Olga Rukavishnikova

'When everything started, I did not have any deliberations or doubts': Ukrainian women fight for their country

Olga Rukavishnikova

Classical musician Olga Rukavishnikova swapped her violin for a rifle on the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The day before the invasion was like any other. She practised conducting and the violin and planned for the next day.

Signing up to defend her country was not in her plans, as Olga refused to believe until the last minute that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion.

But when it started on 24 February, she knew straight away where she needed to be and made her way to the nearest local defence force unit.

"When everything started, I did not have any deliberations or doubts," she said.

Ms Rukavishnikova, alongside pursuing a career in classical music, is trained in karate.

She has been practising Kyokushin-kai, a Japanese full-contact martial art rooted in the philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard training.

The musician describes herself as a "fighter" and is certain that her place is on the frontlines with the rest of the defenders of Ukraine, the numbers of which keep growing daily.

She feels positive about her decision to enlist.

"Morale is only higher with every day, even with every hour!" she said, due to the unity of the Ukrainian forces.

Olga in the territorial defence.
Olga in the territorial defence (Picture: Olga Rukavishnikova).

Prior to the invasion, Russia was believed to have about 900,000 military personnel, while Ukraine has around 200,000 troops, with female personnel comprising more than 15%. 

President Zelensky signed a decree on the general mobilisation of the population on the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion, prohibiting men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

More than 10 million people have fled Ukraine, most of them children and women. However, many have chosen to stay and take up arms, joining the volunteer units of the territorial defence. 

Despite heavy losses on both sides, the number of the territorial armed forces keeps growing, with soldiers from abroad joining as well as Ukrainian immigrants coming home.

Before the war, Olga was studying for a double master's at the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music, managing her academic workload with a strenuous martial arts training regime.

Friends and family have been supportive of Olga's decision, which she describes as "strictly personal".

She said: "I think that everyone who really needs to be here and who is needed here either are here already or will be soon." 

For those that are thinking of joining she cautions that "you need to be prepared for hardships and the unexpected". 

The musician-turned-soldier said she has been amazed by how the Ukrainian nation has united and been living as "one family" and by the number of both men and women who have enlisted to protect their land.

With the unthinkable happening to Olga's country, she feels like her sense of time is distorted but she is hopeful that the war will end soon, and she will be able to finish her master's program this year.

Olga at the forefront of a concert conducted by Olena Yefremova.

Mila Makarova is another woman who joined the war effort in the first days of the invasion.

A resident of north Kyiv, Mila is a teacher, who has been working with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence since 2014, developing courses in tactical and combat medicine for those without a medical background.

On the third day of the invasion, Mila went to the closest recruitment office that she could walk to, joining a queue of hundreds of people who turned up to enlist.

In the first days of the war, according to Mila, the recruitment office was only accepting people who were militarily obliged and had military experience in the previous eight years of war in Donbas, priority being given to those who did not need to be trained.

So, at first, Mila was turned away, because there were too many volunteers.

However, for several years Mila has been preparing for war, training in tactical combat casualty care, attending military camps and collecting medical supplies such as tourniquets.

When she was turned down at the recruitment office, she went to the medical unit, bringing her supplies with her, and was immediately recruited as a combat medic volunteer.

She has overseen the sourcing and sorting of more medical supplies, as well as training others in combat medicine, which proved invaluable when her base experienced shelling and casualties.

Mila admits that she hardly gets to sleep, as her body has gone into preservation mode fuelled by adrenaline.

"It is so hard to believe that this is actually happening," she said.

Despite having been actively engaged in the conflict for the past eight years, the combat medic volunteer had hoped that it would not escalate into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Prior to the war, Mila was planning to go travelling. As a keen skier, she humorously lamented that her ski pass was going to expire, having now missed two seasons, first from the pandemic and now because of the war.  

Mila's role does not require a medical degree. It is based on the US Army's 68 Whiskey Military Occupational Specialty of combat medicine.

She is required to provide emergency medical treatment and evacuation from the battlefield, as well as limited primary care.

The 36-year-old has also previously worked with the Ukrainian Red Cross, writing the guidelines for emergency response teams on how to provide first aid.  

Mila said: "The defence of Ukraine now is the first priority.

"I did not have any other option with my experience and with my background."

Mila believed that with her skills in combat medicine, not enlisting would have been "wrong".

"I am defending my home and my neighbourhood," she added. I really see that this part of defence, medical support needs me, so I am here."

The interview with Mila was cut short, as she had to seek shelter immediately due to an air raid.