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What life is like in Ukraine and Russia after 10 months of war

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has lasted for 10 months now, and as the New Year approaches, we wanted to pause to reflect on what life feels like right now in each of those countries. Our correspondents have been on the ground in Russia and Ukraine chronicling the war this year. NPR's Charles Maynes is with us from Moscow. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Also with us is NPR's Kyiv correspondent Joanna Kakissis. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Joanna, let's start with you. You were just in Ukraine. Describe - what is it like to walk the streets and visit people's homes after 10 months of war?

KAKISSIS: So, Daniel, what's really struck me over the course of this year is how hard the Ukrainians have worked at keeping a sense of normalcy. The trains are running. People are working. Restaurants, coffee shops and bars are open. And even in newly liberated cities like Kherson in the south where Russian troops are less than a mile away, you see children playing in parks and moms shopping for Christmas presents, and they do this even though it can cost them their lives. Russian missiles hit a market full of shoppers on Christmas Eve killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens more.

ESTRIN: Oh, my gosh. That's horrible. But what about farther from the front lines? Is it as dangerous?

KAKISSIS: Yes, to varying degrees it is. Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones are hitting urban areas everywhere, destroying power grids and plunging cities into darkness. In the capital, Kyiv, I met a family that has gotten used to walking up and down 17 flights of stairs because when the power goes out, so does the elevator.

RUSLANA POHLIAD: Hi. Come in.

KAKISSIS: Oh, thank you.

So the mom in the family is Ruslana Pohliad. She and her husband have four young children under the age of 8. Ruslana told me that her biggest concern is actually water. If the electricity is out too long, the water pump stops working.

POHLIAD: There was one day when we had light only for two hours. We just jumped and started washing ourselves, cooking, washing dishes. Everything. Everything. So yeah.

KAKISSIS: She hears her kids asking for light and water in their nightly prayers.

ESTRIN: Charles, you're in Moscow. What does it feel like there right now especially in this holiday season?

MAYNES: New Year's is the big annual holiday here, but, you know, frankly, there's not a lot to celebrate at the moment. It's harder and harder for Russians to accept the government's insistence that everything is going according to plan in Ukraine as the conflict has dragged on. Just last week, President Vladimir Putin publicly dropped his chosen description of the conflict as a special military operation, and for the first time called it what it is, a war, and he also suggested that Russia wanted an end to the war as soon as possible, but, of course, Ukraine has seen this time and again, it's usually meant on Moscow's terms.

ESTRIN: And you mentioned the new year is an important holiday in Russia. How are Russians thinking about this coming year now?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Russians I talked to expressed a lot of trepidation about the year ahead. You know, a military victory, if it's possible, they ask, comes at what price? Putin and his military said they wanted to call up thousands of more troops as the Kremlin continues to try and establish a hold over these Ukrainian lands that Russia claims to have annexed but doesn't actually control. There's also a lot of concern over the economy. Russia seemed to manage Western sanctions for most of this past year, but suddenly the ruble, the Russian currency, is losing value. This Western choke on Russian gas and oil exports is finally starting to kick in. One phrase I hear from younger Russians in particular is that Putin has stolen their future, their dreams. You know, they just can't plan anything anymore.

ESTRIN: Wow. Joanna, when you speak to Ukrainians, where do they see their lives headed in the coming year?

KAKISSIS: So every Ukrainian I've spoken to feels a great sense of uncertainty as well about how their lives will change in the year ahead. What they do feel certain about, and very certain, is that there will be victory at some point, and for them, victory means ending Russia's invasion and pushing Russian forces out of their country. Ukrainians are remarkably united around this idea that they are part of the West, embracing Western ideas of liberal democracy, and they are willing to suffer to realize this dream.

ESTRIN: I'd like to ask each of you to talk about just one person you met this year whose story sticks with you. Charles, you go first.

MAYNES: The story that sticks with me is of a young man from Saint Petersburg I met named Kirill Berezin who received his draft mobilization notice this past fall. Unlike many who fled the country amid mobilization, Kirill said, OK, you know, I'm willing to serve my country, but I don't want to fight. He proposed for alternative service as a conscientious objector as he told me in an interview.

KIRILL BEREZIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Kirill says he understood that he just couldn't shoot a living human being, and that under any circumstances, weapons, he felt, only brought destruction. Now, Kirill's story is still unfolding, but it highlights the way the state keeps reaching deeper into Russian society to meet its military objectives. You know, one day Kirill is going about his life, the next he's being threatened with jail time or being sent to the front lines for refusing to fight.

ESTRIN: Joanna, how about you? Who do you still think about from all the Ukrainians you've met this year?

KAKISSIS: I still think a lot about this elderly couple that I met this spring in Moshchun, a town outside Kyiv. Their names are Yuriy Tostopalov and Natalya Tostopalova. Russian soldiers killed their neighbors and destroyed their town. The couple's house was in ruins, so they were living in the barn with their dogs. Their daughters live in Saint Petersburg in Russia, and Yuriy said calling them was so painful.

YURIY TOSTOPALOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He's saying that their daughters did not seem to acknowledge what Russian soldiers had done to Moshchun, and that they lived in the alternate reality of Russian propaganda where the war Yuriy and Natalya suffered simply didn't exist. This couple used to like Russians. They speak Russian, they studied in Russia, and they said they used to have friends in Russia. But now they believe there are no good Russians, and this belief has taken hold around Ukraine. Ukrainians are asking if Russians do actually oppose this war and all this pointless bloodshed and destruction, why aren't they out on the streets of Russia protesting against Vladimir Putin?

ESTRIN: NPR's Kyiv correspondent, Joanna Kakissis, and NPR's Moscow correspondent, Charles Maynes. Thank you both so much for being here, and merry Christmas.

MAYNES: Merry Christmas, Daniel. Thank you.

KAKISSIS: Merry Christmas, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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