TikToking From a Bomb Shelter

Photo: @valerissh/TikTok

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, 20-year-old Valeria Shashenok worked as a freelance photographer, documenting the miscellany of daily life in Chernihiv. Scroll back through her TikTok feed and you’ll find gauzy videos of surfers from her European travels, vacation selfies, and dance videos with friends in her hometown. Now, most of those friends have fled Ukraine. “After the 24th of February, everything stopped,” Shashenok says.

Shashenok remains in Ukraine, where I recently reached her via WhatsApp audio. For the past two weeks, she’s been living in a bomb shelter with her parents, dog, and two family friends. But even when she’s forced to spend 24 hours a day underground, Shashenok is still documenting the world around her on TikTok. In one video, she catalogues her family’s shelter inventory, including the water basin (“Jacuzzi for hot girls”), her mother (“personal Michelin restaurant”), and home gym (a punching bag she imagines is Putin). In another, she eats breakfast, records buildings with the windows blown out, and lifts her shirt to do a body check. “Got slimmer cos Russia made me nervous,” she writes.

Juxtaposing TikTok tropes and trending audio with footage of her destroyed city, Shashenok’s videos have gone viral. While jaded and darkly funny, her footage doesn’t hide the devastation. She says she uses humor as a coping mechanism, but also to make people care. Her TikToks are a way to show the war from her eyes, a reprieve from the bleak news streams in the West. “Everybody cries now,” she says. “If I cry too, it’s not helpful.”

How are you and your family doing right now? 
Trying to stay fine, but you see the situation in my country. It’s getting worse every day. Today Russian soldiers decided to bomb humanitarian corridors. I’m so scared for boys in my country. If they are 18 to 60, they can’t leave Ukraine, they need to go to the army. It’s horrible.

I want to leave, and my mother wants to leave. But my father wants to stay here, so we are all here. You’ll have to ask him why. I only have one friend who stayed here. The others left. One friend is in Bulgaria. One is in Czechoslovakia. Another’s in Italy. Everybody is in different parts of the world.

What has life been like in the shelter?  
I’m always trying to go outside, but it’s so dangerous. Most days I spend one hour or two hours outside. To pass the time I answer messages, make TikToks, speak with friends, eat, watch something.

Why did you start making these TikToks? 
On TV, they show how people cry in Ukraine, that we are so poor, that everything is so awful. I’m so scared that when I move to another country, if I say I’m Ukrainian, they’ll say, oh my God, Ukraine? Like that’s a bad thing.

I want to show what’s happening in my country, because I don’t see women like me doing that. I’m that person who always ragged on everything with humor. It’s the best way to show people the problem. I’m that person who always sees light in the dark, and it’s a nice way to do something for my country. And I know how TikTok works. I made TikToks for restaurants and other businesses in Ukraine, but I didn’t expect that if you write on videos in English, they can be popular in Europe, United States, United Kingdom. Before that I posted a lot of videos in English and no one from those places saw. But a couple days ago, they started to reach people from different parts of the world.

Can you walk me through what it’s like to make these videos? 
First I watch the news, where a bomb destroys buildings or houses. It’s the same every day. I wait a day, or until I see it’s safe to go to that building to film.  When I go to the place, it’s very spontaneous.

Today I went to one site with my parents, and a man started shouting at me: “What are you doing? Delete please! Give me your phone.” I was scared, but in my mind I said: Valeria, please, keep calm. Everything is okay. I said to him, please don’t shout at me. I’m Ukrainian, I’m not Russian. I told him the reasons I filmed my videos for social media, and he went away. But when I started filming again, I saw a car, and another man started shouting at me. I was so scared. In that situation, you need to calm down. If a man screams at you, you need to look at his eyes to see if you can communicate with him. I felt that this man was okay.

What do you most want the people watching your videos to know? 
They need to know that Ukrainian people are the strongest. I wanted to show that one man, one Russian man, president, stupid man, destroyed my native country. And I am a small girl who can’t stop this man. I wanted to show what really happened. How I see, in my style.

How do your friends and family feel about your videos? 
To be honest, my father doesn’t like what I do. But he sees that many people interview me and post me everywhere, and I think that he’s proud, though he doesn’t talk about it. My mother, she tells everyone: “Oh, my daughter was on CNN! On BBC!” So she’s so proud of me. My friends say: “Valeria, now you’re a superstar, please don’t forget us.” I’m starting to think I need a manager to check my DMs. When war stops, I need to think how I can monetize my profile. I don’t know what to do with it, but it’s really nice that now I have my new followers.

TikToking From a Bomb Shelter