If not for the war, Ira Lyubarskaya told me, she would probably have spent the spring walking the streets of her hometown, her earphones playing music by her favorite band, Imagine Dragons, or sitting on the rooftop of her apartment building, rereading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the umpteenth time. And perhaps, had she been from Kyiv, or Lviv, or other parts of Ukraine that have suffered from Russia’s invasion but have recovered some modicum of normal day-to-day life, she might have. But Ira grew up in Mariupol.
So instead of sharing late-afternoon picnics with Vika, her best friend from childhood, atop the block they both grew up on, the pair spent weeks sleeping on stinking mattresses in the building’s basement. Instead of hanging out in the building’s courtyard, where they would climb the mulberry tree or while away hours on the swings, they used the space to cook food on an open fire, their apartments destroyed by Russian bombardment. Instead of joking and playing by the courtyard’s sandbox, as they had since they were infants, Ira helped Vika bury her parents there. Instead of pursuing her life’s passions, she was helping her family flee a city, her city, being utterly decimated.
Ira is 18. If not for the war, her life would stretch out in front of her, opportunities at every turn. A tall, athletic brunette, she wants to be a reporter, and was studying journalism at the local university. She recounted her experiences to me with unbroken concentration, focused on piecing together the days and nights surrounding the Russian bombardment that set her family’s apartment, and the dozens of others in their building, ablaze. She told me of how she led her disabled father, her aging grandmother, and her now-orphaned best friend out of the only city she had ever lived in; how they had to abandon her mother, who was trapped in Russian-controlled territory; how she had to pull pieces of shrapnel out of her Ugg boots while she trudged for miles—sometimes carrying her father—in search of safety.
During my travels through Ukraine, I met so many young people like Ira. There was the 18-year-old in Chernihiv, a short distance from the Belarusaian border, who insisted on staying even as others fled so that he could support his father while he worked at the city’s morgue, documenting an epic amount of death. There was the 24-year-old in Kyiv who sought to help supply the city’s hospitals with crucial medicine. There was the doctoral student and aspiring entrepreneur in Lviv who put his plans on hold and joined the city’s civil-defense force.
If not for the war, they might have been allowed to remain young. But Russia’s invasion of their homeland forced them, and so many other Ukrainian youths like them, into adulthood overnight. The war has encumbered them with responsibilities far beyond what anyone their age should have to bear, demanding that they behave heroically when elsewhere in the world, their counterparts would be expected simply to behave.
“I have to describe our life in the past tense—I was; we were,” Ira told me as she described her family’s apartment. “We lived in Building No. 7; there is no building left. I took journalism classes. I went to the Mariupol State University; there is no university left. There is no city left.”
For her and Ukraine’s other young people, February 24, 2022, marks a pivot point—life will always be divided into a period before that day, when Vladimir Putin’s forces crossed into Ukraine, and after. Before, they were young. After, they became old.
I have spent a lot of my time in Ukraine with these young people, not simply because of the tragedy of their circumstances but because in some small way, I can relate. I did not have to live amid conflict, but I did live amid tumult, forced to grow up before I was ready to.
I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a city that Stalin ordered hidden because of its strategic importance. My hometown raised prominent defenders of democracy such as the scientist Boris Nemtsov, and hosted well-known dissidents such as the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. Then, when I was a teenager, the Soviet Union fell, and the entire edifice of society crumbled around me.
In that period, one date in particular stands out. On August 19, 1991, the last vestiges of the Soviet apparatus sought to carry out a coup against what was then a fledgling democratic process, attempting even to arrest President Boris Yeltsin. They failed, and the image of Yeltsin atop a tank seemed to Russians and the world to symbolize a moment from which our country could build.
I wasn’t there. I was in St. Petersburg, at an ultrasound clinic. I had just found out I was a few weeks pregnant. I was 19.
Nothing at that moment felt certain. Young people would hoist banners near my home that read “Nothing can scare us!” but built anti-tank barricades nevertheless. Huge crowds would fill St. Petersburg’s main squares, thronging groups that did not want to be part of a totalitarian system. Yet our country as we knew it was falling apart. An economic collapse would follow the attempted coup. We could buy food only with stamps after standing in line for hours. In spite of it all—the chaos and the crises—I opted to continue with the pregnancy. It was time for me to be an adult, whether I wanted to be or not.
