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Letter from Ukraine: new year, same war

The Ukrainian novelist writes about ringing in 2023 amid drone attacks.

By Andrey Kurkov

KYIV – Even during a war, the approach of a new year leaves you feeling more relaxed.

On the afternoon of the 31 December, an old friend Stanislav came to visit. Due to Covid and the war, we had not seen each other for two years.

Just as he arrived, we heard the moan of the air-raid siren but we still sat down at the dining table and began exchanging news over lunch. For eight months now his wife and two daughters have been living in the UK. He wants them to stay there until the end of the war but he also suffers from loneliness. He was just showing us photos of his wife enjoying the London snow when a powerful explosion sounded somewhere nearby. We moved to the corridor – the “safer” part of my family’s apartment in central Kyiv. Stanislav called his mother, who lives on the other side of the Dnieper river, and told her that he would soon pop in to see her. We heard her scared voice, “Don’t come today! It’s dangerous!” But Stanislav said he would come anyway.

When he had gone, my family began to prepare food for our New Year’s dinner. I was planning to cook turkey legs in the oven and suddenly realised there was no rosemary in the house. 

I set out for the supermarket. The streets were already dark. As I passed the French embassy, three guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles looked at me up and down. I greeted them and they relaxed and returned to their conversation.

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The supermarket had no rosemary or any other fresh herbs. So I bought olives with anchovies and some baking foil. 

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By 10pm dinner was ready. My brother Mikhail and his wife Larisa arrived with a salad. Our daughter Gabriela had to return to her own apartment before the 11pm curfew, but she stayed as long as she could and then ran home.

Just before midnight, I poured prosecco into glasses and we managed to clink glasses before the air-raid siren rose again into the quiet of the night. Almost immediately explosions rumbled right above our house – the air defences had started working.

We again moved into the corridor, taking chairs with us. The chess table that I work at during air raids was already there. 

“Strange,” said my wife. “Usually, explosions start half an hour after the siren.” 

“Probably, the military did not want to spoil the New Year’s moment for us,” Mikhail suggested. “Otherwise, we would have been sitting in the corridor since last year.” 

“Maybe they wanted Ukrainians to watch President Zelensky’s New Year’s speech on TV without interruption,” I thought. 

That night, all the 32 drones directed at Kyiv were destroyed before they hit their targets, but falling debris still caused damage to some houses and cars. 

Now and then, our youngest son Anton ran out on to the balcony to look at the “exploding” sky. He reported to the rest of us, sheltering in the corridor, that on all the balconies round about, our neighbors were standing with glasses in their hands and shouting in chorus “F**k Putin!” after every explosion.

At some point, after three in the morning, we gave up waiting for the all-clear and went to bed. Kyiv seemed quiet enough by then.

I recall with sad irony what was probably the strangest New Year’s celebration in my life. A celebration during a war. The curfew, despite petitions and requests to the city authorities, was not cancelled. So there could be no traditional nightly visits to friends. The police patrolled the streets ensuring compliance. As it turned out, they were not too strict with those caught outside after curfew as long as people had some ID on them.

In the corridor during the air raid, we thought about all those Ukrainians who had been killed by Russia and who could not greet the year 2023. We also remembered families unable to celebrate for other reasons connected with the war. The 31 December lunchtime drone and missile attack left dozens of apartments in high-rise buildings without windows and doors. Some of the owners of these damaged apartments probably took their things and, possibly, the food and drinks purchased for the festive table and went to relatives and friends. The same attack destroyed a house on the left bank of the Dnieper, leaving its residents homeless.  

Despite the ban on fireworks, some locals were determined to add brightness and noise to the Kyiv sky. So in addition to the fire trucks and ambulances rushing to the locations where drone debris had fallen, the police patrols were reacting swiftly to any sightings of fireworks. At least one violator was detained. He turned out to be drunk but this is unlikely to save him from punishment. In wartime, he could get up to five years in prison for breaking this law.

[See also: Ukraine’s problematic nationalist heroes]

At five in the morning, the alarm was cancelled. We slept for a few hours and by 10am on 1 January 2023, we sat down at the breakfast table again. In past years, the first breakfast of the new year was enlivened with champagne, but this time I didn’t feel like eating or drinking at all. On the other hand, the sun was shining outside and, to our surprise, many cafés were already open.

Before the war, on every New Year’s night we visited friends who live a 15-minute walk away, near Kyiv University. This time we went to them for lunch on New Year’s Day. The hostess’s daughter and son-in-law told us about outdoor gatherings that had gone on through the night in the new residential areas on the edge of Kyiv. In the space between high-rise buildings, neighbours set up tables and shared food and champagne out of sight of the police. 

All over the city, on New Year’s Eve and Day, charity kitchens were open for everyone who needed sustenance. Charitable organisations – both Ukrainian and international – recruit internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the east and south of Ukraine to help with the food handouts. The IDPs themselves receive regular assistance from such organisations and are often keen to help others. 

During 2022, patronage and charity became the norm for most Ukrainians. The concept of charitable giving is even used in local marketing campaigns. It is sometimes hard to tell where charity ends and commerce begins. There are notices in bars announcing that half the money paid for a particular cocktail will be donated to the army. Customers are especially happy to order these cocktails. My wife and I went to a bar to have a couple of these “military cocktails”. I have already forgotten its taste, but I remember that half the price went to the Ukrainian military. 

