Hardship and hope: Winter, missile storms show Kyiv’s mettle

  • People light candles and lay flowers at the monument of the victims of the Holodomor, Great Famine, which took place in the 1930's and killed millions, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

KYIV, Ukraine — The play finishes. The actors take their bows. Then they let loose with wartime patriotic zeal. “Glory to Ukraine!” they shout. “Glory to the heroes!” the audience yells back, leaping to its feet.

The actors aren’t done. More yells follow, X-rated ones, cursing all things Russian and vowing that Ukraine will survive. More cheers, more applause.

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Bundled up against the cold, everyone then troops out of the dark, unheated theater, barely lit with emergency generators. They head back to the hard realities of Ukraine’s capital — a once comfortably livable city of 3 million, now beginning a winter increasingly shorn of power and sometimes water, too, by Russian bombardments.

But hope, resilience and defiance? Kyiv has all those in abundance. And perhaps more so now than at any time since Russia invaded Ukraine nine months ago.

When Butch, her French bulldog, needs a walk and the electricity is out in the elevator of her Kyiv high-rise, Lesia Sazonenko and the dog take the stairs — all 17 flights, down and up. The maternity clinic executive tells herself the slog is for an essential cause: victory.

She has left a bag of candies, cookies, water and flashlights in the elevator for any neighbors who might get trapped in the blackouts, to sustain them until power returns.

“You will not get us down,” she says. “We will prevail.”

When Paris was freed from Nazi occupation in World War II, Gen. Charles de Gaulle delivered eternal words that could now also apply to Kyiv. “Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” the French leader said.

Outrage at Russia is everywhere in Kyiv. The audience and actors at the Theater on Podil made that crystal clear at the performance of “Girl with a teddy bear,” set in Soviet times and based on a book by 20th century Ukrainian author Viktor Domontovych. When pronouncing the word “Moscow,” the actors spat it out and added a curse in Ukrainian. The audience applauded.

A straw doll and a bowl of pins next to a framed photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Simona pizzeria in central Kyiv also speak of the city’s anger. Plenty of customers clearly felt the cathartic need to vent; the doll is pin-stuck from head nearly to toe.

Not mentally but physically, Kyiv is also broken, with rolling power cuts now the norm. When water supplies were also knocked out this past week, residents lined up in the cold to fill plastic bottles at outdoor taps. Some collected rainwater from drainpipes.

Russia says its repeated salvoes of cruise missiles and exploding drones on energy facilities are aimed at reducing Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. But the civilian hardships they cause suggest the intention is also to martyrize minds, to torment Kyiv and other cities so Ukrainians surrender and sue for peace.

They had the opposite effect on 21-year-old Margina Daria.

The customer support worker and her boyfriend rode out the biggest Russian barrage yet, on Nov. 15, in a corridor in Kyiv. They figured that having walls on both sides would keep them safe from the more than 100 missiles and drones that Russia launched that day, knocking out power to 10 million people across the country. The lights in the corridor went out; the mobile network, too.

“There was no way to even tell our families that we were OK,” she says. Yet one of her first reactions after the all-clear sounded was to cough up money for the war effort.

“Anger turned into donations to charities to defeat the enemy as soon as possible,” she says. “I plan to stay in Kyiv, work, study and donate to the armed forces.”

And what of the last word De Gaulle used of Paris: liberated? How does that fit wartime, wintertime Kyiv?

Well, the living was easier in the capital this summer, when bathers flocked to beaches on the Dnieper River. Russia, beaten back from the capital’s outskirts in the opening stages of the Feb. 24 invasion, wasn’t pounding Ukraine’s power grid with the destructive regularity that is making life so tough now.

But Kyiv’s mood was also more somber back then.

The southern port city of Mariupol had fallen in May when its last Ukrainian defenders surrendered after a gruesome siege. The first bodies of Ukrainian fighters killed at Mariupol’s shattered Azovstal steelworks were being recovered. There had been, from a Ukrainian perspective, uplifting feats of military derring-do. But news from the battlefronts was otherwise largely unrelentingly grim. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was pleading for Western weapons as “a matter of life or death.”

Now the cold and the dark and Moscow’s bombing are turning winter into a weapon. And yet, even with the frost and the discomforts, there is also hope in the air. Kyiv feels liberated of some of its earlier anxieties.

Western weapons have enabled Ukraine to stem the tide militarily, with counteroffensives this autumn taking back swaths of previously Russian-occupied territory. Fewer Russian missiles appear to be reaching targets in Kyiv and elsewhere, with Western-supplied air-defense systems helping to shoot more of them down.

“It’s much better than before. Definitely,” says Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

In a Kyiv maternity clinic, Maryna Mandrygol went into labor as Ukrainian forces closed in on their biggest battlefield success of the war so far — the recapture this month of the southern city of Kherson.

Mandrygol, a Kherson customs officer, had fled the city’s Russian occupation in April. All the while, she worried whether the stress of her escape — through six Russian checkpoints and fields that had been mined — would impact her then-unborn baby girl.

On Nov. 9, Mia was born pink and gorgeous. Mandrygol emerged from the delivery room with her bundle of love to the stunning news that Russian troops were retreating from her home city. Two days later, with Kherson back in Ukraine’s hands, partying broke out in the city and in Kyiv’s central Independence Square.

Mia’s arrival and Kherson’s liberation happening so close together seemed somehow fated — both were tangible new beginnings, rays of light in a future for Ukraine that is still clouded but perhaps not as dark as it looked when Mia was conceived around the time of the invasion.

“The birth of a girl,” says Mandrygol, “brings us peace and victory.”

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