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
“I lived through that war and I will live through this one.” — Kateryna Karas, referring to World War II
“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.
‘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.”
“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
“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.
“I put lots of blankets and a fur coat on top to sleep,” said Nina Hartseva. “My cat comes and sleeps with me.”
“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
“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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