MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — There is no door on Anna Svetlaya’s refrigerator. A Russian missile blew it up the other day. The door separated from her saved her, shielding her chest from the shrapnel as she passed out in a pool of blood.
It was shortly before 7 a.m. in a residential district here in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv when Svetlaya, 67, felt her world explode in a shower of metal shards, glass and debris as she prepared breakfast.
Her face a mosaic of cuts and bruises, her gaze dignified, Ms. Svetlaya said: “The Russians just don’t like us. I wish we knew why!” As a retired nurse, she inspected her small apartment, where her two sisters worked to restore order.
“It is our ‘Russian brothers’ who do this,” said one, Larisa Kryzhanovska. “I don’t even hate them, I just pity them.”
Since the war began, Russian forces have pummeled Mykolaiv, frustrated by their failure to capture it and push west toward Odessa. But the city’s resistance has hardened.
Almost surrounded in the first weeks of fighting, it has fallen back, becoming a linchpin of the Ukrainian challenge on the southern front. But at regular intervals, with missiles and artillery, Russia reminds the 230,000 people still here that they are within range of the indiscriminate slaughter that characterizes Moscow’s prosecution of the war.
A Russian attack on Friday killed one person and wounded 20, several of whom are still hospitalized. Mykolaiv is no longer under immediate threat of capture (a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south is unsettling Russian forces), but the cost of the war is clear. Once a summer tourist destination, a town with an enchanting setting at the confluence of the Southern Buh and Ingul rivers, Mykolaiv has become ghostly.
Weeds creep along sidewalks. The buildings are closed. Drinking water is scarce. More than half the population has left; those who remain are almost all out of work. About 80 percent of the people here, many of them elderly, rely on aid organizations for food and clothing. Every once in a while, another explosion electrifies the summer air, driving people to despair when it doesn’t kill them.
Better understand the Russia-Ukraine war
Driven out of a nearby town, Natalia Holovenko, 59, was standing in line for help when she began sobbing. “We don’t have Nazis here!” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s false justification that the war was necessary to “denazify” Ukraine. “He just wants to kill us.”
The madness of this Russian project seemed engraved in his pleading eyes.
Without the Black Sea coast, a landlocked Ukraine would be an undermined nation, with its ports lost, eight years after Putin seized Crimea. A grain-exporting nation, though now facing a Russian naval blockade, would find its economy in turmoil.
But as Russia advances mile after mile in the Donbas region to the east, it has held back in the south. Since their capture of Kherson, some 40 miles east of Mykolaiv, early in the war, Russian forces have either stalled or been pushed back. Increasingly determined Ukrainians have retaken villages in the Kherson region.
“We will not give away the south to anyone, we will return everything that is ours, and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe,” President Volodymyr Zelensky declared after visiting Mykolaiv and Odessa last week. Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said Tuesday that “our army will definitely vacate these lands.”
Certainly Oleksandr Senkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv, exudes confidence. A perpetually moving man in green camouflage cargo pants, a Glock pistol on his hip and an almost manic gleam in his blue eyes, said: “The next step is to get the Russians out of Kherson and then get them out of the Ukraine.” .”
Before that happens, however, Ukraine needs long-distance artillery, he said. Drawing on a paper placemat in a cafe, he illustrated how Russia could attack Mykolaiv, often with cluster munitions, from places that Ukrainian artillery cannot reach.
“Right now, it’s frustrating,” he said. “When we have what we need, we can attack them without great loss.”
It will almost certainly take many months.
The mayor’s wife and two children left at the beginning of the war. She works all day. Water is a major problem. The Russians destroyed pipelines carrying fresh water from the Dnieper River. The water from the new wells is insufficient and the water in southern Buh is brackish.
“It’s a big problem,” he said. “But we are over motivated, we know what we are fighting for, our children and grandchildren, and our land. They don’t know what they’re fighting for and therefore they’re unmotivated.”
He sees this as a war between cultures: in Russia, the leader says something “and the sheep follow,” he said, but in Ukraine, democracy has taken hold. In Putin’s Russia, everything that is said means the opposite: “protect” means “invade” and “military targets” means “civilians”. In Ukraine, Senkevych said, “we live in reality.”
That reality is harsh. Anna Zamazeeva, director of the Mykolaiv Regional Council, led me to her former office, a building with a gaping hole in the middle where a Russian cruise missile hit on March 29, killing dozens of her colleagues. A last minute delay getting to work saved his life.
“That was a turning point for me,” he said. “Every day, the spouses and children of those killed watched the bodies and debris being removed, and I couldn’t persuade them to leave. It was then that I realized the cruelty and inhumanity that the Russians were capable of.”
This was not an easy admission. Mrs. Zamazeeva’s mother is Russian. Her husband, who left Ukraine with his two children, was born in Russia. Her grandfather lives in St. Petersburg. These types of family connections, and other ties, are common, giving war a particular quality of rupture and separation that can tend to savagery, because the “other” is not so “other” and must be erased.
“Now I can’t talk to my grandfather because this conflict is too deep in my heart,” said Ms. Zamazeeva. “On the first day of the war he sent a message to our family group on Viber, asking how we were doing. I replied: ‘We are bombarded, and so are your grandchildren.’ He replied: ‘Oh, it will be good. You will all be released.’”
She removed him from the family message group.
Alone, she has returned to her father’s house. She sleeps in the room where she slept as a child. The war, she estimates, will last at least another year. Her days are spent trying to get food, water and clothing to tens of thousands of people, many of them displaced from their homes in nearby towns and villages.
War, for her, is simple in the end, embodied in the olive green shirt she wears. A single word appears on a map of Ukraine: “Home”.
“I am a free-minded person and I cannot understand if someone does not recognize the freedom and self-expression of others,” he said. “Our children grew up free and I will protect them with my own chest.”
Because it was a day to recognize health workers, Ms. Zamazeeva attended a ceremony at a hospital. Also present was Vitaliy Kim, head of the regional military administration and a symbol of the city’s resistance. One of the women honored kissed her hand and said with a big smile: “Good morning. We are from Ukraine!” The phrase, used by Mr. Kim in his video messages, has become a proud expression of Mykolaiv’s indomitable spirit.
In another hospital, Vlad Sorokin, 21, lay in bed, his ribs broken, his lung punctured, his right hip and knee shattered. He is another victim of the missile attack that injured Ms. Svetlaya.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m just asking why.” He struggled to speak, closing his eyes. “The Russians have put themselves in a very bad situation. They stay silent and listen to what they are told from above and they don’t think for themselves, so they think it’s normal to attack others.”
What would be the first thing you would do when you recovered?
“Have a cigarette,” he said.
In a second bed lay another blast victim, Neomila Ermakova, a dental nurse. The glass from her and the debris that flew out of her entered her ears, severed her head and shocked her.
“I believe in destiny,” he said. “I had to go through this. It’s strange, I had just finished a renovation of my apartment and I said to my grandson: ‘All this will be yours one day’”.