https://www.csmonitor.com/-By Martin Kuz Special contributor
Nothing in life separated the twin brothers until the violence of war erupted. Nikolai and Misha Kovalenko, born 15 minutes apart on Nov. 19, 1960, shared a bond that deepened as they grew from boys to men, from husbands to fathers to grandfathers. Their parents raised them in northern Ukraine and instilled an unwavering allegiance to a country then under the Soviet Union’s control. Conscripted into the Red Army, they served together in the same unit in Hungary, and after returning home in 1985, the brothers settled near each other in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.
They followed parallel paths in the ensuing decades. Each man married, started a family, and found a career – homebuilder for Nikolai, security system technician for Misha. Nearing retirement, they still spoke almost every day, even if only for a minute or two by phone. The ritual reassured the twins that life was as it had always been.
The future diverged from the past when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Nikolai escaped west to the Lviv region with his wife and two sons. Misha stayed back with his wife and daughter. The fighting in Bucha intensified, and with Russian troops turning the city into a killing field, the family tried to flee by car on March 5.
Why We Wrote This
For Ukrainians, the absence of loved ones killed in war is a constant presence. Their remembering and honoring reveals grace in grief, and an essential humanity that defies the barbarism of the conflict.
Misha had driven about 2 miles, past ruined high-rises and grocery stores, when he hit a Russian checkpoint on Yablonska Street. He stopped before the barricades and stepped out with his hands up. The soldiers opened fire. His body fell.
His wife was shot in the leg as she and her daughter ran from the car. Both women survived. Misha’s body, clad in the blue parka he had donned that winter morning, remained beside the road for 29 days before Ukrainian troops liberated Bucha and the dead could be retrieved.
“I will never feel the same,” Nikolai says. He stands next to the wooden cross that marks his brother’s grave in the city cemetery, where more than 400 residents killed by Russian troops are buried. A memorial wreath of red, pink, and white flowers nestles below a framed photo of Misha sitting at a table behind his home, looking at peace.
It is late June, and sunshine collides with dark clouds in the afternoon sky. Nikolai tugs at the bill of his cap and lowers his eyes. “Part of me is no longer here.”
His words capture the anguish of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have lost loved ones to the war. The victims – siblings and spouses, parents and children – shadow the living in memory, their deaths brutal, premature, needless. For the families left behind, their absence is a constant presence.
The individual tragedies at once reflect and magnify a nation’s torment in a war that has killed an estimated 5,600 Ukrainian civilians and 9,000 soldiers. Yet in another sense, even as each day inflicts more suffering, the resolve of bereaved citizens to endure offers further evidence of the country’s collective will. Their private efforts to remember and honor the dead reveal a grace born of grief, an essential humanity that defies the barbarism unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Misha was one of several Bucha residents killed on Yablonska Street in the first weeks of the invasion. The images of the slain civilians – some lying beside the bicycles they were riding when shot – horrified the world and laid bare Russia’s intentions to terrorize the populace. Nikolai’s thoughts turn again and again to his brother’s decision to raise his hands.
“I think what he did was very brave,” Nikolai says. He interprets Misha’s act as a display of nonviolent resistance rather than surrender, and one rooted in an ethos they learned in childhood. “Our parents taught us that Ukraine was not part of Russia and we ourselves were not Russian. What he did – it was a way of saying, ‘I will never belong to you.’ He lived and died as a Ukrainian.”
His death opened a void within Nikolai, who still catches himself dialing Misha’s phone number. He finds a measure of solace in the belief that his twin brother’s spirit watches over him. He recounts a fraught exchange with a family member who accosted him after he returned to Bucha in April. “Why do you get to live instead of Misha?” she asked.
In his telling, he responded with a calm compassion that, in retrospect, he views as his brother’s more than his own. “I understand your pain because I miss him, too,” Nikolai told her. The words defused her anger, and the two embraced.
He gestures at Misha’s photo on the cross. “I cannot bring my brother back,” he says. “But I can share his heart.”
A similar desire sustains Nataliya Lipska through her sorrow. Her younger brother, Olexsiy Tarasyev, joined Ukraine’s volunteer territorial defense force in Lviv the day after Russia invaded. A chemist by trade, he served as a combat medic in a unit deployed to the eastern city of Kharkiv.
The siblings last spoke on June 12 over a spotty cell connection. “Hello, sister,” he said. “I’m good.” The call dropped, and within an hour, an artillery strike had killed him.
