Warning: This report includes graphic images that may be upsetting to some readers.
The residents of Kharkiv were required by emergency decree to darken their homes at night, so as not to provide Russian planes or artillerists with targets. If they had to keep a light on — if they were lucky enough to have electricity — they covered their windows with blankets or plastic tarps or shards of broken furniture. Though Kharkivites may have known to do this anyway, without the decree, and not only because the war had knocked out their windowpanes, along with their power, and heating, and water. They just seemed to have an instinct for how to act under siege.
So when the rocket struck Lesia Serdiuka Street after sunset, in the last week of March, a month into the war, the sky above the city was not like an urban night sky, but more rural, the ambient light absent. The starlight was obscured by the sodden cloud cover of early spring. The rocket hit a gas main, and the blast reverberated through the city. It shook the panes of my hotel-room windows two miles away. The flames rose and were reflected in the clouds, turning the sky a hellish scarlet.
The gas was still burning the next morning when the photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I arrived at the site of the explosion, in the Saltivka district. Fire licked the lip of the rocket’s crater. The trees along Serdiuka Street were branchless and blackened. On one side of the street, faintly visible through the sooty mist, was the steeple of an Orthodox church, its brass onion dome pierced by shrapnel. On the other, residential towers stood charred from shelling. Many were in flames. Whole exteriors had been shorn off, leaving the homes smears of plaster and flooring and wallpaper.
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I took in this scene from the parking lot of a small shopping center that was now a pitch of craters and shattered glass and shop-front gates and pieces torn from cars. Shops burned on the lot’s north side. Serdiuka Street was littered with rubble and downed wires and, lying there in all their lazy menace, the remains of Russian rockets — cylinders, fins, motors.
People were still living in Saltivka, some by choice, most because they had no choice. They tried to go outside as little as possible. But in the early mornings, when there were lulls in the shelling, they ventured out for groceries or to walk their dogs. They stepped around the craters and through the debris. If the lull was long enough, they stopped to talk. And what was there to talk of but the war?
“Ninety percent of these rockets go into residential areas,” a man said as he watched the flames. He had with him an attentive Doberman pinscher pup, her ears bound in white medical tape. “Look at Druzhby Narodiv Street. Obliterated. The whole area, destroyed. There is nothing military there. The closest thing is a firehouse. There is no sense in it. F--- the Russians. I’m not leaving.”
“Many people are living in shelters,” said Marian, the interpreter with whom Pellegrin and I were working.
“We don’t have shelters,” the man said. “We have basements.”
One of the burning shops contained beauty products. Aerosol cans ignited with cracks and hisses. The Doberman whined and circled the man’s feet. She clearly wanted to leave.
Another man arrived. “I had an intuition they would bomb here,” he said. “Kharkiv is the heart of Ukraine. So many intelligent people here. Professors. Go to Pushkin Cemetery, you’ll see how many professors. Very clever people. We’re just meat for the Russians. You never know if you’ll be bombed or not. Who would have thought Putin was such a bastard?”
Kharkiv is 25 miles from the Russian border. Like many Kharkivites, he had family in Russia. The distinction between the two countries meant little to him before the war. His father’s people lived near Moscow. “I visited in 1990,” he said. That was the year before Ukraine split from the Soviet Union. “I went to Red Square. I saw Lenin.” He also saw a cousin, a onetime pilot in the Russian Air Force. They kept in touch, or did until a month ago. They spoke on the phone when the invasion began. His cousin refused to believe there was an invasion. “Do you know what he told me? He said, ‘You’re bombing yourselves.’ I said: ‘Are you listening to yourself? What nonsense. We’re bombing ourselves?’ He told me this at the beginning of the war. He does something in insurance. They don’t know how to analyze information, Russians.”
“Grads, every five minutes,” he added. He mimicked a succession of impacts. “Dum. Dum. Dum.”
A Grad is a truck-mounted battery that fires a few to a few dozen rockets onto a target in a matter of seconds. It is a Russian favorite. The Russians were loosing a lot of Grads onto Kharkiv, but many other things as well, and “Grad,” which translates literally as “hail,” had come to mean any series of projectiles of sufficient violence.
The pets of Kharkiv often had a keener sense of danger than the humans. The Doberman had been right to want to leave. Minutes after the man mimicked the rockets, a fusillade of them sailed into a residential area next to the stores. Whether they were Grads, I didn’t know, but I knew at once I’d never been on the business end of a munition like this. Or rather I felt it — a series of blasts like an atmospheric drum fill. The ground shook. The skin seemed to lift from my frame and the air to suck from my lungs.
I ran for the pickup truck we were using. Something, probably a piece of a rocket, struck the parking lot behind the truck, spraying bits of pavement in the air and pelting the truck’s tailgate.
Not remembering how I got in the truck, I was in the truck. The driver hit the gas. Marian was getting in the other side. I looked over at him, and as I did, he decided the rockets called for harder cover and leaped from the truck.
The driver slammed the brakes. I jumped out and ran toward Marian. He was about 30 feet behind us, lying on his side, facing the low wall of an electronics store, perfectly still. He’d found very good cover, I thought, before thinking he might be maimed or dead.
Then he got up. From behind the store, Pellegrin appeared. We piled into the truck and sped down Serdiuka Street toward a checkpoint. Marian was scratched up but otherwise uninjured. The Territorial Defense Forces soldiers manning the checkpoint waved us through with familiar smiles, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
KHARKIV HAS BEEN under continuous attack for nearly three months. The second-most-populous city in Ukraine and the gateway to the country’s east, Kharkiv is strategically important. It is also symbolically important. The historian Volodymyr Kravchenko calls it a “borderland city” not just because it is so near the border. As long as Ukraine has been independent, it has been a place of divided loyalties, partly a forward-looking nation, partly a backward-looking onetime Soviet republic. Kharkiv has lived this divide like no other Ukrainian city. That is why I went to see the war as it was experienced there.
On Feb. 24, armored columns poured over Ukraine’s northern border toward Kyiv, while others pushed out from Crimea and Donbas. As they did, troops in the Belgorod province of Russia made for Kharkiv. The last time anyone had seen this many tanks around Kharkiv, the Red Army was battling German forces for control of the city. Within days, advance units reached Tsyrkuny to Kharkiv’s northeast and Chuhuiv to its southeast. By the end of February, Kharkiv was very nearly flanked on three sides. Tanks, aircraft and artillery fired on the city. It looked as though Russian infantry would roll into central Kharkiv at any moment. On March 1, Freedom Square, in the historic center, was bombed, shattering the main government building. Tens of thousands of Kharkivites fled. Those who didn’t — or couldn’t — watched their city burn.
