Matt Katz: Hi, folks. I'm Matt Katz, in for Melissa Harris-Perry today.
As the cold winter months begin to set Ukraine, the country's armed forces are now mostly on the offensive against Russia along the 600-mile frontlines of the war, but recently, Russia has increased its intensity and its siege on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, using rockets and drone strikes to target power plants, natural gas facilities and water supplies. The Russians have been ramping up their efforts to demoralize ordinary Ukrainians and break their resolve.
In a statement on Monday, the World Health Organization estimated that half of Ukraine's energy infrastructure is either damaged or destroyed, and on Wednesday morning, more Russian shelling in the region led to massive blackouts across the country. The WHO warns that "the winter will be life threatening for millions of people in Ukraine." With me now is Nataliya Gumenyuk, Ukrainian journalist and founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab. Nataliya, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Good to be back.
Matt: As I said, Russia has been targeting Ukraine's energy infrastructure. Tell us what that's meant for Ukrainians on the ground like yourself. Do you have electricity where you are at the moment?
Nataliya: Look, it really means a lot, because can you imagine, I try to describe to your audience. Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, where around roughly 4 million people live. It doesn't mean we don't have electricity all the time, but the power cuts are daily for sometimes four hours, sometimes five hours, depending where you are. If it's a suburbs of the city, it could be longer and you have some limited time when you can charge the thing, work, but sometimes things happen unexpected.
As you said, there is the rather deliberate attack on the Ukrainian infrastructure for the last two months. There is just now, and I probably sound too calm for this moment, so probably maybe 20 minutes ago, there was another missile targeted, I would guess, to the Kyiv power station. We don't know yet the place because, usually, it's not in the news within the very short period of time, but there is the air raid siren at the moment and there is a power cut at the moment. You name the figures of the people who are without power, and oddly enough, it's kind of, life is there. People found their way buying generators.
You can, for instance, put your WiFi router with a generator, so still have connection, otherwise it won't be or you already by this time have a number of lamps and other things which will make you pursue, but it's a cold season. I think Kyiv has more or less the same climate as New York. It's already snowing. It's usually pretty harsh weather already in November. We are still anticipating that there could be more, because so far the authorities, the people who are running the infrastructure, they're trying to fix things. They are trying to limit the energy consumption, but the problem is it could be that at any given moment you don't know where is the limit of how much can be fixed and how much can be maintained.
Matt: That must be just harrowing to deal with and to worry about as we get deeper into these colder winter months. I'm wondering about the most vulnerable, like at hospitals. What does it it mean if water, electricity, heat are all threatened this winter for patients at hospitals?
Nataliya: That's exactly why it's, I should say, organized because therefore we, for instance, for more than a month have more or less organized planned power cuts. For instance, the residents of-- the usual residents would have this power cuts, therefore the city would be able to have more energy for the hospital, for the critical infrastructure.
It's working according to a very sophisticated plan when the government decide and the city authorities.
It's not just about the Kyiv, but Kyiv of course is the tageted today most, one of the most cities which is targeted. They need to really decide. This house is close to the emergency service, so it should have energy. This could be sacrificed and in that area you won't have electricity for a longer time. It's still, so far, let's say maintained and manageable, but the pressure is, of course, immense.
Matt: How does that pressure affect people psychologically? Obviously you can't speak for every Ukrainian, but we're talking about intensified airstrikes from Russia. What are the psychological effects at the moment in terms of people that you work with, the people that you interact with in Kyiv and elsewhere in the country?
Nataliya: I don't want to sound naive or over optimistic. At some note, people, Ukrainians are extremely resilient and they're adjusting very fast. For instance, giving you example, as long as the power cut started in the elevators, in the lift, in the usual residential building, people just had lamps, boxes with water, some necessities just in case you'll be stuck in the elevator. It's something just people do on their own.
There is an increased demand for different types of the generators. Some people are trying to, for instance, the winter houses or summer houses in countryside, of course they're more manageable than the tall buildings. People try to find their way. Some restaurants are working with the candles. Some restaurants want to go for the grill or, for instance, they would have two types of the production.
For instance, some things you cook when there is no electricity, some things you cook when there is electricity. People host the others. Some offices are equipped with a generator, some are not. You can use the other friendly office. It's all there, but to be honest, of course we understand it's way not enough, but I should say how it feels. If you're threatened by this way on the daily basis, with no real reason. I'm usually very cautious with the comparison, but it's a bit of the terrorist strategy to surrender, and here if this method are used, it just makes people more angry and determined. They are not broken.
However, I should also say, if you don't have water for some days, you, of course, feel even angrier. It doesn't mean-- you maybe won't any longer feel so romantic about the dinner with the candles after number of the days. It just doesn't sound that nice as it's in the first days, but you're becoming more determined.
Matt: Nataliya, we've got to take a quick break. We'll hear more about life on the ground in Ukraine in a moment.
Matt: This is Matt Katz, sitting in from Melissa Harris-Perry today. We're back with Nataliya Gumenyuk, Ukrainian journalist and founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab.
We've seen images of that determination, strength, resilience during the war coming out of Ukraine. We've seen strength and high morale during the whole course of this conflict from Ukrainian civilians. Is that still the case? Is there any sense of fatigue setting in? How would you describe where morale is at the moment?
