- As travel guide Olga Dudakova fled Kyiv, Ukraine, she hosted a virtual tour to share her experience.
- Now in Hungary, Dudakova hopes to continue hosting tours to share what it’s like to be a refugee.
- Dudakova told Insider that the virtual tours are her main source of income and they have given her hope.
The guide — who told Insider she has been doing tours for four years — spoke from her home in Kyiv, where she said sounds of nearby bombs could be heard in the background. Over 1,000 people tuned in.
Her goal was to give those tuning in “a personal picture” of the conflict, she said, and “put them in the real context of what is happening.”
It was a contrast from Dudakova’s typical tours that showed “Oceans of Tulips near Kyiv” and the “Glamorous and Aristocratic Lypky Neighbourhood.” (Dudakova’s previous tours have not been not recorded, but you can find her upcoming schedule here.)
Since hosting her first tour focused on the war, Dudakova said that she, her husband, and their three children have fled to Budapest, Hungary, where they are temporarily staying in a hotel. Dudakova’s life — like the more than 2 million other refugees who have fled the nation — was uprooted when Russia started a war against Ukraine.
But what hasn’t changed is Dudakova’s love for her country and her desire to show it. Although Dudakova’s future is uncertain, she told Insider that she plans to continue sharing her story and the stories of Ukraine.
Olga Dudakova has shared what life is like in Ukraine at war — and what it’s like to leave
At about 5:30 a.m. on February 24, Dudakova said she started hearing explosions. She said she stayed up the night before listening to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy address that warned Russians not to attack, and couldn’t sleep.
“I was shocked, I was terrified,” Dudakova said. “And I knew when I heard the bombing that this was the actual war.”
Dudakova said she had a virtual tour scheduled later that day. As her family packed their belongings and important documents to relocate to a bomb shelter, Dudakova said she canceled the tour. Then, at the last minute, she replaced it with a virtual tour about the invasion, during which she spoke about her experience and answered questions from those tuned in.
“I decided to tell the world what is really happening,” she said.
For the first two days of the war, Dudakova said she and her family spent nights in a concrete bomb shelter. During the day, Dudakova said they returned to their home to cook, nap, and, for Dudakova, continue hosting virtual tours in which she shared her experience while staying indoors.
Then, Dudakova said she and her family left the capital for a smaller town in central Ukraine, where she was born (Dudakova asked to keep the town anonymous for privacy reasons). Once she arrived, Dudakova said she hosted a tour titled, “A Small Town To Hide From Bombing,” showing viewers the streets of her birthplace from her phone. The description of the tour warned viewers, “in case of a bombing alert, the sirens might be loud. ”
Her family spent six days in the town, staying in her late grandmother’s home, she said. Meanwhile, Dudakova said she watched videos of nearby cities in ruins, bodies in streets, and the “atrocities of war.”
Finally, she made the decision to leave Ukraine.
The journey to Budapest, which should take about 15 hours, took Dudakova’s family four days by car, she said.
Dudakova said she shared the experience on Heygo, describing long lines of cars waiting to cross country borders, gas stations that were out of petrol, and deserted grocery stores.
Dudakova also recalled seeing fathers and husbands at the border saying goodbye to their families since most Ukrainian men are required to stay and defend the country. Dudakova said her husband joined her and her children in Budapest; fathers with three or more children are exempt from the Ukrainian government’s order for men aged between 18 and 60 to stay and fight Russian forces.
Dudakova said that by sharing her observations on the road she “became a symbol of the refugees.”
Dudakova says the virtual tours have given her hope
Since leaving Kyiv, Dudakova said she’s tried to incorporate elements of her old tours — like cultural stories, historic facts, and lessons on architecture — in her more recent ones.
For the first half of a recent tour, Dudakova said she showed videos of the Mezhyhirya Residence, locally nicknamed “Ukraine’s Versailles,” a deserted mansion in Kyiv built by Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych. For the second half, she shared her experience relocating to her grandmother’s apartment.
Now that her family has temporarily relocated to a hotel in Budapest, she said she features different historic places and talks about the connections between Hungary and Ukraine. She said she also shares updates on her current situation and what she’s heard from her parents, friends, and relatives who have stayed in Ukraine.
The tips Dudakova receives from her Heygo tours — which are free to join and tip-supported — are her family’s main source of income right now, she said, adding that they helped fund her family’s drive to Hungary.
She said the tours have also been a source of hope.
“There is a great sense of gratitude that I have in my heart for the people that are coming and for the people who are supporting me, not just financially,” she said of those tuning in to the virtual tours.
Dudakova said that one viewer has offered her a vacation home in Bulgaria, and another said they’d support her family if they relocated to Winnipeg, Canada, which is home to a large Ukrainian population.
Dudakova said her tour schedule is uncertain and so is her future. Her family plans to stay at the hotel in Budapest for a week, she said, and after that she’s not sure where they’ll go.
“What I want most of all, I want to go home,” she said.