Two Thousand Miles From Home

Two Thousand Miles From Home

As Russia invaded Ukraine, three women from the same family became pregnant at the same time. Then the war tore them apart.

By Lily Hyde

The Atavist Magazine, No. 144

Lily Hyde is a writer and journalist based in Ukraine. She has written for The Guardian, Politico, the Times of London, and Foreign Policy. She is the author of Dream Land, a novel about Crimea.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Olena Goncharova
Illustrator: Andriana Chunis

Published in October 2023.

Oy, bida! Oy, bida bida bida
A ya ba, a ya baba moloda

Lydia Kuznichenko is singing a Ukrainian folk song to the baby she’s holding in her arms. The tune is cheerful, although the words translate as something like: Oh, woe is me! And I’m a young woman. Lida, as she is known, is still young. She has grey-green eyes and dark golden hair, a face not meant for grief. She laughs and teases the baby: “Yes, yes, is your grandmother young?”

Sitting with Lida on the bed in her small brick house in the village of Ridkodub, Ukraine, I am wearing a heavy bulletproof vest that is supposed to protect me from the war raging outside. The baby, buttoned into a white onesie and a little blue jacket, has nothing to protect him except his grandmother’s arms. He is very small, not quite three months old.

Outside it’s a cold, pale winter’s day, December 30, 2022. We are in the Kharkiv region, about 20 miles west of the Russia-Ukraine border, and seven miles from the front line of the war between these two countries. A set of shelves in the room is piled with folded baby clothes and blankets—pink, blue, lemon yellow, white. On the veranda outside, tiny clothes and socks are pinned to a line, having been washed by hand in water heated on the old-fashioned stove. The house is a simple Ukrainian village home, warm and quiet except for the crackle of wood burning in the stove. When there’s a long, deafening roar outside that makes the windows tremble, or a series of more distant thumps, I’m the only one who flinches. The baby wriggles, then sleeps.

Both of them do—there’s another baby in the room, on the bed. The infants have a good many adopted uncles in Ridkodub, men who wear camouflage, army boots, and bulletproof vests. They think the babies are twins at first. “No!” Lida corrects them. “They are daughter and grandson. They are nephew and aunty.” Their names are Vitalina and David, and they have seen more woe in their few months on earth than many of us could imagine in a lifetime.

If Lida were to tell these babies a story instead of singing a song, how might she start? Perhaps like this: There were three women—Liuda, Lida, and Lera. They were from two generations of the same family; they lived a few miles from one another, and they all became pregnant just a few weeks apart. But a war came between them and divided them from one another. One of them traveled 2,000 miles to come home; another was lost.

No. That story gets too sad too quickly.

Perhaps she could start like this: There is the story about David and Goliath. Little David went out to fight the giant Goliath, who threatened to destroy David’s whole nation. And everyone thought that Goliath would win in three days, but little David would not be defeated.

Yes, that’s a better way to begin.

1.family

Lida’s family, the Slobodianyks, are a big, close clan. Arkady and Halyna moved from the Vinnytsia region, in central Ukraine, to Ridkodub, in the Kharkiv region, in 1986 with their four children. Lydia and her twin sister, Liudmyla, were still babies when the family relocated to work at the kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm. Another daughter was born in nearby Dvorichna.

Lida and Liuda, as they were known, did everything together. Liuda was the eldest by five minutes. They studied at the local school and sang in the school choir. When they were 12, they started helping out at the farm, too, milking the cows. The twins performed together at local clubs and concerts, two girls with bright faces, harmonizing as they sang rich, plaintive Ukrainian folk songs. Lida had her first child—a son, Maksym—at 18. Liuda followed three months later with a daughter.

Maksym was a timid, serious baby. Lida bounced and tickled him, and sang nonsense songs to coax out his smile. The baby’s father left the family early on. Maksym grew up close to his mother; he had her green eyes and dark blond hair, but not her lively, outgoing temperament. A brother was born, then a sister as cheerful as Lida; Maksym remained the quiet, stubborn one.

By the mid-1990s, the kolkhozes had become private farms, but otherwise it felt as if not much had changed in their uneventful corner of Kharkiv region. Fields of wheat, maize, and bright sunflowers stretched to meet big skies, like picture postcards of the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag. The Oskil River wound past Dvorichna, between high, chalky banks overgrown with wildflowers and riddled with the burrows of steppe marmots.

As the children grew, the family gathered regularly; the farthest any of the five adult Slobodianyk siblings and their families had gone was to the regional capital, also called Kharkiv, where the oldest brother lived. Everyone else lived within a few dozen miles of one another in the district of Kupiansk. By the end of 2021, Arkady and Halyna had 15 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and perhaps soon there would be another: Maksym had recently startled Lida by bringing home a girl he’d met at agricultural college. Her name was Valeria Perepelytsia, or Lera for short. A girlfriend! Not Lida’s shy Maksym—who, by the way, was only 17. The young couple had already started talking about having a baby.

2.occupation

Early on February 24, 2022, a sound like the sky tearing in half ripped through Lida’s dream.

It was dark, not even 4 a.m. The house in Ridkodub was quiet, her younger son, Dmytro, and daughter, Uliana, peacefully asleep. It was just a horrible dream, she decided. She dozed off, then woke again to another loud noise. Perhaps someone was setting off fireworks outside.

When she looked out her window, she saw that the sky in the northeast, toward the Russian border, was on fire. It was not a dream or fireworks. It was what the United States had been warning of, the thing no one in Ukraine wanted to believe could happen: Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Russian troops had amassed along the Ukrainian border for months, as Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that the neighboring country needed “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” while insisting that Ukraine was really part of Russia anyway. Despite U.S. and EU warnings, few Ukrainians thought there would be an attack beyond the eastern end of the country, where Russia had fomented a conflict in 2014 and effectively occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Kharkiv bordered Luhansk and Donetsk—and Russia. But no one was prepared for Russian missiles falling on civilians and destroying infrastructure all over Ukraine. On the morning of February 24, Russian tanks not only crossed the border into Kharkiv region, but advanced on Kherson and Mariupol in the south and toward the capital of Kyiv to the north.

Lida phoned Maksym, who was staying with Lera and her family in Velykyi Vyselok, about 17 miles away, across the Oskil River. The call woke him up. “How can you sleep,” she yelled, “when the war has started?”

Maksym had been watching the news closely and messaging with his older cousin in the Ukrainian army. But his cousin had not prepared him for this. Lera, however, knew exactly what war was. She had experienced it before, eight years ago in Luhansk. She remembered how her mother hid her and her younger sister in the wardrobe during the bombings, and shared with them the only food they had: half a loaf of bread per day.

Now she and her mother scrambled to dress her baby brother, Artem, and gather a few essentials. Lera’s instinct was to run, although she didn’t know where to go. Grad rockets roared right over the house. Lera’s younger sister, Alyona, had been five when the Perepelytsias fled their home in Luhansk region. Now the buried trauma surfaced. She crouched like the little quail—perepilka—of their surname, put her hands over her head, and screamed.

No one went to work that day. People hid in basements and root cellars as planes and helicopters flew overhead and columns of tanks and artillery drove through Ridkodub and Dvorichna. They were unmarked, and Lida’s neighbors weren’t sure which country they belonged to; it was only on the very last column, which came through at about 4 p.m., that they saw a Russian flag. The few Ukrainian defenses near Dvorichna and Velykyi Vyselok were quickly overwhelmed.

On February 27, the mayor of Kupiansk, the administrative center of the district, surrendered. Soon Kherson fell in south Ukraine. The remaining Ukrainian forces near Lida’s home retreated to defend Kharkiv, which for the next three months was bombarded as Russian forces sought to take the city. But in the settlements near the border, after that first day when Russian troops passed through, everything went strangely quiet.

It was their home, it was Ukraine. Why should the Russians force them out?

