HomeEuropeMake love, not war: Ukrainians bid to reverse plummeting birth rate

Make love, not war: Ukrainians bid to reverse plummeting birth rate

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As the Russian bombs began to fall on Ukraine in February, Tetiana was already conscious of her deep attraction to an old friend, Petro.

The single 36-year-old writer from western Ukraine knew she had feelings for Petro, a media professional eight years older than her.

There was just one big problem: Petro was already married — albeit unhappily — to another friend.

But then Russia’s devastating invasion began, upending the lives of millions of Ukrainians. Tetiana briefly forgot about a potential love triangle and threw herself into volunteer work, helping refugees and the army.

“The most important thing was victory,” she recalls. “My own life didn’t feel so important.”

Meanwhile, Petro’s wife, like millions of Ukrainian women, fled the Russian attack for the safety of Western Europe. Petro, banned from leaving the country as a man of fighting age, stayed behind.

Now, eight months later, Tetiana and Petro (who did not wish to provide their surnames for this article) are living together in Petro’s flat — and expecting a baby. Petro’s wife, still abroad, is waiting for a slot at the Ukrainian embassy to sign divorce papers.

A spring and summer of bloody war were also filled with happiness for Tetiana. She could finally fall in love, throwing caution — and convention — to the wind.       

“If earlier you were afraid of something, of sharing your life, or what people might think — in my situation, because I’m with a married man — now you don’t care about these things,” she says. “What’s important is pure feeling and the pure desire to be with this person.”

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From marriage to divorce, and from births to deaths, the war has caused turmoil for Ukrainians — with long-term implications for the country’s demographics. Ukraine’s population has been declining for decades, thanks to high death rates, fewer births and emigration.

Russia’s illegal annexation and occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014 de facto lopped off several million in a matter of months.

And things won’t get better anytime soon. From February 24 to October 6 this year, 68,277 women were registered as pregnant in Ukraine’s electronic health system — plummeting from 146,675 in the same period in 2021.

Although the war spurs love and marriage for some, as caution and convention are thrown to the wind, birth rates have gone down dramatically | Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images       

More than 6,000 civilians have been killed since late February 2022, according to the U.N. human rights monitoring mission, which believes the real number is far higher. Ukraine does not reveal its military death toll, but in September the head of the armed forces said almost 9,000 had been killed. Another 7,000 are missing in action. 

The U.N. projects that Ukraine will never fully regain its population lost to death and mass displacement in Russia’s invasion.

But in the face of Russia’s murderous actions, many Ukrainians are responding to the threat of personal and national extinction by living for the day, enjoying new relationships or ending unsatisfactory old ones, and creating new lives.

“You understand that living every day is dangerous, and you want to appreciate every moment, and appreciate your feelings,” says Tetiana. “Especially love.”

***

When Russian President Vladimir Putin again in September raised the specter of using nuclear weapons, the most popular response in Ukraine on social media was a suggestion to gather on a hill in Kyiv for an orgy.

Shchekavitsia, the name of a hill in Kyiv’s Podil district, inspired poems, erotica, jokes, advertising, even recipes. It’s become shorthand for how Ukrainians, instead of despairing at the war, are seizing the day in time-honored fashion — a recent article in Ukrainska Pravda about how Londoners survived the 1940-41 Blitz is titled “Shchekavitsia English-style.”

“It’s funny, and it’s right,” one Ukrainian from the east displaced by the war, interviewed on Shchekavitsia hill, told Ukrainska Pravda. “You have to laugh about all this Russian stuff, or you go crazy. And Putin doesn’t know how to love, or to feel.” 

Shchekavitsia taps into a deep and basic human instinct: sex as the ultimate counterweight to death.

“War is an archaic thing, and it sharpens other archaic things,” says writer Tetiana. “Many people who all their lives were escaping these things like coupling, sex — during war instead they go to meet them.”

Without the war, she and Petro might never have dared act on their mutual attraction, she says.

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Tetiana is far from the only person to tumble into a relationship since the invasion.

In the first six months of 2022, 103,903 couples got married in Ukraine, an increase of 21 percent from the same period in 2021 and a record for the last seven years.

In spring, Anastasia Murzak found herself in a whirlwind courtship via messages and calls with Kostiantyn, an army officer then stationed near the front in eastern Ukraine.

They’d briefly dated in 2018 when they were both studying in Lviv, but then Murzak moved to a different city and decided her career was more important.

She got back in touch when Russia invaded, because she knew Kostiantyn would be fighting.

Within weeks, they were married.

