Ukrainians are familiar with the rigors of winter. They’re usually well-prepared for freezing temperatures, snowstorms and ice. But not this year. Over the past few days, a white cloak has covered the Kharkiv region, along with other parts of the country. Invading Russian forces are using the cold as a weapon against Ukraine’s civilian population. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the devastation caused by Russian bombs has left more than 10 million Ukrainians without power.
In the town of Petropavlivka – about 80 miles east of the city of Kharkiv and six miles west of the front – there are now only about 200 residents left, of the original 1,000. Ivan Nikolaevich, a 49-year-old agricultural engineer, notes that the town’s population overwhelmingly consists of “pensioners, pensioners and pensioners.” He and another man are carrying boxes of food through the streets, with the intent of distributing them to residents. They walk past trucks, tanks, crumbling buildings and the remains of bombed-out cars.
While hostilities have receded somewhat, Russian projectiles continue to sporadically hit Petropavlivka, along with other towns in the area. “The young people have left, but I was born here,” Nikolaevich says. “I’m not leaving.” The destruction caused by the Russian bombardment is far more consequential with freezing temperatures. The town no longer has electricity, water, or gas to heat the houses. Many elderly residents, moreover, are living without glass in their windows. Doors, roofs and walls – damaged from the fighting – let the snow and cold air in.
The vast majority of houses in the town are connected to gas lines – almost none have wood stoves anymore, explains Valentina, a 52-year-old doctor who lives with her husband. Her children and three-year-old grandson have flown to a safer part of the country.
Valentina walks with her neighbor, 70-year-old Nadezhda, down a street whose stillness is only broken by a passing tractor. The snow has not managed to camouflage a projectile that remains embedded in the ground.
Nadezhda – in addition to living without electricity, water or gas – is mourning her son, Aleksei, who, at the age of 47, was shot last month. It’s unclear whether the bullet came from Russian or Ukrainian soldiers. She cries inconsolably. “It’s horrible,” she repeats, complaining about the incessant soundtrack of gunfire that marks the background of life in the town.
The two women go searching for humanitarian aid along with other neighbors. “By 4pm, it’s already dark… a single candle costs 20 grivnas [about 50 cents],” they complain. Yet none of them plan on leaving town. They fear that, if they evacuate, their homes will be ransacked.
Prime Minister Denis Shmihal reports that nearly half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been damaged by the latest Russian attacks. At the time of year when the electrical grid and gas supplies are most heavily strained, this presents a level of risk to vulnerable populations that has been unseen throughout the 10-month-long invasion thus far.
“Unfortunately, Russia continues to carry out missile attacks against Ukraine’s civilian and essential infrastructure,” Shimal said.
Volodimir, a 62-year-old tractor driver, fears for his grandchildren, who are living at home with him. Thanks to a Russian drone strike, half of his house is destroyed – there is rubble everywhere and all the windows have been shattered. But, since the family has nowhere else to go, he’s been reinforcing everything with wood, plastic sheets and metal.
Outside the house, chickens, ducks and a very nervous dog are wary of strangers and the slightest sound. They have been shaken by months of bombings.
The damage to the country’s infrastructure caused by the war is at least $127 billion, according to estimates by the government in Kyiv and the Kyiv School of Economics. Around 10 million Ukrainians are currently without power, with the most affected regions being Kyiv, Odessa, Sumy, Vinnytsia and Kharkiv Oblast.
“We are preparing for different scenarios, including a total blackout,” said Mykola Povoroznik – number two in command at the Kyiv municipal authority – during a media availability.
Since August, federal authorities have contemplated the possibility that the capital may need to be evacuated if the electrical grid is incapable of sustaining winter levels of energy consumption. But in Petropavlivka, the 200 inhabitants seem to have taken that option off the table. They will continue to support each other, adapt their homes for the harsh temperatures and stretch the humanitarian aid.
Nevertheless, Valentina is worried about the future. “We don’t have enough firewood to face the winter. We cook and warm ourselves with stoves, just like in the old days. We’ve returned to the past.”