Nataliya: My concern that people are getting angrier rather than more broken. They would be more determined because it's seen that there is no any goodwill from the Russian side [chuckles]. There are more suffering in particularly, even the beginning, even the Russians at least try they're fighting the Ukrainian army. Now, it's quite clear they are targeting the civilian population. As long as somebody systematically tries to kill you, you just lose all trust. You don't have any trust to the people that it would be at any time better.
We don't have any signal from either Russian propagandists or from the Russian sources that it would be easy. It just getting-- after another strikes, there would be more strikes. I'm also myself amazed how resilient humans can be in this regard. I think if energy goes into this search creativity on finding the ways to live through that, but one thing to add as well, what makes probably Ukrainians more impatient and a bit, I won't say disappointed, but that's what's happening. It's not something which has taken us as a surprise.
In August, when I was talking to the Ukrainian military, and I was asking about future Russian strategy, they all were speaking about this particular strategy, that closer to winter there would be the attack on the electricity grid, on the power station. We are preparing for that. The Russians started earlier than the cold weather. They started in October, but the Ukrainian government was also warning the international partners that there should be more support in air defense. It would be too late to have it when the power grids would be already partially destroyed.
The best to have them is before they're targeted, but somehow, despite all the solidarity support, the funding which just comes to Ukraine and which, of course, we appreciate a lot, it's always lagging behind. It's always after Russia does something. We know that that would be a strategy warning, saying, "That would work, that would happen. Can we do something for prevention?" Usually, the response coming after already Ukraine suffers, people are shocked. How come the Kremlin dared to target the center of Kyiv? Then, the help is coming.
It's a bit annoying in a way, knowing that, look, can it be done before it's destroyed because then it would cost less? In any case, of course, we see the determination and the support of the Western allies. It usually comes after things already happened, and then the things should be fixed, rather than could be prevented.
Matt: Got it. I guess that would be your message to American policymakers and all of the international partners in this, that if you say you need help, now, you need the help right now.
Nataliya: Yes. Again, there is this balance between gratitude, but just understanding that not because somebody is ungrateful, but because we see that, anyway, the help would come and it's important to receive it, but then it costs more, and then it's harder. The energy system, the figure is about half of the energy system damaged. They are realistic. I'm listening to a lot of interviews, but I can't fully figure out how it operates in the way that the cities are livable at this stage.
Matt: Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist and the founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab. Nataliya, thank you so much. I wish you the best and as much safety as possible this winter.
Nataliya: Thank you.
Matt: Last April, The Takeaway spoke with Edward Reese, a non-binary queer Ukrainian activist who works for Kyiv Pride about the special challenges that Ukrainian LGBTQ refugees faced. We were planning to have him on again today, but an hour before our scheduled interview, Edward reached out and told us "A huge bombing started." He did not have a way to connect with us further, so we're sharing his story from April once again. Here's his story, voiced by Melissa Harris-Perry.
Edward Reese: My name is Edward Reese. I work as a project assistant for Kyiv Pride. I identify as queer or non-binary, I was living in Kyiv.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Edward, who uses the pronouns he-him, remembers the morning in February when he woke and learned that Russia had invaded his country.
Edward: I was at home in a quiet and peaceful region, outskirts of Kyiv. I actually missed the first sirens and the first bombings because I was sleeping. I woke up to check my messages. I saw a great amount of messages asking if I am okay, if I am alive, and messages telling that the war started.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Initially, Edward planned to stay in Kyiv as long as possible so that he could continue his work as a project assistant for Kyiv Pride, an LGBTQ NGO, but ultimately, he felt he just had to leave.
Edward: I decided to leave because I had to do my top surgery in Ukraine in March. Definitely, right now it's impossible. I decided to try to do it in any other country to save resources of Ukrainian hospitals after the war.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Like millions of other Ukrainians fleeing for safety, Edward headed for the Polish border.
Edward: I got help from Kyiv Pride and other organizations which got several seats on the bus, which was coming from Kyiv to Lviv. Then, we spent several hours in a refugee center in Poland, which was really crowded and loud and hard to be there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Poland has a history of discrimination against LGBT communities. In a ranking compiled by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association of Europe, looking at the status of LGBTQ rights in the EU, Poland ranked last with a designation of gross violations of human rights and discrimination. Thankfully, that was not what Edwards experienced in the Polish capital of Warsaw was like.
Edward: Polish people are doing amazing job right now. They are really great at helping us. We are refugees. I don't think that someone would be cruel to refugees because of their sexual identity or gender identity. I don't know any stories like this and people are really welcomed in Poland.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Edward eventually drove up to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he is currently staying. Denmark has a much better record on LGBTQ rights than Poland, but still, things are not easy.
Edward: We have our chosen families, our friends, our community, and sometimes we have to leave them, like I am disconnected with all of my friends. They are all in different countries. Some of them are staying in Ukraine. We just talk online sometimes. Kyiv Pride actually decided to start daily [unintelligible 00:15:32] support groups to help people reconnect, to help people remember that we are still together, we are still one big family of Ukrainian queers.
Matt: Edward Reese did write us this week to say, "My surgery in Sweden was successful, and after recovery, I went back home to Ukraine as planned." He's been home since October. We wish him safety and all the best. This is The Takeaway.
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