A Ukrainian city is celebrating despite the cold and the Russians

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Tit’s a gun now quiet in North Saltivka, an area on the northeastern edge of Kharkiv, but war is visible everywhere. White, splintered apartment blocks stick out of the soil like bones in a graveyard. Trenches still cut across playgrounds and football pitches. Among the ruins is Yevgeny Zubatov, 32, walking with his son Danya, who is seven years old. He has come to pay respect, he says, to the apartment he abandoned when the war started on the morning of February 24. He makes the trip every weekend, taking a thermos flask with him so he can drink a cup of tea in his own four walls – or three and a half, as they are now. He has brought some chocolates with him this time, a nod to the upcoming holiday season. But he says he is not in a good mood to celebrate. “My New Year is all about my son. We continue for him.”

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Mr Zubatov’s melancholic mood is not unusual in Ukraine’s second city, which is just 35km (22 miles) from the Russian border. Russian artillery has been pushed back beyond the city’s firing range, but it is unclear whether Kharkiv will ever return to its pre-war life. A local initiative is now making flap jackets for small children (pictured), to put on when they leave. At least half of the pre-war population has left, including most of the 300,000 who lived in North Saltivka.

In the most affected area, the easternmost Saltivka 3, residents are struggling on despite the lack of even basic infrastructure. They warm themselves using wood burning stoves, ventilated through holes in boarded windows. A green tarpaulin “point of instability” provided by the central government, provides the last line of support. When Russian rockets brought out electricity and water on December 16, the tent was overflowing with residents looking for a Starlink internet connection and hot drinks. For many of them, alcohol was a faster route to invincibility.

Father Valera, an Afghan war veteran turned local priest, says the worry about staying warm has added to the worries of people struggling to cope with his ‘war. “I see the spiritual pain in everyone I talk to in Saltivka, including children,” he says. “Their eyes blink all over the place. They shake when doors slam.” At the height of the fighting in February and March, the basement of Father de Valera’s chapel became a shelter for more than 50 people. Services continued even as missiles blew out the windows above ground.

Now, the priest is looking for new ways to help his parishioners recover psychologically. Christmas was a good place to start, he said; he expected a delivery of trees and decorations in the coming days. But there are no plans to follow the government’s proposal to change Christmas to the Western date of December 25. Father Valera’s church is part of the controversial, Moscow-linked branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, so it will celebrate January 7 – just as it always has.

For a long time, city authorities were uncertain about their own celebration plans, especially with the black ordinances that have been in place since the early days of the war. Mayor Ihor Terekhov, who has promoted himself as the face of Kharkiv’s heroic struggle, said at one point that he was considering canceling the seasonal program. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “War has taken enough away from our children,” he said. Instead, Kharkiv will organize a limited program of events, all underground. On December 19, the mayor unveiled a tree at the University subway station. , just below its usual location on Freedom Square. “There was no way to put one above ground because there have already been direct impacts on the square,” the mayor said. signs of the enemy.”

The highlight of the Kharkiv Christmas program is a new musical show, “The Ice Lady”, which will be performed three times a day on the stage of the University station. The director, Alexei Nastachenko, said the show would eliminate any reference to war. But it is not difficult to understand the motifs: in a terrible country, not so far away, a witch has turned everything to ice. One day she intends to do the same thing as the hero of the play. The hero resists, and after a strong struggle he is saved by love, friendship and all good things. The witch melts away. “Kharkiv during the war has been united by a great desire to love each other,” says Mr. Nastachenko. “When this is over, we will be the happiest people on Earth.”

Sociologists who monitor Ukrainian public opinion have noted trends in support of Mr. Nastachenko. Alexei Antipovich, whose polling group Rating compared the mood before and during the war, says that Ukrainians are, paradoxically, more confident about their future than they were before the war started. . A common enemy has consolidated a once-broken nation: “The difference across religions, geography, language and age has only become smaller. It has completely disappeared.” Ukrainians have become more optimistic, and have higher views of themselves, their fellow citizens and the state. Fully 97% of them now believe that Ukraine will win the war

That hope is shared even in the ruins of North Saltivka. The residents who stayed say they learned a lot about their own suffering. “Our story is about realizing that we are stronger than we thought we were,” says Tatyana Protsenko, who gave birth to a baby girl in October despite living in an apartment block he was hit by artillery eight times. Her husband, Yehor Bezuglov, agrees. In the worst times, the neighbors found each other: they looked each other in the eye, and liked what they saw. It is now hoped that they will get a chance to rebuild their broken lives together. But the fear of the Russians remains, he says; if anything, it has increased since the guns stopped. “You get used to the guns. Silence is the worst. That’s when the fear starts again.”

Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

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