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Winter in Kyiv
A Ukrainian describes the holiday season amid war.
Last spring, Kateryna Kibarova wrote “We Did Not Ask for ‘Liberation,’” a searing account of surviving the Russian occupation of her town, Bucha. In September, she described how residents were beginning to rebuild even as the war remains omnipresent.
When Persuasion contacted Kateryna last month about an update on the challenges of winter, twice our call had to be cancelled because Russian airstrikes had left her without power. We were finally able to speak on Christmas, the first time in four days Kateryna had lights and heat. What follows is her story, in her words.
— The Editors
by Kateryna Kibarova
Six months ago, I said it was difficult. I can tell you that, compared to now, it wasn’t difficult.
In October, Russian missile strikes began targeting our infrastructure, and we had power cuts, but it was not yet cold and we had learned how to fight against fear. To say that it’s difficult is to say nothing. It’s horrible. Now, our only wish is to wake up and know that we’re alive, and then get to work and try to work a bit, because it’s not easy to work under such stress. At first there was no internet, no WiFi; we couldn’t reach anyone by phone. There was chaos and panic.
We often look back at our lives a year ago. We could not imagine that we would be hiding in the subway, or that we would be in dark cities, delighted when there is electricity. In the last week of December, the electricity was out for four days, with no water and no heat in cold apartments. We warmed ourselves in cars. I don’t even know exactly how cold it was, because the thermostats didn’t work. It’s impossible to convey the horror of the situation. This is the reality we live in.
Coffee shops are putting in generators. Small businesses are installing generators and so are big businesses. Nova Poshta (a private postal company) bought generators and turned their offices into a heating station where people can come to warm up, charge their phones, and make tea. In the malls, stores that have outside space have set up generators. There’s no other choice, because we understand that if we want the economy to work, we must keep businesses going. People want to work; people want to pay taxes to the state, because we understand that if we all stop—if we sit on our hands and say there is nothing more we can do, if we all leave the country—this is our defeat.
When the electricity goes off, often it is a “four-by-two”: four hours without electricity, and two hours with. Sometimes I leave work in the dark, and by the time I get back home, the electricity is turned off there. For two months we have been living with this schedule. Early in the blackouts, when batteries and generators were hard to come by, I bought myself the warmest blanket I could find. Everyone has adapted by now. I’ll leave the light switches on when we don’t have power, and then at 2am when the lights suddenly come on, we all get up quickly and take a shower or do a load of laundry while the power lasts from 2am to 4am. But sometimes the system is overloaded, and so, understandably, the schedules don’t work. On Christmas day, they promised no blackouts and we had electricity all day. The most important thing is that the water pipes work, because if the sewage system does not function it will be a disaster.
We work together. With the help of some international organizations, we fixed the roof of our apartment complex. Those who already had generators have no problem charging other people's phones and computers. A lot of kids are attending classes remotely, and they need to study. To buy a generator for our whole apartment building would cost $10,000, but people don’t have that kind of money. So those who can afford it are buying smaller units for groups of apartments, and of course we share with our neighbors who don’t have the means.
Unemployment is high, and now even the employed do not have enough. Our salaries seem like pennies. Prices have gone up a lot. For example, eggs used to cost 20 hryvnias, and now they cost 80 hryvnias. The big farms were bombed. The chickens require light and warmth, but electricity is in short supply. They import feed from abroad, but the dollar is now twice as expensive as it was. People are surviving as best they can, buying potatoes and the like. No one tries to buy the groceries they bought before the war, because the prices are crazy and no one is getting raises.
The subway isn’t far from my office in Kyiv. During the massive Russian missile strikes, the trains don’t run and the underground becomes a shelter. After the air-raid siren starts sounding it is usually two to three hours until the alert ends. People come down with their computers to work. You can connect to the internet from there. Everyone by now has blankets at their workplace because it's chilly underground. You see parents sheltering with toddlers—they're sitting in the subway, watching cartoons. People bring their dogs and cats from home.