On February 28, Vitaly Kucher was in his flat in Dvorichna with his wife and four-year-old daughter, wondering if he still had a job, or a country, when he got a call from a colleague: “You have ten pregnant women waiting outside your office. Why are you at home?”

Kucher, 34, had a homely, round face, and had worked as a gynecologist in Dvorichna for ten years. Before that his father was the local pediatrician. Everyone knew the Kuchers: Between them they’d ushered most of the district’s children into the world and through years of inoculations, illnesses, and accidents. As a child, Lida had been enchanted by Kucher senior during doctor visits; in 2014 and 2015, Kucher junior saw her through her pregnancy with her daughter, Uliana.

Now their hometowns were occupied by Russia. Yet people still lived and loved, pregnancies progressed, and babies were born. Kucher went back to work at Dvorichna’s hospital.

In Ridkodub, Dvorichna, and Velykyi Vyselok, people soon got used to the helicopters flying overhead, as regular as coffee in the morning. Russia was much closer than Kyiv, and the area had long had close relations, both official and unofficial, over the border. A Russian occupation authority installed itself in the Dvorichna House of Culture but seemed clueless when it came to running the appropriated territory. Kucher and his colleagues continued their work almost as usual, stamping hospital paperwork with the Ukrainian stamp.

“Do you know why it took us so long to react?” Kucher asked me when we met in a central Ukrainian village in summer 2023. “Because nothing happened! There was no shooting, no violence, no terrible bombing. Everything was quiet, except for us not knowing who we were anymore.”

Kucher had over 40 pregnant patients during the occupation. There were no buses anymore, so they came on foot or by bike. If several lived in the same village, they might join together to pay for gas and a driver.

One of Kucher’s first patients after the invasion was Lida’s twin sister, Liuda, newly pregnant. Kucher knew her well—she had four children already. Liuda and Lida always had babies at about the same time; they did everything together. Kucher wondered whether Lida might soon turn up outside his office.

Instead, in late March a very young woman was among the patients waiting to see him. She was small and slim, with clear pale skin, dark eyes, and dark hair in a topknot. Her partner was waiting outside. They were both 17. Her name was Valeria Perepelytsia, and the partner was Maksym Kuznichenko, Lida’s oldest son.

Kucher usually referred such youthful pregnancies to social services, to discuss whether to keep the child. Such services were no longer available, however; the director had fled to Poland. The girl in front of Kucher now was so young. But she was very certain that she and her partner wanted the baby, even if the timing was terrible. Kucher was impressed by Lera’s mature attitude. He filled out a medical card for her and scheduled monthly checkups.

When Lera realized that she was pregnant, she’d cried hysterically at first. How would two underage parents bring up a child in wartime, when everything was so uncertain? Maksym had tried to calm her down. In Velykyi Vyselok as in Ridkodub, the Russians had merely passed through and left checkpoints between settlements. Practically everyone in both villages remained, working at the commercial farms or on their own small plots, hoping it would all be over soon, that it wouldn’t affect their lives too much.

Lera’s mother, Svitlana, already displaced once from Luhansk, announced that she wasn’t going anywhere. The elder Slobodianyks in Ridkodub also refused to leave. Here they had a roof over their heads, a vegetable garden, geese and pigs and rabbits to look after. And it was their home, it was Ukraine. Why should the Russians force them out? Besides, they had no savings to cover the enormous travel costs, and the trip was dangerous. Kharkiv was being bombed; the Russians were just outside Kyiv. Where would they go?

Pregnant Liuda had an additional reason for staying. Her husband supported the Russian invasion, and he wasn’t the only one in the district. It was the first real disharmony there had ever been between Liuda and Lida.

In the end, only Lida’s younger sister Sveta left, using the last so-called green corridor to government-held territory, at the end of March. The rest of the family stayed put, Lida and the younger children in Ridkodub, Liuda near Kupiansk, and Maksym with Lera and her family in Velykyi Vyselok. Maksym got a job at the farm where Lera’s mother worked, looking after the calves, and complained about the smell of the animals that clung to his clothes.

Lera cycled to her appointments in Dvorichna, but a question remained: Where would she have the baby? Though home births are not permitted in Ukraine, she approached the only medic in Velykyi Vyselok, a nurse named Natasha Dikhman, and asked if she could help in case Lera had an emergency or couldn’t reach a hospital. Natasha worked part-time in a small first aid center, measuring blood pressure, dispensing basic medications, and patching up injuries. She had limited knowledge of midwifery, and told Lera and her mother not to expect qualified help from her.

Kucher usually sent complex cases to Kharkiv, including births to underage mothers. But the road to the city was closed now. Some of Kucher’s patients went to hospitals in the nearby Russian towns of Valuyki or Belgorod, where they met with incomprehension about what was happening across the border. Russian state media barely reported on the invasion. If Russians paid any attention at all, they likely thought that the so-called special military operation—Russia’s euphemism for the war—was a continuation of the military action in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kucher’s patients described to him their absurd interactions with doctors in Belgorod, who asked, “Why are you coming to us?”

“Well, we’re occupied.”

“Who by?”

“You!”

Lera refused to go to Russia, the country that had already destroyed her home once. She had relatives there, but she hardly spoke to them, since they supported the invasion. Kucher planned for her to go to the hospital in Kupiansk, which had a basement bomb shelter, when it was time to deliver her baby.

The region had become a grim, lawless gray zone where the only accepted narrative was the Russian one.

The veneer of normality in the district of Kupiansk soon wore thin. There was no public transit anymore. No working cash machines or banks. No postal service or deliveries. Shops and gas stations and pharmacies emptied. The only evacuation to free Ukrainian territory was organized by volunteers from Kharkiv, who drove daily to the dam across the river at Pechenihy, the only crossing point on the front line in the region. There they picked up refugees and distributed food and medicines. It was a risky undertaking. As medications at the Dvorichna hospital ran out, the pharmacist decided to cross into Ukrainian-held territory to obtain more. On the dam—now a no-man’s-land between the two sides—he came under fire, and returned concussed and empty-handed.

At the beginning of April, internet connectivity disappeared. Landlines and cell phones stopped working. For three weeks there was no electricity. Soon, obtaining anything at all became a struggle: gas, medicine, bread, news.

Russia started importing food and medication in summer, though they were sold at prices locals couldn’t afford. No one could get money or access salaries or pensions because the banks were all closed. War entrepreneurs cashed money from Ukrainian debit cards, taking a cut of up to 30 percent. In Velykyi Vyselok, people survived thanks to the farm, which paid its workers in produce—meat, milk and eggs, flour, sunflower oil. In many ways, it was a return to the grim 1990s after the USSR collapsed. Or—for the few who remembered—like the Stalinist 1930s or Nazi-occupied 1940s, when no one could say what they really thought for fear of informers and the punishment that might follow.

Those in Dvorichna and Ridkodub were fortunate: There were few instances of torture, murder, or disappearance typical of the Russian occupation even just a few miles away. Anyone who’d served in the Ukrainian army—particularly those fighting in occupied Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014—knew they were targets, and they left if they could or went into hiding. But anyone who stayed loyal to Ukraine risked harassment, arrest, or worse. When they encountered Russian soldiers shopping in the market in Dvorichna or Kupiansk, or buying piglets from the farmer in Ridkodub, they avoided eye contact.

They knew that by staying, adapting, surviving, they could run afoul of Ukraine’s new law criminalizing collaboration with the enemy. No law could encapsulate the experience of living under occupation or pin down the shifting, porous line between survival and collaboration. Distributing Russian humanitarian aid, for example, could violate the new law; for Russia that aid was one way to claim that the invasion had local support and to trap people in systems that would complicate the return of Ukrainian control. Businesses had to register with Russia or face confiscation; state workers were required to sign contracts with occupation authorities or lose their jobs and invite suspicion of their loyalties. Of course, Russian armed forces used local services and amenities, and the locals couldn’t refuse them.

