The Darkest Winter 

As Russian strikes on the Ukrainian electric grid and civilian infrastructure continue, Ukrainians find a way to adjust their lives to a new reality.

The first massive Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure started in the early fall of 2022. Russia has unleashed massive barrages of long-range air power of all kinds, including supersonic missiles, X-22 cruise missiles designed to hit warships in the open sea, Iranian-made kamikaze drones, and pretty much every other weapon in their air arsenal to plunge Ukraine into darkness. Far from the bloodshed and muddy trenches of the frontlines that cut across the country’s East and South, everyone living in Ukraine became a target for these senseless and inhumane attacks.

The plan seemingly was to make ordinary Ukrainians suffer, demoralize the public and force the government to negotiate. However, it has had the opposite effect. People have found ways to survive the winter, and make do with the new reality of air-raid alarms, disappearing electricity and heat, and spotty-at-best cell service and internet.

Sofia Tykhonova, 19 is a third-year philology student at the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management in Kyiv. When Russia attacked Ukraine most schools and universities suspended their functions and sent students home. Sofia thought she would escape to her aunt and uncle’s place outside of Kyiv. But it was Hostomel, a town that saw one of the fiercest battles in the early days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Sofia Tykhonova, 19, a third-year philology student at the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management in Kyiv at the Academy's dorm in January, 2022Sofia Tykhonova, 19, a third-year philology student at the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management in Kyiv at the Academy's dorm in January 2023

Trapped, her family was too terrified for an attempt to flee and stayed put for almost two weeks. When they finally got out and got to Bila Tserka, a city south of Kyiv, Sofia was able to breathe out. Right around that time, in the middle of March, her academy was starting online classes for students and professors who were able to get access to the internet.

“I wasn’t in any emotional condition to study and do homework,” Sofia says now. But eventually, she got around to it. After Russian troops retreated from Kyiv, things were somewhat going back to normal; classes started again and students came back to the dorms.

Sofia was one of them.

Summer went by and a new semester started. And if not for air raid sirens going off occasionally in Kyiv, the war started to seem distant. By end of the fall, losing the fight on the battlefield, Russia has changed its tactics to terrorize the Ukrainian power grid and the energy infrastructure with long-range missiles and drones. Since November Kyiv became a dangerous place, yet again.

As emergency shutdowns of electricity became normal all over Ukraine, Sofia’s academy wasn’t exempt. She purchased a power bank for her laptop, and whenever the power went down she was able to at least do her homework. When the batteries run out and she couldn’t charge them, a backup plan was the books, notepad and candles. With shut-offs that last for upwards of 12 hours, when homework needs to be done, candlelight comes in.

Liudmyla Arseniuk, 39, Dmytro Arseniuk, 41 with their sons Dmytro Arseniuk Jr, 9, and Artem Arseniuk who is 14 months old gather in the master bedroom of their apartment in one of the sleeper neighborhoods of Kyiv during the power shut-offs to conserve energy and be with each other.
neighborhoods of Kyiv during the power shut-offs to conserve energy and be with each other.

Cooking or warming up meals has become a difficulty for anyone relying on electricity for their stoves. For Dmytro and Liudmila Arseniuk, it’s also an absolute necessity as their 14-month-old son Artem still relies on baby formula that needs to be warmed before consumption.

When they were returning to Kyiv in September from their wartime backup residence in the country, getting a propane stove was their top priority. “If we return to Kyiv, we needed a backup plan for everything,” Lyudmila recalls.

So Dmytro, assigned with the task, found a propane stove with a 12-liter tank. They purchased power banks, battery-powered and rechargeable headlamps, as well as flashlights. During blackouts or emergency shut-offs, the family gathers in the master bedroom, to conserve energy and be with each other. Dmytro Junior plays with his hamsters, and the family watches movies, reads, or just talks. If there is internet they check on the news.

“We can last for a week without power,” Dmytro says. After each Russian strike on Ukrainian power infrastructure, emergency shutdowns take place all over the country, while the energy industry regroups and scrambles for repairs.

The grim reality of the Russian attacks targeting energy infrastructure hits home for the Arseniuks. Dmytro’s father works at the Desnianska Power plant, which produces heat and power for their neighborhood, including their building. The heat that runs through their radiators comes from that plant.

