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‘Russia ruined my old age’ In frontline areas, elderly Ukrainians want nothing more than to outlive the war 

Source: Meduza
This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Many people displaced within the country moved to relatively safer western regions, while others fled to Europe or beyond as refugees. 

In the eastern hotspots of the war, those who have remained are often low-income, sick, or elderly people, many of whom feel they have nowhere else to go. They live in homes damaged by shelling and walk ruined streets, attempting to find some normality just kilometers away from active front lines. In some areas, this has been the reality since 2014.

A destroyed bridge in Kupyansk. November 2023.
Lucy Duvall

Ukraine has one of the highest proportions of older people in the world, with around a quarter of the population over 60 years old. Displaced older people face significant challenges in rebuilding their lives, and many have found themselves crammed into small, shared rooms in temporary shelters or ended up in state institutions throughout Ukraine. 

Some of the seniors still living in wartorn areas believe they would be a burden should they move in with their children, and leaving Ukraine would mean starting over again as refugees late in life. For others, remaining in their homes is an act of defiance: Their pride as Ukrainians makes them feel there is nowhere else they would rather be. So they stay, risking death to live out their final years at home — or as close to it as possible. 


Safer than Bakhmut 

In Kharkiv, a large three-story building that once operated as a hostel has been turned into a shelter for displaced senior citizens. Many of the residents come from frontline areas. Lyudmyla, 82, came here from Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region that Russian forces captured at the end of May 2023 after more than six months of heavy fighting. 

Evacuation efforts continued for months, with Ukrainian authorities and volunteers begging lingering residents to leave the city as its fate grew dim. Those who remained in the city the longest were often the most vulnerable people — the disabled, sick, or elderly — or those few who were “waiting for Russia.” By late May, Bakhmut Mayor Oleksii Reva reported that only about 500 people were still living there, among the ruins. 

Born in 1941, Lyudmyla said she was too young to remember living through World War II. But she described her memories from the current war as “terrible.” Before coming to Kharkiv, Lyudmyla had lived in Bakhmut her entire life, and even as Russian forces advanced on the city in the fall of 2022, she was loath to leave the three-room apartment she had once shared with her late daughter.  

Lyudmyla at the shelter. Kharkiv, November 2023.
Lucy Duvall

Most of Ukraine’s elderly people are women — and many of them, like Lyudmyla, have outlived their husbands or other immediate family members. Lyudmyla said her husband died more than 20 years ago and her daughter passed away due to illness just months before the start of the full-scale war. 

As a result, Lyudmyla — like so many other older Ukrainian women — found herself living alone in increasingly dire conditions. By the time she evacuated in November 2022, Bakhmut was without water, electricity, and heating. “It was below freezing in my apartment. Everything had frozen: water was standing up in its container,” the 82-year-old said. To keep warm, Lyudmyla wore layer upon layer of sweaters and jackets. “We even slept like that,” she explained. “It was like that day and night.” 

Despite the harsh living conditions, Lyudmyla maintained that volunteers evacuated her against her will. “They took one look at me and saw that I was on the fence about it,” she said, recalling the circumstances of her evacuation. “They pulled me from my house. I was standing there like this, in my slippers and dressed in rags, [and] they took me away like that. Everything was left behind in the apartment.” 

The volunteers brought Lyudmyla to Dnipro, and from there, she made her way to Kharkiv. She now lives in a small room with two twin-sized beds for her and her roommate. The shelter’s medical staff look after her, and she has all the basic necessities, including food, heating, and a running faucet. 

That said, the entire Kharkiv region remains under near-constant attack. Two Russian missile strikes on downtown Kharkiv injured 17 people late on January 16, and smaller settlements in the region report shelling almost daily. Ukrainian officials extended the mandatory evacuation order for families with children in the Kharkiv region earlier this week. According to Governor Oleh Syniehubov, 3,043 people, including 279 children, live in the 26 villages slated for evacuation. 

The evacuation order does not include the city of Kharkiv itself, which, for now, is relatively safer than Bakhmut — a devastated, Russian-occupied city surrounded by ongoing hostilities. But a year after her evacuation, Lyudmyla remains indignant. “I haven’t forgotten my city, and I never will. And I curse myself for evacuating — I should have stayed until the end,” she said. “It would have been better to get blown up with that house than here.”