What Ukraine’s young people must endure is far more difficult than what I had to go through. Despite the mayhem of the early ’90s, there was cause for optimism in Russia. It is harder to see that optimism in Ukraine today: Even if the country prevails against its invader, so much has been destroyed; so much needs rebuilding. Still, I feel some common cause with these young people, forced to make decisions much tougher than most adults are capable of.
Ira lived in Mariupol with her parents and grandmother in a three-bedroom apartment in Building No. 7 on Delovaya Street. The flat had big windows and shelves packed with books, and the roof offered views of the Azov Sea. The building, home to 56 apartments in all, dated back to the late ’30s and stood opposite Mariupol’s metallurgical plant, near the banks of the Kalchik River, which flows into the Azov.
Mariupol lies in a part of Ukraine where most residents, particularly from earlier generations, speak Russian, but Ira’s grandmother insisted on teaching her Ukrainian. “It’s as if she foresaw how much it would mean to me now,” Ira told me. Ira and Vika would spend their childhood days playing, and as they grew up, they would watch the sunset from the roof, and stay up late chatting or watching movies—one of Ira’s early favorites was Pirates of the Caribbean.
On the morning of the invasion, Ira’s grandmother shook her awake, shouting, “Putin has declared war on us. Get up!” Mariupol was an early target, and the family could hear explosions going off nearby. Their building, in its prized location with its glorious views of the water, lay close to several major Russian targets, including the metallurgical plant.
By the end of the month, the building had no electricity, no internet service, no cellphone reception, and then, eventually, no gas for heating or cooking. Its residents would congregate in the courtyard and cook over an open fire. Russian forces were taking district after district, setting up checkpoints, interrogating anyone passing through but focusing in particular on men. “There were so many of them, like locusts,” Ira’s father, Vitaly, told me. In the confusion, Ira’s mother was caught on the wrong side of a Russian advance and was trapped behind enemy lines.
Artillery fire intensified. Before long, Mariupol “smelled of dead, rotting bodies,” Vitaly said.
Ira’s grandmother, Iryna, had been a successful businesswoman in Mariupol and owned a Jeep Cherokee, which she packed up with clothes and important documents, imploring Ira and Vitaly to leave. But they refused: Ira’s mother was still trapped on the other side of the front line.
On March 31, artillery shells and bombs struck Building No. 7, sparking multiple fires and tearing an enormous hole in Ira’s apartment. “The fires cut through all the apartments,” Ira recalled. “There was nothing we could do.” Their homes rendered uninhabitable, Ira and Vika’s families sought refuge in the building’s garages. That night, as Ira and Vika counted the rockets whistling above while trying to sleep, they heard another blast. A bomb had hit an adjacent garage to the one they were in. Among the victims were Vika’s parents, who were killed in the explosion.
While retelling this episode, Ira’s voice slowed, the nightmare of that morning still fresh. “It was time to leave,” she told me, “but Vika was crying and grieving so terribly. I told her that her parents would have wanted her to escape Mariupol, that it was time to move.” The building’s residents soon congregated in the courtyard, and buried Vika’s parents near the sandbox. Ira longed to call her own mother, to tell her that the family had decided to flee for safety, but there was still no cellphone coverage.
Finally, they could wait no longer, and at the beginning of April, when Mariupol was victim to a brutal Russian siege, a group of them set off. Iryna’s Jeep Cherokee had been destroyed in the bombings, so they left on foot. Ira, Vitaly, Iryna, and Vika were joined by Ira’s neighbor Olga and Olga’s 2-year-old son, Grisha. Olga’s husband had died in the same blast that claimed Vika’s parents. Olga’s legs were wounded in that explosion, so she had to be ferried in a wheelchair obtained from a nearby clinic. The group also took with them another building resident, an ailing octogenarian, who was on a wheeled stretcher.
