oDR: Feature

How the new year brought death, destruction and darkness to Kyiv

Ukrainians find little to celebrate during the most difficult winter holidays the country has ever seen

Kateryna Semchuk
5 January 2023, 3.18pm

Between 29 December and 2 January, Russia launched dozens of rocket attacks at Ukraine


(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

An hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the air in Protasiv Yar, a historic district on the edge of Kyiv’s city centre, was warm and still.

Not a soul could be seen. Lights were visible in apartment buildings, even those whose windows had been shattered earlier in the day when a Russian rocket was downed by Ukrainian air defences. But no sounds of cheer or New Year preparations could be heard.

The silence was broken only by an elderly woman climbing a nearby street, carrying a white plastic bag and sobbing quietly. She looked back at her home, damaged in the Russian rocket attack. She was going to live with her daughter for the time being, she told me.

A series of continuous attacks by Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones on Kyiv and other cities across Ukraine started on the night of 29 December and lasted until 2 January. The Russian campaign, specifically targeting New Year celebrations, cost people their lives, homes, health and peace. Many Kyiv residents spent the first two nights of 2023 sleepless in bomb shelters.

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New Year’s Eve used to be an important holiday for Ukrainians. But now, as the war fast approaches its second year, holidays are just dates on the calendar that recall what life was like before Russia invaded.

Lives lost, houses destroyed

As Serhiy Kaharlytskyi talks calmly about the Russian rocket that killed his wife Iryna and destroyed his house in Protasiv Yar on 31 December, I ask how he maintains his composure.

“My skin holds me together, on the inside…” he replies, as he gestures wearily and sighs.

Serhiy and his son survived: they were in another room, two walls away from the blast. But Iryna was crushed when the wall of their kitchen fell on her after the explosion.

DSC_0139 (1)

The site of the Russian rocket attack in Protasiv Yar, Kyiv


Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Following the three-hour attack, residents of the two apartment blocks and nearby houses most affected spent the rest of the day sweeping up glass, repairing doors and clearing damaged belongings and furniture.

Halyna Semenivna and her husband, both 76, live in a house with two other families. She was preparing olivye vegetable salad (a traditional New Year dish) when the rocket fell on the street between four houses.

Their side of the house was the furthest from the explosion – which is why she and her husband survived. But they were left in a state of shock, with their front door and windows blown out and many of their possessions destroyed.

Neighbours come together

The prolonged missile attack started overnight on 29 December, with Iranian-made kamikaze drones. Then, in the early morning of 30 December, Russia launched 70 cruise missiles, targeting critical infrastructure across the country. Ukrainian air defence managed to shoot down 58.

Debris from one of the downed missiles fell on the Darnytskyi district, on Kyiv’s left bank. Eighty-year-old Leonid Phatulin (known as ‘Khasanych’ by his neighbours) was about to wake up to go to the bathroom when the debris fell on the wooden gazebo outside his home, destroying half his house.

“We used to play backgammon in that gazebo,” says Volodymyr Telychko, 60, Khasanych’s neighbour, when I talk to him the same day outside the damaged building.


Volodymyr Telychko near Khasanych's damaged home


Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Telychko and a dozen neighbours helped clean up the house – in preparation for it to be fully demolished and eventually rebuilt. They all know and love Khasanych – Telychko says he has known him for more than 30 years – and they have a strong sense of community. Most of them had their own houses damaged by the downed missile: roofs holed, windows blown out.

Khasanych moved in with a neighbour, and is getting plenty of help from his friends. As we talk, someone turns up with several pairs of socks and some money.

Once a professional trombonist and occasional taxi driver, Telychko doesn’t have regular work now. His wife Valentyna used to have a cleaning job at a fitness club, but it went out of business a month ago. Their son is the only one in the family with a stable job.

Telychko says they’ve had to save money on New Year celebrations this year. “We’re going to sit down at the table, listen to [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyi’s new year’s greeting, and that’s it,” he tells me.

When I check back with Telychko a few days later, he says Zelenskyi’s new year’s speech brought his family to tears.


Volodymyr Telychko's family on New Year's Eve


Source: Volodymyr Telychko

A troubled Christmas in Bucha

Ten months on, the effects of Russia’s occupation of the northern part of Kyiv region are still felt. To see men dressed in dark jackets and hats on the muddy, grey streets of Bucha is triggering to anyone who might have seen the lifeless bodies in similar clothes left on the streets by Russian soldiers.

The city’s horrendous experience of occupation last March even caused a heated debate about whether it was appropriate to have a public Christmas tree at all this year – eventually, one was installed.

Many Ukrainians are separated from their friends and family, who are either fighting in the military or have left the country. This is one of the reasons why some people feel it is better to postpone any celebrations until after Ukraine’s victory.

Ludmyla Skakalova, a senior paramedic in Bucha, says she didn’t celebrate New Year because she misses her two older children, both now living in Spain, too much.


Ludmyla Skakalova


Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Skakalova remained in Bucha throughout the Russian occupation; in fact, she was the only medic still working at the city hospital, doing what she could to help people who stayed. Her ambulance station is situated on the now infamous Yablunska Street.

She says she is determined to keep her composure at work, to stay positive and smile. But once she starts talking about wanting to see her children, tears come to her eyes. She has been suffering insomnia for two months, she says, and thinks it might be an effect of having lived through the occupation.

I hold on to the thought that I’ll have holidays when victory comes. There are no holidays for me right now

Ludmyla Skakalova

During the frequent blackouts caused by Russia’s bombing of infrastructure, when her gas heater doesn’t work and it's cold and dark in her house, Skakalova dresses in many layers.

“It was ten degrees in my house [after Russia’s mass rocket attack on 23 December], and so I put up my hood on my hoody, wrapped myself up, and remembered how I used to sleep [in the hospital] during the occupation,” she says.

As for the winter holidays, Skakalova says she might celebrate on 7 January – the traditional date of Christmas in the Christian Orthodox calendar of both Ukraine and Russia. For her mother, she says, as for many religious Ukrainians, marking Christmas on 7 January is a tradition that’s hard to break.

Yet her mother also says she will celebrate Orthodox Christmas on 7 January “for the last time” this year. She plans to mark the Orthodox holiday on 25 December instead in 2023 – a change that many Ukrainians are making as they seek to distance themselves from cultural ties with Russia during wartime.

“This year I didn’t celebrate any holidays. Perhaps this isn’t right. As my friend says, a [good] mood comes from within. We survived, yes. But there’s still [a long road to victory] ahead. I hold on to the thought that I’ll have holidays when victory comes. There are no holidays for me right now.”

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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