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IU students help translate diary of woman’s escape from Mariupol

Feb 20, 2023

“Only today, on the 5th day of the war, when frying the pasties, did I realize that I should do something so I would not go mad. I will keep a war diary so that people could later find out what happened. Even if no one cares, I hope that someday I will wake up in a peaceful country, reread all of it and realize how happy I am. And I will never complain that I have to get up at 5am by the alarm clock to see my husband off to work. Because now I know how terrifying other ‘alarm clocks’ can be.”

These words begin a 71-page, first-hand account of just one family’s harrowing fight for survival in the first months of the war in Ukraine. Students at Indiana University helped translate the account into English.

What is left of apartment building in Mariupol All that is left of Yana Panova's apartment building in Mariupol. Photo courtesy of Yana Panova

Yana Panova, a senior lecturer of English at Mariupol State University, said she woke up to panicked calls and texts from friends, family and colleagues the morning of Feb. 24, 2022. That night, she, her husband, their two daughters and their dog slept in the hallway of the 12-story apartment building they lived in. They woke up on day two to Russian shelling.

“The idea of writing this diary occurred to me at the beginning of these terrible events, when we realized that this war isn’t only going to last for two to three days,” Panova said. “I wanted to have all these facts remembered, but without extra harm to my mental health, because if you keep thinking about it, it’s driving you crazy. The diary was a good way out: You write out your thoughts, and it releases them from your head.”

Day 14: March 9, 2022

“The morning is awful. At 4:00 everything is new. So much so that I started shaking all over again and couldn’t stop. … We hide with our heads under the blanket. The horror lasts until about 8:00. Again, all this time I was in a state somewhere between sleeping and fainting. … We looked out the window at a burning car nearby. The shots do not subside, but they are not so loud anymore. Just as we went outside, it started again. One step forward and two steps back, that’s how we walked. There’s a lot of broken glass around. We looked at the windows, in which the glass was broken. We looked at the terrible balcony on the 5th floor, where the shell hit yesterday. Such a terrible sight! But thank God, people survived. Where are they now? Probably at the neighbors’ or in the basement.”

The diary describes 51 days of the family’s horrifying experience as Russian soldiers shelled, bombed and ultimately destroyed the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol in the early months of the war. The family had no heat, no power, no phone service, no water, at times no food; they feared for their lives as homes and buildings were destroyed around them and neighbors were killed in the street.

Finally, the diary describes the days of their escape from the city through Crimea, Georgia and into Bulgaria.

“I consider my diary one piece of the evidence of violent and criminal behavior of Russians in Ukraine,” Panova said. “People who are left there have to adjust to the new realities and authorities, have to ‘love’ Russia and will never tell the truth about what has happened in their city in February and March 2022.

“New ‘truth’ has been imposed upon them. It’s deathly dangerous to speak about it in the occupied territory. Now all the evidence of those crimes has been ruined along with the demolished buildings, and only the testimony of witnesses can matter and cast some light.”

street in Mariupol Street in Mariupol after the Russian invasion started. Photo courtesy of Yana Panova


After Panova and her family escaped from Mariupol, she started working with friends to make her diary available worldwide. Some of those friends connected her with Sarah Phillips, professor of anthropology and director of the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at IU Bloomington.

“They asked if I knew anyone who could help to translate this diary to English,” Phillips said. “I thought, ‘Of course.’ I immediately thought of our wonderful colleague at IU, Svitlana Melnyk, who teaches Russian and Ukrainian language classes and is known for integrating challenging and important projects into her classes.

“I thought it would be a great service-learning project for the students, to share Yana’s story. It is at once unique and incredibly poignant, yet also representative of so many who endured the seize of Mariupol.”

Phillips connected with Melnyk, senior lecturer of Slavic and East European languages and cultures and a native of Ukraine, who assigned the important task to students in her fifth-year Russian for social sciences course. Each student was given three to five diary entries to either translate from Russian to English, or to look over Panova’s English version.

“I had tried to translate the diary into English, but I knew a native speaker could make it much better than I,” Panova said. “I gave them my Russian and English translations, and I am so grateful to the students for their work. I know the details can be difficult to read, and it means so much to me to be able to share this experience with the world.”

“The students did a great job,” Melnyk said. “This is now a real product for people to read. It’s also important they had the opportunity to learn about the war not just from the news, but from a real person who lived in Mariupol and suffered through this bombing. This first-hand experience is important and eye-opening.”

Elijah Kelsey is one of the students who helped translate the diary. He’s a first-year master’s student studying Russian and East European studies in the Hamilton Lugar School.

“I have a lot of friends in Ukraine, so I’d been following the news and knew many of the facts of how many people had been killed, and how many cities were attacked,” Kelsey said. “But to have this personal experience to tie to what was going on made it really sink in.

“She talked about her kids, her husband, her dog. It’s all really relatable, and through this really heavy text, we learned so much, and I’m glad we worked on it.”

“To have that diary, it was mind-boggling, in a way, to be able to read it,” said senior Ariel Clemmons, who is a double major in international studies and Slavic and East European languages and cultures. “Something like this was so raw and emotional.

”Being able to translate this to others felt like an important opportunity, one that would lead others to be able to read and experience what I had felt, and hopefully to have a better grasp of how war has affected Ukrainians.”

Panova is working to publish her diary this year as part of a larger book project.

“I greatly appreciate the work the students did to translate our experience,” she said. “It means a lot to me and my family.”

“The most important thing is, it’s not statistics. These are real people,” Kelsey said. “For every person you hear about being killed by a stray bullet or a Russian shell, that’s a person with a family, with a life. The war is completely senseless, and we need to do what we can to support Ukraine to defend itself from this invasion.”

Day 51: April 16, 2022

“I solemnly swear never to forget, and to make as many people as possible aware of what has really happened to my city and its citizens. This diary comes to the end but the new one starts tomorrow. We’re at the very beginning of our new hopefully happy life full of adventures, challenges, and victories. Many thanks to everyone who has been following me up to this page.

“To be continued.”


IU Newsroom

Teresa Mackin

Deputy Director of Media Relations, Indianapolis

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