It was dark and getting colder. The four-wheel drive was slipping and straining as we tried to yank the van out of a muddy field. We had already lightened it by unloading hundreds of loaves of bread, detergent, toilet paper, tampons, soap, and a generator, when suddenly we heard a low roar approaching. Then, over the crest of the hill, a lone Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle appeared, which, with its tracks and cannon, looks to the uninitiated like a tank. It lurched to a stop. The crew, lit up by the glow of our red brake lights, began to emerge from the hatch. What the hell were we doing here? No, sorry, they had their orders and could not stop to help get the van out of the mud. Yes, this was the right way to Varvarivka, but to try to get there tonight was foolhardy. Turn around and find a place to sleep in nearby Vasylivka, they said. And with that, wreathed in a cloud of exhaust fumes, they were off.
It was November 29, and I don’t know exactly where we were. It was a field roughly six miles south of the Russian border, some two hours’ drive northeast of Kharkiv, in an area from which the Russians had retreated in September. But we had turned off the location trackers on our phones. If the Russians on the other side of the border were monitoring electronic signals—including those from easily detectable phones—and noticed a group they could not identify, they might lob a shell at it.
Meanwhile it was rapidly becoming clear to me why these volunteers from the group P’yatykhatky Bam with their van and their Czech friends with a 4×4 were trying to get to Varvarivka. The village had been liberated, but since the main road runs so close to the border and is visible from the Russian side, most people, including delivery drivers, were not taking the risk of going there, so no supplies were getting through. That was why we were trying to reach it by a makeshift route across the fields. The next day we learned from Oleg Shevchenko, an intrepid volunteer who drove his van out of the village to meet us and collect our load, that it had been hit by seven or eight mortar shells in the hours before we tried to get there.
When histories of the Ukraine war are written, volume 1 will cover the Maidan Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the seizure of parts of Donbas in eastern Ukraine by Russian proxy forces in 2014. It will end on February 24, 2022, when Vladimir Putin began his invasion aimed at destroying the modern Ukrainian state. We are now living through the events of what will be chapter 4 of volume 2. The first chapter will cover the Russian forces’ lunge at Kyiv, which they expected to fall within days, and will end with their retreat at the end of March and beginning of April. The second will culminate in their helter-skelter retreat in September from Kharkiv and the surrounding region, which they blithely assumed would welcome them because its people speak Russian. The third chapter will end in November, when the Russians were driven out of Kherson in the south. Chapter 4 will be different, though. While what happens on the front is important, it is the Russian attempt to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, cut water supplies, and freeze the country into submission that is now the main story of the war.
In January and February 2022, just before the invasion, I traveled across Ukraine and found it profoundly transformed from the chaotic postrevolutionary country of 2014. The people seemed determined and far more united than ever before, and their leaders had spent the intervening eight years rebuilding and reorganizing its armed forces, which had been gutted by the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. He was overthrown in the Maidan Revolution, and many but not all of the Russian sympathizers and agents in Ukraine’s institutions were purged. I also found a country whose people were in profound denial. Despite the buildup of Russian troops on its borders, hardly anyone I met believed that Putin was actually going to launch an all-out invasion.1
Nine months later, retracing my steps, I found Ukraine changed yet again. By this I do not just mean that the country has been traumatized by destruction, refugees, war crimes, and power cuts, but also that its people have mobilized like none I have seen in any other war I have covered. That was why I was stranded in the mud and the dark on the way to Varvarivka with the volunteers from P’yatykhatky Bam. (P’yatykhatky is a suburb of Kharkiv that had been on the front line during the Russian assault on the city.) They had initially come together to help those in need, especially beleaguered pensioners stuck in their homes while fighting raged around them. Now, however, with the Russians expelled from the area, they were responding to calls for help from more distant places, like Varvarivka.
As I write, in mid-December, the most ferocious battles are for the little town of Bakhmut, 135 miles southeast of Kharkiv. There the Russians at the forefront of the fighting are from Wagner, the monstrous regiment of mercenaries founded by the Russian oligarch, Putin confidant, and former convict Yevgeny Prigozhin. Many of its soldiers have been released from prison in exchange for service and are gambling that they will survive it. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Russians are reported to have fled the country after a draft was announced in September, and the authorities have even had to trawl the streets to find recruits.
Ukraine too has mobilized troops, but typically Ukrainian soldiers have told me they asked to fight. Often they say that when the invasion began, they went to recruiting offices but were put on a waiting list because the armed forces were first taking anyone with military or other relevant experience, in anything from drones to logistics.
