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Reservist in Ukraine, with a surprising past, had to decide whether to stay and fight

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine has now called up all military reserve units to help push back against Russian forces. NPR's Joanna Kakissis met one reservist with a surprising past and a tough choice to make about fighting. Here's an update to her story, which we first brought you earlier this month.

YULIYA TOLOPA: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Yuliya Tolopa is a war hero. She's got an entire box of medals for bravery. I met her a few weeks ago before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She laid out her medals on her kitchen table.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter). I got this one from the Ukrainian National Assembly. I received this because I was injured on the front lines. And this one was awarded to foreigners who came to defend the Ukrainian people.

KAKISSIS: That this baby-faced 26-year-old became a defender of Ukraine is surprising when you consider she's a Russian. Tolopa grew up in Russia's southwest, mentored by local Cossacks, a community of hardcore Russian nationalists with a paramilitary ethos.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) They taught us how to fight, how to use weapons. It was militaristic. Our school used to always send groups of students to competitions in shooting and grenade throwing.

KAKISSIS: She also heard her Russian nationalist friends repeating Kremlin conspiracies about Ukraine.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) They started with all this propaganda about Russians being killed there, and you aren't allowed to speak Russian there at all. And if you come and say just one word in Russian, they'll kill you, hang you. And I was like, how come?

KAKISSIS: In the spring of 2014, she decided to go see for herself and took a train to Kyiv. There, she found a totally different story. The Ukrainians welcomed her.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) I saw the lies that Russia was putting out. They wanted to grab a chunk of this country.

KAKISSIS: Tolopa got angry. She headed east and volunteered to fight alongside Ukrainian soldiers like Valerii Vlasov.

VALERII VLASOV: (Through interpreter) I thought, oh, my God, what is this child doing here? But soon I realized she was a fighter. She was brave.

KAKISSIS: Her past and present collided on that battlefield. The Russian nationalists she grew up with, including her ex-boyfriend, were on the other side of the front line.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) He used to tell me, I'll find you. I'll take you away. I promised your mother I'll bring you back. And I was like, are you nuts? How do you imagine doing this?

KAKISSIS: She told him, if I see you in front of me, I will shoot you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STASIK: (Singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Tolopa is now a Ukrainian citizen, and she's even appeared in this patriotic video by Ukrainian singer Stasik. But being a soldier is more complicated now. Tolopa has a 6-year-old daughter.

MIRA TOLOPA: (Non-English language spoken). Mira Tolopa, OK (laughter). (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Mira's in a checkered shirt and a tutu. She's heard her friends at school say the Russians are mad at Ukraine, that they will do something scary.

MIRA: No, I don't scared. I nothing scared - just a spider.

KAKISSIS: Mira has heard the name Vladimir Putin, and she wonders, is he a spider? She glances at her mom's fatigues hanging on a coat rack.

You don't want her to go.

MIRA: No, I - don't go.

KAKISSIS: You don't. Yeah.

I called her mom again after the Russian invasion to see if she decided to go to the battlefield. She said she couldn't do it. If something happens to me, she told me, who would care for my daughter? Yuliya and Mira Tolopa are now sheltering together in western Ukraine.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.