The only widely available TV was Russian, which endlessly repeated that Russia’s special military operation was a liberation from Nazism and NATO’s tyranny. Accessing other news sources was risky and had to be done discreetly. In Velykyi Vyselok, the nurse Natasha Dikhman used a generator to tune in to Ukrainian satellite TV for half an hour after she milked her cows every evening. Between shifts, Maksym climbed a stack of hay bales where he sometimes got service with a Russian SIM card (the only way to get internet) to check Ukrainian news and exchange messages with his relatives in the army.

Everyone had their secrets, including Lida.

In mid-July, the family met in Ridkodub, in the yard of Lida’s house. Liuda had been to Dvorichna for her regular checkup, then came to visit her parents and twin sister, bringing her four children. Lera and Maksym were there, too. It was warm and quiet. At the end of the row of houses, a Russian flag atop the farm’s water tower was the only visible sign that all was not well. The children shouted and played. The adults drank tea at the wooden table under the fruit trees, the site of so many big, cheerful family parties, and discussed the babies that were coming.

Liuda had announced her pregnancy to the family first. When she told her twin, Lida said, “What are you thinking of? At a time like this?” She had asked the same thing of Maksym in April after she spotted a prescription for prenatal vitamins and noticed that he refused to let Lera lift anything.

Soon after, the family found out that their cousin Vladyslav and his wife, who lived outside Kupiansk, were also expecting. Liuda’s baby was due first, in about six weeks. Vladyslav’s was next, a week or so later. Lera and Maksym’s baby was due at the end of October.

“And what about you, Lida?” Liuda teased her twin sister. “There’s just you left for a full conclusion.”

Lida had been quieter than usual, listening to the others. She had split with Uliana’s father, although they were on good terms. That winter, she had started to see a local man called Vitaly. For several years, she’d had irregular periods and health problems. Even when she finally started to suspect something, it took time to find a test to confirm it. “Well, I have some news for you,” she said at last. Maksym saw that she had gone red. “I’m pregnant, too!”

Being pregnant gave them something to talk about, since they couldn’t talk about the occupation or how it had affected their family. Their oldest sister’s first son would soon graduate from a military academy in western Ukraine and go to fight for his country. A cousin was missing in action in Mariupol; another, Oleksandr, who had grown up with them in Ridkodub, was serving on the front line. They couldn’t discuss these things, because the other side of the war was represented in the family: Liuda.

Liuda’s husband, like Lera, was from the occupied part of the neighboring Luhansk region, where the current war had begun in 2014, when Russia fanned, financed, and fought a conflict against Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. The region had become a grim, lawless gray zone where the only accepted narrative was the Russian one—that Ukraine had no right to exist, that it was run by nationalists and Nazis, or natsiky, who had waged war on the Russian speakers of the east. Lera’s uncle was still in occupied Luhansk, hiding from the military police, who rounded up men on the street and packed them off to fight for Russia against Ukraine. Some of the soldiers now in Dvorichna and Kupiansk were from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Slobodianyks were Ukrainian speakers, and loyal to their country. But Liuda’s husband insisted that the 2022 invasion was Ukraine’s and NATO’s fault, and Russia had come to liberate Ukraine and return it to its rightful place as part of Russia. Liuda had begun to repeat this narrative. Lida was being torn between her twin, who was closer to her than anyone in the world, and her own children. Maksym especially could barely stop himself from arguing with his aunt, or contain his rage at those like her husband who colluded with the Russian occupiers.

So that day in the garden, they talked around the silences, or filled them with babies. It was the last time they would all be together.

Since they lacked cellular connectivity and reliable transportation, Vitaly Kucher in Dvorichna became the three pregnant women’s only regular source of information about one another. They passed messages through the doctor, who tried to schedule Lida’s checkups to coincide with Liuda’s so the twins could meet. People clung to their routines, convincing themselves that everything was normal. Natasha Dikhman remembers a cool, rainy summer of tending the animals and digging in the garden; she herself grew the biggest potato she had ever seen, the size of a baby’s head.

But Maksym knew that things were going to change. At the end of August, perched atop the hay bales, he exchanged messages with his army cousin.

“Wait, we’ll be there soon,” his cousin wrote.

“How soon?”

“All in good time.” 

3.liberation

On September 1, Liuda gave birth to a baby girl in Kupiansk’s maternity hospital. The town was emptier than usual, almost peaceful. There was talk of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region, but in Kupiansk Russian soldiers strolled in the local parks eating ice cream. Schools and colleges reopened with a Russian curriculum. Staff who refused to teach it were interrogated or forced to leave. Parents were told they would receive a bonus if they sent their children to Russian school, a fine if they didn’t. Russia was tightening its grip on occupied areas, hammering home its message that the only future was Russian. On September 3, Lida and Liuda’s cousin’s baby was born in the same hospital.

In Ridkodub, Lida and her mother were canning their crop of tomatoes, essential stores to keep them going through winter now that neither were working or could access any money. Seven-year-old Uliana and 13-year-old Dmytro helped; there was no school for them to attend in Ridkodub. At the end of August, Russian military police, or perhaps state security officers from the FSB (the successor to the Soviet KGB), had come for Yuri Tyahilev, Lida’s parents’ neighbor, the village’s head teacher and a staunch Ukraine supporter. They put a bag over his head and held him with other prisoners in a tiny, sweltering, windowless cell for three days of brutal questioning: Who is loyal to Ukraine? Who fought for Ukraine Donetsk and Luhansk?

As soon as he was released, Tyahilev and his wife, who also taught at the school, left Ridkodub and drove to the Russian border, hoping to reach their daughters in Europe. Just hours after they fled, the Russians broke down their door.

Maksym and Lera had hoped to come to Ridkodub on September 7, and to stay until the baby arrived. Maksym was worried about his mother now that she was expecting a child, too. It was easier to travel from there to Dvorichna. Lera and Lida could pass the later months of their pregnancies together. And if his soldier cousin was right about what was coming, he wanted them to be together.

They didn’t go for the most banal of reasons: Maksym couldn’t get the day off work. How different their lives would have been if only they’d gone that day.

Maksym and Lera were on the other side, in Velykyi Vyselok. They were separated from Lida by the front line.

Talk of a southern offensive had been a ruse. On September 6, Ukraine launched a surprise attack on Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. It advanced at lightning speed. By September 7, Lida could hear the roar and thud of incoming and outgoing fire. The war that had somehow passed over them was getting closer by the hour.

Overnight on September 8, a missile hit the House of Culture in Dvorichna, where the Russians had their headquarters. The Russian forces were completely unprepared. “They started running,” Kucher said, “like rats from a sinking ship.”

On September 9, Ukrainian forces entered Kupiansk. In Ridkodub, the sound of battle was continuous. Lida couldn’t reach Liuda or their cousin Vladyslav in Kupiansk, as there was no cell service. Rumor was that the Ukrainians would be in Ridkodub in two or three days. Lida thought: How can we wait? Two or three days seemed like an eternity.

September 11 was a cool, overcast day, with apples falling from the trees. In the early afternoon, three soldiers passed the fence around Lida’s yard—quiet, shadowy figures wearing olive sweatshirts under bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles. They were some of the first soldiers Lida had seen in Ridkodub in more than six months of war. She and her neighbors ran toward them. Then Lida stopped. What if they were Russian? It was difficult to distinguish the uniforms; they weren’t close enough to see arm patches or the strips of tape the two armies used to announce themselves.

One neighbor, less cautious, shouted: “Slava Ukraini!” Glory to Ukraine!

Lida waited for gunshots. Instead the answer came: Heroyam slava! Glory to the heroes!

