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A Capital Draped in Darkness

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KYIV, Ukraine — As night falls and darkness descends on Kyiv, the flashlights on smartphones begin to flicker on like fairy lights, leading the way home. Dogs wear glow sticks around their necks; flower merchants switch on headlamps to show off the vibrant colors of their lilacs and peonies; and children are outfitted in reflective clothing for safety.

The streets of this capital city, illuminated with nightlife only weeks ago, are now shrouded in darkness and shadows after sunset. That’s the result of the rolling power outages Ukraine has put in place to prevent a complete collapse of the national energy grid, after repeated Russian bombardments.

Failing on the battlefield, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has stepped up his campaign to break the nation’s resolve by degrading daily life, with strikes aimed at disabling critical infrastructure like electric power. That included a missile strike this week that disabled the pumps that drive water, leaving most of the city without water for a day.

After that attack, Ukraine this week imposed even more sweeping power rationing across the country. In the capital, residents were told they will need to go 12 hours a day without power, with neighborhoods rotating the times they will have access to electricity.

When the sun is out — even if obscured by slate-gray skies — Kyiv can still feel relatively normal, with crowded shops, busy restaurants and buzzing cafes.

The night, however, is different.

At night, the city is a dance of darkness and light, shadow and silhouette, at times menacing and at other moments beautiful. And because neighborhoods alternate the times they have power, moving across the city can create an eerie chiaroscuro of bold contrasts between light and dark. The shifts can play tricks on the eye

In the gloaming, the lamps that normally illuminate the Andriivskyi Descent — an ancient cobblestone street in the heart of Kyiv that runs from the majestic St. Andrew’s Church perched high on a hill down to the old trading quarter along the Dnipro River — were dark on Saturday.

Merchants selling a varied assortment of jewelry, embroidery, decorative coins, old cameras and, now, war memorabilia hurried to pack their goods before nightfall. The flashing blue lights from a police car shimmered off the wet and glistening road as a child played an accordion under a lone light.

Strangers passing on the street can sometimes stir apprehension amid the shadows, but music can transform the scene. Across the capital in the early evenings, musicians strum guitars by lantern or play the piano by flashlight in alleys and on street corners, singing Ukrainian anthems and Western pop ballads.

Walking the streets of the capital might bring to mind the Emily Dickinson poem about human resilience: “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”

“The Bravest — grope a little — And sometimes hit a Tree Directly in the Forehead,” the poet wrote. “But as they learn to see — Either the Darkness alters — Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight — And Life steps almost straight.”

Still, the darkness can bring danger. Car accidents have soared 25 percent, according to the police. The authorities have asked that parents outfit their children in reflective clothing, and President Volodymyr Zelensky urged drivers this week to be extra cautious at night.

The Ukrainian authorities have compelling reasons to ration power. A collapse of the Ukrainian power grid would cripple sewage systems. Fuel pumps at gas stations would stop working. Traffic lights would switch off and subway systems would come to a halt.

In homes, food in refrigerators would spoil and there would be no heat to protect from the bitter winter cold. Communication networks would cease to function, and hospitals would strain to treat the sick and wounded.

That is already the medieval state of affairs for hundreds of thousands of civilians still living in towns and cities along the vast, 1,000 mile front line and for those trapped in places destroyed and now occupied by Russian forces.

As they have done throughout the war, Ukrainians are adapting.

Oleksandra Yefymenko, 28, said she always had bad vision, especially at night. When the power went out at her home, she said, “I was stepping on my cats and crashing into the furniture.” So she went to the eye doctor and got corrective lenses.

“To see is the best possible thing,” she said. “As well as to live without Russia.”

Others noted how in the darkness the stars seem brighter and the moon more brilliant.

Anna Pantyukhova, 36, is determined to keep doing the things that make her and her family happy. When she went to the cycling track, she was warned that the lights would switch off early.

“My sons adapted quickly, but for me it was harder,” she said, of the cycling. “The only thing I could see were the white driving lines. Since then, we have been practicing with headlights.”

“But we don’t complain,” she continued. “We are grateful that we live in a relatively safe city and can do our usual things.”

Still, the darkness has shifted the mood in the capital.

In the early months of the war, Kyiv was essentially transformed into a bunker as Russian shells thundered on the city’s outskirts daily. Many people fled while Moscow’s troops bore down on the city. Then the Russians were driven out of the Kyiv region and other northern cities. Tens of thousands of people returned.

In the summer, with Russian forces driven far from the city, a sense of security took hold. But after three straight Mondays this month of broad aerial assaults on Kyiv and other cities across the country — and the shadows over the capital now — the mood has changed again.

On Monday night, after the wave of Russian strikes that compromised the water supply, the feeling in Kyiv was tense and strange. The contours of people visible in the moonlight, straining to carry containers filled with water drawn from wells, was something new and foreboding.

“Obviously, I am a little bit terrified right now,” said Daria, 21, as she watched people fill water bottles in a darkened park on Monday night. “Because it is only October, and I am thinking about all the next months. And its going to be colder and colder.”

Cursing Russia, she said she had no plans to leave.

But Olga Minchik, 39, walking about on the same night, said the darkness can lead to lovely moments, like when she takes her dog for a walk, with his collar illuminated with LED lights.

“I’m walking my dog with a light and when we meet with other dog walkers we put our lights on the trees,” she said. “It looks very atmospheric — as if we were having a party.”

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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