BELGRADE, Serbia — She is from Ukraine and he is from Russia. Their love blossomed online, but with their nations at war, the odds of carrying on their relationship were stacked against them. Even so, it didn’t take long for the young couple to beat the odds.
Mariia Vyhivska and Iurii Kurochkin, now both 23, fell in love while playing an online video game. But Russia’s invasion of its neighbor threatened to scuttle their relationship before it even got off the ground. They boldly turned their backs on the war-engendered enmity pervading their homelands and chose to be together.
Vyhivska was living in Zvyagel, near Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, and Kurochkin in St. Petersburg in Russia. Despite the seemingly insurmountable distance, the couple didn’t give up.
“It wasn’t hard,” said Vyhivska, smiling. “I wasn’t afraid, not at all. I am happy. Because I am loved.”
Kurochkin recalled how the couple started making plans to meet in person.
“It was a year ago … I started to organize my international passport, to visit Mariia in Ukraine.” recalled Kurochkin. “I finished it in January, and as you know, the war started in February and it crashed all our plans.”
It seemed that all hope of meeting evaporated amid the Russian onslaught in Ukraine that drew global condemnation and saw millions of Ukrainian refugees stream out of the country.
Vyhivska and Kurochkin were at a loss. She moved to Czechia soon after the war started while he stayed at home in Russia. But they didn’t give up. They started sizing up “some options to live together,” said Kurochkin.
The answer turned out to be Serbia, a fellow-Slavic nation in the Balkans that remained friendly with Russia, and where Russians could enter without a visa. Serbia’s capital Belgrade was where Vyhivska and Kurochkin met for the first time.
“I arrived to Serbia on 27th of April and I waited for her for several days,” he said. “She arrived from the Czech Republic and we met each other at the central bus station.”
He was all that she imagined, said Vyhivska.
“There was this moment of unbelievable joy,” she said. “I traveled for 16 hours and had no sleep, I couldn’t sleep. So, I came out of the bus and I fell into his arms.”
Their new life together began in that instant. A hostel served as their first abode before the couple found a small flat in a Belgrade suburb. They took up various jobs while pursing IT studies online at a St. Petersburg university.
Life together hasn’t been without its problems. Last July pro-Russian extremists in Serbia drew a huge Z sign — a symbol of Russia’s invasion — on their building and assailants broke into their flat. They were also attacked by a group of hooligans, Kurochkin said.
An estimated 200,000 Russians and some 20,000 Ukrainians have come to Serbia in the past year. Many Russians set up businesses in the Balkan country, which has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia despite seeking European Union membership.
“We talk about the war sometimes but we don’t have any problems between each other,” said Kurochkin. “With other people, of course (we have), because there are a lot of people, there are a lot of points of view, so it is impossible to handle them all.”
For Vyhivska, the biggest concern has been how she’ll be perceived by fellow Ukrainians because of her relationship, even through own family has no objections at all.
“What happens next? We’ll see,” she said. “We don’t know what happens tomorrow, there is danger even of nuclear war, they are frightening us with that now. I can’t look too far ahead.”
Kurochkin said they will just take things as they come: “We are happy because we are together.”