When Putin stole Christmas

People in Kyiv and to the east and west talk about how they are faring under Moscow’s assault and whether they will mark Christmas or the new year

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In the nine months of the all-out Russian-Ukrainian war, 65-year-old Chernihiv artist Borys Dedov has experienced several bombings of his properties, a couple of months of occupation, and losses of friends and family.

“Russia shelled one Chernihiv heat network line from the settlement of Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske on 4 March. The next day, my house was struck by rockets three times. My son, daughter-in-law and two little grandchildren were there. The girls were in tears,” Dedov recalls.

He says that not a single window or door survived, even though they were “really good doors”. The roof was fully destroyed. The house became unliveable.

His family, as well as around 20 people from the district, hid in the house’s basement, which helped them survive. However, shrapnel from the air strikes killed Dedov’s neighbour. Experiencing Russian bombing made Dedov’s son join the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the frontline, while Dedov himself, despite being past military conscription age, is staying in Chernihiv where he continues to work in the spheres of art and culture.

Chernihiv is a city in Ukraine’s north, about the size and population of Hull. Area-wise, however, the Chernihiv region is the third biggest in Ukraine. Between 24 February and 2 April, Russian soldiers occupied a big chunk of the region, while Chernihiv itself withstood occupation. The area was liberated in early April – though not before suffering significantly.

It is not only the house where Dedov’s family lived that was struck by Russian air strikes, he says. The flat where Dedov is living with his current wife and nine-year-old daughter was hit, too.

“We live on the sixth floor and the bomb struck under us,” he recalls. “The soundwave from the explosion was so strong that our windows opened and shattered. My wife had glass on her bed. There was so much glass.”

But what shocked Dedov most was that the Russian troops didn’t just target his living family members but his long-deceased parents, too, buried at the Yatsevo cemetery in the Chernihiv region.

“They bombed everything there with heavy bombs… The entire village was destroyed, including a beautiful Ukrainian Orthodox church at the central cemetery. “My parents’ gravestones were also damaged. Like me, they have a Russian surname. They fought in the Soviet army in the Second World War. My mother even reached Berlin as a nurse. What did my parents do to you?”

Over in Kharkiv, Anastasia Tarasova and Danylo Leleko have just started their master’s degree in philosophy at the renowned Karazin Kharkiv National University. The couple hail from Zaporizhzhia in the centre of Ukraine but spent the last couple of years in Kharkiv in the east of Ukraine at the back of finishing their undergraduate degrees in the same establishment. The two were supposed to be in Kharkiv when the full-scale invasion started but, fearing a military escalation in the east, they decided to extend their time at home in Zaporizhzhia.

“We were planning to buy our tickets [back to Kharkiv] on 22 February, but then Putin made his speech about the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’. Our parents suggested that we wait with the ticket purchase as things were unstable,” says 21-year-old Tarasova.

She says that both she and Leleko, however, thought that the situation would calm down quickly.

“On 24 February, we woke up understanding that nothing would pass. The explosions at the airport and military warehouses [in Zaporizhzhia] were very audible. There were big queues for cash points and supermarkets. Everybody was panicking, and nobody understood what was going on. And then the first month passed very fast,” she says.

To feel useful, Tarasova and Leleko signed up to volunteer at their local Caritas centre where they helped sort clothes for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Leleko, who’s 22, also rented out his apartment free of charge to IDPs from Mariupol, the war-torn Russia-occupied city in the south-east of Ukraine.

“This atmosphere led to a more stable emotional state – that you’re in the right place, you’re needed, many people are helping,” says Tarasova. “And this made us calmer.”

Zaporizhzhia, a city of nearly 750,000 people where the couple stayed, soon became unsuitable for living too.

“At first, there were explosions in Zaporizhzhia about once or twice a week – maybe some warehouse would be bombed. But this started getting gradually worse throughout this summer,” Tarasova says. “Then, in late June-July and in September-October – 6 October especially – things started… well, if you speak to Kharkiv residents in Zaporizhzhia now, they will say it was like in Kharkiv.”

This led to the couple moving to Kyiv in early October, where they have been living for a few weeks now. As we speak, Tarasova and Leleko have just returned from a short trip to Kharkiv. Tarasova points out that the city is “changing seriously”. Two situations struck her during the visit.

