Russia's attacks aimed at breaking Ukraine's spirit this winter seem to be missing their mark

Ukrainians appear to be surprising even themselves with how they're handling the fallout from Russian strikes on their energy infrastructure. There are rotating power outages in all major cities, but people are adapting and still finding ways to enjoy life.

Ukrainians display resilience as capital and other cities face constant power outages

Two skaters hold hands at an outdoor rink in the capital Kyiv,  even as Russian missiles bombard the city.
Skaters enjoy an outdoor rink and lights powered by generator in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, on a recent cold winter night. Attacks from Russia have forced Ukrainians to endure frequent blackouts, frigid nights and no running water. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

At the outdoor winter fair at Kyiv's main exposition centre, there's a games stall where people pay money to shoot a BB gun at a paper target bearing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Oleh, an electrical engineer, recently braved –14 C temperatures one night to come out with his wife, Tatiana, to take a shot.

"If we can't have a little bit of fun in this situation, we would all just be destroyed," he told CBC News, as a pellet hit its mark on the paper Putin's forehead.

"We're in a difficult situation, but people need a rest."

Since October, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities have endured an unrelenting attack from the skies by cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and Iranian-made drones — all launched by Russia to try to cripple the country's basic infrastructure.

Many have hit their mark, forcing Ukrainians from one end of the country to the other to endure frequent blackouts, frigid nights and no running water, as the invasion by Russia approaches its first anniversary on Feb. 24.

A games booth at the Kyiv expo where people pay to take shots at Vladimir Putin with a BB gun.
A man aims a BB gun at a paper image of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a games booth located at an outdoor winter fair in Kyiv. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But Ukrainians have turned a potentially catastrophic situation this winter into a manageable one, in a striking demonstration of collective resilience.

"The level of resilience of Ukraine as a whole is enormous. It has surprised even ourselves," said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukrainian air force lieutenant colonel who's now with the Razumkov Centre public policy think-tank in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital.

"We haven't waited for the government to provide us with alternatives. We just do what we can."

Winter market brings 'happiness' at dark time

Across the country, the sound of generators has become Ukraine's new soundtrack.

At the winter market, for example, on the evening CBC News visited, the power had been out since 10 a.m. that day.

Oleksandr Zhdanov, the market's manager, was using diesel generators to warm the changing areas and keep the chains of coloured party lights surrounding the outdoor skating rink twinkling.

A decorated Christmas tree and rides decked out in bright lights are shown at a winter fair.
The bright lights remain on at the Expo Centre in Kyiv thanks to diesel generators. While the city has reduced the number of outdoor amusement centres open this winter, business remains brisk, as Ukrainians cope with Russia's invasion. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"Every day we need to buy approximately 100 litres of diesel fuel. So we need to drive to the petrol station, buy it and bring it back," he said.

Keeping the outdoor rink and attractions at the Expo Centre operating as the city copes with the Russian attacks is essential, Zhdanov said.

"When we don't have electricity in Kyiv, people need these places to go out," he said, adding it brings everyone a lot of "happiness."

In Kyiv, the power can sometimes be out for eight hours over a 24-hour period, and while there's a schedule to help people plan through the dark, cold periods, sometimes new attacks disrupt the outage times.

'Soldiers on the medical front'

No one is exempt from conserving power — not even at Kyiv's Heart Institute, one of the capital's most prominent hospitals.

On a recent visit, CBC News was taken through darkened corridors and rooms lit only by emergency lighting to one of the primary operating theatres.

Doctors before surgery during a blackout using headlamps and battery-powered equipment.
A team at Kyiv's Heart Institute operates during a blackout using headlamps and battery-powered equipment. Power interruptions are a constant challenge for the medical staff — and even with backup generators, there can sometimes be gaps in the power supply. (Kyiv Heart Institute)

"We are now working [as if] we are on a submarine," said director Dr. Borys Todurov, 58, one of Ukraine's top heart surgeons.

Aside from adjusting to the chronically dim conditions, the hospital has had to become entirely self-sustaining, with food, water and supplies on hand for three months at a time — just in case the city is plunged back into a similar kind of crisis when Russian troops invaded Ukraine last February.

