‘We are Ukrainians. We’re strong’: morale the key in Kyiv as winter sets in

Residents shelter in ‘invincibility stations’ offering power, water and food as Russian missiles knock out supplies

The residents of Kyiv taking shelter in their local “invincibility station” were well aware that their own morale has become the central battlefield of the war, and it is not territory they are prepared to concede to Vladimir Putin.

The insulated grey tent set up on a street corner in the Pecherskyi district of Kyiv, one of thousands established around the country this week, was offering electricity, warmth, tea and sandwiches after the latest Russian onslaught.

“It’s like 24 February, when the invasion started, and the beginning of March, when people really came together,” said Maryna Honcharova, who was bundled up in a winter coat in the middle of the tent. If this was Putin’s grand plan for grinding down the will of the people, she added, it had backfired.

“It just makes the anger towards Russia grow stronger. We just curse and hate Russia more.”

There were murmurs of agreement from around the tent. Those who had been chatting in Russian earlier switched to Ukrainian to drive home the point.

NASA satellite images over Ukraine comparing February and November

A salvo of cruise missiles on Wednesday had knocked out the national power grid, and with it the water supply for much of the country. On satellite images, Ukraine stood out as a pitch-black island. Kyiv was entirely dark on Wednesday night apart from a few public facilities and businesses with generators.

When Thursday dawned, 70% of the capital was still without power. The temperature outside hovered just above zero and a frigid rain fell, melting the snow of recent days and filling the streets with dark slush. There was water everywhere, but very little to drink. There was no power for the water pumping stations.

A person outside an ‘invincibility centre’
An ‘invincibility centre’ in Dnipro, one of thousands set up across Ukraine this week. Photograph: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Oksana Yakovleva, a dentist, and her actor husband, Yurii, had made preparations for such an eventuality by filling up every container they had with water. They would have filled the bathtub if they had not been afraid their three cats would fall in. Meanwhile, life went on. Yurii’s theatre was still putting on plays.

“Nobody cancels. They come for the positive energy,” he said. Oksana pointed out that her 87 year-old mother had returned to work, teaching in a music school, unbowed.

“She remembers liberation on 9 May 1945,” Yakovleva said.

Russia has used the iconography of the second world war to maintain Russian public support for the invasion. Ukrainians are quick to point out that ultimately victorious struggle is their legacy too, and they draw from it lessons in resilience.

“We are Ukrainians. We’re strong and we can get through this,” said Angelina Anatolieva, a 50 year-old Pecherskyi resident. “Do you remember the siege of Leningrad? They lived through that and we can live through this. We can live through anything.”

Ruslan Vorona, a local Kyiv resident, together with his eight year-old son, Oleksii, sheltering and charging their phones in an insulated tent set up by the emergency services.
Ruslan Vorona, a local Kyiv resident, together with his eight year-old son, Oleksii, sheltering and charging their phones in an insulated tent set up by the emergency services. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

The repeated attacks, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called a crime against humanity, are having a cumulative impact on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Farid Safarov, the deputy energy minister, said there had been a total blackout after the missile attacks on Wednesday afternoon.

“We had no synchronised single energy system. It was split into parts, so I may say it was 100% out of order,” Safarov said.

Nevertheless, by 4pm on Thursday, the national grid had been pieced back together again as a result of the intensive efforts of utility workers, rushing to restore power plants, high-voltage lines and transformers. They did so under the constant threat of Russian “double tap” tactics, in which a second strike targets damaged sites with the aim of killing humanitarian and repair workers.

“We have a couple of facilities that were struck at least eight times. The energy front is the second front of the war,” Safarov said, describing the engineers risking their lives doing the repairs as “energy soldiers protecting the country”.

To properly rebuild Ukraine’s energy infrastructure would require a great deal of imported technology and outside funding, but that will be futile, Safarov pointed out, without adequate missile defences.

A child in an invincibility shelter in Bucha
The shelters offer tea and sandwiches as well as electricity amid blackouts. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“Le​​t’s imagine that we received all the equipment we need in one day and it took us one day to install that equipment, but then there is a new rocket attack,” he said. The priority was to “create a shield in the sky in order to protect our energy infrastructure facilities”.

At the centre of the Pecherskyi invincibility station was a small table covered with a spaghetti-like pile of cables where locals were charging their phones and power packs. On one side there was a counter with water and snacks.

The whole place measured just a hundred sq metres at most and was almost full even by early afternoon, when power and water had been restored to most of the district. In what is likely to be a long and bitter winter, with the power grid under relentless Russian fire, Pecherskyi is going to need a much bigger tent, or many more of them.

Oleksandr Harchenko, a 32 year-old receptionist at the M15 barbers, across the road from the invincibility station, pointed out that the local response to the Russian attacks was not entirely one of stubborn resolve.

“I went to get water from the local well, and there were some people who were a bit panicky,” Harchenko said. “We went 24 hours without water and electricity, and they restored it pretty fast. It could get a lot worse.”


Julian Borger in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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