At the beginning of March, a member of The Currency got in touch by email to introduce Yulia and her partner Sam Brearey.
Yulia, he said, was a lawyer in Kyiv, who was prominent in promoting women in business in Ukraine and internationally. She was also a competitive sailor. The email explained that “everything has changed for her, her young daughter, family and the Ukrainian nation in the past week. Yulia’s brother is on the front line and her elderly parents are preparing meals for the Ukrainian soldiers.”
The story of this war and the stories of those displaced, traumatised, bereaved and killed are now becoming familiar. They may be similar but all are unhappy in their own way. Yulia and Sam’s story is another story of the war and, like so many stories from Ukraine, it is also a story of extraordinary resilience.
Yulia knew that Putin would invade. She wasn’t sure to what extent, but she knew Putin only had bad intentions towards Ukraine. A couple of months before the war, she sent her young daughter back to her father’s country. If the time came to flee – when the time came to flee – Sam and Yulia wanted to eliminate as many risks as possible.
Sam was born in Cambridge, has lived most of his life in the UK and went to live in Kyiv in 2017. It was a life he loved and plans to embrace again but as the threat increased, they made their plan to leave.
“So I think the first thing to understand is that getting to and across the border for us was super important for Yulia’s safety, above anything else,” Sam says.
“We were able to do that in a very efficient manner because we had a lot of people around us helping us in term of their thoughts on the intelligence of what was coming in. We had some people that helped me around our route planning and how to deal with the situation. It’s something that no one’s been in before, or certainly not in our generation. We actually had it all planned out from quite far out, in reality. Before we left, we had a good idea of what was going to happen. In the weeks building up to it, the van was pretty much packed with a lot of the stuff we were going to take, we were going to grab bags already. We had our route out of Kyiv all sorted, we had our alternative routes out if needed, and all those sorts of bits. When the missiles hit for us, it was a huge shock for sure, but I don’t think it was necessarily the mass panic that you might expect, it was relatively calm.”
They drove northwest out of Kyiv, skipping the western road which others were taking, and drove along the border with Belarus before heading towards Lviv and crossing into Poland there.
Their relief when they crossed the border was intense and the threat they had felt was very real.
Yulia’s work had left her with no illusions about Russia under Putin. Yulia’s law firm was the first in Ukraine to refuse any Russian business. They took this decision back in 2014 when Putin invaded Ukraine for the first time and occupied Crimea, as well as some territories in the east of the country. Any Russian oligarch that came looking for work was told to look elsewhere.
And there was other work too that made them feel they would be in direct danger if Russia took Kyiv.
“Our law firm did some work against the biggest state owned companies in Russia,” Yulia says. “Our law firm, together with another Norwegian law firm, won the biggest arbitration in the history of mankind. This was the arbitration of Naftogaz against Gazprom for over 50 billion dollars. It remains the biggest arbitration victory ever which Ukraine won against Russia.”
Her firm also spent time this year working with foreign partners against Nord Stream 2 certification. “That’s why I knew that it was dangerous for me to stay in Kyiv because of the work we did before and the work we wanted to do. We had always made our position clear and made public statements against Putin and his regime in Russia.
“If Kyiv was surrounded quickly there would be no chance to get out whatsoever and all my projects and other efforts which are essential for Ukraine, they would be impossible at that stage.”
As a young child Yulia had to live in the south of Ukraine for six months because it wasn’t safe to live in Kyiv following the Chernobyl disaster.
“Ukraine at the time was a part of the Soviet Union. I was three years old at the time, and my brother was just six months old, and we spent half a year in exile, hiding somewhere in the south of Ukraine from radiation, which was spread across the northern part of Ukraine. It was quite difficult to be away from the biggest part of my family, from my dad and my grandparents, for so long. For my mom, it was difficult to support two small children financially at the time. That’s why I remember as a child, the tragedy which Chernobyl nuclear plant created for Ukraine and some neighbouring countries. I hope that the Western countries would react to this danger which exists while the Chernobyl plant is controlled by Russian terrorists. Depending on the wind, radiation could go any direction. And the if it explodes again, it could go to Poland, Romania, Hungary, even Russia and further on.”
Yulia is able to continue working remotely from the UK and the EU. When we spoke, Sam was driving back across Europe to the Hungary-Ukraine border to deliver supplies for friends and family.
Yulia’s father remains in the city as does her brother who is fighting for his country.
“I’m very concerned about him. But at the same time, I’m very thankful because due to the efforts of my brothers and his mates, and people like him, my colleagues, my friends who stayed to defend our land, because of them, we have a quite good chance to come back to our land, to the place where we belong.”
Yulia communicates with her brother every day and the anxiety is tempered by pride and gratitude at what he is doing for their country.
“My brother was never in the army, because he had some health issues, and he wasn’t accepted into the army before the war. He was not in the army and wasn’t even in the reserves, but he voluntarily decided to join the forces. We have a joke in Ukraine now, saying that, when it’s time to do the military duty, everyone is sick and when it’s time to participate in the war, everyone is okay. And no one is sick anymore.”
The tension doesn’t go away however.
“Everyone expects that it would be very dangerous and very difficult out there. But that’s the price Ukrainians have to pay for their freedom and victory. Because Ukrainians don’t want to live in a country of dictatorship and to be slaves, like people in Russia. This is not interesting for us. And that’s why people are ready to risk their lives to defend Ukraine’s democracy, Western values and rule of law, because the alternative is much worse.”
Yulia’s work has informed her views. Sam and Yulia also point out that the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. “The West did not react enough after Putin occupied Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. And as Putin didn’t get a strong response from the West back then he understood that it would be ok to advance further. I think everything that is happening now is a consequence of an eight-year long war in Ukraine, which was completely disregarded by the West.”
In that time, they have become used to the ways of Putin’s Russia and the surveillance methods of his state.
“If they could, they would not only invade Ukraine, but they would invade other countries Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, to reestablish the Empire they used to have before, so Ukraine is now protecting the whole Western world and fighting on behalf of the whole Western world for democracy, democratic values and rule of law so I think Ukraine deserves huge support.”
As they headed across Europe, they witnessed that support from people in the rest of Europe, but it is the resistance of her own people that makes Yulia believe she will return.
“I actually feel better now than I felt three weeks ago, leaving the country. When I was leaving, I thought that we had a very slim chance to come back home again. Now I’m very confident that Ukraine will win the war, and we will come back home soon.”