When the attacks came to their neighborhood on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Igor Papirov and his wife, Larisa Papirova, both 85, huddled in their bathtub, clutching each other as bombs and rockets rained down around them. The bathroom, with no window, is the smallest room in their apartment and therefore the safest. There is only a tiny ceiling to come crashing down.
Until three weeks ago, Kharkiv, where they have lived their entire lives, was the cultural, intellectual, and, especially, scientific center of Ukraine, with some 38 schools of higher learning (including state and private universities, academies, and specialized institutes) and 300,000 students. And that’s why Igor and Larisa remained there in the face of the apparent determination by Russian forces to level it. That and, as their daughter, Marina Papirova, explains, because the dangers of leaving may be as profound as the risks of staying.
For their entire lives, Igor and Larisa were integral parts of this city of about 1.5 million people—the second largest in Ukraine, after the capital, Kyiv. In the Soviet era, trained at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, Igor had become a world-renowned expert in an arcane but critical component of nuclear engineering—the mineral beryllium—while his wife taught economics at the National Technical University, formerly the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute. In the 1960s, Igor began writing what would eventually become nearly 500 detailed research papers and books on his specialty, propelling him to the leadership of a renowned laboratory at the institute. He is a winner of the State Prize of Ukraine.
When the enemy forces first arrived at the outskirts of Kharkiv, Igor, who speaks Russian, could have fled north 30 miles to the Russian border and safety. As it happens, most residents of Kharkiv are Russian-speakers and many are even ethnic Russians, but few have much interest in rejoining the Russian empire. And for Igor, there is one further problem with this escape route to the north. He hates Vladimir Putin with a white-hot passion, and Putin has had Igor in his crosshairs for some time now. In 2006, writing under the thinly disguised pseudonym of “Igor Garin,” he published two books highly critical of Putin and his oligarch supporters. Other, similar works followed.
And now, as the missiles scream overhead en route to downtown Kharkiv, and shells land nearby, he is beginning a new chronicle of life in the shadow of Putin’s armies, with photos taken by several younger colleagues and friends who dare to venture outside.
“I am writing these lines to the sound of an incessant cannonade, from which the walls tremble, my heart skips a beat, and the brain drills with the thought that behind every shot there are killed people, crippled destinies, destroyed kindergartens, schools, hospitals, monuments of the age-old culture of my people,” Igor writes. “Right in my backyard, the most absurd war in the history of mankind is going on.”
While flight to the north into Russia is impossible for Igor and Larisa, heading west 685 miles to Lviv and onward to Poland, like tens of thousands of their neighbors, is equally improbable. “At their age and state of health, they won’t be able to survive the trip,” their daughter tells me. Larisa, she explains, suffers from heart arrhythmia. “The truth is that it now takes three to four days by train, bus, or car to cover a distance that used to take less than a day. Often people are standing in trains and buses the entire time. On top of this, some of the evacuating vehicles move under bombing and shelling.”
“Right in my backyard, the most absurd war in the history of mankind is going on.”
Igor and Larisa were born and raised in Kharkiv. Their only child, Marina, now lives in Denver with her husband, my cousin. During World War II, Igor’s father, Isaac, was murdered by the Nazis. On December 15, 1941, SS officers began murdering Jews at Drobitsky Yar, a ravine outside Kharkiv, in sight of the city’s non-Jewish residents. Some 15,000 were executed in an event not unlike the far larger massacre at Babi Yar, near Kyiv. Four-year-old Igor was hidden in the basement of a neighbor, then was flown to Moscow and escaped their fate.
Since the Russian invasion began, a month ago, my cousins have kept in close touch with Igor and Larisa, communicating twice daily by cell phone and Skype. This continued while half of Kharkiv’s population, at least 700,000, fled to safety in Poland, Hungary, or Romania.
Igor and Larisa’s apartment is on the ground floor of a four-story building. As the shelling began, they quickly lost steam heat, but they did have water, electricity, and gas. So, as temperatures dropped into the teens at night, they were able to warm themselves with electric heaters. At first, some grocery stores in the neighborhood remained open, but soon it became dangerous even to leave their home.
“They have been using the humanitarian food services delivered to their door by volunteers,” Marina explains, adding that “all the pharmacies in their neighborhood are closed.” On Saturday, with Larisa’s heart medicine running low, a volunteer showed up with a partial refill. The rest, the Good Samaritan said, she was keeping for her own mother, who has the same ailment.
The shelling grew closer and intensified, and the windows of two rooms in the apartment were blown out. By Wednesday, March 16, Igor and Larisa’s Internet connection and landline telephone failed. In Kharkiv, the situation was becoming desperate.
As Loveday Morris reported in The Washington Post, for three weeks Russian forces had been laying down every day a barrage of artillery fire, missiles, rockets, even cluster bombs launched at the main market in the center of the city. “The morgue in Kharkiv was overflowing,” Morris wrote.
At 4:18 a.m., March 19, Marina e-mailed me: “Tonight was the first time since the beginning of the war that I was not able to reach my parents. Neither their landline phone nor cell phones are working. The Internet connection is lost as well. I contacted my friends in Kharkiv and they couldn’t reach them either. I have to admit, it is a very scary moment.”
Three hours later, however, a reprieve. “We just received a Skype call from my parents,” she reported. “Their Internet connection was restored.” More recent messages are not encouraging. The bombs and missile strikes are getting closer, making their building shake. Larisa has had another cardiac episode, and Igor looks increasingly pale. Defensive trenches, meant to hold back any Russian advances, are being dug right outside their window.
Igor and Larisa are hanging on. But still, Marina said, “it may be even more dangerous if Kharkiv is eventually occupied by the Russians.” Putin and his forces surely have Igor’s name on one of their lists.
David A. Andelman is a former New York Times and CBS News correspondent. His latest book is A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen. His Substack page is Andelman Unleashed