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'Sitting In A Concrete Box': Russian Man In Kyiv Shares Ukrainians' Hardships And Hopes

"Our trips were like therapy for them," the blogger recalled. "The groceries weren't the point -- they were waiting for us."
"Our trips were like therapy for them," the blogger recalled. "The groceries weren't the point -- they were waiting for us."

"We have electricity no more than seven hours a day," said a 36-year-old Russian blogger who lives in a high-rise in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. "And we never know when it will come on. When there is no electricity, there is no heat and no water. The elevators don't work. You are sitting in a concrete box."

The blogger, who goes by the Telegram handle Roman Yukhnovets but asked that his real name be withheld out of concern for his relatives in Russia, moved to Kyiv from a city in northwestern Russia in 2015, two years after meeting his future wife, Maria, during a business trip to Ukraine. Now, the couple lives on the 24th floor of an apartment block with their 6-week-old daughter, Polina.

Russia's full-scale invasion has transformed their panoramic view and forced them to think carefully about every trip outside the apartment -- particularly for fear of getting trapped in the elevator with their infant.

"When the sirens go off, we're supposed to go to the basement, but only if there is electricity," Yukhnovets said. "If there's no power, there's no way to make it so far in time. So, we go out into the corridor by the elevator during air raids. It is more or less safe there."

Since early October, Russia has carried out frequent air strikes targeting Ukraine's electricity grid and other civilian infrastructure, causing power, water, and heating outages across the country. On December 16, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the attacks "barbaric" and "war crimes," saying "all those responsible shall be held accountable."

According to the United Nations on December 27, Ukraine has suffered at least 18,000 confirmed civilian casualties, although the actual total was certainly "considerably higher."

'It Smells Of Hatred'

Yukhnovets has been blogging about his life in wartime Kyiv on Telegram, providing glimpses into Ukraine's ordeal for thousands of people around the world.

"In the Kyiv train station, they erected a Christmas tree," he wrote in one video post on December 18. "But in order not to burden the electricity network, they hooked up the lights to a generator. If you want a selfie with the tree, you have to pedal."

On December 16, he posted a short video of a grocery-shopping excursion in the dark city, showing people buying necessities by candlelight in a dank underpass. "It is damp outside," he wrote, "and it smells of hatred toward Russia."

"I'm actually from Belarus, but I lived for many years in Russia," the blogger told RFE/RL's North.Realities in a telephone interview from Kyiv. "What do people in Ukraine think about Russians now? There is a Ukrainian word -- 'lyut,' which is something like 'rage,' when you clench your teeth while you follow an incoming rocket with your eyes and wait out the danger and then start doing whatever you need to do for yourself, your family, for victory. That is the most appropriate word."

'Thanks For The Hospitality'

A few days after Moscow's massive February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Yukhnovets and his family began looking for ways to help. Together with some friends, he began preparing meals for train engineers and displaced people. Maria and her colleagues from the travel agency where she works arranged for families with small children to be evacuated from the capital. Around that time, the couple learned that Maria was pregnant.

"In March there was artillery on the outskirts of Kyiv," Yukhnovets recalled. "It was terrifying. We didn't tell our parents for a long time so that they wouldn't worry. We discussed all the options. Of course, I would have been happier if Masha and her mother and the baby had left, but Masha categorically refused to leave without me. And I couldn't leave -- that would have been treason. I thought I could be useful."

Roman (foreground) and friends collect packages in Kyiv for the elderly.
Roman (foreground) and friends collect packages in Kyiv for the elderly.

In late March the Russians, encountering unexpected resistance, withdrew from occupied areas north of Kyiv. A few weeks later, as soon as it was relatively safe, the blogger says, he and his friends traveled to the area to provide help to the elderly and disabled who had been unable to flee the original onslaught and who still had nowhere to go.

"We went there without any set plan," he wrote on his blog on April 22. "We just looked for people in the deserted and destroyed village. In one house, we found an elderly couple on whose fence the departing Russians had painted, 'Thanks for the hospitality.'"

Speaking to RFE/RL, Yukhnovets recalled those early visits, when "people wandered about like zombies" through destroyed streets and told stories of how during the Russian occupation people were forced to live 20 or 30 in a house without being allowed to leave.

He and his friends began making regular trips to the small settlements, helping the dozens of mostly elderly people living there. In his blog, he wrote about how they distributed bags of groceries as artillery rumbled on the horizon and helped a woman "who appeared to be about 100" to fill in the trenches the Russians had dug in her garden. The group has distributed more than 1,000 bags of groceries since the project started.

At first, he says, people took the groceries and went home. But gradually they began to open up. "Our trips were like therapy for them," he said. "The groceries weren't the point -- they were waiting for us."

Some of the women prepared modest gifts for their benefactors. One of them "baked cookies to have something to do," he said. "It gives her some reason to keep going."

"The main thing for lonely people is companionship," he said.

The blog accounts of volunteerism have prompted dozens of people from all over the world to contribute donations ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand. Thanks to the contributions, the group has been able to provide firewood and replace damaged roofs and windows.

A roof repair funded by donations
A roof repair funded by donations

When the blogger wrote in March about the plight of a pensioner named Katya, whose house was collapsing around her, a woman from Mexico -- who quit her post as honorary Russian consul after the February invasion -- contributed several thousand dollars to finance the repairs.

Most of the contributors are Russians, some inside Russia and some abroad, Yukhnovets says.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "Almost every day they leave grateful comments, thanking me that they can at least do something to help because there is no safe way to help Ukraine from Russia now. People are looking for ways to do it."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Yulia Paramonova of RFE/RL's North.Realities