War? Ordinary life? It depends on where you live in Ukraine.
“That’s life,” he says.
Pashchenko Denys is in Kyiv, the bustling capital of Ukraine, far from the front lines. There, the 22-year-old serves a steady stream of customers looking to laugh and relax – until the city’s 11 p.m. curfew.
“The war is on,” he said. “But Kyiv lives on.”
Nearly six months after Russia invaded, many Ukrainians are living — and struggling — with these split-screen realities.
In Kyiv and much of the western part of the country, pre-war life has largely returned for civilians. People eat in restaurants, drink in bars, dance and enjoy lazy summer days in parks. In the east and south, where most of the fighting has been concentrated, people continue to live in terror and destruction from Russian assaults. And in many places Ukrainians now live under Russian occupation, the starkest possible contrast to the relative ease of life in the capital.
In Kyiv, some interviewees said they felt guilt and grief that life could seem almost normal when so many Ukrainians are caught up in the widespread death, destruction and displacement of war. In Kharkiv, more than 300 miles to the east, others said they felt frustration and resignation at their brutal reality.
Both Nazarenko and Denys work for Piana Vyshnia, or Drunk Cherry, a Ukrainian chain specializing in sweet cherry liqueur and thick wine glasses. Bars are dimly lit with cherry-themed decor. Red-tinted glass artwork lines the ceilings and walls.
Kyiv was on the verge of falling at the start of the war – Russian forces attempted to encircle the capital and brutalize civilian populations along the way. But the capital has grown defiant and has become home to thousands of displaced Ukrainians.
Kharkiv briefly fell to Russian forces in the early days of the war: Ukraine controlled the city from there, but it emptied as Russian bombardment devastated residential areas. The front line remains close, as do fears that Moscow may attempt to retake Kharkiv.
Kharkiv city authorities estimate that 10% of businesses have reopened since late spring. In Kyiv, 90% of retail businesses and 80% of service businesses have them, according to the mayor’s office.
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At the Nazarenko bar in Kharkiv, most customers come alone and don’t stay long; a few may stop to drink at high tables set up on the sidewalk. Sometimes Nazarenko comes to work even when we don’t need him, he says with a broad smile. It helps to break his isolation.
Guests “share their stories, how they’ve seen it all, experienced war and experienced it for the first time,” he said. “We are going to laugh at something; we will cry for something.
Nazarenko recently visited Lviv, a city in western Ukraine largely spared from the fighting. He was encouraged by all the volunteerism he saw for the military and war-affected communities.
“It’s gratifying,” he said of Ukrainian unity. “It’s a shame that it only happened because of the war, but we finally understood.”
A few people he met, however, had spent the entire war in western Ukraine. They “don’t know what’s going on here,” even after he explained, he said. He found it “offensive”.
“They don’t know what war is,” Nazarenko said.
Before the invasion, Kharkiv was a center of learning and culture. But months of non-stop Russian bombardment has turned parts of the city into a ghost town – block after block of buildings hit by rockets with random bits blown off. The typically crowded stone central square next to Kharkiv University remains deserted.
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The Ukrainian military repelled Russian forces enough in late May for the city to reopen some businesses and metro lines. For months, people have crowded into Kharkiv’s metro stations to take shelter from Russian attacks. Around 150 displaced residents still live in one resort. Some empty businesses have been converted into volunteer centers – spaces that also offer a rare place to socialize.
Maxym Skuba, 30, is a full-time volunteer at a charity run by a restaurant in Kharkiv, where he helps cook up to 12,000 meals a day for distribution.
“I just work, come home, eat and go to bed,” said Skuba, who ran a farm equipment business before the war. He wore an apron and a tired look on his round face. “It repeats itself every day.”
Skuba said he had “mixed feelings” seeing pictures and light messages from Ukrainians on social media.
“I’m glad they have the opportunity to drink coffee in peace,” he said. “But I want them to remember that there is a war going on here.
“If they have the opportunity to enjoy life, then let them have joy,” he added.
In Kyiv, 24-year-old Artem Tsybulnyk struggles with both.
“It’s difficult, because you always remember there’s a war going on, and that stresses you out,” said Tsybulnyk, who lives in Kyiv but is originally from Kharkiv. “No matter what you do, no matter who you hang out with, you always remember that. Well, I’m drinking this beer here, someone’s dying – my friends, my neighbors.
Tsybulnyk, a short-bearded fantasy writer, had gone for an afternoon scooter ride with a friend. He said he will fight for his family and friends if called upon, as is required of most Ukrainian men.
In the meantime, he said, “I’m just trying to live as normally as possible.”
Tsybulnyk on a scooter by one of Kyiv’s popular new pastimes: taking photos in front of charred and captured Russian military vehicles. The exhibition was inaugurated at the end of May on a large square in front of the Saint-Michel church with its golden dome in the capital.
Kyiv still bears signs of war trauma. Sandbags, roadblocks and soldiers dot the militarized capital. The city is closed by curfew every night. Air raid sirens sometimes sound, although much less than at the start of the war, when many people lived in bomb shelters. Ukrainian flags, artwork and signs for military fundraisers are everywhere.
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But life goes on. DJs started hosting parties during the day. People dance to electronic music as they repair houses in suburbs liberated from Russian occupation. In a recent music video from a Ukrainian group, the country’s soldiers are shelled and injured in scenes that take place on the streets of an otherwise typical city.
Denys, the bartender in Kyiv, said he felt conflicted about how much pre-war life to embrace. He considered clubbing and dancing inappropriate. “On the other hand, it’s good to distract people from what they saw,” he said.
The bartender is a distraction for him too, he said. Spending money on social outings, he argued, also helps the country.
“That’s how we support the economy, and that money can go to the Ukrainian military, or some volunteer activities, and generally help our country,” he said.
It’s a way he has to cope.
Maria Avdeeva in Kharkiv and Heidi Levine, Kostiantyn Khudov and Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.