Inside Ukraine’s Blackouts: Fraught Operations, Candlelit Concerts, Anger With Russia

From a Wall Street Journal story by Matthew Luxmoore headlined “Inside Ukraine’s Blackouts: Fraught Operations, Candlelit Concerts, Anger With Russia”:

KYIV, Ukraine—Doctors were operating on Ksenia Maikan’s 14-year-old son at a hospital in the capital last week when she heard two explosions and saw the lights in the surgery room go out.

Russia had fired another barrage of missiles at targets across Ukraine that morning, causing fresh power outages in major cities including the capital. Hospital staff scrambled to get patients and relatives to the bomb shelter, but Ms. Maikan chose to stay near her son, David, who was undergoing heart surgery for a congenital defect. The doctors continued to work as generators kicked in to power critical equipment and assistants shone lamps to illuminate the boy’s chest.

“I felt this enormous anger at the state attacking our peaceful cities and preventing us from living our lives,” said Ms. Maikan, 50 years old. “But I was also overcome with gratitude to the doctors risking their lives to help us.”

The conditions faced last Wednesday by David, who was undergoing his second surgery in five years, are an extreme example of the daily challenges faced by Ukrainians suffering from a lack of heat, power and often water—and their determination to endure.

The Ukrainian capital has been suffering blackouts throughout November, and teams have worked overtime to rapidly repair damaged substations and restore electricity, which is now back in fits and starts. Russian officials have made clear the volleys of missiles will continue in an effort to bend Ukrainians to Moscow’s will. The recent barrages were among the biggest since Moscow launched its invasion in February.

Across Ukraine, barbers are cutting hair under the light of smartphones. Musicians are giving candlelit performances in otherwise dark concert halls. People wait in lines for water. And many of the elderly and disabled are stuck in high-rise apartment blocks where municipal authorities have shut off the elevators due to the risk of power cuts that could leave them stranded between floors.

A Ukrainian app allows people to check whether specific parts of their city have power at a given time, and the government has opened more than 5,000 so-called Invincibility Centers across Ukraine where people charge their devices, access the internet and warm up. But the network of tents is a drop in the ocean in a country with a prewar population of 40 million, even accounting for the refugee outflow this year.

Despite repair efforts that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as heroic, the damage to key infrastructure is compounding over time. Officials are warning that blackouts will be longer and increasingly difficult to endure as temperatures plummet and winter begins to test collective resilience in the face of Russia’s aggression.

“Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now with darkness and cold,” Mr. Zelensky said on Saturday, the day Ukraine commemorated the Holodomor—the mass-starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s which was orchestrated by Soviet leaders in the Kremlin and killed some three million people. “We cannot be broken. Our fire won’t go out.”

Faced with losses on the battlefield, and with its forces stalled in their campaign to take further Ukrainian territory, Russia has stepped up the missile volleys in a bid to deprive Ukrainians of comfort and weaken support for the defense effort. But so far there have been no protests in Ukraine and no new mass exodus from the country.

According to a survey published this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, more than 90% of Ukrainians are ready to endure material losses for three to five years if the end result is a thriving Ukraine that is a member state of the European Union.

Meanwhile, people are flocking to electronic stores to buy LED lamps, power banks and generators. On Black Friday, a day of shopping deals, the COMFY electronics store in central Kyiv was doing a roaring trade: sales of power banks alone had gone up 900% in the past two weeks, staff said.

But it was difficult to determine which product was which. Power was out and customers used their smartphone torches to read price tags and specifications. Manvel Meliksityan, the 26-year-old deputy manager, said the store was running two portable power stations to put through purchases and print receipts.

The blackouts and outages have made him appreciate small things in life such as light, water and fuel, he said. “Our team is upbeat,” he said. “We’ll get through this, we’ll endure, and as Ukrainians we will only come out stronger.”

Danylo Rybchynskiy, a software engineering student at Kyiv’s American University, studied for five hours this week sitting on the floor of an underground shopping mall. He had a power splitter that allowed him to charge three devices through one socket. But only his laptop was connected—the other two sockets were charging the phones of people who idled nearby.

For Mr. Rybchynskiy, 19, the power cuts have upended life and made it far more difficult to keep up with homework. University classes are now exclusively online, meaning that without a stable internet connection he can’t attend them.

“I’ve been coming to shops, malls, cafes and restaurants to work,” he said. “This isn’t the most comfortable place, but at least I have power and cell connection.”

The surgery that 14-year-old David underwent last week involved installing an artificial valve in his heart, and would allow him to live a relatively normal life. When the lights went out, doctors rushed to reconnect cables and fire up the emergency generators, racing to finish the procedure while backup power lasted.

Ms. Maikan and her husband Oleh stood in the hallway unable to tear their eyes from the spectacle, but also unable to help. It wasn’t until 6 p.m. that evening, after their son had been taken off a ventilator following the successful five-hour procedure, that they were reunited with him.

“He didn’t respond to us, but gave a thumbs-up,” Ms. Maikan said. “We call him David the fighter, like the David who faced Goliath. He never cries or complains, he endures all these challenges with dignity.”

Borys Todurov, David’s doctor and the head of the Heart Institute, said the hospital completed 10 operations that day, and didn’t lose a single patient. The veteran surgeon said he drove to 10 different gas stations to source 100 gallons of fuel for the clinic’s generators. Everywhere there were vast lines and shortages.

When the power went out just as his staff sought to save David’s life, he said he experienced three thoughts in quick succession. The first was how he would continue caring for the 190 patients at his clinic. The second was what had prompted such aggression against Ukraine from Russia.

The third, he said, was a sense that Moscow’s bombardments will produce the opposite effect to what it banks on.

“Russia’s atrocities have so united Ukrainian society today that everyone without exception is working for our victory,” he said.

Matthew Luxmoore is a Wall Street Journal reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union with a particular focus on Russia’s defense, national security and the role of its military on the world stage. He was previously Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was the 2018 winner of New York University’s Reporting Award and a recipient in 2015 of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. Matthew grew up in Poland and holds a master’s degree from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow.

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