“The sky turned red” is how a woman who lived in Saltivka described those first days. “I saw a 12-story building on fire. The fire reflected in the windows of the other buildings. It was dark, but it was like day. Like fireworks. I just froze.” She panicked but did not know what to do. She lay down on her floor and covered herself with cushions. The rockets kept falling. She kept panicking. She got up and returned to the window. She didn’t sleep for the next week. “I’d never seen a rocket before,” she said.
But Ukrainian forces retaliated with a ferocity that Moscow hadn’t anticipated, and in the first weeks of March, they halted the Russian advance. To the south of Kharkiv, they blocked tanks at Malaya Rohan. At Tsyrkuny, they kept the enemy from getting into Saltivka. And by the time we arrived, in mid-March, the Russians had ceased trying to penetrate metropolitan Kharkiv. There was no longer a battle for the city, strictly speaking. This was now a siege.
In the city center and neighborhoods south of the Kharkiv River, some normal life persisted. There was power and heating and internet. Supermarkets and gas stations were open. You could stand outside without fear of immediate death. It was the city’s north, and in particular Saltivka, that was bearing the brunt of the siege.
Comprising the northeastern corner of metropolitan Kharkiv, Saltivka is what’s known as a “sleeping district,” the sort of immense housing development popularized by Nikita Khrushchev. Though parts of Saltivka date from the 1960s, most of its residential towers were built at the end of the Soviet period and the years since. Stretching up to 16 stories, they are on high ground and loom over Kharkiv. The towers are clustered around plazas on a network of winding streets and footpaths that is bound by Serdiuka Street to the west, the city ring road to the east, the Rodnychok Pond to the south and marshland to the north. Interspersed throughout are parks, playgrounds, schools and small shopping centers. Saltivka is so sprawling that it is sometimes called Saltivka Masyv, and before February it was home to a large share of Kharkiv’s million and a half residents. They were a mix of middle and working class. Many of them managed to escape, if not to western Ukraine or the wider world, then at least to southern Kharkiv. Poorer and older people remained.
The towers made for easy targets and were reliable producers of shrapnel. If staying inside was a gamble, being outside was worse. You could walk for long stretches without seeing a soul. If you met someone, they were probably fleeing.
As explosions and rifle fire echoed through the plazas one afternoon, we came upon a woman and her son, who was in his 20s. They carried hand luggage and plastic bags. She was beside herself and midsob.
“May they burn in hell,” she said. “This is not a war. This is even worse. People shouldn’t do such things.”
They had held out as long as they could. They were fleeing for the Heroes of Labor Metro station on Serdiuka Street. This was the first of several trips they would make, moving what clothing and provisions they could.
“What can I take with me? All the things of our life? Nothing. What can I take with just my hands? Nothing,” she said. “Our life is erased.”
They’d chosen not to move into a basement, not yet. But as I would find, many of their neighbors in Saltivka had.
From a snowy plaza near Dzherelna Street rose the twin smokestacks of a shattered power station. Nearby was a playground, and near that a grocery shop through whose window something sizable had flown. Outside the shop, by a heavy metal door, stood three men, one old and two young, talking and checking their cellphones.
The older man, Oleksandr, confided right off that he was descended from a Don Cossack line. Trueborn Ukrainian warrior stock. A squat and jovial man with pitted cheeks and a smoker’s rasp, he could trace his family back to the 17th century.
“We’ve never lost a battle,” he said.
With him was his similarly jovial son and their friend Nikita, a tall, sturdy, pale young man. At 17, Nikita was just below the conscription age that President Volodymyr Zelensky had announced, but he already had a bushy beard. He walked with a limp and wore tied around his waist a red tartan blanket.
“We didn’t think Putin would take the risk,” Oleksandr said in Russian, the language of everyday life in Kharkiv. Nearly everyone we met spoke it, not Ukrainian. “When they struck the airport, we thought, OK, that’s it. We didn’t think they’d attack the city.”
“I was like, what the f--- is this?” Nikita said in English. He explained that he supplemented his schoolroom English lessons with mixed-martial-arts videos.
We went inside and walked down an oil-stained ramp. The metal door clanged shut behind us and blocked the sunlight. The blasts faded into thuds. I could see nothing until a feeble orange glow emerged. It was a space heater. We were in a basement parking garage. A few cars remained in the parking spaces. In the rest were people.
They had started gathering here the night of the 24th. At first they brought only blankets. They thought the war would end in a few days. As the fighting went on, they realized that if they were to stay alive, this garage would have to become their new home. Neighbors and friends were being killed every day. Now the spaces were full of the stuff of ruptured lives: cots and bedrolls and chipped mugs and folding chairs and spare end tables and plastic bags stretched taut with musty clothing. The space heater stood on a card table along with a stockpot and second-string flatware. A hot plate was powered by a car battery. The people had tacked up plastic sheeting in an effort to create some privacy and warmth. But the cold was bitter. They wore the sweaters and overcoats they would sleep in.
Oleksandr and his family had been among the first to arrive. No one told them to come. He called it “self-organization.” The 40 or so people who now lived in the garage were getting no help from the Territorial Defense Forces or any other authority, though volunteers were bringing food and medicine. They had become a kind of local volunteer brigade in their own right, in fact, cooking for disabled people and pensioners trapped in their apartments.
“I have no place to go,” Oleksandr said when I asked why he hadn’t fled. “Anyway, this is our home. We’re not leaving. We will have to rebuild everything. And we want to. This is our neighborhood.”
Nikita’s father, Igor, was a large man in his 50s with a cherubic face. He wore a shearling coat and spoke in a rushed baritone. He described how they came to be here.
“On Feb. 25, a rocket hit the third floor of our building. Just before that, I’d said, ‘It’s safe on the third floor.’ And then, two days later, a rocket hit our neighbor’s apartment. The girl living there, she ran away. But we stayed. The next day, the fourth floor was hit.” They walked to the Metro. Already there were hundreds of people living in it. There was no space left on the platforms or in the train carriages. People had started wandering into the tunnels, falling over the tracks in the darkness. Igor and his family were returning home, ducking into doorways as the rockets fell, when they passed the garage. Someone standing outside waved them down, telling them, “You can stay here.”
