KYIV, Ukraine — Before Feb. 24, Victoria Chemerys typically began her mornings by picking up her smartphone and scrolling through her social media accounts. Now, “for the sake of saving my mood,” the 28-year-old Kyiv resident waits until lunch to go online. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, Chemerys said “a constant flow of deaths” has overtaken her social media feeds.
“At some point it seems I became numb, and then it hits me hard again. There’s been no day since the 24th of February without thoughts about everyone who was killed or surviving in besieged cities. Somewhere at the back of my mind it’s always with me,” Chemerys, who works at a Kyiv-based technology company, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
During the war’s opening weeks, an online post informed Chemerys that one of her former classmates had gone missing in the village of Moshchun, just outside of Kyiv. A later post announced that he was dead. After that, Chemerys was left “completely numb and speechless” when she later learned that the war had killed two more of her friends.
“I was aware of their deaths from social media. First on their personal pages, and then all over the news,” Chemerys said. “It made me anxious to the extent I was afraid of checking my newsfeed because the thought of finding out someone else had died petrified me. Then I just decided I cannot hide from it forever.”
A New Chapter
On Jan. 31, 1968, the deadliest day of the Vietnam War for the US military, 246 Americans died in combat. According to the latest estimates, Ukraine’s military is currently suffering about as many fatalities each day, a massive uptick from the 79 Ukrainian soldiers who died in combat in all of 2021.
“After over 110 days of the war, I think everyone in Ukraine faced a loss in different ways. This makes the situation completely different from Russia’s war before the full-scale invasion,” said Arthur Kharytonov, 26, president of the Liberal Democratic League of Ukraine, a youth-led nonprofit.
As the Ukraine war plods past the 100-day mark, as many as 200 Ukrainian soldiers are now dying every day in combat, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a recent interview with the BBC. That number marked a jump from an earlier estimate by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said during a June 1 interview with Newsmax that about 60 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers were dying daily. On Wednesday, Axios reported that David Arkakhamia, a close adviser to Zelenskyy, had estimated about 200 to 500 Ukrainian soldiers were dying each day.
For years, Ukrainian forces endured, on average, about one combat death every three days. These days, the full-scale war’s devastating toll — whatever the exact fatality rate may actually be — has turned many Ukrainians’ social media habits into a daily exercise in emotional pain.
“During the last two months, I see more and more often [social media] posts about the death of Ukrainians, both civilians and soldiers. It cannot be compared to even the most difficult battles of 2014 to 2015,” said Mariana Semenyshyn, a 32-year-old media professional who lives in Kyiv.
The recent combat death of Roman Ratushnyy, a well-known 24-year-old civil society activist who was serving in eastern Ukraine, sparked an outpouring of grief on social media.
“Mourn Roman because this death is a personal loss to each and every one of us,” Anastasiia Shevchenko, a singer and combat veteran, wrote in a June 14 Facebook post.
‘Bearer of Bad News’
Every time you go online these days you brace for the worst. The anticipation is visceral. Your stomach leaps a little, and a lump forms in your throat as you scroll through the practically endless testimonials to the fallen that have been posted, shared, reacted to, and commented upon. And then you see a familiar face in a posted photo, and you’re afraid to read the text beneath it. You’ve known this person for years, and your incoming message box contains a fresh series of notes between this person and you. He sent you pictures from the front, and you wished him well. At last you read the words underlying the face and learn that your friend is dead.
“Social media for the war zone plays the role of the bearer of bad news, since Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would be the first to tell the worst, heartbreaking news to society,” Kharytonov, who lives in Kyiv, told Coffee or Die.
“The war is always full of darkness, and one of its most soul-destroying shades is losing friends, loved ones, and Ukrainian heroes in general,” he said. “I have lost at least three Facebook friends since Feb. 24. Furthermore, I lost a great friend of mine, Roman Ratushnyy, who was a superhero of the Ukrainian civil society, at the front line. It pains me terribly.”
After more than eight years of war in their homeland, Ukrainians understand the costs of war. They have no romantic or naive impressions about combat — only a sober appreciation for what war truly is. Memorials honoring soldiers who fell since 2014 have become common sights across Ukraine. Outside of St. Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral in central Kyiv, photos of the fallen cover a wall and offer a stark visual symbol of the war’s human cost.
Prior to Feb. 24, the war was locked along an entrenched front line in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region. The direct effects of combat only extended past the front line as far as the range of the weapons used. In places like Kyiv and Kharkiv and Mariupol, life had resumed its normal peacetime rhythms. Ukrainian society had adjusted to the war’s presence in the background of ordinary life. The war was always there, but its violence remained relatively limited and quarantined from the vast majority of the country.
Russia’s full-scale invasion this February shattered that status quo, attacking places that had long existed as safe havens from combat in the Donbas. Russia’s invasion forces now control roughly 20% of Ukraine’s territory, and the pace of Russia’s artillery onslaught in the Donbas has made the war far deadlier than at any time since 2014.
“Yes, we can see hundreds of posts in social media about the war’s victims. With photos, stories about their lives. About their dreams, plans, values, all lost. Of course, it’s heartbreaking for me personally. Especially when I see familiar faces,” said Yulia Doliba, 27, who works for Lviv’s City Council.
On her daily walk to work, Doliba passes a church in the center of Lviv where the funerals of fallen soldiers regularly take place. “Almost every morning I see our flag with black tape on it. And always it means — we lost a hero,” Doliba told Coffee or Die. “I am Ukrainian, and it’s hard for me to follow the news on the war daily. On battles, on the losses of soldiers, the murders of civilians. Because it’s my country and my people, it’s too close to home.”
