How Vogue Ukraine Survived the First Days of War With Russia
It’s been seven days since Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian soil. Almost our entire editorial team was in the country at that time. Now we have found the strength to tell you about how we survived those miserable days in our lives, which began with the words: “We have been attacked.”
On February 24 at 6 a.m., I was woken up by a neighbor’s phone call. “We have been attacked. They are bombing the Borispill airport. If you want to come with us, pack your bags. We’re leaving.” We had to prepare to be away from our homes for up to 15 weeks—we collected documents and money and threw in clothes and water. When I locked the door of my flat behind me, I only asked God that I would come back here again. We decided to go to a country house, 50km from the capital. It took us nearly nine hours. We hoped to stay here and return in a few days. In the evening it became clear that a military airfield was still operating, though Russian soldiers were trying to take it. On February 25, we decided to get out of there by all means possible—the noise of the explosions was far away, but we understood that the invader was on their way to Kyiv. Our house was on their route there.
We decided to go to Western Ukraine, where my boy’s family lives. It took us 29 hours to cover the 800-kilometer distance. We did not sleep for nearly two days, did not stop for a minute, ate while on the road, and tried to support and comfort our children. On the road we managed to get stuck in the mud when trying to cut through some fields to bypass one traffic jam. We just missed the rocket attacks that hit the airfield in Starokostyantyniv on the evening of February 25, and we were stopped in traffic at many checkpoints between different regions. But the main thing is that we drove in the right direction. We were also constantly on a mission to find fuel. Where there was fuel, each car was allocated only 20 liters—the wait to get fuel could reach up to 50 cars. This may sound like a challenging journey, and it was also a terrifying one.
Thanks to some incredible strength of will and adrenaline, we reached our destination. Now I am just a few kilometers away from the Slovakian border, actively working at vogue.ua and liaising with the international press. At the same time, we are helping those who are just arriving at Zakarpattya so they can find a place to live here.
I was different after our flight from Kyiv, like I had grown and aged. Today I realized that I had never cried in those nine days, because we need cold-bloodedness and hard-headedness now more than ever.
When the war began, I was asleep. I woke up when my boyfriend’s phone rang. “It’s started,” said his nurse colleague. It was 5:37 in the morning. A few minutes later, we felt the bombing—we found out later that our air defense system had done its job. I remember not believing until then that it was war, and wondering whether I would go to work. And then another explosion and another one (missiles hit the military base in Brovary). I never went to work. We immediately realized we would stay in Kyiv. My boyfriend is a physician, and he works as a paramedic in a military hospital in Kyiv. At 7 a.m. he was called to work at the military hospital. Every day he tells me that there are not many wounded in the hospital—and that’s the best news I’ve heard in the last few days.
I have a certain trait that in crises I am very quick to mobilize. The main thing is to think of something to do. And during a war there is a lot to do. I also wrote to my colleagues on the site at about 8 a.m. that I will stay in Kyiv and am ready to cover the war for Vogue. I would never have imagined that the fashion magazine website would look like this, but these are the realities of our time: Instead of looking at trends and interviews with celebrities, we write about how to stop the bleeding and how to help the Ukrainian army. Many people have written about the fact that we stayed in Kyiv. But I do not see anything special in it—I do not have children for whom I am responsible, there is a parking area, which my neighbors and I use as a shelter; there is a car in which I can sleep, sitting upright. We didn’t choose whether to leave or not. We’re just here, that’s all. I try to do everything I can: I cook buckwheat for the local defense ministry, buy liquids for the military hospital, and help the IT army, which was created by our ministry of digital transformation. My neighbors and I are building a barricade in front of the house, and the work I am doing in my neighborhood is the least I can do. I strongly hope to do even more—for example, take food to Okhmatdit or other hospitals, which, according to volunteers, now have many patients and doctors in need of help. But I wish the siren did not go off so often in Kyiv, because my life is only a matter of minutes lived between sirens.
We spent four nights in the shelter. How many more to come? Sirens blare in Kyiv at least five times per night. The first night everything was shivering—I know, there was a battle for the National Guard base near us. I don’t want to think about what will happen if they shoot at them from the sky.
Instead of thinking about death, I think about simple things. About the good coffee, which I’ll drink in Podol when we have overpowered our enemy. About how I’ll wash my hair normally. For now I’m afraid to wash my hair—I’m constantly thinking about the fact that I won’t hear the alarm through the noise of the water.