IGOR HAD BEEN a tanker in the Soviet Army during the occupation of Afghanistan. He served in East Germany and Poland. In the Ukrainian Army, he served with the United Nations. He knew war. And he knew wartime agitprop when he saw it: Just as the Ukrainian government was not doing much to help the people in the garage, it wasn’t doing much to inform them. If the news from Moscow didn’t merit the name, the news from Kyiv was short on detail and long on hoopla. Strategy, positions, troop numbers — all classified. Casualty rates weren’t discussed, except when they were Russian casualty rates, and those could seem suspiciously high. Ukrainian TV news had been consolidated into one media outlet under government supervision. What scant footage did come in from the battlefront was shot by soldiers and was vetted. Social media was monitored, and there were official attempts to restrict it. In Kharkiv, you were forbidden to name the locations of strikes online.
Saltivka was still getting cellular coverage in spots, however, including outside the garage, and with Nikita’s help Igor could follow foreign news. He knew the Russians had taken Kherson and the nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia but were stymied outside Kyiv. Mariupol was a massacre, and Odesa could be next. If they succeeded on the southern front, Ukraine would be flanked on three sides, like Kharkiv.
But Igor could also see that the invasion was botched. He knew from experience how much resupply and fuel tanks require, and it was obvious the Russian armor was spread much too thin. More, it was misallocated. While a 40-mile-long column descended on Kyiv, nothing like this was applied to Kharkiv.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia never said as much publicly, of course, but it could be that he expected his troops to face an easier time of it in Kharkiv. If he did, the expectation may have arisen from a certain historical rationale that was self-serving and deluded, or simply deceitful, but scrutable strategically, given Kharkiv’s history. He claimed his “special military operation” was meant to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” and thus reunify Russia. “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” he said on the eve of the invasion, but “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Taking up the theme, his more sentimentally minded choristers made noises about the Ukrainian “heartland,” about returning Ukraine to the “Motherland,” about longing to be reunited with their Ukrainian “brothers.” A lot of humid familial analogy was dangled southward. Those of coarser purpose decided that Ukraine was a mere province of Russki Mir, the Russian World, wherever the Ukrainian people happened to think they lived.
Both lines of thought led to Kharkiv. Like all of Ukraine’s east, it has long and knotty roots in Russia. The city, which is called Kharkov in Russian, was established as a garrison in the 1650s. It may have been built by Russia-favoring deserters from the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, according to Volodymyr Kravchenko. Kharkiv was a way point between Moscow and Crimea and, Kravchenko writes, a “fortress-protector of the Motherland and the Orthodox Church.” It was an imperial stronghold before becoming the first capital of Soviet Ukraine. There are streets named for Alexander Pushkin and Peter Tchaikovsky and Mikhail Lermontov. Its main park is named for Maxim Gorky. Outside Saltivka is a Red Army cemetery.
Sentimental or coarse as the noise was, Russians alone didn’t make it; Ukrainians did, too. Reporting in Donbas in the prelude to the war, I met Ukrainians who were openly admiring of Russia and contemptuous of the Ukrainian state. Some claimed they wanted Putin to take over all Ukraine. Their reasons were many and complex and mostly came back to a retrograde view of time that Putin seemed to share. They pined after the certainties and pride of Soviet life; or they were taken in by the Kremlin’s yearslong drumbeat accusing Kyiv of attempting a “genocide” of ethnic Russians; or they simply considered themselves more Russian than Ukrainian, and indeed many were born or raised there. If they weren’t, they spoke Russian, were immersed in Russian culture and media. And while these Ukrainians may have been credulous or nostalgic or even self-abnegating — or all those things, as I often found — that didn’t make their history with Russia feel any less meaningful to them. Nor did it take the sting from the uncertainty and obscurity they’d suffered in the Soviet residuum. I sensed that, to them, the Russian president represented a restoration to a glorious vision of the past.
This sort of dark-brewed Russophilia was prominent in Kharkiv too. When Russia invaded Donbas in 2014, the political violence spread to the city. But not even the most Russophilic Kharkivite could ignore the hypocrisy of the siege. This felt less like conquest than punishment. Kharkiv was not being reclaimed by Russia, but savaged by it.
Nikita’s elder brother had fought in Donbas, where he was injured. He was disabled and lived in a hospital. His mother, Irina, grew up in Kharkiv, where her grandfather was given an apartment after losing a leg to a mine in Germany. That was why she and Igor moved there after marrying in Russia. She remembered when what would become Saltivka was still the village of Saltivsky. “This is where we used to come to drink cow’s milk,” Irina said.
She was anxious and watchful. On her phone she brought up a picture of her grandfather. The sepia portrait showed a fresh-faced cadet, barely older than Nikita was now, in a Red Army tunic and wool cap. She went from that to a video of their chinchilla, leaping in and out of a straw hat. He was still in their apartment. They went back every few days to clean his cage and replace the food and water. They didn’t want to bring him to the parking garage. Someone brought in a pair of parrots, and the birds died.
The family had claimed an enclosure at the back of the garage. They erected a wind barricade out of garbage cans and crates that also served as a kind of private entryway. Over the opening they hung plastic mattress wrapping. Irina was embarrassed by how they were living and at first wouldn’t allow us beyond the plastic. Finally she did, but forbade pictures. Pointing to a cinder-block enclosure, she said, “This is the toilet.”
Nikita, not to be outdone, pointed to a hole in the ceiling and said, “This is my hole.” Whatever had gone through the grocery shop above had finished its journey here, sending a piece of the concrete ceiling into Nikita’s leg. That’s why he limped. “It wasn’t that painful,” he said, “but it was unpleasant.”
“Nikita’s hole!” Oleksandr’s son exclaimed. He was wearing a T-shirt printed with a Norse rune and the words “Fuck Calm, Die in Battle and Go to Valhalla.”
“This basement is like a miniature Kharkiv, do you understand?” Oleksandr said. “We make food for everyone. We check on people. The war has united us.” He quoted a Ukrainian proverb that translated as: You can see the real person only when something bad happens. “The important thing,” he said, “is to stay human.”