We don’t go down at the first sound of the sirens anymore. If you run to the subway every time the air-raid alerts go off, you can’t get any work done. Instead, we have a rough timeline: if the sirens start sounding when the missiles are launched, it’s approximately so many minutes until they reach Kyiv. So we remain in the office until several minutes before they are supposed to strike. By this point, we know the sound of the Iranian drones very well. Two of them struck near our work and we heard the blasts. We are grateful to our American partners and the UK for air defense systems, because they are a protection that we can't do without.
It’s not that we’re not afraid anymore. It’s just that you’re already so stressed you make decisions on the fly. The windows are full of sandbags. We live in a constant state of alert. I was invited to go to the mountains for the New Year. But I couldn’t go, because if an attack comes from the side of Belarus, I wouldn’t be able to get back to my apartment to collect my things. We live in constant expectation that we are about to be attacked again.
I am from Zaporizhzhia, a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. I went to a Russian school. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a teacher of Russian language and literature. I know Russian literature. When I moved to Kyiv to study I learned Ukrainian, and I am comfortable speaking it now, although speaking Russian is easier for me. I was never harassed about speaking Russian when I moved to Kyiv. In western Ukraine also, they were fine with me speaking Russian: they spoke Ukrainian, and I spoke Russian.
Now at work, we have voluntarily switched to speaking Ukrainian. When people get together they might speak either language, depending on the situation. There is no language problem. Today it’s more pleasant to speak Ukrainian, as opposed to the language of the country that invaded and mercilessly kills Ukrainian people. At work some people who never thought of switching to Ukrainian did so.
Some of those defending our country in the trenches speak Russian, others Ukrainian, and yet others surzhyk, or mixtures of the two languages. But now we feel more comfortable speaking Ukrainian.
We are united, we know that we will win, but each day it is more and more difficult to dredge up positive emotions—or at least some kind of faith to hold out a little longer. How long is this little longer, if it is becoming increasingly worse?
This year we got together with neighbors on December 25th when the power was on all day. But it is difficult, because there is no mood, no desire to celebrate. We come together and want to be together, but there is no holiday spirit.
We do not consider any scenario other than victory, because we want to be an independent state. We don't want to be subjugated by a country that thinks of itself as a Great Empire. Like with all empires, we know how this will end: in great failure and defeat. The only option now is victory and a concrete wall to separate us from Russia, forever. We considered them brotherly people. We lived next to them. We visited them. We maintained our connections with relatives. And now we're looking at their cynicism. After impunity for the two Chechen wars, impunity in the Georgian war, Transnistria and so on, they thought Ukraine would surrender. No.
I think victory for us will be very painful—happy, but very painful—for what it will reveal. We don't talk much about our losses, but we have them, too, and we all understand that very well. It breaks my heart. It hurts and scares me to even go on social media and look sometimes—to read the grief of the people who lost their relatives, who lost their husbands and sons. It's unthinkable.
What kind of negotiations can we have with murderers who cynically kill the Ukrainian people? Today I saw on Facebook a photo of a young woman holding her murdered fiancé's hand in a bag in the morgue. I went to her page and read the whole story, in her words. I couldn't come to my senses for an hour. And there are hundreds of such stories. What kind of peace talks can we have when a rocket hits a house and kills the whole family? When they shoot rockets at the maternity wards, when they hit the hospitals and children’s clinics?
Everyone knows that victory will come. In the budgets for the new year, many companies allocated funds for a victory day celebration. Company directors would ask why such large sums, which weren’t in previous marketing budgets, were set aside.
They are for celebrating victory.
Kateryna Kibarova is a Ukrainian economist and resident of Bucha.
Translated from the Russian by Julia Sushytska and Alisa Slaughter. Additional editorial assistance provided by Beatrice Frum. This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
About the Translators: Julia Sushytska was born in L’viv and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at Occidental College. Alisa Slaughter is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Redlands. They recently co-edited and translated a selection of essays and lectures by Merab Mamardashvili, A Spy for an Unknown Country (ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2020).
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