Three weeks after his death, Ms. Lipska sits in a cafe a mile from his grave in Lviv, her voice a pained whisper as she recites his final words through tears. “I still cannot say he was my brother. It should be is,” she says.
She describes Olexsiy, with his large, soft eyes and quiet voice, as principled, determined, and possessed of a distinctive code of propriety. He spurned a lieutenant’s commission in the armed forces after graduating from university in Lviv, refusing to cut off his ponytail and trim his beard – policies he regarded as pointless.
Almost two decades later, when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, he seized the chance to fulfill his military duty and defend his country.
“I wasn’t happy when he signed up, but I understood,” Ms. Lipska says. She smiles at the thought of him conceding to “a little” pruning of his hair and beard as a condition of wearing the uniform. “I’m proud of Olexsiy. He had the courage to step forward for Ukraine.”
Ms. Lipska, the director of a charity in Lviv that provides support to children with cancer and their families, took on a second mission after he volunteered to fight. She assists a local organization that gathers medical supplies and first-aid kits to send to front-line troops. She continues the work as an homage to her fallen brother.
“He gave his life to his country,” she says, pausing to wipe away more tears. “So I am devoting mine.”
Petro Korol walks along the sandy rows of beflowered graves in the Irpin city cemetery as he narrates stories of war. Early in the invasion, Russian troops ravaged the Kyiv suburb that borders Bucha, killing more than 300 residents. The heavy toll forced Mr. Korol, the cemetery’s manager, to open a vast new section of the grounds.
He stops beside the burial plot of Larisa Osipov and her husband, Vadym. Mr. Korol recalls her warm smile and kind manner as the longtime director of a local kindergarten that he and generations of children attended. Russian soldiers shot the couple dead in their backyard on March 24, four days before Ukrainian forces reclaimed the city.
Mr. Korol moves toward a pair of wooden crosses above the graves of a childhood friend’s parents. Nadiya Myakushko and Volodymyr Cherednichenko used to invite young Petro and his mother and father to their home for gatherings. A Russian armored vehicle fired on the house and killed the couple. Two graves away lies Pavlo Malyuk, the father of one of Mr. Korol’s friends from university. The trio gathered at a local cafe now and then to drink coffee and discuss the world. Russian soldiers gunned him down outside his home.
Composed and soft-spoken, Mr. Korol learned the details of their deaths while he and a small team of workers helped collect bodies across Irpin starting in mid-March. They wore armored vests and ballistic helmets as fighting raged between Ukrainian and Russian troops. He calls the task less arduous than another aspect of his job.
“The hardest part is listening to the sadness of the people who have lost someone,” he says. He gently taps the metal cross on Mr. Malyuk’s grave as he once might have patted the older man’s shoulder. “Their words go through my soul.”
Mr. Korol and his wife decided in March that she would evacuate to Poland with their two preteen sons. An order of martial law from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requires men ages 18 to 60 to stay to defend the country. As much as he misses his family, Mr. Korol, a member of Irpin’s territorial defense force, insists he would have remained in the country without the president’s edict.
He stays as a tribute to all those he knew who have died, to console mourning families in their darkest moment, to preserve Ukraine’s independence so that the young inherit a brighter future. “I am here because I want the war to be over,” he says. “That is what will end the suffering, and that is how we will live free.”
The widow and her toddler son returned to Irpin on a June night four months after fleeing to Poland. The next afternoon Yana Shklyaruk stands before the grave of her late husband, Ilya, for the first time.
He had hugged mother and child goodbye on a train platform in Kyiv on March 2. Six days later, he vanished. Weeks passed before her father found Ilya’s name on a list of the dead at the morgue.
“This man did nothing and he was killed,” Ms. Shklyaruk says. Her voice, as impassive as her face, conveys the numb disbelief of the brokenhearted. She wears a baseball hat, jean shorts, and tennis shoes, and at age 21, she understands that war has cleaved her life. Before has turned into after, clarity into uncertainty. “What happened will never make sense. His own son will not remember him.”
She met her future husband at a cafe in 2018 when Ilya, a few years older and tall, lean, and dark-haired, approached and asked for her phone number. Her initial wariness receded after a couple of dates, and they married the following year. She holds up her phone to show wedding photos. Their smiles radiate the promise of tomorrow.