STAYING HUMAN WAS a challenge. At a tower near the garage, by a sedan pancaked by a chunk of facade, a man huddled in a hooded sweatshirt and a red parka, smoking a cigarette. “I’m just out here warming up,” he said, though it was very cold.
He dropped the butt and went down a precarious stairway. A pipe had burst, leaving a frozen cascade stretching down the wall and covering the steps with ice. He ducked into a basement that made the parking garage look luxurious. Really it was a warren of crawl spaces. He squeezed through holes in the cinder blocks and over pipes, until he arrived at a tiny boiler room lit by a single candle.
“This is where we live,” he said as he settled into a lawn chair draped in a blanket. He first came down here on Feb. 24 with neighbors. He’d been returning to his apartment regularly until the day before, when it became too dangerous to leave the basement for more than a cigarette. On a small, low table were tea bags, condensed milk, a bag of salt and a box of kasha. His phone was charging on a car battery. From a cat carrying case came scratching sounds.
He was a taxi driver with no wife or children. He had been living with his mother, but, he said, “the first thing I did, I sent her to western Ukraine. She’s sick. She couldn’t handle this.” She had a psychological disorder and was now living in a hospital. “I have nowhere to go,” he said.
The cat was not his but his neighbor’s. There were once several dozen neighbors living among the pipes with him, but they’d all gone except this neighbor, and she was leaving today.
She called out to him from the basement entryway. “I can’t get a mobile signal! What should I do?”
“What do you want from me?” he called back.
“She wants me to bring her cat. What can I do?”
He got up and took the cat to her. She left. He would now be living here alone. I asked how he passed his days. He laughed. “I sleep. I smoke.”
He was enduring the siege with a patient resignation. Others approached it with cheek. We were heading back to Serdiuka Street when I looked up and saw a woman smiling from behind a pane of glass that was, somehow, not broken. She pushed open the window. Surprised to see unbroken glass, and what’s more, someone behind it, I asked, “What are you doing there?”
“Well, I live here!” she answered. “I’m staying here to save my home and my land.”
She led us into her apartment, saying, with a laugh, “We didn’t have time to clean.” In fact, it would have been a model of tidiness even if it hadn’t been near a front line. She lived with her husband, who joined us in the living room. The gas was out, and they were in heavy overcoats and hats. They settled on the sofa, beneath a glass-encased cabinet of books that inclined toward Chekhov.
“Look at these furry things; they’re 20 years old,” she said of the coats. She spoke in Ukrainian; she and her husband were one of only two couples we met who chose to converse in the language. “We’ll be sleeping in them.”
They were both retired engineers. They met at a laboratory where they designed rocket components for the Soviet government, which had given them this apartment. Like so many Kharkivites I met, they had family in Russia who refused to believe there was a war. Their children who lived abroad were urging them to flee, but, she said: “We love our house. Something is holding us here. This is our motherland. I don’t know how to explain it.”
I asked what they would do if the Russians entered Saltivka.
“We don’t think about that,” she said.
“Can I bring you anything when I return?” I asked.
“A Stinger missile?” she said, laughing.
I stepped outside, and blasts shook the courtyard. Glass fell around my head as I raced into a passageway.
She had managed to keep a sense of humor. Kharkivites generally had, somehow. In this, too, their response to the war had about it the sureness of instinct.
“This is our toilet,” Irina had said. She was being both literal and figurative, it turned out. The phrase had become Saltivka shorthand for “this is our life now.” It wasn’t puerile, or not emphatically so, but dankly lyrical and morbidly funny, in the Slavic fashion.
Near the garage, on Metrobudivnykiv Street, was a grade school, Gymnasium No.172. In its courtyard, by a dried pool of blood, a group of women had made a charcoal fire in a planter and were tossing chopped vegetables into a stockpot.
“This is our toilet,” an elderly woman said, gesturing at a wall with her kitchen knife. She was on the carrots. “This is the horror we live in. We are children of basements.”
Leaving the carrots but keeping the knife, she led us to see what had become of her home, warning, “If they start in with the bombing, I’ll run away.” She went up a walkway. Pointing with the knife at a building, she said: “Invalids are living here. Without doors. It’s creepy.”
As if on cue came a cataract of explosions. She turned on her heel and scurried back to the courtyard and down into the school’s basement. The dirt floor, low ceiling and unfinished stone walls were barely illuminated by candles and a dim string of green decorative lights. A nervous shepherd mix barked at me as a woman tried to calm it. When my eyes adjusted, I saw people in corners.
A man was talking about his father, who died here the day before of a heart attack. The ambulance didn’t arrive until that morning. They’d spent 16 hours with the cadaver.
“Why couldn’t they take the body right away?” he said. “I would like to know what’s next. I asked the medics this morning. They told me there are too many people to bury. We’ll have to wait to bury him.”
His brother was buried in a cemetery in Kharkiv, and he would have liked them to be together, but he’d heard the cemetery had been destroyed. Before any of that, he would have to find his father. The authorities couldn’t tell him where the body had been taken.
“Have you tried calling?” a companion said.
“They don’t have time to pick up the phone. They just take the bodies,” he said. “I’ll have to look for him at the morgue, like looking for a good potato in a pile of potatoes.”
“You’ll find him,” the companion said.
“I know I will, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.
An elderly married couple sat on a bench. She read from a Russian Orthodox prayer book, her cheeks wet with tears. Her husband listened.
“I’m praying to you, Maria,” she whispered. “We pray we won’t lose heart, that we will be forgiven our sins.”
A guitar was propped against a chair. The knife-wielder said, “Arkady, come over here.” From the shadows emerged a tiny, grizzled man. He picked up the guitar and ran his hand across the strings, not fingering notes, producing discordance. It was much too appropriate to the situation.
“That’s enough,” a teenager told him. And to me, in English: “He has a style of his own.”
Ukraine maintained a combative humor in its public communications. Within hours of Russian troops’ crossing the border, town militias had formed and set up roadblocks. Above them were roadside billboards showing a black Kremlin clock tower aboard a black ship, sinking into a blood red sea. “Russia go fuck yourself,” they read. “Welcome to hell,” read others. The most poetic: “We are on our land. You’ll be in it.”
