An Anniversary of Destruction, Loss, and Bravery in Ukraine
Nastya Stanko is among Ukraine’s most revered war reporters, with an onscreen persona that comes off as assured, competent, and intrepid, in the best tradition of frontline journalists. She is rarely deterred by danger, and yet, at times, she is also charmingly awkward in the ways of war. Not long ago, on a shoot near the front lines in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, she tried to climb atop a Ukrainian mobile artillery system, and repeatedly slipped off. “Shit, I can’t get on this thing!” she shrieked, as soldiers tried to hoist her up.
Over the summer, while walking through a wooded section of the “gray zone”—territory that lies between Ukrainian and Russian positions, controlled by neither side—she asked if she could hold the hand of the Ukrainian general who was showing her the front. Artillery exploded in the distance, shaking the trees. “I’m scared. This way I feel safer,” Stanko said. The general, in camouflage, with a Kalashnikov swinging in his right hand, joked that his wife would be upset when she saw the footage. “Don’t worry,” Stanko replied. “I have a husband at home. He’ll understand.” Later, she told the audience at a journalism conference that this wasn’t a reportorial trick; it was the only thing she could think to do to calm herself.
In 2021, Stanko stepped down from Hromadske, an independent media channel, where she was the editor-in-chief, to spend more time with her newborn son, Ostap, who was six months old. But, when Russia invaded, last February, Stanko, who was living in Kyiv, brought Ostap to her parents’ house in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, and returned to the capital the next day. She was the only Hromadske journalist remaining in the city. She and her husband, Illia, a software developer who had formerly been a cameraman for the channel, started filming: the eerily empty streets, the train station jammed with fleeing families, the scores of ordinary people clamoring to join the Territorial Defense Forces. Stanko is back, viewers exclaimed. What they really wanted was reassurance that Kyiv was still standing. Stanko stood in front of city hall. The metro worked, she said. So did cash machines.
This February, in advance of the war’s first anniversary, I met up with Stanko in Ivano-Frankivsk, an atmospheric city with Polish and Austro-Hungarian roots, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. She grew up in town, born to a family of patriotic Ukrainian speakers, who knew firsthand the suffering inflicted by Moscow’s imperialism—her father’s parents each spent a decade in the Gulag. Ivano-Frankivsk has remained relatively unscathed by the war. In November, Stanko and Illia rented a small apartment, with Ostap, on the outskirts of town.
Stanko’s life is now split in two: in Ivano-Frankivsk, she takes Ostap to feed the ducks at a nearby lake and stops for coffee at a café opened by recent arrivals from Kharkiv; at the front, where she often spends a week or more, she treks through mud, weighed down by a flak jacket, and waits out shelling in a bunker with Ukrainian troops. At least four soldiers whom Stanko has featured in her reporting were later killed. Two close friends have died.
Death seems everywhere these days, Stanko said. On New Year’s Eve, she stopped into a church service in Ivano-Frankivsk, where she learned that the brother of Ostap’s nanny, who had been drafted into the Ukrainian Army, had just been killed. “I stood there in shock, thinking to myself, Another one—how can this be?” She struggled to reconcile the loss with the festive atmosphere—the feeling, as she put it, that “death is sitting with you at the holiday table.” But she also knew, better than most, that “right now, we have no other life, no other reality.”
Since the start of the war, I have travelled from the capital to Kharkiv, a historically Russian-speaking city that has faced relentless rocket and artillery fire; from the decimated towns of the Donbas to Zaporizhzhia, a regional capital in the south that became a waystation for Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of Mariupol and elsewhere. In early February, I wanted to check in with people I had met along the way, to get a sense of how a year of war has, for so many in Ukraine, imparted great trauma and loss but also a sense of purpose and identity.