“I call him every time there is a rocket strike,” tells Dmytro. Given the multiple casualties at the plant from earlier bombardments he is justifiably worried about his dad who has a first-hand account of these atrocities.

Dmytro also volunteers as an Army chaplain. For him personally, the hardest part isn’t the physical difficulties, it’s the constant worry about his family, his father, and the soldiers, many of whom he knows. “When you know that any given minute people are dying, that we’re losing our best - it’s hard. We’re paying a very high price.”

Oleksii Yelenevych, 32, and Nataliia Yelenevych, 29, IT workers who both rely on a steady Internet connection at their apartment during the power outages caused by the Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure

Oleksii Yelenevych and Nataliia Yelenevych, who both work for an educational startup, rely on a steady internet connection.

For battery backups, they use a portable power station that can be charged from a standard outlet. During outages, it can power their computers, as well as a router, modem, cell signal booster, and mobile internet hotspot for days if necessary. When the lights go off, their cable internet shuts down, as well as the mobile hotspot. That’s when the cell signal booster and a 4g router come into play. Oleksii found out the locations of the cell towers in the area and points the booster’s antenna in the direction of one of them to get a better signal.

Despite having the internet and the conveniences of modern technology for their work, simple utilities aren’t available. There is no heat, water pumps can’t reach their 23rd-floor apartment, and neither can the elevator. So they collect water in 5-liter jugs, throw on an extra layer, and avoid leaving the apartment around outages.

The most inconvenient aspect for Oleksii and Nataliia is losing a sense of home as a place to relax. “You’re starting to think what needs to be done between the outages,” says Nataliia, “we need to fill the water jugs, cook, recharge everything, take a shower. So instead of relaxing at home we end up having more stress.”

Valentyna Danyliuk, 52 and Ruslan Danyliuk, 53 with the homemade lantern powered by a 12-volt battery that Ruslan made during the occupation, in the kitchen of their home in the village of Kozyntsi

Valentyna and Ruslan Danyliuk live in the village of Kozyntsi, about 50 km from Kyiv. Their misadventures with utilities began right from the start of the big war, when on  March 8th, their village found itself occupied by the Russians. Before that, the electricity disappeared on the last days of February, and the natural gas used for heating followed.

As the fighting around Kozyntsi intensified, and the village itself was attacked by tank shells, a decision was made for the family to leave. Their children, Valentina, and her sister were able to leave with one of the evacuation convoys. Ruslan has decided to stay.

For him, daily life under occupation was a mixture of maintaining the house, helping out fellow villagers, and communicating with his contacts within Ukrainian Armed Forces about Russian movements in the area. Ruslan enrolled in the Territorial Defense unit in the first days of the invasion and remaining under occupation was a mortal risk.

A veteran yachtsman Ruslan knew how to handle himself without modern conveniences. His camping gear, a generator, spare batteries, and propane tanks have come in very handy. The old fireplace got lit up, and firewood was chopped.

From some past projects, Ruslan had LED strips which he wrapped around an empty 5-liter plastic bottle and connected to a 12-volt battery. The lantern-like device has become his everyday companion throughout the occupation and past the liberation until the utilities were restored at the end of April. The family came back, and the rebuilding process in Kozyntsi has begun.

“It was like a holiday. We were in a celebratory mood for days”, Valentyna recalls the day when the electricity reappeared. But within a few months, the Russian strikes on the country’s energy infrastructure commenced and the lights flickered and went off again.

The homemade lantern reappeared on the kitchen table of Daniliuks. Through the late fall and winter, shut-offs were frequent, sometimes lasting up to 24 hours, but most were on schedule. However, with the heat on, and the family together, this didn’t seem like a big deal. “We have become more tolerant towards each other, more protective, appreciative, and communicative,” Ruslan says, “ In short, we cherish every moment together.”

Natalia Lotra, 56, and Oleksii Kompaniiets, 54 in their cottage, where they moved for the winter to be energy independent

Natalia Lotra and Oleksii Kompaniiets were city dwellers before February 24th of last year. Living in an apartment with their two dogs, having most of the modern appliances a city family would enjoy, they didn’t think that by next winter they would be installing a wood-burning stove in order to heat a cottage on the outskirts of Kyiv where they will spend a winter.

