Tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel have died since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. The families left behind face building a new life amid an ongoing war with no end in sight.
Anastasia, 40, found out her husband had died while watching the news. Oleksii Dzhunkivskyi was well known in Ukraine as a champion boxer turned children’s coach who ran his own gym in Irpin, a satellite city outside of Kyiv.
When Russia invaded, the family decided that Anastasia and their daughter would leave Irpin while Oleksii stayed behind as a volunteer working with the military to help civilians. “He delivered food, water, medicine, and helped with the evacuation. In total he managed to save about 50 people,” Anastasia says.
As Russian forces occupied the city, intent on using Irpin as a stepping stone to capture the nearby Ukrainian capital, the “conditions were terrible”, Anastasia says. “There was no [internet] connection at all, constant shelling, no lights, no water.”
On March 23, Oleksii said he planned to leave Irpin and reunite with his wife and daughter – right after he helped one final family to evacuate.
But a day later the news reported that Oleksii was dead. Eyewitnesses said he had been shot after Russian soldiers entered his boxing gym.
Tens of thousands dead
Neither Kyiv nor Moscow releases official figures on military losses – Ukrainian officials say disclosing the figures could harm its war effort.
The United Nations estimates that 10,000 civilians have been killed as a result of war in Ukraine since February 2022 and 18,500 wounded.
The military death toll is thought to be significantly higher. A Ukrainian group that collects data about the war, the Book of Memory project, said in November it had confirmed the deaths of nearly 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers but expected the real death toll was more than 30,000.
A New York Times report in August estimated that 70,000 members of the Ukrainian military had been killed while Russia is thought to have lost 120,000 soldiers so far.
On both sides, the death toll surged in winter and spring 2023 during the battle for Bakhmut, an eastern city given the grim moniker the “meat grinder” as hundreds of troops were killed or injured there every day for weeks on end.
“Oleksiy often told me on the phone about military life in the trenches and about the fighting. In Bakhmut, he said the war was most intense in the air – the positions were constantly shelled, and there were huge losses of life,” says Juliya Selutina, 40.
Her late husband was a lawyer and entrepreneur living in Kyiv who, when the Russian invasion began, immediately decided to fight for Ukraine.
By May 2022 Oleksiy had completed army training and was sent to the front line in Bakhmut while Juliya and their teenage daughter fled to safety overseas, living in a village in northern England.
Oleksiy sustained a life-threatening injury from an aerial attack on July 2022 and died three days after being admitted to hospital. Juliya rushed back to Ukraine as soon as she found out he was wounded – a nine-day visit that ended up including her husband’s funeral.
Juliya only truly started confronting her grief when she returned to live in Ukraine in late 2022. “I felt a new wave of pain. It was then that I finally realised that Oleksiy was gone,” she says.
Her 14-year-old daughter returned with her to Ukraine despite the danger, insisting she wanted to live in the country that her father died for. The project Juliya was working on in the IT sector lost funding and she became unemployed, so they now live off a state military pension granted to her daughter.
Military widows in Ukraine are entitled to a one-off financial payment from the state and other financial payments, such as monthly sums from regional authorities, depending on the region in which they live.
No such funding is available for Anastasia, whose husband was not in the military when he died. When he was alive, Anastasia did not work. During the Russian occupation of Irpin, Anastasia and her daughter lost their house and all of their possessions. Now she volunteers distributing goods to those in need and relies on her husband’s friends for financial support.
Anna Tymoshenko, 33, has also not received any financial support since her partner, Serhiy, died in August 2023, as she and Serhiy were not married.
Serhiy had served in Ukraine’s army for years, working his way up the ranks to become a decorated officer. From February 2022, he was based in east Ukraine fighting in Mykolaiv, Kherson and Donetsk.
Anna was four months pregnant with Serhiy’s child when she received a phone call informing her that he had died from wounds incurred in a mine blast.
Since then, she has been living in a state of shock. “The whole family keeps waiting for him to come back from the war, for his messages or calls. Although we know it’s impossible, you can’t tell your heart what to think,” she says.
Anna works in the Odesa district as a family doctor, and would have liked some social support from the state. Her child will be eligible for financial support after it is born.
“Social workers could help families of fallen soldiers with the necessary documents, provide psychological and legal assistance, and not leave them alone with such a great grief,” she says.
Instead, she says, those left behind are “learning to cope with their problems on their own”.
“[But] it’s hard to be alone and pregnant when you had your whole life ahead of you and so many plans for the future.”
‘Life has been divided’
There is a state-run help line offering psychological support for widows in Ukraine, but both Anastasia and Juliya have found their children gave them the biggest sense of purpose in their grief. “The realisation that I was the only one left for our daughter helped me to hold on,” Juliya says.
For Daria Pogodaieva, 32, one of the hardest parts of her new life is helping her 4-year-old son understand that his father is gone. “He remembers his father, and that he loves him and is missing him,” she says. “But he doesn’t know what death is. He doesn’t know what forever is. He doesn’t understand that he will never see his father again.”
Daria met her late husband Dymtro in Kyiv, and he worked as an engineer at her family’s pharmaceutical business. When the Russian invasion began, they never spoke about whether Dymtro would join the army. “But I knew he had this feeling that he had to do it,” she says. “He was that kind of person.”
By January 2023, Dymtro was working as a scout in a marine brigade. He was on the front lines when Ukraine launched its counter-offensive in summer 2023.
With positive news of Ukrainian villages being liberated from Russian occupation came personal tragedy for Daria. Dymtro died on July 15 with two other troops in Makarivka, a recently liberated village, while helping to move large weaponry.
“His watch stopped at 13:45,” she says. “That was the moment when the bombs fell on them.”
Daria’s grief has made her question the war overall. “When Dymtro died, I couldn’t understand the purpose of his death. Was it worth giving his life for this? I still have some hope for victory but, at the moment, there is no clear perspective on when that could happen.”
For others, grief has made Ukrainian victory a necessity. “We have paid too high a price already,” says Anna. “We want to be a free people [so] we must defend ourselves to the last.”
“I have a great hope that we will see a quick victory because I really want to believe that these terrible losses have not been in vain,” adds Juliya.
For Daria, the only certainty is that war has changed her life – and the lives of so many others in Ukraine – irreversibly. After nearly two years of fighting, air raids, bombings, drone attacks and now grief have become daily realities.
“This is maybe the scariest thing to do to people,” she says. “You get used to this new life and there is not so much hope that things can be the same as they were. Life has been divided; before his death and after his death. And the life I had before is never coming back.”
Daria Pogodaieva translated accounts for this report.
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