Escape from Lviv

by Frederic Friedel
4/25/2022 – Just a day after the Russian assault on Ukraine began, Anna Muzychuk and her sister Mariya, after careful deliberation, decided to flee the country. They undertook a harrowing journey to Poland and then to Germany and Spain, where they are now "stranded." Frederic Friedel asked Anna to tell us what the escape from their war-torn country was like. Read her vivid description.

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Frederic: Anna, you're now here in Hamburg. You left Ukraine immediately after the beginning of the war. Tell me, how did you get here?

Anna: It has been quite a long way here. 

You live in Lviv. but you had to leave Ukraine. I’m sure you miss it.

Badly. Lviv is like 50 kilometers to the border. It's a beautiful city and a very special region of Ukraine. I left the country on the first day of the attack, the first day of the full-scale invasion. On February 24th.

How difficult was it to get out?

It’s a long story. The full scale invasion started on the morning of the 24th, around 5:00 in the morning. But actually already on the 23rd, in the evening, like nine or ten p.m., people in the Donetsk region were saying they could see hundreds of Russian tanks moving across the border. Basically it was not even crossing the border, because Russia had occupied part of this territory since 2014. In 2014 they also annexed Crimea. On February 24th they started a full-scale invasion to take the whole country. People started to see hundreds and hundreds of Russian tanks moving towards the cities in the eastern part of our country. It was very scary. I was like, okay, what's happening? And then there was news that our president Volodymyr Zelensky would give a speech.

So I was waiting for it, waiting to see what he would say. But there was no speech at 11 in the evening, or at midnight. Well, at some point you have to go to bed. At around seven in the morning I woke up because I heard a siren, which was a bit of a shocker, because you don’t know what's happening. I immediately picked up my mobile to check the news, and I saw – a disaster. They're bombing Kiev from Belarus, they are bombing our ships in the sea. They are invading from the west, through the north, to the south. And then like: oh my God, this is a war, what should we do? Mariya, wake up, listen to the sirens, the war has started!

In the ChessBase studio: Anna tells Frederic about the hair-raising flight from Kyiv

It was a bit strange because for a couple of months, from the autumn of 2021, many people said that Russia would invade. In February they collected an army of nearly 200,000 next to our borders, but they claimed it was just some kind of military training. Many politicians expected they would invade on February 16, but nothing happened on that day. They did not invade, and we hoped until the very end that it still would not happen.

Our generation had never seen war, we didn't have like a clear plan – what we would do if it happens. It was a surprise that it started in all the parts of the country. We thought that if it started it would be from the eastern territory, where the Ukrainian-Russian borders are. We did not expect Belarus would let Russians launch missiles on Ukraine from their territory. We were living on the opposite side, more than a thousand kilometers away. So when it came we were in a shock state. And we had to come up with some kind of a plan.

The first thing I did was message my cousin, who was in Kyiv, and asked her if she was getting out. They are bombing and killing! She said, yes, I'm packing. But after a couple of hours she said it was impossible to get out of Kyiv. The city was full of cars, you couldn’t move anywhere. You saw all the pictures of the city full of cars, but unless you are there, and you see it with your own eyes, you don't really realize how bad it is. I also messaged people from Kherson, from Odessa, from Kharkiv, where many grandmasters and our national coach live.

I said, are you getting out? You can always come to our region, you will be safer here. Some of them said they were thinking about it, but they didn't have a clear plan of what to do.

Then I called my parents. We were quite calm – actually, on the first day people in our region were quite calm. There was no great panic. My mother said we should go to buy food and go get medicine. I told her I had enough food, but perhaps not enough medical supplies. I decided to go to the pharmacy, and then I started to realize that things were not going in the right direction. Next to every pharmacy there were crowds of people waiting. It was like nine, ten o’clock in the morning, on a Thursday, a working day, when most people go to work. But already then people were starting to buy food, to buy medicine. I had to wait like half an hour to get anything, even though, as you may imagine, we have a lot of pharmacies in Lviv. And many pharmacies stopped accepting credit cards – only cash.

I came back home, to my apartment and Mariya. She was saying we have to go, we have to go, should we wait until the bombs are flying over our city? We have to leave the country! I said, okay, Mariya, but we didn't make plans to leave, and we still have some time. We spoke with our parents again, and they said you know, girls, you live in a good place in the city, close to the center, but the problem is that your apartment is also not far from the airport, and not far from the railway station. When there is war in the country, that is not a safe place. So maybe you should leave. 

So we thought, okay, let's try to leave. We bought bus tickets, online, and we packed a few things–arranged what we could arrange. We wanted to have an antigen test, which you must have when you cross the border. But many of the laboratories that did the PCR tests, almost on every corner, were closed, and we had to search for one that was open. After the test we went to the station, with two bags each – one bag and a laptop. The rest is still in our flat. We took the bags and went to the main railway station, where we also have a bus station.

 

And now another part of the story starts. We had bought the tickets from Lviv to Kraków in Poland. It wasn’t easy, there were not so many tickets available. For example to get a train ticket was almost impossible. So there were just two possibilities: to go by bus or to go by car. Our parents were absolutely right when they told us we should go by bus. 