Even more impressive than Ukraine’s will to fight is the vast network of volunteers that underpins the armed forces and the defense of the country. At the Kyiv School of Economics, Tymofiy Mylovanov, its president, told me how in the first weeks of the war the school had formed a group of some eighty friends abroad—partners at global consulting firms, for example. They raised money with which the school bought flak jackets, medical kits, and helmets to distribute to soldiers at the front. When I asked him how many people had volunteered in one capacity or another across the country, he said that the numbers must run into the hundreds of thousands, but that it was impossible to know for certain.
In Odesa I talked to twenty-nine-year-old Viktoria Balsanian, a sociologist I had also interviewed last January. She said that when the invasion began, she did not know what to do, “but I wanted to do something.” Then she and friends began collecting money to support the new volunteer Territorial Defense force, which was created to staff checkpoints and guard buildings so that soldiers could fight. Then they began buying medical supplies for the troops. “I don’t know anyone of my age who did not help,” Balsanian said.
Oleksiy Goncharenko is a deputy from Odesa in Ukraine’s parliament. Before the invasion he had set up a network of centers aimed at, among other things, improving education in small towns, where children have fewer opportunities than those in big cities. When the invasion started, they pivoted to helping the war effort. At the center in Odesa I saw dozens of people, mostly elderly, diligently making white winter webbing to drape over bunkers, tanks, and artillery as camouflage. Some whose families have fled are lonely and bored and want to help; here they can, but that is not the case with everyone. Polina Kolupailo, a retired eighty-year-old seamstress who was sewing cushions for soldiers, said she had plenty of family in Odesa but wanted to make a contribution toward Ukraine’s victory and came every day. The two other women at her table had jobs and dropped in after work.
Elena, a teacher who did not want me to use her surname and who was giving English lessons to children at the center, told me that she had fled Kherson while it was occupied by the Russians. At first she was reticent and said that she had become scared when Russian troops raided a friend’s apartment, and that she wanted to get her twelve-year-old son out of the city. Then she began to tell me the real story. When Kherson fell to the Russians in March, a wounded Ukrainian soldier was left behind in the hospital. Thanks to a local network, he was secretly moved to her apartment, where she and her husband looked after him. After she and her son fled, her husband and the soldier were also able to escape, with the help of more underground volunteers.
In the little town of Podilsk, two hours north of Odesa, at another Goncharenko Center, I met Ludmila Tatar, whose organization the center was helping. Every day, she told me, she and a small group of friends—there were currently four of them—were baking up to 130 pounds of pastries, which via networks of other volunteers were distributed to soldiers on the front lines, some of them hundreds of miles from Podilsk. “The soldiers say that when they eat our cakes it tastes like their childhood,” she said proudly. As we talked, a delivery service came by to collect boxes of medical supplies being dispatched to a town close to the eastern front.
When it comes to doing their part in the war effort, everyone is finding their niche. Olga Belenko, who owns cafés, a restaurant and café design business, and a furniture-making workshop in Odesa, told me that over the last few months the group she had set up found secret ways to send aid to women who had been raped by Russian soldiers—kits consisting of a range of medicines including tranquilizers: “Our goal is to help these women go through the first difficult phase and simply survive after this terrible physical and psychological shock.”
Thousands of small organizations and groups of friends working to help the men and women at the front and in the occupied territories sounds like a recipe for chaos, but incredibly it seems to work. In Kyiv Dmytro Lysovyy, a Samsung executive, told me that four of his friends from school had enlisted. Some fifteen people now kept in touch on a Signal chat group, with the ones fighting telling the others what they need. For one of them Lysovyy and his parents had found a 4×4 for €5,000 in Sweden via “friends of friends,” and he showed me a photo on his phone of his friends at the front in the car. For another friend the group bought a drone.
“Friends of friends” is a phrase you hear all the time. The members of P’yatykhatky Bam were friends with a Czech group called Team 4 Ukraine, which had been working in the country when the war broke out. The Czechs were experts on issues like cybersecurity, but they completely changed their focus and began raising money from their friends at home for ambulances. Other friends of friends had raised money in the US, which was used to buy supplies in Poland that were dispatched to Kharkiv.
The aid being sent to Varvarivka was very specific. Volunteers in the village had compiled a shopping list, which had been relayed by soldiers to P’yatykhatky Bam. It included sacks of dog food, which was needed because so many people had fled and abandoned their dogs that the hungry strays were becoming dangerously aggressive. The dog food came from P’yatykhatky Bam’s friends in the Dog Help Kharkiv group, which got it from their Norwegian friends in an organization called Nor Dog. Its website notes that one third of the population of Ukraine has been displaced and entire cities turned to rubble, but “one could easily argue that this conflict is an even greater catastrophe for the pets of Ukraine.”
