Kyiv doctor killed in Russian airstrike shows war’s fallout far from front

Hryhorii Leontiev walks with his 5-year-old grandson, Hrysha, in Kyiv. He and his wife adopted Hrysha after a Russian airstrike killed the boy's mother. (Alice Martins)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Oksana Leontieva was late for work. The 36-year-old doctor was due at Ukraine’s top children’s hospital, where she treated patients with cancer and other serious diseases. But first she had to get her son to kindergarten.

An air-raid siren was blaring across Kyiv, which meant, according to school rules, that Oksana, a widow and single mom, could not drop him off. It was Oct. 10. The alerts had been sounding for months, but there had been almost no strikes in the Ukrainian capital since June. Most people went on with their lives. “I may be late for the morning meeting,” Oksana texted her colleagues at 7:25 a.m. “Issues with accepting kids.”

Finally, the school staff relented. Oksana told Hrysha, a blond, dark-eyed boy, goodbye. She put the car in gear and pulled out.

By October, more than seven months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a column of tanks rumbling toward Kyiv in a failed takeover attempt, an easy calm had settled over the city. Businesses had reopened. After a quiet summer, displaced families had flocked back from abroad, hoping to restart their lives.

That morning, as people bustled through their routines, dozens of Russian missiles streaked low and fast across a clear sky, tracking west across Ukraine from the Caspian Sea and other launch sites.

A little after 8 a.m., two missiles hurtled downward toward Kyiv’s leafy Shevchenkivskyi district. One slammed into a busy intersection, ripping a massive crater in the concrete as it erupted in a ball of fire. In an instant, the blast incinerated Oksana Leontieva’s car. She was just a mile from the hospital.

The strike at the junction of Volodymyrska Street and Tarasa Shevchenko Boulevard was part of a barrage of more than 80 missiles and drones targeting the entire country. At least 19 people were killed. It was the first wave in what would become months of relentless Russian strikes aimed at cutting electricity, heat and water during winter.

In Kyiv, the strikes hit far from military targets: a playground, a pedestrian bridge, an office tower. After the blasts, thousands of people packed into subway stations for shelter.

Putin, grave-faced in Moscow, said the assault was retaliation for an explosion that crippled a strategic bridge linking Russia to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed illegally in 2014. Russia would deal harshly with further threats, Putin vowed. “No one should have any doubt about that,” he said.

The attack highlighted Ukraine’s urgent need for air defense systems that might have saved Oksana and other civilians like Vira Hyrych, a journalist who died when a missile struck her apartment building in Kyiv in April 2022.

It also underscored the war’s human cost far from the front lines, robbing 5-year-old Hrysha of his only parent, and depriving Ukraine of a pediatric hematologist who provided children with lifesaving treatment.

Olha Daschakovska, a doctor who worked with Oksana at Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital, described her death as “murder.” “Russia took childhood not just from her son, but from other patients she could have cured,” Daschakovska said.

A young widow in wartime

In February 2022, as Russian troops bore down on Kyiv, the staff at Okhmatdyt hospital hunkered down. Some slept in their offices for weeks.

While most patients were moved to the basement during air-raid alerts, Oksana and her colleagues stayed on the floor where they treated patients with life-threatening immunodeficiencies. Leaving those sterile rooms, where children spent months recovering from bone marrow transplants and other procedures, would be as dangerous as a potential airstrike.

The Kremlin’s invasion marked the second earthquake in less than a year for Oksana. In August 2021, her husband, Artem, died suddenly of an aneurysm, at age 37.

After his death, Oksana juggled caring for Hrysha with long hospital shifts. Colleagues said she smiled and joked less, but was managing.

Her father, Hryhorii Leontiev, said Oksana thought about leaving Ukraine when the invasion began. But she knew that she would need to start her career over, perhaps as a nurse and not a doctor. Moreover, she would always be a foreigner, a solo parent far from her family.

Hryhorii said that staying was a practical decision. “She wasn’t a hero,” he said. “She was just considering the situation.”

In the meantime, she worried how Hrysha was coping with his father’s death. Oksana put out photos of her husband in the apartment. Daschakovska said Hrysha did not want his mother to go work after his father died. “He was scared that she wouldn’t come home,” she said.

In the moments after the massive blasts in Kyiv on Oct. 10, Hryhorii Leontiev tried to call his daughter, but she did not pick up. He tried to tell himself that the cell network might be down.

Then he saw photos on social media showing that a car resembling hers had been hit, on a route he knew she might take. He hurried to the blast site. Several burned-out vehicles were behind a police cordon. An investigator confirmed the license plate.

“What can I say?” the man said. There were human remains on the front seat. “Could it have been your daughter who was driving?”

Hryhorii knew it could not have been anyone else. But he did not know about Hrysha. Just tell me, he demanded: “Were there any remains in the child’s car seat in the back?”

The man said the car was too badly burned to know.

Hryhorii called the kindergarten. No one answered. The staff was probably sheltering in the basement with the children.

It wasn’t until an hour and a half later that he was able to confirm Hrysha was there. “If he had died, my wife and I probably wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “That was the hardest part.”

‘Will I be alone?’

On a winter day four months after the Oct. 10 strikes, Hrysha dumped out a jumble of small plastic soldiers on a play table in his kitchen.

