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“Let her dance, and I will stop the bombs”

Published on Feb 22, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 19th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on February 22rd, 2024. The article was written by Natalia Mazina for Reporters Media and was translated for n-ost by Natalia Volynets.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Every day, the abyss gets deeper. Between us and them, between there and here, between death and life.

Oksana is dancing around the fire. Flares flash in her hands, her supple body bends in the twilight, the wind blows through her hair. The movement and light of dance and fire compete until they finally merge in a frenzy of energies. An autumn river glistens in the distance.

This video was filmed by one of Oksana’s friends, while she was on holiday, for them to remember the moment. Oksana, who has a husband fighting at the frontline, uploaded the video on social networks.

Then the haters flooded in with comments.

“How dare you?! Your husband’s at war!” commentators would fly off the handle, “Dancing won’t stop missiles!” and “You don’t see the war!”

These words did not offend the dancer and yogi — after all, she had years of practising patience and balance — but they did alarm her.

“I thought: there are many people like me — people who like doing something,” Oksana wrote to her husband at the front. “Still, they either don’t do what they like, or they do, but conceal this. Like criminals. And if you don’t do what you like, it’s hell rather than life. Especially now, when a bomb can kill us at any moment, we should appreciate every minute.”

One thought gnawed at her mind: what if this was only her view, while her husband shared the views of those haters, believing that dancing in public is inappropriate and he just kept silent not to offend her?

She believed that female standards in Ukraine today have become very polarised. She was thinking that if you volunteer, announce fundraising for drones or cars — the reaction is: ok, great, well done; in other cases, you’d better keep your mouths shut; and, most importantly, these standards are defined by strangers. Someone, often unknown to you, evaluates your choices, actions and life.

Full of conflicting thoughts, the woman waited for a reply.

At the same time, her husband, Serhiy Stepanchuk, shamed the offenders by writing a public post:

“My beloved wife is a trainer and a guide to the world of dance and yoga. Recently, she had a photo shoot of her dancing with hand flares. She posted pics on the Internet, and those small people appeared, hating her. Non-dear zradophiles [people seeing betrayal everywhere], go f**k yourself.

“She dances for ME. When I see her dancing and guiding people through the world of yoga, I see that she is living. That she’s waiting for me. And — the main thing — that I’m fighting for a reason.

“I see that she’s not alone with her thoughts about the horrors around her, about her mother living under occupation, about our daughter abroad. That she forgot about the war for a while, for you can go crazy should you go through this hell with no escape.

“So dance, my love, dance for me and to spite the war... Don’t listen to anyone.”

“Private dances for clients are a must”

We are in the city of Korosten, which is home to Oksana and Serhiy. He is currently on leave. A cafe, some coffee, and a talk. With every hour, Serhiy becomes more open. These two heroes reveal more about themselves. Their postures get more relaxed.

In front of me is a young, lively, funny couple that seems to have just recently fallen in love. They laugh, touch each other, and interrupt each other’s sentences: “Do you remember?” — “No, no, it was different.”

Seventeen years ago, Oksana came from Berdiansk (which is now in the occupied southeast of Ukraine) to the capital. She dreamt of a big city where happiness awaited her. She rushed to look for a job. A childhood friend invited her to a real estate agency. The two of them walked into the office. A strong, tall young man approached them. This was Serhiy.

“One’s pretty,” he thought at the time. “The other’s not my type at all.”

Oksana was not his type.

Both of them were invited to someone’s birthday, then one party, then another. And one evening he did not miss his chance. They started dating. Oksana failed as a real estate agent, so quit her job. While looking for another, she ran out of money. Out of hopelessness, she worked as a dancer in a nightclub. She took Serhiy with her to show her the way to the club, as she didn’t know Kyiv well. He nearly fainted when he realised what was awaiting Oksana. Her boss told her that “Private dances for clients are a must”.

She came out stunned: “What do you think of that?”

“Of course not,” snapped Serhiy, “I wouldn’t even let someone else’s girlfriend do that.”

She chose him both consciously and rationally. She was touched by his traits and virtues that are less common nowadays. “There are few such dinosaurs left,” she says. She was attracted by his kindness and reverence for women regardless of their age, wealth or status.

“How can one see the light in the worst of us?”

