November 13th – December 12th, 2022
At 6am on Sunday, November 13th, I took the elevator down, left the apartment building, and started jogging towards our meeting place with Olya – on the other side of the cemetery. That’s when I realized that the streetlights were on, which was unusual. In this early hour on weekdays, the streetlights would have been needed: otherwise, the flow of moving dots of light – headlights or cellphones, blinding me and making it difficult to run, mark the route of the workers. For a day off, the best explanation I came up with was symbolic: the streetlights must have honoured the de-occupation of Kherson on November 11th. “Kherson!” my friends texted from around the world to raise my spirits. I cannot get used to receiving such messages from afar, with the names of cities and villages mentioned as if our topography is common knowledge. It reminds me of the cost and the circumstances of their discovery of Ukraine, and that for a country like mine, it can hardly be otherwise.
My father was still at the hospital recovering from Covid. In his angry phone calls to me and my mother, he blamed everyone, but particularly me for bringing him to the cardiological clinic, where he eventually got the virus. Two days before his release from the hospital, my mother told me she could no longer share a space with him. “Please, take me away – somewhere.” She meant it. And just like that, my eighty-one-year-old mother left my eighty-four-year-old father after years of abuse.
The first days after she moved in with me, our time together was exquisite. I watched her, indifferent to the gorgeous landscape outside the window that I, for so long, wanted to show her. She concentrated on things immediate, objects and mechanics of our space, mastering the new environment where nobody, after so many years, could hurt her. There were still many problems – my bed was too low for her weak brittle bones to support her getting up; my tasty dinners eventually disturbed her stomach; the sirens were too loud at my place and made her sleepless; her many night trips to the toilet, even with a bright hand light, still required my help, which upset her immensely. Yet, these several days might have been the sole reason I came to Ukraine two years ago. We talked through our entire life and asked each other all our questions.
While I was still trying to teach, even an online asynchronous class required posting teaching material, which became increasingly hard by the end of November. When the power is off, you had to figure out fast at what time and where in town you could catch WiFi for your teaching uploads. If power was cut in the apartment, then it’s on somewhere mid-town. You also must make it to a drug store and grocery store where electricity is needed to process card payments, as you do not have enough cash nor enough time to stay in hour-long waiting lines to ATMs. It’s a chess game, really, and you are a pawn, dragging yourself through, literally, black and white squares of light and darkness that our urban map has become.
When I brought my father back home, he was a different extremely fragile man, but not so different after all in his stubbornness. He could neither stand nor walk, yet, although he now clearly needed 24/7 care, he still fought against hiring help. Since she moved in with me, my mother stopped taking his calls entirely, unable to encounter the flow of complaints, anger, and accusations. He called me instead to report his thirst or hunger, wet pants, constant falls, or that he spilled a bucket of water on the kitchen floor. I responded to each of them by coming two or three times a day and fixing things or just sitting and talking to him when there was nothing to fix except his lack of attention; but thirty minutes after I would leave him, I would receive the next call. With all his anger directed at me, I’d spent my last energies building the imaginary walls between us so that it did not affect me too much. At least, I was telling myself, I shielded my mother from him. Taking myself out of this arrangement seemed catastrophic. Life was growing more surreal. My morning runs and kinesiology sessions turned into a religious experience in gathering fragments of the self. I finally asked Nina, who earlier cared for my mother, to help with my father. Despite a very good salary, she literally ran away several days later. “Sveta, I am so sorry I could not take it.” “Nina, I am so sorry for what he did to you.” We apologized endlessly to each other, while I resumed cleaning shit and urine from my father’s bedroom floor, listening to him cursing doctors or, on better days, no one in particular. The duties came back to me.
On November 15th, we worked with Niels on our essay about the Russian state-controlled telecom company Miranda Media operating since 2014 in Crimea and now providing services, including extensive state-sponsored surveillance, in the temporarily occupied territories of the Kherson and Donetsk regions. Suddenly our WhatsApp video call disconnected and all tech in my place went off. “Couldn’t place call,” WhatsApp reported to me on my multiple attempts to reconnect. I still managed to shoot Niels a couple of texts, and even to receive a call, ten minutes later, from my friend Dana in the US, who yelled at me for some reason, through a dying connection from somewhere far away, “Svetka, have you already bought a power generator?” “I think I can manage without it!” “No, you won’t! You know Ukraine is under attack right now, don’t you?! It’s huge, your power grid is destroyed! Are you in the shelter?! Run!” I didn’t, and I was not. I could have guessed, of course, by the immediacy of disconnection the scale of the ongoing attack, but since no air-raid alarm was heard in the city, or coming through Google services or my phone app, it took me off guard. That was how I learned that a massive missile attack unless you are in directly targeted cities, may not feel like fire and explosions, but freezing cold and uncanny silence.
