The stench of corpses decomposing under the rubble no longer hung in the air. Landmine clearers have come and gone. School is back in session, though classes have been reduced due to the power outage. The hair salon is open.
But Raisa Yakovenko, a 61-year-old retiree, still jumps to the sound of the refrigerator door slamming shut — a faint echo of the Russian bombs that devastated her apartment and devastated this community in the opening days of the almost 9-month-old. The war in Ukraine.
“My problems are not that serious,” she said. “You can live without windows.”
The town of Borodinka was among the first casualties of the invasion, and became a choke point for Russian convoys heading southeast toward the capital, Kyiv, some 35 miles away. Its 14,000 residents paid a heavy price for their resistance: burnt and destroyed buildings lay beside structures left untouched, as if a hurricane swept through the city.
“They didn’t expect us to resist,” said Roman Rodnichenko, 57, who works in the town as the city’s chief engineer.
Now, nearly seven months after Russian forces ended a brief but brutal occupation, Borodinka has come to symbolize some daring resilience, though badly tested at times.
Foreign dignitaries regularly make the trip from Kyiv to look at — and photograph in front of — the Black Towers. This week, the British street artist known as Banksy unveiled a distinctive stencil mural on the side of a badly damaged apartment building, depicting a gymnast doing a handstand on top of a pile of rubble.
“Borodyanka, Ukraine,” read the caption on the artist’s Instagram account.
However, many locals are somewhat weary of their spunky image. Just over half of the town’s population has returned, and many of their homes are uninhabitable. With the onset of winter, the townspeople and local authorities race to make repairs to make the cold months survivable.
In a sense, Borodinka is Little Ukraine. As more and more territory in the south and northeast is recaptured by Ukrainian forces, the ebbing tide of occupation leaves behind a landscape of ruined cities, towns, and villages.
The latest is the strategic southern city of Kherson, which Russian forces abandoned last week, destroying vital infrastructure as they went. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was warmly greeted by locals when he visited Kherson on Monday, hailed its residents as heroes and vowed to restore basic services as soon as possible.
But rebuilding across the country is a fraught endeavor fraught with pitfalls.
With nationwide reconstruction costs already estimated at $350 billion, and nearly a third of the country’s 44 million people displaced within Ukraine or having fled abroad, Ukrainians are grappling with a harsh and constant reassessment: stay or leave? Rebuild, or start over somewhere else? Do you cling to the memories or put them aside?
“We are part of a historical process,” said the architect Rodnichenko. “But we don’t yet know how the story ends.”
A street with the simple name Tsentralna – Central – cuts a straight line through Borodyanka, dividing quarters of wood or brick houses that give way to forests and fields. It is surrounded by large apartment buildings, many dating back to Soviet times, and is interspersed with small businesses, a post office and a police station.
Even in its pre-war heyday, the street might have seemed uninteresting to outsiders. But for Olga Drabi, 34, who has lived her entire life at Tsentralna 306, her third-floor apartment represents “everything — my whole childhood, marriage, motherhood, everything that’s dear to me.”
More than eight months after bombing shook the building in early March, the 50-unit building was deemed structurally sound, but still without electricity or running water. The explosions blew out dozens of windows. The fire left the stairs charred. Some residents, having lost hope of returning before winter, have sealed the entrances with giant swaths of insulating foam.
Darabi and her husband, along with their 7-year-old son, hope to return soon from cramped temporary quarters nearby. But her parents and her 89-year-old grandmother, who lived with them before the war, may not rejoin them. The turmoil in the war was already too much.
On a wet day last week, Drabi showed visitors around the apartment’s cool, stuffy rooms. TV and most appliances were looted. Her son had already outgrown a toddler bed left in the corner. The carefully tended garden behind the building was a tangle of weeds and bare tree branches.
“We’re lucky — we’re alive, and we have a place to go back to,” Drabi said. “Life will return to our town. It will be different than it used to be.”
Down the street, at Tsentralna 367, Yakovenko, a pensioner, lives alone with her kitten Javelinka — named after the anti-tank missiles that helped Ukrainian forces push back the Russian offensive on Kyiv. Damage to her building occurred when missiles hit a military recruitment office across the street in early March, nearly leveling it, along with the adjacent greengrocer and pharmacy.
The unexpected noise still makes her nervous, she said, but Jalinka’s stroking helps her calm down.
With her window shattered, Yakovenko had been juggling plastic and cardboard sheeting all spring and summer, until the state paid to install new glass. She was still waiting for a door to replace the one that had come off its hinges.
She considered herself lucky. Together with almost everyone in Tsentralna, she knew the story of Ivan Simoroz, a young police officer who once lived on the street.
On February 26, two days after the start of the Russian invasion, the 26-year-old was on duty at the station when his family home was bombed. His wife, mother, father, brother, and grandmother were killed outright; His one-month-old daughter, Paulina, died shortly afterwards in hospital.
“Sometimes the grief is too great,” said Yakovenko.
On the ground floor of the building, 73-year-old Halina waves out her window at the departing visitors. She opened the door to explain that her own apartment down the street had been gutted, so she was renting a unit here, one that was cool but largely intact.
She said, “I’m fine.” “I have two blankets!”
By some cruel chance, nearly all of Borodinka’s men mobilized for military service were deployed to the site of a particularly incessant brutal battle, in and near the city of Bakhmut, hundreds of miles away on the eastern front lines.
One day last week, the body of Private Oleksiy Kozlenko, 32, arrived at the house. As the funeral procession progressed in Tsentralna, a group of women who had gathered to receive aid parcels from the municipality turned and knelt as the coffin passed.
“Every day, it seems, we are burying someone,” said the architect Rodnichenko.
Tucked away in Tsentralna, at the Flower Cafe—which sells plants and bouquets in addition to food—owner Tetiana Lytvynenko, 33, was serving up paninis and coffees. She said labor was a little slow.
The café is located against a pair of oft-photographed nine-story buildings with black facades, just across the street from a Banksy mural in an adjacent building. It was understandable, Litvinenko said, that outsiders would come to see these things; She is even sometimes shocked by the sight of the huge raging chaff where many of her clients once lived.
“When people come to see, I hope more of them will ask for some food!” She said.
The bright little café that she and her husband had run for a decade was badly damaged by the bombing, but since it was a modular kiosk, it wasn’t too difficult to replace it. This was not the case with their apartment next door. Taking shelter outside Borodinka with their young son, the couple discover the smoking ruins of the building in news footage.
She shook her head.
“At first, we were shocked and crying, but we got through that,” she said. “Now we just laugh.”