Ms. Shklyaruk, confronted by the emptiness wrought by Ilya’s death, holds tight to his memory. She vows that their son, Serhiy, will know his father, his warmth and charm, his selfless concern for others. During the war’s first days, Ilya drove neighbors to safety, acting as a one-man evacuation crew. Russian troops shot him dead inside his car.
“I will honor him in the way I raise our son. His spirit will always be alive inside us,” she says. A bookkeeper at an insurance firm with offices outside Ukraine, she will decide in the coming months whether to stay in Irpin or work for the company abroad. Her lasting devotion to Ilya fortifies her against the confusion ahead.
“Russia took him from me,” she says. “But Russia cannot take who he was from me.”
Residents of Bucha sought spiritual comfort from archpriest Andriy Galavin as Russian forces bombarded their homes and killed their neighbors in February and March. He urged parishioners at the Church of St. Andrew to aid each other and resist the impulse for revenge. He wonders if he sounded as diffident to them as he seemed to himself.
“Everything from that time is blurry. I was in shock,” he says, talking on a morning in late June outside the Orthodox church. Sunshine shimmers off its golden domes above towering white walls pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes. “There was a very high level of grief for all of us.”
A line of wooden fence posts behind the church demarcates a dirt expanse where workers dug a temporary mass grave earlier in the war. In March, with the morgue at capacity and Russian forces blocking the route to the cemetery, city officials asked Father Galavin for permission to bury dozens of bodies in a trench on church property.
The deceased were later exhumed and identified for formal burial after the Ukrainian army took back Bucha. Several of the victims had belonged to the congregation. Father Galavin, as distressed as his parishioners, struggled to make sense of the atrocities. “There were so many terrible things,” he says. “I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Large photographs that document the human toll of the siege of Bucha lean on easels inside the church’s bright white, mostly empty nave. Father Galavin hosts visiting dignitaries in the space, guiding them past the images as he describes the entwined tragedies of city and church. On this day, he welcomes Moldovan President Maia Sandu and a coterie of Ukrainian officials.
“Speaking about the horror of war is a responsibility that nobody in Ukraine expected or wanted,” he says before the group arrives. “But it is important that those who come here know what happened so that it is not forgotten.”
War can induce a crisis of faith. Father Galavin encourages congregants to remember the resilience, unity, and compassion they showed in the face of inhumanity. He invokes their shared trauma in his sermons to remind them of their courage and capacity to endure.
“We have seen the worst that people can do to us,” he says. “We have also seen the best that we can do for each other. We ask God to give us the strength to persevere.”
“I survived.” Artem Dymyd uttered his last words in June after a Russian artillery strike on his army unit near the southern city of Kherson. The combat medic who tried to save him found it “impossible” that the barely conscious soldier could speak, let alone form a coherent phrase.
The fact held less surprise for his mother. Ivanka Dymyd knew her son burned with righteous indignation toward injustice in general and Russia in particular. “Our family now lives by these words,” she says, sitting in her home in Lviv in early July. “They are a comfort for us.”
Ms. Dymyd, who with her husband, Mykhaylo, raised four children, has laid out photos that span from Artem’s birth on July 4, 1994, to a hiking trip last fall. The lush, somber music of Hans Zimmer, his favorite composer, plays on her computer. “He is very much still with us,” she says. “You feel his presence.”
Adventure and purposeful defiance defined her son’s 27 years. He visited dozens of countries on his motorcycle, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and earned local fame for his exploits as a skydiver and BASE jumper. In 2013, still in his teens, he traveled to Kyiv to join the massive protests against then-
President Viktor Yanukovych. Months later, after Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster, he rushed to join the fight against Russian-backed militants who had seized a portion of eastern Ukraine.
His two years on the front lines there changed him. Ms. Dymyd, an artist in western Ukraine well known for her paintings of religious icons, recalls that he came home with a profound sadness concealed beneath his familiar exuberance. “The pain, the struggle, the loss of friends – he kept that inside,” she says. “He wanted to bring light to people.”
In that spirit, the family will establish a scholarship in Artem’s name at the Lviv university he attended. Ms. Dymyd wants to celebrate his life rather than dwell on his death. Her mind turns away from him succumbing on a distant battlefield. She chooses instead to remember their last embrace in February as he prepared to return to war.
“When we hugged, he felt very warm,” she says. “It was almost like he was dissolving into me.”
In her thoughts, in her dreams, in her every breath, he survives.