That day, as was later reported, the Russian forces attacked Ukraine with ninety-six air- and sea-based cruise missiles X-101, X-555, and Kalibr, along with air missiles X-59 and military drones with overall cost of weapons reaching up to a billion dollars. As a result, Ukraine’s power generation capacity decreased by fifty percent. Only ten to twenty percent of what had been damaged was restored during the subsequent week. The massive attacks continued on November 16th, leaving ten million of Ukrainian citizens without electricity, killing many directly and indirectly, but of course what was mainly focussed on in the media was a rocket hitting a small village of Przewodow in Poland, directly striking an electricity power line connecting the EU and Ukraine. High-intensity attacks resumed on November 23rd, when Russia launched at least seventy missiles on our infrastructure, after which the Kyiv police chief reported on his Telegram channel that the attack killed seven city residents and injured thirty-five, including six children. Earlier, Ukrainian officials communicated to us that the electric power supply would be “consistent” if the nuclear power stations remain operational. The attacks on November 23rd alone disconnected Ukraine’s four operational nuclear power plants from the national energy grid. If you know how a united energy system works, they say, you know what’s coming.
It was snowing all day on November 17th – the first time this year. If the snow stays until tomorrow, I thought, jogging will be quite an experience, an art of mixed techniques – stepping, jumping, and sliding, while intuitively moving against the flow of blinding headlights. After several hours, my balcony is covered by a thin layer of delicate fresh snow – I open the door and step on it with my feet bare, stand still for fifteen seconds. It’s amazing how such extreme cold feels like electric current as it reaches my head crown running from my bare feet in nanoseconds, and when it does, I know – winter is here.
All systems in my building are powered by electricity. During the blackouts, I am left without water and heat, my stove is electric, so no cooking either; the internet cuts out too – while mobile internet still works for one hour after outages, some days, depending on the number of rocket strikes and the overall length of the attack, you may not be able to make a phone call. Thinking proactively, in the end of October, I bought a camping gas stove before they almost immediately all sold out. Now I went to the market to get propane-butane baluns. When at home, I set one in the stove, but when I turned it on, the gas suddenly spilled out because the balun was sitting for too long in low temperatures. My chemistry lesson lasted for only three seconds, but a most spectacular moment with me standing amidst the kitchen with its entire floor on fire was no less educational. The elevator does not run during the air raid alerts nor when electric power is cut; so if you haven’t managed to bring water containers up during the short breaks between air-raid alerts and power outages, while the magic of electric power is with us, you’ll be carrying these liquid kilos on you all the way up to the tenth floor. Upsettingly, most of this water must be flushed in the toilet, but as French psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte tells us in his History of Shit, shit has politics, thus, the management of human waste is crucial to our subjectivity as modern and late modern individuals, not to mention our subjectivity as fighters in hypermodern cyberwars. By the end of November, I lost eleven pounds.
The cold ruined the wonderful co-existence with my mother. In the freezing weather, my top-floor apartment would cool down entirely within only 10-15 minutes after power is cut; and the powerless time started getting longer, lasting up to four or six hours. When it happens, you need to move all the time to make your bodily energy run to reach your fingertips, nose, and ears. When you speak, your words come out and you see them wrapped in your steamy breath. My mother said she would use it as an opportunity to improve her walking skills, but underestimated herself, the recovery time needed for our energy system, and the commitment of our enemy to reach us by all means available in total war. Eventually, she withered somehow, became visibly smaller, and was constantly trembling as even that alien cold nested in her body to consume it entirely. My daily routine, apart from fixing my father’s emergencies, shifted towards boiling water, pouring it in two rubber heating pads every two or three hours, and setting them all around her body while my mother hid in bed covered to the top of her head with all four of our winter blankets. Only her continued trembling revealed a living thing underneath the pile. At night, we would sleep in our winter clothing embracing each other in my bed, face to face, a mother-daughter energy-saving assemblage.
I was panicking, squeezed by the mother-father deadlock, distressed by my collapsing university work and by failing my doctoral students as a missing supervisor. Public talks and my engagement with media that kept my locked existence in a small Ukrainian town meaningful throughout the year were no longer a possibility. All this might seem irrelevant to care about in the blackout, but it was not – every connection means a lot more, and when they’re cut it hurts harder. I considered buying an EcoFlow battery and a Starlink station to rebuild communication. One November evening, Kostya, a friend of my friends, came over and we brainstormed, in complete darkness, the options of turning my apartment into a small power generating station. I hoped to use my grant funds and looked into this option with Kim from our research office to discover, to my excitement, that I could, indeed, do so. It was already December 7th, of course, when Kim and I finally learned about that possibility, and I still had to place an application explaining how the purchase would contribute to the direct cost of the research activities and would not result in personal gain for me. The next day I made the measurements required for pointing the Starlink app to the sky, but even from my top floor, the level of estimated interruptions for streaming, web browsing, and video calls, according to their analytics, would be 16 to 20 percent. Then I heard from my neighbour, who placed a request to purchase a Starlink station, that his waiting line did not move for a month. Simple calculations made it clear that, at best, I’d receive the tech sometime in Spring. After all, it occurred to me that purchasing expensive technology was again my way of growing roots, while instead, I had to work on disentangling myself and making my way out. I purchased another camping stove and two boxes with fifty-four propane-butane baluns that would be easier to drop off as ballast.
