The Boston Globe spent eight days in western Ukraine speaking with people about how they’re coping amid the ongoing war and what’s next. This is the second in a series of dispatches from a nation under siege.
HLYBOCHOK, Ukraine — Funerals are held nearly every day in western Ukraine for soldiers killed in distant battles, and traumatized, weary refugees continue to arrive in large numbers. News from the front carries dire warnings that this brutal war could grind on and on.
“The future? It’s too hard to plan,” said Sonya Safriuk, 26, a professional dancer who is married to a Ukrainian soldier. “I don’t know even if my husband will come back. A dream of mine is simply to have breakfast with him.
“But now, I think, there is just one dream for everybody, that the war will be over.”
Despite the hardships and uncertainty this war-battered nation is enduring, extensive interviews by the Globe in western Ukraine found many signs of deep resiliency, the will and inner strength to stay the course, and lingering defiance nearly five months after the Russian invasion.
Almost everyone interviewed over eight days — soldiers, business people, aid workers, police, city officials, and refugees — predicted that Ukraine eventually would emerge victorious against a vastly more powerful foe. What was difficult to gauge is whether that confidence is rooted in conviction or if it’s merely a hope.
Most of the Ukrainians who spoke to the Globe also agreed on this: The United States and the West must do more to bolster the country’s defenses for there to be a chance at victory. They worry that American interest in their plight is waning as the months pass, the world economy staggers, and the vast expense of military aid grows.
The West is “helping, but they’re helping too late. We need more, and we need it faster,” said Svitlana Mykhailychenko, who owns a craft shop in nearby Chernivtsi. “Europe and America are scared of the next world war, but they’re accomplishing exactly the opposite. If they don’t help quickly enough, this war will spread.”
If more heavy weapons do not arrive soon, she said, “Ukrainians will have to stand with our hands up and wait until we are murdered.”
In Mykhailychenko’s shop, a small example of Ukrainian defiance can be seen in a glass souvenir case. A brightly painted replica of Russian President Vladimir Putin sits on a miniature toilet, his face inches away from the open muzzle of a large toy cannon.
“I work not only in this shop, but I help our fighters in the war,” said Mykhailychenko, who coordinates with local doctors to deliver medical supplies to the front. “We need weapons. Had the West done more, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Most people interviewed for this article expressed deep gratitude for Western military aid, but they also questioned why a no-fly zone has not been established over the country. They understand American fears that such a move could escalate the conflict — and bring US air power into direct military collision with Russia’s — but they also want the West to understand this: Ukrainians are the ones attending military funerals, and they’re the ones who hear the air-raid sirens.
“The whole world expected us to lose in three days. How can it be that little Ukraine can fight against mighty Russia?” said Nyloka Zadora, 55, an accordion player who entertained passersby on a cobblestone street in Chernivtsi. “We are fighting for the whole world. How can they treat us like a laboratory?”
Zadora, scowling with derision, echoed a common theme heard in the streets.
“Their politics comes from a place where communism was born,” he said of Russia. “Today, it has developed into the politics of occupation. They want to turn all of their neighbors into their servants. We want peace, that’s the first thing. But we also want victory.”
As Zadora spoke, families and young people strolled along fashionable Kobylianska Street, a downtown pedestrian mall in the university city. The war seemed far away, particularly when a couple, married that day, embraced in the street during their first dance as newlyweds.
Zadora and Sergiy Chorny, a bass player, filled the air with “La Vie en Rose.”
Karina Hotsuva, 22, dressed in white, clutched a bouquet of roses as she danced with her husband, Andriy, a police officer who declined to give his last name. He kissed her softly on the cheek, two soldiers passed by, and Zadora recited a Ukrainian poem in their honor.
Hotsuva was asked how the war has affected her vision of the future, given that nothing in Ukraine seems certain except reports of more missile strikes against civilians and death on the front.
“We decided to get married and to live,” she said. “We hope the war will end as soon as possible, but Ukraine, we’re uniting, and we believe we will win. We’re not going to quit. The war has made our family even closer.”
