On August 8 I went to the Jellyfish Museum in Kyiv. During my previous visits to the city, it had been closed because of the war. Now it has reopened. In the gloom the fantastical creatures drifted about in their tanks while couples, friends, and families drifted about happily looking at them. In Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine close to the Russian border, the Half an Hour café, where I wrote for a couple of days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, has also just reopened.1
On August 20 a foreign television news channel rang me to talk about a Russian missile attack on Chernihiv in northern Ukraine the day before that left seven dead, including a six-year-old. I was in Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine, and that night I went to the Kino Susidiv film festival. In a short called Kharkiv Music Fest Did Happen, written and directed by twenty-five-year-old Vyacheslav Turyanytsya and set in Uzhhorod, a mother says to her son Seryozha, “Did you hear the siren today?” He replies, “Mom, no one cares about the sirens anymore.” On Uzhhorod’s beautiful tree-shaded riverside walk I saw men without limbs or in wheelchairs in various states of recuperation from their injuries. A few small children were begging, but others were out with their families throwing bread to the ducks and swans. Students from India who left when the invasion began were back and walking along the riverbank.
The first part of the war was easy to write about. When so much is happening, when millions are in flight, when the first rockets begin to hit, the story writes itself, as journalists like to say. But now it doesn’t. At this stage the obvious stories no longer explode with blinding clarity in front of you.
In the beginning of June Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces in the east and south of the country. Almost three months later they have made slow progress in the south, and the Russians are pushing back in the east. Meanwhile I am wondering who, except for those with a really keen interest, is still following these developments or paying attention when the analysts, or “sofa experts” as they say in Ukraine disparagingly, note that one side or the other “may” have achieved a “tactical advantage” in such and such village in the last twenty-four hours. And then there are those following events from afar who call me to say that they have read stories of people partying in Kyiv and ask, “Why aren’t those men at the front?” Quite apart from the fact that the army can’t absorb millions of men, seventeen months after the beginning of the invasion every Ukrainian, and every place in Ukraine, has settled down to a new normal, and except for the areas close to the front, it can look, superficially at least, suspiciously like the old one. It is not.
Petro Yatsenko is a novelist with ten published books. We met when he was taking me around a camp for Russian prisoners of war. His wartime duty is to be the spokesman for the Ukrainian government agency that deals with both Russian POWs held by Ukraine and Ukrainian ones held by Russia. Later he told me how the war has transformed his life, but he was not talking about his job. It is a story that has become a minor cause célèbre among Ukraine’s literati. Yatsenko had long had a thing for Anastasia Levkova, also a writer and a friend of his and his wife’s. When the invasion began his wife, a well-known author of books for children, left for Poland. Their marriage was already strained. He and Levkova sat on a park bench and “we had not even kissed,” she said. They had “been together mentally, but we were not in a relationship.” They discussed a future together. Yatsenko had already talked of having a child. He said that he expected to be mobilized, and who knew if he would ever come back. In that case, she replied, “we must conceive a baby!” It was “now or never,” he said. Their daughter is now six months old.
Then, for Levkova, there was another big development. For years she had been working on a novel about life in Crimea in the three decades before the Russian annexation in 2014. At the beginning of the invasion, publishing in Ukraine, like everything else, ground to a halt, but like everything else it has begun to recover. And unsurprisingly Ukrainians want to read anything that helps explain how they found themselves in this situation. Published in April, her novel, There Is a Land Beyond Perekop, has sold 8,500 copies in hardback, which would be amazing in the US, let alone in a country at war. (Foreign publishers take note!)
Yatsenko and Levkova live in a new apartment building in the suburbs of Kyiv. A few years ago this area was just a village. “There is the last cow,” he said, pointing at one when we went for a walk. The apartments filled up with young couples in the years before the invasion. Afterward most women and children fled (when the Russians advanced on Kyiv they were stopped only a few miles away), but many—by no means all—are back. Most men between eighteen and sixty are not allowed to leave the country. It is impossible to know how common Yatsenko and Levkova’s love story is—no one is collecting data on such things—but certainly “now or never” is coursing through the lives of millions. It is not measurable, but it is what people are talking about.
