Nastya Stanko is among Ukraine’s most revered war reporters, with an onscreen persona that comes off as assured, competent, and intrepid, in the best tradition of frontline journalists. She is rarely deterred by danger, and yet, at times, she is also charmingly awkward in the ways of war. Not long ago, on a shoot near the front lines in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, she tried to climb atop a Ukrainian mobile artillery system, and repeatedly slipped off. “Shit, I can’t get on this thing!” she shrieked, as soldiers tried to hoist her up.
Over the summer, while walking through a wooded section of the “gray zone”—territory that lies between Ukrainian and Russian positions, controlled by neither side—she asked if she could hold the hand of the Ukrainian general who was showing her the front. Artillery exploded in the distance, shaking the trees. “I’m scared. This way I feel safer,” Stanko said. The general, in camouflage, with a Kalashnikov swinging in his right hand, joked that his wife would be upset when she saw the footage. “Don’t worry,” Stanko replied. “I have a husband at home. He’ll understand.” Later, she told the audience at a journalism conference that this wasn’t a reportorial trick; it was the only thing she could think to do to calm herself.
In 2021, Stanko stepped down from Hromadske, an independent media channel, where she was the editor-in-chief, to spend more time with her newborn son, Ostap, who was six months old. But, when Russia invaded, last February, Stanko, who was living in Kyiv, brought Ostap to her parents’ house in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, and returned to the capital the next day. She was the only Hromadske journalist remaining in the city. She and her husband, Illia, a software developer who had formerly been a cameraman for the channel, started filming: the eerily empty streets, the train station jammed with fleeing families, the scores of ordinary people clamoring to join the Territorial Defense Forces. Stanko is back, viewers exclaimed. What they really wanted was reassurance that Kyiv was still standing. Stanko stood in front of city hall. The metro worked, she said. So did cash machines.
This February, in advance of the war’s first anniversary, I met up with Stanko in Ivano-Frankivsk, an atmospheric city with Polish and Austro-Hungarian roots, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. She grew up in town, born to a family of patriotic Ukrainian speakers, who knew firsthand the suffering inflicted by Moscow’s imperialism—her father’s parents each spent a decade in the Gulag. Ivano-Frankivsk has remained relatively unscathed by the war. In November, Stanko and Illia rented a small apartment, with Ostap, on the outskirts of town.
Stanko’s life is now split in two: in Ivano-Frankivsk, she takes Ostap to feed the ducks at a nearby lake and stops for coffee at a café opened by recent arrivals from Kharkiv; at the front, where she often spends a week or more, she treks through mud, weighed down by a flak jacket, and waits out shelling in a bunker with Ukrainian troops. At least four soldiers whom Stanko has featured in her reporting were later killed. Two close friends have died.
Death seems everywhere these days, Stanko said. On New Year’s Eve, she stopped into a church service in Ivano-Frankivsk, where she learned that the brother of Ostap’s nanny, who had been drafted into the Ukrainian Army, had just been killed. “I stood there in shock, thinking to myself, Another one—how can this be?” She struggled to reconcile the loss with the festive atmosphere—the feeling, as she put it, that “death is sitting with you at the holiday table.” But she also knew, better than most, that “right now, we have no other life, no other reality.”
Since the start of the war, I have travelled from the capital to Kharkiv, a historically Russian-speaking city that has faced relentless rocket and artillery fire; from the decimated towns of the Donbas to Zaporizhzhia, a regional capital in the south that became a waystation for Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of Mariupol and elsewhere. In early February, I wanted to check in with people I had met along the way, to get a sense of how a year of war has, for so many in Ukraine, imparted great trauma and loss but also a sense of purpose and identity.
For many Ukrainians, the mere fact that the war is entering its second year is unignorable proof that a quick victory isn’t going to materialize. The fight shows little sign of ending soon, and, if two years, why not three, or four? For all its inefficiencies, Russia’s military draft, announced by Vladimir Putin last September, has had an effect on the battlefield. The kind of relatively easy and rapid counter-offensive that Ukraine mounted last September to take back territory in the Kharkiv region is unlikely to be repeated; meanwhile, the Russian Army is able to throw men and equipment at a renewed push in the Donbas.
As of late January, the Kyiv School of Economics put the total damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure at nearly a hundred and thirty billion dollars. In many places in the country, the war is physically distant, felt less through missile or artillery attacks than through cuts to electricity and heat. At any given moment, millions of households are without power, as the state energy provider has been forced to institute rolling blackouts in response to Russian strikes on power plants and substations.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s military leaders are hesitant to make public the scale of losses on the battlefield, but the toll is surely enormous. Last November, Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that as many as a hundred thousand Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded by that point in the war. Given that Ukraine’s most promising, energetic, and patriotic young people were among the first to volunteer to fight, their names have been overrepresented among the dead. “This war is consuming the best of our people,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist, said on the occasion of the death of Roman Ratushny, a prominent twenty-four-year-old activist who was killed on the front in June.