While friends of friends are helping source, buy, and deliver stuff, friends are also coming together in different ways. Driving out of Kherson in late November, I passed a military convoy speeding the other way. I was astonished that it included a dozen or so small Soviet-era Lada cars, which you don’t see much anymore in Ukraine. Each one was packed with burly soldiers. Since the army does not have enough transport, friends buy an old Lada for €300 or €400, and if it stops running or is destroyed, not much has been lost.
Friends are also coming together to create teams of people with specialized skills. I spent twenty-four hours with one group, led by Mila Makarova. Its job is the medical evacuation of wounded soldiers. Team members are stationed just behind the front in a village I was allowed to visit only on the condition that I not identify it. When soldiers are wounded, frontline troops bring them to a designated point, and from there Makarova and her fellow combat paramedics speed them to the nearest field hospital.
Before the invasion Makarova was volunteering at the Red Cross and teaching tactical medicine to soldiers. When the war started, she enlisted. Her team had just been joined by a volunteer couple whom she had known before and who had just transferred from the Red Cross to the army. They in turn had met as volunteers for Motohelp, a volunteer group that carries blood between hospitals or gets to accidents on their motorbikes before ambulances arrive.
In their house, they cleaned their equipment and shoved logs into the woodstove. We could hear artillery booming, but luckily today there were no casualties. I had asked Makarova if there was something I could bring. “No,” she said, “we are fine.” They were surrounded by food—everything from chocolate bars to sacks of potatoes—and boxes of medical equipment. They also had a portable Starlink satellite Internet terminal. When I asked where everything came from, Makarova pointed from item to item and said, “That is from the army, volunteers gave us that, we bought that.” She pointed to one box of food and said that it came from her “French family”—the French family she had been sent to as a child on holiday some years after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Her smart military backpack stuffed with medical equipment came from an old German boyfriend who wanted to help. She sent him links to what she needed, he bought it all, German volunteers got it to Lviv in western Ukraine, and then volunteers there sent it on to her. Hanging on the coatrack was her gun. I asked why a combat medic might need one, and she said, “You never know.”
When I asked people how Ukraine’s defense had become underpinned by a vast network of often interlocking volunteer organizations and friends of friends, most of them seemed at a loss to answer or gave waffly responses about wanting to do their bit. In Kharkiv, however, Nataliya Zubar, a veteran activist now working to document Russian war crimes, told me that this culture developed gradually and was rooted in the harsh times of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then as now, power cuts were frequent. First, she said, people helped their relatives and those close to them, and then they began to help their neighbors. Over time, since Ukrainians finally had freedom of speech, civil society began to develop. Some people became ecologists, she said, some looked after animals, and some became anticorruption activists.
Now, she explained, organizations like P’yatykhatky Bam have usually been created by experienced activists who feel they have a calling and “who already know how to work with people.” Volunteer culture received a huge boost at the time of the Maidan Revolution. Makarova, for example, was there in a tent, pouring tea to sustain the revolutionaries on the barricades. Some of them went on to join the volunteer battalions that played a crucial part in defending the country from the separatists and Russian troops in the east beginning in 2014.
Andrey Kurkov, the novelist whose insightful wartime essays have just been published as Diary of an Invasion, writes that historically Ukraine had a tradition of toloka—“community work done for the common good.” This meant neighbors or fellow villagers helping to rebuild your house if it burned down, for example. However, the concept of “helping people you do not know is relatively new to Ukraine,” he writes.2
Kurkov’s conclusion dovetails with another argument that I heard from Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a political scientist who has spent the last couple of decades thinking about Ukraine’s future. We sat in a bustling restaurant on Lviv’s beautiful Renaissance market square and talked about history and the diversity of modern Ukraine. Before World War II this part of the country had been Polish and before that Austro-Hungarian; most but not all of the rest of the country had been Soviet and part of the Russian Empire before that. He argues that the volunteer movement is part of a wider process of modern Ukraine’s coming of age.
Hlibovytsky said that the Soviet period—including the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine of 1932–1933, which killed some 3.9 million in Ukraine; World War II; and decades of political repression—while not destroying Ukrainian identity, had destroyed its people’s capacity for “agency.” He meant that people, and indeed the nation, had been cowed. The residents of P’yatykhatky, for example, who only began to move to their newly created Kharkiv suburb well after World War II, lived next to a forest containing the mass graves of Ukrainian intellectuals murdered by the NKVD in 1937–1938 and of Polish officers murdered in 1940. No wonder people were terrified. I caught an echo of that in Vasylivka the night we failed to get to Varvarivka. There Natasha, the local postwoman, arranged for us to sleep in the empty house of a family who had fled to Russia the day before Ukrainian troops returned. When I quizzed her about how people in the village had felt about the Russians and then about the return of Ukrainian troops, and how many had actively collaborated with the occupiers, she said that while she was happy the Russians had gone, in general “the less you know the better you sleep!” It is not hard to imagine that this saying has been passed down from generation to generation here.
