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Is it ok to have fun during war? We asked Ukrainians

Olena Mason and her business partner Dmytro Stogniyenko in their bar in downtown Kyiv. (Yurii Stefanyak/The Kyiv Independent)
by Kate Tsurkan February 1, 2024 11:15 PM 11 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

Editor’s Note: The servicemember and volunteer quoted in this article are referred to by first name only at their request for security reasons.

A day after Russia attacked Kharkiv in mid-October with drones that damaged residential buildings, several dozen local residents gathered at an undisclosed venue to attend a concert.

Like many events in wartime Ukraine, everyone in the audience had to register beforehand to learn the location of the venue so that there was no risk of it being targeted in a Russian attack.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is located close to the Russian border and has frequently suffered from missile and drone strikes since the start of Russia’s full-scale war. But that hasn’t deterred locals from carrying on with their lives to the best of their ability.

“It's okay to experience joy in tough times, especially when you realize that each moment could be your last,” Maryna Hrachova, who works at the Kharkiv Literary Museum, told the Kyiv Independent.

The concert, featuring Serhiy Zhadan and other prominent Ukrainian artists, was to promote Skovorodance, a new musical project produced by the Kharkiv Literary Museum dedicated to influential 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda.

When Hrachova heard the song “After all, God is with us!” performed, she noticed that the audience was overcome with positive emotions.

“The song’s lyrics – ‘You fall unharmed! The fire does not consume you! This is our rock! This is our flame! Rejoice, for God is with us!’ – became a source of catharsis. It was like an anthem celebrating life and instilling confidence in our strength,” she said.

Maryna Hrachova(Viktoriia Yakymenko/The Kyiv Independent)

Events like the Skovorodance concert taking place during wartime are important, according to Hrachova. Not only do they offer Ukrainians some relief from the constant blare of air raid sirens and jolts of explosions, but they also send a sign to Russia that Ukrainians will never surrender.

Ukraine is a large country, and the reality of war can differ greatly from region to region. With the full-scale war entering its third year, Ukrainians across the country are trying to find their own balance between normalcy – or at least something resembling it – and the harsh reality that has come to define their lives since February 2022.

‘No other life for us’

Maryna Hryhorieva still remembers the first time she was able to get a manicure after the Battle of Kharkiv concluded in the spring of 2022, describing it as an “incredible holiday.” Afterward, as she made her way home, she stopped to admire the beauty of some lilacs that bloomed along the street in defiance of shrapnel holes left behind by the fighting.

“The most important part of that day was the emotions of joy and gratitude,” Hryhorieva said. “It was one of those days when I realized that even simple things can make you happy.”

Maryna Hryhorieva (Viktoriia Yakymenko/The Kyiv Independent)

Hryhorieva and the manicurist spoke throughout her session, sharing their wartime experiences. Those who stayed in the city – an estimated 30% of residents left at the start of the invasion – found comfort in talking to each other because it was a reminder that they were survivors.

During such conversations, many Kharkiv residents noted that everyday routines were a much-needed anchor to maintain their composure.

“Focusing on simple things like cooking helped me a lot back then,” Hryhorieva, the head of the Global Department at Kharkiv’s Karazin University, said. “That made it possible to pass the time and distract myself.”

The difficulty and stress that defined the early days of all-out war in Kharkiv “sometimes felt insurmountable,” Hrachova added.

Maryna Hrachova (Viktoriia Yakymenko/The Kyiv Independent)

“There was no sense of security at all. You’d crawl out of the basement like a mouse for 20 minutes without electricity and cook potatoes in the darkness. But you likely had no appetite at all.”

Doing ordinary things like taking a shower or changing your clothes felt like an achievement because there was always the possibility that Russian forces could launch another attack at that very moment, and everything could end right there.

While the situation in Kharkiv these days is not as dire as it was at the start of the full-scale invasion, now locals again find themselves under increased threat of Russian missile and drone strikes after a period of relative calm that saw more people coming back to the city.

Eleven people – including a child – were killed in a Russian attack on Kharkiv on Jan. 23, and 70 others were injured. Mayor Ihor Terekhov announced a day of mourning on Jan. 25.

The city council also decided to rename Pushkinska Street, which was named after 19th century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, to Hryhorii Skovoroda Street. It is located in the city center, and many of its buildings were damaged in the Jan. 23 attack.

Popular coffee shops like Makers and Cats and Coffee, located on the same street, thanked customers on social media for their support after news surfaced that their properties were damaged. With the help of the community, they managed to begin repairs and reopen in no time.

“We realize the importance of living in the here and now. The war is still going on, but at the same time, there’s no other life for us,” Hrachova said.

This likely drives individuals to continue to engage in everyday activities such as sitting in cafes, attending cultural events, or visiting bookstores during wartime, according to Hrachova. Recognizing the brevity and value of life imparts heightened significance to each action. Together, these actions collectively form something "beautiful and unbroken."

Every Ukrainian affected

Located in western Ukraine, the city of Chernivtsi has been one of the most relatively safe places in the country since the start of the full-scale invasion, with air defense having only intercepted one missile and one drone attack in the region since February 2022.  

It would be understandable for a person strolling along the city’s main pedestrian street in the evening to wonder if they’re still in a country at war. Restaurants are packed with patrons, and street musicians serenade people with familiar tunes.

Yet, a truly normal life is a luxury for most people in Chernivtsi when their family or loved ones serve in the Armed Forces. There are weekly updates on local Telegram channels about Chernivtsi Oblast residents killed in the fighting on the front line. Every morning at 9 a.m., there is a moment of silence where even cars on the street stop to remember the fallen.

