‘Slightly Reduced Comfort a Small Price to Pay for Victory’Surviving Daily Blackouts in a Warzone
Chris York meets a family in Kyiv to find out how people are living with Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure
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The Teslenko family received a few seconds’ advance warning of the blackouts that were about to plague them on an almost daily basis, in the form of a panoramic view of a Russian missile hitting Kyiv’s power plant number six.
“When the first missile hit, everything switched off,” 39-year-old Victor told Byline Times. “That was our first blackout but only for five or 10 minutes. Then the power was restored. But then they hit other infrastructure and the situation started deteriorating.”
Victor, his 32-year-old wife Lena and their five-year-old daughter Anya live on the twelfth floor of a new-build residential tower on the densely populated left bank of Kyiv. Their flat affords them sweeping views of Kyiv and the Dnipro river that flows southwards through Ukraine’s capital, and the giant Motherland Monument and the golden domes of the Pechersk Lavra reflect the morning sun from the other side of the river.
Normally lit by floodlights and the glow of surrounding buildings, these landmarks are now invisible at night; their illumination deemed insufficiently important in a city at war and ravaged by Russia’s ongoing attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure.
Walking Kyiv’s streets after dark is an eerie experience, with car headlights providing most of the illumination. On the capital’s roads and boulevards, only every second or third street light shines just enough to be functional. Responding to calls from the Ukrainian Government to conserve electricity, homes, shops and restaurants are all dimly-lit.
Yet, even these measures haven’t been enough to negate the need for rolling blackouts across Kyiv and, despite the Government’s attempts to limit them to four hours and spread the burden evenly across the city, some areas have been hit more frequently and for far longer than others.
The Teslenkos have been particularly unlucky. Since 10 October, when Russia’s renewed assault on civilian infrastructure began, “we’ve had power cuts almost every day except for weekends,” said Lena.
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“The most severe we had was around 10 hours,” added Victor.
Because the family lives on the twelfth floor of their building, no electricity also means no water as the pumps that deliver the water to the upper half of the building don’t work.
“It takes a lot of preparation and pre-planning,” Victor said, describing the multiple extra steps his family now need to take just to make sure they can get by every day. “We get up early and we wash ourselves really quickly in the morning. After we have showers, we fill up the bathtub so we have water for flushing the toilet and things like that, and then we have our breakfast and boil water and fill the thermos flasks.”
Power banks are a lifeline and, due to a trip to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada a few years ago, the Teslenkos have a healthy supply of nine that they ensure are always charging when they do have power. As for food, the hot water in the thermos flasks can be used to make noodles but usually Lena will have time in the morning to cook something.
Pointing to a pan wrapped in a blanket, she said: “We have soup here in a pan. I cook it in the morning and it stays warm for a few hours. Sometimes I can cook some meat or prepare a salad so we’re not eating the same thing every day.”
Victor, an entrepreneur, still goes to work every day and Anya’s school still has power. But the evenings are usually spent together in the apartment, lit by candles and small torches pointing upwards so that the light reflects off the ceiling.
Lena said that, for Anya, it’s all “a bit of an adventure”. “She has torchlight and her toys and I downloaded many, many cartoons onto a flashcard so she can watch them on the laptop when the internet is down,” she said.
Summer in Kyiv is long gone, but the current autumnal temperatures in the low teens will soon give way to the brutal Ukrainian winter when thermometers can often plunge to -20°C and below.
Central heating in Kyiv and other large cities in Ukraine consists of a communal system that is controlled by the Government, which has already warned that it will be reduced this winter. In a worst-case scenario, continued Russian attacks on the infrastructure that powers it could mean heating being disabled.
For the Teslenkos, even the best-case scenario they can currently envisage is a continuation of the almost daily power cuts they’re experiencing now.
“We’re expecting to maybe have to do this all winter,” said Lena. “If the blackouts are five or six hours it’s okay but, if they last longer during winter, it’s going to be hard. But we have warm clothes.”
The family does have a back-up plan. In a reversal of pre-war reality, life in Ukraine’s countryside – where homes rely on wood-burning – could potentially be more comfortable than in a major city in which heating and electricity generation have been crippled. “We have relatives who live in a village not far from Kyiv,” said Victor, “so our back-up plan is to go there.”
More than a million homes across Ukraine have been left without electricity following Russia’s attacks on energy infrastructure. According to Ukrainian officials, some 30 to 40% of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed – confirmation that the Kremlin’s new tactic of attacking civilian infrastructure has been successful.
Yet, in the context of the wider war, it has been an act of desperation from Vladimir Putin. Having originally planned to occupy the entire country in a matter of days, eight months later what was supposed to be the second most-powerful military in the world is currently being beaten by Ukraine’s smaller but better-equipped and far more motivated army.
Throughout the war, the only thing the Russian Army has proven itself to be consistently capable of is the targeting, destruction and murder of undefended civilian populations. The renewed shift to long-range missile and drone attacks against Kyiv and other cities is a tacit acknowledgment from the Kremlin that, to present successes and wins to the Russian people, it must aim where Ukraine’s military is not.
Russia’s unstated aim is to grind down the people of Ukraine, freeze them into submission over the winter, and foment enough unrest that it forces their Government to the negotiating table.
Asked if this tactic could work, Lena and Victor burst out laughing. “It makes us more determined,” Victor told Byline Times. “These are not the problems that force us to exchange a bit of comfort for our dignity and our identity. These are just temporary problems.
“One hundred years ago, there was no electricity and people were still able to live and do everything they needed. Now, okay fine, we won’t be able to browse the internet all day or watch movies because we have to conserve our batteries. It’s slightly reduced comfort and that’s a small price to pay for victory.”
Despite the current hardships and the prospect of a cold and brutal winter, Lena, Victor and Anya laugh and joke throughout the conversation. Asked if it’s genuine, Lena said: “Yes, of course. We’re happy because we’re together.”