russian invasion

The Feeling of Ambient War

Parts of Ukraine are cold and in the dark. But Ukrainians have already been living in a moment that feels frozen in time.

Photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

By the time I set foot in Ukraine on a reporting trip this past summer, Russia’s attacks on the country had been going on for months, and many Ukrainians had grown accustomed to the uncomfortable rhythms of war. Multiple times a day there were air-raid sirens and push notifications about incoming rockets. Even still, people sat outside at cafés and drank espresso tonics, gathered to dance in public squares, ordered Ubers and takeout. In the park, people played soccer and basketball; an elderly couple held hands and kissed.

There it was, the Ukrainian resilience we had all heard so much about, and it was beautiful. It was also something to adjust to. For days, I couldn’t eat. In the dark, I sat awake, listening as even the croon of a refrigerator turned into the sound of a Russian missile. I felt guilty, as I do now, of belaboring my own mortality when others were dying, dead, forever gone. And so I quickly learned, just like others, to always present a brave face.

The absence of panic around me disguised a reality that Ukrainians know all too well: Rockets fall from the sky and turn children to dust; brothers return home in caskets. There’s an ever-present and unsettling feeling — like that moment parents check on their children in the middle of the night, wakened by an unease that can’t be described — that Russian boots are near, standing on land that doesn’t belong to them. Of course, people are scared; some keep machine guns in closets. It’s just that Ukrainians don’t have the luxury of despair. War is there, but for Ukraine to win, life must be too.

But recently, a new threat: In early October, Russia began heavily targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, namely electrical grids and power plants. This week, it launched the worst attack on the country since the war began, firing an estimate from the Ukrainian government of nearly 100 missiles in one day. As Ukraine heads into winter, giant swaths of the country are without power, electricity, or heat. At night, Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine and once home to millions of people, disappears into the dark. People leave blankets and flashlights in elevators for those who get stuck when the power goes out. Outages can last for hours.

This time, I’ve watched from afar, largely on Instagram, where I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I met during my nearly monthlong stay in Ukraine. Alongside posts of themselves taking selfies in golden wheat fields or cuddling with fluffy dogs or singing in the car with friends, there are images of bombed-out craters where playgrounds used to be and calls for donations to help with much-needed supplies.

This is what the ambient presence of war looks like. Not the beginning or the end of a conflict, but that uncomfortable middle part where so much is unknown. In the short moments when their phones could snag a signal, or when their computers had enough power, I heard from a group of Ukrainian women about what it’s like to live through this moment, and how they plan to survive what comes next.

“It is better to survive one hard winter than to live the rest of your life with Russians nearby.” — Anna Pavlik, 30, Kyiv

My husband and I moved to Kyiv from Donetsk when Russia attacked that part of Ukraine in 2014. It was not possible to stay. It was not safe. There was no work. Women were raped and tortured in basements. It was terrible. My parents came with us. They had a house with a beautiful garden and a forest nearby, but it was destroyed by the Russian army. They are now 70-years-old and have nothing.

In Kyiv, we found new jobs. I got a position as a recruiter for an IT company; my husband worked in aviation. We bought an apartment and had a daughter, Masha. For the second time in my life, Russia has destroyed everything.

Now, life in Kyiv looks like this: People try to pretend to live a normal life — children go to school, parents go to work, go shopping, clean apartments, bake pies, and even celebrate Halloween — but all of this occurs as our city is being bombarded. There are air-raid sirens, a lack of electricity, heat, and water. Kids already know exactly how to take cover during an air-raid siren, while the adults can distinguish between a rocket and an Iranian drone by the sound.

If there are air-raid sirens in the morning, then Masha does not go to school. We hide in the corridor where there are no windows. When the alarm ends, then we run to school. She’s in first grade, so the program is not so complex that she’s behind in her studies, but it is rather difficult for her to have socialization. When there are rocket attacks for weeks and she studies remotely, she misses the kids, the communication. We plan our life for two hours ahead maximum. If we plan for longer, we will only be nervous and disappointed. You do not know if there will be rockets in the morning or not, so you go to bed and plan the next day very approximately. If it works, great. If it didn’t work, well, it means a hard day.

Just the other morning, we woke up because we thought there was rain and thunder outside our window, but we realized they were rockets. Thankfully, out of the 50 rockets, our army shot down 44 of them. It is very difficult to recover from such a morning. You are sitting in the hallway holding your child’s ears and praying. This is all that remains.

We always have water in our bathroom, because we don’t know when Russia will start shelling again. We always have a thermos of boiling water ready, so that when there is no light, we could at least drink tea. We always try to keep ourselves distracted. We dance, sing songs, and play board games by candlelight. You have to appreciate every day: a beautiful autumn in the park, a sunny day. You rejoice when there are quiet days without shelling.

I do not know people who would be ready to surrender and lose this war. We all understand that if Ukraine now surrenders, we will all be killed. How soon will the war end? I understand that it can last for several more years, and this thought is very painful and scary.

But my feelings are different from when the war began from what it is now. Then there was a shock, tears, and a sense of hopelessness. In the first days of war, a rocket hit the house next to ours. I was crying and afraid all the time. Now, I am more combative. My emotions are more blunted. Putin is waiting for our weariness. We will not give it to him.

Still, I am terrified of winter. I’m afraid to be without heat. When my hungry child comes home from school and I can’t even warm up a hot dinner for her and have to feed her sandwiches, I’m nervous. But unfortunately, or fortunately, a person can get used to everything. I bought a New Year’s garland that runs on batteries, warm pajamas, a warm blanket. My husband and I also came up with the idea that if it is very cold, then we will set up a tent in the middle of the apartment and sleep there with our child—a hack from the internet. It is better to survive one hard winter than to live the rest of your life with Russians nearby.