The stress of the past seven months released. Little Uliana screamed with hysterical laughter. They hugged the soldiers and begged for news. Later that day, Lida took a photograph of her children and two of the soldiers holding a Ukrainian flag. As soon as she had cell service, she would make this her profile photo on Viber, a messaging app popular in Eastern Europe. Then her family would know that Ridkodub was safely Ukrainian again. Her oldest son and his pregnant girlfriend just had to hang on a little longer.

The following day Lida went to her mother’s house, since there was sometimes service there. She could hear horrible shelling in the distance, and the sky was red over Dvorichna. But she’d been back in free Ukraine for 24 hours, and this was another good day—there was cell service, and a message from Maksym. He told her that they were OK and she should hold on, that Ukrainian soldiers were on their way.

Then she saw that the message had been sent five days before. She tried to call Maksym, but there was no answer.

After those first delirious days, things began to go wrong. The first Ukrainian soldiers entered Dvorichna on September 10, Kucher recalls, although officially the town was liberated on September 11, like Ridkodub. “We were overjoyed. We thought: We’ve been liberated, everything is great!” he remembered. “And then on the twelfth was the first really heavy shelling, and the first victims.”

On September 12, Lera, his youngest patient, was supposed to come for an ultrasound. She hadn’t shown—it was the first appointment she missed in six months—but Kucher was in no position to think about his patients. That afternoon, the town shaking under Russian fire, he and his wife and daughter ran to the basement of their building. They didn’t emerge for three days. There was no water, no electricity, no phone or internet, and no letup in the bombardment.

Late on September 15, the family ventured back to their flat. The next day, Kucher managed to evacuate his wife and daughter with a group of volunteers. The following day he left, too.

The counteroffensive had come to a halt, just past Dvorichna, over the Oskil River. (Later, Ukrainian forces retreated to the west bank of the river itself.) Maksym and Lera were on the other side, in Velykyi Vyselok. They were separated from Lida by the front line.

In the following weeks and months, the shelling of Dvorichna continued, and it reached Ridkodub as well. The town lost gas, electricity, and water within days of the Ukrainian advance, but cell service was restored, and the Ukrainian army brought a Starlink terminal with them, which they shared with locals for internet access. In late September, Lida found out that Liuda and her children were alive; after three days sheltering in the basement with the newborn, they had fled to Russia with Liuda’s husband. But there was no contact with Maksym and Lera.

On October 4, as Lida was coming home from her parents’ house, cradling her pregnant belly under her coat, her younger sister, Sveta, called from Slovakia, where she had been living as a refugee since April. “Are you alright, Lida? Have they been in touch with you?”

Lida knew that she meant Maksym and Lera. As far as Lida was aware, they were still where they’d always been, less than 19 miles away, across the Oskil River. But that might as well have been an ocean away.

Lida’s younger sister began telling a confusing story about a girl in Kharkiv who’d posted on social media about people in Velykyi Vyselok. As Sveta spoke, she began to cry.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” Lida asked, panicked. “Sveta, tell me, what’s wrong?”

“Lera had her baby,” she heard through the sobs. “She had a boy, on the first of October. And they’re fine.”

Lida was a grandmother. It was this thought that stayed with her as she, her parents, and her two younger children hid in the root cellar with the neighbor’s family—15 people in a 40-square-foot space, squeezed in among the potatoes and the jars of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. They distracted themselves from the missiles falling outside by trying to guess the baby’s name. Ilya, perhaps—Lera liked the name. Maksym wanted Oleh, after his cousin in the army.

They wrapped themselves in coats and hats against the damp chill of the cellar. The Ukrainian soldiers billeted in the village gave them flashlights, lamps, and bread, and charged their phones for them. One day, as Lida was cooking on the outdoor stove, a cluster bomb landed in the yard, scattering lethal fragments through the marigolds. By some miracle, Lida was only bruised as she scrambled for shelter.

In early October, the school where Yuri Tyahilev taught two generations of the Slobodianyk family was destroyed. Later that month, Lida got a text message from an unknown Russian number. The message said it was from Maksym. She called the number; a female voice answered. “It’s Lera.”

“Our Lera?”

“Your Lera!”

The baby, she said, was called David. The name had come to them out of nowhere, but she and Maksym knew right away that it was right. The baby was fine—they were all fine. They were at home, using a neighbor’s phone. How was Lida’s pregnancy? The younger children? They hoped to be reunited soon. And that was all.

There was no Kucher anymore in Dvorichna to pass reassuring messages between them. The hospital had been destroyed—a direct strike on Kucher’s office on the third floor. The grade school was gone, the kindergarten, the market. Everything. For Lida’s next medical checkup, at 34 weeks, the Ukrainian military organized an ambulance to take her to the hospital in Kharkiv.

Kucher, via phone from a village in central Ukraine, didn’t want Lida to take any risks. The doctors in Kharkiv kept her in the hospital for a week, although she was eager to get back home to her children. And her eldest was always on her mind. Lida had unlimited access to Ukrainian news now, and it was full of horrors and war crimes uncovered in towns liberated from Russian control. Torture sites in Kupiansk. Mass graves in Izium.

Lida remembered the times she’d put her head down and stared at the ground to avoid looking at Russian soldiers on the street in Dvorichna and Kupiansk. Maksym, that timid child she’d teased into smiling, was alone with them now. Was he managing to control his temper, his disappointment and hope? She didn’t know if he could keep his head down.

One day in late October, she was at the hospital when she got another call from an unknown number. It wasn’t Lera this time. The caller asked if Lera and Maksym had arrived yet.

“Arrived where?” Lida said. As far as she knew, they were still in Velykyi Vyselok, under occupation with her grandson.

“In Ridkodub,” the voice said. “They left Vyselok two days ago to come to you. Did they get through?”

“But I’m not in Ridkodub,” Lida said. The woman at the other end of the call explained that Lera, Maksym, and the baby had left by foot on October 25. Lida couldn’t speak. Her parents were at home; they would have called if Maksym and Lera had shown up there. How could they have crossed the front line? It was impossible. “They’re not there!” she managed.

The doctors threatened to tether Lida to her bed with an IV if she didn’t calm down. She roamed the hospital’s corridors, heavy with the baby she carried, a devastated mess of tears. Somewhere between their two villages—amid the familiar fields of sunflowers, the Oskil winding along its chalky banks, the green water and yellow lilies all burning now—her son and his family had vanished. They didn’t answer their phones. She couldn’t find them. One, two, three days. Nothing.

4.TERROR

In mid-September, Maksym found cell service at the haystacks in Velykyi Vyselok. He saw his mother’s Viber photo, his brother and sister in Ridkodub holding a Ukrainian flag with two Ukrainian soldiers. He could feel the smile on his sister’s face spreading across his own.

For months the Russians and their supporters in Kupiansk and Dvorichna, along with the Russian propaganda that was all they watched or listened to, had insisted that his home was and would always be Russian. Now Maksym took a screenshot of the photo as proof that they were wrong. His family were already liberated. Just like his cousin had told him: “We’ll be there soon.” Lera’s baby, due at the end of October, would be born in free Ukraine.

He waited and waited for the Ukrainians to reach Velykyi Vyselok. But they did not come.

Instead, after Kupiansk was liberated on September 10, the village filled with Russian soldiers and matériel retreating from the Ukrainian advance. Dvorichna was completely cut off, and travel and communication were incredibly risky. One afternoon Natasha Dikhman’s husband, Valery, climbed a tree near their house in Velykyi Vyselok where he could get service and talked briefly with their oldest son, who was in Poland and worried sick about them. Seconds later shells whistled past, from Russian soldiers on the highway who probably suspected he was photographing their positions. Valery tumbled out of the tree. He and Natasha were a quiet couple in their forties, devoted to their two sons; before the war, Natasha had called their eldest daily. But now Valery told his wife: “I’m not going anywhere again to make a call.”