In Kyiv, I had dinner with a friend, Tanya Logacheva, and her parents, Yuriy and Raisa. They are from Luhansk, a city in the east that has been occupied since 2014. This is their second Russian invasion, they darkly joke. Logacheva is thirty-six, with a background in marketing, but also with interests in photography, dance, and wine. “It’s the stolen time that pisses me off,” she said over a spread of roasted duck and potatoes that Raisa had prepared for us. “All the things I could have done, the life I could have lived.”
Instead, Logacheva said, the past year was defined by a single necessity: “survival.” The electricity and Internet go out; she starts a meeting or a work call, only to have an air-raid siren sound. The thought of making any long-term plans is laughable. Logacheva and her parents were resolute, insisting that these challenges would end only with Ukraine’s victory, however ultimately defined. Life, in the meantime, was exhausting. “It’s good to survive,” Logacheva went on. “You don’t know how much you enjoy it until you realize you might not.”
On trips to Kyiv, I often visited Goodwine, a gourmet emporium the size of a big-box store, with an in-house bakery and a coffee bar. On March 3rd, a Russian missile struck its main warehouse outside Kyiv, incinerating an estimated fifteen million euros’ worth of inventory. But Goodwine never shut down completely. I visited the store in early April, as life was returning to the capital, and marvelled at the refrigerator case full of buffalo mozzarella and rows of imported chocolate bars. It was a relief, both disorienting and pleasurable, to find myself transported to a world of such banal hedonism. How could anything dangerous or terrible happen here?
Early on the morning of October 17th, an Iranian-produced kamikaze drone, a style of weapon that Russia had apparently been using to target energy infrastructure in Kyiv, slammed into an apartment building on Zhylianska Street. It was presumably meant to hit a neighboring thermal power plant, but overshot, exploding in a flash of brick and steel. Several floors of the building collapsed. Among those at home was Viktoriia Zamchenko, a thirty-four-year-old sommelier who worked at Goodwine. She and her husband, Bohdan, were both killed. Zamchenko was several months pregnant with their first child.
I instantly recognized Zamchenko’s face when the news of her death began making the rounds. “Today is a very dark day,” Goodwine wrote in a post. “We loved Vika madly. And surely you did, too.” By then, I had met or interviewed a handful of soldiers who later died in battle, but this felt different. Zamchenko was an eminently familiar and recognizable peer, a young woman who worked in a wine shop and once helped me choose a suitable Pinot Noir. Logacheva, my friend in Kyiv, had once attended a wine tasting led by Zamchenko; she remarked that Zamchenko’s killing was yet another reminder that, by this stage in the war, “death was one or two handshakes away.”
I sat in Goodwine’s café with Borys Tarasenko, a fellow-sommelier. He told me of his first impressions of Zamchenko: “She was strong, independent, precise.” Zamchenko, with a shoulder-length bob of brown hair and a wide smile, came from a small town in the Rivne region of Ukraine, about two hundred miles from the capital, and was a self-taught oenophile. “She was never satisfied with the answer ‘I don’t know,’ ” Roman Remeev, the head of the store’s wine department, said. “She wanted to find out everything for herself.” She developed her own sensibility. “She loved strong wine,” Remeev said. “Clean, classic, strict.”
Like many other Goodwine employees, Zamchenko left Kyiv at the start of the invasion, returning home with Bohdan. In July, she came back. “Everyone was happy to see one another,” Remeev said. “We asked, ‘Where were you? How was it for you?’ No one thought about anything bad.” Zamchenko said she was pregnant.
That October, Kyiv was getting hit with regular air strikes; Zamchenko was conscientious about always leaving the store during an air-raid alert and heading to a nearby metro station, which doubled as a bomb shelter. “She always tried to reason with us,” Tarasenko recalled. “ ‘Come on. Let’s go wait out the siren somewhere safe.’ ”
The members of the wine department have their own group chat, where, on the morning of October 17th, they shared news of yet another strike. Everyone checked in—except Zamchenko. Someone wrote that it looked like the damage was in Vika’s neighborhood. There had already been a close call some weeks before, when another drone meant for the power station exploded in the street in front of Zamchenko’s apartment. “I started to get worried in a serious way,” Tarasenko said.