The war for them began like for many Ukrainians: with shock and confusion. They didn’t know whether to run or hide. But after a few weeks of living in a bomb shelter, checking on and taking care of their parents, and eventually taking them out of town, they returned to Kyiv.

“We were inspired by our troops. They were kicking Russian’s asses and we saw that either the Russians will be eliminated in the Kyiv Oblast or they will run,” Oleksii says. For Natalia it was important to be close to the children, they have two kids and both of them joined the city’s Territorial Defense.

As the Russian Army retreated after the failed attempt to take Kyiv, Natalia, and Oleksii decided to move to their little summer cottage. They both realized that the war is far from being over and that being in a place where they are less dependent on the grid would be smarter.

But the house didn’t have much. It had walls and a roof. It had a wood-burning stove they purchased but hadn't installed, it didn’t have electricity, water, or a kitchen. “Our summer and the autumn were dedicated to getting this house ready for winter,” Natalia said. They worked all the time, and their son and nephew came in to lend a hand as much as possible.

DTEK power company crews make emergency repairs in the Kyiv region in February

The reason for such sacrifice seemed logical to Oleksii, as he wanted to have this house ready to host the entire family in case there will be problems with electricity or anything else. “In war, anything can change in a moment, and you never know what to expect,” he says. So following that principle they wanted to be as independent as possible and able to survive for a few weeks, even if the power was cut off.

They drilled the well, connected the house to electricity, bought a grill and a small gas burner, as well as a small electric stove, stocked up a decent pile of firewood, and put in heavy insulation. On December 1st, the last piece of the bigger puzzle, the wood-burning stove, was installed and the house was more or less ready. On December 10th the temperatures fell to -10 Celsius, and the stove was warming up the house.

“We built the house to live through the worst in case it comes,” Oleksii says.

The worst case, in the apocalyptical sense, luckily never came, but the cold and the constant interruptions of power surely did. Their life started revolving around the shut-offs. At the beginning of the winter, electricity was very scarce. Sometimes they would only get about 40 minutes to an hour per day.

All the utilities they put in, especially the fireplace, paid off. They had enough to comfortably live through the winter months, and with warmer weather arriving the situation improved and they could afford a little more time for simple joys, like cooking for pleasure. “People adapt to anything,” says Natalia, “so any little thing that adds a bit of joy to life is appreciated so much more.”

Oleh Hlushko, 46 near his apartment house in Hostomel, Ukraine

“We lived a quiet life”, says Oleh Hlushko who lives with his wife Natalia and their two kids in Hostomel. The Hostomel airport, which was the home of Mriya, the largest cargo plane in the World, is just a couple of kilometers away.

Their family occasionally saw the Mriya take off and land. But as Russia invaded Ukraine the airport became a site of a fierce battle. The Hlushkos escaped to a safer area in Central Ukraine.  Following the retreat of the Russian Army, Oleh came back to check on the apartment.

The house was heavily damaged by shrapnel, as well as one direct hit by a mortar or tank shell. Their apartment was broken into when the area was occupied; all alcohol and Oleh’s old sneakers were gone. A part of the roof was destroyed and most windows shattered.

The rest of the spring and the summer went to repairing their home. Neighbors chipped in, and by the fall their apartment building was restored. Besides the few punctures as reminders of the grim intrusion on one side of the building, you wouldn’t know it was ever in the line of fire.

As the paint was still drying on the facade, electricity disappeared for the first time. It was a result of early strikes on the energy grid. The building residents, and Oleh with his family were facing a new set of challenges.

“I was more worried when I was ordering it than when I was buying my first car,” Oleh says about buying a generator online in early October. He realized that their lives will depend on it for the upcoming winter. A few days later the generator was delivered.

Armed with some online instructions and advice from his electrician father, Oleh connected the generator to his apartment's electrical grid with a help of a two-way plug, disconnecting it from the main switch of the building. Now everything worked inside just as if the power was on.

His neighbor got another generator even earlier, and working in tandem they fired up the pump to run water through the building.

“Almost like before the war,” Oleh jokes. But of course, not quite. Every time the lights go off Oleh and his neighbors go through a ritual of taking the generators outside, running extension cords and turning the switchboards off, and replugging everything to run on the generators. And, with the buzzing of the two-stroke engines comes power and water for the building’s residents.

