Ukrainians face ‘a battle for light against darkness’ this Christmas

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Putin’s “special operation” has gifted to Russia’s brotherly Slavic neighbours something special to remember him by this holiday season – daily misery. As Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmygal recently put it: “The Russian terrorists will do everything to leave Ukrainians in the dark by the New Year.”

So far, they’ve done a pretty good job. Many parts of night-time Kyiv now look more like a Siberian mining town than a thriving European metropolis.

The streets go black after 4pm, taking with them the light from most shop windows – and from thousands of flats that seem to recede into the large cement buildings encasing them.

If the thermometer tanks and the sidewalks go icy, a walk home from work can be surreal.

Cars suddenly appear to illuminate your way, but can also blindly mow you down at intersections where the traffic and street lights have gone out.

The ubiquitous hum of generators – chained up beside small businesses determined to stay open – numb your ears along the way.

Instead of massive pines decorated with colorful ornaments and illuminated garlands, one sees an occasional Christmas decoration, Santa Claus smiling from his sleigh in the shadows.

The Grinch from Moscow has, of course, not completely stolen Christmas.

Richly decorated shops can be seen filled with shoppers, while Bing Crosby can be heard playing in cafes – electricity permitting.

The square in my neighbourhood managed to put up a decent-sized holiday tree, replete with quaint but sturdy ornaments. But you won’t see it in the evening.

In fact, it’s not particularly noticeable during the day, but for the occasional toddler and his grandmother admiring it during a morning stroll.

There’s one place well decorated, atop the now-ritzy TSUM department store, on Kyiv main street Khreschatyk.

You’d hardly know there was a war going on as you sit up there drinking coffee and eating pastries, except for the people who nervously circle the seating area looking for a free power point to charge up their gadgets.

Without a working phone, tablet or laptop, you may end up sitting in the cold and dark without any communications.

When air raid sirens go off, it’s as if the neck of every passerby automatically bends to follow the updates on their phone.

These days, the missile attacks evoke a fear not so much of being the victim of a direct hit, the odds of which are slim, but of losing power for days due to damage caused to the local power grid.

Needless to say, Christmas candles are back in fashion. I bought a big red one at my church to support the purchase of Christmas presents for poor kids.

The delicate flame flickering above my window sill offers a glimmer of hope, especially set against the black skyline.

But it would be naïve to romanticise hardship. While it’s not unusual to pass a gaggle of youths merrily making their way along some dark street, it’s equally common to see a terrified pensioner clinging to the railing of a blacked-out stairwell as she makes her way to her flat nine floors up.

The Christmas season occupies a larger chunk of time here than it does in the West, stretching from the first of December to the end of January.

Many with money take trips abroad.

These days, millions of Ukrainians without money are also in foreign lands – Poland, Germany, Italy and countless other places.

One woman I know is in Poland with her two daughters. She is grateful to have a safe, warm and well-lit place to stay but worries about her single sister, still in a flat in Kyiv. Her own flat was destroyed.

My two daughters and I will go out for the day on the 25th, which is now a public holiday in Ukraine and is celebrated as Christmas by some parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – a snub to the pro-Kremlin Moscow church.

We will enjoy a daylight stroll and go to the cinema, where during air raids the film is paused to offer viewers the chance to evacuate.

The last time this happened, we stayed on to watch the rest of the film. Somehow the large dark cinema and brightly lit screen seemed just as safe as anywhere else these days.

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