Hlibovytsky’s argument is that all the awful historical events that cast their long shadows over Ukraine only began to fade with the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 and finally the Maidan Revolution of 2014. So, while “Ukraine was conceived in 1991 as an independent state…it was actually born in 2014.” This is a way to understand the emergence of the volunteer movement. It consists of people who in the past might have thought they were just, as Ukrainians say, “small people” who could change nothing, since their lives were controlled by “big men,” but now they were understanding that things had really changed. “Basically,” he said, revolution and the Russian invasion have given birth to a “self-reliant society that doesn’t need the state to tell us, to tell it, where to go and what to do.”
In this sense Ukraine contrasts with European countries, where people have far higher expectations of the state to act and look after them, and with Russia. From the Ukrainian point of view, he said,
there is simply no grassroots agency in Russia. Your agency doesn’t matter. You have to be someone big, or someone connected, or someone who is part of the elite to matter in Russia. In Ukraine, the fact that you are human already matters.
Hlibovytsky has another argument that is relevant. In the past, the idea of who was Ukrainian was very much tied to language and ethnicity. Now, he said, “you don’t necessarily have to be born Ukrainian, you can also choose to be Ukrainian.” This question of identity is crucial. Putin has argued that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and most Ukrainians, especially now, reject this categorically. But it is not quite so simple. There has always been a spectrum of identity from being Ukrainian to being Russian, although since 2014 those who previously did not really care where they were on that spectrum have made up their minds.
Still, the war and the other events of the last few years have split millions of families in two, above all those that have some members in Ukraine and some in Russia. Almost everyone I talked to with family in Russia said they had cut contact with them because they could no longer stomach them parroting the Kremlin’s official line that Russia was firing missiles at Ukraine in order to liberate it from the grip of Nazis and, more recently, Satanists.
While the war means there can be no reliable data or opinion surveys, most people I talked to thought that any lingering pro-Russia sentiment in parts of Russian-speaking southern and eastern Ukraine had been drastically reduced since the beginning of the invasion and that in any case it had been shrinking since 2014. In Mykolaiv, which has been shelled by the Russians since March and which by not falling thwarted the Russian push to Odesa, I met Sasha Dechev, a fifty-eight-year-old ship’s pilot who had been out of work since the Russians attacked. He said that before the invasion he had agreed with the Russians that people in Crimea and the parts of Donbas controlled by Russia since 2014 (and now annexed by Putin) had decided their fate themselves. “I associated Russia with the Soviet Union,” he said, which is baffling but typical of those older people who until then were open to Russian arguments and followed the Russian media. When I pressed him, he said that it was “difficult to explain why,” but that what had finally changed his mind “by 180 degrees” was hearing a Russian missile crash into a nearby building. “Your world is broken into pieces.”
In Odesa, Viktor, a thirty-eight-year-old sailor who was stranded at home by the war and was driving a taxi, was the only person in a month of traveling who warned me not to believe what was written in the media and said that Ukraine was indeed in thrall to Nazis. However, when I asked him if he was waiting to be liberated by the Russians, he said, “I understand why Putin did what he did, but I don’t want Russia here—or Europe!” Tatyana Kryvosheia, a sociologist, said that “those who believed in Putin and Russia are now trapped. They perceive the war as a personal betrayal by Putin. It is very difficult for them to understand what to do now.” In the villages I visited in the Kharkiv region, many had left with the Russian troops, and those who remained said that the Russians had told them that if they did not go, they would be persecuted by the returning Ukrainians.
When Ukrainian troops returned to Kherson in November, they received an ecstatic welcome from the people there. The area retaken in the Kharkiv region is sparsely populated. Taking back Crimea and Donbas will be an altogether tougher task, not least since a large but unknown proportion of their pro-Ukraine population has long since fled, unlike in those areas occupied only since February or March.
Few—and certainly not Putin—expected Ukraine to defend itself so well, but it has only been able to do so thanks to the constant flow of Western arms. Now generators, transformers, and other electrical equipment are coming too, which, along with more sophisticated air defense systems, are helping to blunt Russia’s assault on critical infrastructure. These supplies, plus high morale and a mobilized population, have already led to the liberation of half the territory seized by the Russians since the invasion. Those are tremendous achievements, but the war is far from over. Today the mood is one of grim determination, not least since by now, as Makarova notes, “everyone has lost someone.” So the war has become something more than an ideal of defending Ukraine: it has become personal too.
—December 21, 2022