While I was writing in a café on Uzhhorod’s riverbank, it filled with families. I had a pretty good idea why. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than six million Ukrainian refugees abroad, of whom 4.5 million are in Europe and 1.2 million are in Russia. According to Ella Libanova, the director of Kyiv’s Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies, half of them are women between twenty and sixty-four and one third are children and adolescents. With their status secured in their places of refuge—overwhelmingly EU countries and the UK—they are now free to travel back to Ukraine and visit their husbands, partners, and fathers who cannot come to see them. This is why Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia and close to Poland and Hungary, is packed, why it was so hard to find a hotel room there, let alone a train ticket. For many, perhaps most, it is a happy reunion, but up to sixteen months of separation is surely trying the bonds of love for some.
In online chat forums women abroad fret that their husbands are forgetting them and finding girlfriends. Men at the front worry that their wives and girlfriends back home, abroad, or in a safer part of Ukraine might be catching the eye of someone else. Some women, against their better judgment, are coming home to save their relationships and families, many of which are falling apart. My friend Kyrylo in Kyiv says the mother of his children left with them for Barcelona. “I think she had a friend there, which was why she chose to go there,” he said. She has told him she has no intention of ever returning. But it is not her that he worries about. His two young children, whom he has only seen on a screen since the beginning of the invasion, have been immersed in learning Catalan and Spanish. They will grow up without him, as young Catalans.
Everyone has a story to tell. Oleksiy, an artist in Uzhhorod, just came back from a trip to the mountains. There he ran into a woman who was his neighbor until the invasion began, when she left with her daughters. Now she was on holiday with an Austrian who was clearly her boyfriend. The only thing, says Oleksiy, is that her husband, who is still his neighbor, does not know. “She knows I won’t tell him, though,” he said.
In Kyiv I met Iryna Shevereva, who is doing online relationship counseling for divided families. Before the invasion, she tells me, she used to say that if a couple who had been together for more than a year went for six to eight months “without physical contact, without intimacy,” that was the critical point at which people “began to forget each other.” The intensity of war can speed things up. Men who have been fighting, and those who have experienced the war at home, start to change. People who have intense, shared experiences such as being in shelters for prolonged periods together start to have more in common with one another than with a distant partner. Many who have been at the front come back with PTSD and all the problems it brings. Rebuilding relationships can be hard and in some cases impossible.
For men and women to be separated for long periods is normal in wartime. But there are elements of what has happened to Ukrainians that may have far-reaching consequences different from those of wars past. Ukrainian refugees in Europe have been granted not regular legal refugee status, but something much better: they have been given immediate access to social security or settling- in benefits and accommodation if they cannot afford it; they can work, their children can go to school, and families often get language classes. But for many middle-class women from big cities like Kyiv, living in a small apartment in a suburb of Dresden or Aberdeen is a definite step down. One man told me how annoyed his sister-in-law had been when she was given an apartment in an immigrant area of a German town and was unable to send her kids to a good school of her choice. She felt that she was being forced to live in an “immigrant ghetto” populated by families from countries like Syria. After Irpin, the suburb where the Ukrainians halted the Russian attack on Kyiv, was liberated at the end of March 2022, she came home to her husband and large house there. She had been away for four months.
Surprise that Ukrainian schools are better than the ones their children are being sent to is common, and another grumble often heard is that access to health services in countries like Britain is worse. So, depending on where they are from, more middle-class women are returning home. For many others, however, the experience of exile is utterly different. They might have come from small, down-at-heel towns, their marriages were perhaps not so happy, and their husbands perhaps drank a little too much. For them the idea of starting a new life in Germany or Spain, with all sorts of government help, is a dream come true, says Shevereva. To their amazement they find that the financial help they get is generally more than they were earning at home. Oksana Forostyna, a writer and publisher, says that their new lives represent “a step up in terms of social mobility.”
