One of the most popular Final Fantasy XIV content creators is making plans to flee her home in Kyiv, Ukraine, ahead of a potential Russian invasion.
Zepla is a bunny ear–wearing content creator for the critically acclaimed MMO Final Fantasy XIV. Every single YouTube video she cuts together begins with a warm smile and a friendly, “Hey, buns.” In a recent video, she began a different way, by telling her fans and community that she might have to flee the country soon.
I caught up with her on Discord a few days after she posted the video explaining the situation. “I'm next-level stressed at the moment,” she told me. “It's a very surreal feeling here in Kyiv, because a lot of people I know are either making plans to leave, to evacuate, or plans to stay and potentially fight.”
Zepla said it’s odd to walk around Kyiv right now. She’s been in Ukraine for about eight years, but she grew up in Louisiana and compared the feeling to the moments before a hurricane hits. “Everybody’s preparing—you’re deciding if you’re gonna ride it out or not, or if you’re gonna hit the road,” she said. “But it’s weirder than that and it’s worse than that. At least in a hurricane, you see the dark clouds overhead, you know something is coming. It’s obvious. You can feel it in the wind, you can feel it in the air that the rain has come in. You can see the lighting on the horizon.”
“But here, it’s still beautiful, sunny days,” she said. “And it’s still everyone going about their business as usual. And you’ll be at a restaurant and you’ll hear people talking among themselves about their plans to leave or stay and fight. And yet, there’s a normalcy around everything. That’s the most unsettling thing about it.”
She said it didn’t feel quite real. “I’m looking around at the city and I wonder if, the next time I see it, it'll be completely different,” she said. “Will the buildings I see here now still be there when I come back? What kind of damage can I return to? It almost feels like a fantasy. It couldn't happen when everything seems so normal now, but we have to prepare.”
Her family back in America is elevating that stress. “My parents are begging me to leave now… they’re absolutely losing their minds, they’re panicking,” she said. “And obviously that makes me panic too, because I want them to calm down. But I also can’t actually leave right now. I can’t leave right yet.”
What’s holding Zepla back? She’s an American citizen and could, technically, leave when she wanted to. But she has a life in Kyiv. She owns a home. And, more importantly, she has a cat and a dog she doesn’t want to leave behind. Getting animals out of Ukraine is tricky, especially if you want to take them to the U.S. Currently the CDC doesn’t allow the transport of pets from the region because Ukrainian dogs are considered at high risk for rabies.
“I don’t know if leaving my pets with a sitter would be the safest thing for them either, you know?” she said. “I don’t want to leave them behind in what could potentially be a war zone. I don’t know when I would be able to get back to them again. What if the person watching them wants to evacuate as well? It’s just too many question marks.”
Zepla said she should get pet passports for her animals this week. “After that, I will go.”
“But here, it’s still beautiful, sunny days and it’s still everyone going about their business as usual. And you’ll be at a restaurant and you’ll hear people talking among themselves about their plans to leave or stay and fight. And yet, there’s a normalcy around everything. That’s the most unsettling thing about it.”
Zepla moved to Ukraine in 2014 at the tail end of the Maidan revolution—the very moment Ukraine’s current troubles with Russia began. In 2014, Ukrainians gathered in Maidan Square in Kyiv to protest government corruption and demand a closer relationship with the European Union. Riot police descended on the scene and protests became street battles. There were snipers, flaming barrels, and medieval battle tactics. In the end, the protestors overthrew the government and then President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia with the help of Russian Special Operations Forces soldiers.
“When I arrived in Kyiv, there were still some barricades and burned-out cars in the streets,” Zepla said. “And people were really happy that Yanukovych was gone, for good reason. It was a pretty frightening situation, but I wasn’t really scared. My family, on the other hand, they didn’t really approve of my decision to come.”
