Yesterday I went to a wedding. The bride, Anastasia Grachova, 33, wore a white dress and a veil tucked under a crown of flowers, paired with a leather jacket and knee-high combat boots (Dr. Martens, she told me—a wedding present). The groom, Anton Sokolov, 38, wore black Levi’s and black boots.
Instead of taking pictures in front of a church or a picturesque fountain, the couple posed in freezing winds atop the ruins of our hometown—Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which has been under near constant bombardment since the beginning of the war. They kissed and danced to music that someone was playing from a nearby car stereo in an empty street that would normally be filled with traffic. Luckily, there were no air raid sirens.
After they took pictures, Anastasia and Anton walked to the underground metro station and got married on the train platform. It was the safest place in town, if not the most beautiful. It didn’t matter. Over half of Kharkiv’s residents have fled, and it felt like everyone who had stayed behind was there. The people who live in the trains and sleep on its benches came out to watch and cheer. Even the mayor was there. He gave the couple flowers and told them that he wished we could all be at City Hall. If only it hadn’t been demolished.
Before the war, Anton was a dentist with his own clinic, and Anastasia, or Nastya, was a nurse in the oncology unit of a hospital. (She shaves her head in solidarity with her patients, who have lost their own hair from chemotherapy). Since the Russian attacks on our city, they’ve been running a makeshift pharmacy out of what used to be a hipster coffee shop. Instead of doling out overpriced cappuccinos, Anton and Anastasia are getting medicine like antibiotics and other supplies to elderly and sick Kharkiv residents through a network of volunteers.
They’ve been working around the clock for weeks, and Anton tells me they never really planned to get married anyway. But now it was important for them to do this—and on Nastya’s birthday.
Their families and most of their friends had fled, so the bridal party was made up mostly of fellow volunteers from the humanitarian center where they work. One bridesmaid who works on the frontlines asked that no pictures be taken of her face, lest the Russian army identify her and try to hunt her down. Others wore masks. When a city official declared them officially married, everyone cheered. There was champagne for the couple.
Anastasia said she’d never met anyone like Anton. Anton was more quiet, but he was so tender with her. He was always looking around to make sure she was close. He couldn’t keep his hands off her. None of us had ever seen a wedding like this. It was the best one I’ve ever been to.
I know a few people who have gotten married since the war started. It’s smarter to get married now, when it comes to assets and other legalities, if one of you is killed. If someone ends up in the hospital, you have more rights as a spouse.
But this wedding was not just for the sake of the couple. This was for the whole city, and for the whole country. On the same day this couple danced, there were images streaming across our screens from the massacre in Bucha, just outside Kyiv. It was a horror show: 410 bodies. Men, with their hands tied behind their backs with rags, executed in front of their homes. Corpses wrapped in garbage bags dumped in mass graves. Children gunned down as they tried to escape with their families.
And there we were, five hundred kilometers away: the mayor, the survivors of Kharkiv, Anton and Anastasia, on the platform of a metro station. They were a couple full of life and fighting back by simply declaring: Despite all this, we will plan for the future. It was like they were saying to the Russians: You may try to take away our future, but there will be one.
A few days ago, I was visiting the city hospital, where I met a young Ukrainian man who was training to be an opera singer in Italy before the war broke out. He came back to volunteer and deliver humanitarian aid like the aid Anton and Anastasia were distributing. He was shot down in his car after dark. He was hit with four bullets, in his spine, leg, liver, and lung. Miraculously, he lived. Miraculously, he’s not scared. He is determined to live, and to sing again.
Against his doctors’ wishes, he sang to me in Italian, taking in air though his punctured lung. “Una mattina mi son svegliato e ho trovato l'invasor.” One morning I awakened, and I found the invader.
Anton and Anastasia have no plans to go on a honeymoon anytime soon. One day, they want to go somewhere with a beach and palm trees. Before that happens, there is a war to win, and brutal days ahead. But yesterday, there was hope, and beauty, and love inside the ugliness. Yesterday was a good day.
Maria Avdeeva is a researcher and expert on disinformation based in Kharkiv. Hear more from Maria on Honestly, and follow her reporting from Ukraine at @maria_avdv.