Mykola Kostenko, 47, in his apartment in Pyvnichna Saltivka neighborhood in Kharkiv. His place has electricity, but no water, heat, or gas

Mykola Kostenko, a resident of the Pyvnichna Saltivka neighborhood in Kharkiv has electricity, but no water, heat, or gas. Having electricity is a small miracle given his location. The neighborhood is on the border of the city facing Ukraine’s undesirable neighbor. The state border with Russia is only about 30 km away.

To the south of Mykola’s building are rows and rows of apartment block houses, and to the North, are open fields from which the Russian Army came and attempted to take Ukraine’s second-largest city.

The buildings in the neighborhood now look like burned-out dollhouses, kitchens, and bedrooms looking out untouched as people had left them, concrete guts spilling out on the outside.

Mykola’s house wasn’t spared. As Russians sprayed the neighborhood with all available ammunition and weapons, Mykola and his family fled. First deeper into the city, then he put his wife, two daughters, mother-in-law, son-in-law, and his granddaughter on evacuation trains.

Mykola returned to stay with his mom, who didn’t want to leave her apartment. Their two dogs and two cats accompanied them. He stayed there for a couple of weeks and as the Russians were pushed back outside of Kharkiv city limits he decided to return. He left the two cats with his mom and took the dogs with him.

The neighborhood was still a dangerous place and looked like a post-apocalyptic video game. Burned-out armored vehicles and tanks littered the sides of roads, heavily damaged buildings still smoldering, and shells whistling overhead. But for Mykola it wasn’t a deterrent.“This is my place, I felt a longing to return,” he proclaims.

Mykola Kostenko's building in the Pyvnichna Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv

At that time the building was heavily damaged, no utilities or services were available and no repair crew would venture out to this still very hazardous area. His neighbor Igor, and Mykola himself, the only remaining people in their section of the building put up an outdoor grill for cooking and started fixing up their places.

Mykola’s business, an auto body shop, was destroyed in a bombing in April. “I just went there to check and saw it was no longer there,” he states without emotion. “I turned around and left.” There is no insurance for the war. He lost his business.

The shut-offs aren’t much of a bother for him even now. The lights were restored only in late summer and in the fall problems with electricity started again following the Russian aerial attacks on the Ukrainian grid. In the Kharkiv region, the deficit of electricity started earlier than in other parts of the country due to its proximity to the Russian border and the ability of Russian artillery to strike the area more frequently.

He had a propane cooker that he was able to bring from work before his body shop got destroyed, and walks to the nearby well to get water. “Every time I take the dogs out I bring an empty canister or two”, Mykola says. When the lights go off, which is usually 3-4 hours a day he installed battery-powered LED lights throughout the house.

Out of the 264 apartments in the entire building block, only 16 are occupied. Only three people live in his section. However, his optimism doesn’t wane. “Spring has arrived so more people will come back,” Mykola concludes.

Hanna Gyn, 49 with her pets in the bedroom of her Kharkiv apartment

Hanna Gyn, a Kharkiv native lives with her Doberman named Hector, and a parrot Kira on the 15th floor.  “I was so naive - I was like - this isn’t possible, just not possible,” Hanna was telling herself after the first explosions shook her neighborhood in Kharkiv on February 24th, 2022. “This must be a huge misunderstanding, people just can’t do this.” But the death of a neighbor brought her to reality. Hanna grabbed her pets, and her daughter and ran. After leaving her daughter with a friend in Ternopil in the West of Ukraine, she stayed in Dnipro to be closer to her parents.

After three months Hanna came back to Kharkiv. It wasn’t a joyous homecoming. Minutes after a Russian rocket exploded near her parent’s home, her mother had a heart attack and died. Her father passed 44 days later. After 60 years together he couldn’t cope.

“This war took everything most important from me,” says Hanna. She buried her parents and hasn’t seen her daughter for over a year now.

Hanna moved back into her 15th-floor apartment and started her life anew, trying to get used to war and to the passing of her parents. “I always tell myself - don’t get used to it, don’t get used to the war, it’s not normal,” she analyzes herself, “But there is no other option, your body and mind get accustomed to it, and you just don’t react the same way to things.”