A frontline town once again

Last March, the Ukrainian authorities began mandatory evacuations of families and other vulnerable residents from Kupyansk — a key railway junction Ukrainian forces had liberated during their surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in September 2022. Sixteen months after its liberation, Kupyansk is less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from the front line, with Russian forces moving to recapture territory in the northeast. 

A destroyed and abandoned building on the front line in the direction of Kupyansk. November 21, 2023.
Ozge Elif Kizil / Anadolu / Getty Images

The Ukrainian authorities completed mandatory evacuations of families with children from the eastern part of Kupyansk in late November. But an estimated 5,500 people were still living in the city, including Oleh and his wife Katya (names changed), who are both in their late eighties. 

In the kitchen of their Soviet-built apartment, Katya made tea as she and Oleh told the story of their lives. The husband and wife were born before World War II; Katya spent her childhood in Rostov, in southern Russia, and Oleh in Volnovakha, in eastern Ukraine. Oleh said he remembered Nazi Germany’s troops occupying his hometown when he was just a boy. “Our childhood was like this,” he said, referring to the war raging outside. “The Germans ruined my childhood, and Russia ruined my old age.”

Katya has lived in Ukraine for 70 years, 58 of which she has spent married to Oleh. They built their life together in Kupyansk, raising two children (who have since moved to Europe) and weathering the ups and downs of the Soviet Union’s final decades. 

A retired truck driver, Oleh was part of a convoy deployed to Chornobyl (Chernobyl, in Russian) in 1986, after an accident at the nuclear power station caused the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power generation. Oleh said he was tasked with transporting gravel contaminated with radiation from the disaster site. “I was sent there for a month; it was an order,” he recalled. “I left and came back in the same clothes. No one checked for radiation; no one measured it. I didn’t see a single doctor.”

Oleh said his involvement in the clean-up effort earned him veteran’s status, disability benefits, and the apartment where he and his wife still live. Recalling Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into the Donbas region in 2014, Oleh noted that he and Katya have lived through three wars “plus Chernobyl.”

Located just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border with Russia and with a pre-war population of almost 27,000 people, Kupyansk was the first town to surrender without condition to Russian soldiers in February 2022. Few had time to escape the city, and locals told journalists that the occupation authorities set up roadblocks, making it impossible for people to leave. 

“We woke up in the morning [and] our neighbor said, ‘The Russians have come.’ We don’t know how it happened,” Katya said, recalling the first day of the occupation. In the days that followed, Oleh went out to collect his pension, only to discover that the banks were closed. He then went to the supermarket to buy food and encountered a “sea of people” waiting to receive humanitarian aid. 

A church building riddled with bullet holes and damage from shelling. Kupyansk, November 2023.
Lucy Duvall
The aftermath of a missile strike on a cafe in Hroza, a village in the Kupyansk district, on October 5, 2023. The attack killed 59 people and wounded five others.
Mykhaylo Palinchak / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Millions of Ukrainian seniors rely on government pensions, which averaged around 5,350 hryvnias ($140) per month in the third quarter of 2023. Those living in occupied territories have lost access to these funds altogether and face pressure to take Russian citizenship to receive social support.

Oleh was unable to collect his Ukrainian pension throughout the six and a half months that Kupyansk was under occupation. He said that, in a moment of desperation, he accepted money from the Moscow-installed authorities. “We needed to live. The banks were closed, the ATMs didn’t work, nothing worked. There were only speculators; you’d hand over your card, and they’d go to some place in [Russian-occupied] Luhansk or Donetsk and [take out cash] there,” he explained. “We were surrounded by frauds.” 

One day during the summer, Oleh went out to pick up humanitarian aid. He was wearing an old button-up shirt from the Soviet era, emblazoned with the names of factories. A woman waved him to the front of the line, telling him, “Grandpa, you can go first.” Some “correspondents” took pictures of him, Oleh said, which were later “broadcast” in Russia.

Russian state media often reports on Moscow’s “humanitarian missions” in occupied regions of Ukraine. According to Ukrainian media reports, however, occupation authorities in Kupyansk created artificial food shortages and then brought in Russian products that residents couldn’t afford. Oleh and Katya said they didn’t experience any problems with Russian soldiers during the occupation. But other residents weren’t so lucky. After the liberation, Ukrainian authorities discovered four “torture chambers” in various parts of the city.


