We have talked to writers and former TV journalists Natalia and Valerii Lapikura, who worked together in Yugoslavia and Transnistria in the 1990s, then dropped journalism and worked as researchers, and also served as independent experts in the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE.
The aged couple now cooperates with their friends and neighbors in the Pozniaky neighborhood to bake pastries for the military hospital and soldiers on the frontline, weave camouflage nets, gather tin cans to make trench candles, and sew cushions and warm clothes for soldiers, while at the same time gathering memoirs about the war to write a new book.
Camouflage nets and cushions for the military
Pastry for the military is only a small part of their work, says Natalia Lapikura: they do everything they can since it’s not from the movies that they know what war is.
In the 1990s, Natalia and Valerii traveled to Yugoslavia, where they saw nearly every frontline and eventually filmed a documentary, Yugoslavia: The Dead Season. They’ve also been to Transnistria and even planned to go with Anatolii Lupynis to Chechnya where he was taken prisoner.
"God saved us then," says Natalia, explaining that because of their work they had missed the trip to Chechnya, which resulted in Anatolii Lupynis losing his health.
These were the reasons why, back in 2014, knowing about the war first-hand, Natalia and Valerii started to look for ways they could help. At first, they cut tissue strips for camouflage nets in Pozniaky, and then Natalia and her friends began to sew cushions and knit socks for the military. When the pandemic broke out, they also sewed masks.
"Whatever they ask for, we just get up and do. We’ve been called crazy lassies for that, and we bear this name as a badge of honor," the writer says.
She says that back in the period when the war was called an "anti-terrorist operation" (ATO), they were impressed by a very poor-looking woman.
"She came in carrying a little bag and said, ‘Here, I’ve baked rye flatbreads for the boys, they’re very healthy.’ This was the only thing she could do, but you must admit that these flatbreads were much more important than any sweet cake you could buy," recalls Natalia Mykhailivna.
Cakes, pies, and warming garments
The baking of patties, cakes, and pies for the frontline and the military hospital has been organized by a woman living next to the Lapikuras, who also bakes them as Natalia does.
"First, we did it for the Territorial Defense, and after our Territorial Defense detachment had been sent to the frontline, we started baking both for them and the military hospital," the writer says.
Lapiruras’ elder son has been on the frontline since 2014, when they also knitted different warming garments for soldiers.
Now, as winter is approaching, many request warm waist belts, Lapikura says. She and her colleagues also sew socks, warm underarmor shirts, under-helmet caps, collars, and knit gloves.
"We have a sister-in-arms Olesia, nom de guerre Caramel, who is involved in teaching soldiers to survive in extreme conditions: to hide, to be cautious, not to expose themselves, and to provide first aid. We knitted two waist belts at Olesia’s request, a blue and a yellow one, and they turned out very nice."
They sent collars to girls who worked as medics while staying in a place with no heating:
"They wrote: ‘Gosh, thank you, we’ve been staying in a barn with no heating for a month, we were so cold, and now your collars are warming us!’"
Cushions for drivers and cans for candles
Natalia and her volunteer colleagues also sew seat cushions for drivers.
"We make something like flat cushions to put on car seats. They are cold, those seats. We just mentioned it and received lots of material from our families and friends, like my cousin from Mukachevo, who sent me a whole bag of material," Lapikura said.
They almost don’t have to buy material since their friends are giving most of it, and the result of their work goes to the frontline.
"Today, for example, we’ve given over the cans we collected to make trench candles. At first, we collected them on our own, but then we announced it to everyone in our house, and people started bringing them. They bring cans, candles, and all. I’ve just given them over, it will be a thing," adds Natalia Mykhailivna.
Why bottle caps and old bedclothes shouldn’t be thrown away
The woman says that plastic bottle caps shouldn’t be thrown away, because they are recycled and the money earned is used to make prostheses for Ukrainians wounded on the battlefield.
"It’s also important, although it may seem a little thing. However, there are no little things at war. These prostheses are made here. Such things as these caps shouldn’t be thrown away, today each and every little thing helps," she emphasized.
Old bedclothes are used to make strips for masks and nets, Natalia Mykhailivna notes.
According to her, networking has proved very effective now: for example, when she did not know whom to give warm socks to, she asked on Facebook, and writer Mila Ivantsova’s daughter, who was in Japan at the time, saw her post and called her mother from there to tell her to take the socks. She took them and then gave them to volunteers, who, in turn, carried the socks to the frontline.
"People who have been living here in Pozniaki for 20 years are contacting us now. We always greeted each other, but recently we got to know everyone. You know, our people are wonderful. Everyone we talked to asked us what to do, and we told them. There was only one person, a former member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, who turned around and ran away when we said, let us tell you what to do," Natalia Mykhailivna said.
