Fear Stalks Ukrainians Regardless of Their Distance From the Front Lines

As the war in Ukraine nears its six month mark with no end in sight, life for residents well beyond the fighting's front lines has already returned to something approaching normal. In cities such as Kyiv and Odesa, which only five months ago faced the prospect of direct assault by Russian forces, and still remain vulnerable to rocket attacks, everyday life bears some semblance to what it was before the Russian invasion of February 24.

But the psychological impact of having lived through the war's uncertain early months has made an impact on all Ukrainians. And for those who remain in immediate danger in cities such as Kharkiv, Bakhmut, and Mykolaiv, that crisis continues unabated.

Many Ukrainians are seeking help in dealing with the often unbearable stress of war.

"First of all, since February 24th, I've had many more requests than usual, and all of them are connected with the war," said Elena Vysotskaya, a Kyiv-based psychologist whose virtual service allows her to consult patients from all across the country. "It doesn't matter if the person in question is in a location that was directly affected or not. Whether you are a physical victim, a witness, or have only indirectly learned about the traumatic events of others, the situation affects absolutely everyone."

For Ukrainians who lived through the frighteningly uncertain early days of the war in Kyiv, and for those who are still living through it in places like Mykolaiv, that trauma remains, even if it is not always visible on the surface.

Tank Trap Cafe Kyiv
Tank traps line the sidewalk outside of a trendy sidewalk cafe in central Kyiv, Ukraine. As war rages on in the east and south of the country, cities behind the front lines are slowly returning to business as usual. MICHAEL WASIURA/NEWSWEEK

Larissa Merkulova and Vadim Zaplatnikov, a married couple of bushy-haired architects living in their eclectically furnished loft apartment in central Kyiv, told Newsweek why they decided not to relocate, even as the shockwaves of exploding Russian rockets shook their kitchen windows.

"On the morning of the 24th, I was in shock—shock and panic," Merkulova said. "If we had had kids, we would have left. We couldn't have taken the responsibility of risking their lives."

"We have the dog though, and so taking a train was out of the question," Zaplatnikov said, referring to the couple's pony-sized Black Russian Terrier. "We didn't know how much gasoline was in the car or if we would be able to get more on the road, so it was easier to just stay."

A lack of information about the state of the war and location of the battles taking place made decision-making difficult for the couple.

"At that point we didn't know about what was happening in Bucha," Merkulova said. "If we had known everything in real time, that might have changed our calculus. But when you didn't know which roads might suddenly become dangerous, when the choice is between running away and potentially suffering an evil fate, or staying put and potentially suffering an evil fate, the easier option is to just stay put."

That uncertainty continued until late March, when Russian forces finally began withdrawing from the areas around Kyiv. After that, the couple could finally rest assured that the sounds of rocket explosions and sporadic gunfire were coming from the television, rather than from the world right outside their window.

While life for Merkulova and Zaplatnikov has returned to something resembling normality, with multiple daily walks and occasional dinners at one of Kyiv's dozens of chic sidewalk cafes, some things have irrevocably changed.

"There's a hatred now for the people who could do these things," Zaplatnikov said. "Before the war, I had relatives in Kramatorsk, and when the Russians hit the train station there, I was in hysterics," he said in reference to the April 8 attack in which a Tochka-U rocket killed 52 Ukrainian civilians who were waiting to be evacuated from the eastern Ukrainian city.

Nearly every Kyivan can share a similar story. However, their emotional response to recent events often differs.

Dmitri and Anna Gorbenko, a young couple, live in a high-rise apartment building in a working class suburb on the northern edge of the capital. When Russia's full scale invasion began, it was visible from their bedroom window.

"Anya woke me up, and I said, 'let me sleep. I have to go to work soon,'" Dmitri told Newsweek. "Then I heard the explosions and saw that the sky was red. Nobody went to work."

The couple quickly gathered up their cat and went down to the basement bomb shelter, where neighbors were already sitting with their own pets. Occasionally, Dmitri and Anna would go back up to their apartment to cook and eat a hot meal or to take a shower, but for the first few days of the war, the vast majority of their time was spent underground.