Unspoken too but evident is the fact that it is highly unlikely that any of the countries where these women have ended up, whether to Ukraine’s west or Russia, will ever demand that they and their children go home when the war is over. They are mostly educated and a welcome injection of people who can help ease chronic labor shortages. They have relatively few problems integrating in EU countries and the UK, unlike the many poorly educated Arab, Afghan, or African young men disembarking from boats in the Mediterranean or the English Channel. In countries like Poland and Czechia it is also easy for them to pick up the language quickly. In October Poland will hold a referendum designed to reject an EU plan to redistribute thousands of non-European migrants among the member countries. It is definitely not holding one, though, on the almost one million Ukrainians who have arrived in Poland since the invasion began, pushing the total number there up to some two million, many of whom are happily filling the jobs left behind by Poles who now work in Britain or elsewhere.
Today the priority of Ukrainian government officials is to win the war, but everyone knows that afterward, tackling Ukraine’s dire demographic problems is going to be a necessity. The country’s population had been shrinking for decades, thanks to emigration and one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. Libanova hazards a guess that of those who went abroad initially, some 20 percent have already come home, but that—depending on the outcome of the conflict, of course—only half of those abroad now will ever come back. On the other hand, she thinks, after the war up to 1.5 million men might join their partners and children who have settled abroad. Vadym Denysenko, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, wrote on Facebook that he was sure that after the war it would be necessary to maintain the ban on men leaving the country for “at least three more years. Otherwise we simply cannot survive as a nation.” This provoked a storm of protest. Andriy Pyshnyy, the governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, has argued that despite the money spent by foreign countries on helping the refugees, it was not a one-way street. Ukrainians abroad were starting businesses, they were educated, and their labor and purchasing power were only pluses for their countries of refuge. “One way or another, we will now have to compete for these people,” he said. “And this competition will not be easy.”
It is easy to forget just how big Ukraine is. Someone who follows the news could be forgiven for thinking that all of it is war-torn. Nothing could be further from the truth, though nowhere is 100 percent safe. Missiles and drones strike every day, but as the chance of being killed by one is statistically very low, most people now ignore the sirens and calls to go to the shelters. Of course, the new normal is vastly different depending on where you live. In Kyiv during periods of attack, explosions and alerts disrupt sleep, but recently at least, most if not all of the explosions you heard came from the city’s air defense systems shooting down missiles and drones. These can, though, still kill people and do damage as they fall. This was how two died on the morning of August 30, for example, during the heaviest raid on the capital in months.
Kupiansk, by contrast, is four miles from the front, or at least it was when I visited in late July. To get to the eastern part of town, closer to the lines and thus more vulnerable to Russian artillery, you have to cross the Oskil River over a rickety makeshift bridge parallel to the old one, which was blown up last year by Ukrainian forces in a failed attempt to slow the Russian advance when the invasion started. The Russian occupation lasted until September 2022. Now the Russians are on the offensive again, and many in Kupiansk fear that it could fall to them again.
Smoking on the stoop of her shop in Kupiansk, Nataliya told me, “Because of the shelling there is no difference between the occupation and now. We have got used to living like this.” On August 10 the Ukrainian authorities ordered civilians to evacuate because of the Russian attacks, including failed attempts to destroy the rickety bridge. Many refused to go, thinking that they would be better off at home than in shelters and dormitories. When I visited, as in other towns of the region, the Internet was patchy, which meant that online school for the children who remained was equally patchy. Few people have money, poverty is soaring, and many are living off humanitarian aid. Those with gardens have planted vegetables.