For many Ukrainians, the mere fact that the war is entering its second year is unignorable proof that a quick victory isn’t going to materialize. The fight shows little sign of ending soon, and, if two years, why not three, or four? For all its inefficiencies, Russia’s military draft, announced by Vladimir Putin last September, has had an effect on the battlefield. The kind of relatively easy and rapid counter-offensive that Ukraine mounted last September to take back territory in the Kharkiv region is unlikely to be repeated; meanwhile, the Russian Army is able to throw men and equipment at a renewed push in the Donbas.
As of late January, the Kyiv School of Economics put the total damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure at nearly a hundred and thirty billion dollars. In many places in the country, the war is physically distant, felt less through missile or artillery attacks than through cuts to electricity and heat. At any given moment, millions of households are without power, as the state energy provider has been forced to institute rolling blackouts in response to Russian strikes on power plants and substations.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s military leaders are hesitant to make public the scale of losses on the battlefield, but the toll is surely enormous. Last November, Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that as many as a hundred thousand Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded by that point in the war. Given that Ukraine’s most promising, energetic, and patriotic young people were among the first to volunteer to fight, their names have been overrepresented among the dead. “This war is consuming the best of our people,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist, said on the occasion of the death of Roman Ratushny, a prominent twenty-four-year-old activist who was killed on the front in June.
In Kyiv, I had dinner with a friend, Tanya Logacheva, and her parents, Yuriy and Raisa. They are from Luhansk, a city in the east that has been occupied since 2014. This is their second Russian invasion, they darkly joke. Logacheva is thirty-six, with a background in marketing, but also with interests in photography, dance, and wine. “It’s the stolen time that pisses me off,” she said over a spread of roasted duck and potatoes that Raisa had prepared for us. “All the things I could have done, the life I could have lived.”
Instead, Logacheva said, the past year was defined by a single necessity: “survival.” The electricity and Internet go out; she starts a meeting or a work call, only to have an air-raid siren sound. The thought of making any long-term plans is laughable. Logacheva and her parents were resolute, insisting that these challenges would end only with Ukraine’s victory, however ultimately defined. Life, in the meantime, was exhausting. “It’s good to survive,” Logacheva went on. “You don’t know how much you enjoy it until you realize you might not.”
On trips to Kyiv, I often visited Goodwine, a gourmet emporium the size of a big-box store, with an in-house bakery and a coffee bar. On March 3rd, a Russian missile struck its main warehouse outside Kyiv, incinerating an estimated fifteen million euros’ worth of inventory. But Goodwine never shut down completely. I visited the store in early April, as life was returning to the capital, and marvelled at the refrigerator case full of buffalo mozzarella and rows of imported chocolate bars. It was a relief, both disorienting and pleasurable, to find myself transported to a world of such banal hedonism. How could anything dangerous or terrible happen here?
Early on the morning of October 17th, an Iranian-produced kamikaze drone, a style of weapon that Russia had apparently been using to target energy infrastructure in Kyiv, slammed into an apartment building on Zhylianska Street. It was presumably meant to hit a neighboring thermal power plant, but overshot, exploding in a flash of brick and steel. Several floors of the building collapsed. Among those at home was Viktoriia Zamchenko, a thirty-four-year-old sommelier who worked at Goodwine. She and her husband, Bohdan, were both killed. Zamchenko was several months pregnant with their first child.
I instantly recognized Zamchenko’s face when the news of her death began making the rounds. “Today is a very dark day,” Goodwine wrote in a post. “We loved Vika madly. And surely you did, too.” By then, I had met or interviewed a handful of soldiers who later died in battle, but this felt different. Zamchenko was an eminently familiar and recognizable peer, a young woman who worked in a wine shop and once helped me choose a suitable Pinot Noir. Logacheva, my friend in Kyiv, had once attended a wine tasting led by Zamchenko; she remarked that Zamchenko’s killing was yet another reminder that, by this stage in the war, “death was one or two handshakes away.”