On October 1, Natasha was at home making a breakfast of korzh—a flatbread—on the woodstove when Maksym knocked on the door.

“Aunty Natasha, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I think Lera has gone into labor.”

Lera had been in intense pain since the previous afternoon. By evening it was clear that she was in labor, but her water wouldn’t break. At 2 a.m., and again a few hours later, Maksym ran to the Russian soldiers, begging them to take his girlfriend to a hospital in a nearby occupied town. The soldiers sent him away with a bottle of hand sanitizer. Driving anywhere, they said, especially at night, was too dangerous.

So Maksym had come to Natasha. He was trembling. He was just a boy, the same age as Natasha’s youngest. He didn’t know what to do or whom to turn to. “I understand, but how can I help?” Natasha asked him. “I haven’t got anything on hand, and there’s nowhere to take her.”

Natasha’s small first aid center, undisturbed all summer, had been looted in September by Russian soldiers who were now living in the kindergarten across the street, amid a jumble of cots for small children and boxes of bullets and military rations. Natasha still had some of the medication soldiers had brought to the village and given her to distribute. But it was for blood pressure and upset stomach; nothing that would help with a birth. She ran with Maksym through the village to the home that Lera’s mother, Svitlana, shared with her partner.

The overheated little house smelled of woodsmoke and fish and sweat and desperation. Lera was on the veranda, swaying, pressing her forehead against the cool windowpane and swearing a blue streak. “That’s right,” Natasha told her. She felt like cursing herself, at the whole awful situation. “Curse, swear, breathe. Just keep breathing.”

The house shook from the shelling outside. Lera had clung to the hope that she would give birth in a hospital, not at home. Now she asked whatever higher power was listening to please let it happen here in the house. She didn’t want to deliver her baby while hiding in the cold, dark root cellar.

There was no electricity in the house. Natasha asked if Svitlana had any supplies. “There was absolutely nothing!” Natasha recalled later. “No diapers, no disinfectant, no iodine—nothing.” A neighbor offered to tear up a clean sheet to wrap the baby in. Natasha told her to bring whatever she could find. She brought a bottle of vodka. Even as she recalled the scene to me months later, Natasha’s laugh was tinged with hysteria. “On one hand, it’s funny. On the other hand, it’s terrifying. The grad rockets are flying overhead, the house is just wood and clay, and everything is shaking. And there I am with Lera.”

Her greatest fear wasn’t even the rockets but complications from the birth. What if Lera hemorrhaged? Or the baby was breech? She wasn’t trained for this. She had no experience. She could have the death of a child on her hands, or of a mother who was little more than a child herself.

The hours wore on. Maksym waited in the kitchen or on the bench outside, smoking cigarette after cigarette, ignoring the bone-shaking roar of artillery; all he could hear were his girlfriend’s screams.

Almost 24 hours after Lera’s labor started, the baby was born. It was a boy, and the thick, dark umbilical cord was twisted several times around his neck. Natasha unwound it quickly. She cleared mucus from his mouth and nostrils, and slapped the tiny, crumpled bottom. At last he breathed and cried.

She weighed the child using a spring scale, used for tomatoes and cabbages at the market. She had to guess his height. She wrote in a notebook: “I, Natalia Dikhman, attended the birth of a child born to Valeria Mykolaivna Perepelytsia. Male, 2.300 kg, 37 cm. 3.40 pm, 1.10.22.”

On Natasha’s way home, still shaken, a woman stopped her to ask: “Is the baby born yet?” After Maksym’s desperate attempts to get help, the whole village knew about the drama. Natasha had no great expectations of herself. She had been brought up to think that in a war, the heroes are the soldiers at the front. But now it sank in that without training, without equipment, while the war rained death around them, she had helped to bring a new life into the world. Perhaps, in her own little way, she was a hero herself.

She looked in on the new family twice after that. Baby David was tiny, of course—he was almost a month premature. The second time, Lera thought he was developing jaundice. But Natasha could do nothing for him.

After ten days, Lera weighed the baby. He had put on just 200 grams, less than half a pound. She was feeding him with her own milk—thank goodness it had come through, because they had no baby formula—and she felt weak and tired all the time. But that was surely from stress.

She weighed David again two weeks later. The scales showed exactly the same as last time: 2.5 kilograms, roughly 5.5 pounds. He was such a quiet little thing, rarely crying, his eyes dark and colorless under almost transparent lids. He fed frequently, but for short periods, and he barely filled the cloth diapers she put on him. Lera’s step-aunt told her that she looked very pale; perhaps she had anemia. Eat buckwheat, the aunt advised. But no one in the village had buckwheat.

The couple grew increasingly desperate. It wasn’t just that mother and child were ailing. It wasn’t just the artillery fire; it was possible to get used to the rockets and mortars that could kill them. There was another constant fear now—that Maksym would be detained or called up to fight. On September 26 he had turned 18, old enough to go to war for the wrong side.

Before Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the few enemy soldiers they saw in Velykyi Vyselok had left the villagers alone. Now those soldiers were jumpy and paranoid about partisans and spotters who might call in a strike from Ukrainian forces, which were less than seven miles away. The soldiers moved tanks into the village, so that the residents became human shields. At first these men were Russian contract soldiers, or Ukrainians from occupied Donetsk or Luhansk who’d been mobilized. They could be brutal or sympathetic; they might shoot a civilian out of a tree or weep and tell him they hated the war and wanted to go home. But soon, in a pattern repeated everywhere in occupied territory, these rank-and-file soldiers were supplemented by Russian military police and FSB.

Up to ten FSB officers came to Velykyi Vyselok. They looked entirely different, even from a distance. Their uniforms were smart, and they carried new, high-precision rifles. Their job was to cleanse the population of potential dissenters and troublemakers.

Lera was sure that some people in the village were reporting to the FSB about Maksym. She had learned to guard her words long ago, when Russian-backed fighters had taken over her hometown in Luhansk region. But her boyfriend hadn’t been as cautious. Most of Velykyi Vyselok knew that he had a Ukrainian flag at home and a cousin serving in the army with whom he’d exchanged messages.

As Maksym watched Lera grow paler, their baby more listless by the day, he swallowed his fear and pride and went to the soldiers in the kindergarten, pleading with them to transport his family to Ukrainian-held territory. The front line was the railway that ran roughly parallel to the east bank of the Oskil, near a village called Tavilzhanka. All they had to do was reach the railway.

The soldiers refused. Even if Maksym made it to the other side, they said, the nationalists and natsiky would shoot him as a saboteur; why should they risk their lives for that? They made what might have been jokes or might have been threats: When are you going to volunteer to fight, Max?

In late September, the FSB detained one of Lera’s neighbors. They took him to a bombed-out airfield nearby and shot at him until he confessed to fighting in the Ukrainian army. On October 25, as Maksym was leaving work at midday, a villager named Kolya called him over. The man told him quietly that the FSB were looking for him. “You’ve got one, maybe two days,” Kolya said.

Maksym sat down, head in hands, for about ten minutes. Trying to think. To decide. Then he hurried home and told Lera they were leaving. They would walk to the railway, six miles west. If they left right now, they could reach Ukrainian-held territory before nightfall, and they would be safe.

Lera ran quickly to her mother’s house to say goodbye. Svitlana wasn’t there. Lera hugged her sister and kissed her brother. She was leaving 13-year-old Alyona in charge, the sister she was so close to that people said they were like two drops of water. She had carried little Artem on her hip and changed his diapers; his first word wasn’t “mommy” but “Lera.” Now she had her own baby to look after. She tore herself away and ran from the house in tears because her mother wasn’t there to say goodbye.

They took only the stroller and a few clothes for David in a little case, along with their passports, the notebook where Natasha had recorded David’s birth, and Lera’s medical card from Kucher. For themselves they had only the clothes, light coats, and trainers they were wearing.