This is typical of most small towns and villages near the six-hundred-mile front and the northern border, over which the Russians are also shelling daily. Health care in places like these is spotty, as many local clinics are in ruins. Alice Mirovská, a Czech with whom I traveled on an earlier trip,2 works with the volunteer aid group P’yatykhatky Bam to take aid packages to Siversk, where only about 10 percent of the preinvasion population of 11,000 remain. “They asked us for incontinence pads,” she told me. These were not just for the elderly: after months spent sheltering in cold and damp basements, large numbers of people are suffering from chronic urinary tract infections.
North of this embattled and miserable arc of territory along the front is Kharkiv, and here again a different new normal prevails. The political analyst Nataliya Zubar estimates that there are now about 1.2 million people in her city out of a pre-war population of 1.5 million. Until they were driven away from the edge of the city last September, the Russians shelled it every day, and the population may have dropped below half a million. While many are back, Zubar believes that 200,000 from small and previously occupied towns and villages in the region have now settled in the city and will probably never go home, not least since agriculture in many areas has become hazardous because of mines and unexploded ordnance. For this reason, many suburbs of Kharkiv seem to be bustling. After night falls, though, in the middle-class residential streets in the center of town you see barely any lights and few cars parked in the street. Many still think that Kharkiv is too close to Russia and too exposed to missile and drone attacks for comfort. So here fewer middle-class women and families have returned than elsewhere.
Igor and Iryna Ostron now live in Vienna but would like to come back to Kharkiv. The couple have a business selling shoes, and it is hard for them to manage it from so far away for so long. Igor currently commutes back and forth because, as they have three children under eighteen, he falls into a category of men permitted to travel. But as soon as their seventeen-year-old son turns eighteen, his travel privilege will be over. On the other hand, their younger daughters are settling in well to schools in Vienna. So what to do? It is a problem for their business, too. Most of their salesforce are women, and many of them are now scattered elsewhere in the country or abroad. If schools remain closed in Kharkiv and in other places where they have shops, then those who remain but have younger children have to stay home to look after them and can’t work either. Luckily, sales are recovering, they tell me, since they sell sensible shoes: when I ask Zubar for an example of how life has changed in Kharkiv, she says, only half in jest, “You will not see any ladies in high heels anymore.” They have to be “ready to run and hide” if they need to.
In March of last year, at the worst of times, I saw a five-story residential building in Kharkiv’s Pavlove Pole district whose entire façade had peeled off following a missile strike. It made the building look like a life-size dollhouse: everyone’s furniture, clothes, books, and other possessions were visible. Now the authorities have restored the façade and reconnected the gas, electricity, and water, but no one has yet returned. A man who was doing some refurbishment in one of the bare apartments said that one reason no one was back was money. Yes, the authorities had paid for the exterior to be restored, but for compensation for anything inside, such as bathrooms or kitchens, you had to file a claim and maybe you would get something after the war. The fear is that if you replace stuff yourself, he said, you might never get paid back.
Larissa Kremina, a seventy-six-year-old retired architect who lives in the building next door, said that in every building there were fifteen apartments. When things were really bad only two or three had anyone in them, she told me, but now six were occupied, at least where she lived. Of course, she says, people are afraid that the attacks could happen again. Then she tells me a story she has heard. In an occupied area a Russian soldier asked a woman, “How did you live before we arrived?” to which she answered, “I had everything, and then you came.”
For families with children the new normal involves decisions about schools. Many people from Kharkiv who are now elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad would come back if schools reopened physically. When the invasion started, all schools, which had only just begun to function post-Covid, reverted to online classes. Now everything depends on the region. Schools in Uzhhorod, which has escaped attacks, are open. In places like Kupiansk they have almost all been destroyed. In Kharkiv an argument broke out this summer over whether to let schools reopen in person if they only had a basement, not a proper shelter. I visited a boarding school for children from the region. In July it was the one school with a proper modern shelter, which the headmaster, Valerii Polyvanniy, said had cost $400,000. He told me that of his three hundred students, seventy would not come back, because they were either abroad or had enrolled in schools elsewhere, while the rest were divided between those who planned to return in September and those who would continue to study there, but online.
