Emergency supplies were stocked in elevators across the Ukrainian capital, in case the electricity went out. Banks have sent messages to their customers to reassure them that their money will be safe in the event of prolonged blackouts.
On Tuesday night (29), the National Philharmonic orchestra played on a stage illuminated by battery-operated flashlights, and, last week, doctors performed surgeries by the light of flashlights. This is Kiev, a modern European capital of 3.3 million people, now a war-torn city facing shortages of electricity, running water, mobile signal, heating and internet connection.
A popular cafe has created two menus. One includes heated food, like homemade pasta, for when the cafe has electricity. The second offers cold dishes – Greek yogurt with granola and apple puree, for example –, for when there is no light.
In another restaurant, a chef cooked on a sidewalk grill while two young men warmed their hands over the coals. The sun sets early, before the end of the school day, and the children hold flashlights as they wait in total darkness for their parents to come and pick them up.
Electric generators of all sizes roar across the city, where city officials estimate that 1.5 million people are still going more than 12 hours a day without electricity.
Kiev had been relatively unscathed since the spring, but in recent months it has become a target again. Russia launched waves of missiles at the Ukrainian power grid.
After nine months of war, nothing is so unusual as to shock, but attacks on the power grid are leaving Kiev residents exhausted and exasperated. With the city’s temperature often dropping below freezing, extensive blackouts have a potentially lethal effect, affecting the health care system, raising the risk of hypothermia and increasing the number of accidents.
As technical teams work 24 hours a day to repair the damage caused by the most recent wave of missiles – which, last week, temporarily disabled all of the country’s nuclear power plants – the authorities issued an urgent warning warning of the possibility another wave of missiles is on its way.
“We go to sleep knowing that today was bad and tomorrow could be even worse”, said on Monday (28) the musician Vlad Medik, 25. He moved his bed away from the windows, in case a Russian missile explodes nearby, and makes sure your cell phone is fully charged before going to sleep so that you can hear any attack alarms. As he spoke, he was making a makeshift cover of cardboard boxes to protect a new generator from the snow falling in front of the music store where he works.
Last week, the skies above Kiev thundered as 20 Russian missiles were shot down as they passed over the capital. A dozen others found targets. The missiles were part of more than 600 that Russia has launched since October against infrastructure targets.
The damage caused by the most recent attack is proving to be the hardest to overcome. A week later, most people in the capital still don’t know when the electricity supply will return to normal.
Herman Haluchchenko, Ukraine’s energy minister, said on Wednesday that the stability of electricity supply is “improving with each passing day”. “If there are no new attacks against the power grid – and this is crucial –, in the near future we will be able to stabilize and reduce the duration of the blackouts.”
But the difficulties faced this past week have led Vlad Medik to change his perspective. One of the missiles destroyed a music studio in an industrial park on the outskirts of Kiev where Medik plays with his band Onaway. The missile killed two security guards and a woman at the scene.
Making plans for the future is a luxury he says he doesn’t have. Medik is trying to survive in the present. “You don’t think about entertainment, you don’t think about work that really gives you pleasure,” he says. “Think about mundane things, survival things. That’s all it comes down to.”
The difficulties can be extreme for the most vulnerable people: elderly people who have difficulty climbing dark stairs to reach their high-floor apartments; patients who need urgent care; traumatized children who crave routine. For others, it’s a strange and tiring life.
But in the midst of all the stress and danger, Kievans are steadfast, showing up to work, caring for their families, helping others in need, and even indulging in a few small pleasures.
Marina Musat, 38, is a masseuse working in central Kiev. She said she was surprised that not a single client had canceled massages recently. “We will continue to do our work despite the darkness.”
Even on a day last week when there were repeated air explosions, a client managed to communicate with the masseuse to make an appointment. “So I grabbed my bag and went to work,” she says. “It’s a little depressing when you have to work for hours in total darkness, but I’ve learned to massage with my eyes closed.”
In the Podil neighborhood, the oldest commercial district in the capital, generators supplied electricity to pharmacies, restaurants, clinics, hotels and sporting goods stores. Businesses seemed determined to keep their doors open.
If a Molotov cocktail was the symbol of defiance for the army of ordinary citizens like baristas, janitors and accountants that emerged shortly after the Russian invasion nine months ago, today the electric generator is the most sought after weapon on the energy front.
Unpredictability leads to improvisation. “We created a menu that says ‘kitchen with light’ and ‘kitchen with generator’. That way everyone will have something to eat and drink,” says barista Valeria Mamicheveva, 20, of the Hotel Bursa cafe.
At the time, she said, the cafe was running on generator power, which is why she had to limit consumption and the espresso machine could not be used. “We’ve got tea, we’ve got liquor when it’s acceptable to sell it, and we’ve got filter coffee.”
Valeria was smiling, but her eyes betrayed her weariness. An air raid alarm had just stopped going off, and she confessed that she was exhausted. “Because of the anxiety, the constant worry, I don’t have any energy left.”
But, despite all the difficulties, she does not want to leave Kiev. “There’s no better place than home, and I realized that if I go somewhere else, I’m going to get homesick. So I decided to stay right here and help the economy in some way.”
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