Two teenagers with a baby stroller. Russian soldiers driving past on the exposed, shell-cratered road stopped and offered them a lift. Maksym thought he’d be arrested every time they passed. It was soon clear that they’d never make it before nightfall, so they accepted a ride to the next village. When the soldiers left, Maksym smashed his phone, with its incriminating messages and photos.

Tavilzhanka was a long, sprawling settlement along the road that led to the river and Dvorichna on the other side. It was quiet as they resumed walking, the only sounds those of a rural autumn day: crows cawing, the wind rustling crisp leaves. As they neared the front line, many of the houses were just piles of rubble, blackened roof beams, a sickly smell of damp plaster and burning. The ground had been broken and dug up, either deliberately, to hinder the advancing Ukrainians, or by missile attacks. The train station was in ruins. The Ukrainians were just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the railway.

There was a burst of gunfire. “Take David in your arms,” Lera told Maksym. “If something happens, get down on the ground with him.” Maksym was bigger and could offer more protection. More gunfire. Then mortars. The Ukrainians were shooting back. A mortar landed so close, there was no warning whistle. They were showered with earth. Deafened. They had only a couple hundred feet to go, but they couldn’t make it through the barrage. They had to turn back.

The soldiers in Tavilzhanka were Ukrainians from occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. Before the Russian army recruited its own prisoners for the same expendable purpose, it usually put these men in the most dangerous forward positions. The soldiers offered to take the family to Russia. They told Maksym that he and Lera wouldn’t make it through the fighting, that they should wait a week or two if they wanted to get to Dvorichna—by then the Russians would have taken it back from the Ukrainians.

That night the family stayed with a colleague of Maksym’s from the farm. Maksym was determined to try again the next day. The morning dawned cold and raining. Drones flew overhead, scouting for a strike, their characteristic whir sending soldiers diving for cover. Then machine gun and mortar fire. Heavy rain turned the blasted ground to thick mud.

David was so fragile; he had no warm clothes or blankets. Maksym’s colleague told them to stop being stupid, to go with the soldiers offering to take them to Russia, where David could get the medical help he needed. By then, Lera was exhausted. Her head ached. Over the past two days, David barely stirred; he was too weak to even cry. The soldiers from Luhansk were at least familiar. In another life, one the war hadn’t wrecked, they were miners and mechanics like her uncle and father. She and Maksym gave in.

A pair of soldiers sped them to another village, where they transferred to an Ural army truck. Countless civilians were crowded in the back, dirty and disheveled. The truck lurched over muddy, bumpy fields, avoiding the roads. Tears ran down Lera’s face; she was too tired to wipe them away. I’ll come back, she silently promised someone or something, maybe the poor battered earth under the heavy wheels. Please wait for me, I’ll come back soon.

The truck crossed at a bombed-out checkpoint staffed with Russian soldiers. As they passed through, Lera realized that she’d lost her phone. They were in Russia, and they were truly alone.

5.ENEMY TERRITORY

After that terrible call on October 27, Lida finally pulled herself together. Back in her hospital bed in Kharkiv, her own eight-month baby wriggling and kicking inside her, she called siblings, neighbors, friends, volunteers, soldiers—anyone who might help find her son and his new family. She forced the image of their dead bodies out of her mind. She told herself: Wherever they are in the world, a mother will find her children.

There was no green corridor to Ukraine-controlled territory from Velykyi Vyselok. The only place they could go was Russia. And Lida knew someone there who might help: Liuda. She and her family, including their baby daughter, Darya, had fled to the Russian city of Belgorod during the battle to liberate Kupiansk. Soon Lida got a call from someone in Tavilzhanka saying that Maksym and Lera had gone to the same city. Though the relationship was more strained than ever, blood was blood. Lida asked Liuda to search the refugee camps and hospitals for her son and grandson.

During the fierce fighting of Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive, thousands of civilians fled or were transported by Russian forces over the border, forcing the Russians in Belgorod to confront the war next door. But any deviation from the official narrative about the special military operation was ruthlessly stifled. Russian state-controlled media—and there was no longer any other kind—told them that the Ukrainians arriving in their city were Russian-speaking victims of the Nazi government in Kyiv, to be rescued and absorbed into Russian history and culture. Of course, Russian prisons were also full of Ukrainian civilians who had been searched, questioned, and detained at checkpoints or border crossings—a process called filtration—and said to be terrorists or Nazis themselves.

In principle, the Russian government offered help to those it did not detain. It housed them in summer camps, at sports facilities, and in tent encampments. It provided transport to more permanent arrangements in far-flung provinces. Russian volunteers who supported the invasion provided food, clothing, medical supplies—the same items they’d donated to the Russian army.

That assistance was a staple of Russian propaganda TV. It showed grateful Ukrainians on mattresses in sports arenas or hostel rooms, thanking Russia for saving them. Russia also facilitated the adoption of Ukrainian minors into Russian families. Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights, adopted a teenager from Mariupol and was a frequent presence on TV, hugging and kissing Ukrainian youth, applauding as they were issued Russian passports. She told the cameras that some of these children insisted on speaking Ukrainian or singing the Ukrainian national anthem, but they soon learned to love Russia.

Liuda was staying with her children in a flat in Belgorod while her husband looked for a permanent place for them to settle. She called one hospital looking for Maksym, Lera, and David. Nothing. She called a second and was told that a month-old baby with a very young mother had been admitted. David had been found.

When she visited the hospital, David was in a dimly lit ward. The staff wouldn’t let her inside. She took a photograph on her phone, through the blinds covering the glass. She sent it to Lida, who was lying in a hospital just over the border. But Lera wasn’t with her child. The staff told Liuda that the mother wanted to abandon the baby.

The worst thing, they soon realized, was that they couldn’t get their child back.

In fact, when Maksym and Lera arrived in Belgorod, just before midnight on October 26, Lera had asked to be taken immediately to a hospital, because she was afraid that David might be dying. She was taken to a facility several miles outside the city. Once they were there, medical staff whisked David away. He was so malnourished that he was transferred to a pediatric hospital back in Belgorod, where they intended to keep him until his weight stabilized. But Lera couldn’t go with him—she was too weak, and COVID-19 protocols prevented parents from accompanying their children anyway.

The doctor wanted to admit Lera too—he said that she had anemia. But her treatment would be administered at the hospital outside town, far from David. Afraid to be so far from her child, Lera refused.

While David was in the hospital, Lera and Maksym stayed in a refugee camp several miles from Belgorod. Neat rows of white-and-blue tents stood on an expanse of tarmac. Inside, 12 or more people had been assigned beds. The place was clean and orderly enough, but the tent walls flapped in the autumn wind, the heaters did little to push back the cold, and there was no privacy, no place to speak freely about what came next, about returning home to Ukraine.

The camp was full of refugees from Kupiansk, Dvorichna, and even Ridkodub. But for Maksym and Lera, there was little comfort in finding themselves among neighbors. Instead, they were confounded that so many Ukrainians seemed to believe that Russia really had saved them, although they weren’t always clear about what from. The refugees repeated rumors Maksym heard in Velykyi Vyselok—that Ukrainian forces had executed all the teachers in the district, or that there were in fact no Ukrainian soldiers to speak of, that they were all foreign mercenaries and NATO forces.

When Maksym challenged these accounts, he was told that he’d been brainwashed, or that he was a natsik himself. In the end, any argument was reduced to a single axiom: Because they’d come to Russia voluntarily, Ukraine would always consider them traitors, so they couldn’t go back. Perhaps the refugees repeated the Russian line to protect themselves from the horror of filtration. But in Maksym’s eyes, they were traitors indeed.