I sat in Goodwine’s café with Borys Tarasenko, a fellow-sommelier. He told me of his first impressions of Zamchenko: “She was strong, independent, precise.” Zamchenko, with a shoulder-length bob of brown hair and a wide smile, came from a small town in the Rivne region of Ukraine, about two hundred miles from the capital, and was a self-taught oenophile. “She was never satisfied with the answer ‘I don’t know,’ ” Roman Remeev, the head of the store’s wine department, said. “She wanted to find out everything for herself.” She developed her own sensibility. “She loved strong wine,” Remeev said. “Clean, classic, strict.”
Like many other Goodwine employees, Zamchenko left Kyiv at the start of the invasion, returning home with Bohdan. In July, she came back. “Everyone was happy to see one another,” Remeev said. “We asked, ‘Where were you? How was it for you?’ No one thought about anything bad.” Zamchenko said she was pregnant.
That October, Kyiv was getting hit with regular air strikes; Zamchenko was conscientious about always leaving the store during an air-raid alert and heading to a nearby metro station, which doubled as a bomb shelter. “She always tried to reason with us,” Tarasenko recalled. “ ‘Come on. Let’s go wait out the siren somewhere safe.’ ”
The members of the wine department have their own group chat, where, on the morning of October 17th, they shared news of yet another strike. Everyone checked in—except Zamchenko. Someone wrote that it looked like the damage was in Vika’s neighborhood. There had already been a close call some weeks before, when another drone meant for the power station exploded in the street in front of Zamchenko’s apartment. “I started to get worried in a serious way,” Tarasenko said.
He and a colleague from Goodwine went to the building. All that Tarasenko could see was emergency workers sifting through rubble. But a video that surfaced on social media showed the bodies of Viktoriia and Bohdan, along with their cat. Remeev sent a message to the group chat. “Unfortunately our worst expectations have been confirmed,” he wrote. “Vika is no longer with us.”
Tarasenko accompanied Zamchenko’s mother to the morgue. An official stepped outside to tell her she could come identify her daughter’s body. “You could see all her hopes collapse,” Tarasenko said. When I asked him how he feels now, he replied, “Empty.” He told me of a favorite saying of Zamchenko’s: “Enough feeling sorry for yourself.” He said, “I have to repeat this phrase to myself a lot these days.”
In the coming weeks, Goodwine will release a special collection of bottles from a vineyard in the Carpathian Mountains, in western Ukraine; the collection is called Victoria. Remeev, the head sommelier, told me, “However strange, I can’t say I have destructive feelings. If anything, I want to be strong, to create, produce.”
Before I left Goodwine, Tarasenko wanted to emphasize a final point. “What happened to Vika is not a coincidence, or a natural disaster,” he said. “It’s not like a tree fell on her apartment or the building collapsed in an accident.” This was something different. “It’s murder,” he went on. “They killed this person.” That, he said, is what’s happening in Ukraine: “the purposeful destruction of an entire people.”
Last spring, Stanko had been trying to put me in touch with a friend of hers, a Ukrainian soldier named Vitaliy Derekh, who was the commander of an anti-tank unit then operating in the Donbas. Russia was using an advantage in heavy artillery to grind down Ukrainian positions, inching forward a few feet at a time. Maybe I could pay Derekh a visit near the front, Stanko suggested. But then Stanko wrote again to say that Derekh was dead. He was thirty-four, a former journalist, a well-known and widely liked local activist, scouting leader, and paramedic in his native Ternopil, in western Ukraine. In 2014, he volunteered to fight against Russia-backed proxy militias in the Donbas; after the invasion last February, he reënlisted.
I spoke with two other members of Derekh’s unit, who went by the call signs Poppy and Greek. They described a battle, near the city of Popasna, in which a Russian armored personnel carrier bore down on a group of Ukrainian soldiers, firing its large-calibre cannon. Two were killed, and another seven wounded, before Derekh fired an anti-tank missile, blowing up the vehicle. A couple of days later, he spotted a column of three Russian troop carriers on the move, preparing for a new attack. He fired, destroying them, slowing the assault. Then a Russian fighter jet streaked across the sky and launched a missile that slammed directly into Derekh’s hideout. He was killed instantly. “You can be brave and experienced and know what to do in every situation,” Greek told me. “But Fortuna also decides a lot.”