“You understand that living every day is dangerous, and you want to appreciate every moment, and appreciate your feelings,” said Tetiana. “Especially love” | Oleksandr Demianiv/ AFP via Getty Images

“We both realised there was no time to put things off,” says Murzak. “Unfortunately the war happened, but happily it brought us together.”

Now Murzak says family is the most important thing for her. The couple married both in a registry office and in church before Kostiantyn returned to the front.

“To make that distance easier we knew we had to make this commitment,” she says. “It helps us to support each other.”

Since their marriage she has moved to a few kilometers behind the frontline, so that they can be together as much as possible.

“Even there in the epicenter, if I hear explosions, I know I’m near my husband and I’m where I’m meant to be, and it’s easier psychologically,” she says. “We can have dinner together and sleep together, embrace and look into each other’s eyes.”

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But for many Ukrainians, such loving proximity has been destroyed by the war.

More than 15 million people have been displaced, including 7 million overwhelmingly women and children who have fled to countries across Europe. The number is likely to rise as winter sets in and Russia ramps up attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure.

Whether it’s soldiers going to the front and leaving partners at home, or women seeking safety abroad while men stay in Ukraine as required under martial law, distance is also straining existing relationships.

The heightened emotions of the war encouraged Petro and Tetiana to get together, but the absence of Petro’s wife — who left for a safer European country with no date for coming back — was the real push.

She has since agreed to an amicable divorce. But with Ukrainian embassies struggling to cope with masses of refugees needing documents, it’s not clear when the papers can be filed and signed. 

A husband waves goodbye to his wife as she leaves fleeing Ukraine. This kind of separation has put a strain on many relationships | Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Officially, divorces in Ukraine — which has one of Europe’s highest divorce rates — fell by 42 percent in the same six-month period as marriages surged. But while martial law has simplified marriage, making it possible for couples to legally apply and get married in one day, divorce is more complicated, especially if the parties are abroad or if there are children involved.

Distance and the sharpening of existing conflicts are the key reasons couples are splitting up, says Kyiv-based psychologist Natalia Pidlisna. Often women abroad with children initiate divorce because their husbands in Ukraine, unable to find a job or perhaps spending their money on other relationships, no longer support the family financially.

In other cases, men in the army discover they have nothing to talk about with their wives at home, and find romance at the front.

In peacetime, perhaps differences could be smoothed over. But wartime circumstances have driven many couples too far apart.

“To save the family they have to do something together, and they are already separate,” Pidlisna says.

***

Whether it’s an ending or a beginning, the war has been a catalyst for Ukrainians to take steps they might have only thought about before, says Pidlisna, and to focus on what they really want.

That might be new relationships, buying what you want in the weekly shopping instead of compromising with your husband’s tastes (in Pidlisna’s case) — or it might be having a child.

The ever-present proximity of death or Russian occupation, family separation, and financial as well as physical insecurity is having a dire effect on Ukraine’s already-declining birth rate.    

Yet not everyone is deterred. Murzak and her husband are hoping to start a family as soon as possible. And Tetiana and Petro decided right away to try for a baby, despite fears about security, and about Petro going to the army.

He was mobilized in July, a month after Tetiana got pregnant.

“When I tell people I’m pregnant, and they say ‘congratulations,’ I think they’re happy for me not just because they know I wanted it for a long time, but because these children now are our common children for the future,” Tetiana said | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“I know it was more rational not to get married or to have a child, because it’s easier to manage on your own during war, than with someone who cannot take responsibility,” Tetiana says.

But as with Murzak, the war has lent urgency to the couple’s wish not only to have children, but to see their nation survive.

***

As Russia frames its war goals in genocidal terms of destroying or assimilating Ukrainians, bringing a new Ukrainian citizen into the world feels like another way to fight and prevail.

“In this situation we bring up our children for Ukraine also,” Tetiana says. “When I tell people I’m pregnant, and they say ‘congratulations,’ I think they’re happy for me not just because they know I wanted it for a long time, but because these children now are our common children for the future.”

Since February, Russia has attacked health care facilities, including maternity hospitals, and is now increasingly targeting critical infrastrucuture.

As winter approaches, much of the country is enduring lengthy blackouts with no heating or water.

Tetiana has looked into options to have her baby abroad in safety. She doesn’t want to leave without Petro. But the pregnancy has given her the strongest reason to survive.

“Before my pregnancy, I didn’t care about my own life as much as about victory,” she says. “But now I care. It’s very important for me to be alive and to see my baby alive.”



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