The Washington Post

Making a Cold War nuclear bunker feel like home

After living through Russian shelling, villagers in Luch, near Kherson, cleaned up the spaces that had protected them and moved in

- BY NAOMI SCHANEN

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there are only 50 residents left in the southern village of Luch. And most of them are living together in Cold War-era Soviet bunkers.

Svitlana Gynzhul, 55, is one of them — and has no plans to leave any time soon.

When Russia occupied the village, 25 miles northwest of Kherson, residents turned to the bunkers for safety. “When shells flew overhead, we had our comforts down here,” Gynzhul told the Reuters news agency in an interview. “And now we still live here.”

Luch was home to 935 people before the war, the outlet reported. The bunkers were initially a place for residents to seek refuge at night during heavy shelling at the start of the war.

“From the first day, when everything started, we started to clean up the bomb shelter. And it was very good that we started doing that, because on February 24 last year, at night, at 11 p.m., a shell exploded in our village,” Gynzhul said. Children and the elderly were the first to seek refuge in the bunkers.

The bunker, built in the 1950s to protect Soviet soldiers against a nuclear war with the West, used to have heavy metal doors, bunk beds and gas masks, but they had been stolen long before the Russian invasion last spring — no one thought the shelter would ever need to be used.

In the early months of the war, because of its hilly terrain, Luch was a strategic location for Ukrainian troops. During Russian occupation, Gynzhul said, she would spy on Russian troop movements from above and hand over their coordinate­s to Ukrainian forces. The Washington Post could not independen­tly verify her account.

While the residents of Luch managed to outlast the occupation in the region, their village was ravaged. With nowhere to go, Gynzhul said, they decided to turn their temporary bomb shelter into a home. It’s a way, she said, to take care of the few remaining neighbors she has. She moved into the shelter permanentl­y with her husband and son in August after her apartment was bombed.

Thirty of Luch’s 50 residents live undergroun­d in two nuclear bunkers and a separate basement.

The concrete-and-turf bunker that Gynzhul lives in is accessed via a door on a grassy mound and a dingy, steep staircase.

Villagers found an electricia­n to connect the bunker to power lines. They built a wood stove to keep them warm and a generator to pump water. They furnished the place with beds, rugs and colorful blankets.

“Because we built this building here, we can live like normal people. It hurt me to see how everything got destroyed,” Gynzhul said.

Gynzhul and the four others in her bunker survive off humanitari­an aid and the salary from her administra­tive job in the village — 4,000 hryvnia ($109) per month.

About 300 miles to the north, in Kyiv, the Soviets built a subway system during the Cold War, constructe­d to double as nuclear-ready shelters. Over time, much of the capital was built on top of and integrated into the network of undergroun­d bunkers.

Leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv authoritie­s said, there were about 5,000 undergroun­d structures designated as places of refuge in an emergency, compared with roughly 1,500 in 2014. During the first month of the war, the Kyiv Metro system served as emergency shelters for roughly 15,000 residents, and people also sought refuge after the daily curfew began at 7 p.m.

After Ukrainian forces reclaimed Kherson in November, many of those who had fled returned home. The victory fueled national optimism, and the government began to repair war-ravaged infrastruc­ture. Some would say life was returning to normal.

But even after its retreat from Kherson and Mykolaiv, Russia has continued to attack hospitals and residentia­l areas in the region. Russia still controls enough of Kherson and neighborin­g Zaporizhzh­ia to keep hold of its land bridge to Crimea.

The threat is far from over, but Gynzhul said she is determined to stay.

Gynzhul told Reuters that her son is preparing to be deployed to Bakhmut, to the east, to fight occupying Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials reported that fighting remained heavy in the city, in the Donetsk region. “The intensity of fighting is only increasing,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Ukraine celebrated what it deems to be the first day of spring, and many hailed it as a symbolic victory that the country made it through a winter of war.

Gynzhul shares that hopeful outlook.

“Our future depends on our attempts to make our place better. We’ll try as good as we can to live in a village with flowers, a clean house and green trees again. Everything will be all right,” she said.

“Because we built this building here, we can live like normal people. It hurt me to see how everything got destroyed.”

Svitlana Gynzhul, 55, who is among the 30 of Luch’s 50 remaining residents who live in bunkers

 ?? LISI NIESNER/REUTERS ?? Svitlana Gynzhul stands in front of the building where she once lived, now uninhabita­ble after Russian shelling left her hometown in the Mykolaiv region devastated. She moved into a bunker permanentl­y with her husband and son in August after her apartment was bombed.
LISI NIESNER/REUTERS Svitlana Gynzhul stands in front of the building where she once lived, now uninhabita­ble after Russian shelling left her hometown in the Mykolaiv region devastated. She moved into a bunker permanentl­y with her husband and son in August after her apartment was bombed.

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