Many staff members ended up spending weeks at the hospital without ever going home, as beds were filled with military and civilian casualties of the Russian attack.

Practically every hallway in the hospital is now stacked with boxes of medical supplies and backup equipment.

A doctor wears a surgical outfit and equipment before scrubbing up for an operation.
Dr. Borys Toduruov, director of Kyiv's Heart Institute, is shown scrubbing up before an operation. He compares working at the hospital during unpredictable power outages to being 'on a submarine.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

However, the frequent power interruptions are a constant challenge for the medical staff — and even with the hospital's backup generators, there can sometimes be gaps in the power supply.

"We are like soldiers, but not with guns, only with a scalpel. These are medical instruments, but we feel ourselves like soldiers on the medical front, all of us," Todurov said.

He allowed CBC News to observe him perform open heart surgery on a 70-year-old patient suffering from acute coronary disease.

Doctors and nurses are shown in a hospital operating on a patient.
Surgeons and nurses at the institute operate on a patient. Aside from adjusting to the chronically dim conditions, the hospital has had to become entirely self-sustaining, with food, water and supplies on hand for three months at a time. (Kyiv Heart Institute)

"The last time we lost electricity, we had 10 patients we were operating on. But we continued the operations and finished without complication," he said, noting his team has become proficient at performing complex procedures using only headlamps with battery-powered lights.

Other equipment, such as the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, also has battery backups.

"We have adapted for this situation, and we will continue to work like this for as long as it is necessary."

Residents return to continuing hardship

Elsewhere in the capital region, the open wounds inflicted on neighbourhoods that were briefly occupied by Russian troops last spring are also being healed and repaired.

Driving through Bucha, where between 170 and 450 civilians were killed by Russian troops — depending on United Nations or Ukrainian estimates — many apartments are full again with families who have returned.

Part of an apartment building is missing after it was damaged in an airstrike.
Buildings damaged by artillery strikes and shelling in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha are being repaired following the departure of Russian occupiers last spring, but ugly scars remain. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Buildings damaged by artillery strikes and shelling during the battles that raged through the suburb's leafy streets are being repaired, and the sound of hammers and sawing resonates through many areas.

"We had a comfortable life. Now it's harder than it was before, but we are getting used to it and coping," said Natalia Sokolovska, 36, who was at a park with friends, watching their children toboggan.

"There were not a lot of people at the beginning. But then they started to come back and come back," said Iryna Murashkova, 34.

But running generators all the time is expensive — about $40 a day — so many families have learned to keep their warm clothing on inside and charge items like mobile phones strategically.

Three women wearing winter coats stand outside in the snow.
Zhanna Klymenko, left, Natalia Sokolovska and Iryna Murashkova are shown at a Bucha park watching their children toboggan. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

When the power returns, Murashkova said, her family gets a few hours of hot water, which they use to take showers and do laundry.

"We were thinking that we may need to escape again. But now I am unpacked and live at home," she said. "We hope that it is the last winter like this, so it gives us strength."

Since the start of the winter, international help has been pouring across the border from other European nations to help Ukraine repair its shattered electrical grid and families cope with the challenges.

One of the more unusual contributions has come from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, which has donated several unique warming stations that are now being set up in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

A yurt is shown near apartment buildings surrounded by snow.
The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan has donated several 'Yurts of Invincibility,' which are now being set up in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities as a place where people can come to warm up and charge their electronic gadgets. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Dubbed "Yurts of Invincibility," they're modelled after traditional Kazakh dwellings and decorated with exotic carpets and various other Kazakh touches.

Inside, heaters provide a break from the cold, there are charging stations for phones and volunteers serve up pastries and traditional rice "plov."

"This is showing that Ukrainians are not alone," said Vitaly Karchuliak, a Ukrainian of Kazakh background who was welcoming people at the yurt in Bucha.

"We are unbreakable. And I think we will manage to finish this winter, and we will come to spring and summer and we'll be ready for other challenges."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.