AVDIIVKA – On Saturday afternoon, as Irina Holobatenko ushered me into her spare flat on the ground floor of an apartment complex on the edge of Avdiivka, an industrial suburb in far Eastern Ukraine, two dull booms from artillery sounded in the distance. “Privyet!!” Irinia’s husband, Vitaliy, chuckled. Avdiivka was saying hello.
The first thing you see in Avdiivka are the towers: tall, slender smokestacks piercing the horizon like the spires of a filthy black palace, plumes of white smoke and gas boiling from their tips. The road leads down a slight hill toward the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, which supplies fuel for the region’s residential heating and its powerful steelmaking blast furnaces. The town surrounding it was once an industrial suburb of nearby Donetsk, some 20 minutes from the glittering city center of Eastern Ukraine’s crown jewel, renovated and rejuvenated with a new airport and world-class stadium for the 2012 UEFA championship tournament. But in 2014, war ripped Avdiivka away from its parent city, as the front lines of Ukraine’s bloody conflict with Russian-backed separatists sprang up just south of town. The demarcation line, which has held since 2015, made the suburb into an isolated village five hours from the nearest accessible city, where children learn to sleep through the thuds and booms of artillery nearby.
“We get used to living in this situation,” Irina said. “The people in Kyiv, they don’t understand this war.”
The war in Donbass threatens Avdiivka every day. But residents say the stakes here feel more dire than they have in years, as a wave of violence across the front line, preceded by a Russian campaign of conspiracies and escalation, has made the West’s dire warnings of an imminent new invasion of the country feel more likely than ever, increasing the chances that even those in Kyiv will understand how Irina feels.
The refrain, in Avdiivka, is “Fifty-fifty.” It’s the answer to “how is life,” and also to the question of whether or not the Russians will invade Donbass again. That answer varies, of course – many residents I spoke to are convinced that nothing will happen, relying on faith, hope, or any desperate sort of optimism to get by. “Of course we’re worried,” Irina says, after showing us into the flat and calling her daughter Daria to help translate. “But we’re optimistic people. We hope that everything will be ok.” “Fifty-fifty,” Vitaliy says, when asked whether he thought there would be an invasion.
In practice, what that looks like is a normal, bustling life – Irina and Vitaliy’s cafe hosted a five-year anniversary party and a 16th birthday party on the same night, tables of food giving way to hookah pipes and sparkling LED lights. (“Fifty-Fifty,” says Danill, one of the birthday party guests, when asked how he was feeling about life in Avdiivka.)
On Saturday night, the Holobatenkos welcomed us into their home for dinner, a raucous, delicious feast of pasta carbonara, tinned fish on toast and fresh vegetables. The conversation, over glasses of brandy, eventually turned to politics, as Daria, 18, scrambled to translate overlapping chatter from half a dozen sources. Like in America, it’s futile to judge the politics of a region or people or even a family based on any one person’s opinions. Daria’s aunt Angela — Irina’s sister — liked former president Viktor Yanukovich, and sympathizes more with Russia. So does her grandfather, who called in to the party from his home near Rostov-on-Don to say “It’s good in Russia! We’re waiting for you in Rostov!” at which point he and Vitaliy, a fervent NATO supporter, immediately started arguing, while Irina threw up her hands. The only thing the family could agree on was that they wanted peace, and maybe, someday, a return to how things were.
“We are deprived of normal life — big city life. We don’t have shopping malls, we don’t have cinemas, we don’t have a McDonalds. Before, we had that 20 minutes away,” Daria says. Before the war, as a child, she took synchronized swimming at an Olympic sized pool complex near the Donbas Arena, the glittering new sports complex built in Donetsk for the 2012 Euros. Now the nearest pool is over 150 miles away, in Dnipropetrovsk. She’s back home in Avdiivka after her university in Kyiv, where she’s studying English and Chinese, went online-only during the pandemic. “Still, this is home to me. All my memories are here.”
Dasha grew up in Avdiivka, attending the same school where her mother Irina and father Vitaliy, a former police officer, met when they were teenagers. Irina’s mother was a teacher there too, as is Irina’s sister Angela. The Holobatenkos go back generations in Avdiivka, as do many of the families I met here. In 2014, at the height of the war, many of them were forced to flee, as Avdiivka was shelled brutally and held for a time by separatist forces backed by Russia. But in the years afterward, the town rebuilt itself, and the people in it rebuilt their lives.
Take one of Avdiivka’s several churches: an ornate, golden domed sanctuary filled with hushed tones and the glow from a dozen candelabras, sits halfway down a hill on the South edge of Avdiivka. At the bottom is the “Prom Zone,” an industrial area that was the site of some of the heaviest fighting of the war. The church was damaged, locals said. But then it was fixed.
On Sunday morning, after service, churchgoer Natalia Shlyakhova described fleeing to Kharkiv during the early days of the war. Now, she says leaving would be a last resort.
“When you’re home, even the walls help you,” she says, a Russian idiom that roughly translates to “My house is my castle.” “I will decide what to do depending on the situation. I fear only God.”
Shlyakhova said if the war spills over again, she will likely return to Kharkiv. But her eldest daughter will stay, as she has to keep working. Every person in town is making these choices, even though they’re often reluctant to even discuss them.
At a bustling market, bursting with barrels of fish over ice, baked goods, and dried meat, we managed to pry Tatiana Evdokimova, the mother of one of Daria’s friends from her shop.
“We’re relaxed with this life,” Evdokimova says. She watches both Russian and Ukrainian news, but only believes “what she sees with her own eyes,” and hopes that there isn’t an invasion. If it does come to war again, she’s not sure where she would go. “Somewhere where there’s peace,” she said.
On the way to the market, Daria pointed out a stretch of road. “I almost died here,” she said. “I was 11? Twelve?,” she said, asking her aunt. Early in the war, a mortar or rocket landed near the family car, lodging shrapnel in the side mirror inches from her head.
The Holobatenkos went to Kharkiv when the war was at its worst, years ago. This time, if they have to, they’ll go to Kyiv, where their eldest son still lives. Much of the town will follow them, fleeing to one city or another, adding to the population of 1.5 million IDPs in Ukraine who have not, like the people of Avdiivka, been able to return to their homes. Some, however, will stay.
Aleksander Shabashov, didn’t leave the first time. His wife and young child fled to Kramatorsk, where he didn’t see them for months while Avdiivka was under separatist control. His parents, in their 70s, couldn’t take care of themselves, and couldn’t leave either, so he stayed. He grew up in Avdiivka.
“I want to live in Ukraine in peace,” Shabashov said. “I don’t understand what Putin wants with our country. I don’t want an invasion. But I don’t know what’s in Putin’s head.”