Every morning at 8 a.m., I wake up in hiding to my father calling me on the phone. He is staying in Odessa, and I know for us these are the most important phone calls in the world. Was I really scared those first days? I think not. I am constantly thinking about those who are on the front lines and who are really important. Yaroslav, my brother-in-law’s colleague who is defending us right now, or Vanya, my 20-year-old brother-in-law who is fighting in Chernihiv, or paramedics in ambulances being shot by Russian terrorists, or journalists who are reporting live from all the really hot spots. Or our president. Or thousands of other people who care. The war has made us unusually close to one another—a valuable lesson of life, but its price is too high.
I believe I will remember this date and the cold fear forever: 24.02.22, in the street, throughout our flat the ringing sound or my boyfriend’s phone. Of course nobody just rings at that hour. At the same second, without hesitating, I pick up my phone, already 100% aware that I will now learn the news. Meanwhile, I hear the sound of another voice on the phone: “Come on, it’s started.”
All these days I have been living in Kyiv under lockdown—the constant alerts about needing to take shelter from air attacks scare me. Once I tried to walk home, managed to get to the entrance of the driveway, turned around for a shortcut to the block of flats, and then the sirens began to blare again. I am worried about the house, I am worried about my loved ones, and I am constantly worried about whether I am making the right decisions. Like all of us, my correspondence now consists of a frantic “How are you?” At moments, anxiety turns into nervous breakdowns and tears.
I will remember February 24 for all of my life, like all of us. I opened my eyes early, I wanted to watch the news, but my friend called:
“Did you see the news?”
“Kyiv is being bombed.”
We had a plan, we had things ready, and I started running around the flat thinking that I had forgotten what to get, while at the same time dialing my friends’ numbers. I couldn’t figure out whether to brush my teeth or not. I went out into the street, followed Gonchar Street uphill, met people who were quietly going to work, bringing bread to the shops, and guys with backpacks.
We spent two days at a farm near Kyiv, sleeping in turns so that one person would always be awake. I was worried that I would fall asleep, but I was able to wait to fall asleep when my shift was over. Then we drove on ahead—a great joy that we were able to go out. Nowadays, a lot of bridges and even roads near Kyiv have been destroyed. My friend gave me a computer (mine remained in the office). I slept for the first time today and returned to work, which has changed slightly. I am doing everything possible to be of at least some use to my country.
My ideas about war were formed from history books, Remarque’s novels, dramatic films, and eyewitness accounts. The events of the past gathered in the memory of the world in a bouquet of romanticism, pain, pity, greatness, and triumph. However, the attack on February 24 shattered our former lives and turned our perceptions of the world upside down. Now I see war as a relentless rage that determines all further steps and actions.
This rage drives and motivates me and does not allow for any hesitation. These days I am afraid only of words. Together with colleagues and others, we have become soldiers of the information war. We live in an unsteady flow of news that has to be filtered, reviewed, and broadcast to the world. All basic human needs seem to have taken a back seat, and more immodest desires have evaporated. The only thing on your mind in the early hours of the night is how to end this war as quickly as possible. That’s what you focus on, that’s how you live.
I went to Lutsk, to my father’s, three days before the war began. I was nervous because of the news and my own feelings and fears. We woke up at 5 a.m. to two explosions—a military airfield was bombed, very close by. The planes had departed earlier; a reconnaissance mission was underway. The next day the airfields in Rivne, Lviv, and Volodymyr were under attack.
I am still in shock. I cannot imagine that it is possible in the center of Europe in the 21st century for one country just to take over another country. I can’t help but watch the news and cry out. Every day I reach out to relatives and friends and wonder whether they’re alive and safe. It is unbearable to see how they maim, destroy my Kyiv, our Kharkiv, Chernigov, and all the other cities, how common people, how children, die. A couple with a child. There will be no place to go back to.
I am crying with anger and hatred towards the psychopath and crying with pride for our people, the army, the president, whom I used to regard with extreme irony—frankly, I did not expect this from him. He is just a tiger with a sly face.
I live in Sumy, and I learned about the beginning of military operations from here—Sumy is a city not far from both Russia and Belarus. These days there is a constant struggle for it.