"The stores and pharmacies were empty for a little while, but within a week they were already bringing in deliveries," Anna said. "I stood in a line of 20 or 30 people waiting to get into the supermarket, and suddenly there were alerts and explosions. Nobody got out of line though, and I didn't either. It turned out that the booms were from our air defense systems, not from incoming rockets. But in that moment, I was ready to die for a sausage."

On Day Ten of the war, Dmitri and Anna made the spontaneous decision to relocate to his parents' summer cottage south of Kyiv. The twelve-mile taxi ride to the airport took more than three hours.

"It was like a movie about the apocalypse," Dmitri said. "There were soldiers, barricades, tank traps, and checkpoints everywhere."

By late April, however, life in Kyiv had become normal enough to allow Dmitri and Anna to move back into their apartment.

"We went through something that most people never experience," Dmitri said of the trial by fire. "I think it made us closer."

"This war changed every priority," Anna said, her hands trembling as she spoke. "Little everyday problems just seem so trivial now. Phone calls to say 'how are you?' aren't simple small talk anymore."

In other parts of Ukraine, however, residents do not have the luxury of reflecting on their past experience of enduring Russian bombardment. For them, the war remains just outside their windows.

Mykolaiv Hotel
A man walks past a hotel and business center partially destroyed by missile strike on July 22, 2022 in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Mykolaiv, which is under constant fire from Russia, is the last major city standing between Russian occupation troops in Kherson and the Ukrainian port city of Odesa. Ivan Chernichkin/Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Alyona Bespala, a Mykolaiv native in her late 50s, recently relocated to her son's apartment in Odesa.

"In Odesa, they can't imagine the horror we live through, but they have sympathy," Bespala told Newsweek.

"In Mykolaiv they don't shoot very often during the day," she said, "but at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the streets start to empty out, and by nighttime, the only people out are young people drinking beer."

The war returns with the darkness.

"After sunset, you're just trying to find a place to bury your body deeper," Bespala said. "Maybe you drink a flagon of something to try to sleep, but even if it helps, you have bad dreams until 3 a.m. Then the bombing starts, and it doesn't stop until sunrise."

She said the war permeates every aspect of her life.

"With my girlfriends we discuss what condition our heels are in, what condition our pedicures are in, because, God forbid, if they only find my foot, I want it to look presentable," Bespala said.

"It's grisly, I know. I understand that it's grisly," she said. "But still, we make sure that the sheets are clean, that we sleep in nice-looking pajamas, because if they find me, I at least want to look good."

Although Bespala recently relocated to Odesa, her husband still works in Mykolaiv. She said the fear of not knowing what might have happened to him is almost as consuming as the fear of being under bombardment was for her in Mykolaiv.

"In Odesa I feel physically safe, but I'm still worried," she said. "For the first several months of the war, while I was in Mykoliav, I did not cry. Now, at any moment, I can erupt in tears. Every time there is a report of further shelling in Mykolaiv, I am thinking about where my husband is, and if for some reason he might have been close to that location at the time."

She has also noticed the stress taking its toll on her friends and colleagues.

"People are physically and emotionally exhausted," she said. "Volunteers with whom I was working to gather supplies back in March are unable to function normally. They haven't had a decent night's sleep in months, and it has an effect."

Still, there are those for whom the state of war has simply become a way of life. Nika, a Mykolaiv native in her mid-30s, also spoke of the divergent realities in different regions of her country.

"Last month I was in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, and I had the feeling that I was in a different world where there were no problems," she said. "Then, when I was coming back to Mykolaiv, I was really afraid. You're going to a place where you may well die, and your body itself resists that. My heart physically hurt."

Paradoxically however, for Nika at least, the return to chaos brought a sense of calm.

"That feeling of fear went away at the first explosion," she said. "The first explosion happens, and you immediately snap back to reality. You survive the first explosion, and suddenly it's, 'I feel normal.'"

"This is my reality, my Mykolaiv, my Ukraine," she said.