Bomb Hills, Not Countries: Ukraine’s Skateboarders Keep on Pushing
Words and photography by Kris Parker
Russia’s war on Ukraine is entering its sixteenth month of brutality, destroying cities and ripping apart families in a trail of destruction that can be hard to comprehend if not directly experienced. A modern war, where one can order takeout over an app, stream your favorite movie online, and die in a missile or drone strike all in the same night. Status as a civilian offers little protection. The situation can seem absurd, with the maturity of technology outpacing the humanity of the aggressor. Of the paradoxes that war reveals, one that becomes apparent is that where there is pain, there is often resilience. But resilience is not infinite, and it requires nurturing.
For many members of Ukraine’s growing skateboarding community, skating offers a necessary, though temporary, refuge from a reality that can overwhelm the senses otherwise. War is stressful, but around the broken glass and rubble of destroyed buildings, Ukrainian skaters continue to push.
Mykhailo Tevkun, 31, awoke to the sound of rockets and their explosions in Kyiv on February 24th, 2022, as Russia launched its full-scale war. The head of the Ukrainian Skateboarding Association, the reality of the war quickly became apparent as Russian forces pushed into Bucha and Irpin, suburbs of Kyiv and not far from the home of his family.
“I went with friends to the occupied regions of Bucha and Irpin; they had asked me to fly a drone. I did not understand what was happening before I arrived, but once there I understood I cannot spend much time here. There were many explosions, dead bodies, and military guys digging trenches,” he recalled on a recent Saturday in Kharkiv.
“That was a really critical point for me, because I understood the war was much closer to me, and if Irpin fell, we were next. I went home and told my parents we need to move to western Ukraine.”
After moving to the relative safety of Lviv, Tevkun spent the next nine months organizing Ukraine’s skateboarding community through social media and in-person events, before moving back to Kyiv after the winter.
“We are really into building community, growing skateboarding as a sport, developing our scene so we can create opportunities for Ukrainian skateboarders,” he says. Tevkun has been a key organizer of Ukraine’s skate scene for the last eight years and emphasized the importance of having a community to count on during wartime.
“Skateboarding makes me feel happy, especially when I’m doing this with my friends, and building a big community is crucial right now, because we should be united. If we are not united, we will be defeated very soon.”
Tevkun can name at least five skateboarders who have taken up arms in defense of the country. After almost a year and a half of continuous fighting, Russian forces have been pushed back from large areas of Ukraine that were taken in the opening months of full-scale war, providing for some limited degree of normalcy to return to the two largest cities Kyiv and Kharkiv, despite frequent missile and drone attacks.
Kharkiv in particular was subject to some of the most violent attacks of the war, with districts such as Saltivka littered with collapsed and burnt out multi-story apartment buildings. Russian soldiers managed to enter parts of the city, where fierce fighting ensued. After a successful Ukrainian push last September however, Russian forces are no longer stalking the city’s outskirts.
The relatively improved security situation in Kharkiv allowed Tevkun and Kharkiv’s local skaters to host a self-organized contest in mid-May called the “Counterattack Contest,” in reference to the Ukrainian military’s anticipated spring counteroffensive. The event brought out around 100 skaters to Kharkiv’s central skate spot, the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, and finished at a local skatepark, complete with prizes and good times for all.
“The scene here is really cool, and people are always doing things to help the community grow. There’s a lot of new faces here and I’ve been coming here for four years,” explained a 16-year-old local named Nikita during a session at the theatre. Nikita and his family stayed in Kharkiv during the worst of the attacks, eventually becoming accustomed to the sound of explosions.
“I haven’t stopped skating because of the war. At first the bombing was scary, but now I am used to it. We are all used to it,” he says.
“Of course, stress exists but when I skate, I can forget about everything.”
The idea that skateboarding offers a healthy way to manage stress has become the subject of increasing academic interest in recent years, with the University of Southern California producing a report in collaboration with Tony Hawk’s foundation The Skatepark Project. Though perhaps always implicitly known to those that skate, the 2020 study has contributed to the growing recognition of the positive effects skateboarding can have on our mental health, with reduced rates of depression being a common outcome.
“Skateboarding has absolutely helped us deal with stress,” explained Svetlana, a 19-year-old Kharkiv local who started skating three years ago. “Doing the tricks, communicating with our friends, all this helps us here,” she said.
“Skateboarding makes you feel better, it protects you from all the bad thoughts and you can just live in the moment and not be focused on the negatives,” added Max, also a 19-year-old Kharkiv local. “The war is definitely strengthening the skateboarding community here, there’s just no other chance.”
Despite the war, the scene in Kharkiv is one of the most developed in Ukraine, widely known for its good skate spots and friendly community. One local photographer who now spends her time documenting this culture is 19-year-old Anastasia.
“I like to document street culture, and specifically skateboarding because it’s cool to see how everyone supports each other and is happy when someone lands a trick. I want to capture as many happy moments as I can because sometimes I worry there will be no more happy moments.”
“Last year I couldn’t even leave my apartment because it was too dangerous,” she tells me.
Anastasia is a Kharkiv native from the heavily attacked Saltivka district who has stayed throughout the war.
“Skateboarding helps people to forget about the air sirens, missile attacks, and all the other bad, and gives people a chance to just chill,” she explained.
The chance to just chill can feel like a luxury at times. This particular day in Kharkiv was marked with beautiful weather and the spring bloom of flowers around the city. The sessions lasted all day and for a while the war seemed to fade away. But later that night, sometime around midnight, a Russian missile slammed into the city, producing a thunderous boom that echoed into the night. Fortunately, this time no one was injured in what has become a regular occurrence for residents of the historic city.
“I’m not a politician, but I can tell you that the Russian army is fucked up. They want to kill me, just a regular skateboarder,” Tevkun explained.
Skateboarding obviously cannot stop Russian bombs from falling on Ukraine, but when someone is doing their best to destroy you and your way of life, simply existing can be an act of resistance. In this way, by providing a space for youth to momentarily escape the war, skating is helping to sustain the resilience required to live through it. This idea is at the heart of Tevkun’s efforts to build Ukraine’s skateboarding community.
“I like skating for the sense of freedom, and this idea has gained more significance for me since the war started, because skateboarding is freedom and Ukraine is fighting for freedom,” Tevkun explained during a break in the contest.
“Everyone sees skateboarding a little differently. For some it’s a sport, a hobby, or a lifestyle, but for everyone it is happiness; pure happiness and pure freedom. This is why we are here today.”
The war in Ukraine shows little sign of ending in the near future. Until that welcomed day arrives, keep those skating under the missiles in mind.