During these few anxious days, the Sumy people have fought against the enemy and showed real strength of character. Hatred of the Russian invaders grows like a spiral. Hatred at the killing and destruction. For the fact that through the enemy’s shelling, they, together with small children, have to stay in shelters.
People en masse join the ranks of territorial aid and defend their city with courage. Today two unarmed Sumy railway workers detained a hostile tank and captured an occupant. The enemies are abandoning the equipment on the roads, and Ukrainians are figuring out how to make better use of what was left behind. Residents of Sumy are consolidating their forces in the fight against the enemy. Even those who have been speaking Russian all their lives are switching to Ukrainian. There’s no panic, only determination not to give up their native land to the enemy.
One of the scariest phrases that I will never forget goes: “At exactly 4 o’clock, Kyiv was bombed—we were told that a war had begun.”
On February 24 I woke up from a nervous sleep to learn the news. And after a few minutes, I felt the vibrations. But I still couldn’t grasp that this was war. It is the 21st century, in civilised Europe, Hitler was gone. But now it looks like he has been reincarnated.
[…] We went to the hospital on the other side of the city. But it was almost impossible to move, Kyiv was tied up in traffic jams: children and adults, with their dogs and cats, all trying to evacuate.
We stopped at my father-in-law’s house near Kyiv. There was a shelter—a cellar with wooden doors that did not even have a lock. And shelves with cucumbers, strawberry jam, boxes of carrots. In the cold, I could see my breath. When they bombed, we went there, sat on chairs, frozen to the bone. When it was quiet, we collapsed in exhaustion, went to the house for a short sleep, with all our clothes still on. During the day I wrote for Vogue.ua. Instead of beauty tips, they are now tips on how to stop bleeding from wounds.
My colleague from Czech Vogue, Cindy Kerberova, has written often and offered support: accommodation, help, sympathy—everything. This woman, whom I had only met once in my life, offered her hand and opened her heart… If it hadn’t been for Cindy, we wouldn’t have made it.
On our way we stopped in Frankivsk, at an acquaintance’s house. We were welcomed to a warm house, a full table, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed. After the days spent living between the cellar and the house, and the exhausting road, where we had to change a flat tire for two hours as the cold winds chilled us, I shed tears. The next day we were on our way to the cordon. Everything was ready, even sandwiches for the journey. But at the last second, I realized that I could not leave my country. I can’t separate from my son. I can’t leave my boyfriend. No one knows how much time we have left, but we’ll spend it together.
Well, we are in Ukraine. We help our country, and we are Ukrainians. Together we are stronger. With God with us, we are strong. We have the support of the world. This is the moment when the confrontation between good and evil takes place. And we know that the good will prevail.
February 24 at 5 a.m. I was awakened by a man shouting: “Lera, wake up! War has begun!” I was shocked. “Surely, he’s being dramatic,” I thought, but I still went to get out my suitcases. For an hour, I threw everything I needed into them. At that time nobody understood the scale of the tragedy. We decided to go out of town. We thought it would be quiet there. When we drove out, it became clear that the situation was very serious. Tremendous traffic jams, hundreds of cars trying to get fuel, wild lines at supermarkets, closed pharmacies. Fear in everyone’s eyes. I started accessing social media and found scary videos of Russians vilifying our country! Later I got a message that it was a mistake to leave the city, because we were in a dangerous place, even with Russian troops and bodyguards advancing in our direction.
The lack of a bomb shelter, the military base nearby, and the information that tanks were coming 500 meters away from our house made the situation more difficult every day. For the first time I felt bombs exploding; the bombers were flying over my head, and the bridges connecting us to the city were collapsing. I practically didn’t sleep for three days. I cannot put into words the fear and helplessness that overwhelmed me when I thought we could be cut off from the city altogether: without connection, food, water, medicines.
Each day the feeling that life could end at any moment grew stronger and stronger. With God’s help we were able to get out of Kyiv. The journey was long and difficult: some roads were blown up, explosions were heard everywhere, fights took place in the air, we had to go by detours and pass dozens of checkpoints, where everything was not always smooth. We waited in long queues and waited out curfews in cities. I prayed that we would be safe and that we would find petrol because without it we could get stuck driving through fields. Luckily, everything worked out. I am now outside Kyiv, and I am still traveling through Ukraine. I hope this nightmare will soon be over.