The war also has tapped into a deep patriotism among Ukrainians. Russia has long treated Ukraine as a subservient stepchild, people said, and been dismissive of Ukraine’s millennium-old roots as a Slavic power of its own.
“This is the last chance for us to stay a country and a nation,” said Yurii Lesiuk, the deputy mayor of Chernivtsi, a city of 260,000 near the Romanian border. “We became independent, without blood, in 1991. But Russia doesn’t agree that we’re an independent country. That’s why they’re trying to destroy us. They want it to be an empire.
“We know there is a chance to be bombed by missiles,” he added. “At any time, it can happen.”
Ivan Artika, a Ukrainian army corporal, answered the call to arms after watching a video of a Ukrainian soldier blowing himself up to destroy a bridge and slow the Russian advance. That soldier’s act in February, Artika said, compelled him to leave the French Foreign Legion and fight for his country.
“I came back because the war is here. Women and children are being killed every day,” said Artika, 25, who would soon return to the war-ravaged Donbas, a predominantly Russian-speaking area in the east. The Kremlin’s forces have made slow, steady gains toward seizing that region, despite heavy casualties.
“Every single Ukrainian is dying for his wife and his family. The Russians, they have been so brainwashed by propaganda that they don’t know what they’re fighting for,” Artika said.
The toll on ordinary Ukrainians in the Donbas has been horrific, and Artika said he has spent much of his time evacuating civilians from homes exposed to relentless, indiscriminate bombardment.
Artika said he has heard stories of women and children being raped there, and fathers killed in front of their families. The atrocities are continuing, he said, and the United States could change the course of the war “in one day” if it chose.
“There is absolutely no reason to be afraid of Russia,” Artika said. “Ukraine is already winning the war. For every single Ukrainian who is lost, Ukraine is taking nine to 10 occupiers.”
Ukrainian film director Helena Maksyom joined the army in May, intending to film the war at the front lines. Conditions made that impossible, she said, so now she serves as a regular soldier. Recently, she was hospitalized for trauma caused by the constant shelling.
Such trauma — called shell-shock in 20th-century wars — is frighteningly common, she said.
“There are many soldiers who can’t handle it. It’s scary,” she said. “We were getting help from volunteers — food, clothes, toothpaste, medicine — but there’s the feeling of being forgotten. The rest of the world, and not just the United States, should wake up.”
If Russia is victorious, she said, “they will try to move toward Europe, that’s what I feel. That kind of hunger makes you eat even more.”
Iulii Liashenko, a 76-year-old veteran of the former Soviet army, believes that his native Ukraine will win eventually. He lives in a single, small room in a refugee shelter in Hlybochok, his small car pockmarked by shrapnel from an explosion in February outside his home in Kharkiv, an embattled city in the northeast.
“Even though some parts of the country are occupied physically, the people will not let Ukraine fall,” Liashenko said. “Even if they can take some territory, they can’t take our soul.”
Liashenko was stationed in Crimea in the 1970s, he said, and the Ukrainians and their Russian counterparts in the Red Army seemed to have similar lives and aspirations.
“But now, they are completely different,” he said. “They don’t know who Ukrainians are at all. They just believe what they see on the TV, and because of the propaganda they just believe that monsters live here.”
Liashenko’s son and two grandchildren are sheltered in an adjoining room, and his wife remains in Kharkiv because she has medical issues that can be tended there.
“It’s hard to tell when I can go home again,” Liashenko said. “But what I know for sure is if the world provides more help and weapons, it will happen.”
Liashenko is one of 98 refugees at the shelter ranging from 1 year old to over 80. Some are former prisoners who escaped from the Russians; others are children without parents.
“With their eyes, they saw their houses destroyed,” said Oksana Merkulova, a refugee who lived near Kyiv and now manages the shelter. “It’s hard for them to rejoin society. They come to this place to recover. Their mental health is just ruined.”
Merkulova, a corporate procurement manager before the war, said she too believes in victory.
She pointed to a wall chart that showed the daily chores — cleaning, baking, laundry, sweeping — that have been divided among the many refugees. To Merkulova, it’s a small but telling example of why Ukraine will prevail.
“We are going to win,” she said. “We all work together.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.