PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Ukrainians facing their first Christmas at war with Russia are coping with frequent electricity outages, spotty cell phone service — and the worrisome sound of air raid sirens.
Through it all, they cling to the hope that the light Jesus Christ brought into a dark world will shine on them.
“It is a very difficult time right now, but we are looking forward to celebrating Christmas and the birth of our Lord and Savior,” said Father Aleksey Samsonov, who lives in the capital city of Kyiv and is the director of Ukraine’s Radio Maria, a religious news station.
In one symbol of hopeful defiance, residents of Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine that has been bombed many times by the Russians, put up a Christmas tree in an underground shelter.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, and after 10 months, there’s no end in sight.
“It’s not safe in Ukraine. But it’s our homeland, and a lot of Ukrainians want to stay, live and protect our country,” said Sister Anna Andrusiv, OSBM, who lives in a convent in Lviv with her fellow sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great.
While Ukrainians have shown a determination to carry on and keep life as close to normal as possible, they are being forced to make adjustments to their Christmas plans.
“We used to have midnight Mass on Christmas. But this year, I will be celebrating Mass at 5 o’clock,” Father Samsonov said. That’s because a strict curfew has been imposed in Kyiv, with no one allowed on the street between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
In the wake of Russian bombings that damaged vital infrastructure in November, residents of Kyiv and many other parts of Ukraine lose electricity for several hours a day as government-dispatched crews scramble to make repairs.
The situation is even more critical now that cold weather has set in — causing a surge in demand for electricity.
“A lot of the time, we have no power, no heat,” Father Samsonov said.
“Most residents don’t have a stable power supply,” said Brother Yarema Semaniv, a monk of the Studite Rule, a monastic order of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who lives in a monastery in Lviv as he completes his studies so that he can take his final vows.
“For example, it looks like you have two hours of electricity and then four hours of a power outage. Then again, for two hours, you have electricity, and for the next four [there’s a] power outage,” Brother Yarema explained.
Add in the fact that cell phone service is often unreliable, making communication difficult and frustrations grow. Throughout a phone interview with The Tablet on Dec. 15, Father Samsonov repeatedly noted the connection was poor and that he was having trouble understanding the questions.
Life in Ukraine means having one’s ears trained for air raid sirens.
“Our city has been attacked by missiles maybe 10 times since the beginning of war,” Brother Yarema said. “It is not so many, but still, you never know when it may happen. So we should be aware.”
In addition, the war is causing economic instability and unemployment, with no signs of easing anytime soon.
“Prices in Ukraine are very high, and I’m not sure every family can have everything they need,” lamented Sister Anna. Brother Yarema echoed her concerns.
“There is no problem finding toys and gifts,” he said. “But the problem is money. … Many parents cannot afford to buy the same toys for their children as they did last Christmas because they don’t have enough money.”
Still, despite the hardships, Ukrainians are grateful.
“During this time, we Ukrainians started to appreciate what we have,” Sister Anna said. “Now we know how much freedom costs,”
Brother Yarema said the war has brought important lessons.
“We have also learned to appreciate every minute of life and not put off our lives for tomorrow,” he explained. “We are not going to give up and be sad, but to live and to win.”
“Christmas is a time of hope, and the war has not changed that,” Father Samsonov said. “We pray that Jesus will bring peace to Ukraine.”