Vitalii Lylyck, 21, was shaken but smiling when I caught up with him in his dormitory in Kyiv, just 10 days after Russian forces began sending in low-flying drones to destroy infrastructure and keep Ukrainians far from the front lines to terrorize. I was hoping to meet him in person this week but when the drones started flying he advised me against traveling to Kyiv so I stayed in Poland and we spoke on Zoom instead.
He was wearing two coats but was still, as he put it, “frozen to the bone.” The dormitory hadn’t had a heater for days, and while there was still electricity, Lylyck and his friends used it as sparingly as possible. The students had not eaten hot food that week, they were living off tin cans. When Vitalii and I spoke, they had running water. A week later she too was cut up for a day by the bombardment
Conditions were “tough,” admitted Lylyck. But he and his fellow students at Kiev National University were unbowed. “We’re fine,” he said. “We agree – after all the sacrifices our country has made this year, we have no right to be sad. People gave their lives so that we could live, and we promised ourselves: We won’t be sad this fall. Only the Russians will be sad.”
George Orwell coined such a term for courage. “No bomb that ever bursts,” he wrote in Spain in 1939, “shatters the crystal spirit” – something he painted as precious and rare, found in one person in a million. In fact, in my experience, working in a war zone, it’s far from uncommon among Ukrainians — the mid-career professionals reporting to fight on the front lines, the civilians riding into artillery barrages to deliver food and medicine, or to evacuate those who have lost everything, the employee refugees who take jobs as cleaners and cooks to support their families in exile. Ukraine’s military is winning on the battlefield, but civil society is also waging war, bravely and steadfastly contributing to the nation’s victory.
The latest Russian attack – constant strikes from Iranian-made Shahed drones – has crippled heating and hydroelectric plants across the country. Hundreds of areas experienced blackouts and blackouts, and for much of Monday, 80% of Kyiv was without running water.
Officials claim they shoot down more than half of incoming drones, and many Ukrainians hope the new attack will spur the West to send better air defense systems. “But even if the US gives us a dozen Patriots,” says Lylyck — an unlikely scenario — “there’s no guarantee a missile won’t get through.”
About 15 minutes into our call, Lylyck looked at an app on this phone. “Air raid,” he remarked matter-of-factly. I had spent most of June with him working on a project in Kyiv and he had often mocked me when I suggested going to an animal shelter; he thought there were more false alarms than real threats. But things were different now, and he said he seeks safety four or five times a day.
He and his friends spend their time reading and studying – online classes are still available for some subjects. Lylyck plays guitar, mainly what he calls “soldier songs”. I asked him to play something and he strummed a ballad: “One day I shot and killed a separatist in a wheat field. . . . These sons of bitches will answer for Sloviansk, for Kramatorsk, for Mariupol.”
A friend’s birthday was in mid-October, and the group managed to throw a party—a poker game on the top floor of the dorm overlooking the dark city. And like almost everything, it was an occasion for gallows humor. “It was a little distracting,” Lylyck joked, “when the rockets outside started flying. But you couldn’t look away, you never know who’s gonna cheat.”
When our conversation got serious, it was invariably about the war and the resistance and resilience of Ukraine. Lylyck can barely afford to buy groceries, but he teaches English to raise money, which he sends to an artillery unit at the front. He also proudly told me about a new government app that allows civilians to report drone sightings in real time, then calculates each weapon’s trajectory and relays the information to an air defense battery.
“It’s that same ingenuity and creativity that’s given us an edge all along,” Lylyck explained, scornfully comparing her to Russian civil society. “Why didn’t they leave sooner?” He asked about the thousands of military-age men who have fled Russia in recent weeks to avoid mobilization. “Why didn’t they protest? You are not against the war. You’re just scared. You don’t want to die.”
In contrast, Lylyck and his friends seem ready to withstand whatever it takes to win. He has nothing but contempt for Russia’s drone strategy. “You will not force the Ukrainians into submission with a few rockets.” He also spoke stoically about the prospect of a nuclear attack: “They can do what they want. I don’t think anyone here wants to give up.”
The coming weeks and maybe months will be tough, Lylyck predicted. “It’s getting harder and harder to stay here. And when it gets cold, really cold, Ukrainian cold, if the heating doesn’t work, it becomes impossible.”
But he’s not giving up yet. Before signing off, we talked about the possibility that it might seem safe enough for me to go to Kyiv in late November, in time for my birthday. “Oh my god,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “We’re going to throw a party – a frontline party. Maybe we’ll go to a shooting range. It’s a very Ukrainian thing at the moment.”
Tamar Jacoby, President of Opportunity America and author of Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience, has been working in Poland and Ukraine since early March.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-11-03/kyiv-ukraine-drone-bombardment-october Op-Ed: Kyiv’s answer to Putin’s drones is resistance and resilience