LVIV, Ukraine — In the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tanya Kobzar was having nightmares.
“I was waking up in the middle of the night, terrified. I would look at a black-and-white photo of my grandmother, which I have framed on a table,” she recalls. “She reminds me of how brave a person can be.”
Kobzar’s late grandmother was an army medic in World War II. It’s become part of the family lore — how brave she was, treating soldiers on the front lines. So when Ukraine went to war again last month, Kobzar — a 49-year-old mother of two — decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. She left her office job in health care supply chains and enlisted in the army.
“I did this for my children and for my country,” says Kobzar, who’s using her military nickname in this NPR interview, rather than her full surname, because she doesn’t have permission from her commander to speak to the media.
Her first stop was boot camp, where she learned how to fire a weapon. She found it surprisingly easy. “Easier than making borscht!” she says and laughs.
Now Kobzar is deployed at a military academy in the western city of Lviv, where she’s teaching soldiers how to set up field hospitals. It’s a training role. But many other Ukrainian women are on the front lines.
Under martial law, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, and encouraged to fight. Women are under no such mandate. Still, many of them have nevertheless taken up arms against the Russians—in this war, and in past ones.
Ukrainian women have actually been serving in combat almost a century longer than American women. There were female Ukrainian officers in World War I, in the Austro-Hungarian army, and in World War II, in the Red Army.
“The Bolsheviks and the Communist parties, they declared equality between men and women in all the spheres, including the military,” says feminist historian Oksana Kis.
Despite that history though, it wasn’t until after Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine that women enlisted here in the Ukrainian armed forces in huge numbers — and were officially recognized as combat veterans, with full military pensions. Before conscription, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s military was female.
Some of the iconic images of the current war — on propaganda posters and on social media — are of female combatants. They’re reminiscent of those of the women who fought in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, of female Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s — and of Kurdish women fighting in Syria.
“It’s very familiar iconography, when it comes to imagining a nation protecting herself — fighting for her independence and freedom,” Kis says.
That’s what Alina Mykhailova was doing when NPR reached her by phone on the front lines, somewhere in central Ukraine. She couldn’t reveal her exact location. But her commander had given her permission to speak to the media — and to post images of the war on social media. She’d recently posted a video on Instagram of incoming artillery.
Mykhailova, 27, is a veteran of the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine who now serves on the Kyiv City Council. Earlier this year, she re-enlisted in the army. And she says she’s seeing heavy combat.
“We just burned a Russian tank. Actually, not just one! We wiped out their entire position!” she tells NPR. “Their tanks took a direct hit from our shells.”
Her mother is especially worried: Mykhailova and her father are both in the same combat unit.
“I am the only woman in our unit, and it’s difficult. Some of the soldiers we’ve lost are my friends — my brothers-in-arms,” Mykhailova says. “But as a woman, I’m cautious about showing too much emotion. I don’t want to hurt the moral of our unit — the combat spirit of the guys.”
The combat spirit in Ukraine right now appears to be pretty robust. Only men face conscription. But lots of them haven’t even been called up yet, because the military has already been inundated with volunteers — of all genders.
“They said, ‘OK, you will be in a line. But now we have too many people,’ ” says Olga Limarenko, about her experience trying to volunteer at her local branch of Ukraine’s territorial defense force in Kyiv.
She and her girlfriends went together, but were turned away. Officials said they didn’t need anyone else at the moment. So Limarenko, a 36-year-old architect who has since relocated to Lviv, decided to contribute another way: by making Molotov cocktails to deliver to Ukrainian cities under Russian occupation.
“During the last week, we made about 1,000 of them,” she says.
NPR met Limarenko at a library in Lviv that had been transformed into a bustling command center for volunteers — mostly women — making Molotov cocktails and camouflage nets. She says she’d fight in combat if asked. But for now, she says, make no mistake about the commitment of Ukrainian women to this war.
“We are not weak. We are just waiting,” Limarenko says.
Waiting for a spot to open in Ukraine’s military, she says — so that they can fight.
Producer Olena Lysenko also contributed to this report.