Istan Rozumny was preparing for another day at work the night before Russia launched its attack on Kyiv. The next day he was fleeing for his life, escorting anyone he could along the way.
Originally from Canada, the actor, director and producer has been living in Ukraine for 15 years. Though he could leave the violence-ridden country and go somewhere safer, he chooses to stay, doing everything in his power to protect his home.
In March 22, 2022 interview with Arts Help, Rozumny recounts his experience of Russia's invasion and shares what life has been like in Ukraine since.
Back in February when Russia first attacked, you started driving people out of Kyiv to safer cities nearby because other forms of transportation were overcrowded. Can you tell me about that day and how you ended up driving others to safety?
The night before I had a feeling there was going to be an attack. It was the 23rd and I went for a walk by the river, and I just had a bad feeling. We were shooting the next day (I’m acting in a web series), so we had a shoot planned for early the next morning. I got a call at 5am from my cousin who’s living in Toronto right now, and she said, “Istan, get out of town.” I said, “What are you talking about?” and she said, “there’s a war.” So I checked the news, and I could already see and hear explosions and the rumble of jets flying overhead. It was really cloudy and overcast so you couldn’t see them, but you just heard them.
At that point it was about 6-ish and they canceled the shoot. By that time, traffic was [so bad] you couldn't get out of the city. It was too late to go, and nobody knew what was happening. It was a weird situation — a bit of a blankness, a bit of a fear. I couldn't get out, it was impossible at that point, so I threw some stuff in a bag, kind of in this holding mode. The hours were ticking by and the traffic wasn’t getting any better.
After lunch, I was in a state of numbness, I didn't know whether to go or not. My friend, said to me, “Let’s get out of here.” There were some people, friends of friends, and a couple of girls and their mothers who wanted to flee also. So that was it. We jumped in the car and we went south, because all the attacks were coming from the west. The traffic was ridiculous. We saw tanks and heard sirens. We stopped for a few hours and got our bearings, then early the next morning we left and drove 21 hours to Chernivtsi, which is right by the Romanian border.
At that point it was a scramble, nobody really knew what was going on, or thought to organize anything en masse, like buses. There were about 2 or 3 cars in our group, and people joined us. I wasn't thinking, “I’m going to be a refugee driver.” At that point, we were refugees. I had space in my car so I took the young girls and we got to our destination 21 hours after that. And that was it. We got them to safety. It was a spur of the moment, impulsive thing — to get whoever I could out. I figured that my main job on the ride was to entertain the girls and keep laughing.
After that, I moved west from Chernivtsi to a place called Kolomyya. A bunch of people from the production company I was working with on that TV series got together a couple of buses the next day and moved people out. Then I decided I had to get into Lviv where I am now, because there's a lot more press going on here and a lot more access to media to get the word out.
Are you still aiding with evacuations, or are have you started helping out in other ways?
I turned to the media because that’s what I have experience in. I did a couple of interviews to try to get the word out, and then a bunch of people that I’ve worked with over the years started reaching out to me. I’ve been translating videos, doing voice overs for pro-Ukrainian/anti-Russian videos.
Also, some friends of mine in Montreal and I started raising money — they reached their goal on GoFundMe. In the Ukrainian community in Canada, everybody got together to start raising money. [I’m] fundraising and doing these videos and working occasionally with centers here that do aid for refugees — sorting boxes, helping them with translating, and basically whatever I can do. Whatever I can do, I’m doing. I want to do more, other than taking up arms, which I’m not going to be doing at this point because I don’t have military training. Just trying to help out.
How are you and everyone else coping with the war? How are you not paralyzed by fear and anger?
I am paralyzed by anger. Fear of the unknown. A peacekeeping base very close to the Polish border got hit a week and a half ago, but the fear isn’t being hit. The city is functioning to a lesser degree — there’s groceries, there’s a few cafes — but sirens went off 5 times yesterday, and there’s talk of the Belurusians coming down south into western Ukraine, so there is that fear.