In Kharkiv, as in the rest of the country, road signs were painted over to confuse Russian troops, which seemed daffy until the Russians proved that they were hapless enough to need road signs. On a sign before a roundabout south of Kharkiv, the town names had been spray-painted over and “Putin is a dickhead” written in the circle. Beyond that was a new sign, official and pristine, listing only one destination: “Moscow — 662 KM.”
After a Russian tanker was filmed rolling off his moving tank and then running to catch up with it, the news played the clip sped up and set to a Benny Hill-esque jig. On social media, the national meme game was on point: A doctored photo of Russian helicopters flying over a ruined city, washing machines dangling from their landing skids — a reference to the pitiable looting Russian soldiers were doing. The caption: “Special military operation.” A real photo of a kitchen cabinet on the wall of an apartment that was otherwise dismembered and exposed to the elements: “Be Strong Like This Kitchen Cabinet.” Zelensky in one panel on the phone, and in the panel below him, Will Smith at the Oscars. “Hello, Will Smith? Did you hear what Vladimir Putin said about your wife?”
Then there were the things Kharkivites said that may not have been humorous but were so perfectly elegiac in the circumstances that you had to appreciate them. I never broke myself of the stupid habit of asking people “How are you?” in basements, destroyed homes, hospital wards. But only once did someone answer, “How do you think we are?” Usually they said something wittier. A common reply was “We’re not starving.” Another was “Normal.” Even in good times, this is a typical local response to the question of how one is. Normal. It’s like saying, “I can’t complain,” or “Things could be worse.” Though they had everything to complain about and life could hardly be worse, Ukrainians were still saying this. I fancied I detected a certain sarcastic twinkle when they said it now. I might have been imagining that.
Perhaps the most ghoulish sight of ruination in Kharkiv was the Barabashovo Market, the biggest outdoor market in the city, whose shops and kiosks and stalls were now bent metal and ash. As the fires still burned, a man stood in front of what had been his crockery shop, looking at the piles of cracked plates and bowls. “Russki Mir,” he sighed.
A WOMAN LEFT the basement at Gymnasium No.172 and made the short walk to her building. She climbed the six stories to her apartment. Outside it were the remnants of a child’s bed, which her husband had collected so that he could barricade their windows.
She was going to boil water and check on her son. He was mentally ill and couldn’t live in the basement. He couldn’t bear it. When the rockets fell, he was uncontrollable. So they had to keep him locked in the apartment.
“Be careful, he can lash out,” she said as we walked into a room where her son stood on a balcony, smoking.
“Come here,” she said to him. “These people are from the television. Tell them your name.”
“Serhii,” he said.
“How old are you?” she said.
“18,” Serhii said.
“That’s not true. You’re 37,” she said. “Tell them goodbye.”
“Good morning, goodbye,” Serhii said in English.
“Once he escaped and ran away,” her husband said. “We spent hours trying to find him.”
When she returned to the school, she stepped over the dried blood. Shrapnel had torn into a man’s leg there. He’d bled out on the spot.
People were being killed like this every day in Saltivka, it went without saying. They were also dying in other needless ways.
When we went to the parking garage one morning, we found Oleksandr crossing the plaza toward his own building, where there’d been a fire.
Smoke billowed from the windows. On the landing between the third and fourth floors lay a dead man in sweatpants. He’d fallen down the stairs and appeared to have broken his neck.
The man’s apartment was a carbonic black and noxious. I assumed the blaze had been started by a rocket until I heard the man’s downstairs neighbor yelling.
“He was left here by his grandchildren, the idiots!” she said. Water dripped through her ceiling and was flooding her floor. She was trying to bail it out with plastic food containers. “Nobody cares. The body will just stay there.”
There’d been no rocket. With the gas out, the man couldn’t heat his apartment. Neighbors had brought him a space heater. It had ignited something.
Oleksandr carried bottles of water up the stairs to the woman. She took them into the burned apartment, where she and another neighbor doused piles of smoking debris. When she got fed up with that, she went back to her place and bailed more. She cursed the firefighters for using so much water.
“And like an idiot, I was thanking them,” she said.
“War,” Oleksandr said, by way of general explanation. “I kicked the door out. We couldn’t do anything. The man died, and that’s it.”
I asked who he was.
“Just a pensioner. I didn’t know him. Just enough to say hi.”
“Everything is f---ed,” the woman said.
“Better flooded than burned,” Oleksandr offered.
“Everyone tells me, ‘Leave, leave,’” she said. “Where should I go? Who needs us? Leave? Christ. Why can’t the f---ing Americans do anything? F--- Putin. One Putin can be beat by the whole world.”
At the next building, a three-man bomb-removal squad arrived. They attached a metal wire to the remains of a rocket and, with a winch, dragged it from the dirt. They picked it up and put it in the back of their truck.
We told them there was a corpse that needed seeing to. One of them shrugged.
When I returned to the smoking apartment, the neighbor who was helping douse it emerged holding the dead man’s papers. Among them was a 35-year-old Soviet military ID, handwritten in black ballpoint. The photo showed a gaunt, intense-looking young man.
“Soldier,” he said.
THESE GLIMPSES OF history were everywhere. At Gymnasium No.172, I walked through the classrooms. The desks were coated with thick dust and the floors with glass and the shreds of plastic window shades. One classroom had been given over to a course on Russian wars, with a special focus on the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia and Ukraine. On a desk were a W.W.II-era great coat, black leather knee boots and a visor cap.
Kharkiv was the site of not one battle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht but four, between 1941 and 1943. The city was more battered than perhaps any other in the Soviet Union save Stalingrad. It saw some of the greatest acts of Russian courage and sacrifice of the war.
For all of Putin’s talk of rectifying history, his troops bombed without regard to it — without regard to Russia’s own history. This hypocrisy was always in the background of Kharkivites’ conversations about the war, when not in the foreground. Worse than hypocritical, worse than ironic, they pointed out, the siege was sadomasochistic. Suicidal. Russia claimed Ukraine was Russia, so in invading Ukraine, wasn’t Russia invading itself? Was it trying to kill itself? What else could one conclude? The Russians were as indifferent to their own lives as they were to those of their victims. Just look at how they treated their troops, sending them into battle undertrained, underfed, uncommanded, leaving their corpses on the battlefield to rot — to be “eaten by dogs,” as the phrase went.