Dispatch from Kharkivshchyna Near the border with Russia, Ukrainian villages confront displacement, destruction, and death 


Dispatch from Kharkivshchyna Near the border with Russia, Ukrainian villages confront displacement, destruction, and death 

More than a year later, in the fall of 2023, Russian forces were pushing towards Kupyansk once again. But as of mid-November, the couple refused to leave their home. As the 5:00 p.m. curfew drew nearer, you could hear the distant sound of bombing outside of Oleh and Katya’s home. The elderly couple says they simply wait out the attacks in their apartment. “We’re afraid things might end badly, and we hope they don’t destroy our home,” said Oleh. 

“I just hope for positive things,” Katya added. “I don’t want Russia here. Only Ukraine.”


A wartorn haven 

A three-and-a-half hour drive away, in Kostiantynivka, Lyuda, 58, and her husband Serhii, 62, live in a tightly packed two-room apartment with their friend Ruslan, 49. From here, the nearest front line is roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. 

Serhii (left), Lyuda, and Ruslan sit in the small kitchen of the apartment they share. Kostiantynivka, November 2023.
Lucy Duvall

Lyuda and Serhii are from Dyliivka, a village less than 15 kilometers (nine miles) southeast of Kostiantynivka. Dyliivka was once a vibrant place, home to a “wealthy collective farm,” explained Serhii, who worked as a combine operator harvesting crops on the farm’s 7,000 hectares of land. Lyuda worked there too, as a milkmaid, and the couple raised their two children in a four-room house with a veranda porch. They had never thought of leaving Dyliivka. When war broke out in the Donbas region in 2014, they stayed, even as Russia and its proxy forces captured Kostiantynivka and other nearby towns in the Donetsk region (Ukrainian forces retook these areas within months).

But after the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the situation in Dyliivka quickly deteriorated. On one occasion, Serhii had just returned home from visiting a friend when missiles began whistling overhead. Then came a loud boom: a missile had struck the roof of their neighbor’s house. The blast sent the glass flying from the windows, and debris from the neighbor’s roof hit their house. “When I saw what was happening with my own eyes, I got scared,” Serhii said. “Then the shock wore off, and we stayed.” 

The husband and wife continued to live in their damaged home for months. Their neighbors began to flee en masse after a missile strike killed a local man. By mid-December 2022, the small village was without electricity and running water. Those who stayed “had nowhere else to go,” Serhii said. “[For us] it’s the other way around,” he added, explaining that he and Lyuda could always go stay with their adult children in the Dnipropetrovsk region. 

“They want us to go there,” Lyuda said. 

“I’m the one who doesn’t want to go,” Serhii interrupted.

“I don’t want to go either,” Lyuda continued. “I want to go home to Dyliivka.”

Lyuda came to Kostiantynivka in January 2023 after Serhii implored her to leave their home village and stay with Ruslan in his apartment. Just days after she arrived, however, the apartment complex came under a missile attack. The impact shattered one of the two windows in Ruslan’s home and left the apartment across the hallway in shambles. In shock from the attack, Lyuda ran outside and saw a man lying dead in the road. 

Serhii joined his wife in Kostiantynivka in May, moving into Ruslan’s damaged apartment. The three adults now live there together, surviving on the money they make from selling scraps of paper and glass bottles to nearby recycling drop-offs. According to Lyuda, Serhii can’t collect his pension because “his card was blocked.” They sometimes receive aid from Ukrainian soldiers or money from their children, who still encourage them to move. But Lyuda says she’s too afraid to make the journey by car and, on top of that, she doesn’t want to burden her children and their families.

A space heater and a pot of water sits on the floor of the cramped apartment. Lyuda uses this makeshift humidifier to add moisture to the air. Kostiantynivka, November 2023.
Lucy Duvall

The United Nations estimates that 40 percent of the population in Ukraine, or some 14.6 million people, will need humanitarian assistance in 2024. According to Ukrainian officials, the number of internally displaced people, like Serhii and Lyuda, is approaching five million. And more than 6.3 million Ukrainians live outside the country as refugees. 

Asked if he and his wife would consider going abroad, Serhii maintained that he has no desire to go “anywhere far away.” (Under martial law, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine. But at 63, Serhii is over the conscription age.)

He also brushed off questions about how it feels to live in a damaged apartment. “I’ll speak for all the people who have suffered,” Serhii declared. “Us Ukrainians are thinking about staying alive, and houses are a secondary issue. [We’re just thinking about] staying alive and surviving this war.”

“Our plan is to go home,” Lyuda said. “To survive and go home.” 

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Story by Lucy Duvall for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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