• A moment after this picture was taken, the woman held in an embrace in the centre broke into tears. Her legs gave way, and she collapsed, swallowed by grief.

    This is Alina Mykhailova, a fiancé of the Ukrainian military Dmytro Kotsyubailo. Known by the call sign Da Vinci, he was one of the most talented and respected young officers in the army. Recently, he was killed in a battle near Bakhmut.

    At his funeral on 10 March, the President of Ukraine, the Commander-in-Chief, the Minister of Defence and thousands of other Ukrainians stood down on one knee ― a mark of the highest respect.

    Photographers kept taking pictures, and images of the heartbroken woman went viral. This caused a debate in Ukrainian society: how ethical is the broadcasting of psychically and emotionally challenging moments of someone in such a position as Alina?

    One side says that Alina is a victim, and her right for privacy is sacred. The other side, which often includes journalists, insists this is war, and such expressions of grief are a significant part of it. To show this to the world is just and even necessary.

    “I watch this ― and in my guts I feel that Ukrainians exist and I’m among them. The woman in the photo turns all of us into a living, pulsating social body,” wrote art curator Olena Chervonyk in a widely read article.

    “It’s possible to nurture your Ukrainianness by other means. A person has the right to life and to death, which has to be respected even in such circumstances,” replied lawyer Larysa Denysenko. “This is not my pain, not my trauma, not my private space.”

    Alina Mykhailova is also a politician and a soldier, and probably has her own thoughts on this issue. But she has not yet shared them, as she has been spending long hours every day at Dmytro’s grave.

    “Incredible Georgian people who understand that friends need to be supported! There are, indeed, times when citizens are not the government, but better than the government.”

    Volodymyr Zelenskyy

    Since 2005, Ukraine and Georgia had considered each other the closest allies in the region. But that changed once Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine’s soil. On 26 February 2022, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy began a statement war between Ukrainian and Georgian officials, which continues today.

    While Georgians poured onto the streets of their cities to protest against Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Georgian government refused to impose sanctions against the Kremlin.

    Over the following year, top Ukrainian officials accused Tbilisi of being too indecisive, duplicitous or even pro-Russian, while Georgian ministers and MPs replied that the Ukrainian side was “provocative” and “arrogant”.

    In the last week, history repeated itself: Zelenskyy supported the recent pro-EU Georgian protesters and wished them “democratic success”, while Georgian prime minister Irakli Gabriashvili said that Ukrainian officials “should take care of their own country”.

    I enjoy my night light, though it’s located outside my apartment. Lamps on my street in Kyiv have a warm orange hue. It reflects on my walls, adding cosiness to the place where I stay.

    Last year, I barely saw it. For several months after Russia’s full-scale invasion started, Ukraine switched to the dim mode. Lights could help the enemy detect or reach its targets, so the whole nation kept them switched off.

    Once the occupiers were repelled from Kyiv, this low mode ended. But after 10 October, Russia massively attacked the Ukrainian energy infrastructure, and darkness came back.

    I remember last November as a month when my colleagues were hastily searching for cafés with a diesel generator, so they could finish writing their articles. Our chat, once a place for sharing memes and planning barbecues, resembled a hackathon: we were talking about how to access the Internet without electricity, what we need to use car batteries at home, and where to find LED lights with a USB connection.

    The hardest thing was knowing it would get worse: Ukraine didn’t have enough means of air defence at that time.

    Now, for several weeks, there have been almost no blackouts in Ukraine. Thanks to the allies, army and electricians, our skies are far better protected, and the energy system is partially restored. It’s the Russian side which is exhausted now, having spent the bulk of their missiles.

    After the windows in the opposite house became bright, street lighting also came back. My flat is cosier again. And my friends are wondering: could we ever imagine, back in November, that the light would return so fast?

    It’s definitely not over yet. But Ukraine once again became an illustration of the inspirational phrase about the need to keep fighting even when the prospects are dark. Things can get brighter afterwards.

    Ten years ago, it seemed hopeless. Corruption in Ukraine was so ubiquitous it was hard to name a sector that bribery and sleaze did not infect. Education, customs, medicine ― at every level of society was a corrupt method of getting things done, which was the easier route for many citizens.

    Then-president Victor Yanukovych headed the trend, amassing a treasure trove of bribes. The 2013-14 clashes started partly because people were fed up with corruption. New president, Petro Poroshenko, won using the slogan: “Living in a new way”.

    At first, everything went according to plan. Comically clumsy, pot-bellied bribe-takers from the transport police were fired, and new staff replaced them. After training, the officers worked according to western standards. Even well-paid managers or lawyers joined the traffic cops.

    With transport police it was ― and is ― a success. But high-profile corruption remained: people like oligarch Dmytro Firtash were forced to leave the country, but kept their wealth. Five years ago, society radiated disappointment. New president Volodymyr Zelensky won a landslide with the promise: “As spring comes, we’ll start putting corrupt people in jail.”