The experience of war is always absurd, but Ukrainians were aware of a singular absurdity in this war. Putin claimed that Ukraine had been unjustly sundered from Russia before coming under the sway of Western stoolies. “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land” — that is, Ukrainians — “have called themselves Russians,” he said. It was a story line he pursued for a good decade by the time of the invasion, with increasing insistence, and with the help of increasingly tortured historical subplots, reaching further back into the centuries each time he brought the subject up, until it seemed that, in his historical calculations, Catherine the Great left strategy memorandums for Joseph Stalin and NATO was menacing the medieval Kievan Rus’. “Modern Ukraine,” he said, “was entirely created by Russia.”
For someone who hadn’t a nice word for Bolshevism — Putin professed to blame Lenin for, among other things, creating the fictional state of Ukraine — this former K.G.B. case officer did seem to enjoy Marxist-Leninist diagnoses of false consciousness. And the false consciousness he saw in Ukrainians? Being Ukrainian. He was telling them that their nation, sovereign these 30 years, was a mistake. That it didn’t have the right to exist. In fact, that it didn’t exist. That they didn’t exist — except perhaps as Russians.
When the rockets hit Freedom Square on March 1, they marked a shift in the war. Before that, Russia concentrated on strategic targets. The strikes on civilian areas could plausibly be written off as misfires. But at Freedom Square, it became clear that the Russian high command meant to kill ordinary Ukrainians, as well as humiliate them. That is, assuming the high command ordered the strike. Russian operations were from the start so haphazard, it’s conceivable that some local commander took it upon himself.
Whoever ordered it, it apparently didn’t matter to them that while the square commemorated Ukrainian independence, it long predated that. Almost every structure in and around it had been built under the czars or the Soviets. The rockets were damaging masterpieces of Russian imperial and Modernist architecture. The opera house was damaged. So was Kharkiv National University, the first university founded in Russia-controlled Ukraine, in 1804; and the Derzhprom state industry building, a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status.
When I first went to Freedom Square, little had changed since the strikes. Craters lay unfilled, shattered shop windows uncovered. Rubble and flattened cars littered the cobblestones. Cornices hung from the walls of the handsome government building, built in the 1920s. In its assembly hall, the desk microphones cut the air at ungainly angles. The parking lot of the nearby rail station was full of cars abandoned by people who’d fled. In Constitution Square, the monumental bronze statue known as Flying Ukraine, a winged goddess holding aloft a wreath, was encased in white sandbags.
After Freedom Square was bombed, Kharkivites, expecting Russian ground troops at any moment, gathered in it to show their defiance. They brought food and supplies, erected a triage tent, ran Molotov-cocktail-making clinics. Now the square was empty, and the unused Molotov cocktails were packed away in plastic crates. “We hope we won’t have to use them,” said the sole doctor at the tent, where there were no patients.
A recorded public announcement wafted every few minutes from tinny loudspeakers in the square. “Russian soldier, put your weapon down,” a woman’s voice said. “Raise your hands. We will spare your life and help you go home.”
One Soviet-era relic surviving the siege was the Heroes of Labor Metro station. Outside the glass-canopied stairwells on either side of Serdiuka Street, people who lived in the Metro stood around, getting air, smoking cigarettes. They looked north toward Saltivka, listening to the blasts.
Below, the underground passageway smelled of urine and body odor and the borscht being ladled out by volunteers. Families were spread out on cots and blankets and bedrolls among the turnstiles and on the marble tiles of the platform. Hundreds had been living here for a month. The platform was loud with coughing and sniffling and redolent with stale kitty litter. The train cars had become reminiscent of overstuffed Soviet apartments. The benches were beds and the windowsills shelves for toiletries and foodstuffs.
But the mood in the Metro was buoyant. Someone had transformed a cot into a lending library. There must have been a hundred books. A schoolteacher was encircled by small children. They traced their palms on copy paper and filled in the silhouettes in marker and crayon.
“So beautiful, these palms,” the teacher said.
A man sat on a crate reading aloud from a thick hard-bound volume to his wife. It was a biography of Yemelyan Pugachev, a soldier in the Russian imperial army who led a revolt against the young monarch who would become Catherine the Great. He was reading a passage that did not have to do with the rebellion but recounted Pugachev’s efforts to find a husband for a servant girl. She complains to Pugachev that her nose is ugly. No man will have her. Pugachev promises to find her a match. He tells her to go make herself presentable. She returns rouge-cheeked, in nice boots. A suitor is found and a marriage set.
As he read, his wife lay on her elbow on a blanket, laughing.
“I started reading about the rebellions in Russia, how it all started,” said the man, who lived with his wife in Saltivka. “Ukraine is mentioned in this book. Russia says Ukraine doesn’t exist, but the name ‘Ukraine’ is written in this book.”
“Pugachev actually came from a Don Cossack family, a family of poor Christian peasants,” his wife said.
They were nearly done with the second of the biography’s two volumes. They’d read many books together over the years. They met in the university library in Volchansk, a town near the border now occupied by the Russians. They would soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They had children in Berlin who were urging them to move there, but he said: “We aren’t going anywhere. It’s my land. I was born here. I can’t imagine my life without my land.”
A few days earlier, it was his 74th birthday. His wife ventured outside and bought a waffle cake. They celebrated with their platform neighbors.
One of those neighbors, a young woman, approached and asked, “May I tell you a story?”
“Please,” I said.
“About five days ago, a man came in here with four jars of honey. He heard people in the station were sick. His wife is at home. She can’t leave, so he can’t live in the basement. So he went around with these four jars of honey, asking who needed it. I offered him medicine in return, but he said no. We found some lemons. But he wouldn’t even take the lemons. He wouldn’t accept anything. He just wanted to give away his honey.”
I waited for more, but that was it. That was her story.
SUCH STORIES WERE accumulating into a wartime folklore. Hers was true, I had no doubt. Others were plainly apocryphal. Some were dire, others jaunty. For reasons I still don’t know, the most memorable had to do with food.
There was the story of the humanitarian aid shipment that was brought to a shelter. In a bag of food was a Russian tracking device. The shelter was blown sky high. There was the story of the babushka whose home was invaded by Russian soldiers. They told her they were hungry. She served them a steaming platter of dumplings. They tucked in. Soon there were eight poisoned Russians expiring on her floor. There was the secret password supposedly being used to ferret out Russian saboteurs. If you were suspicious of someone, it was said that what you had to do was ask them to say palyanitsa, a traditional Ukrainian bread roll. Russians were incapable of pronouncing it correctly. The way they said it, it sounded like the word for strawberry. If the suspect person said “strawberry,” they were probably the enemy, and if you were armed, you were to seriously consider shooting them.