Several months went by. Ukraine lost more cities in the Donbas, even as it went on to recapture others. In late September, I got a message from Stanko. Greek was dead. He had been in a forward position near Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas that was weathering the bulk of the Russian onslaught. A day after Greek and nine soldiers under his command arrived to replace another unit, a shell landed directly in their dugout. The explosion blew out the concrete blocks meant to secure the position, and they collapsed on top of Greek. It was impossible to retrieve his body; the debris weighed several tons, and the area was now under the control of Russian forces.
I spoke again with Poppy, who is in his mid-thirties. Like Derekh and Greek, he had fought in the first Donbas war, and later he took a job as a forklift operator at a factory in Estonia. On February 26th, he returned to Ukraine, asking to be deployed.
Early on, Poppy said, his reconnaissance unit was scouting the locations of Russian troops near the village of Motyzhyn, twenty-five miles from the capital. He had taken up a position on the edge of town, balancing a machine gun behind a tree, when a young girl from the village approached him. She offered him a plate of fresh bliny. “I yelled at her, ‘Get out of here. The Russians are eight hundred metres away,’ ” Poppy recalled. The girl said she would leave only if he took the pancakes. “How do you not want to fight for such people?” he said. “I understood then that I had not come in vain to defend my country.”
Poppy was now the commander of a platoon with nearly a hundred soldiers. They had just been rotated out of Bakhmut and sent to the Kharkiv region, to an area close to the Russian border. The fight in Bakhmut had been tough, he said. It felt as if Russian munitions were endless, a wall of fire that went on uninterrupted for days. The same could be said for Russian manpower—the assaults came in waves of ten to twenty fighters. “We cut them to pieces, but they don’t care, they just keep coming.” At the same time, he said, “they are learning.” The attacks were becoming cleverer, more thought out. Smaller units were replacing larger columns; ground forces were coördinating their movements with artillery units and airpower.
One morning not long ago, I drove out to the village where Poppy and his men are stationed, a snow-mottled pastoral, with compact houses emitting thin wisps of smoke from their chimneys. Poppy brought me inside and poured me tea. Soldiers from his unit came in and out, their radios buzzing. Artillery fire rattled in the distance, but I was the only one who seemed to notice. Poppy pointed out two soldiers who looked to be in their twenties, who had been with Greek when he died. “When the shell hit, I just lay there for a minute,” one told me. “I couldn’t move or think or even see. I just saw yellow light.”
I asked Poppy how this year of war has changed him. He has suffered four concussions, he said. “I feel myself becoming more aggressive, unstable, harsh. There are times when everything upsets me.” He told me of a time when, after continuous artillery fire, a soldier under his command jumped out of the trench and started to run away. “His psyche couldn’t take any more,” Poppy said. Another soldier from the unit went home for leave and, suffering from a mental breakdown, checked himself into a hospital.
Poppy doesn’t hide his own exhaustion from his soldiers. “I tell them I also don’t want to do this,” he said. “I don’t like this job. I don’t need such a life. But I can’t just walk away.” He feels a patriotic duty toward the Ukrainian nation, but, in war, that can feel like an abstraction. More urgent, he explained, was the need to protect the soldiers in his unit. “However sad and terrible it sounds, I’m here to kill the enemy first, so that he doesn’t kill my brother-in-arms.”
War, Poppy said, is a “dirty business, dishonest and unjust.” He has three children; two are in Kyiv, a third is in Poland. He’d like them to live in a peaceful, civilized, and democratic country. The cruel tragedy, he said, is that friends like Derekh and Greek, two young men, vital and creative, in the prime of their lives, had to fight and die for what should be a given. “These guys were simply excellent, full of positivity,” he said. “They should have returned home and kept on making life better for everyone around them.” When he’s at the front, Poppy tries to avoid such thoughts. “Anguish, grief—even anger—somehow they get in the way,” he said. I left as the sun was low in the sky, casting a spectral light over the snowy fields. Before I drove off, Poppy pulled a patch from his uniform and handed it to me. It read “Born to be free.”