    Yet again nothing happened. Firstly, the pandemic messed up his plans, then Russia invaded. Ukraine had even bigger challenges ― until the war caused the biggest anti-corruption shift ever.

    Without financial help from the West, Ukraine can’t make ends meet ― and our allies have set the rules for access to cash. One of these rules is reliability. That’s why our anti-corruption bodies are finally working at their full capacity.

    Last week, in a true crackdown on the Ukrainian corrupt officials, investigators ordered hundreds of searches, and many suspects were detained. Several regional governors lost their posts, as well as customs and tax service management.

    In a strange situation where war and hardship push Ukraine towards the rule of law, our only hope is that the effect will be long-lasting.

    When I was a child, collecting firewood was often intertwined with danger. I grew up in a village near the Oleshky sands ― a natural desert near Kherson. Legend has it that some centuries ago there were meadows there, but the horses and sheep of the invading Crimean Tatars ate up all the grass.

    In Soviet times, after the Second World War, pine forests were planted there. Schoolchildren put the seeds in straight rows, so from above these forests looked like combed hair. Still, the heart of the area was mostly treeless ― and the Soviet army decided to take advantage of it.

    Thousands of bombs were dropped there, as the military tested their power. Some were equipped with parachutes, so many people from nearby villages now have a chute in their household, which is a handy cloth to clean freshly-picked vegetables before taking them to the market. To collect firewood, the locals went into this forest-desert, sometimes blowing themselves up on unexploded bombs.

    In this century, though, the place was a rather safe tourist attraction. Spending a night there, I never saw more stars in the sky.

    Last year, the Russians came there. They chopped many trees for the trenches and used the desert as a training ground. The place became dangerous again.

    The same happened to many other forests in the occupied areas of Ukraine. The Russian army laid down weapons there, dug trenches or buried victims. During their retreat, they heavily mined everything. If you go into the woods around Izyum, Bucha, or Lyman, you never know if you’ll come back.

    By horrible coincidence, infrastructure in these settlements is often destroyed. State and private initiatives for heating don’t cover everyone’s needs, so many locals can only warm their homes by cutting down trees, even if there may be the danger of explosives or fines for illegal logging. “Freezing temperatures scare me more than these [threats],” one logger from Izyum told the media.

    Invaders turn many places in Ukraine to deserts, again. Our only hope is that one day life will return there.

    When the first drones struck Kyiv, Oksana Kovalenko, 42, shared in a group chat on Telegram what she was seeing and hearing in real time. For this week’s European Focus, our authors Anton Semyzhenko asked her what she felt then and how she feels now.

    A giant watermelon at the edge of Ukraine’s Kherson region, this statue became a familiar sight to millions of Ukrainians who would pass it en route to the coast. The statue is symbolic of Kherson’s agricultural riches, among them watermelons known for their size, taste and low price.

    Watermelons from Kherson once cost about 5 UAH (0.17 euros) per kilo. In early October, the picture went viral after the statue was liberated by the Ukrainian army. 

    This summer, watermelons in Ukraine cost about one euro per kilo. Russian occupation of the Kherson region saw its produce disappear from shelves in other parts of Ukraine. A pair of watermelons carried out by fleeing residents were symbolically sold at auction for several thousand UAH. All proceeds went to the army.

    Partial liberation of the region brings hope that local produce will finally re-enter the market. And not only Ukraine’s: dozens of local farmers are certified to export their crops to the EU. So prices may be ‘repaired’, just like the monument.

    What type of heater should I choose ― electric or gas? How much does a balcony solar panel cost? Will three power banks be enough and should I get thermal clothes or just add another regular layer? Just like millions of other Ukrainians, these are the questions currently running through my head.

    We worry whether our army will make progress in the winter and whether the supply of modern weapons will continue. But one thing is certain: either through continued missile strikes or by hacking our systems, the Kremlin will do its utmost to make this a very dark, very cold winter for Ukraine.

    I know how it feels. Ever since 2014, Russian hacker strikes have caused blackouts in various parts of my country. So now I search the Internet for what’s still possible to buy to get me through this period.

    I understand Russia’s rationale: a harsh winter and high gas bills may push Europe to agree to Moscow’s terms to end this war. Blackouts and bitter cold will further exhaust Ukrainians and nurture a wish to end this nightmare.

    But everyone I know has no thought of surrender.

    That’s why, in Ukraine now, candles are not about coziness or romance. They are a means of survival, stacked as a source of light just like 200 years ago.

    I don’t care about gas prices, but about the ability to use gas at all. I bought matches, a portable gas stove, and several gas cartridges, following the advice of a popular brochure on crisis preparation. It feels like a camping trip, but instead of a forest I’ll have to camp in my home this year. But the destination is clear ― our freedom.