Ukrainians Dream of Normal Life After a Year of War. They Know It May Never Return

kyiv-new-years-day-one-year.jpg Daily life in Ukraine's Kyiv amid Russia-Ukraine war - Credit: Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
kyiv-new-years-day-one-year.jpg Daily life in Ukraine's Kyiv amid Russia-Ukraine war - Credit: Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

KYIV — It is remarkable how much the snow dampens sound. On the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a gentle snowfall blanketed the city of Kharkiv, where I was when the war began. From the balcony of my hotel, I listened to muffled thumps of artillery in the distance. Even the drone of air raid sirens felt faint. For a moment things were almost calm.

The war started a year ago today. Last night, the same kind of snowfall settled over Kyiv: big, delicate flakes floating down slowly onto frozen sidewalks. It was quiet, like it was a year ago, even calmer than that first respite in Kharkiv. There were no air raid sirens, no explosions. But the war is still here. A military curfew keeps everyone indoors after 11 p.m. The city is surrounded by air defenses. Everyone is prepared for the power or water or heat to go out again.

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This is typical for Kyiv these days. Over the past year, some form of stability has reasserted itself in many areas of Ukraine, giving the capital city enough security that U.S. President Joe Biden risked a secretive visit earlier this week. Now, U.S. and Ukrainian officials warn that Russia is planning a fresh wave of missiles and drone strikes across the country, seeking to destabilize the country and give itself a moral victory on the one-year anniversary of the war. It’s now late afternoon in Kyiv, and the city is still quiet. If a Russian assault is coming, it hasn’t materialized yet.

When I visited the capital in early June last year, a few months after investigators discovered evidence of horrific executions and torture in the suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, Kyiv was just starting to come back to life. In the east of the country, the war raged, as Russia pounded cities like Severodonetsk and Lysychansk with massed artillery. Still, bars were open again, restaurants had fresh food. Families began to appear on the streets after moving back from refuges near and far. Sasha, a graphic designer I met in a refugee center as we both fled shelling in Kharkiv, decided to move to a new flat in Kyiv from his temporary home in Ivano-Frankivsk that fall. “By the way, I rent a house, you can stay at my place if you want to,” he messaged me in October. “Kyiv is so dope.”

But as winter set in, so did Kyiv’s hard-won normalcy. In the fall and early winter, Russia bombarded the city and other population centers in Ukraine relentlessly, targeting power stations and civilian infrastructure and plunging much of the city into frequent blackouts with inconsistent water, heat, and cellular service. The eastern fronts grew colder, darker, and far more brutal. Sasha and his partner Sofy moved back to Ivano-Frankivsk as Kyiv endured waves of missiles and drones. “It was so loud outside sometimes,” he told me. They moved Sasha’s parents out of Kramatorsk, just a few miles north of the grimmest fighting in Bakhmut. Sofy went back to Kharkiv once; Sasha couldn’t bear to visit.

“It’s been a fucking rollercoaster,” Sasha told me on the phone yesterday. “Some days you wake up and be cool — you can walk your dog, buy flowers for your partner. But you hear the air defense working and you have this rock in the middle of your chest.”

Daria, a woman I met in Avdiivka just days before the war started, still has no idea when she will return home. Avdiivka has been on the front line for eight years; it’s currently right in the path of a grinding Russian advance. Her family now lives near Dnipro. Her father, a policeman, now works 50 kilometers from the front lines — out of immediate danger, but close enough for worry. I messaged Daria this morning, as the anniversary of the war began. Things were quiet and calm near Dnipro. I asked how she was doing, one year on.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m trying to live normal life, but when I understand my city is suffering each single day, I can’t stand it. Every day I think about my town, my lovely flat, about our cafe and a lot of adorable moments that I had there.”

Daria sends me a video of her aunt’s apartment, which I visited for a raucous dinner party before the war. The door was smashed in, the beds flipped up against windows, drawers ransacked and smashed. The couch we sang old Russian rock songs on that night is torn and covered in trash. Avdiivka belongs to the war now, even if some of its residents are safe.

Most Ukrainians are so sick of the worry — the rock in the middle of their chest, as Sasha put it — that they resist acknowledging new reasons for it. For days, rumors have flown around about the supposed escalation on the war’s anniversary. But no one in Kyiv seems to be particularly concerned — a surreal echo of the days immediately before the invasion, when frustrated Ukrainians tried to go about their lives amid dire warnings from U.S. intelligence and their own government’s denials that an invasion was imminent.

I often ask the Ukrainians I know what they want out of the next year. Many say peace, many say victory — outcomes that go hand in hand. Ukraine’s stalwart defense and recent military successes, combined with massive Western arms shipments, have made many Ukrainians optimistic about their chances. The throughline, though, is that all Ukrainians want to put back together the lives that this war has torn apart. Over drinks the night before the anniversary, I meet Yuliia, a filmmaker who fled to Berlin with her son when the war broke out. They returned to Kyiv late last year. “I was a Berlin hater,” Yuulia says, sipping a glass of Ukrainian white wine. “I’ve never wanted to live anywhere other than Kyiv.”

“I really miss my city,” Sofy says on the phone later, referring to Kharkiv. “I miss friends and people,” Sasha chimes in. “Not just people on the streets, my people. My team. We’re all separated now — Ukraine, Poland, Portugal, Bulgaria. Even in Ukraine we’re separated.”

After a full year of full-scale war, and eight years since armed conflict began in the country, even victory doesn’t seem to guarantee a return to the way things were. There is a new anger and a new fear across the country that runs deeper than it ever has before.“I’m worried about Russia in general,” Sofy says. “Even if we win this war—”

“When! Not If!” Sasha says in the background.

“When we win this war, we still have this conflict,” Sofy continues. “We still have this stupid awful shitty idiot fucking neighbor.”

“I didn’t experience hate like that before,” Sasha says. “I never thought about dead people — dead Russians — [as if] it’s not bad news. It’s strange stuff … on a philosophical level. When you’re saying ‘Oh, great, more HIMARS, more dead people,’ and people on the other side are doing the same, you think about this … war in the world will never end.”

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