Serhiy was five when his mother gave birth to his sister. She went to work, leaving her children at home, where they stayed together. Serhiy looked enviously out of the window — his friends were playing football, and he grinded his teeth and couldn’t wait for his sister to grow up. Soon his cousin, whose parents worked as train conductors, was also left with him. What could he do? Serhiy took care of his cousin too. He was already studying at a technical school when he had to become a nanny again — this time for his third cousin.

“Caring for others is like breathing for me,” he says. “I was brought up with the idea that family is the main thing. No other people were closer to one another.”

Oksana’s family has Russian roots. Her grandmother loved her grandfather very much, but he drank and beat her up in front of three children. Her mom told her about this abuse matter-of-factly.

Her parents divorced when she was two, and her father did not turn up until Oksana was six. At first, he was not interested in her, and only had time for his own development as a musician. Then, suddenly, he burst into her life: he took her to wushu, taught her singing and playing piano, took her with him for a whole summer, and taught her to appreciate small things such as the beauty of leaves. Her heart was melting. But suddenly, he disappeared from her life again.

Oksana felt angry. Oksana suffered. Oksana felt offended.

Years passed.

After the birth of her daughter, one day she went to a fitness centre. Yoga classes were also held there. She peered inside and stayed. The speeches by the master touched her, and she asked him questions. His answers were not bookish or second-hand, but deeply sympathetic and insightful.

The conversation turned to the idea of light in every person. Even in the darkest being. And our need to learn how to see it. Oksana couldn’t resist the question that tormented her, concerning a horrible story about a child abuser: “How can one see the light in such a person?”

His answer was shocking: “One can”. But one must have a very high level of spiritual development, very high vibrations, which few people on this planet have. Still, there are such people.

This yogi helped her to cognize (or become conscious) of herself — and to interact with the world differently. She wanted to establish relationships with some people and see them in a different light. To see the light in them. In particular, in her father.

She succeeded. She forgave him. And she built a relationship with him, though it wasn’t easy. Already an elderly man, he was afraid that she wanted something from him, such as his apartments or cottages. Serhiy intervened and came one day to the threshold of his father-in-law’s home, saying: “You have a daughter, and you have a granddaughter. She needs a grandfather.”

“They think I’m henpecked”

Fifteen years ago Serhiy tried to convince his wife that if the Russians went to war against the Ukrainians, he would join the fight. She was very annoyed, and thought: why does he think this will happen? He replied: that’s what history teaches us. Every hundred years, Ukraine and Russia fight. And this war will be the last one.

Oksana was angry: if you are such a Ukrainian, she asked him, why did you choose a muscovite wife? He laughed, saying that he would reteach her.

She did not feel Ukrainian: her parents were Russian, and though they all lived in Berdiansk, Ukraine, her mother spoke literary Russian, which she also taught her daughter, while believing the Ukrainian language was “for villagers, for the illiterate”.

When Serhiy brought her to Korosten northwest of Kyiv after the wedding, she used to complain a lot. People said phrases like “tudoyu-syudoyu” (lit. “to and fro”) and “pidozhdy” (lit. “wait”) — such surzhyk [A Ukrainian–Russian pidgin language] injured her delicate ear. Besides, she disliked the city terribly. It seemed to be stuck in the 1990s. Its penal colony with “thieves-in-law” is notorious throughout the former USSR — should you say somewhere in a distant part of Russia like Tyumen, that you are from Korosten, you’ll immediately hear: “Ah, that’s where the prison is.” The specific dialect spoken by the thieves can still be heard in the city.

Serhiy’s status as a defender of the native land (which he did in 2014 and 2015) and her understanding of herself and the Ukrainian land through the Eastern philosophy of yoga helped form Oksana into a Ukrainian. Now, it is painful for her to communicate with her mother, who is a ‘vatnik’ [A person promoting Russian government propaganda], who does not understand why her son-in-law is fighting, and for what ends. She stays in Berdiansk, watching Russian television, and does not want to leave.

The Stepanchuks’ daughter, 15-year-old Sasha, has been studying at a Polish school for several years. After the beginning of the full-scale war, Oksana lived either with her or in Turkey. But she returned home in the summer of 2023. She feels happier here, while Serhiy has a place to come between his tours of duty. When no one was at home, he did not want to return to an empty house. Now the person who can warm his soul lives there.

He is in the middle of his two-week leave, and he has not met any of his friends yet, as he’s been spending all his time with Oksana. “They think I’m henpecked,” he laughs. “But I just love and respect my wife. That’s not a sin.”

Oksana’s dream has always been to teach dancing and yoga. She has been dancing since the age of two. At school, she already taught others, and it was then that she realised this was her passion in life. But her mother said: “No need to try and stand out, go study to be an economist.” So, she only danced for herself when staying home alone. A lonely bird in a cage.

Then a friend invited her to become part of a ballet show in Turkey. For two years, Oksana slept during the day while dancing the can-can and tango in a cabaret at night. She dressed in sequins and feathers, and soon tired of the routine. But the pay was good.

Then she came to Kyiv to work in a real estate agency. Serhiy heard about her dream. He saw her eyes light up when she confided in him, the eyes of an enthusiastic girl. And he opened the door of her cage.

Serhiy invested the money he was saving for a new car in his beloved’s business — a dance and yoga studio. In his heart, he doubted the idea would work. Having heard of yoga, their acquaintances thought she was crazy. A local priest did not allow female parishioners to attend these classes, for “yoga is from the evil one”. But Oksana didn’t give up. She held five or six classes daily, even when she had only one client. She joked with the newcomers: “Welcome to the sect”. Step by step, the atmosphere changed and people joined. The city of Korosten allowed Oksana to prosper.

“The war has taught me: do what you like now”

The year 2015. Serhiy came home after spending a year fighting in the ATO in east Ukraine. A previously patient and calm man had changed beyond recognition. Now he flared up like a match, for no reason. Oksana was most frightened when he started shouting at their daughter. He would scream and scream, and would not stop. Then he would go out, smoke for a long time, come back, scold himself, and ask for repentance.

“This aggression got the better of me,” he says now. “I was most afraid of starting to feel sorry for myself. It’s terrible when a man, especially the one who came from war, feels sorry for himself, cries, begins to drink and justify his actions by saying: ‘I’ve been there [at the frontline], I have the right.’”

At that time, Oksana had been practising yoga for several years and was in a balanced state of mind. In their relationships, she turned out to be the only adult. And what do loving adults do? They wisely and patiently guide, listen and support.

Serhiy did cope. He engaged in woodcraft, painted pictures, played sport and, gradually, began yoga — not as a spiritual practice but as physical exercise.

Already during the full-salce war, where the man returned to help the fight against Russia, he clearly realised that he wanted to live every minute to the fullest. He says the war has taught him: do what you like now. Dive headfirst, because tomorrow may not come. You can enjoy every place, moment or meeting. That’s a different quality of life, a different quality of relationships.

“My wife and I cognized in different ways: she through yoga, and I through the war,” says Serhiy. “I realised there that if we have feelings and strong relationships, the war cements them. Couples with a strong spiritual bond and shared values will survive. Love is a force that can’t be broken by anything.”

More than half of normal people should not have had to see the horrors of war”

This soldier stood up for his wife publicly when she was insulted on Facebook, though he could have written to the offenders personally with comments like, “shut your dirty mouths”, but held back. Instead, he thought Ukrainians like quarrelling in public. Shitstorms and hype seem to be our national trait. Before one thing subsides, another one appears, and there is surprisingly little public support.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s my wife or any other woman,” says Serhiy. “These women are so worried about us, and they also have to worry because someone’s taking their joy away.”

The couple was supported by their friends, clients, colleagues and followers online unknown to them. One of them commented:

“My husband is also fighting, and my more or less normal, calm life is an indicator for him that the fighters are doing a good job. He’s very happy about that. Our friend came from the front line, and he said a profound thing: more than a half of normal people should not have had to see the horrors of war. Then they’ll be able to take the hand of those who’ve seen those horrors and pull them out.”

Serhiy adds another message for the haters angry the civilians living as though in peacetime:

“It’s easier for me when I know that everything is ok with her. Her dances stop my dark thoughts. Let her dance, and I will stop the missiles.”

Oksana adds:“When he was still fighting in the ATO, my yoga teacher told me: ‘How he feels there depends on your condition’. I’m in the rear, and I want my husband on the frontline to sense the vibrations of my thoughts, my waiting for him and my strength.”

The woman imagines this as a dome that opens up over her beloved: a white shining tent hiding the peace that she gives him, her protection that envelops him, and her love that feeds him.

The woman sees the man. She sees the light.