“The first one was that when we descended to the metro, I did not see the usual well-lit metro with lots of adverts, many people, and students. It was almost empty, even during rush hours. A few people were carrying UN bags. Maybe they’re reusing them, but the people looked very sad. And then, in the evening, there were no lights at all,” she says.

The second situation was visiting a popular local café chain, Kulinichi.

“Normally, many students work at this chain, and it’s always loud. But we saw this elderly lady working at the tills. Another older lady came in, and they started talking about the war,” Tarasova recalls. “The impression was that these people probably know about the war even more than people in Kyiv do.”

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However, soon after Tarasova and Leleko’s return from Kharkiv, the situation deteriorated all over Ukraine. As a result of Russia’s strikes, nearly half of the country’s critical infrastructure was destroyed or damaged. On 24 November, 70 per cent of Kyiv’s housing stock went powerless, and blackouts – which often mean the absence of water supply, heating, internet and mobile signal – can last anything between a couple of hours and a couple of days while the outside temperatures in early December can plummet to -10C.

Further west of Ukraine is the city of Lviv. Outside of the all-out war, its population is smaller than Kharkiv’s and slightly smaller than Zaporizhzhia’s – around 720,000 people. But since 24 February, Lviv and the region have accepted an additional quarter of a million IDPs. Many others are temporarily inhabiting Lviv without registering.

“Lviv has so many people these days,” says 29-year-old Kate Yavorovych. “It is just unreal – even on the weekdays, in the evening. It’s like Independence Day every day: crowds of people.”

Since 2015, Yavorovych has been running Manchester United-themed bar Cantona with her partner Andy Markovets. Cantona is on a small side street off the centre of Lviv. It’s a hidden gem loved by friends and friends of friends of Yavorovych and Markovets.

Not only is it a place for Manchester United supporters but also fans of Karpaty – a treasured Lviv football club with a long history of troubles. Yavorovych says Karpaty fans have been especially active on the frontline since the start of Russia’s armed aggression in Ukraine in 2014.

“Our friends have split into two camps: those who are fighting and those who are equipping the ones fighting,” she says. “The volunteer squad has strengthened and expanded, and everybody is keeping busy and helping each other. Lviv is like a village: everybody will do anything for each other, so we can’t be scared.”

Yavorovych doesn’t only talk the talk – she’s walked the walk since 24 February, the start of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She says that despite her partner Markovets staying up to watch Putin’s speech announcing the “special operation” all night, the two were shocked when they woke up that morning.

“We knew that everybody who didn’t know what to do would go there, so we decided to go to our pub. And people shortly started turning up too. I wouldn’t call that day a normal workday. We just tried to volunteer and think about what to do next,” says Yavorovych. “Since we didn’t know how the events would develop, we took our cat and started living in Cantona for a period of time, which in the end turned out to be a week.”

That’s how the pub turned into a volunteer hub operating 24/7. “Cars would leave directly from the pub and deliver items to the frontline eastward to Kyiv and the south.”

Like everything and everyone else in the city, Cantona changed over the first few weeks too. The menu transformed from offering delicious coconut curries, shepherd’s pies, and fish and chips to meals made out of anything that the visitors would bring in.

“We fed volunteers and IDPs for free for some time,” says Yavorovych. “People brought us sacks of potato, onions, buckwheat, pasta, and some chicken – we didn’t even have to ask them. They knew that we would feed them for free and, in return, provided us with all the ingredients to do that.”

Even now that Yavorovych and Markovets have more or less settled into a routine, Yavorovych says that Cantona will refrain from celebrating New Year’s Eve in the pub – something they’d been doing between 2015 and 2019 – until the pandemic struck.

“We’ll celebrate the winter holidays, but I don’t know how yet. There are IDPs in Lviv from parts of the country where Christmas is not really celebrated,” Yavorovych notes.

Meanwhile, for Leleko and Tarasova, a move to Kyiv has facilitated more frequent meetings with their friends.

“The main event for us is we’re seeing people we’d not seen since 24 February. A lot of our friends are now in Kyiv. I hope we will get to see all of them on NYE. That’s the main plan for me,” says Leleko.

Tarasova is not sure if the couple will put a tree up, but no Russian invasion would stop Dedov, a devout Christian Orthodox, from celebrating the birth of Jesus.

“Christmas needs to be celebrated even if stones fall from the sky,” he says. “It won’t be to the extent it is normally celebrated, but Christmas is Christmas. It’s the central holiday for our nation.”

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