In order to escape from occupied southern Ukraine, Olia Hercules’s parents had to cross about 19 Russian checkpoints. A journey of 70 kilometres, which would normally take about an hour, took six times as long.
“My mum said that she wasn’t scared. She just said that the feeling of humiliation was beyond anything that she’d ever experienced before, and they lived through [the] Soviet Union. There had been enough humiliations throughout their youth, but that was something different,” said Hercules. Originally from the Ukrainian district of Kherson, she came to the UK as a student and is now a London-based food writer. Since the Russian invasion, she’s become an activist and advocate for her country of origin.
Initially, her parents didn’t want to leave – they both own businesses and felt responsible for the 28 people they employ – but when they started to receive threats over the phone, their daughter insisted. “I said that they absolutely must leave because if anything happens to them I just won’t be able to carry on,” she told the New Statesman.
There were three kinds of Russian soldiers at the checkpoints, Hercules said. There were the rough ones, from deprived or possibly criminal backgrounds. There were the conscripts, 18-year-old boys barely old enough to shave. But the worst one her mother encountered was an officer who was probably from the Russian security service, the FSB (formerly the KGB).
“He took her passport and he looked at her name in the passport, and he looked at her straight in the eyes and he said, ‘what’s your name?’ You know, after he read her name in the passport, but she tells him her name. He asks, ‘what do you do?’ You know, all of these questions. And that’s when my mum was just like, ‘OK, breathe inside.’ And he’s just like, ‘why are you leaving?’”
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At that point, Hercules said, her parents could actually hear artillery fire from the fighting just over the horizon. Nevertheless, they held it together, and after further delays, they managed to cross into Ukrainian-held territory.
“As soon as they got to a Ukrainian checkpoint, everybody was kissing each other’s hands and hugging, and it was just the volunteers helping them to find a place to rest and tea was given,” Hercules said. “And it was just nice when my mum could breathe again.”
Her parents, who are in their mid-sixties, drove for five days and are now safely out of the country, in an undisclosed location. Hercules’s niece, a teenager, is living with her in London, having managed to get out through Poland. Her brother, who is still in Kyiv, is in the Territorial Defence Forces. Hercules is using her public profile to raise money to help Ukrainian children and to buy military equipment (helmets, flak jackets, boots) for volunteers like her brother, who are now fighting to defend their country.