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Warrior Princess and Poet Oksana Rubaniak Gives Voice to Her Generation’s Anguish

Blair A. Ruble
Oksana Rubaniak speaks at forum Arm Women Now in Kyiv
Kyiv, Ukraine -January 31, 2024: Oksana Rubaniak, writer and division commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, talks at the forum Arm Women Now.

Ukraine’s red-haired warrior princess Oksana “Xena” Rubaniak was a natural subject for the Ukrainian edition of Vogue magazine to feature in a recent photo essay on how the war has changed the country. British photographer Brett Lloyd photographed Rubaniak in her military gear last February, along with other soldiers and model Karyna Mazyar. A 21-year-old poet and machine gunner, Rubaniak has already established herself as a generational icon.

Social media had spread the word about Rubaniak before Vogue’s editors pointed Lloyd her way. Her good looks made her a natural symbol of a generation whose lives have been interrupted by war. Intending to become a primary school teacher upon graduating with honors from the Ivano-Frankivsk Vocational College at 19, Rubanyak changed course and started pursuing a degree in public administration and worked for the Youth Policy and Sports Department of the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council. 

The full-scale Russian invasion put her plans and dreams on hold, as it did everyone in her generation. Rubaniak immediately enlisted in the Ukrainian military, rising to the rank of junior sergeant. At the time, she was the only woman in the machine gun platoon of the Black Zaporizhzhians 72nd Mechanized Brigade, which saw intense combat in Zaitseve, Bakhmut, Maryan, and Vuhledar. Seriously wounded in March 2022, she returned to the front that June and, earlier this year, became a platoon commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

A native of the small village of Hramotne in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, Rubaniak long aspired to become a poet of note. Her first book of verse, Ornaments of Fate (2020), was published when she turned 19 and reveals a serious-minded young woman navigating from village childhood to urban adulthood. Her poems reflect a preoccupation with the meaning of life, the infinite repetition of ornamental patterns through human history, and the eternal challenges of frank honesty with oneself. 

Her second book, Toward Death (2022), delves deeper into doubts about the meaning of life, with verses shaped by her experiences in battle. Once again, Rubaniak gives expression to her generation’s loss of innocence and normalcy. Her poems speak for those who are struggling to come to terms with the collapse of hopeful plans.

Speaking to the UkraineWorld website in May 2023, Rubaniak says, "Many of my friends are gone.” She continues: “And where are your friends? They are walking, studying, and working. Mine were killed in battle with the enemy, while others are still fighting for their right to live every day. My fallen friends and I meet not in cafes, parks, or restaurants, but in the cemeteries.” 

Indeed, she fears for a future in which the heroic act of fighting may become a fault. With the wisdom of a poet as well as a warrior, she says that veterans “will face disrespect, injustice, and disorder. We will need to learn to coexist, not to blame, not to insult each other, but to coexist."

Rubaniak continues to make her own plans for peacetime, even as she recognizes that her own death could be imminent. She looks forward to a day when she can return to writing as a primary vocation, speaking for her fellow young Ukrainian 20-year-olds as they try to recover dreams that once felt promised.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more