My phone buzzed early in the morning. It was a message from Darina Rebro, a Ukrainian journalist who writes for Christians for Ukraine and The European Conservative. “If you have Frodo’s phone number, please let him know the ring was supposed to be destroyed 7 days ago,” she joked. Darina is currently in Kyiv, which (at the time of writing this) is under siege by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces. Despite this, as refugees pour through the border, many of those who chose to stay in Ukraine have managed to retain both their faith and their sense of humor.
Darina Rebro was born and raised in Kyiv, and she says it was a shock when it became clear that Putin intended to invade all of Ukraine rather than just the Crimea. The first morning of the war, her father woke her to tell her that there had been shelling a few metro stations away. While some chose to leave the city, Darina and her parents—both physicians—decided to stay, “because we strongly believe as Christians, we should be where the problem is. If God put us in the city and He let this situation happen, it is not because He wanted to immediately get us out. It’s because He wanted us to be helpful to our neighbors in this time.”
“It’s our motherland. I am who I am because I am Ukrainian,” Darina told me. “My mentality is shaped by the nation I grew up in. If my mother is assaulted and hurt by bandits, how can I leave her? How can I forgive myself after that?” Additionally, her grandparents are simply too old to leave. “They became fatalistic,” she said. “‘Go, leave us here to die.’ We told them: ‘You did not raise us this way. It’s your problem. You should have raised us to be selfish if you wanted us to leave.’”
Martin Iden, a Ukrainian who returned from Poland to fight for his country, has similar convictions. He has a vlog on YouTube where he discusses psychology, sociology, philosophy, and the history of ideas; now it has all become very real. Seeing the invasion of his country, Iden felt that he could not sit by. “If there is any meaning, it is in becoming someone who says how it should be, how it is right to be, taking the responsibility that is not to be refused,” he told me. “Because if I merely sit and observe what is going on, then in ten, twenty, forty years I will be on my deathbed—and what then? You can write ‘shit’ on my forehead with big letters, because it will be an objective evaluation of my life and convictions.”
Many civilians have taken up arms in national defense, identifiable by yellow tape on their shoulders (Darina says that with her eyesight, she’d likely shoot the wrong person if she accepted a gun). Those in Kyiv hear shelling, shooting, and sirens—bombs can be heard inside the shelters. “When the siren goes, it feels like you are part of some creepy game and you don’t know who will die, where there will be shelling, where they’re going to bomb,” Darina told me. “All you can do is just sit where you are and pray and hope that you are not the one who will die after the shelling. It is very scary. You immediately want to hide, to be in a completely different place.”
The shelters are frequently freezing, and Darina contracted bronchitis after one night sleeping below ground. Some of her friends have sick children for the same reason. That said, it is surreally normal in many of the shelters as parents try to make things as routine as possible. They bring coffee, tea, snacks, cats carried in bags, and beautiful dogs. Kids play together—one boy, she recalled, was imitating the noise of the sirens with a plastic pipe. The children sometimes play war games. “Every nation has games for children where they fight against something. Ukrainian children are playing against Russians.” The shelters can even “smell like home—chai, kolbassa, bread. The atmosphere is very peaceful.” Here is where the humor comes in. “I find a sense of humor really helpful,” she told me with a laugh. “Putin can destroy our TV tower; he can kill people; he can destroy our beautiful schools and architecture, but he cannot make us stop telling jokes.” Ukrainian social media is filled with memes mocking the captured Russians, lionizing President Zelensky, and turning the invasion into a dark joke. As a coping mechanism, it is effective. The Russian “kids,” Darina said, don’t want to be here. “They’re here because Putin forgot to take his meds or something.”She laughed as she said it.
Due to both the cold and the difficulty of getting elderly grandparents to the shelter, Darina and her parents have decided to risk staying at home when the sirens sound. The current governmental advice is to hide behind two walls—the first one takes the shrapnel, the second protects you. “Most flats in Kyiv have a second wall behind the bathroom or kitchen, so it is recommended that people sleep in the corridors.” It is difficult to determine where it is truly safe—people clustered together in shelters have been trapped when a bomb blocks the single entryway, and the shelter nearest Darina’s home has hot-water pipes that could badly injure people if they were to rupture.
Everyone who has stayed has taken on tasks. “Police are teaching people how to make Molotov cocktails,” Darina told me. “Women are teaching men how to give first aid. Men are teaching women how to shoot.” Some people help in the shelter. Doctors, like her parents, are constantly at the ready, while journalists, like Darina, are attempting to combat Russian disinformation. Some shovel snow in the street to ensure that the Ukrainian Army has a clear path. In times of war, Darina noted, even small contributions have taken on nobility. The stress is exhausting, and blackout lasts from dark till dawn except for candlelight—people have been shot for violating curfew, mistaken for Russian agents. Darina’s father treated one woman who was shot in the hip.
“It’s very good to wake up during war because some people do not,” Darina said. Each night she tries to make peace with God and goes to sleep not knowing if she will wake up—especially when the threat of nuclear war appears to loom. The morning is accompanied by relief. “It gives you great motivation when you don’t know if you were going to wake up or not and you do and you’re like—okay, I don’t need procrastination in my life anymore. I don’t need stupid videos anymore. The things that used to eat your time—you don’t need them anymore, because you have been given another day.”
What is most important has suddenly become clear. Friends who used to only text now call because they want to hear a familiar voice. “I was supposed to get married in the spring but we have to postpone everything,” Darina told me. “Planning is so ridiculous. I don’t know what food I want and what colors I want, but I also don’t know which relatives to invite because I don’t know who will survive. How can I make a wedding list if I don’t know who will survive? It’s so creepy. We live in the moment and hope for the future. But it’s hard to plan longer than two or three minutes ahead.”
Michael (not his real name) told me that only faith in God is getting him through the war. After the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and church being online, he is struggling now as he spends most of his days in an apartment in Kiev Nyvky, only venturing out occasionally. He wants fellowship with believers, he said, and he desperately wants to go back to work. But everything is on hold until Putin’s invasion plays out. “I love this country and I hope God will protect me,” he said. When I asked him why he chose to stay, his answer was simple. “I didn’t have peace leaving Ukraine. I don’t know why. If God is real, He is going to take care of me if it is not my time to die. I’m not a hero. I just believe in God. If I didn’t, I would be so scared right now.”
Michael wakes up frequently to the sirens. There is a shelter in the basement of the apartment building. Stress is very high, he said, and many chain smoke to cope. There are long lines at the supermarkets, but very little food to be had. “Money means nothing here,” he told me. “Food means everything.” Fortunately, the apartment he is staying in—which belongs to his pastor—has a substantial stockpile of food. He feels that God is protecting him, and he spends much time in prayer. “I don’t like praying against people. I don’t even like seeing dead Russians. I pray against the tanks, that God would destroy them.” When we spoke, he hadn’t seen any Russians in his neighborhood yet.
Shortly after our conversation, he messaged me. “Now I heard a bomb. Not close. I’m okay.”
Animated by faith and patriotism and buoyed by an unkillable sense of humor, Ukrainians are thus far shocking the world by their steadfastness in the face of Russian aggression. They are living their lives day to day in circumstances that most of us in the 21st century cannot imagine, and their faith puts me to shame. As Darina put it one morning on Facebook:
Good morning! We survived another night! Blessings to Ukraine, the army, the people, and to all those who suffered losses tonight. Welcome to the light of a new day! And God said, “Let there be light! And the light came.” Genesis 1:3.
Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.