October 23, 2022

The Globe and Mail

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could live in the building at 80 Natalii Uzhvii St. in the Kharkiv suburb of North Saltivka.

The roof of the nine-storey apartment block has been blown apart by Russian shelling and many of the windows are shattered or boarded up. Bits of shrapnel and concrete remain scattered throughout the stairwell and part of a Russian Grad missile still sticks out of the ground near the main door.

And yet on a rainy Sunday morning, 78-year old Liudmyla Yermolaieva stood outside smoking a cigarette and warmly greeting anyone who passed by. She’s been living alone in Unit 6 since the war started and she has no plans to leave, even though winter is coming and the building has no running water, no heat and almost no electricity. “This is my house, my district. Why should I leave?” she said defiantly.

This part of Kharkiv bore the brunt of Russia’s assault on the city, which began in late February. For months, Saltivka’s Soviet-era apartment blocks – built in the 1960s to house factory workers – faced almost constant shelling and nearly every building has been damaged.

Most of the 500,000 residents who lived here left when the war started or spent weeks hiding in basements or subway stations. But since the Ukrainian army launched a counteroffensive last month that pushed the Russians out of the Kharkiv region, people have begun to trickle back to Saltivka.

Today, around 20 people live at 80 Natalii Uzhvii St. – named after a famous Ukrainian actress. That’s a far cry from the hundred or so families who once called this address home, but it’s a sign that the building, and the community, are starting to come back to life. And many are returning despite the onset of freezing temperatures and the threat posed by Russia’s new strategy of targeting water, heat and electricity services in an attempt to demoralize Ukrainians.

In the past two weeks, Russian missile strikes have destroyed 30 per cent of Ukraine’s power stations and severely damaged nearly half of the thermal generation capacity, according to Ukrainian energy officials.

Over the weekend, the Russian army fired a total of 40 rockets and launched more than a dozen drone attacks across Ukraine, all aimed at key civilian infrastructure. Most of the missiles and drones were shot down but enough got through to cause power cuts for more than one million homes. President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged residents to use as little electricity as possible

and the national energy operator, Ukrenergo, has introduced rolling blackouts nationwide for up to four hours at a time.

Kharkiv’s infrastructure has been among Russia’s prime targets and that has forced people across the city to become more resilient and more inventive. Nowhere is that more pertinent than at 80 Natalii Uzhvii.

Kostiantyn Alokhin lives in Unit 67 on the sixth floor and he serves as a kind of a neighbourhood helper, offering humanitarian assistance to anyone in need and providing creative solutions to make the place livable. He shares a two-bedroom flat with his fiancée, Natalia, and a clowder of cats. She’s among those who returned to Saltivka last summer after leaving in February when the invasion began.

Mr. Alokhin, 48, has rigged up a small cable from a section of the building that still has power and he’s threaded the wire throughout several units. The makeshift arrangement supplies enough electricity to run Mr. Alokhin’s fridge, a couple of hot plates and a light in the kitchen. He tried plugging in an electric heater but so far it hasn’t worked.

For water, he and the other residents rely on a nearby spring, as well as volunteers who deliver filled-up jugs. To supplement food supplies, neighbours have banded together and provide each other with preserved vegetables and jams.

When it comes to heat, however, everyone has to wait and hope.

Like many cities in Ukraine, Kharkiv has an age-old central system that supplies heat to nearly every building. Mr. Alokhin isn’t sure when the heat will come on and all bets are off if the Russians knock out the system.

Even if it does keep going, Mr. Alokhin doesn’t know how warm his flat will get, given the state of the structure. The front room windows still have holes caused by flying shrapnel. He’s tried to cover them over with plastic but it’s not a lasting fix. There are also cracks in the ceiling which means that when it rains, the floor is constantly damp.

Mr. Alokhin and his fiancée are lucky. They have access to an apartment in a nearby building that was untouched by the shelling. They spent much of last week there when the weather turned chilly but Mr. Alokhin is confident they’ll be back at 80 Natalii Uzhvii full-time in the new year.

He’s proud of the building and how everyone has adapted. He’s even growing red and yellow roses on a table in his living room, determined to plant them near the entranceway next spring when he hopes the war will have ended and the apartment block completely renovated. “We want this to look like a building in Canada,” he said with a smile. When asked how difficult it was to live here, Mr. Alokhin shrugged and replied: “It’s hard. But it is important not to lose hope.”