “Is your daughter already “grown up”?!” The text was, as you understand, somewhat different. I took my children, put them into the car and drove to Western Ukraine.

At the end of March, when I was taking people to Mykolayiv, I saw ruscists walking around the village. There were many of them, at that time they had finally occupied Stanislav. I did not return. People like me will not survive the occupation.

Maryan graduated from the 10th grade. Now he is entering the Naval College in Odesa. Vasylyna also wants to go there. When I go on business, they prepare food for the volunteers at the volunteer center. They call me and ask how to cook meat. I advise them to search on Google. So they learned everything. They grew up early. They clearly know what to do if I don’t return from my volunteer trips.”

Coral beads from Tsitana

For her, coral beads are a way of meditation. Svitlana strings beads, and gradually the creative process not only absorbs, but transforms negative emotions into wise thoughts.

“My life had been beaten me so often that I closed myself for a long time. When I was at home with my younger children, I just couldn’t sit still: I saw lies, I saw robbery, and I didn’t keep silent. When the whole country burst out in 2014, I realized that I was not alone. That experience was hard for me. But since then I have not been silent. I write, shoot my videos, sing, paint walls, make coral beads. The war opened my eyes to something new and radically changed my vision of the world. Now I know exactly what I want. I’m making plans. I have a great idea, and I am working on it. Let the war end.”

Meanwhile, Tsitana volunteers, loves her children, waits for her husband and makes her wonderful coral beads. She dreams of a future in which her difficult but very beautiful life will form a pattern, bead by bead.

Ksenia Keleberda, Kherson-Kyiv


The material is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.