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In Ukraine, Daily Life in the Face of War

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In the weeks before Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, as Russian troops took up positions along the Ukrainian border, my friends and acquaintances in Kyiv went to lengths to maintain their cool. In bars and restaurants across the city, and in endless conversations at people’s homes, I heard far less alarm about the prospect of war than I did from Washington, London, Berlin, or Paris. That changed last week, starting with Putin’s announcement that Russia was, in effect, annexing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. Practiced self-possession was no longer sustainable. People didn’t immediately panic—very few, at that point, packed up and left—but they did begin to talk in darker tones about what might come next, about what the Russian military machine could do to Kyiv and to the rest of the country.

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On the day of the announcement, I took an overnight train from Kyiv to eastern Ukraine, close to what is known as the “line of contact” in the grinding war in the Donbas. Shelling had increased dramatically, and the train was almost empty. Travelling from city to city, town to town in the east, I saw the effortful composure of the capital replaced by something else. The quality of anxiety and exhaustion is different here. In towns like Stanytsia Luhanska, Hirske, and Popasna—all of which had, in 2014, been claimed by pro-Russian separatists and then wrested back—people have been living with a Russian-backed assault for eight years. Amid routinized brutality, they have tried to fashion some semblance of a normal existence. They’ve experienced war not as a grand struggle of civilizations but as something nasty and gruelling, to be managed and survived. But now, as the Russian military unleashes the full force of its arsenal throughout the country, any pretense of normalcy has been ripped away.

Mark Neville, a British-born photographer who lives in Kyiv, has travelled through eastern Ukraine and captured the sense of determination he found there. Neville’s previous work has documented other places in turmoil: in his “Port Glasgow Book Project,” he recorded the resilience of a community in Scotland amid post-industrial decline; as the U.K.’s official war artist, he embedded with British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, and produced a book, “Battle Against Stigma,” about mental-health issues among the soldiers. In 2015, the Kyiv Military Hospital asked Neville, who himself suffered from post-traumatic stress, to make a Ukrainian version of this book. Since then, he has spent much of his time in the same cities and towns in the Donbas that I’ve been visiting. A new volume of his photographs, drawing from his travels in Ukraine, is titled “Stop Tanks with Books.”

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“What I find most remarkable is the resilience of the people there,” Neville says. “As a photographer, I’ve been in many places where people are going through incredible trauma. They would reach out to me for help, for money, to get them out, and I would say, ‘The only way I can help is to take your picture and tell your story.’ But with Ukrainians, and with some of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, no one—not one—has asked me for anything. The only thing they want is to sit me down and tell me what’s happened to them. They have lost people, seen people wounded terribly, seen their streets obliterated. All I want is for people who are looking at these pictures to recognize a version of themselves. Schoolkids taking gymnastics lessons, people just going about their lives despite the shelling and more. For eight years! Can you imagine?”

—Joshua Yaffa

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