Recent scientific research suggests that experiencing mass tragedies through social media can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2019 Boston University study found that “the constant availability and exposure to media coverage of mass traumatic events through either [24-hour] news cycle TV and social media, particularly as social media becomes more ubiquitous, has the potential to increase the burden of community PTSD following such events.”
The study cited “emerging evidence” that “exposure to social media relevant to traumatic events is associated with increased PTSD prevalence.”
“I do believe that there is an everlasting dark vacuum in the heart of each Ukrainian now. It’s incurable, but we must — and we will — learn how to live with it,” Kharytonov said.
The war has also sparked the mass mobilization of Ukrainian citizens to support the war effort — both as front-line soldiers and in other volunteer support roles. That societal mobilization means that the war is no longer an abstract burden shouldered by a small slice of society. The war is now omnipresent and affects life across the entire country. It is impossible to ignore.
“As for me, it is really hard to read about every death but most of all, to read about the death of whole units,” Lidia Khaustova, a 29-year-old journalist from Sloviansk, told Coffee or Die. “And now it is also very hard to understand that nearly half of your male friends are soldiers, who risk everything for us now.”
Prior to the social media era, the life stories of soldiers killed in action were less accessible. Names of the dead were often announced in lists and not accompanied by a photo.
Many Ukrainians now learn about a combat fatality through a social media post written by someone who personally knew the deceased. No longer only a name, each death is announced along with a backstory of heartache, and a profession of the pain of the loss. It’s much harder to bear the constant stream of sad stories when each one gives you pause, when each death leaves a lasting impression. You do not register the dead as numbers, you see their grieving friends and family members and lovers and you feel the pain and injustice of each interrupted life.
“You know, in World War II, people usually received this news all together, and they took their time to grieve for all [the dead]. Nowadays, it’s like tearing a fresh wound every time,” Chemerys said.
Many Ukrainians see it as their duty to take the time to read about the soldiers and civilians who have fallen in their country’s defense. Knowing their names, seeing their faces, learning about their lives — these acts honor the dead and unify the country around a common cause, Kharytonov said.
“Separated from each other, via social media, we can mourn and become calm together,” he explained. “Every loss makes us more and more willing to resist and to win — for all those, who have passed away, defending Ukraine and the whole democratic world from the Russian evil. The victory is the only thing our guys wish to see from the heavens.”
“We must know all of them and support the families of the heroes,” said Doliba, the Lviv City Council worker. “We must live better lives and build a better country in their memory. […] Ukraine is the land of heroes and I am honored to live among them.”
After Ukrainian forces won the Battle of Kyiv, the war’s center of gravity shifted to the southern and eastern front lines. With the immediate threat of a ground attack now lifted, life in Ukraine’s capital city has been inching back to normal. Even if the persistent threat of Russian missile strikes still casts a menacing shadow, Kyiv is physically separated from the worst of the fighting by hundreds of miles. The war is always there, but it’s getting easier to live with it. Yet, life is still far from normal. There is a societywide expectation to contribute to the war effort that prevents many people from fully returning to their peacetime habits.
“Until Feb. 24, 2022, most Ukrainians in recent years perceived the war as something ordinary — a distant and dry statistic. But now you open the Facebook feed every day and you see dozens of new obituaries of your friends or friends of your friends,” said Oleg Slabospitsky, 32, a board member of the National Ukrainian Youth Association who lives in Kyiv.
“This once again makes you ask yourself, ‘What exactly have I done today to help my nation win in this war?'” Slabospitsky told Coffee or Die. “You are constantly thinking about your friends on the front line, looking forward to even a short message from them — ‘Everything is OK.’ And the best tribute to the fallen soldiers will be the victory over Russia and the building of a strong European Ukraine, which they dreamed of and defended.”
For Semenyshyn, the media professional who lives in Kyiv, all the online stories of fallen Ukrainian soldiers remind her of the war’s ongoing carnage — and they also set a high bar for her to live up to.
“While I am currently in a relatively safe place, these posts serve as a reminder that the war is continuing and the deaths of these people is a very high price for living my ‘normal’ life,” Semenyshyn said. “Especially, in times when war is not catching the headlines, so often as it was in the first weeks. While it is devastating, it also helps me to continue doing my routine and not to give up. Because of these people I stay and continue working in Ukraine.”
Do or Die
Currently deployed to the eastern front as a member of one of Kyiv’s Territorial Defense units, Marta Yuzkiv, a 51-year-old physician, said she continues to monitor social media sites to stay informed of the war’s growing number of casualties. At first, she felt “crushed to realize the scale of loss of the best Ukrainians.”
“It lasted for a few days, then I just accepted the new reality,” Yuzkiv told Coffee or Die. “We choose to fight. We need to win, and a death for independence and freedom is not the worst one. Previously I was afraid that if the most active and caring persons will die, then what happens next? But paradoxically, the war quickly forms the nation.”
Apart from its emotional weight, the constant social media reminders of the war’s toll also serve to harden Ukrainians’ resolve and reinforce the increasingly apparent fact that their nation is fighting for its survival.
“I do not want to die,” Yuzkiv said. “I do not want to see the news on the internet that somebody I know is dead. This is really painful, but definitely not exhausting. [We] need time to accept [each loss], but then it gives us more power. Each of us now has our own score to settle with the Russians.
“We have no choice but to fight against the Russian occupiers and pay such a high price for it,” said Olexandr Salizhenko, 37, a Kyiv-based parliamentary analyst for a nonprofit called the CHESNO Movement.
“Ukrainians cannot surrender, because in that case we will all be destroyed,” Salizhenko told Coffee or Die. “Therefore, despite all the emotional swings, pain, and sadness, we must believe and hope for our victory.”