Facing blackouts, Ukrainians seek candles and camping stoves

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A woman looks out of her window, holding a candle during a power outage, near Kyiv on Oct. 20, 2022. Airstrikes cut power and water supplies to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on Tuesday, in what the country's president called an expanding Russian campaign to drive the nation into the cold and dark.
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Repeated waves of Russian airstrikes, cruise missiles, and explosive drones are beginning to take their toll in Ukraine.

Over the past two weeks, the Russians have damaged or destroyed about 30% of the country’s energy infrastructure – its power generation facilities and its electricity transmission systems. More than a million Ukrainian households are now subject to power cuts for several hours at a time.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Russia appears intent on destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Ukrainians are buckling down and facing up to a cold, dark winter. Camping stoves are at a premium.

That has prompted an international reaction – Washington and other Western capitals have promised more air defense systems so as to better protect Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. It has also led individuals on the ground to face up to the prospect of a dark and cold winter.

This weekend, the shops in Kyiv, Ukraine, were full of customers buying everything from candles to diesel-powered generators, with gas camping stoves, thermal underwear, and merino wool socks in between.

Lyudmila Morozyuk, a manager at a Kyiv megastore, remembers spending six months without water, heat, or light in her village in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when Russia backed separatists’ efforts to break away from Kyiv.

“I am not in a panic,” she says, looking ahead to the coming winter. “But I realize it will be hard.”

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a minor purchase – something for a picnic, perhaps. But after surviving three Russian missile attacks on their apartment block, Alisa Zosimova and her husband are counting on their new gas camping stove to give them confidence to confront what threatens to be a hard winter.

“I am worried that we won’t have light, heating, or water for a week or more,” says Ms. Zosimova, out shopping on the weekend in the wake of massive Russian missile and drone attacks that have damaged or destroyed one-third of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and subjected more than a million Ukrainian households to power cuts.

Another wave of attacks rocked the country Saturday morning. In Kyiv, power cuts of 4 to 5 hours are becoming the new norm. Street lighting on the capital’s major arteries has been reduced, and residential side streets sit in total darkness as the moon rises. There are no signs yet that morale is flagging, but the attacks have darkened the outlook for winter.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Russia appears intent on destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Ukrainians are buckling down and facing up to a cold, dark winter. Camping stoves are at a premium.

“Russia aims to destroy the entire energy infrastructure of Ukraine,” says Volodymyr Kudrytskii, head of the board of Ukrenergo, the national electricity distributor, by email. “The enemy seeks to disrupt the heating season and leave Ukrainians without light and heat in winter,” when temperatures routinely drop well below freezing.

Dominique Soguel
Pavlo Melnykov and Alisa Zosimova pose for a photo after shopping for emergency supplies. They worry that power cuts could deprive them of heat and light for days at a time.

“All regions are suffering from attacks on energy facilities in one way or another,” notes Antonina Atosha, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian power generator Dtek. Five of the six power plants under its control have been hit in the last two weeks, bringing the employee death toll since the war began to 94. “There is no doubt that their goal is a complete blackout.”

About 1,000 technicians, organized into 70 mobile repair teams, are working around the clock to restore the power transmission system, says Mr. Kudrytskii. They have been assisted by European electricity distributors that have donated generators, transformers, and other equipment needed for repairs, he says.

Dtek, however, remains in “dire need” of equipment of all kinds to generate more power, warns Ms. Atosha in an email interview.

“There are only two ways to prevent the total destruction of the energy system,” she says – better air defenses or an end to the war.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed heavy, nationwide airstrikes against Ukrainian infrastructure targets on Oct. 10, Washington and other NATO capitals have pledged to step up their supplies of air defense materiel.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Ukrainian electricity workers restore power lines damaged during six months of Russian military occupation in Balakliia, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 29, 2022. About 1,000 technicians are working around the clock to repair electricity generation and transmission facilities damaged by recent Russian airstrikes.

Gas stoves and thermal underwear

In Kyiv, a sense of relative safety still reigns, although air sirens are heeded with renewed respect. During the weekend, shoppers crowded stores selling the sort of practical items needed in an emergency.

“Demand has drastically increased for all our products,” since Oct. 10, when the capital experienced its first 24-hour blackout of the war, reports Andrii Skoba, a salesman at the Gorgany camping shop in Kyiv. “We buy 10 boxes of gas stoves, but by the end of the day they are all gone. Now demand is 20 to 30 times higher” than it used to be, he says.

His customers this month are not the usual crowd of outdoors enthusiasts, either. Many high-earning IT sector workers were among those buying “just in case” emergency supplies on Saturday. Top of their shopping lists? Gas camping stoves, sleeping bags, and warm clothes such as thermal underwear and merino wool socks.

“This time of the year is usually low season because it is rainy,” Mr. Skoba explains. “But now our clients are either civilians who want camping gas stoves to cook in their basements, or soldiers for the front line.”

Among the shoppers are Nastia and Vladimir, who relocated from the shellshocked city of Kharkiv to Kyiv on the assumption that the capital would be safer and easier for work. The recent attacks on the capital, the unexpected daylong blackout, and now scheduled power cuts have undermined their sense of security.

“We hope to have light tonight so we can have dinner at home,” says Vladimir. But just in case, the couple has made backup plans to eat meat and porridge cooked on the gas stoves of friends who have already purchased the necessary gear.

“For sure it will be a hard winter,” says Nastia, who works in human resources. “There will be more strikes. They won’t just stop. But I am sure we can get through it. The main thing is that we survive.”

“It will be hard”

Elsewhere in Kyiv, Nikolai Ivanovich, a white-haired, wiry older man, strides the aisles of the Epicentr megastore, ignoring saws and axes and other equipment, until he finally finds what he is looking for – a wood-burning stove. He plans to install it in his dacha, a simple summer home in the countryside where he will spend the winter.

“If there are not too many drones and missiles then I am sure we will survive the winter,” he says. “And, if need be, retired men like me will go fight.”

Dominique Soguel
Nikolai Ivanovich inspects a wood-burning stove that he plans to install in his country cottage for the winter.

Electricity supplies had not been a problem in Ukraine until two weeks ago. Daily consumption fell by 30% when the Russians invaded, prompting millions to flee and many businesses to close. Indeed, since the war began, Ukraine had been exporting its surplus electricity to neighboring European countries.

But its own consumption had been rising recently, as businesses reopened, refugees returned in the wake of a string of Ukrainian battlefield successes, and autumn ushered in a seasonal increase in electricity use.

Adding to the difficulties, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and a hydropower station at Kakhovka are occupied by the Russian army, and feeding nothing into the Ukrainian national grid. With so much damage now done to remaining power plants and grid facilities, power cuts are inevitable, says Ukrenergo board chief Mr. Kudrytskii.

Back at Epicentr, everything from diesel-powered generators to candles were flying off the shelves on Saturday; by closing time, the shop had sold out of both large generators capable of powering a household and smaller ones suitable for a lamp.

Ukrainians “know who the enemy is and that they have to prepare ahead,” says Lyudmila Morozyuk, Epicentr’s wholesale manager. “Of course, it is uncomfortable and people get nervous, but they are not broken.”

Ms. Morozyuk herself spent six months without water, heat, or light in her village in the eastern region of Luhansk in 2014, when Russia backed Ukrainian separatists’ efforts to break away from Kyiv.

Remembering that time, she frets because most of her appliances need electricity. 

“I am not in a panic,” she says. “But I realize it will be hard.”

Oleksandr Naselenko supported the reporting of this article.

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