After Oksana’s death, Hryhorii and his wife, Ninel, moved into Oksana’s compact, tidy flat in a Kyiv high-rise. Staying in familiar surroundings, they thought, might make things easier for Hrysha.

Hryhorii noticed that his grandson played with the soldiers constantly after his mother’s death. The boy says he wants to go to the front. “Those are bad soldiers,” he said one afternoon, referring to figures he designated as Russians. Hrysha knows the missiles are coming from their side. The soldiers smash together. Airplanes fly.

Hrysha used a calendar with cuddly kittens and bunnies to show off how he can count the days. He pointed to his birthday, which was circled: Oct. 5. “But it’s far away,” he said wistfully.

His grandfather pointed at Oct. 10, the day of the strikes. What happened then, he asked?

“I’m not going to tell you what happened that day,” Hrysha said.

After Oksana died, her older brother, who has three children, offered to adopt Hrysha. But Hryhorii decided it would be best if he and Ninel, who are in their 60s, adopted him.

Oksana’s friends and colleagues helped them navigate Ukraine’s complex adoption process, including medical checks.

“Now we have sort of a second youth. We get to be Mom and Dad again,” Hryhorii said. “But of course we can’t be Mom and Dad. He had a mom and dad, and he remembers them.”

Once Hrysha asked him if Ukraine’s soldiers would come home when the war ends. “Yes, they will,” Hryhorii replied.

“Will Mom come back, too?” he asked.

Hryhorii said Hrysha struggles to understand her death. “Mom was here, then she was gone,” he said. “She’s somewhere.”

Hryhorii regularly consults psychologists from Oksana’s hospital, who reassure him about his grandson’s response.

But Hryhorii has noticed that Hrysha fears being left alone. He has asked relatives and other people: “Are my grandparents old?”

“Yes, they’re old,” they replied.

“Are they going to die? Will I be alone?” the boy asked.

Around New Year’s, Hrysha became focused on 2022 becoming 2023. Then 2024, 2025. He asked his grandfather: “When it’s 2030, how old will I be? How old will you be?” And 2040, 2050? When Hryhorii told Hrysha he might not be around in 2050, he stopped short.

“I realized that I shouldn’t have said that because of the way he looked at me,” Hryhorii said. Hrysha couldn’t understand that he would be an adult by then. “Will I be alone?” he asked.

At night, Hrysha wants to sleep with his grandparents. “Hug me, please,” he will say.

“Are you dreaming about something? Is something scaring you?” Hryhorii will ask. Hrysha says no. But he tosses in his sleep.

Anger, and hopes for justice

In the bone marrow transplantation unit at Okhmatdyt hospital, the staff has not yet been able to replace Oksana, who had more than 15 years of training. “It’s not so easy to grow up a doctor,” said Oleksandr Lystysia, a physician who heads the department.

For Lystysia, Oksana’s death feels personal. They worked together for a decade. He and his wife, who is also a doctor at Okhmatdyt, have a child around Hrysha’s age. Lystysia is angry. “By killing Oksana, the Russian people also killed the patients who could be cured and treated by Oksana,” he said.

At Okhmatdyt, the war is felt in other ways, too. Donor cells used in pediatric transplants would normally be flown to Kyiv, but now must be driven because Ukraine’s airspace is closed. Some doctors have moved abroad.

Daschakovska, Oksana’s colleague, thinks about what happened while in her car. Kyiv “is like an illusion,” she said. “It is safe, but it’s not safe.”

She said it is more important than ever for Ukraine to improve its medical care, and generally make the country better than before. “We just really need to make sure that all these people’s lives — Ukrainians lost and all of this — we need to make sure it’s not for nothing.”

Hryhorii, who was born in Russia (“unfortunately,” he says) and served in the Soviet military before moving to Ukraine in 1991, hopes someone will be brought to justice in the attack. Perhaps the pilot who fired the missiles can be tracked down.

“How many of the Hitlerites were caught by the Mossad? They caught the last one in the 1990s,” he said, referring to Israeli intelligence agents’ global hunt for former Nazis after World War II. “I think it will be the same. I hope so.”

Ukraine’s security service has opened a criminal case into the attack, which officials deemed an act of terrorism because it targeted civilian sites. Such cases may become part of Ukraine’s effort to prosecute war crimes by Russian troops, either in local courts or global tribunals.

On March 8, Hryhorii and Hrysha attended a ceremony where President Volodymyr Zelensky presented them with an Order of Merit award in Oksana’s name. Hrysha, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, shook hands with Zelensky and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who was visiting Kyiv that day.

In the months since Oksana’s death, people have asked Hryhorii: What if Oksana had taken a different route that day? What if she had driven a bit faster or slower?

“But it’s a meaningless conversation,” he said. “It was a one-in-a-million chance, but there it is.”

Even as they focus on Hrysha, Oksana’s parents grapple with their own grief. Ninel doesn’t show much emotion, but she cries at night.

Hryhorii said the shift from grandparent to parent has not been easy. A grandparent, he explained, can indulge a child. A parent must educate, must be more strict. “We’re always struggling to find this middle ground,” he said.

It can be trying. He and Ninel are in a school chat group with parents who are their children’s age. Kids are different today than they were when they were raising their own. And like any 5-year old, Hrysha is peevish at times or complains about going to school. But, Hryhorii said: “A child is a child.”

“Hrysha is our salvation — that we have to take care of him,” he added. “We need each other now.”

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.