Rural rhythms upended by war on the road to Ukraine’s front lines

Liudmyla Kulinich walks her bicycle beneath the barrels of an antiaircraft gun parked by a local shop on the road to the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk on June 24. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
Liudmyla Kulinich walks her bicycle beneath the barrels of an antiaircraft gun parked by a local shop on the road to the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk on June 24. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

NEAR LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — On the road to the Russian front — just a few miles from Ukraine’s desperate battle to slow the enemy’s advance — Liudmyla Kulinich walked her bicycle up to the village shop, past the burned-out delivery truck and under the barrels of an antiaircraft gun parked by the door while its crew stocked up on chips and sodas.

“I hope they have bread,” she said, taking a shopping bag from her basket. She wore a pink sweater and nothing over her windblown gray hair, and stood a foot shorter than the soldiers in flak vests and helmets around her. Artillery boomed, an army ambulance sped past and a woman down the way watered dusty roses by her front gate.

This crater-pocked road, the last route connecting the rest of Ukraine to the embattled stronghold of Lysychansk, is both a military lifeline, pumping soldiers and weapons into the fight, and a narrow country lane, connecting a string of rustic villages where hundreds of civilians still live amid the mayhem.

For weeks, Russian forces have targeted this vital supply line with shells and missiles, leaving houses with tidy gardens side-by-side with others that have been destroyed. Farmers plod along in tractors and push wheelbarrows full of hay, while soldiers rush by at high speed to avoid Russian targeting. The road is lined with the wreckage of vehicles that have collided.

Most residents have left. Those who remain — sleeping in basements, cooking on wood fires — seek normal routines amid the chaos of war. The Crane market opens most days, even without electricity. At least one priest holds up to five Masses each Sunday, strapping on a flak jacket and driving the sacrament from church to church.

These holdouts know they are squarely in the path of Russia’s relentless drive to take control of all of the eastern Donbas region. Three villages within 20 miles of here fell into Russian hands late last week, and a key bridge was destroyed. On Friday, Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said Ukrainian forces were pulling out of Severodonetsk entirely, leaving its twin city of Lysychansk and the military forces roaring up this road as the last line of defense for these hamlets.

And still they stay.

“This is my house, this is my land, this is my country,” said Yurii Polchanov, 71, who was milking his cow, Fiona, in a field outside the village of Verkhnokamianske. He and his wife, Lida, 68, bicycle here twice a day to fill a pail. Several cows abandoned by fleeing residents grazed nearby as a bombed oil refinery billowed smoke on the horizon.

Later, at his roadside farmhouse, Polchanov stood in the shade as a self-propelled artillery unit rumbled by. The cluster of chickens behind him startled and flapped their wings when a nearby Ukrainian artillery battery fired a loud barrage toward the east.

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A year ago this stretch of road was nearly deserted, he said. Now, the road is constantly filled with speeding green vehicles kicking up dust. “It’s hard to breathe when a convoy passes,” he said.

Polchanov said he has learned to live with the traffic and the cluster bombs, which have blown out several windows and left what he thinks is an unexploded canister in the grass by his driveway.

“War is war,” he said. “No one can escape the fate which God has written.”

Letters written, tanks in position as battle for Lysychansk looms

Just down the road, a large pig farm looked peaceful in the sun except for a jagged gap blown in the concrete wall by a rocket. Inside, there was no sign that humans had fed or watered the animals since the blast in mid-June. Dozens of pigs milled about the yard and more than a hundred others were penned in dark sheds. Many were dead, their bodies partially eaten by others.

In the adjacent village of Zvanivka, an elderly woman sat on a bench beside the Church of the Transfiguration of Jesus, crying.

“Everything is gone!” she said. “I have nothing. I wish they would all die, this Russian plague!”

Valentina Osychenko, 75, had fled Lysychansk the day before, as the artillery pounding became unbearable. A Ukrainian commander, the leader of a unit camped in her garden, insisted it was time to go and drove her to this church.

She brightened when she talked about “my soldiers,” the dozen-plus fighters who built a shower in her yard and slept in her spare bedrooms — she cooked for them and they cooked for her and they all ate together around her dining table.

“It was like having 14 new children,” she said.

Later, as the sun lowered over the rolling fields and the pace of artillery booms slowed with dusk, despair returned and her appetite disappeared.

“They gave me enough for three people,” she complained to the priest, holding up a heaping bowl of potatoes and meat.

“Just eat as much as you can,” he said softly. “You need food.”

“Do you have salt?” she asked after a pause.

“She is very old for this,” the priest, Marko Fedak, said after she left.

She had been unconscious when the soldiers drove her in, overwhelmed by the race along the pitted road. More than once, Fedak, 33, has taken villagers to army medic stations for blood pressure medicine or pain pills.

Most of those still in the villages are the elderly, who may have no place to go or no desire to uproot from lifelong homes. Fedak knows of only three families with children left in his parish.

Not far from the church, one mother, Svitlanna, held a toddler on her arm and watched her school-aged daughter run along the roadside while she talked to two elderly neighbors. She did not want to give her last name or talk about why her family remained in the village.

“Everyone left; only we grandmothers stayed here,” said one of the neighbors, Maria Schevtsova, tearing up as she looked toward Lysychansk, where her son remains with no way to contact her.

A bloody retreat as Ukrainian unit hit by Russian cluster bombs

The next morning, Fedak rose early to drive Osychenko the six hours to Dnipro and safety. But first, as he does most days, he climbed into his Volkswagen to check on the few parishioners who remain in the village, distributing the food and water volunteers bring to the church. Normally, about 1,300 people live in Zvanivka. Now it’s down to a dozen or so.

“God bless,” the priest called over one garden gate. In a moment, a shirtless man and a woman in a red-checked dress opened the latch.

“I brought you something for your tea,” Fedak said, handing her a bag of Italian biscuits. “How are you?”

Anya Fokin shrugged with a smile. “We have to live, but today I feel a little depressed.”

For two days, her electricity had suddenly returned, allowing her to cook on her kitchen range. But now it was out again, so she was back to heating a pot of coffee over the embers in a brick grill. Overhead, a Ukrainian rocket streaked eastward.

The couple — he was a cement truck driver before the war, she worked for the army — are the last civilians on their street. They keep busy tending their flowers and a vegetable garden lush with corn, eggplants, tomatoes and potatoes. She had just put up 14 jars of cabbage and 50 jars of cooked chicken, all canned so they wouldn’t spoil.

Things got better when a unit of soldiers moved into a house down the block. They brought coffee and meat, and helped the couple connect a borrowed generator to the well so they could pump water for their garden. Fokin made them pizza and okroshka — a cold chicken soup. With a 100-pound bag of flour and five liters of cooking oil the soldiers brought her, she fries four dozen doughnuts for them each morning.

“She’s like my mother,” said one of the soldiers, David Zatuashili. “It’s good to be with people who speak Ukrainian here.”

At the Crane shop, where Kulinich stopped for bread, the woman behind the counter explained there was none that day because the bakery truck never arrived. So Kulinich rolled her bike past the antiaircraft gun and kept pedaling down the road.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

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