In Ukraine’s capital, Putin’s airstrikes don’t darken the mood

Anastacia Osmolovska, left, and Viktoria, right, visit a bar in central Kyiv on Nov.  12.
Anastacia Osmolovska, left, and Viktoria, right, visit a bar in central Kyiv on Nov. 12. (Jedrzej Nowicki)

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KYIV, Ukraine — War and winter have brought new misery to Kyiv after a long summer lull. Russia’s missile campaign to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has revived fears that had abated after Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops away from the capital in the spring.

The first snowfall of the season has brought subzero temperatures to a city plunged into darkness and cold by the attacks.

But if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is to demoralize the population to the point of accepting compromises with Russia, he isn’t succeeding. The danger and discomfort appear only to be hardening attitudes, deepening the resolve to keep fighting, according to interviews with Kyiv residents.

“Emotionally it’s very challenging when you are at home with no electricity and you can hear the air raid sirens,” said drama student Anastacia Osmolovska, 20. “It’s like being in a deep black hole.”

“But as long as Russia is firing missiles at our cities there’s no way of negotiating with them,” Osmolovska said. “We have to keep the fear inside and carry on.”

Most Kyiv residents have become at least somewhat inured to the threat posed by the missiles. The wail of the sirens no longer triggers a rush for the shelters. People move away from the windows into corridors or interior rooms, then wait to see if there are explosions before deciding whether to move underground, Maria Birtec, 35, said as she sipped coffee with a friend in central Kyiv.

At the beginning of the war, her son, Max, now 4, trembled and cried at the sound of explosions, she recalled.

Now he has taken to shouting “Kill Putin in his bunker” when the sirens go off and shows no sign of fear. “He’s pretty chill,” Birtec said.

For some, however, the attacks are an ongoing source of anxiety. Liliia Bolbat’s twin teenage daughters were traumatized by a rocket strike on their apartment building in the eastern city of Mariupol during the 2014-2015 conflict. They live in Kyiv now, and the recent attacks have revived distressing memories.

On Oct. 10, a date all Kyivians have inscribed to memory because the missiles that rained down on the capital marked the launch of the new Russian campaign, “the girls were so stressed they vomited and had fever,” Bolbat said. “They spent 12 hours in the basement. I had to give them sedatives.”

Since then, they have regularly slept in the corridor of their apartment in case of missile strikes. They keep flashlights, blankets and chocolate bars at the ready.

But the girls said they would rather endure their fear than make concessions to Russia.

“How could we possibly negotiate with them when they destroyed our native city?” Anhelina, one of the twins, said, referring to the badly bombed and now Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, where they were born.

“They do not deserve any mercy from our side,” her sister, Karolina, said, clenching her jaw.

The electricity cuts, meanwhile, add new challenges to life in the time of war. Running to the basement in the pitch dark isn’t always safe or possible for those living on the highest floors of apartment towers. Some people have stopped using elevators for fear the power will go out and trap them inside.

For those who rely on electricity for heating, the blackouts are particularly harsh. Kyiv’s City Council is preparing heating centers where people without electricity will be able to gather to keep warm. “Cold weather can kill,” the World Health Organization said last week, warning that the attacks on energy supplies “will be life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine.”

But Kyiv is adapting, too. Stores report a rush on power banks, cooking gas cylinders, torches and thermal underwear. Cafes twinkle with fairy lights and serve pre-prepared thermos flasks of coffee during the dark hours when the espresso machines won’t work.

Grumbling seems churlish when Ukrainians living in cities close to the front lines have been enduring worse conditions for months, and when soldiers fighting the Russians are surviving in trenches in freezing temperatures.

“We are getting used to it,” said Kostiantyn Bibliuk, 25, as he sipped drinks with a friend at the Negroni Bar in central Kyiv, which has a generator to keep its neon sign flashing during the blackouts. “Power cuts are not that big a price to pay for our freedom.”

Despite all, life goes on in Kyiv, a capital renowned for its nightlife before the war. The weekends are crammed with cultural events — poetry readings, classical concerts, gigs, comedy shows and raves — within the constraints of the city’s 11 pm curfew. Restaurants and bars that have generators offer a comforting escape from cold, dark homes.

“We have to find the bright side of life because every day we watch the war on TV, and this is a way to remember we are still alive, that each day could be our last,” said Olia Antypiuk, 23, who attended a Vivaldi concert in November. The compère was on leave from the front lines, the event was lit by battery-operated candles in case of a blackout, and the lead violinist was pitch perfect.

The hardships “just strengthen our spirits and our desire to win against that pig Putin,” Antypiuk said.

There was a different kind of vibe the following evening in the depths of the Kyiv subway system, which becomes a bomb shelter for thousands of people when there are missile strikes. On this night, though, the station was the venue for a rave by one of Ukraine’s top DJs, DJ Tapolsky, who was back from serving on the front lines in the east.

“Sometimes it’s so scary outside, but we still want to have fun and meet our friends and hug,” said Anastacia Ilena, 23, hugging the two friends she had come with.

“It’s so beautiful when we just live our lives,” she said, and they all hugged again.

Then they demonstrated their dance moves, to the pulsating beats reverberating in competition with the roar of the regularly scheduled subway trains.

“See how we dance!” she said, with a twirl. “Putin will never break us.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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