Two brave Latter-day Saints in Kharkiv, Ukraine, put their faith to work, risking it all to serve others and reunite with loved ones.
GUEST POST by Jake Frandsen
Vanya Gerasimov had read in the news that the assault on his city of Kharkiv would start at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 24. It was 5:00 a.m. when he first heard the bombs.
“When I woke up, I could hear … some explosions far away, and some vibrations,” Vanya recalls. “I’m lying in my bed, and I keep repeating these words: ‘I hope it’s just fireworks.’” But the explosions were too loud to be fireworks, and they were getting closer.
In another part of the city, André Zinkovski, 36, answered a phone call from his mother. “She said, ‘They are bombing,’” André recalls. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s five in the morning. Let me sleep!’ … And then I heard that something’s going on outside.”
He soon realized that the commotion was the sounds of the invasion echoing through the city.
“The fear just overcame me,” says André. “It was really difficult to understand. You went to sleep in one country in peace, and when you wake up, you’re in an absolutely different country that is at war.”
Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and home to 1.4 million people, is thought to have been one of the first strategic targets in the conflict. Located in the northeast of the country, it lies less than 20 miles from the border with Russia.
Since Russian forces entered the city on Sunday, the city council has recorded seven fatalities—two servicemen and five civilians, according to CNN. “Kharkiv has just been subjected to massive … shelling! Dozens of victims,” Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, said told CNN, describing the situation there as “a nightmare.”
During these uncertain times, Vanya and André, both Latter-day Saints from Kharkiv, are doing what they can to serve those around them—one at home, and the other in an unfamiliar city far away.
As the conflict mounted over the course of last Thursday, Vanya’s thoughts kept returning to his fiancée, Cibi Becerra. Vanya and Cibi met while working at Cumorah Academy, a school in the Czech Republic run by members of the Church. Cibi helplessly watched the news from the school. “Here at Cumorah, we have a group of students from Ukraine,” she says. “Some of them don’t have communication with their families. … We’re grateful, though, that we’re here together, in a safe place.”
Vanya decided that he would make a bid to leave Ukraine and travel to the Czech Republic. Administrators at Cumorah Academy reassured him that the school would provide a safe place for him, and he’d be reunited with Cibi. He found a train ticket departing on Saturday and started packing.
On Saturday, as he bid his mother goodbye, he felt a surprising amount of peace. “Basically I just knew that my family—those ones who were at home— would be fine. I had this knowledge, this feeling,” he says. “And I said to my mom, ‘See you soon.’”
As he hopped into a taxi at twilight with two backpacks in tow, Vanya felt he was looking at a different city. “I could hear bomb explosions somewhere,” he says. The empty streets were littered with abandoned vehicles. “People just leave their cars in the road. … Everything’s closed, no beaming of street lights. It’s like apocalypse,” he recalls.
Arriving at his train, Vanya was eager to be on his way out of this new city that he didn’t recognize. Hundreds had flooded into the train, and no seats were available. “There were at least ten people in [each] compartment that was meant for four people,” he says. “So I was standing there for 18 hours. I met some people from Syria—one of them was a journalist and the others were doctors.”
About halfway through the journey, Vanya’s train pulled into a station in the besieged capital of Kyiv, where the conflict was at its worst. “We stop as we should, but we don’t open the door,” Vanya recalls. The platform outside was crowded with people. “It got sad at this moment—sad for those people who came to the train station, who were knocking on the windows of our train car [and] who came with hope to leave their city.”
The train pulled away from the station, leaving the crowd of desperate people behind.
After an 18-hour journey, Vanya’s train arrived in Lviv, over 600 miles away near the Polish border. This is where his journey was to end. Vanya found out about new restrictions: “The government implemented a law that is making it not possible for men from 18 to 60 to pass the borders of Ukraine,” recalls Vanya. There would be no joyful reunion with Cibi at Cumorah Academy.
Now stranded hundreds of miles from home, Vanya realized he needed a new plan. He contacted local Church leaders in Lviv. “I got a contact of the branch president,” says Vanya. “He reassured me it was going to be OK—just come and we will give you a place to stay.”
Vanya was given some food and allowed to stay overnight on Sunday at the local meetinghouse. That night, as he lay alone on a rug on the floor of the Primary room, Vanya listened. The night was quiet; curfews meant that the streets were empty, and Lviv was not being rocked with explosions like his home in Kharkiv. In the quiet, he wondered what the coming days would bring. “I had this burning desire to help, to go somewhere, maybe even to go to battle somewhere,” he recalls.
The next morning Vanya visited the local government office to declare his presence in the city. Officials assigned him to stay at a local school, where he would join about 50 other displaced people sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
As he turned in his paperwork, he noticed people hurrying in and out of the area with supplies. He discovered that volunteers were purchasing and helping deliver supplies to the military in the area. Vanya decided to join the volunteers and spent Monday and Tuesday walking all over Lviv, purchasing supplies to be shipped to Ukrainian military personnel. “I bought belts, I bought shoes, I bought backpacks for grenades for soldiers,” he says. The one item he couldn’t track down was yellow tape, which the solders tie to their arms or legs to increase nighttime visibility.