“All Ukrainians are working on different scenarios for their lives in the near future.” — Iryna Pravylo, 35, Kyiv

Just after the New Year, I had this feeling that I had to hurry up. I don’t know where it came from, but something very disturbing was in the air. I am a filmmaker and producer, so my team and I began working quickly on our cinema projects.

February 24: It changed everything. You know, when you are awakened at 5 a.m. because of a rocket explosion near your house, it stays with you forever. I am not only talking about the terrible feeling of fear. I am talking about the moment of clear understanding that an enemy wants to kill you, your loved ones, your nation.

These days begin with being grateful that I am still alive and have a home, that Ukraine is still standing. I am working on a film called the War Documentary Project. One of the most important goals of the enemy is to take away our voice. We have to continue to tell the world what is really happening. I realized my weapon is my profession. I am shooting, editing, and collecting stories of this historical moment for our nation.

But my ability to work is very dependent on the power outages in Kyiv. Currently, 40 percent of Ukraine’s electrical grid is damaged. We only have electricity for four to six hours a day. I work until my phone and laptop die. Twice a week, I also give lectures to students at university, but these conditions make it especially hard. We try to be creative, but every day is filled with struggles. Unfortunately, when the power goes out, the internet also disappears, so you are effectively left without a connection to your family, friends, and the rest of the world. Hot water is also turned off. Our government is trying their best to publish a blackout schedule so people can plan their daily routine. It is easier when you are ready, then you can charge all your gadgets and power banks and check flashlights.

Also, during the “light hours,” my husband and I try to buy produce, especially fresh, because many shops are closed with no electricity and the ability to preserve food items or process payments. Often, we just eat snacks.
Unfortunately, there is no end of this war in sight. A long and hard winter is upon us. In the coming months, we are planning to interchange our staying in the city with trips to the countryside, where we have a second home. We can heat it with the firewood, and our car can be used for recharging our gadgets. We have a cellar with enough food for two weeks. I think all Ukrainians now are working on different scenarios for their lives in the near future. But among these scenarios, there are definitely no plans to be afraid or to flee the country. I know many stories about returning to Ukraine instead.

We all worry about our boys and girls at the front, about our “kittens” — what we call our armed forces — what they’re eating, what they’re wearing, whether they’re protected enough, what’s still needed. Our priority is them. It cannot be otherwise, and everyone who wants to call themselves a Ukrainian must compare their day with the warriors’ day at the front.

There are many such stories of individual, truly heroic actions of Ukrainians. Our women, for example, make dry soups for the front, trench candles, sew clothes, and much, much more. Many of them have or already became widows, lost sons and daughters, grandchildren. But even in the face of such tragedy, they continue the fight and do their part to aid their homeland from falling to the enemy. This helps doubts and fears disappear — you just keep trying to be useful in the mutual struggle for victory. Not only for Ukraine, but for all of humanity.

“As it turns out, a person’s life can be placed in a backpack and that will be enough.” — Anastasia Orekhova, 35, Kremenchug

Here, where I live, rockets arrive quite often. Thanks to our military, almost all go astray, but it does not remove the anxiety in my heart or in the hearts of my children.

I have an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. When the air-raid alarm goes off — this happens quite often — we go down to the first floor. We live in a fifth-floor corner apartment, which is very dangerous if a rocket arrives. Using Zoom, my children study with their schoolteacher. Well, this actually only happens if we have internet and electricity.

When there are no alarms, we take walks on the street. I take my kids to play football or to a painting class. We come home for dinner, and then I put the kids to bed. At night, I am like an owl, guarding their sleep, since the air-raid sirens are so frequent at night. My thoughts are constantly spinning. How will I carry two children down to the first floor if trouble happens? I have practically not slept in nine months.

I always have a bag packed if something alarming happens. As it turns out, a person’s life can be placed in a backpack and that will be enough.

I’m not afraid of winter — if there is a long time with no light, gas, or heating, we have our backpack and will just go further — but I can’t say that I am used to war. I am constantly in a state of anxiety. At every sound, I jump up and my heart starts racing faster. I find myself thinking, how can such cruelties occur in our time.

But I also believe that we have already won this war. Our people have changed a lot. We are friendly, strong, courageous, sympathetic. We are constantly donating to help each other, like for people’s surgeries. It feels like there will be a victory this spring. It is symbolic that nature wakes up after winter, and we will wake up from this nightmare.

“I feel a belonging to the struggle of our people.” — Bohdana Bojchuk, 23, Lviv

I often feel that the war is taking up my time. My friends are fighting. I can’t see them. I used to be able to envision a more long-term picture of my life, but now I can’t picture what the next six months will look like. I can’t fully do what I want. I would like to have a family in the future, but I don’t know where to look for a partner. All the guys are off fighting. The same is true for my career.

The other day, I saw a movie on Netflix about the war in Ukraine and I cried all evening. If you look at the pictures of what Russians have done to our soldiers, it will leave you in a state for days. But I will say, every time Putin sends a missile to civilian cities and says in press conferences that Ukrainians will have no light this winter, I am even more inspired to be here. Every time a mass bombing happens — lately it feels like it happens on a Monday — our charitable foundations do a big collection to raise money for our military. There is a tradition: When you leave the bomb shelter after an air raid, you go online to the banking system and send money. This is what the whole country does, and in a few hours, we cover these huge amounts needed every time.

I don’t really know how to explain it, but I feel love for my country. I feel a belonging to the struggle of our people. Everything, eventually, will be okay.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

The Feeling of Ambient War in Ukraine