The majority of Ukrainians have been personally affected by Russia’s all-out war. A survey released by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in June revealed that 78% of all Ukrainians have close friends or relatives who were wounded or killed since Feb. 24, 2022.

It was Russia’s war that led Tania Kyrylenko, a co-founder of the Spinus PR Agency, to return to her native Chernivtsi after living and working in Kyiv for 14 years. Some of her friends and family are currently serving in the military.

Tania Kyrylenko (Vasyl Salyga/The Kyiv Independent)

All of the Spinus Agency’s projects now have some connection to the war, whether it's campaigns aimed at countering Russian propaganda or advocating for the adoption of solar energy, a need that arose due to Russia's continuous attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure.

When the jewelry brand Minimal contacted the Spinus Agency to work together, Kyrylenko proposed a campaign to raise money for medics on the front line, believing the war effort should take precedence over everything else.

For the campaign, they selected five female medics, organized a photo shoot featuring them wearing the company's jewelry, and launched a donation campaign with media partners. In the end, they raised Hr 500,000 ($13,587), which was donated to Hospitallers, a Ukrainian volunteer organization of paramedics who operate on the front line.

“We’re very lucky not to worry as much about missile and drone strikes (in Chernivtsi) as often as people in other parts of the country do,” she said. “But we can’t take that for granted, not even for a second.”

Tania Kyrylenko (Vasyl Salyga/The Kyiv Independent)

Responsible business

For many Ukrainians, finding a war-life balance is not just a means of coping with the daily horrors of war but contributing to the country’s struggling economy.

Olena Mason and her family fled their home in the Kyiv suburbs for Chernivtsi at the start of the full-scale invasion, only to learn later that a Russian missile destroyed it and the area had fallen under Russian occupation.

When they relocated to Kyiv in the summer of 2022, she said she wanted “to build something new to feel alive.” That’s why she and her business partner decided to co-found Basamany Bar in Kyiv’s Podil district.

Mason is aware of ongoing discussions about how “now is not the time to have fun, to entertain oneself, and to have time for oneself,” but having lost her home and seen loved ones off to war, she is no stranger to what is at stake.

That’s why she believes doing things like opening a business during wartime is a good thing as long as the owner makes it a responsible business, meaning that they provide decent working conditions for people, pay taxes, donate to the Armed Forces of Ukraine from funds earned at each event, and organize specific fundraisers for the military when needed.

In the final phases of the bar’s renovation, Mason and her co-founder welcomed friends to draw something meaningful to them on the walls.

Among the jokes, band names, and song lyrics, there were the names of friends and family serving on the front line, including those who had been killed.

“All of this is our memory, a reminder,” she said. “It’s a sign of gratitude to those who fight for us, thanks to whom we can continue working in a peaceful city.”

Olena Mason (Yurii Stefanyak/The Kyiv Independent)

Sharing the same front

Serhiy, who serves in Ukraine’s National Guard, decided to enlist two days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Although he is currently stationed in Kyiv, the front line is always in his thoughts.

“I might be walking through the park with my girlfriend while my brothers-in-arms are in the midst of enemy artillery fire at that moment,” he said.

“And if I’m at a restaurant, my first thought is about how my brothers-in-arms have been sitting in a trench for five days, knee-deep in mud and eating canned food with dirty knives.”

Rather than allow these thoughts to incite shame or guilt, he relies on them to encourage civilians to do everything they can to help Ukraine in the war effort. The war will last for a long time, and Ukrainians need to adapt their daily lives to this harsh reality, according to Serhiy.

“The key is to continue supporting the military, not forget about it, and not overlook its sacrifices,” he said. “Ukrainians need to understand that the military is in need of constant help.”

“If someone does that, they should feel free to enjoy their life with all its pleasures.”

However, Serhiy believes that this comes with limitations. For instance, he opposes sharing photos on social media and says it “infuriates” him when he sees photos of Ukrainians partying or traveling abroad.

Drawing from his experience of being on the front line for one year, he explained this could easily inflict emotional distress upon servicemembers who grapple daily with being separated from loved ones and seeing their brothers-in-arms get killed.

Meanwhile, Yelizaveta, a volunteer whose husband is fighting on the front line, worries that war has become “as routine as having a morning coffee” for some Ukrainians.

“The worst part is when civilians don't realize that this war can reach their homes at any time,” she said.

“As a military spouse, it's difficult to distract myself from thoughts about my husband. No matter where I am or how much fun I have with friends, I constantly think about my beloved. The phone is always by my side, I’m always waiting for a call.”

The last few fundraising drives for her husband’s unit ended with them covering the remaining amount from their own salaries. Most of the donations come from acquaintances who supported them at the beginning of the war and from the relatives of military personnel, but it hasn’t always been enough to meet the amount for urgent needs like front-line car repairs.

This led Yelizaveta’s husband to ask her not to initiate more fundraisers.

“But I believe we all share the same front, and we must stand together,” she added. “I can't allow myself to ignore the war! I want to be useful.”

“Only when time passes will my conscience be at peace because I’ll know I put in my maximum effort to achieve victory."


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, sharing an important culture-related story from Ukraine. Due to Russia’s ongoing genocide, most stories about Ukrainian culture will, unfortunately, be related to war for years to come. But Ukrainian culture is finding ways to persevere and it's important to share these stories.

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