Adverts on Ukraine’s underground system carry motivational messaging: “Together to the victory”, “Bravery is carrying on” or “Just a bit more and it will get easier”. Psychologists are invited on to television shows almost daily to offer tips on how to manage anxiety and the breaks are filled with videos in support of the army.
Positive messaging, mental health advice, and examples of how to “do your bit” are all part of the information ecosystem helping Ukrainians sustain their morale throughout the war. Experts say this partly top-down, partly organic approach will play a significant role in supporting Ukrainians through what is likely to be a punishing winter.
Ukrainian TV channels are running a series of adverts on how people can save energy amid government pleas for consumers to reduce usage. Under the slogan “The rules of a warm country”, one video advises people to use alternative methods to keep warm, including using hot water bottles and cats, as well as getting together with neighbours.
There are also several segments a day featuring Ukrainians across the country demonstrating how they have prepared for winter. One man recently interviewed said in the event of no electricity or gas, he would pitch a tent inside his flat and sleep in a sleeping bag. Breathing inside a small tent, he said, will maintain the heat better than a room.
On social media, Ukrainians are sharing infographics on which appliances use the most electricity and videos of the recent trend of making candles-come-stoves for soldiers in the trenches.
This winter, Ukraine is facing the frightening prospect of sub-zero temperatures with bouts of no electricity, water and even heating. For the last month, Russia has been targeting critical elements of Ukraine’s energy sector with a combination of missiles, rockets, and Iranian-supplied drones.
On Monday alone, Russia targeted at least seven regional power stations and since then they have attacked at least another three, according to Ukraine’s authorities.
Ukrainian repair workers and energy dispatchers have been quick to reconnect and reroute supplies and scheduled blackouts have been rolled out in several regions, including the capital, Kyiv, to stabilise the electricity grid.
But Ukraine’s officials have warned that these short shutdowns are probably just a small taste of what’s to come. Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukraine’s state energy company, Ukrenergo, said this week that if the Russian attacks continued, “power cuts in Ukraine will become longer and longer”.
Kudrytskyi said Ukrenergo could not repair the grid as quickly as it was being destroyed. According to him, “virtually all” major non-nuclear power stations in the country have been hit, including 30% of the substations.
The head of Kyiv region, Oleksiy Kuleba, said his office was preparing for the event that blackouts may last as long as two weeks.
The news of yet more bad times ahead has, however, not made a discernible dent in the country’s morale. According to Volodymyr Kulyk, a leading professor of sociology, Ukrainians remain defiant and want to demonstrate that.
“People increasingly perceive Russia as a genocidal actor … [and] are ready to sacrifice to remain free and remain themselves,” said Kulyk. “[Messages of defiance] are both stemming from people themselves and also disseminated centrally from the government, the media and influencers.”
The top-down messages – particularly those from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the daily update from Ukraine’s general staff – play a therapeutic role for many Ukrainians, Kulyk said.
“We need this news to know that everything is OK and there is no disaster with the Ukrainian army,” he said.
All of the state agencies make their own motivational videos – the fire services, police, the ministry of defence, as well as the TV channels and private companies.
“These societal adverts that show heroism, of course, make [people] proud,” said Ostapa, the head of Detector Media, a media-monitoring organisation.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are regularly invited on Ukrainian TV to discuss how people can identify mental health problems in themselves and their loved ones. How to talk to children about the war is a particularly prominent topic.
Oleh Chuban, the head of psychiatry at a leading medical university in Ukraine and a regular guest on TV, said he aimed to tell people that what they are feeling was normal.
“The fact that people are worried and anxious, chopping firewood, buying up all the generators, is a normal reaction. Only an idiot wouldn’t react to someone telling them that there will be power, water and heating outages,” said Chaban. “People are saving themselves, just like during Covid 19.”
“The media has a big influence [on people] so I try to give them optimism and explain their worries are natural and demonstrate that they living people with (functioning) emotions,” said Chaban.
On Tuesday, Zelenskiy spoke to the nation stressing the need for perseverance. “Instead of overcoming poverty in their country, the Russian leadership spends everything not to admit what a historical mistake they made with this war against Ukraine,” he said.
“Patience is needed to prove that the hope for the winter for Russian terrorists will not come true. I am sure we will get through this.”