When we got to the railway station, we found that many buses were canceled. We had to wait for the next bus, but you never knew when it would come. We had to wait for almost three hours, and it was getting cold. We were there with our luggage, waiting, not knowing if and when a bus to Poland would come. Some buses arrived, but you don't know if it is the bus to Poland. We realized that the buses can't take everybody. The station is huge, and we had no idea where the bus would stop. So we made a plan. I stay with the luggage, and Mariya runs after every bus to check it. If it's the bus to Poland, Mariya should be the first to get in. 

Finally the bus for Poland arrived. It was not empty, it was almost full. There were only four seats left. And Mariya was the first one to check in. They only took you if you were on the list. And since we were together, and had online tickets, we got two seats. And the bus departed.

Anna and Mariya with their parents in 2001, Anna, 11, had received her FIDE Master title.

I first met Anna as a 14-year-old, and then as a 16-year-old international tournament player

We were very sad, because we didn't want to leave. I love my city and my apartment, and we were leaving everybody behind. Our parents, our grandparents, most of our relatives. They were in Ukraine and are still in Ukraine.

We set off, and then 15 kilometers from the border we stopped. We were stuck. There was a line of cars, all the way to the border. I'll tell you why it was a good decision to take the bus: people who went by car sometimes had to stay on the road to the border for many days. The buses have special lanes and can get through quicker.

When we arrived there we had to wait 15 hours, in the bus. The queue was very long, they had to check the people at the border, which took a lot of time. Our trip took a total of around twenty hours. We had some biscuits, but we made a mistake: we didn't take water – we didn't think of it. We had nothing. When we crossed the Polish border the driver stopped for people to buy something to eat or something to drink. And here came another surprise. I took some water, and some coffee for me and for Mariya, and wanted to pay with my credit card. But the machine said I couldn’t complete the purchase because it exceeded the limit. Apparently, some Ukrainian banks had started to block cards, because people were withdrawing too much. So I was like, gosh, so what to do now? I tried another card, and then another, and one of them worked.

February 24th was not only the first day of the war, but it was also the first day of mobilization – men between 18 to 60 could no longer leave the country. This decision was made by the President, on the evening of the 24th, and no adult male Ukrainian citizens could leave. In our bus none of them managed to leave. For example, there was one guy who had just turned 18. He was really small, but he was 18, so they sent them back. You could see lots of women saying goodbye to their husbands and daughters to their fathers, brothers and boyfriends. They were all crying. It was very, very, very sad. Some families decided to leave, some decided they can’t be separated, and they went back. It was horrible.

In Poland we were received very well. This is the country that is helping Ukraine a lot, in the situation after the invasion. They have accepted the highest number of Ukrainian people. Their President and the leaders of the country are all the time suggesting that Ukraine should have a fast track to enter the European Union. They have accepted many families, but I understand that their country also has its limits of how many people they can receive and how many people they can give a place to stay.

We stayed in Poland for two days, in a hotel, and then went to Spain, where we stayed for two weeks. We know people there, chess players, and they helped us. We stayed with a family in their apartment.

Then I came here, to Hamburg, for the Bundesliga. Do we have hopes of going back to Lviv anytime soon? You always have the hope. When we left the country, we thought we would be back in like one week. Many people were saying that, well it's the 21st century, the war can't last long. It will be just a few days and then they will come to some agreement, and you will be back. That is what I hoped for. But it didn't happen. We are safe, we are in a safe place, but with our thoughts we are always there. When you have everyone and everything there, you cannot pack your life into a bag and go somewhere else.

Ukrainians: Anna and her sister Mariya meet with the Cherniaiev family at ChessBase

The first game in the Bundesliga, especially, was very difficult to play. The Russian rockets landed like ten kilometers from my apartment just a day ago. You are crying most of the day, because it is so painful to see that our Ukrainian citizens are dying, see the Russian army destroying our cities, killing civilians, women, children. Right now 120* children have died [*the number of children killed has now risen to over 200 – red.].

We are originally from Ukraine, culturally, Ukrainian. Our first language is Ukrainian.
A lot of people from Ukraine are originally Russian – I mean their parents are Russian, but they are Ukrainian in their souls, in their feeling for the country. We have huge respect for people who are fighting in Mariupol, in Kharkiv – those regions. They are fighting for Ukraine, but most of them they are Russian speakers, and most of them they have relatives in Russia, or they are Russian by nationality. But they are fighting for Ukraine. They want to live in Ukraine, not in Russia, and they ask the Russians to go away from our country. We were afraid that some of the soldiers would simply surrender, but no, they are still still still fighting, and we have great respect for them.

Links

The very best way to learn chess openings – A lot of players want to get better at openings, but they don't know what the right resources are: which books they should buy, which DVDs. Chess trainer Sagar Shah shows us the ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia 2021 and how Anna Muzychuk talks about semi-open games. "She is one of my favourite trainers," Sagar says.

IM Elisabeth Pähtz, one of Anna's dearest friends, had a question for her: why can’t women, in general, play chess as well as men? "I have known Anna for a lifetime, as a very ambitious top level sportsman highly focused on chess. But I was quite impressed by her suddenly revealing great talent in drawing," Elisabeth says in this portrait of her friend. Here's an example:

Artist Anna – working on a drawing [Click to enlarge]. "My artistic abilities are a bit exaggerated?!" Anna says. We hardly think so. 


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.