Ukraine Unplugged

How Ukrainian citizens persevere in the darkness

Fire and rescue workers attend to a building hit by a missile in Kyiv.
Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty

Every morning my brown terrier, Hans, comes to wake me in the dark. As he jumps around impatiently, hurrying me up for a morning walk, I glance at my light switch’s electricity indicator. If it shines blue, I am lucky: The electricity is back. I can brush my teeth using tap water before the walk. But if the blue indicator is off, that means no water, no light, and no central heating. On those days, I launch into a new routine that involves cold bottled water and flashlights.

Hans braces for a long descent down the stairs from the 14th floor. He used to be scared of stairs. As my husband and I were told at the dog shelter from which we adopted him two years ago, people had found him shivering in a staircase in an unfinished building outside Kyiv. Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in February, Hans has gotten used to the distant sounds of missile strikes, but for a long time he was still scared of stairs. Now that the elevator doesn’t work on a majority of days, Hans has been forced to overcome his fear.

I live in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. For more than two months, Russia has been bombing energy infrastructure all over the country, killing dozens of civilians and leaving millions of others in darkness and cold. The first massive attack happened on October 10. Early in November, President Volodymyr Zelensky told the European Union’s energy commissioner that Russia had damaged about 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Since then, the attacks have continued. A November 23 strike caused cellular and internet disruptions and compelled Ukrainian authorities to disconnect nuclear-power plants from the grid. Nearly the entire country was forced into a blackout that, in many places, lasted for 24 hours or longer.

Each time Russia unleashes missiles on civilians, the world condemns its war crimes, but so far hasn’t been able to stop them. By the Kremlin’s own admission, Russia hopes that keeping the Ukrainian population cold and miserable will put pressure on Zelensky to negotiate. Ukraine, which insists that the invaders first withdraw, predicts that the Russian military will use any cease-fire to regroup in preparation for future attacks. In the meantime, the strikes on civilian targets keep coming, because Russia has finally understood why our army has been so successful on the war front: Ukrainians’ resilience.

Although our soldiers live in much harsher conditions than civilians do, they at least have weapons to fight back. The only weapon we have, amid regular power cuts, rising prices, and diminishing resources, is our endurance. After each massive attack, our soldiers fight the enemy even harder. Our infrastructure and energy workers rush to repair the damage quickly. The rest of us continue to work, pay taxes, donate, and produce and buy goods to keep our economy running. We all contribute to victory, along with Ukraine’s international partners.

Moscow has been hoping that the unbearable living conditions it has forced upon us will break our resolve. But we know whom to blame for our new life. As Zelensky has said, if we must choose between having electricity and living free of Russian domination, we will pick the latter.

These were my thoughts while my husband was teaching me how to play chess during one blackout late last month. Just after hearing distant missile strikes in the afternoon of November 23, we lost any connection with our relatives; we could not call them to find out if they were okay, because we had no phone signal. Everything went dark. We cooked some food on our portable gas stove, which we’d set up next to our fancy Whirlpool electric one, and had a modest candlelit dinner to calm our nerves.

The only way for us not to become frantic due to lack of information was the small radio that we had bought online, as many other Ukrainians did. Normally, we get news from the internet or TV, but radio has now become our main source during power cuts. We finally got back in touch with our loved ones a couple of days later, only to go through the same thing again and again during and after missile strikes and drone attacks.

Although the talking box calms you down a bit with cheerful messages about how strong Ukrainians are, it also gives an apocalyptic vibe. At any time of day, the alerts that cut into news reports are always unsettling: “Threat of a rocket attack! Please proceed to shelters!” When the alerts end, the station returns to a strange new normal: an ad for a maternity ward that lures future moms with a comfortable bomb shelter, guidance on how to respond if your kid finds a booby trap in a toy, advice on what to do and not do if you’re captured.

You know you can’t complain when somewhere in our country’s east, people are suffering from daily shelling. Or when you hear how Russia keeps attacking the only pumping station that provides tap water for the southern city of Mykolaiv, where locals have been forced to live without a reliable supply since April. Kremlin forces have also been shelling nearby Kherson—a recently liberated port city where locals celebrated the end of the Russian occupation for several days—in what Zelensky describes as “the revenge of the losers.”

In Kyiv and around the country, we sit in our cold, dark apartments and feel lucky. We know the next morning will come to us. And we will once again walk our dog or hunt for water and other resources on the streets, now filled with the smell of gasoline and buzzing with dozens of generators. We know that we will get a cup of hot coffee, and businesses will shelter us and let us work for a while using their generators’ power.

Sometimes, I go to the window and see that our neighbors have light. That means that in a few hours, we might also get electricity. At our place, the power usually clicks on late at night. That’s when we all rush to take a shower, wash the dishes, cook some food, refill water bottles, and charge our devices. And we have learned to do it all as fast as we can. You never know when or if you’ll get power again.

I wish I could say that we are 100 percent resilient. Most people I know are ready to live in the dark as long as necessary to liberate our country. Each time the light comes back, we burst into joy. How can we surrender while, in places such as Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, our soldiers are fighting for us in muddy and flooded trenches reminiscent of World War I? How can we give up after so many of our fellow civilians have suffered and died in the ruined, Russian-occupied city of Mariupol?

But some people are starting to lose it. They search for conspiracies and fight about who gets electricity, and why others get it earlier and for longer hours. “‘Why is there no light in my building while the neighbors have it?’ I see many posts like this on social media,” the Ukrainian journalist Danylo Mokryk wrote in a Facebook post last month. He described the underlying sentiment as envy and a desire for everyone to suffer equally.

Ukrainian media have reported that some citizens have discussed blocking the roads to protest what they view as an unfair allocation of electricity. The fact that some buildings experience more frequent power cuts than other buildings, and that citizens are given no information about why, is deepening public anxieties. The constant need for repairs of shelled substations makes restoring power much more difficult for energy operators. Everyone worries that the next massive attack might lead to even longer blackouts. The Ukrainian government has opened thousands of “invincibility points” all over the country, where it claims that everyone can warm up and charge their devices in case of a total power outage.

Until recently, I had never thought about the difficulty of maintaining a civilized modern society in total darkness. We got used to having everything we needed.

Now, in the dark, I understand that I actually need much less than I thought.

“This is an opportunity for us to get new skills and become stronger,” a cameraman named Serhii Kirkizh told me. Early in the invasion, he spent nine days in a basement with his wife and their 4-year-old daughter in a village outside Kyiv.

Electrical and cellphone service there went off on February 26, two days into the Russian offensive. Russian soldiers did not enter the village but blocked all the roads surrounding it. Heavy fighting went on for 20 hours a day. The Kirkizhes united with their neighbors. Serhii from time to time had to run to his car to charge devices with its battery system. “That is where I listened to the radio and recorded the news to later play them for my neighbors,” he said. His wife, Olha, said that even their daughter got used to darkness. When she needs anything at night now, she just grabs a flashlight and goes to get it.

I, too, have grown accustomed to the darkness. When the light goes off, I work on my chess skills or listen to the radio, falling more in love with my country day by day. We are no longer afraid of the dark, because we know the monster lurking in it. It will win if it breaks us. And we can’t let that happen.