World shrinks to a basement in Ukraine for grandmother, 92


World shrinks to a basement in Ukraine for grandmother, 92

Former engineer Maria Nikolaevna, 92, looks at her family cat inside a basement, in Kharkiv, Ukraine July 26, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

World shrinks to a basement in Ukraine for grandmother, 92


After surviving World War Two, Maria Nikolaevna lived a busy and fulfilling life, raising two children, working as an engineer in the Soviet aerospace industry and cultivating a beautiful garden at the family home in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

As she grew old and her husband, Vasilii Emelianovich, died, her horizons narrowed to the confines of her second-floor apartment, the view from the window of children playing on the swings and visits from her daughter who lived nearby.

When war returned this year and bombs struck her building after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Maria's world shrank further - to the confines of a basement across the city.

For the past four months, 92-year-old Maria has lived underground with her daughter, son-in-law and the family cat. She gets her only glimpse of natural light by sitting in a doorway at the foot of stairs that run up to the street outside.

Kharkiv - Ukraine's second-largest city, in the northeast close to the Russian border - resisted a Russian assault that reached its outskirts in the first two months of the invasion, but has endured almost daily shelling in the past month after a period of relative calm.

With both their homes now uninhabitable, the family lives in limbo in the cellar of a friend's apartment block.


Maria suffers from mobility problems, progressive memory loss and confusion that has worsened since the attack on her home.

"She has forgotten what the city looks like, she is confused and does not know where to go, what to do, how to lie down, how to sleep, how to hide," her daughter Natalya, 58, told Reuters.

Natalya holds the family cat Kisiau as they go downstairs, past graffiti that reads “Lord, help us”, to the basement where she lives, July 24, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

"She does not hear well so we have to write things down. It was very difficult - still is difficult – but we have found a way."

Natalya's home was in one of the most heavily bombarded areas of Kharkiv and she believed her mother would be safer staying in her own residential suburb eight miles away. She arranged for neighbours to take food to Maria and check on her.

One night though, a neighbour called to say there had been an explosion next to Maria's apartment and power had been cut. She managed to get through to her mother who was in tears as she tried to dress herself in her pitch black flat.

Maria gestures next to her makeshift bedroom, July 26, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Natalya's husband Fedor found a taxi driver willing to cross the besieged city to retrieve Maria and the few belongings they could grab.

"The taxi driver picked her up, carried her downstairs and very quickly rushed through the city to bring her to safety," said Natalya, who did not want to give her surname. "She can no longer live without us because this has affected her health."


War is not new to Maria. As a girl, her family was forced to house a German officer during the occupation of Ukraine in World War Two. The man she would marry fought in that war.

Maria and her husband hailed from the same village in the Poltava region but met after the war in nearby Kharkiv where they attended night school, shared a desk and fell in love.

Maria then worked as an engineer in Kharkiv's state-owned FED factory that made aerospace parts.

"Because she is a person of the Soviet era and she worked like a Soviet person, she received the maximum amount of money, as an engineer," her daughter said.

The couple married, had a son and a daughter, and bought an apartment with a garden and a motorbike. "They left the hard times behind," Natalya recalled.

Today, as her memory fades, Maria occupies her time reading dog-eared magazines and reordering her husband's medals, among the few things Fedor rescued as she fled her home.

A man walks past a destroyed building next to Maria’s house after a military strike, July 23, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

They serve as a talisman: a physical reminder of her family's place in history. They include the Order of the Patriotic War for his involvement in Soviet operations against the Germans and a medal for fighting against Japan at the end of the war.

In the basement, Maria sleeps on a mattress laid on wooden pallets in a makeshift "bedroom" delineated by three cheap fleece blankets.

Bundled in a fleece and thick-collared jacket against the subterranean chill, she lives for WhatsApp calls from her granddaughter Masha, 31, who lives in New York.

Maria speaks to her granddaughter Masha, on a phone held by Maria's daughter Natalya, July 23, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

In one call, Maria asked her bemused granddaughter if there was also shooting where she lives.

Laughing, Natalya interjected: "No, mom, it's good there, it's warm and quiet. She (Masha) wants to bring us all there."

Maria beamed and kissed the mobile phone's screen.

As regards the future, the family has no answers, only questions, said 62-year-old Fedor.

"When will this war end?  And on whom does it depend? On politicians? On us? On the military? Because it is unacceptable in our time, it is savagery. That my mother-in-law and other old people who are 95 or 97 years old should end their lives in such conditions. The sooner it ends, the better."

The Wider Image

Photography and reporting by Nacho Doce

Writing by Aislinn Laing

Photo editing by Eve Watling

Text editing by Gareth Jones

Design by Eve Watling