During air raids, Tetyana Strelchenko took shelter in a tiny apartment corridor in Dnipro and started recording her feelings and impressions in a series of short pieces. They are a diary of the hopes, dreams and fears of Ukrainian civilians living through the first year of the Russian invasion.
I celebrated Easter with my brother’s family and returned to Kyiv on the penultimate day of April. Sleepless, eyes open to the coil-black train darkness, I listened to the monotonous rhythmic melody of the railroad and imagined my reunion with the city.
I love Kyiv the way you love a human, a boyfriend, or a husband; I was missing it badly, its white squares, dancing fountains, cinnamon air of the old local bakery on Yaroslaviv Val, and the piano sound from the open windows in Podil. I had my secret nook behind the Opera House, where I would read books right in the city’s center while “far from the maddening crowd.” I had many heartbreaks in my life, but Kyiv was always loving and loyal. I was deadly scared that the war would change the city irreversibly and that it would forget me for good.
It felt so strange yet so right to be back home. The curfew hour had just finished, but the metro was still closed, and people formed a line near the subway entrance. There were no babies or children in the railroad station, and the crowd was silent and polite, like in the expensive “adults-only” hotel lobby.
My backpack, just like my past, didn’t weigh much, so I decided to walk a few blocks.
Kyiv was glowing with the sunlight, blushing with tulip fever – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many tulips there before! The city was all flowers, doves, and first ladybugs, but something wasn’t right.
I saw anti-tank armor, empty Molotov cocktails bottles, and bullet holes in the buildings, but I was prepared for the war entourage. What I couldn’t prepare myself for was the sinister emptiness, the ghost town serenity so unusual and so creepy. The streets seemed too clean and abandoned, with a random passer-by or a bike rider here and there staring at me as if I resembled someone they knew but forgot the name.
Strangely, my apartment didn’t change at all, only got covered with thick archeological dust. I was slightly concerned that new forms of life appeared there while I was away, and they would not be happy for me to invade their home environment. I took the risk anyway.
Things were scattered all over my living room as if the person who lived here had fled the war. Oh, wait! That was me, and that’s precisely what I did.
My messy apartment was filled not only with dust but also with memories of how the war started and how freezing cold I felt during those first nights of late February. There were warm blankets, yoga mats, and thermos cups I would bring to the basement. Our shelter didn’t have a restroom, so beverages were an awful idea. I would still make hot tea to warm my hands while waiting for the air raids to be over.
Most of all, I worried about my orchids and a pot with African violets, the only living beings in my apartment. Before departing, I poured them plenty of water and left them in the bathroom so they wouldn’t get drained. Here they were – all five of them alive, real survivors of Kyiv siege. One orchid got new leaves, colored like a wilted salad due to the lack of sunlight. The other tried to reach the water from a distant pot, so its root grew tremendously long.
Sometimes I think I am just a bio-machine who takes simple life moments and observations and recycles them into literature symbols and metaphors. I know this sin of mine, and I continue committing it because that’s who I am.
I looked at the long roots of my poor orchid and couldn’t help comparing it to Ukraine. Because when you are left without ground, sunlight, and water – that’s what you do.
You grow your own roots longer.
I played the dandelion in a kindergarten play when I was a child. This was a floral ball where each kid dressed up in a costume of their favorite flower. I remember choosing the dandelion and my mother spending a few evenings making me the costume. She found a puffy dress, yellow as a slice of lemon, and adorned it with tiny artificial flowers. The flowers looked more like yellow daisies, but we pretended they were dandelions. People bought it, and I was awarded something like “Miss Charming Dandelion.” The judges might have awarded every kid too so that nobody felt left behind.
I do remember some kids asking me in surprise: “Dandelion? Why not rose or tulip or peony?” The thing was – I did love dandelions and preferred them over all other flowers. They were simple, unpretentious, and didn’t require much from us people. I spent my springs during my childhood making dandelion crowns, but at some point, something went wrong.
I grew up, and my adult time did not include the dandelion season. I was busy with office tasks, scheduled meetings, or endless quarantine zooms, and I missed dandelions year after year. They seemed to bloom in a parallel universe, and I would notice their bold heads only when they grew old and gray. There is something profoundly sad about white dandelions: like an army of old parachutists, they go with the wind and land in distant places.
I would never imagine myself reflecting on time and transience amidst the war. But that’s precisely what I did while having coffee with my young colleague Margo in an outdoor Kyiv café in early May.
“They stole my spring.” – Margo exclaimed angrily, and I knew exactly whom she meant. – “I’ve been so hopeful about this spring and the upcoming summer! I’ve watched the weather app’s updates, temperature, sunrise, and day length! And they just took my spring away from me!”
I walked home thinking about what it meant for a soon-to-be twenty-five-year-old young woman to lose her spring. Bloodthirsty Russians stole her March rains, April perfume-scented winds, and May lush greenery. They stole her dance nights, popcorn and movie evenings, and giggles in prohibited places. They stole her precious days, colorful minutes, and awkward seconds.
