‘Ordinary Russians Want Us to Freeze to Death’

How do you fight an enemy like the cold?

In October, as the warmth of summer faded, Russia began a bombardment of Ukraine’s power stations and infrastructure. The objective was to inflict a new kind of suffering on civilians over the frigid winter months.

Civilians like those who live in Kivsharivka, a small town in northeast Ukraine about a two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Kharkiv. Kivsharivka was captured by Russian forces early in the war, but it has been back under Ukrainian control since around September. For the past few months, the people of Kivsharivka have been dealing with the quieter and more insidious enemy of the cold, and its attendant creeping damp and mold.

Residents burn pine from a nearby forest on wooden stoves indoors despite the thick black smoke that issues from too-short extractor pipes. They huddle against small sources of warmth like electric heaters when the power is on, gas stoves when it is not, and hot water pipes that jut from the ground outside.

And all of it with an air of stubborn resilience and practical courage.

Alyona Kovalyova, 48, center, in line for food in Kivsharivka.

“My children left but I don’t want to. I warm myself with an electric heater when there is power.” — Alyona Kovalyova

Damage from shelling near a housing block at the edge of Kivsharivka.
Municipal workers attend to a broken pipe in Kivsharivka. “Seven people work nonstop until they fix one leak. Then they try to pump the water, it breaks again in some other place and we start over,” Viktor Demchenko, the head of the Kivsharivka heating department, said.
Kateryna Karas, 84, warms her hands while out for a walk.

“I lived through that war and I will live through this one.” — Kateryna Karas, referring to World War II

Yurii Huhriakov’s apartment was hit by shelling that left a hole nine feet wide. He covered it with wood, slate and linoleum. “Now it’s under control,” he said.
Artem Kasap, far left, and friends warm themselves on exposed heating pipes.

“I miss school, I miss football, I miss celebrating New Year normally. We are talking here of clothes we would wear if it weren’t for the cold. I wish summer would come faster.” — Artem Kasap

‘Every Shelling Brings More Hate Then Tiredness’

People who live in northeast Ukraine are no strangers to cold weather. In January and February, when temperatures in the area usually hover around the low 20 degrees Fahrenheit, people drill through thick ice to fish and mark the religious festival of Epiphany with a bracing swim. And in this way, this winter has been much the same.

Yevhenii Orliuk, 53, fishes in the river. “When there is no electricity, I have no heating at home,” he said. “Of course we are tired of it, but every shelling brings more hate then tiredness.”
A Soviet-era fighter jet monument at the entrance to the town of Kivsharivka. In the Soviet tradition, there are monuments of tanks, planes and, in some rare cases, space rockets in many towns.
A resident of Kharkiv marks the religious festival of Epiphany with a traditional icy dip.
A cat outside Kivsharivka’s community center.

‘What Would We Do Without the Forest?’

Kivsharivka butts up against an area of pine woodland. There was a Russian position in the forest while the town was occupied and the area is still mined. Many of the trees have been felled by shelling, so residents pull out the trees, tie them to a bicycle and take them back to their yards to be cut into smaller pieces for fuel.

“Good that we have this forest by our side. What would we do without the forest?” said Anatoliy Demiannyk, 67. “At first, when the Russians left, we were scared of the mines but then saw that burned BTR,” an armored personnel carrier, “and thought that it probably wouldn’t have driven there if it was mined, and step by step we went deeper into the forest.”

Anatoliy Demiannyk, left, and Mykola Bukovskyi warm up near a fire after spending the morning chopping wood.

“Russians, ordinary Russians, want us to freeze to death. My relative shouted at me over the phone, ‘I wish you to freeze there!’” — Anatoliy Demiannyk

The forests in the Kharkiv region are dotted with landmines.
Despite the danger, residents of Kivsharivka have been collecting firewood from nearby woodland every morning since winter set in.
Back in town, the wood is cut to be used in wood-burning stoves.
Pinewood burns fast and doesn’t give much heat, but it’s too far to go for oak.
Nina Holovchenko on the balcony of her housing block, where she and her husband store their firewood.

“I have bags packed. I would leave, but I can’t persuade my husband.” — Nina Holovchenko

‘The Pillows Here Got Moldy’

A woman who lives in Kivsharivka and works with an aid organization said that more than 18,000 people lived in the town before the war but now it’s a little less than 4,000, about 150 of whom are children. The cold is particularly hard on the very young and the very old.

“It’s cold here. My legs hurt,” said Nina Hartseva, 89. She lives in a small apartment where two gas burners on the stove are her only sources of warmth. “My niece lives in Russia, I don’t know if she can come here to take me out,” Nina said. “I would sell my flat here and give her the money.” Unfortunately, the real estate market in this part of Ukraine is nonexistent.

Kateryna Shapovalova lives with her boyfriend and three children: Sophia, 2, Oleksandr, 6, and Svitlana, 9. Her children eat, play, watch cartoons, read books and sleep on a mattress in the hall near a small electric heater.
Oleksandr near the electric heater. Every evening Ms. Shapovalova boils two gallons of water, adds it to cold water in the bathtub and gives the children a bath before bed.

“I put lots of blankets and a fur coat on top to sleep,” said Nina Hartseva. “My cat comes and sleeps with me.”

The gas stove is Nina’s only source of warmth.
Vira Ovcharenko, 6, with her father, Yevhen Ovcharenko. “I am mostly sorry for my daughter in this war, particularly when there is shelling, she is really scared,” Mr. Ovcharenko said. “I miss the calm, I miss the quiet. We used to live really well.”

“When there is electricity, I sleep by myself in the corridor with my bear and my night lamp, which is called the sky of stars. When it is dark, I sleep with my mom in the living room. I do not play in my room now because the pillows here got moldy. I love when my mom bakes pancakes and I eat them plain and very quickly, biting like a carrot.” — Vira Ovcharenko

The blankets on 13-year-old Yaroslava Kameniuka’s bedroom window serve two purposes: to keep in warmth and to protect her from shards of glass if there is an explosion.

“I am a perfectionist. I like it when everything is clean and tidy, but with the war, I often can’t put my thoughts together.” — Yaroslava Kameniuka

As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, Moscow has been intensifying attacks ahead of what may be the largest offensive since the beginning of the war.

But for the people in towns like Kivsharivka, or the hundreds of Ukrainians who have been treated for frostbite, hypothermia and other conditions caused by the cold, or the people killed by the cold, winter has been anything but a pause.

Emile Ducke is a photographer based in Berlin. Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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