In battered Kharkiv, the last safe refuge is in cold, dark basements

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Svitlana, left, and her daughters Tatiyana, center, and Olha Khorosho are among those taking shelter in basements in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Nicole Tung for The Washington Post)
Svitlana, left, and her daughters Tatiyana, center, and Olha Khorosho are among those taking shelter in basements in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Nicole Tung for The Washington Post)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Down in the cold, dark basement, the walls are decorated with Eastern Orthodox icons, a poster of Princess Diana and shelves filled with stuffed toys. Sheets with animal prints serve as improvised doors for more privacy. Beds are thin pads on wooden crates. Pots, pans, a color-changing lamp and even an air fryer were eventually brought in as the stay grew from days to weeks to more than two months. Outside, a woman filled a tire with mud — a little garden for her onions.

The personal touches have made this place feel like home — even as the actual homes of the 50 people who spend their nights down here are just a few blocks away. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the Saltivka neighborhood has been heavily bombarded every day of this war with Russia. So life for those who chose to stay has moved underground, to the only safe place.

Basements in Saltivka have become communities within the larger one, located on Kharkiv’s eastern edge, about 20 miles from the Russian border. The overwhelming majority of people here always considered Russia as a sort of friendly next-door neighbor. They speak Russian. They had friends and even family in Russia. They never hated Russia — until its military started battering their homes with artillery and airstrikes daily, sometimes hourly.

“The Russians have supposedly liberated us — from our home, from a happy life, from a job and from just being alive, too,” Olha Khorosho, 39, said.

The irony of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion “to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime,” as he put it, is that the areas his forces have hit hardest are home to the very Russian speakers he has falsely claimed were oppressed.

The people now living in the basement of what used to be a home-goods marketplace in Saltivka, who range in age from the elderly to their young grandchildren, said whatever goodwill they had toward Russia and its people evaporated when the invasion began on Feb. 24.

“I’ve already started to text only in the Ukrainian language,” Khorosho said. “It’s become shameful to me that we speak their language while they’re bombing us.”

Her older sister, Tatiyana, was more direct: “I hate them all now.”

In the darkness of her basement room one recent morning, Khorosho brushed the hair of her 7-year-old daughter Katya, pulling it into a bun on top of her head. Makeshift narrow beds are organized along the walls and in a row down the middle of the room, with narrow walkways between. What few belongings people managed to take from their homes — books, kettles and speakers — are piled around each bunk. This is the shared sleeping area for three families and twin Boston terriers wearing Christmas-themed onesies.

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Olha and her husband, Aleksandr, ran a fabric business in this basement before the war started. On the first day, they quickly converted it into a shelter and opened it to the neighborhood. Hundreds of people moved in, they said, creating an unsanitary situation. It was winter in one of Ukraine’s northernmost cities, and the basement wasn’t heated. There are signs of mold and mildew on the exposed piping and the ceiling.

The soundtrack of the first week of war was shelling outside and coughing inside. Most people evacuated eventually but 50 remain, saying they have nowhere to go, or they feel safe in the basement. They have settled into a routine.

“Every morning, you wake up and peek outside to see if the buildings are still standing,” Tatiyana said. “This is how we know the news instead of watching television — if it smells of gunpowder outside.”

The military front line runs just past the Saltivka neighborhood. In recent weeks, the Ukrainians have pushed back Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, leading to less shelling of the city itself. But Saltivka remains dangerous and largely uninhabited. Many buildings are charred black. Entire walls are missing from some, leaving kitchens or bedrooms exposed to the street, like mangled dollhouses. Trams with broken windows are stopped on the tracks. The roads are pockmarked with artillery craters.

Some of the basement’s residents still risk a quick trip to their apartments in the mornings, when shelling tends to pause. That’s where they shower, change and cook something to bring back. There’s a communal kitchen space down there, but it’s hard to do much more than boil water or heat up already prepared food. Pet ferrets sit in cages on the counter space next to the hot plate.

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For Orthodox Easter, the families in the basement baked traditional kulich cakes in an air fryer and then decorated them with blue-and-yellow frosting — colors of the Ukrainian flag. The tablecloth was also blue and yellow. Khorosho took a selfie with her cake and a flower and posted it on social media.

“Things really aren’t so bad down here,” Tatiana Trotchenko, 71, said as she brewed some Georgian tea. “It’s just a little cold.”

“The worst thing is that we have such a bad neighbor,” said her husband, Eyvheni Trotchenko, referring to Russia.

Eyvheni, 73, passes the idle hours in the basement curled up under a blanket and filling out a crossword puzzle. (Tatiana prefers sudoku.) Their ties to Russia are especially close — and complicated. Tatiana was born there but has lived most of her life in Ukraine. Their story isn’t unusual, especially for people who were born during the Soviet era.

“Now opinions have changed,” Eyvheni said. “We call them fascists, and they are. They’re monsters. They’re not human. And these people are supposed to be like relatives to us.”

Veronika Tanaieva, 13, said she recently stepped out of the basement to smell the cherry blossom trees. There was snow on the ground when she started living down here, and the spring bloom was a sign of how much time had passed. The apricot trees were her favorite part of Saltivka. She’d pick the fruit off the branches while walking to a nearby park where kids played.

Most of her classmates and neighbors have either moved to western Ukraine, farther from the front line, or abroad. Her family thought starting over somewhere new was even less predictable than the Russian bombardment, so they stayed. One of the people in the basement is a teacher, so Veronika and 7-year-old Katya both have lessons with her every day.

Veronika likes to draw. Her doodles lately are of the kulich cake she made in the basement for Easter and of Ukrainian flags and a young man holding one up. Next to it, she wrote: “Glory to Ukraine.”

“At the end of the day, we’ll be the first ones to greet the victory of our guys,” said her mother, Elena Tanaieva. “We believe in this very much.”

Maria Avdeeva and Nicole Tung contributed to this report.

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