Starting this weekend, people in four occupied regions of Ukraine will “vote” on whether to join Russia. For many people, including my aunt and uncle, in Donetsk, what that really means is they will be forcibly absorbed into a country they do not want to be a part of.
Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in the south, are all at least partly occupied by Russia. The point of holding referendums in these places is to lend an air — however thin — of legitimacy to their annexation. Though of course, when Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, declared Russia’s support for the referendums, which had been announced earlier this week, he talked about “liberation.”
It’s not the first time that Mr. Putin has suggested he is liberating people like my aunt and uncle, and it’s no truer now than it has been in the past.
Ever since 2014, when Russia-backed separatists took control of Donetsk, one of the biggest cities in Ukraine, and declared it the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” talk of joining Russia has come in waves. Many residents have left, but those who didn’t — many of them older people who had nowhere to go — knew that living in a republic that was recognized by only Russia, North Korea and Syria, and under constant shelling, was unsustainable. Views on whether the city should become part of Russia, however, varied widely. Some coveted Russian citizenship because they saw Russia as a stronger, richer country with better jobs and higher pensions. Others, like my aunt and uncle, who have lived in Donetsk their whole lives, wanted the region to go back to Ukraine.
My aunt cried inconsolably when Mr. Putin announced his invasion in February to “liberate” the Donbas from Ukraine’s so-called neo-Nazi regime. She never asked him to be liberated, she told me tearfully then in phone calls; she just wanted to live peacefully in her country. But when the invasion started and I urged her to leave, she was resolute: They’d stayed this long, she said, what was the point of leaving now? Already in their 70s, my aunt and uncle couldn’t see themselves restarting their lives somewhere new.
For me, an immigrant to the United States who was born in Ukraine and grew up between Moscow and California, their attachment to their land even as bombs fell around them was hard to understand. And yet, I have to admit that their life in the seven months since Mr. Putin’s invasion hasn’t been that different from the previous eight years of war. There were “quiet days” when they could sleep through the distant shelling and “loud nights” when they woke up cursing or their cat defecated in fear. In the summer, they also had many “hot days” when there was no running water. Whatever was thrown their way, they made do. Every time I called to ask how they were, my aunt inevitably quipped, “We’ve survived another day!”
At one point my brother, who until recently lived in Moscow, invited them to stay with him. But my aunt and uncle refused. For them, their haphazard existence in a shelled city that Ukraine was fighting to retake seemed like a better alternative to living peacefully under the thumb of the invader.
Whenever my aunt and I have talked about whether there would be a referendum, she has laughed nervously and joked about whether, depending on the outcome, Russia would want to keep them. The Donbas is not like Crimea, a pretty and popular resort destination on the Black Sea, she said. (Crimea was annexed in 2014 with the support of many Russians.) Mr. Putin’s sights would be set on a much bigger goal than annexing an industrial region in eastern Ukraine famous for coal mining.
But now, after seven months of a war that has not gone as Mr. Putin planned, making the part of Ukraine where my family has lived since the 1950s part of Russia is finally on the table.
The voting starts on Friday and will last for five days. My aunt and uncle don’t plan to participate because they feel their votes won’t matter. “This referendum is a sham,” my aunt said in a message over Telegram, the only remaining mode of communication we have since phone and other messaging apps were shut off. “They will get whatever result that they want.”
“I don’t know anyone who is planning to vote, unless they come to our houses and force us at gunpoint,” she told me.
To me, the formal annexation of Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is now a certainty. After all, Mr. Putin rarely doesn’t do what he says. When I ask my aunt and uncle what they plan to do when it happens, they say they don’t know. I think, after the recent gains by the Ukrainian Army, they are still holding on to a hope of a last-minute reprieve.
“Maybe we won’t get accepted” by the Russians, my aunt ventures. “Or maybe it won’t happen very quickly. Changing passports isn’t a simple thing to do. Either way, it looks like a desperate move.”
Maybe it is a desperate move. But that doesn’t change the truth: My family is not being liberated. It is about to be subjugated.