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Spring Occupation, Summer Shelling, Autumn Cold: Life In Wartime For Village Survivors Outside Kharkiv

Scenes of destruction in Tsyrkuny in late May, as Ukrainian troops drove the Russians out.
Scenes of destruction in Tsyrkuny in late May, as Ukrainian troops drove the Russians out.

TSYRKUNY, Ukraine -- Vira Levadna and Nina Podrepna share the same village street in their corner of eastern Ukraine, northeast of the regional capital, Kharkiv.

Before Russia's full-scale invasion began in February 2022, they were just neighbors. Eleven months later, they say, Russian occupation, heavy shelling, and life without heat and electricity have made them more like family.

"As they say, 'You don't just buy a house, you buy neighbors,'" Podrepna told Current Time as she walked along her muddy street toward the home of Levadna and her husband, Yehor. "Because relatives are far away, but neighbors are nearby. And if you have good neighbors, they'll always come to the rescue."

Theirs was a village of a few thousand people before the invasion, but just a fraction of that now, including these two retired families.

They are now the only residents of their street here on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city that first saw armed violence in 2014, when Moscow occupied Crimea and Kremlin-backed separatists wrested control of large swaths of eastern Ukraine.

After Russia's all-out invasion began on February 24, Tsyrkuny, just 15 kilometers from the Russian border, was even more unfortunate.

Shelled From All Directions

Podrepna found herself under occupation along with her adult children and grandchildren. They couldn't flee the village, she says, so they tried to leave their home as little as possible to avoid drawing the attention of the Russian occupiers.

Once, when the Russian military came to their home to check their documents, they were frightened by incoming Ukrainian fire and took shelter in the Podrepniys' basement.

"Then they didn't even check the documents," she said, "they got scared, went down the street, and didn't go to anyone else's homes."

The Levadniys say they hardly had time to come to their senses before Russian troops entered their village.

"If you have good neighbors, they'll always come to the rescue," say Vira Levadna and her husband, Yehor.
"If you have good neighbors, they'll always come to the rescue," say Vira Levadna and her husband, Yehor.

Gas and electricity were cut off on the first day of the invasion. After that, they cooked all their food over an open fire.

The Podrepniys kept themselves warm with an old stove throughout, thanks in part to Podrepna's longtime insistence that it might one day be useful. "And now it is useful," her husband, Viktor, said. "Without it, there would be no way."

Russians forces regularly shelled Kharkiv city from this and other nearby locations before being forced to retreat amid a summer counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.

As soon as the Russian Army was pushed from Tsyrkuny, they say, the departing troops began shelling the village itself. "All night long you watch, you watch -- and then things would seem to calm down," Yehor recalled of the shelling. "And then in the evening, how they'd give it to you! It was hard, very, very hard."

'They're Ours Now'

Initially after the village was liberated, there was no return of gas or electricity. All the lines were seemingly disrupted, and many areas had been mined. The shelling continued all summer, they say.

Volunteers brought them solar-powered chargers that proved vital, Levadna says, pointing to a charger still perched on a windowsill.

Once gas was finally restored, villagers with modern boilers that required electricity still couldn't heat their water easily.

Yehor shows off the Levadniys' stove in their bricked-in courtyard. "During the [occupation] we cooked here for ourselves, but now it's for the dogs: fatty porridge," he said. "We buy bones, cook broth."

Tsyrkuny has largely been abandoned.
Tsyrkuny has largely been abandoned.

They've been sheltering the animals essentially since the war began.

"They're ours now," Levadna said of three cats eating nearby from metal bowls next to a lean-to booth for the animals. "They came from other people's yards, where the yards are abandoned."

Yehor notes solemnly that this year is his 50th anniversary with his wife, but adds that they aren't celebrating.

They still keep a mattress in a damp, cold cellar next to the house, where they spent many nights sitting up all night until the shelling subsided.

Just in case, they say.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Polina Morozova of Current Time

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