I investigated possibilities of leaving the country with my mother. Niels and his friend were ready to pick us up at the border, but how to cross it was unclear. My mother does not have papers to travel abroad, and the option of crossing without papers was no longer available. Adel thought I should check in at the nearest hotel and camp with her at the border until we are permitted to cross without her passport. Travel to the border with a disabled person, though, posed another problem. A cab, I thought. I could afford that. Remembering, however, how even a ten-minute ride from her place to mine made her sick, I hesitated. Where to go, if we cross the border, was also unknown. I thought of the Netherlands and Germany, but they were not accepting any more people, while Ukrainians who ran from significantly more extreme circumstances, were still waiting for their permits, insurance, and housing. We would not even be considered refugees at that point, but tourists – with a temporary privilege of entering an EU country for a long time without a visa. All things considered, staying in Ukraine, again, looked more manageable.
When I walked towards the city centre on November 24th, all the streetlights were off as they are during the blackout, which set an unregulated relation between cars and pedestrians. It was then that, for the first time, I thought about the benefits of having health insurance. Health insurance for those realms of war that were passing as peace. Meanwhile, the city sounded like a gigantic power generator – the army of gasoline generators, in fact; and it certainly smelled like that too. Since the beginning of General Surovikin’s consistent attacks on the energy infrastructure in mid-October, Russia had carried out ninety-two attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid. By mid-November, the demand for generators increased tenfold and for power banks by sixteen times. I kept the switches in my apartment on at night during the blackout, so when power came back, I would immediately wake up, get up and plug in all my tech to charge, then turn the lights off and go back to sleep. This routine became so automatic that it reminded me of my robotic visceral responses to air raid sirens in early Spring when, upon hearing the alarm, I would immediately jump out of the bed, put on my clothing, take my mat and emergency backpack, and run down to the basement. Although some parts of Ukraine have already known the worst, the persistent demolition of energy infrastructure introduced a new nationwide synchronic behavioral order that marked a new phase of this war. Our lives now circle around power plugs and sockets regulated by the unintelligible scheduled and unscheduled emergency power cuts.
On November 29th, I woke up at 3:30am from a panic attack. With my heart heavy and firm, hurting me from inside with each strike, I got up to unlock the entrance doors in case I needed to call the ambulance so that they could get in, then started looking for Corvaldin. Twenty drops of water, repeated in one hour, did not help a bit. I went back to bed and started counting, one, two, three, four, like I did in my childhood when I could not sleep. I saw the steam of my breath in the bright moonlight. Eleven hours without heating made my apartment chilly and my throat sore. “And it’s only -1C outside,” I thought. At 6am, I checked on my mother, she was sitting on the bed’s edge, her legs down, with her back shaped in a perfect circle. She has been staying up all night, she said, looking for solutions to our “impossible situation,” but did not come up with any. I made her a hot tea and left for a jog in the morning darkness. Two days later, I called Turbota (or “care” in Ukrainian), a local sanatorium where my parents stayed in October when I travelled to Germany. Being under the patronage of the city mayor, Turbota had the benefit of uninterrupted electricity and heat, and my mother agreed to transfer there as soon as possible.
I was signing papers with Turbota’s manager Tetiana, when she mentioned to me a private house for the elderly on the outskirts of town. It appeared to be an extremely sad place, without an elevator, so in case of emergency, war-related or not, the elderly would not have any escape routes. Unlike Turbota, the house suffered the same power cuts as we all in town. On the bright side, the urine smell was not too strong, and head nurse Larysa looked like a responsible person. She let me walk around, peek in the rooms, and talk to the elderly. The overall atmosphere was peaceful, and apart from a man and a woman on the second floor tied to his chair and her bed with scotch tape, nothing extremely alerted me.
At first, the idea of moving to a retirement home was unthinkable to my father, and he kept insisting that his plan, as he made it a long time ago, was to die in his own bed. When I had a difficult phone conversation with his eighty-year-old sister from a remote village, who took turns with me washing and feeding him a couple of times per week, I begged her to help me change his mind. On December 12th, after I finished my morning routine of washing the floor, I sat near him and he suddenly said, “It seems I have no choice, what about that place you found?” Thirty minutes later I called the director of the retirement home telling him that if he comes for my father within an hour, it might be the only chance to bring him. I packed his bag. While waiting for the team, my father fell asleep. I went to the kitchen and sat there alone. It would have been complete silence if not for the loud ticking of two clocks, one in the kitchen and another in the bedroom, synchronizing and desynchronizing with each other and with my heartbeat, insisting on a particular rhythm they were failing to maintain themselves, but pushing my heart to follow. Whatever was coming – I knew it very clearly at that moment – the real death of my father was taking him over right there during those hours of waiting. I paid it my respect. I mourned it. Then the team came, they put him on a medical stretcher and carried him away to the world of postmortem.