Crisis in Ukraine

Mom and Pop on Ukraine’s Battle Line

As separatists fight to open up a secure corridor to Russia, peace-loving families find themselves thrust into the middle of a worsening civil war.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

AMVROSYEVKA, Ukraine — Tatyana offered a giant plate of juicy, organic strawberries she had grown in her lovely garden, and Igor presented a glass of his homemade brandy.

Almost every night the civil war comes right to the doorstep of the Ivanovs’ house and hits the core of the couple’s deep contradictions: she, a Ukrainian, adores Russia and he, a Russian, is a Ukrainian patriot, sympathizing with the pro-European Maidan revolution. But their political views do not matter now. A local hospital, where both Tatyana and their daughter, Yulia, work as nurses, receives wounded every week, both from the ranks of Ukrainian border guards and from rebel forces. At home, war has focused their attention on that most Ukrainian of treasures: a larder of homegrown preserves.

On Sunday night, both spouses woke up first at 2:00 a.m. and then again at 5:00 a.m. because of artillery shelling. Holding hands, they thought about what to do about their life on the front line, on Mira Street in the town of Amvrosyevka.

The Ivanovs are not naïve people; they realize that their cozy, beloved house is sitting just a few miles away from the Russian border, next to gas pipes, the world’s energy arteries and cause of modern wars, right between a Ukrainian paratroopers’ base and a camp of pro-Russian rebels fighting for the control of the Donetsk highway—another strategic objective unfortunately near.

Since last week, fighting has grown increasingly fierce near the Russian border, suggesting rebels want to open a corridor. On Monday, at 4:00 a.m., rebels attacked a base of Ukrainian troops in the Mirny district of Luhansk. A local woman, Yana Osadcha, said that first she heard rifle shots and explosions, then military jets began to circle over her neighborhood.

“We heard aviation attacking both of the terrorists’ checkpoint on the highway between Luhansk and the Russian border,” Osadcha told me. “There was a big explosion at the seized administrative building—pro-Russian rebels say Ukrainian jets fired at them and the Ukrainian military deny that. Finally, many people hope the rebels will be smoked out of town.”

The explosion on the fourth floor of the seized Luhansk administration building killed five people. On the video posted by, rebels were collecting the remains of their friends. Earlier on Monday, the Russian parliament supported a proposal by the foreign ministry to create “humanitarian corridors” for civilians who want to flee Ukraine.

After 2:00 p.m., the shootings quieted down in Luhansk, and local reports said that rebel snipers occupied roofs and apartment buildings in Yuzhnoye district, not far from the Ukrainian base.

Meanwhile, in the Ivanovs’ home town of Amvrosyevka, local rebels from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, supported by volunteers recruited from Russia, attacked border guards and soldiers from the 25th Paratroopers Brigade.

“We’ve entered the stage of a real guerilla war,” said Alexander Chernikov, a former journalist from Dnepropetrovsk, who is now serving as an officer with the border guards. “The radicals are focused on the border troops right now, fighting to create a green light from Avakovo on the border with Russia, to Luhansk,” he told The Daily Beast on Monday.

As Tatyana and I talked about her family’s future, her beautiful smile faded from her face. She described the way she and Igor watched the Donetsk flag go up and down the flagpole in front of their window. “Every May 9 I was watching the Victory Day parade on Russian television feeling proud of Putin, and hoping the happy Soviet times could return,” she said, “but not at this price, not at the price of Ukrainian people’s lives.”

As a nurse, Tatyana said, she despises the horrors of war and the violence visited on the bodies of the people she sees. She misses the times when she and Igor threw parties for 30 people in their front room, she said. So many things are missing now, first of all peace.

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Igor grew more emotional as we spoke. Like many others in the breakaway Donetsk Republic, he criticized the leaders for their confused ideas: first, they pushed for federalization and an independent republic as a part of Ukraine, and now they stand for some even more confusing idea, of a new state called Novorossia, that Igor has trouble understanding. “If they raised a Ukrainian flag on that flagpole, many more people would have joined their movement—we could be pro-Russian but still remain patriots of Ukraine,” he said.

The future for Ivanov’s family and millions of other families in the eastern regions of Urkaine called Donbass becomes more uncertain by day.

The Kremlin clearly did not want to annex Donbass, as it did Crimea, perhaps because a majority of Russians in Russia reject the idea. Polls by the Levada Analytical Center show the number of Russians sympathizing with the idea of making the Donbass breakaway republics a part of Mother Russia shrank from 35 percent in April down to 26 percent in May. Yet Donbass will not be left in peace, either.

The Ivanovs fear that the Donbass fields covered in red poppies this spring will be covered in Ukrainian and Russian blood for years to come, and their once peaceful Amvrosyevka will be turned into an unstable buffer zone between Russia and the West, serving some geopolitical need in this capacity, perhaps, but certainly not theirs.

They fear that eventually they will have to abandon their cozy five-bedroom house, their garden of strawberries and roses, and flee, as hundreds flee daily from all over the Donbass, seeking safety and finding only uncertainty. They will take with them, if they can, some of their homegrown preserves.