Ukraine's Winter of Darkness
As its ground war has faltered, Russia has turned to targeting Ukraine's energy grid in a bid to tip the balance. Repeated drone and missile attacks have damaged 40% of Ukraine’s energy system, according to Reuters, forcing the country into regular shutdowns to conserve power. Curious to witness the impact of these attacks on daily life, I embark on a journey from Lviv in the west, to Kharkiv in the east. Below are a few of my impressions of a country thrown into literal darkness.
The city of Lviv – Ukraine's cultural capital – is certainly dark when my train arrives. Most of the city is without power for several hours of the day and night, and the few working street lamps emit only a faint glow.
Yet the lack of light is compensated in a strange way by the noise: the city centre roars with the sound of generators, as businesses are forced to find ways around the power shortages.
At my hotel, like the rest of the city, electricity runs for only four hours at a time. Thankfully, my room stays warm. Each morning, I hear the same melancholy horns of a funeral procession—another soldier’s life has been cut short.
One young woman I meet has taken to visiting the same café each day, where she knows she can stay warm. Older people, when asked how they’re coping, shrug: what is there to do?
The strangest thing perhaps is how otherwise normal life seems. The shops and supermarkets are fully stocked, mobile internet works just fine, and McDonald’s is back in business. Even the funerals have come to feel like a part of everyday life.
On the weekend, the main square bustles with young people, and the cafes and bars - at least those with generators - are filled with laughter. It seems the war is far from people’s minds. Or perhaps they’ve chosen not to talk about it. After a year of it, who could blame them?
Understandably the capital feels quiet, with a third of the population estimated to have fled. The statues are covered in sandbags - same like last year - and in front of St Michael’s Church are the shells of burnt-out Russian tanks, put there for display. Children use them as climbing frames, while their parents snap photos.
I change my accommodation and find a hotel with a generator in a different part of the city. The woman at reception has brought her teenage daughter with her, as its warmer here. The absence of working streetlights in the area means that people return home in the evening by torchlight or by using the light from their phones.
At the nearby Taras Shevchenko Park one can gaze across the city. The black swath of the Dnipro River is barely distinguishable. Only an illuminated ferris wheel stands out against the gloom, while the absence of light pollution means the stars are clearly visible.
Missile attacks remain a threat, although they have slowed in recent weeks. The air raid sirens go off three or four times a day, but few seem to take much notice. People have grown accustomed to the sound, or have chosen to accept a degree of risk in their daily lives instead of the inconvenience of seeking shelter every few hours.
Close to the Russian border, the city of Kharkiv is easily the darkest and coldest of the places I’ve visited (my phone puts the temperature at -5). If Lviv and Kyiv feel somewhat close to normal, Kharkiv feels palpably tense. The eastern suburbs were shelled repeatedly last year, and though the Ukrainian forces succeeded in pushing the Russians back, there are fears of a new offensive.
Power shutdowns last much of the day. It's quiet too, without the background noise of generators found elsewhere. Most of the windows in the city center are boarded up, adding to the sense of dereliction.
As night falls, the city descends into near total darkness. The only light there is, is that of a pharmacy sign or a currency exchange. Bin-liners rustle in the wind. I’m glad to have a warm room to return to, which is more than a lot of people have.
Although the situation in Kharkiv is difficult, other parts of the country face even greater challenges. In cities like Dnipro, residents report having only two hours of electricity a day, while Bakhmut, where the fighting is intense, is entirely without heat and power.
Returning to Lviv en route to Poland, I am moved at the sight of teenage girls holding hands and dancing in the dim light of a streetlamp, while a busker strums Ukrainian pop songs on his guitar.
Later that evening a fleet of Russian missiles knocks the energy grid offline. Yet if Russia hopes to cow the Ukrainians into submission, their strategy appears to have failed. The sight of those young people enjoying themselves is proof of that.