They walked through the ruins of Mariupol, trudging more than 10 miles in all to escape the city limits, passing by the debris-strewn remnants of stores, cafés, beauty salons, apartment blocks. At one point, Ira and Vika had to crawl, commando-style, along a road to check that the route was safe. Vitaly, who had suffered a concussion during the bombing of the garage, making it difficult for him to walk, needed to be carried on Ira’s shoulders. “We simply had to make it,” she said to me, as though trying to convince herself of something she had already accomplished. “I kept telling them, ‘We’ll get out alive.’”
As they made their way out, they passed through 22 Russian checkpoints. At each one, they were stopped and interrogated, either by Moscow-backed separatists from Donetsk, the Ukrainian region that is divided between Kyiv-controlled territory and Russian proxies, or by fighters from Chechnya. Vitaly and other men passing through had to remove their clothes to prove that they had no swastika tattoos—a nod to Putin’s absurd claim to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine—and were carrying no weapons. Only after passing through to safety did Ira consider that the pro-Russian forces could have taken her or any of the other women away to be raped, as Russian soldiers stand accused of doing elsewhere in Ukraine. But at the time, she told me, her only fear was that her father would be arrested.
It was around this time that I first met Ira, in Zaporizhzhia. She and her family had managed to escape Mariupol and were on their way to a village in western Ukraine, where I would later catch up with her again. She is still able to speak to her mother on the phone, but with no end to the war in sight, the family has given up planning on when they might reunite.
Both times I met her, Ira showed me a piece of paper, a document that allowed her to pass through the Russian checkpoints, proving that she had completed “filtration,” the process by which she was vetted and approved to leave Mariupol. The humiliation of the ordeal lingered, almost as much as the horrors of her last days in her hometown. “First we were bombed, then we were interrogated, then we were filtrated,” she said. “Putin ‘liberated’ us from our home, from our studies, our work, our future.”
Ira’s story is remarkably, depressingly typical of the young people I met, teenagers and 20-somethings who exhibited extraordinary courage in times of terror.
In Chernihiv, I watched as Nazar Fenenko took breaks from helping his father at the local morgue to log on to online university classes. Chernihiv, an old and graceful town, is now home to destroyed apartment blocks, schools, and hospitals. Dozens of people—not just adults, but children too—have been killed, deaths that Nazar and his father, Yuriy, are all too familiar with. In the early days of the war, Nazar’s mother and younger sister evacuated, but the 18-year-old opted to stay. “I just couldn’t imagine my father alone in this morgue,” he told me. If not for the war, Nazar would have simply continued his studies—he was majoring in chemistry at Kyiv University.
In Lviv, Marco Basarab, 24, told me of how he’d joined the city’s civil-defense forces soon after he moved there from Kyiv, where a bomb had shattered the windows in his family’s apartment. During the day, he collected and distributed aid for the war victims who had sought refuge in the western-Ukrainian city, and at night, he enforced Lviv’s curfew. The son of a successful Kyiv businessman, Marco had studied at private schools in Britain, France, Germany, and Romania, and had been working his way through a Ph.D. program. If not for the war, he had been planning a surfing holiday in Portugal with friends.
These are but a handful of countless such stories, of youths whose lives have been forever changed. If not for the war, what could they have been?
Yet there is another perspective worth considering, of how these young people have come to their country’s aid in its moment of need, how they have shown their mettle in the most extreme of circumstances. Yes, we could speak wistfully of the future they have lost, but equally, they showed me a future they can build.
Among the young people I met was 24-year-old Anton Odnorog. Frustrated with Ukraine’s legendarily high levels of corruption, he had just left the civil service and joined a medical-procurement company in Kyiv at the time of the invasion. If not for the war, he had been planning a visit to Mariupol, his hometown, where he would have walked along the Azov’s beaches with his mother and sister.
As we sat in his office, overlooking Maidan Square, where pro-Western protests in 2014 triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the years-long war in the Donbas, Anton seemed to sense an opportunity to build a new Ukraine, one in which a prior generation’s fondness for the Soviet era could be overtaken by the desires of a new generation—his generation—for deeper integration with Europe and the West, for freedom. “I want us to respect each other, to grow rich and happy together,” he told me. “My generation can do that.”