Air raid sirens blared through the streets of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, on February 22, warning civilians to seek shelter from the threat of Russian missile attacks. For the next hour, Ukrainian citizens would be uncertain if Russia was already beginning its expected attacks marking the one-year anniversary, on February 24, 2022, of the launch of its aggressive war on Ukraine. But most people, myself included, went on with their day — one year into the war, I have seen Ukrainians grow accustomed to the sounds of alarms and the rumble of attacks. This is their reality, a nightmare they can never entirely escape but have had to learn to live with. But through the darkness, there has also been light — the Ukrainian people’s resiliency and determination to break free from Russia forever.
Over the past year, the Voice has covered the human and environmental costs of the conflict and spoken with Ukrainian citizens for its series “War In Ukraine.” Now, in the days leading up to February 24, I had the chance to speak further with everyday Ukrainians, and to revisit some of those the Voice has featured during the course of the war.
On a Saturday night at the Versace G Club, one of just three queer clubs in Kyiv, patrons huddle near a small stage in the dimly lit venue, waiting for the night’s performance, a drag show, to begin. The smell of cigarette smoke is in the air, paired with a fruity scent wafting from three people sitting around a hookah on a table in the back of the room. Over loud music and gurgling drunk people, I speak with a 22-year-old transgender woman named Yasya about how the war has affected her. “In everyone’s life, the war has made its changes. In my case, the war gave me the understanding that I could die without having lived as I wanted all my life. I believe the main strength of any Ukrainian is their desire to fight for freedom, not only from occupation but also freedom to choose how to live,” she responds.
It was during the war that Yasya found the courage to come out, and since then, she tells me, she has felt accepted by her fellow Ukrainians. At work, operating critical infrastructure in Kyiv, and amongst friends, Yasya tells me, she can always present herself as a woman without feeling the need to hide any part of herself away. Although problems arise, such as still having male-identity documents that bar her from leaving Ukraine during martial law, Yasya tells me that they “do not create any big obstacles in my life. If there are any legal issues, I solve them calmly, depending on the situation. I do not feel that my rights are infringed by the fact that I cannot leave Ukraine now.” She adds, “I try to be a decent person, help people around me, and remember that all of us in Ukraine are fighting for our freedom, everyone in their place.”
Yasya’s words serve as a parting note between us, because a few moments later, a microphone is turned on and six drag queens walk onto the stage, to cheers from the crowd. One stands out through the costumes, dances, and songs: Aura, whose long brown hair is pulled back into a braid, with a flower crown resting on her head. She wears a traditional Ukrainian dress embellished with a black corset and a gem-studded choker necklace, an homage to her heritage.
While the others perform carefully thought-out dances, Aura shows little interest in keeping in line with the status quo. Instead, she appears regal — conservative and provocative at the same time — as she sings “Solovey,” by the Go_A group, a Ukrainian electro-folk band. Throughout her performance, Aura receives cheers and praise from the crowd. Once the song is over, she walks casually offstage, seemingly unphased by anyone else’s presence in the room. In a series of messages over Instagram after the show, Arthur Ozerov, Aura’s offstage male identity, tells me, “I love Ukrainian traditions, I like national clothes and culture. For a long time, I wanted to make a production in Ukrainian clothing and perform exactly the song that I did. I remember the first time I heard it. It touched my heart.”
Ozerov was featured in the Voice article “A Soldier’s Life: Conversations Inside Ukraine’s Defense Force” this past summer. At that time, Ozerov’s main job was to build coffins for those who had died in combat, so they could be returned home to their families. His way of escaping the hardships of that work was found in the time Aura got to shine. Speaking of Aura’s costumes and personality, Ozerov tells me, “All my outfits are different from other drag queens I work with because I want to stand out and be different. I always choose a song to match my mood. And I must feel myself and fully devote to the game onstage.”
Aura’s magnetic personality fades from the public eye at 11 p.m., when the wartime curfew begins in Ukraine. Although she won’t make a public appearance until the next show, she stays in the mind of Ozerov as he carries on with his difficult duties. He has begun a new position in the military, moving away from construction and into protecting Kyiv’s critical infrastructure. Currently, the main focus of Ozerov’s work is preparing Kyiv for the attacks expected to occur on February 24. He warns, “There will be massive rocket fire. Most likely in the morning. It will be safe in shelters, subways, and underpasses” (underground crosswalks for Kyiv’s busy streets). “I will be at work,” Ozerov adds.