There was constant pressure to speak Russian and to remain in the country. In Russia they would be given an apartment, they would receive benefits, everything would be free. While Maksym and Lera were at the camp, four buses left, taking large groups of Ukrainians to distant Russian cities. Each time, the couple were urged to leave, too. You can’t stay in this camp forever, they were told, and you can’t go back to Ukraine, where there is only shooting and shelling, extremism and fascism. And why would you go to Europe? No one wants you there; no one speaks your language. Stay in Russia.

Yet it was obvious that Russia’s so-called welcome of Ukrainians fell short. The food in the camp was awful, a soup made with random ingredients: macaroni, cabbage, crab sticks, pickled cucumbers. It was hard to obtain a mobile number, book a train ticket or a hotel room, or even buy cigarettes. Everything required an ID, and most people only had Ukrainian documents.

But the worst thing, they soon realized, was that they couldn’t get their child back.

When Lera returned to the doctor, he gave her tea and chocolate. He said he understood that she didn’t want to be separated from Maksym and David, but she was perilously weak. If she didn’t agree to treatment for anemia, the pediatric hospital staff would never let her even hold her baby, because she might faint and drop him. He promised that she could join David once she’d had treatment.

Lera consented to a blood transfusion. Her hemoglobin levels were dangerously low, and the transfusion may have saved her life. It came from the local blood bank. From now on, Lida—if they ever made it home again to merry, irreverent Lida—would be able to tease her: Lera is our little Rashistka.

After two days, despite the doctor’s promise, Lera still wasn’t transferred to the hospital where David was being treated. So she checked herself out and went to retrieve him. First, the doctors said they couldn’t give David to her because he was still recovering. Then they said they couldn’t return him without documents proving that he was her child. It was only when doctors wanted to x-ray David’s eye that they allowed Lera to briefly see her son.

When they’d first arrived in Russia, David was less than a month old, and Maksym and Lera only recently turned 18. Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children was not yet headline news: The International Criminal Court wouldn’t issue a warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova for the crime of illegally transferring children from Ukraine to Russia until March 2023.

Maksym and Lera had made a courageous, desperate effort to stay in Ukraine, but they had been forced to go to Russia instead. Now everything around them conspired to keep them there—and away from their child. Lera had the medical card from Kucher at the hospital in Dvorichna, which confirmed that she had been pregnant up to August. The only other document they had connected with David was the notebook page on which Natasha Dikhman had recorded his birth.

Armed with this evidence, they did the only thing they could: They went to the Belgorod registry office and applied for a Russian birth certificate. They left with a greenish slip of paper, emblazoned with the two-headed eagle of the Russian state, declaring that David Maksimovich Kuznechenko had been born on October 1, 2022, in Velykyi Vyselok, Kupiansk district, Kharkiv, Ukraine. The surname was spelled wrong, with an e instead of an i following the first n, but they didn’t care. What mattered was that it said he was born in Ukraine. The registrar had offered to add a stamp confirming that the baby was a Russian citizen. Lera and Maksym declined.

Document in hand, Lera could finally collect David from the hospital. He had grown at last, and was stronger, with a soft feathering of hair. His eyes focused on Lera, although one of them—the one x-rayed by doctors—seemed darker than the other.

They were reunited at last, and now they wanted to go home. While the young couple trekked between hospitals and the tent camp, Maksym’s mother had contacted them with good news: She had found a volunteer who promised to help them return to Ukraine. Lida’s cousin Vladyslav, whose wife had given birth just two days after Liuda in Kupiansk, had also fled to Russia in September. From there the family traveled to Poland. Vladyslav gave Lida contact information for a woman who helped them. He said she was part of an underground network of Russian volunteers who supported Ukraine.

Though Maksym was wary when he first met her outside the tent camp in Belgorod, the volunteer quickly proved her worth. When Lera and Maksym left the hospital with David, she booked them a hotel room; the family paid for it with money Lera’s uncle in Luhansk had wired. Lera sent Lida a picture of the three of them cuddling together for the first time in over three weeks. At last they were together, they had some privacy, and someone was helping them.

The volunteers did all the things the Russian state did not. They bought bus and rail tickets to destinations chosen by the refugees, and shuttled them to stations and borders. They booked hotel rooms, or placed Ukrainians in the houses of sympathetic families. They bought phones and SIM cards, and contacted anxious relatives left behind in Ukraine.

Most of these volunteers opposed the war and saw helping Ukrainian refugees as their moral duty—and the only way to express their opposition. They were constantly concerned about security, both their own and that of their work. Those who would talk to me at all described a huge international relief operation working entirely underground—an army of ants, as it was described. One person would pick up refugees, provide for their immediate needs, and pass them on to the next person, like links in a chain. “I try not to know anything more than is necessary,” a volunteer told me. “After the war, maybe then we’ll get to talk about what we did.”

On November 20, Lera and Maksym began their long trip home, handed from volunteer to volunteer, trusting in strangers’ goodwill with every step. First they went to Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, where they spent two days. There they met other Ukrainians, not just from their corner of Kharkiv region but from all over. They were bewildered and angry, or apathetic and secretive, heading for Europe. Here, finally, not everyone said they’d been saved by Russia.

Next came a 20-hour bus ride to the border with Belarus, Russia’s partner in the war. They waited hours there, while phones and documents were checked and bags searched. Then they were in Minsk, and after that Brest. Another night in a strange bed, sheltered by people whose names they barely knew. At 9 a.m. on November 24 the last transfer came—yet another volunteer, in a car. By now the other refugees had peeled away, bound for Europe. The roads were almost empty. They shared the ride with just one elderly Ukrainian couple.

The car dropped them off at Mokrany-Domanove, the only checkpoint still open between Ukraine and Belarus. The Belarusian border guards didn’t want to let them through. They pointed out that Maksym’s Ukrainian ID had expired, that David had a Russian birth certificate. They asked what they thought about the war and pored over their phones. “What’s this yellow and blue?” they asked Maksym suspiciously. It was a Ukrainian banking app; Maksym told them he had installed it to access his student stipend.

The guards made a final attempt to detain them. To Lera they said, “Don’t you know that if you cross that border, your boyfriend will be handed his army boots right away?” They towered over her slight five-foot frame.

“Then this baby will have a soldier for a father,” she said.

Finally, about midday, after nine months of living under Russian control, they were allowed through. They had several bags, filled with baby clothes and diapers from the volunteers, and winter clothes for themselves. Maksym didn’t even notice their weight. He flew across the no-man’s-land to the Ukrainian checkpoint. It was if an unbearable burden had fallen from his shoulders.

Returning Ukrainian refugees, or those freed from occupation, often speak about the relief of familiar words, foods, road signs. The yellow-and-blue flag, signs of safety and civilization. Coca-Cola they can afford, no rubles required. A change in the air itself: freedom to breathe. But this wasn’t the end of Maksym and Lera’s journey. They still had to cross most of Ukraine, from west to east.

First they needed to speak with Ukrainian security services—Ukraine performs filtration, too. (They advised Lera to use David’s Russian birth certificate for toilet paper.) Assisted by Ukrainian volunteers this time, they boarded a bus for Kovel. Then there was a 20-hour bus ride through Kyiv en route to Kharkiv. David slept for most of the journey, until the last leg, when he started to howl. Soon he would meet Lida for the first time, though not his other grandmother; Svitlana was still in occupied territory. But in the crowded Kyiv bus station, Lera’s father, Mykola, was waiting.

Mykola and Svitlana had split up when the family still lived in Luhansk. Lera and her father often talked, but they hadn’t seen each other in years, since before she escaped the shelling in 2014. Now, at the end of this journey, fleeing that same small fire that had grown into a conflagration, they met again. It was just a brief rest stop at a bus station, just long enough for Mykola to kiss his grandson, shake Maksym’s hand, and slip some money into his daughter’s pocket after hugging her tightly. They both cried. 

There was so much death and grief in Ukraine now. But to balance it, here were two babies, alive, together.