Unfortunately, there are also “losers” in this situation. Before the war, parents of sick children collected money on the internet for expensive medical treatment. There are far fewer such fundraising ads now. The parents are simply ashamed to ask for money when there is a war going on and people are donating so much to the army. 

[See also: The West must confront its failures on Ukraine]  

There is still a shortage of doctors and medical staff in Ukrainian hospitals. Scheduled operations are almost always cancelled. Only emergency treatment is available. Maternity hospitals and children’s hospitals work best. There, you can get almost the same service as before the war – at least in the free parts of Ukraine. In the occupied territories, almost all hospitals are now used for wounded Russian soldiers only. Still, there are not enough beds for the injured.

There are almost no Ukrainian doctors in the occupied territories, so the Russian wounded are being treated by Russian doctors, both military and civilian, who came to earn money. The Russians are turning schools, sanatoriums and even maternity homes into military hospitals. In the city of Pervomaisk, in the Luhansk region, the maternity hospital was taken over by the Wagner mercenary group. Patients and staff were evicted and the soldiers’ wounded were moved in. One hundred and fifty fighters of this private army are being treated there. 

In the maternity hospital of Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine, the first child born in 2023 was a girl – the daughter of a 24-year-old IDP from Nikopol, of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast. The mother arrived in Uzhhorod only on 29 December, and on the evening of 31 December she went into labour and was brought to the maternity hospital. The baby girl, whom her mother wants to name Ayramiya, was born at 12.05am on 1 January 2023.

The second child born in this maternity hospital also turned out to be a girl, and the daughter of another IDP, this time from Kharkiv. In total, on the first day of the new year, four children were born in Uzhhorod – three girls and one boy.

The first child born in the western Ukrainian city of Rivne was also a girl, the daughter of refugees Yulia and Alexander Burko from Brovary, Kyiv region. They want to call her Eve. 

And the city with the highest number of births on the first day of the new year was Kyiv. Thirty-one children were born there, including triplet boys: Matvey, Bogdan and Vladislav. All of them, like all Ukrainian children born after February 2014, can be called “wartime children”. Soviet “wartime children” qualified for subsidies on fuel, among other things. I am not sure current children will get any benefits but they will definitely know much more about war than my generation. Ukrainian children already know a lot about the war. They can tell the difference between the sound of a blast made by air-defence systems and that made by a Russian missile explosion. Most children can also recognise the sound of an Iranian Shahed drone’s engine. This drone is nicknamed “moped” because of the loud, moped-like sound of its engine.

Young people try to record these sounds on their smartphones and exchange the audio files for “educational” purposes. This means trying to stay near the balcony during air raids – an extremely dangerous exploit. 

To celebrate the Orthodox Christian Christmas – 6-7 January – Vladimir Putin proposed to stop directing deadly drones and missiles at Ukraine during a 36-hour ceasefire, expecting Kyiv to reciprocate. However, the Ukrainian government has refused, sure that the Russian forces would only use the time to reinforce its now weak positions along the front lines. For Ukraine, a few hours of peace would make no difference after the months of aggression against it. 

Since the beginning of the war in the capital, air-raid alarms have sounded hundreds of times. The frequency of danger has blunted the fear of death. With three million people living in the city and new children being born, there is a sense of false security. At some moments, it seems that the war has stopped – disappeared, as if it had been a dream. Only the next air raid brings the people of Kyiv back to reality.

What awaits us in the new year? Most likely the continuation of shelling, the continuation of the war. Russia is discussing further mobilisation. It was probably in support of this that in his daily political show, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Russia’s main television propagandists, insisted that “the value of life is exaggerated, and one should not be afraid of death, because it is inevitable”. This message was likely directed at those who may soon be sent to war in Ukraine.

After the destruction of a makeshift base for newly mobilised Russian soldiers and officers in Makiivka near Donetsk, this message is especially “relevant”. Ukrainian artillery struck the camp at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but Russians are still only beginning to understand the extent of their losses. The Russian general staff put out a statement saying that a technical college building, where about 700 soldiers and officers were settled, had been hit and that “only” 63 people died. This provoked loud criticism of the Russian military authorities, even from pro-Putin propagandist bloggers. The Ukraine government claims the reality is that between 350 and 450 Russian soldiers and officers died in Makiivka. They died mostly because the military had stored shells and rockets in the building.

Meanwhile, the owner of the Wagner private army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has complained to the Russian interior ministry and even to the Russian Ministry of Health about the employees of the Luhansk morgue, where the corpses of hundreds of Russian soldiers, including soldiers from his private army, have been lying for weeks. He has accused the mortuary staff of sabotage because they take weeks to release the bodies before they can be sent to their relatives in Russia for burial. The bottleneck seems to have emerged because the pathologists do not issue death certificates. The pathologists may have been told to space out the return of bodies to avoid panic and defeatism among ordinary Russians, who remain generally very supportive of Putin’s war.

The Luhansk regional morgue is littered with black bags carrying the remains of Russian soldiers. The staff must be exhausted, and they probably also long for a holiday. The beginning of a new year is about looking into the future. It is difficult for me to imagine the hopes and plans of the employees of that morgue, or any morgues in the occupied territories. I don’t envy them – day in, day out counting corpses. I wonder if they would prefer sitting in a corridor listening to the blasts from missile attacks?

[See also: Ten crucial questions about the world in 2023]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor