“We’re Ukrainian, we don’t want to be defined as simply post-Soviet, we have our own culture and heritage” – In conversation with Vitsche

An interview taken from our FIGHTERS issue. If you’ve gone to any Ukraine-Protest in Berlin, you’ve probably come across them. They were active the second tensions arose, and have done seemingly everything possible to spread the message in Berlin. 

We caught up with Krista, Vitsche’s press manager, to talk about the meaning of vitsche, and how a young group of people helped to create such a big sense of community. 

Keep up with Vitsche on Instagram @vitsche_berlin, or explore their resources and projects via their website: vitsche.org. Photos provided by Julia Sonata & Chris Knickerbocker.

What’s the meaning of “vitsche”?

Krista: It’s a very old word in the Ukrainian language, already present in the early stages of Ukrainian society since around the sixth century. It’s a council that makes decisions and changes together to represent a community. That’s why we named our organisation like that. It’s of big significance in the Ukrainian heritage and has become ever more important since 2014.

It’s the perfect name for an organisation like yours. Have you been active since 2014? Or did you start around February earlier this year?

Krista: We started in January 2022 and organised the first protests, when it was already notable that tensions ran quite high at the borders. We asked the European Union and Germany for sanctions and to send weapons in advance, so Ukraine would be prepared in case something happened. Of course, the protests before the 24th of February were quite small. We were in front of the Russian Embassy and the Brandenburger Tor. No sanctions and no weapon deliveries from Germany were happening at this time.

But then, on the 24th of February, we came together and organised the first big protests. And from that on, we organised one or two protests every week until July. Now, we cut back because of the summer break.

Come autumn, we’ll try to be more conceptual about the protests – so they create a bigger impact.

Each one of your protests, as you said, has a message and a sense of community, which I think is very interesting and unique.  Can you tell me a little bit about the Ukrainian community in Berlin before  February?

Krista: In Berlin, there was a Ukrainian community before. Some Ukrainian organisations have been providing aid to Ukraine since at least 2014, such as Ukraine-Hilfe Berlin e.V., and Plast. . I think some activists, who are a little older than us, tried to build a community, but as far as I know, there wasn’t that big of a Ukrainian community here.

Before the full-scale invasion,  Ukrainians were more present in the so-called post-Soviet places. Now, most Ukrainians are distancing themselves from this community, as it’s often very hostile to Ukrainians, and we don’t feel understood. It’s also not good for Ukrainian subjectivity.

Since February, everything has changed. So, of course, a lot of people came to Germany. We’re speaking about one million refugees from Ukraine now.

A lot of them came to Berlin.

Now, we have a very huge and very strong community with a strong identity. We’re Ukrainian, we don’t want to be simply defined as post-Soviet, we have our own culture, heritage, and identity.   This perception of subjectivity among the diaspora was not as strong before 2022.

So, Vitsche came about around a month before the full-scale invasion. How did you cope with that sudden influx of refugees? It must have turned into a full-time job from one day to another with you being thrown from living a relatively normal life, to having to deal with war. How did you, as an organisation, deal with that?

Krista: It was chaotic. We weren’t an official NGO yet in the beginning, which made it difficult for us to raise money. If we wanted to raise money, we had to do it through the bank accounts of NGOs we helped with communication work for their fundraising campaigns

From one day to another, we had a lot of people who were scared about their relatives, the threat to Ukrainian identity and the uncertainty of what was going to happen. We experienced this huge amount of grief, and Vitsche helped a lot of us to connect, help and feel useful. Just like that, people suddenly had 12- to 14-hour work days, some even quit their jobs or paused their studies, so they could help out full-time, while others helped out on top of a full-time job.

Some even had to change jobs because their employers weren’t happy with their side engagements. It had a big impact on all of us. We now have this term called “War-Life- Balance”, which sums up this chaotic state in the beginning. We were working non-stop and didn’t have any time to process. So many of us don’t even remember the first weeks or months of the invasion, there was just no time to think about what was going on.

I know what you mean. The last six months seem like they’ve gone past very, very quickly, but at the same time, a lot has happened. Out of curiosity, are there only Ukrainians working at Vitsche?

Krista: It’s mostly Ukrainians. We have some Germans and other nationalities helping out, but I would say it’s 90% Ukrainians.

Are some of the refugees who are now based in Berlin working with you too? I remember going to one of your protests with my friend from Kyiv, and he recognised a couple of people.