Hanna’s apartment building is relatively new, and all utilities and communication are dependent on electricity. This means that once the power goes out everything shuts down. “Jackpot,” as Hannah calls it. Since November 2022 Kharkiv has been plunged into total darkness several times. And even recently, after a moment when Kharkiv residents seem to breathe out, thinking the worst has passed, Russia launched another massive missile strike on March 9th. Around 15 missiles were shot at the infrastructure of in Kharkiv region, and the city fell into darkness yet again–only a couple of days after the local government turned the street lights on for the first time since the beginning of the invasion.

“After what we have survived, this I can bear,” Hannah says. The winter started roughly. Early December temperatures in Kharkiv dropped to -15 Celcius, and Hannah’s building was without electricity for 26 hours. She got scared for her pets and started looking for a house in the country with a wood-burning stove or furnace where she wouldn’t be as affected by the outages. Luckily the forecast for the rest of the winter sounded optimistic and she decided to stay.

A propane stove made an appearance in the kitchen, a large capacity power bank to charge her devices was now resting near her bed, and a solar panel was installed on the balcony.  Relatively mild temperatures made life with everyday power outages bearable.

“God must be Ukrainian,” Hanah says about the unusually warm winter season. But it was still cold, and power continued to disappear. Hannah started heating her parrot’s cage with candles placed in front and covering the cage with a large sleeping bag. She got a winter coat for Hector and was wearing a few layers inside as well. Hannah misses her old life, but her mood is feisty and emboldened.“Every time I feel sorry for myself, I think of our boys in the trenches. And after I do, that feeling of self-pity just evaporates.”

Denys Shymansky, 36, a sculptor in his studio in Lviv

On the other side of the country, where the horrors of war seem a bit more distant, Denys Shymansky, a  sculptor, is working in the dark armed with a headlamp. Sawdust fills the room as he finishes one of his pieces with some cloth and sandpaper. In the dark, there are boxes that arrived from a recent local show, and artwork being prepared to ship to Copenhagen for another exhibit. Just an hour ago, here in a cold and dark studio, Denys was calculating how much time he had to use the angle grinder before power disappears again.

“I try to use all the power tools during the day, and leave stuff that I can do with my hand for the shut-off time,” Denys says. He shares the studio with a partner and they recently got a used generator. But they seldom use it. Denys got used to the schedule and finds solace in the time without electricity.“I just enjoy working with my hands in quiet.”

Oksana Vysochanska, 38 with her daughter Yaryna, 3 in the living room of their house on the outskirts of Lviv

Oksana Vysochanska lives in a suburb of Lviv with her husband, daughter, and her mom. Oksana and Yurii, moved into the house in 2019, newly married. Yaryna, their daughter was born in 2020 in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. She is a sickly child and needs constant care. When Russian missiles were terrorizing the power substations in late fall, turning the lights off all around Ukraine, for Oksana’s family it meant that their daughter might not get the care she needs.

Her inhaler needed to be powered up from a socket, and Oksana with her husband scrambled to get a generator. Little Yarina needed inhalation about 5 hours a day and if not for the generator they’d have to check her in a hospital, which also experienced power outages. Most hospitals in the Lviv area had backup generators, but still, that option wasn’t optimal for the family.

Throughout the winter the house would sometimes get only about 4 hours of electricity a day. “We always try to be at home for the time when we have electricity," Oksana says. The power shut-offs are usually running on schedule, although there have been several times when they get power later and it disappears earlier than scheduled. They charged their laptops and tablets, power banks, and phones to be prepared for the rest of the day and night. Their schedule also revolves around getting their daughter the attention she requires.

Right before the winter, Oksana and Yurii finished installing a fireplace. “When we were moving in we were talking that we’ll want to have a fireplace for when we get old so we can sit near the fire and read,” Oksana laughs, “But it turned out more practical.” Once electricity goes off so does everything else - heating, water, internet. So the fireplace turned out to be a source of heat rather than an ambiance.

The family got used to the new reality throughout the winter. “The main thing is what? Is to plan things out,” Oksana says. “We charge our devices, we look at the schedule, we plan the day so we are prepared,” she adds. The generator now sits idle, Oksana doesn’t like the noise and the smell and Yaryna is now using a spacer inhaler which doesn’t require electricity or a charge.

The Ukrainian grid, although heavily damaged faces little deficit of electricity now. Recently, Oksana put away all the flashlights and stopped filling the bathtub with water. But the fireplace still gets lit up every day, even as the shut-offs ceased. “We get to enjoy it now,” Oksana says, “We carry on.”