Vanya hopes to eventually make it to the Polish border, where he hears people are in the direst need. For now he’ll keep doing what he can to help in Lviv. “Even if I stay here for some period of time, that’s probably what I will do for now,” he says. “I have a place to stay and [am] helping people here who need it. … Besides that, I have everything—I have food, I have a place to stay, I have internet, shower, scriptures—so I’m happy.”
Vanya’s fiancée, Cibi, says the two have been able to stay in touch. “I’m grateful that so far he still has internet connection and that we can call each other every night and read the scriptures, but I know it’s not going to stay like this,” she says.
According to Vanya, former mission companions from the Ukraine Dnipro Mission and others a half a world away have been reaching out. “I’m just thankful for everyone who is praying for us. I have American companions, I have their parents constantly texting me, worrying about me. My mission president’s wife, everybody is worried about me. I’m thankful for their prayers. I can feel it. I can feel the support coming from somewhere.”
Reflecting on the past few days, Vanya insists, “I’m really fine. I can help. I’m able—I’m willing—to help. So I’m happy for that. And happy for prayers of support.”
Back in Kharkiv, André Zinkovski felt his fears subside in the days after the assault began on his city. Today, thousands have watched André’s Instagram videos documenting his efforts to serve others during the chaos, but initially all he could do was try to process his own situation.
“This was hard to first grasp and [to] even understand. Is this truly happening to me? Is this truly happening in my country—and moreover, in my city? Is this real?” he says. “But because of my faith, I was able to stop, breathe, and understand that whatever happens, the Lord is on my side and that He will support me.”
André first found the gospel at age 13 when Latter-day Saint missionaries knocked on the door of his family’s home. “They didn’t speak perfect Russian, obviously, but the things that they explained about the Church and [the] Restoration … made sense, and we got baptized. And after that we just tried to live as faithfully as possible,” he says.
“I’ve had some points in my life when my faith was tested,” says André, “but not like in this period, during the last four or five days when the war started.”
On Friday, André reported to his job, where he works delivering food throughout the city. But suppliers were unable to enter the city as gas prices skyrocketed and many roads were impassable. “It’s absolutely dreadful to [drive] these roads,” André says. “You’re risking everything when you go because you never know what will hit you next.”
Realizing that his normal job had been completely disrupted, André had a decision to make. “I thought, ‘What are you going to do … during these uncertainties?’ And then I had this idea to help others,” he says.
His thoughts turned to his food storage in his apartment, and he decided he’d share. Speaking of the Church’s guidance to keep an emergency supply of food, André says, “I was never a big fan of that because, I mean, hello—we live in the 21st century! We live in Ukraine. There are no earthquakes or floods or anything like that. There are no hurricanes. … But to follow the prophet, of course I had this food storage that would take a big space in my apartment,” he says. “And when this happened I was like, ‘Oh wow. Thank you for listening to the prophets.’”
A video André posted to Instagram shows him sorting through his food storage and pulling out flour, water, honey, medicine, and other essentials. Through tears he explains that he’s taking the supplies to his elderly neighbor, who is stuck in her apartment alone. “I’m grateful that I have this ability to share the goodness with others who are less fortunate,” he says in the video.
This Sunday, André attended sacrament meeting over Zoom. “It was a great church meeting,” he says. “There was no speech about the war or anything. Nobody mentioned it. There were great uplifting messages from members. It was like a fresh breath that we took after these terrible days.”
As the situation worsened in the Kharkiv, André moved in with his mother, farther outside the city. Despite the distance away from the invasion, their home has been constantly rocked by nearby explosions, rattling windows as well as nerves. André says one hit “extremely close” to their home. “We had this explosion, and our whole building just trembled. The trap door [to the attic] broke and fell down because of it, says André. “I didn’t fall, but I trembled!”
On Tuesday, André went to a supplier’s warehouse to see if any food was available. He managed to procure a box of apples, along with some oranges and bananas. He immediately thought of the nearby metro stations, where hundreds of citizens have been sheltering from the fighting.
“I thought, ‘Hey, take this box of apples, and take it down to the subway and see how the people are there.’”
André had been to the station the previous week, but things looked much worse now. “It’s humbling,” he says. “When you go down and you see all those people—with their children, with their beds, with their elderly—just trying to survive and make a bed in there on the floor of the subway … There’s nothing more they could do,” he recalls through tears.
André placed the fruit into the hands of eager children who crowded around him. “For a very long time [they] haven’t seen the light of day, haven’t breathed fresh air,” he says. “They don’t have any hot meals or anything like that. So I was really humbled by this experience. I wish I could do more—not just for the children—but we do what we can do.”
André plans to keep helping in the days ahead, even as uncertainty looms. “You’re hoping that this will be over soon, and every day the news could say [that soon the invaders] will leave—and so everybody was kind of hoping that this will end tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and we hear the shootings, we hear the bombs going off, we hear our people being killed.”
Through these trying days, strangers from around the world have followed André’s story on Instagram and have sent money and encouragement. “Those messages from people sending words of support—that’s what kept me going. That’s what’s helping me right now not to be devastated and depressed, André says. “Maybe for someone it’s just words, but for me it’s a huge support. The only support I get are the words. … That makes all the difference.”
About the Author Jake Frandsen is managing editor for LDS Living, a subsidiary of Deseret Book Company. He previously worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he led the team that edits and produces the Church’s curriculum products. He holds linguistics bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University.