Many students abroad are juggling their new language and new schools but doing some tests and online work with their old schools so they can come back if it becomes possible. I talked to mothers who said that for all the problems of school online, they did not think it was safe enough for their children to return to school yet. When the Russians launch missiles from over the border in nearby Belgorod, there is less than a minute before impact, so alarms often go off after they hit. In Kyiv, by contrast, missiles launched from the Black Sea can take fifteen or more minutes to arrive and drones even longer, so there is more time to get kids into a shelter.
At the front there is a new normal, too. Six months ago, I would ask soldiers I met if they had been mobilized or had volunteered. All told me they had been mobilized but that they had informed recruitment offices that they wanted to fight. This is not the case anymore. Those who wanted to fight long since left to do so, and a lot of young men who turn eighteen this year are outside the country. It remains to be seen how many will return. In July I spent time with soldiers from the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, which is based in Transcarpathia but has been fighting on the southern front near Zaporizhzhia. In mid-June they liberated a village called P’yatykhatky from Russian control. Not many died but the number of wounded was extremely high. Now the soldiers being trained to replace them were men who had been mobilized.
The fact that the counteroffensive is moving much more slowly than hoped means that it is dawning on everyone that the war will not be over soon. In Lyman, on the eastern front, I met Andrey, a musician from Kyiv now in the army. He said morale was solid, but when I asked him if he would describe it as “grim determination” in contrast to the sky-high euphoria following the successful Kharkiv and Kherson offensives late last year, he quipped, “Well, I wouldn’t call it joyful determination.” When the invasion began, lines formed at recruitment offices. Now the military is on the hunt for more soldiers, and increasingly you hear stories of men being picked up at checkpoints or at their places of work and drafted.
In the film by the young Uzhhorod director Vyacheslav Turyanytsya there is a telling scene. Seryozha, who is twenty-four, says to his mother, “Mom. I want to go to the front.” She says he is already doing enough, to which he replies, “I can’t weave nets my whole life,” referring to the nets made by volunteers to camouflage military vehicles. “Why whole life?” she replies. “The war will end soon.” Then she snaps, “We are done talking…. I will not let you go, that is all,” adding that he had better not even think of mentioning this to his father.
Turyanytsya told me that the film is mostly autobiographical. When the invasion started, he was living in Kyiv, but he had been at home in Uzhhorod by chance and stayed because it was safer. He felt guilty about this, he said, because his friends were still in Kyiv. He also told me that Seryozha’s discussion with his mother is a summary of many he had had with his own mother:
I spoke a lot with my mom, about feeling guilty and about wanting to go to the front, but when I spoke to her about that I think it was just words. That is why Seryozha is so uncertain and hesitant. He feels guilty, and his mother loves him so much that she absolutely cannot countenance the idea of him going to the front and thought that she might lose him.
The scene Turyanytsya captured in his film has played out in homes across the country.
Millions who have not been drafted have found different ways to support the army. Above all they donate money to finance drones or other equipment. But some have decided that they just will not fight. In Uzhhorod I met Viorel, aged twenty-five. He said that he had always been allergic to anything military and that he could not bear the idea of anyone giving him orders: “I just don’t want to be part of it.” Could it be because he came from Ukraine’s Romanian minority and so maybe did not fully identify with the country’s struggle? Not at all, he said. If he had been brought up in Romania and it was at war, he would refuse to serve too. We talked at length. Of some ten friends, six had left the country. Despite his clear position he acknowledged awkwardly that if it was not for others at the front, “we probably would not be having this drink now.” When we got up to leave, I was taken aback when he thanked me. “This has been like therapy,” he said. “I can’t talk about this with anyone here because you never know how they will react.”
I asked Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a political scientist, about what I had observed, and he agreed that on the surface, everything could indeed “seem normal…or rather perhaps, routine.” For now, however, it is the only life people have, and “you know, you can’t switch off the war, relax, and then go back.”
—September 6, 2023