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caption: Marina Kluchnikov reads to her youngest child, Sasha, 3, as husband Artyom Kluchnikov looks on and daughter Olenka, 11, reads a book of her own. With Russian troops amassed along Ukraine's border, they worry if an invasion could be imminent. 
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Marina Kluchnikov reads to her youngest child, Sasha, 3, as husband Artyom Kluchnikov looks on and daughter Olenka, 11, reads a book of her own. With Russian troops amassed along Ukraine's border, they worry if an invasion could be imminent.
Credit: Pete Kiehart for NPR

Despite fears of a Russian invasion, one Ukrainian family tries to keep life normal

KYIV, Ukraine — Artyom and Marina Kluchnikov have made do raising four children in a cramped, Soviet-style apartment on the outskirts of Ukraine's capital. They can provide their family with hearty dinners of chicken, cabbage and prunes. But now they're facing the prospect that their modest yet stable existence could suddenly be upended.

"We do not have like a suitcase with stuff already packed into it," says Artyom, 46. "But I have a checklist so that I would just be ready, you know, if something happens. And I make sure that my car has at least three-quarters of a tank full at any given point in time."


For more than seven years, there's been a conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army along Ukraine's eastern border. But tensions have ratcheted up as Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed 100,000 troops on the border.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, in an ongoing diplomatic effort to try to calm the tensions. The U.S. and its European allies have warned that sanctions will be severe and swift if Russian troops invade.

The family has seen attitudes harden toward Russia

Since 2014, when the conflict began, Artyom and Marina have seen changes in their country. They say Ukrainians have begun to see Russia as an enemy.

"We see the lies that Russia tells about us," says Artyom. "We see the death toll of people in the east — you know, how many soldiers died for us. I think it goes to the national memory, I guess. We know the reason for those deaths."

The reason, he says, is Putin, who started the rebellion in the east and has kept it boiling over the last seven years. They hold him responsible for the more than 14,000 dead. Russia also annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014. But Artyom says Putin is getting the opposite of what he wants.

"Putin has done a lot of good things for establishing a Ukrainian national mentality," he says, laughing. "He's the one who invested so much effort into trying to bring us in. But the only thing that he has done is push us away."

A recent poll showed that most Ukrainians now favor their country joining NATO and the European Union.

Another effect of Russia's aggressive behavior over the better part of the last decade, the Kluchnikovs say, is that many Ukrainians don't want to speak Russian anymore. A recent poll found that more than half of Ukrainians were speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian at home — a change from 30 years ago, when 37% did.

Ukraine's close historical ties with Russia make it hard for Marina to be happy about the reasons for this change.

"It's a painful issue for me because my father, for instance, he grew up in Russia," she says. "And my great-grandmother, she was a teacher of Russian. I grew up speaking Russian. And I was never against Russia. Never."

But today she says she doesn't even speak Russian with her own sister anymore.

The family is making preparations to leave in case of an invasion

Artyom says he's had to tune the conflict out at times. "It's stressful, and you can't just constantly follow it and think about it all the time or you'd lose your mind," he says. "You begin to ignore certain things — for better or for worse."

The couple's eldest son, Nikita, 22, is studying at the Kyiv National University of Construction and Architecture and doesn't live at home anymore. He says young people aren't thinking much about war and politics, and they certainly don't want to sacrifice their lives for what's happening.

"You know, we're not concerned till it's getting to you personally," he says. "For instance, like right now, one of my main concerns actually is not going into the military. Because I think that I can be much more useful in other fields."

Many other Ukrainians feel otherwise, though, and thousands of civilians are signing up to get military training and protect their cities in case of an invasion.

Marina, 46, teaches English at a preschool. She enjoys young children and it works well because she can also bring Sasha, her youngest, along with her. He has had health problems. She says she believes God gives children two parents for a reason. So she lets her husband follow the war and the daily tensions with Russia, and if there's something she needs to know, she says, she'll know it.

"You have to find ways to live a normal life," she says. "Sometimes I feel like this circus person on a cable, already carrying like eight suitcases, and then I have two more to carry. It's important for children that the mama's happy, that the mama's stable emotionally. It's stressful but it's okay. We believe that God is with us and he's not going to let us have more than we can handle. There are people around us and somehow we do believe we're going to manage it."

The Kluchnikovs say if Russia invades, their plan is to get out of the city and take refuge at the family cottage in a village a few hours' drive west of Kyiv. There's no running water or electricity, but they'll be able to grow their own food, they say. They've begun drying fruits and vegetables to take with them. [Copyright 2022 NPR]