The anger is incredible. My mood just swings incredibly. A mall and a residential complex where four friends of mine live just got hit. It was 10 minutes from my apartment in Kyiv.
How do we cope? Keeping busy. Boosting our spirits. We’re very optimistic here, helping out how we can. But I’m telling you, it’s not easy. I’ve never been in this kind of situation. In 2014, I took part in the Maidan protests against the puppet Russian president, but this is a different ballgame. This is an invasion.
What can I say? It's the fear of the unknown. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My life could just be destroyed. And then what do I do? What do I do?
I’ve got a huge support system here and in Canada. But everybody in Canada, they understand but they don’t feel it. They watch the news and do what they can, they volunteer, maybe raise some money, but they’ve got a warm bed, they’ve got a plasma screen to sit in front of and they’ve got a job tomorrow. So they don’t get it, but it’s amazing, their support.
Is there a feeling of hope or a belief that things will start to get better?
There is an optimism. It's much calmer now, it’s a bit of a stalemate. There's been less military conflict, it’s kind of slowed down a bit. But they are just war criming it heavy in the south. Missiles into maternity hospitals, into schools and theatres where they knew people were hiding in the basement — these are war crimes.
[There’s] optimism because our troops are kicking butt. They’re fighting back, they’re decimating them. And I’m not a violent person, and I don’t like to see people being hurt, but there’s no sympathy towards this trash that came here. They’ve killed children, they’ve destroyed families, they’ve destroyed lives.
I think the whole world is surprised by Ukraine. They thought Ukraine was going to fall in two or three days. It’s a month in, and we’re fighting back, so we’re optimistic that we can push them out. We’re very optimistic that we’re going to overcome.
Now it’s just the things that we can’t control. It's the West, the West’s response. That’s just what’s driving us crazy — the lack of response from the politicians. We don’t understand why there’s not a complete economic embargo on Russia. Why is Germany still buying Russian gas? It’s going to cost them, what, 10 euros a month more to heat their homes? I just heard a story about a bunch of protesters in Poland at the border of Poland and Belarus blocking a convoy of 40 kilometers of trucks bringing in, not humanitarian aid into Belarus, but TVs, blenders, high end clothes — why? Why are they exporting it?
That’s the huge frustration on our end, but the optimism is from the fact that we’re actually repelling the forces and we’re winning.
What do you want the rest of the world to know about what’s happening in Ukraine?
They’re murdering children. They’re killing kids. They're war crimes. And they’re allowing them to do that. The sky isn’t closed, the jets are still flying.
All the sympathy and support from the West is amazing but the reader’s got to know they’re still killing kids. They’re killing innocent people. They’ve got to push their governments to get more involved, to economically embargo Russia, and to close the skies.
Give us the arms so that we have a fighting chance. Because this is going to roll into Europe, this is affecting the world. The third world is going to be a victim. Ukraine exports grains to the whole world, and the price is already going through the roof. There’s going to be a shortage of grain, and Ukraine exports mostly to the third world. People are going to be starving. There's a huge trickle down.
So the people, what can they do? They’ve got to take it to the next level, to the political level, and they’ve got to force the governments to do something more concrete. This can end.
The vast majority of Americans, Canadians, Europeans support Ukraine’s cause, and they want the governments to get more involved but the governments aren’t acting. It’s all about greed.
What can the people reading this do to help?
People have been protesting, there’s non stop protests around the world — that’s amazing. Write to your member of parliament. It’s not like the politicians don’t know what’s going on around the world. They know. It’s just the pressure, there’s got to be a pressure.
If ten people were walking down a street and they saw one guy getting beaten, killed, shot — would they try to intervene? Would they try to help the victim? Or would they just stand there? You’ve got to step in. You need to bring it down to the everyday level and step in and do something.
I do what I can. Everyday I do what I can and my friends do what they can and they raised money and they sent it here and they protest. We do everything, and then the governments and the European Union don’t sanction Russian oil and gas exports. It just all seems so futile.
Links to contact your government representatives:
Links to donate:
UNICEF’s Fund to Protect Children in Ukraine