Calm for the best pastry
Valerii Lapikura, for his part, says that a huge number of women are now volunteering from home: they knit, cook, and sew.
"These are men who carry all that under fire, although there are also women there, and at times, they get back wounded and all," says Valerii Pavlovych.
According to him, his primary duty is to ensure calm while Natalia is baking, so that nobody bothers and distracts her.
"Somehow it so happens, whenever the process starts, when every second matters because homemade bakery is a very complicated thing, one of our three phones is sure to ring," the writer says. "And what’s more, only a third of the calls are from people who need something, while two-thirds are advertisements. To prevent Natalia from being distracted, I sit in an armchair, put all these phones in front of me, and answer the calls, apologizing and trying to be polite."
He also notes that the pastry comes out extremely tasty because of Natalia's old recipes, tracing back to Chornobyl, as well as the fact that the baking requires a special atmosphere and energy, and he tries to keep them.
"The tandem is important here. It's the way we writers write, and no one can understand how we write together, so we volunteer together in the same way. Each of us clearly knows, feels," Valerii Pavlovych emphasizes. "That's how the cakes, cookies, and pies are made for boys' birthdays, which they wait for and which help them."
Dangerous trips to the frontline
In order for the pastries to reach the military still fresh, they are not given to forwarding stations — Natalya Mykhailivna bakes them in the evening, sometimes even late at night, and volunteers take them to the frontline in the morning. It is not always safe, Valerii Lapikura says:
"The leader of our group, who is responsible for this delivery, once got under fire, the driver was killed, a volunteer with her was seriously injured, and our colleague herself was also injured. So she pulled the body from the seat, bandaged her friend, somehow bandaged herself, got behind the wheel, and drove to her destination. She handed over everything she had to and even took the wounded on her way back to Kyiv."
He noted that they bake pastries both for those on the frontline and those in the hospital:
"In the military hospital, they just can’t wait for our cookies to arrive."
There are no little things at war
Natalia Mykhailivna emphasizes: one shouldn’t think that nothing depends on ordinary people.
"A lot depends. Even if it’s some little thing. We always recall the old proverb: 'For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of a shoe, the horse was lost; For want of a horse, the rider was lost; For want of a rider, the message was lost; For want of a message, the battle was lost; For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost; And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.' Thus, even one little nail can have a very important role. So let’s all look and see what else we can do."
She recalls another story when, back in the period of the ATO, one woman asked her in the METRO store if it was right that ordinary people had to buy everything for the army by themselves.
"I glared at her, asking, ‘What do you mean by themselves? Well, yes, we did a lot of things, we organized things, but I was enraged. I told her: you know, I won’t debate with you over this subject, because it’s us who have a son in the ATO, not you. So we’ll even buy him a tank if he needs it.’ The lady was gone like the wind."
What’s unique about Ukraine's war
Now, according to Valerii, they are also writing down everything that happens and everything that other volunteers tell them for the next book about this war.
"The folder is already half a meter thick — there I store daily notes about this war. For the future book — it won’t be chronicles about killing orcs in one fell swoop... but from the perspective of elderly people, because this is already my fourth war."
Valerii Pavlovych recalls that his first early childhood memory was the brutal bombing at the Pohrebyshche station in Vinnytsia in 1944, when his parents covered him, still a baby, with their bodies, and later, until he was 12 years old, he went into hysterics when hearing sirens.
"Today's war is already the fourth one... There are things that recur, and there are things that I can compare," he notes.
For example, according to Lapikura, in Yugoslavia, the army was basically Territorial Defense, akin to that in Ukraine. However, while people could be helping their relatives on the frontline at the basic level, there wasn’t an extensive volunteer movement, and this is where Ukraine has a fundamental difference.
Valerii Pavlovych says that back in 1994–1996 he and his wife already saw the inception of the future war in Ukraine:
"We talked about it to serious people, nearly grabbing them by the hand. They just blinked at us and said that it was never going to happen, that the Russians were our brothers, ‘always in a battle for the fate of the people, the Russian people were our brothers and friends.’ This was the official anthem of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, written by Maksym Rylskyi and Pavlo Tychyna."
The writer recalls that only the late Oleksandr Razumkov appreciated their report and conclusions about Yugoslavia and the warning about a possible war in Ukraine.
"Everything we see now, everything we hear, everything that younger volunteers tell us because we are already elderly people, it hurts us a lot that we turned out to be prophets. And now what this has resulted in is unpreparedness, so that we had to do everything on the fly, as you can see."
The publication was prepared as part of the We Are from Ukraine project initiated by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.