A few days later, I meet Yana Kachkovska and her boyfriend, Nikolai Polovin, at their apartment in Kyiv. The pair had come to collect me at the train station out of fear that I would not find their home easily. (I’d told them I am a New Yorker, and complicated commutes mean nothing to me.)
I first spoke with Kachkovska and Polovin for a story in the May 2022 issue of the Voice, “Fighting for Aid as Ukraine Fights for Life.” Kachkovska had spoken to me then about how her work as a volunteer in a refugee center was consuming her life, causing her physical and emotional distress. Nearly every day, Kachkosvska worked at a refugee site in a vacant school in Chernivtsi, collecting clothing, food, and first aid for those in need while also allocating funds to buy ammunition for Ukraine’s army. Getting her to step away from this work, even for a moment, often required intervention from Polovin or other people in Kachkovska’s life. The stress of acting as psychiatrist, friend, cook, and whatever else was needed took a toll on her, and now she has quit the work entirely. She tells me she “started to take tranquilizers, pills that calm you down, because I was getting more and more nervous.” The pills were mainly to help her at night when sleeping seemed nearly impossible. But, she tells me, the effects the next day caused “Headaches, mostly headaches. I feel weak throughout the day. It would affect my body.”
For Polovin, the extended duration of the war has caused fears for the safety of his family, who have remained in his hometown, Volnovakha, which has been occupied by Russia for the war’s entirety. “They don’t want to leave,” he tells me. “One of my grandparents has lived her whole life in Volnovakha, she’s 86 years old, and she doesn’t want to leave, even if some nuclear attack happens. She told me, ‘Let it be whatever it is. Nuclear attack doesn’t matter. I don’t want to leave my house.’”
Even if Polovin’s family wanted to leave their town, they could not, because the borders between occupied and non-occupied areas of Ukraine are closed. And any attempt to flee to other countries would require an active passport; Polovin tells me his father’s expired last year. “The only new passports they can receive right now are Russian,” he explains. “They [Russia] don’t force you to get a Russian passport, but talk around town is that they will in the future. And they will force people to give up their Ukrainian citizenship, Ukrainian passports in exchange for the Russian ones. I honestly don’t know how it’s going to turn out to be.”
While the past year has seen constant turbulence, creating a lack of stability for Polovin and Kachkovska, they have at least had each other. But their fears are heightened with each day that passes, and the couple is now concerned about a battle 500 miles away, in Bakhmut, and what it might mean for the future of the war. Capturing Bakhmut would allow Russian forces to advance to neighboring cities Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, a move that could see Russia gaining control of most of the eastern Donetsk region. The fighting has been brutal in Bakhmut, and, according to a report in The New York Times, there are hundreds of Russian casualties each day, with Ukrainian losses at times approaching those levels.
Contacting anyone in Bakhmut is nearly impossible. However, I was able to speak with one soldier, a DJ named Detcom, over WhatsApp during the past month. The Voice first spoke with Detcom for the same story about the diversity among members of the Ukrainian military that featured Ozerov. Detcom was stationed with his unit between Mykolayiv and Kherson’s southern cities. “I remember the Southern campaign with warm, good memories, maybe because it’s past. Or maybe compared to current situation in cold Donbas and intense close-quarters combat. Here in Donbas, it’s kinda scary,” he writes.
When Kherson was liberated, in November, civilians cheered on the streets, holding Ukrainian flags and embracing their country’s soldiers, but the freedom came at a cost. Detcom tells me that his battalion lost a total of 29 men during the fight for Kherson, two of whom were from his unit. “Both died during the first wave of counteroffensive towards Kherson in the end of August. We’re all friends in some way,” he says. “We’re all staying close for a year already.” In Bakhmut, Detcom tells me, “Situation is very tough. Lost three guys from my company. Two died on February 12 and the next one on February 13 in the morning.” Now his unit is waiting for reinforcements to help them. In the meantime, they continue to fight for the city.
When I ask Detcom how he is preparing for February 24, he tells me, “I don’t know. Trying to survive, I guess. It’s the Russians we are talking about. They’re unpredictable.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.