On the far end was occult rumor. Ukrainians were prey to it, as all besieged people are. The Territorial Defense Forces soldiers all went by code names. Like animists forbidding their picture be taken for fear that the process will steal their souls, they were deathly afraid of cameras. They were convinced that any photograph would find its way into the ether and the Russians would see it and zero in on the location and send a rocket. This meant they were also very distrustful of journalists, even though — or because — Ukraine was crawling with them.
Pellegrin was photographing a pummeled street in downtown Kharkiv when a man emerged from a storefront with a pistol. He brought up Google Translate on his phone and typed into it. “Please no pictures,” the translation read. “We don’t want an airstrike.”
I sensed that the paranoia derived at least in part from a disbelief that what was happening to them was actually happening to them. This is an unavoidable cognitive break in wartime, one of war’s absurdities. But I also sensed Ukrainians worried that foreigners didn’t believe them, didn’t believe what was before our eyes, had been duped by the farcical Russian line that Ukraine was waging a war on itself. When one woman recounted escaping her home, she used phrases like “This is true” and “I’m not inventing this.” She was pleading with us to believe her. She repeated the Russian word klyanus, which is stronger than true. It is an oath of verity upon pain of damnation, like saying, “I swear on my soul this is true.”
Soldiers were digging up no end of tracking devices in the rubble. Any gadget of uncertain provenance was suspect. When a unit took us around the northern edge of Saltivka, a soldier showed me a picture on his phone, saying, “We got this just three minutes ago.” I was fairly certain it was a garage-door opener. Predictably, rockets crashed in. We dashed for cover. He looked at me significantly.
The official paranoia extended to Ukrainian civilians, sometimes violently. I arrived at the site of a rocket strike at the Palace of Culture for the Railway Workers, a lovely Constructivist pile from 1932. It was no secret the building now housed something important to the war effort. It was sandbagged to the hilt, and soldiers could be seen outside it. And it came as no surprise, then, when the rocket crashed in, falling short of the building and leaving a swimming-pool-size hole in the dirt.
Pedestrians continued on their way through the chunks of dirt on Velyka Panasivska Street. The police set upon them. They suspected that some saboteur in the vicinity had directed the strike. This was routine. They pulled a man from his car at gunpoint and shoved him against it face-first. They stopped an old woman trying to cross the street and searched her purse and shopping bag. When a man in a laborer’s jumpsuit slowly rode up the street on his bicycle, they yelled at him to dismount. He was petrified and confused. They rushed at him, rifles lifted. They threw him to the ground, and one policeman put a boot on the man’s head. Another thumped him in the head with his rifle butt.
THE CHURCH THAT I saw through the smoke the morning of the gas-main fire was St. George’s. That it was still standing was, if not miraculous, then certainly extraordinary. The church was on an open grass plot with no cover to speak of. The streets around it and the grass were pitted from shelling. Its brick exterior wall had been shelled, as had an outbuilding and its parking lot. Yet the church itself was untouched save for the few small dings in the onion domes and a shattered steeple window.
Its congregants began arriving, bags in hand, on Feb. 24. Now there were several dozen of them living in the church basement, in a room hung with icons and portraits of the martyred saints of Kharkiv. They prayed from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. in the Orthodox fashion, standing, with arms outstretched, reciting aloud from a special prayer that the priest had written and photocopied for them. Written in a classical Russian Cyrillic, it was called “The Prayer for Peace and Ceasefire.”
I asked what they would do if the Russians reached Saltivka.
“We’ll pray,” they replied in unison.
The priest’s father had ascended to the pulpit at St. George’s after Ukrainian independence. He’d married some of the people in the basement, christened their children, blessed their homes, buried their parents. Now his son was trying to keep them alive.
The priest and his wife were living in the church, too. Their house was in Tsyrkuny, the village northeast of Saltivka that the Russians entered in the first week of the war but never fully subdued. They had escaped, but their two young children had not. The kids were trapped in the village, hiding with her parents in their home, where there was no basement. Much of the fighting that could be heard in Saltivka was actually taking place in Tsyrkuny. They hadn’t seen their children in a month.
“It’s scary here, but I can’t imagine how it is there,” the priest said. “The scariest thing is when children get used to gunfire. But we are getting used to it, and the children learn from us.”
When his congregants said they would pray if the Russians arrived, one woman added, “We’ll pray for everyone.” She meant they would pray for Ukrainians and Russians alike. It was a sentiment I heard frequently.
The next day, the priest delivered food to people living in the basement of an apartment block near the church. A group of people in folding chairs greeted him gratefully.
“We are praying,” a woman said. “What else can we do? We pray for forgiveness. We pray for peace. We pray for an end to the war. We are brothers with Russians. I am speaking in Russian because that’s my mother tongue, even though I speak Ukrainian too. And my children speak Russian. I have family in Russia. We are not very close, but still family. Of course, we are also worried. Why do we kill each other? We have no enemies. We are all from the same roots.”
At a hospital, the chief surgeon recalled a friend of his, a woman. She’d been a champion of Russia as long as he’d known her. They would argue about it but remained friendly. She ended up on his operating table. A rocket had sent a piece of glass into her spine. He couldn’t save her. To her last breath, she refused to disown Russia. A younger surgeon who was listening said, “It’s a psychological problem, I think.”
Reporting in Donbas before the war, I met a lot of Ukrainians who may or may not have been devotees of Russia but who had no use for Volodymyr Zelensky. They called him “the clown,” a reference to his previous career as a comedic actor. Zelensky had since become a national and global hero, and you could be beat up for speaking ill of him, but there were still Kharkivites who did.
Near the hospital was St. Nicholas, an august 19th-century Orthodox church where the bishop of Kharkiv distributed aid. One afternoon, people lined up outside. Some checked their phones for news of the war. Mass graves were being discovered in Bucha, outside Kyiv. Four million Ukrainians had now fled the country. Russia was shifting its forces east and might soon increase its assault on Kharkiv. The good news was that Ukrainian troops were driving Russians from villages and cities to the south. They’d recaptured Chuhuiv and Malaya Rohan. Others waiting in the line commiserated, laughed, argued, yelled.