I felt Margo’s pain. It was unfair and made no sense at all. Still, Kyiv seemed unaware that our internal clock got broken, perpetually showing February 24th on its glass face. Kyiv was blooming, all pink, white, and fiery red, as if celebrating a kindergarten floral ball despite the brutal war.
For a second, I stopped, and my eyes got teary with too much light.
I looked around.
There were dandelions, the good old friends of my childhood times. Bright yellow, they shone like miniature suns.
Of all Kyiv neighbors, my very favorite is aunty Tonya, an elegant woman in her sixties; her purple hair is brighter than the blooming lilac tree in our yard. I made friends with aunty Tonya and her ancient dachshund during the first wave of Covid quarantine in spring 2020. Ever since, we have had lovely conversations in our old elevator, mostly bragging about the trophies we got at our local fruit market. Usually, she calls me доця (sweet daughter) – I suspect she doesn’t remember my name, but I don’t mind. I really enjoy her motherly attitude and how her hundred-year-old dachshund licks my hands.
When I returned to Kyiv from Dnipro, aunty Tonya was the first person I saw in our empty post-Apocalyptical yard filled with the echoes of the invasion. Her purple hair now appeared frosty near the roots and its color slightly faded, getting a withered lavender hue. She got thinner, yet her smile was still radiant.
“I felt so useless, доця. I wanted to do more, but I only baked pancakes for the boys in the territorial defense and the kids in the basement… Not much, you see, not much!” –
To me, it sounded like a beautiful volunteer effort, mainly because I remembered the divine cinnamon smell of those pancakes, sweet and delicious.
“Believe me, aunty Tonya, your very presence makes all the difference! I saw you on the morning of February 24th. Everyone was panicking and running around like crazy, but you went for a walk with your dog like you usually would. You looked so calm, peaceful, and composed. Your tranquility immediately returned me to my senses!” – I told her, and I meant every word.
She stared at me perplexed and then broke into laughter.
“Oh, доця, I was so calm and confident because I didn’t know that the war had started! My TV set got broken, and I didn’t hear the sirens!”
We both laughed so hard that the old dachshund started barking, eager to participate in our laughing party.
SONG OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT
/written with the candle in my Kyiv corridor
during the three-day blackout/
In the end, this will be a story about darkness.
In a better, brighter, lighter world, we will tell the tales of how we combated blackness to those who will want to listen.
We will describe the thick and sickening gloaming of our Ukrainian streets, their contemporary, tech-forward bustle during the day, and their spellbound medieval atmosphere cast by the first lilac twilight. We will laugh about our childish nightmares brought to life by regular blackouts and how suddenly we were not afraid of monsters anymore. Well, we already faced them and decided to stay and fight back, and it’s a story worth telling.
Who knew that darkness has so many shades and so many shapes?
It’s mouse grey and uncertain when you think about your future.
It’s dusty brown when you shelter in your corridor, staring at the winter coats that remind you of never-ending February.
It’s pitch-black when you look into the eyes of someone who survived the siege of Mariupol or artillery shootings in Kharkiv.
It’s bulging and filled with shadows of those killed and whose voices are lost. Their soft and airy souls fly around our home candles and make the flames flicker and dance on the walls; their whispers make us cold and shattered. Now it is our responsibility to share their stories with the world.
These grey days and coal-black evenings make me recollect my childhood in east Ukraine. In the 90-s, Ukraine suffered from an energy crisis, and electricity blackouts were widespread. Most of my school notebooks had wax stains, and I remember doing my homework with a candle, like a proper Victorian girl. It was also the best excuse for not doing mathematics, which I hated with all my heart.
There was something romantic and warm about those blackouts. My dad would play guitar while my mom baked a cheap tea pie (a bizarre combination of sugar, tea leaves, sunflower oil, and flour). My grandpa would sing miner’s songs about Donetsk’s steps. My brother and I would play cards, and he allowed me to win occasionally. And then, I would snatch my dad’s flashlight and read books till midnight while everyone else was already asleep.
Unfortunately, I can’t find anything cozy and beautiful in this recent darkness. It’s absorbing our energy like a massive black hole. But then I walk down my favorite Kyiv street and see a dim light in the windows as if each apartment has a portable mini-moon, and its lackluster shining makes everything look mysterious. And then I observe small acts of kindness here and there. People help the elderly in the dark streets. Shop owners let you recharge your phone without expecting you to buy anything there. Strangers with flashlights suddenly stop and light your way so that you don’t step in a puddle accidentally.
So, I turn my head and see those tiny lights everywhere, like fireflies flying in a magical forest. They burn the black canvas of the night with their golden shimmering.
At this moment, it becomes obvious.
In the end, it will be a story about light.
TETYANA STRELCHENKO is a writer from Kyiv, Ukraine. She has a degree in English, Spanish, and World Literature, and her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in publications in Ukraine, Sweden, and the USA, including The Threepenny Review and The North American Review.