Foreign Policy

May 1, 2023

BYSTRETS, Ukraine—In a pine-forested valley, by a spring-melt rushing river, Hanna Potiak enters the village church to mark Orthodox Easter and the resurrection, though not before stopping at the grave of her son, who died fighting on Ukraine’s southeastern front.

She crosses herself—up, down, right to left—tends some flowers growing on the grave, and then heads into the 19th-century timber church, deep in southwestern Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. Inside, the other women wear colorful headscarves. Potiak, though, has worn black at every service since her son, 27-year-old Stepan, was killed in battle last June while commanding a Ukrainian tank company.

A neon sign above the priest changes from blue to green to red. “Christ has risen,” it blinks. But in wartime, with a village emptied of men, that message of life’s triumph over death is unfulfilled. “The mother of Christ saw her own son die,” said Potiak, 58, before the service. “I now understand the grief that she felt.”

War couldn’t feel further from this peaceful, pastoral setting. Fourteen months after Russia’s full-scale invasion, the epicenter of fighting lies in the eastern town of Bakhmut, more than 700 miles from Potiak’s sleepy mountain village. Rather than the flat, war-torn steppe of the Donbas, she lives among snowcapped mountains and steep wooded slopes. Cottages and haystacks, not Soviet-era apartment blocks, catch the eye. Cowbells and birdsong, not the thunder of artillery, are what catch the ear.

The locals are different, too. They’re Hutsuls, and they are highlanders—tough, fiercely independent, and renowned for their traditional dress. They’ve avoided Russian missile attacks, so far. But they’ve made other sacrifices. Step behind the closed doors of Ukraine’s deep homefront, and the devastating impact of the distant war becomes clear.

It is most glaring in Bystrets’s churchyard. Stepan’s grave is adorned with flowers and embroidered linen, as well as a pysanka egg and paska cake brought by his mother over the Orthodox Easter period. Two flags fly from the grave—the blue-and-yellow national flag alongside the red-and-black standard of Ukrainian nationalists, dating back to their guerrilla war against Soviet forces in the 1940s. A few yards away is the grave of another local young man killed in action last year. Around 10 more soldiers from this remote hamlet continue the fight.

Inside the church, some parishioners are wearing traditional Hutsul dress, but the Potiak family haven’t put on theirs since Stepan’s death. Their outfits are back at home, either folded away or hung up on antlers in the upstairs hallway. There are kresanya bowlers, keptar coats, triplebuckled cheres belts, and long-handled bartka axes. Heritage and history hang from the antlers and in the balance.

“They contain the memories of our forebears,” Potiak said. “They are part of who we are. Protecting this culture is why my son and others decided to fight for our country.”

Stepan wasn’t the only one from this military family to go to battle. Potiak’s husband, Ivan, and their daughter, Yulia, both serve in the Territorial Defense Forces and have seen action farther east. They know exactly what they’re fighting for. Grandparents and great-grandparents in the family were among the thousands of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It’s an atrocity with a grim encore. Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, has deported thousands more Ukrainians to filtration camps deep inside Russia after laying siege to Mariupol and other areas last year.

Grief has muted other aspects of their culture. Ivan, 58, has been writing and performing folk songs for 30 years, and two missing fingers aside (from a carpentry accident), he still would— but now won’t. “In Hutsul culture, there is a custom that you cannot sing for one year if you’re in mourning. I lost my brother and my son to this war, so I just don’t want to sing,” he said.

Back at the church, the congregation heads outside and circles the building three times, echoing the journey that Mary Magdalene took to the empty tomb that very first Easter. Maria Zelenchuk walks alongside Potiak. She is a tough but warm-hearted neighbor who lives higher up the mountainside with her husband and their son Vasyl, his wife, and their two young children. Vasyl met his wife, Yulia, several years earlier while working as a seasonal laborer, picking fruit in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, some 500 miles away.

When war broke out, Vasyl joined the Territorial Defense Forces as a driver. Zelenchuk helped keep the family farm going, using her spare time to knit woolen socks and body armor warmers for the troops. Vasyl was later deployed to the brutal slog around Bakhmut, where he was wounded earlier this year, suffering a serious concussion from an explosion. Bleeding from his ears and mouth, he was rushed to the hospital.

“It’s hard for a mother to send her son to the army,” Zelenchuk said. “We don’t understand why the enemy is putting us through this. But his injury has only increased his fighting spirit. When he sees the Russians killing our people, he just wants to fight more and more.”

She paused and surveyed the cows, snowy peaks, and stands of pine. “We are sure that we will have victory,” she added. “Because the truth is on our side.”

At the church, the Easter procession ends. Zelenchuk and other worshippers lower their heads at Stepan’s grave and then do the same with the other fallen soldier and go home. Potiak lingers. She relights the candle at the foot of her son’s grave and then gets up and goes home, too. Outside, she passes a family waiting to christen their newborn baby. Behind them, the river continues to run.