Recently, I headed to Chernihiv, a city near the Belarusian border, in northern Ukraine. I had last been there in April, shortly after Russia pulled back its forces from the region and lifted a thirty-nine-day siege of the city. Residents were beginning to emerge from their basements to take stock of the damage around them. I visited an apartment block on Viacheslava Chornovola Street that had been hit with thousand-pound unguided bombs; its façade was ripped open, leaving a doll-house-like view to people’s kitchens and living rooms. Forty-seven people had been killed. During the siege, a makeshift grave site popped up near a patch of forest, the dead marked by row after row of dirt mounds and wooden placards.
Now families in Chernihiv were out enjoying a snowy Sunday afternoon, going for strolls along an embankment overlooking the Desna River and sledding down the hill in front of St. Catherine’s Cathedral. At the office of a local N.G.O., I met with Halyna Kalinina, a volunteer who was responsible for taking statements from residents of the villages around Chernihiv that had been occupied by Russian forces in the spring, creating a record of Russian abuses and alleged war crimes. She told me that she often stops the recording during her interviews so that her subjects can weep or simply sit in silence. “We talk, then pause, then talk some more,” she said. “In this way, we slowly break down their trauma.”
Kalinina told me of a woman who, during Russia’s occupation, opened her front door to see a haggard and bloody young man wearing a woman’s coat. The man was from a neighboring village, where a number of Russian military vehicles had come under fire and were destroyed. Russian soldiers in the village decided that the man and his two brothers were responsible. They marched them to the forest, forced them to dig a shallow grave, then opened fire. The brothers were killed instantly; the man at the woman’s doorstep was hit in the ear and cheek but survived. He lay in the grave until the soldiers left, then crawled out and took off running, finding a stranger’s coat along the way.
Another villager told Kalinina of her son, in his thirties, who was detained by Russian troops. Days later, he returned home and relayed how he was hung upside down by his legs and beaten for hours at a time. Kalinina has a son, also in his thirties, in Kharkiv. “The whole time I was listening, I was trying this story on for myself, imagining my own son, how I would feel,” she said. “It gets hard to sleep.”
I first met Kalinina in Shchastia, a town of eleven thousand people in the Donbas, whose name means “happiness.” The day I visited, last February 23rd, Russian forces were already firing Grad rockets at the local coal-fuelled power plant, knocking out the electricity and shutting off the water. When I stopped by Kalinina’s apartment, she had just returned from the courtyard, where she filled up plastic jugs at the communal well. Kalinina, who was in her fifties, considered herself a pro-Ukrainian patriot, which was conspicuous in Shchastia, where pro-Russian sympathies were not uncommon—a symptom of the town’s post-industrial decline, which bred not so much a fondness for modern Russia but a nostalgia for the Soviet past. “People were suffering from a kind of euphoria of youth,” Kalinina said.
Kalinina had fled Shchastia the morning after we met. She briefly ended up in Kyiv, before travelling onward to Lviv, in western Ukraine. She had a room in a dormitory and was spending her days at a volunteer hub, where she distributed clothes, medicines, and other supplies to families fleeing cities under heavy bombardment. Shchastia was occupied. A concert had been held in the local house of culture to celebrate its return to Russian control. Kalinina told me that she spent her first weeks away from the town crying—in her room, at the supermarket, even while getting her hair cut. “I don’t cry anymore,” she told me. “I want to give other people their turn.”
On a recent fact-finding trip, Kalinina heard of three local men who were led away by Russian troops. Later, after Russian forces pulled out, their bodies were found, riddled with bullet holes, in a neighboring village. “You travel around and realize there is an ocean of such stories,” she said. “They simply never end.” The villages in the Chernihiv region were occupied relatively briefly, not much longer than a month. Even so, ten months later, Kalinina said that she and her colleagues have documented only a fraction of the atrocities. “Imagine,” she said, “what we will learn when we finally make it back to Shchastia.”