Lida waited for well over an hour at the bus station in Kharkiv. The bus, delayed by snowy roads, finally arrived around 9 p.m. She saw Lera first, wearing a bright red coat and hat. Then Maksym. Then baby David, a well-wrapped bundle in Lera’s arms.

She had rehearsed this moment, worried that she would embarrass herself by collapsing into tears. Instead, trembling with excitement, she found herself shouting, “Slava Ukraini!”

Her voice rang through the cold, poorly lit bus terminal, full of weary or anxious travelers, all with their own war stories. Some people smiled, some laughed. Many replied: “Heroyam slava!”

Lida’s baby was born in Kharkiv on November 28, a rosy, healthy girl with a fluff of fair hair. Lida called her Vitalina, after her father, Vitaly, and because the name means “alive.”

One of Lida’s cousins had been missing in Mariupol for nine months now. Her beloved twin was in Russia, with the niece she’d never seen. Lera’s mother and siblings were still trapped by the occupation. There was so much death and grief in Ukraine now. But to balance it, here were two babies, alive, together.

Four days later, Lida returned to Ridkodub. There was no water, no electricity, no gas. The roads, broken by shelling and tanks, were lethal with black ice. A week after she arrived, a shell landed just down the road, destroying the kindergarten. But Maksym and Lera and David had made it back. They’d traced a loop of nearly 2,000 miles to return to the place they’d started. Together, they were home.

6.HOME

Returning to Ridkodub was not quite the happy ending everyone wanted. It was difficult for Lera to continue her studies with no electricity or transportation; she had to take her midterm exams using the army’s Starlink terminal. And the village was no place for a baby who needed medical care. David’s right eye had a cataract, and he required surgery.

Lera and Maksym left with Yevhen Sanin, a volunteer from Kharkiv who’d taken me to meet the family at the end of 2022. He drove them back to Kharkiv on January 4, along the same route we’d traveled, at top speed to avoid the missiles still battering the ruins of Dvorichna and Kupiansk.

They moved into a hostel for displaced people and waited for the surgery. But without papers David couldn’t be admitted, and they couldn’t register for state support either. So, at the end of January, Lera, Maksym, and David met a lawyer at the Zhovtnevyi district court in Kharkiv. In some ways, this was the last stage of David’s journey. His parents had brought him this far to ensure he would grow up in Ukraine. Now they had to make him Ukrainian by law.

Births in occupied territories can be registered in Ukraine only after a court hearing. Ironically, it had been easier getting a Russian birth certificate than to make David a Ukrainian citizen. Lera still only had Kucher’s medical card and the handwritten notebook page. Their lawyer told them not to mention the Russian birth certificate. Ukraine had broken off all diplomatic relations with its neighbor, and after almost a year of bloody invasion, with at least 7,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers dead, that document could only count against them.

They considered asking Kucher, who had acted as a witness for several other of his patients in similar predicaments. But then they learned that Natasha Dikhman, who had helped Lera during the birth, was now in Kharkiv.

After Maksym and Lera had left at the end of October, life in Velykyi Vyselok became unendurable. The shelling was intense. Russian soldiers went from house to house, looting or demanding alcohol, when they weren’t firing at Ukrainian forces on the west bank of the Oskil. Natasha and Vitaly Dikhman managed to evacuate their youngest son in November. At the end of December they too left, driving over the frozen fields in their battered car, the windows smashed by a shell that had landed on their garage. They exited through Russia and returned to Ukraine though a rarely open checkpoint between the warring countries, arriving in Kharkiv on December 25. There were ruined buildings everywhere, but compared with Velykyi Vyselok it was peaceful.

Natasha had heard that the young family made it back to Ukraine. In January, Lera called asking for help one more time. That’s how humble, unassuming Natasha, who never wanted anything but a quiet life, found herself recounting the whole awful story in a courtroom. She held David while Lera and Maksym spoke to the judge. The baby was still tiny, but his grip on her finger was strong. He looked just like Maksym. The hearing took about an hour. The next day, his parents received a Ukrainian birth certificate for David Maksymovych Kuznichenko.

Home, even a home right on the front line, was familiar, a place of love, somewhere he could be in charge of his own life again.

After the court hearing, the couple stayed in Kharkiv. Maksym got a job at a supermarket. He earned just enough to rent a flat on the top floor of an apartment building; it was discounted because anyone living there would be at greater risk from ongoing, if less frequent, air raids.

Lera’s mother, Svitlana, called occasionally from Velykyi Vyselok, but she said less with each call—just a brief “we’re alright.” In the spring, Mykola, Lera’s father, enlisted in the Ukrainian army.

At the end of January, Lida moved with Vitalina and Uliana away from Ridkodub, to live near her older sister in a village a little farther from the front line. Her parents stayed behind with Dmytro. Liuda remained in Russia with Darya, the third of a trio of wartime babies. The twins spoke only when Liuda’s husband wasn’t around.

Sometimes their older sister told Lida to stop weeping for her twin. “You don’t understand,” Lida would say. “You’re both my family, but Liuda and I are one. We’re two, but we’re one. If she is in pain, I am in pain. If I hurt, she hurts.” The war couldn’t sever that connection. “It’s very hard without her,” Lida told me.

I met Maksym again in Kharkiv in May, at the funeral of Yevhen Sanin. He was killed by shelling in Dvorichna while attempting to evacuate another family to safety. The cemetery, where hundreds of Ukrainian flags fluttered above military graves less than 14 months old, was already familiar to Maksym. In January, he had attended the burial of Oleksandr, Lida’s cousin, killed while fighting near Lyman in Donetsk region.

All this time, Maksym had been mulling over a decision. When I first met him, after he’d returned to Ridkodub in December, I asked why they hadn’t gone to Europe when they had the chance. There, David would be safe. Why go to such extraordinarily difficult lengths to return to Ukraine, with all its uncertainty and danger?

Because, they said simply, it was home. Patriotism is a difficult, discredited word for many Europeans. For Ukrainians it has become a way of life—a deep, fundamental expression of survival, like the words Slava Ukraini. Maksym had spent months in occupied Ukrainian territory, a scared boy, a teenage father at the mercy of Russian soldiers who threatened to make him fight for an invading force. He’d been powerless to protect anyone. Home, even a home right on the front line, was familiar, a place of love, somewhere he could be in charge of his own life again.

Lera graduated from college in July and celebrated her 19th birthday. She had filled out, and there was color in her cheeks and on her newly manicured nails. Max had a tattoo of the Ukrainian state symbol, the tryzub or trident. He had grown, too. He was impatient with his job and with the young people—kids his own age—who came into the supermarket or hung out in cafés and bars to enjoy themselves, forgetting about the war. His male colleagues were worried about being drafted to fight in Ukraine’s slow, bloody second counteroffensive.

On August 9, Ukraine announced obligatory evacuation of all settlements in the Kupiansk district, including Ridkodub. The armed forces didn’t want civilians caught up in the push to take back the remaining territory—that was how Maksym explained the evacuation to me.

In late September, Lida turned 38, and Maksym 19. On October 1, David would be one year old. “After that I’m going to swear my oath,” Maksym told me the last time we met, on a hot, late-summer day in their rented flat overlooking Kharkiv’s botanical gardens and the student hostels that housed hundreds of displaced people from Kupiansk, Ridkodub, and Dvorichna. “I’m going to sign up for the army myself, so that it’s my choice, not someone else’s.” He was going to protect his family, even if that meant he had to leave them.

David was holding on to his father’s knees, gazing up into his face. Maksym tossed him into the air to make him smile, then gave him his phone to hold. “Go on, take it to mommy,” he said. The little naked child clutched the huge phone and toddled unsteadily to Lera. He had just learned to walk.

In memory of Yevhen Sanin, 1976–2023.

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