I listened to this exchange, as heartbreaking as it was absurd:
“They will kill us all!” a woman of unsteady voice declared.
“I don’t know who kills who,” an older woman said.
“Why are you yelling?” said a third, skeptical woman.
“Is it not right I should yell?” the unsteady-voiced woman said. It became clear the unsteadiness was a slur. She’d been drinking. This was common. “We don’t know who’s bombing who, Ukrainians or Russians. How can we know who’s bombing us? They’re making us all cripples.”
A man butted in.
“Everyone, be quiet. I’m going to say something, and ‘Go f--- yourself’ is what I will say to anyone who tries to interrupt me,” he said. “So listen. Tell me: Kids. Does Putin have kids?”
“Yes,” the slurring woman said.
“Shut up,” he said.
“Two daughters,” she insisted.
“He has two kids,” he agreed. “And where are they now?”
“They are abroad!” said a chorus.
“Don’t f---ing interrupt me! I have kids. I have a granddaughter. I have a great-granddaughter. And today I lost my wife. She died, for whom?” He wept. The crowd quieted. “She was killed by a shot. She was hiding in the bathroom. She was 72. Just imagine, I came from the funeral. They took money from me for the funeral.”
By this point, a similar slur in his speech was obvious. Not everyone was sure his wife had died.
“Who needs your money?” the skeptical woman said. “What nonsense are you even talking?”
“If you don’t want to believe me, that’s your problem. They took my money. Twenty-five thousand. How is it possible? I’m a pensioner. I’m 78. Do I deserve this s---?”
“You don’t deserve it,” the inebriated woman said. “You’re a very good man.”
Someone shouted out that Zelensky’s children were abroad, too (a rumor that appears to be untrue).
“Zelensky is a liar,” she said.
The chorus concurred.
“He promised to reduce our utility prices by 70 percent,” the older woman said. “He’s a liar.”
Turning to me, the man asked, “Will you write about our clown?”
“What should I write about him?” I asked.
“That he is a clown,” the man said. “We chose him as a friend, as a human. We wanted him to make our lives better. Did he? He brought us war. My wife died because of him.”
“We don’t believe the war will end under Zelensky,” the older woman said.
“Do you mean to say Zelensky started this war?” the skeptical woman asked.
“A liar!” the slurring woman insisted.
“A 70 percent reduction, he promised us,” the older woman said.
“He brought us war,” the man said.
“War and higher utility rates,” she said. “Have you seen the prices?”
“His wife and children are hiding in America,” the man said, “but I can’t hide because I have no money.”
AT THE ENTRANCE to the highway that leads from Kharkiv to Chuhuiv, the city to the southeast that the Russians seized at the beginning of the war, were a pair of obelisks engraved with “Kharkiv 1654-1954.” They’d been spared the rockets. A giant menorah, a monument to the Holocaust, had been less lucky. Its brushed metal arms were bent out of shape.
The houses of Malaya Rohan had been flattened. On the road through the town, a Russian tank was blown in two, the turret lying on its side. Outside the town, on the highway, beneath a billboard advertising caviar, were jackknifed trailers and a barricade of destroyed cars. A van had taken a direct hit, its side torn open. A dead man lay on his side in the road. Another was on the embankment. As a group of Ukrainian press officers and soldiers arrived, a mortar shell exploded among the cars, sending up a plume of dirt and pavement.
They found a dead Russian soldier in a roadside ditch. There was a large crimson stain on his T-shirt — he’d taken a round of some kind in the stomach — and he lay on his back, his limbs bent, his boots gone. The press officers gathered around the corpse gleefully as a group of European reporters arrived.
“Don’t laugh,” the ranking officer told her subordinates.
After the journalists moved on, I watched a soldier photograph the corpse and say something to it. Then he spat on the ground next to it.
The dead man may have been one of the crew of a nearby tank that had been abandoned in a hurry. A sleeping bag and medical kit lay next to the treads and body armor on the apron. The reporters shot video of a soldier opening the tank’s hatches, removing equipment and describing the contents.
“Now say, ‘This is a Russian tank!’” a reporter demanded.
The soldier looked confused. Wasn’t the familiar white “Z” spray-painted on its side indication enough?
When I left Kharkiv, in the first week of April, the air was warming and the sun making more regular appearances. At Freedom Square, volunteers were sweeping glass and carrying away debris. From the northern edge of Saltivka, you could now look onto the ridgeline that the Russians once held. Its barren trees etched the horizon. Serdiuka Street had been cleared. People swept in front of their homes in Saltivka.
But the siege continued. I returned to the home of the retired engineers who asked me to bring them a Stinger; all the glass panes were gone, and wind coursed through the apartment, blowing the curtains from the broken windows. I knocked on the locked door. No one answered.
At the parking garage, Oleksandr stood outside, topless, sunning himself. Pellegrin photographed him. He didn’t mind.
“No Playboy!” Oleksandr insisted. “No Playboy!”
A police car arrived, and three officers stepped from it. They opened the back and began unloading loaves of bread and pallets of eggs. The people took them gratefully and carried them into the garage. One of the officers was a young man from Saltivka. He was living in the Heroes of Labor Metro station.
I spoke with Nikita, the 17-year-old, about the future. He had planned to go to university next year, he said, but the season of the entrance exams was coming. Of course, there was no way he would be able to take them. Aside from everything else, the night bombing had been very bad lately, and he couldn’t sleep.
“What do you do when you can’t sleep?” I asked.
“I listen to the rockets,” he said.
He was born long after Ukraine gained its independence and had little recollection of the war in which his brother was disabled. “I always thought of Russians and Ukrainians as best friends,” he said. “Until this war.”
His father, Igor, recalled when Ukraine became independent. “At first I didn’t understand what it meant. I was uncertain. But then we began to grow. And then I felt proud.” His first son “was conceived in the Soviet Union but born in independent Ukraine.” Of the war in Donbas, he said, “I could never have predicted it. I couldn’t imagine this one, either.”
“What will you do if the Russians enter Kharkiv?” I asked.
“I don’t know. We have nowhere to run.” He reflected a long while. “We will decide when it happens. What else can we do? Maybe we will become partisans.”
I asked Nikita if he could live under Russian occupation.
“It depends on the situation.” He considered. He’d inherited his father’s gift for the thoughtful pause. Finally he said, “I think, no.”