A few weeks before Russian troops captured the provincial capital of Kherson, Ludmila Taranov was scrolling through an online dating site looking for someone to have coffee with – someone to take her mind off her worries.
Taranov, 31, taught disabled children in a public school and, with a master’s degree in English and Russian, She also taught English. Divorced, she lived with her mother, sister and brother-in-law and their young son. When she wasn’t at school, she took care of her sick mother.
Taranov had to leave the house.
“I like sports,” she had written in her profile. “I am active and train a lot. If you’re okay with that, maybe we can meet up for coffee.” She posed for profile photos at the gym in black tights and top; Her makeup and long blonde hair were flawless.
She had been looking at a certain dating profile for four years. His pictures aren’t very good, Taranov said, but eventually she decided it was time to come forward. Shortly thereafter, he called her to ask her out on a coffee date.
Viacheslav Slavov – or Slava – recalls the first phone call, largely because Taranov seemed more interested in the computer game featured in one of his profile photos than she was in him. He had never met a woman as interested in e-gaming as he was and – jokingly – he asked her to marry him.
A few days later, on 1/18, they met for coffee, “and that was it,” Taranov said, adding, “He looked a lot better in person.”
Then the Russians came.
In late February, troops and tanks poured into Kherson and crossed the Dnieper to capture the first major Ukrainian city in the war. As they rolled into Taranov’s quarters, the rumble reached a crescendo as four of the tanks pulled up in front of their house.
Her 43-year-old sister Elena was holding her baby upstairs and looking out the window as a turret slowly rotated toward their home.
“They aimed the tank guns at the window,” Taranov said. “When I first saw this, I started crying. When you first see the enemy’s weapons upon you, you cannot control yourself.”
Her mother, Larisa Taranov, has a lot of experience of living in difficult circumstances. Her husband is often at sea, works as a mechanic on cargo ships for a long time, and she raised her daughters essentially on her own. But the invasion went well beyond the challenge; it was “terrifying”.
Her large six-bedroom home, made possible by her husband’s long sea deployments, was almost ready when war broke out—just the kind of place Russian officers would love to live in. But Taranov said her 63-year-old mother wouldn’t let that happen. Larisa turned into a guard with a broom and swept up front each day to make sure they knew the house was occupied, and officers instead took over an empty house two doors down.
The large basement of the Taranovs – designed as a lounge – became an air raid shelter at the beginning of the war. There is neither running water nor electricity. The bathroom next to the kitchen on the first floor is filled with buckets of water, partly for flushing the toilet, partly for bathing, partly with drinking water.
Covered the windows throughout the house black plastic, are double-glazed to keep out the long, cold winters, but Taranov said even these couldn’t keep out the smell of burned corpses during the Russian occupation.
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“I stayed at home most of the time,” Taranov said. “I was afraid they would punch me in the stomach. They hit people just because they didn’t understand the questions.”
The outside world was depressing. “I tried to go out just to get food,” Taranov said. “If you have seen a Russian soldier, you tremble inside.”
The Ukrainians on the street were older and the children stayed at home. “It was like 10 years had passed in 10 months,” she said.
At the beginning of the war, when emigration was still possible, many of Taranov’s friends fled to other European countries. Slava also wanted to go.
“I told him he could go,” Taranov said, but she stayed.
Slava reacted quickly. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “I’m not leaving without you.”
In the first months of their relationship, it was difficult to meet in person with Russian troops patrolling the streets. They strip-searched the men, Slava said, looking for signs of Ukrainian military service and repeatedly questioning them: why do you have long hair Why do you have a beard?
“If they didn’t like your answers, they would take you into custody,” he said.
Every time he left their home, Taranov wondered if he would come back.
Slava, also 31, lived in a less affluent area of Kherson where Russian was the dominant language. He said local police fled when the Russians arrived, so he helped organize a civil defense group in his neighborhood. About 230 men took turns patrolling the area and answering a temporary hotline.
Slava was familiar with law enforcement; He was a police officer before getting into online gaming. But with a master’s degree in computer science, Slava saw a brighter future in tech, and Taranov plans to join him in his e-gaming business.
After the war began, his sister went to Poland and sought asylum in Canada. He never really knew his father and his mother lived with friends in Estonia. But now he had Taranov, and the big house—with the thick windows, the bucket-filled bathroom, and the Russians down the street—became his home, too.
Taranov’s mother immediately took a liking to Slava, and it quickly became clear that he had an easier time talking to Larisa than Taranov. He even tried to open her eyes to the atrocities committed by the Russian troops.
At first, Taranov said, her mother resisted. Larisa believed what the Russian news channels said. “It was Russian propaganda television, 24 hours a day,” Taranov said. “That’s all Mother saw.”
And Larisa “didn’t believe the news about Bucha,” a city under Russian occupation where hundreds of people were massacred early in the war.
The Russians cut off all Ukrainian cell phone services and “forced us to get Russian phone numbers. I used my dead grandmother’s ID to get a Russian SIM card,” Taranov said. “That way they wouldn’t know my name.”
But Slava had connections to get an encrypted internet line through his shop and they soon saw the news reported from a Ukrainian perspective. Despite this, it took more than six months to convince Larisa that Russian troops were committing atrocities.
“The Russians said it was all wrong, nothing happened there, only actors and Ukrainian journalists made it up,” Taranov said. “She changed her mind after seeing what happened in Kherson. She realized that everything that happened in Bucha was true.”
It’s difficult making plans in a war zone, but Taranov dreams of starting an art therapy program for children. “I used to teach children with learning disabilities,” she said. “I think a lot of children are affected by the war. I want to open an art gallery for them.”
Meanwhile, she and Slava are expecting a child of their own, whom they will name Mary.
“I’m lucky I didn’t get pregnant earlier,” Taranov said. “The Russians forced everything [newborns] being a Russian citizen.”
“We didn’t want to be a Russian couple,” so they didn’t get married under Russian occupation, “but we will as soon as the Ukrainian government offices in Kherson reopen.”
This could take a while; The Russians, who withdrew from Kherson last month, have begun bombing the city from across the Dnieper. “There have already been more than 50 bomb attacks today,” Taranov said in a recent text. “They bomb different quarters. Already 10 people are dead and seven injured, including children.”
She felt the baby kick as she made tea. “I try to stay as calm as possible even when street fights are happening,” she said, adding, “We can’t go with the bumpy roads and mine now. It’s not safe for the baby.”
But after a month of constant bombing of Kherson, Taranov says she and Slava will leave for Kyiv immediately. Mary is due in January, and Taranov has been told there are no good doctors left in town for the delivery.
“We remain optimistic and are making plans for the future,” Taranov said. “I just hope my baby won’t see a war.”