Zepla wasn’t streaming Final Fantasy XIV back then. She lived what she described as a free wheeling lifestyle. She had been teaching English in Taiwan when she made friends with some Ukrainians, and decided Ukraine sounded like a cool place to live. “I wanted to go teach in Ukraine,” she said. “I wish I could say it was for a better reason than that.”
She started streaming two years into her stay and quickly gained an audience. She has more than 300,000 subscribers on her primary YouTube account and more than 200,000 followers on Twitch. “That became my full time job,” she said. “So I didn’t really have any reason to leave. And I’m quite cozy here. Living in Kyiv has been wonderful.”
“We’ve seen them crack down on corruption,” she said. “We’ve seen the town become more progressive,” she said. “It seems like Ukraine was making positive steps in the right direction… until Putin.”
Zepla said she loves the Russian people and stressed that Ukraine and Russia have many connections. The problem, as she sees it, is Putin. “I definitely think he’s threatened by Ukraine being a prosperous democracy where people are free to choose their own destiny,” she said. “Obviously that’s a direct threat for him because it could serve as a very inspiring example to people in his own country who may also decide they’d like to move towards a democratic future.”
Whenever the political issues behind the war come up, Zepla demurred. “Look, I can’t pretend like I’m some kind of geopolitical analyst,” she said. “I try to be informed, but I also don’t have any delusions about my credentials. I’m a Final Fantasy XIV Twitch streamer that wears bunny ears on stream every day.”
And Zepla is keeping to that daily routine, despite the looming threat of war. She streams 3 to 4 hours a day, five days a week. She also interacts with her community on Discord, cuts together YouTube videos, and is studying Japanese. “I try to welcome the distractions,” she said. “It’s time I’m not thinking about the situation. As soon as the stream is over, I’m thinking about the situation again.”
She’s hoping the pet passports come in soon and that she can get out ahead of an invasion. “I just need to hope nothing happens for another week,” she said. “A lot of people here seem to think that there will be an attack in the middle of February. That’s what everyone is throwing around right now.”
Zepla owns a home in Kyiv and she doesn’t want to leave it all behind. She talked about coming back, even if she had to jump through red tape to get back in should Russia take Kyiv. “I just don’t see that actually happening,” she said. “I don’t think they’re prepared for that level of long term urban warfare, it would be catastrophic for them…I think they would probably do something really quick and try to get some security concessions out of the West. Maybe they’ll take a chunk of the East. Who knows? Who knows?”
Zepla, like all Ukrainains, has been living with this for a long time. After the Maidan revolution, Kremlin-backed separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine along the Russian border began to take and hold territory. The war there has been going on for eight years. Zepla lived in Kharkiv, a town on the edge of the conflict, for a year before moving to Kyiv. “I try to never forget what’s happening or put it out of my mind,” she said. “But I still need to get up and go to work, cook dinner, and walk my dogs. If I think about it every second of every day, I’ll lose my mind.”
She said that one of her pet peeves is Western media talking about how Russia might invade Ukraine. She pointed to the War in the Donbas. “Russia invaded years ago,” she said. She also called out Western media for repeating the Kremlin’s talking points. “I have seen some right-wing American outlets repeating Russian propaganda verbatim and that’s extremely concerning to me.”
I asked her what she wanted Americans to know about the war. “Again, I don’t want to position myself as some kind of authority. I just live in Kyiv and play Final Fantasy on the internet. Please remember this,” she said. “But I think that Ukraine really deserves to have a chance at democracy. Ukraine deserves to determine its own future and destiny for itself. More than anything, I hope people can remember that.”
Zepla said the Final Fantasy XIV community has been incredibly supportive with fans sending her messages and offering her places to stay. As she packs up her life in Kyiv and journeys west, she says she’ll keep doing her job. “I plan to continue streaming as much as possible,” she said. “I’ll be stopping at Airbnbs and hotels and I will stream the whole way.”
She feels responsible for the audience she’s built, her buns. “I try to be my best self for them,” she said. “And show them there’s no need to panic, I have it under control. We are going to get through this together.”