Stanko doesn’t like subjects who are too obviously heroic. Instead, she prefers the ordinary, middle-aged guys, with stubble and soft bellies that push against their uniforms, like the members of a tank crew she visited in the woods outside Bakhmut. “They were in their fifties, not showing off at all, just doing their job, like it’s not a big deal,” she said. They made coffee on a propane stove and ate piroshki with apples, telling jokes and sharing war stories, then reloaded the tank and fired one round after another, the ground shaking with each shot. “I sat there and thought how lucky I am to sit next to such people, to observe and listen.”
In November, Stanko was among the first journalists to make it into Kherson, a city in the south that was liberated after eight months of Russian occupation. She got lucky. Her car was waved past one checkpoint, then another. She came across what looked like a non-stop party in Kherson’s central square: a crowd was singing, dancing, honking the horns of their cars. At one point, a woman wrapped her arms around Stanko in the middle of an interview. “There I was, standing in the central square of Kherson, jumping out of happiness,” Stanko told me. “I had this feeling that it all worked out. I captured these emotions as they were just unfolding.” The Ukrainian military’s press office revoked her accreditation for entering Kherson without permission, but reinstated it some days later. “The knowledge that you managed something that others didn’t,” Stanko told me, “of course, it’s a rush.”
Stanko and I spoke about this thrill, of getting to where you’re not supposed to be, of capturing a moment of raw, unfiltered humanity, which is all the more exciting because it is so fleeting. “After a year, it’s hard to find the reason why I keep doing this,” Stanko said. There is no shortage of journalists at the front; if she doesn’t film Ukrainian soldiers, someone else will. “But my brain tells me I have to go,” she told me. “Put simply, it’s interesting. I want to be there, in the place where it’s really happening, to ask questions, to know firsthand.”
Another motivation, Stanko went on, is one closer to guilt. Why isn’t she doing more—she’s considered joining the army as a combat medic—and why does she complain about temporary discomfort or fright when those at the front face much worse? She told me of a trip to visit a unit of soldiers from Ivano-Frankivsk who were stationed in the Donbas. She set off from Kharkiv before dawn, driving through an icy rain. Her car nearly got stuck in the mud. The dugout where the troops spent most of their time had a leaky roof. Water dripped on Stanko, freezing her even more. “It’s cold here,” she remarked. “Pretty unpleasant, I guess?” The soldiers looked at her, mystified. No, they said—everything is fine. What’s there to complain about?
In May, Stanko was in Lyman, a city under constant bombardment, filming a police unit responsible for evacuating civilians. A woman relayed that her twenty-one-year-old son, Artem, had been hit in the head by shrapnel. He had been lying at home in his own blood for five days. Emergency services had refused to send an ambulance; the shelling was too intense. A police officer named Maksym volunteered for the mission. “No one wanted to go there, and no one would have said a thing or judged him if he didn’t,” Stanko said. Maksym and a couple of officers sped off in a jeep. They found Artem—his head wrapped in a makeshift bandage, his eyes distant and glazed—and drove him out, artillery rumbling the whole way. “In that moment, I realized I had just witnessed something unbelievable and heroic,” Stanko said. She and her cameraman stood in silence, with tears in their eyes. Artem survived and is now rehabilitating in Germany.
On a recent trip to the front, Stanko stopped by a hospital in the Donbas, where she met a soldier who had pulled out of Soledar, a city that fell to Russian forces in January. He told Stanko that, out of a platoon of thirty soldiers, he and one other were left in fighting shape. Still, Stanko said, like nearly all of the soldiers she’s met over the past year, he was bound by an unflinching sense of duty. “If they aren’t there to fight, the front will move further and further until we have no country left,” she said. “Even if they’re tired, even if they don’t want to be there anymore—they know they have to be.” She couldn’t ignore what felt like a personal implication in that truth. “And, if they have to be, why don’t I?” ♦