As Dreams of Peace Wither, Nightmares Flourish in Ukraine’s Sleep

KYIV, Ukraine — The Russian tanks roll up to the house of 4-year-old Taras and open fire, burying his mother in debris. Taras tries, as hard as he can, to pull her from the rubble, but she is too heavy, and so he just pulls uselessly on her arm.

Then he awakes — sobbing uncontrollably.

Taras’s mother, Anastasia Haidukevych, 41, described her son’s nightmare in an interview. “I tried to hide the war from him,” she said, “but the war is everywhere around us.”

For many, even dreams offer no haven.

A year into the Russian invasion, the war is touching Ukrainians in the small hours of night, even those who live far from the front line and have not personally witnessed the violence, like the Haidukevych family, which lives in Kyiv.

In a recent online survey, 70 percent of Ukrainians reported having had a nightmare about war, and 30 percent said they had seen death in their dreams.

Psychologists say that vivid dreams are a common response to major life change and that Ukrainians will probably still have war dreams long after the fighting is over.

Ukrainians who have seen combat or destruction often live through the trauma again in their sleep. “Some people see the disturbing events repeated in their dreams,” DreamApp said in a report on its survey, in which more than 700 people took part.

But psyches adapt to big life changes in different ways. And so some who took the survey recounted dreams not of distress but of safety and comfort, of life before the war, sometimes set during childhood.

Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood at dawn.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
In his dreams, Russian tanks rolled up to the house of 4-year-old Taras and opened fire. “I tried to hide the war from him,” said his mother, Anastasia Haidukevych, “but the war is everywhere around us.”Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

These show “that what you are missing in life at the moment can come in dreams, and it helps them feel better,” said Victoria Semko, a psychologist who helped found a group of therapists that helps people who lived through the brutal Russian occupation of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.

But even nightmares can be helpful.

“When people dream of traumatizing events, it helps to relive them again, but in a calmer environment,” said Ms. Semko. “It helps to heal.” But experiencing trauma with the understanding that it is in a dream traumatizes others all over again, she said.

The State of the War

  • A Shortage of Weapons: Ukraine and Russia are running low on ammunition and are scrambling to replenish their stocks and gain a competitive edge.
  • Cyberattacks: Microsoft said that a hacking group with ties to the Russian government appears to be preparing new cyberattacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and government offices.
  • U.S. Drone: A Russian warplane struck a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea, in the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war started.
  • Kherson: Three months after Ukrainians celebrated the expulsion of Russian forces from it, the city remains very much a war zone.

In interviews, more than a dozen Ukrainian civilians and soldiers who did not take part in the DreamApp survey all described vivid, anxiety-ridden dreams of a sort they said they did not experience before the war began, in February 2022,

Early in the war, Olena Bond, a 44-year-old Kyiv resident, struggled to sleep, she said. A doctor prescribed antidepressants — and then the dreams began. “Many dreams were about me killing people, killing enemies,” Ms. Bond said.

They became more frequent in the fall, after Russia began launching long-range missile strikes on critical infrastructure in cities far from the front.

“I had a dream recently that a very powerful explosion lifted me into the air, and then I fell down in a long, slow fall,” Ms. Bond said. “As I fell, I was thinking, I am alive, I am still alive.”

Ivan Chuiko, a soldier fighting in eastern Ukraine, recalled his dreams from before the war as being generally light and happy.

No more.

“Once I woke in the trench in the middle of the night and couldn’t understand if I am still sleeping or it is reality,” said Mr. Chuiko, 37. “I was talking with my friends, but we could not find a common language. It was as if some devil or evil force was standing between us. I couldn’t properly see the devil, but I knew it was there.”

Usually, the visions that haunt his sleep are less abstract.

“Mainly I dream of tank battles,” Mr. Chuiko said.

Anzhelika Vagorovska reading a bedtime story to her daughters Yaryna, 4, and Polina, 9.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
Burned-out housing blocks in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

But another soldier, Svyatoslav, 45, said his dreams on the front line were for the most part extremely pleasant. “I often dream of what there will be in the future, after the war,” he said.

Nazar Kuzmin, 33, a soldier, fought in the same unit as his brother, who was killed in action in November.

“I sleep well when there is no shelling and do not remember my dreams,” Mr. Kuzmin said. “But recently I heard my brother’s voice in my dream. It was easier to be here at war with my brother, when we were together.”

The dead come to Anzhelika Vagorovska, too.

On the very first day of the war, a Ukrainian pilot was shot down by a Russian missile and died. He was Ms. Vagorovska’s father. “I speak to him very often in my dreams,” she said,

Ms. Vagorovska, 34, a lawyer, evacuated to Germany with two small daughters after Ukraine was invaded but found it hard to be away from home. She returned in October.

“In Germany, I dreamed about home,” she said, “and here in Kyiv, I dream about my childhood in Lysychansk.” That city was largely destroyed in fighting last spring and is now occupied by Russia’s military.

In Lysychansk, Ms. Vagorovska lived with her grandparents in a house on a hill that overlooked the city. At night, they would see the city lights twinkle. Now, she says, she dreams of it.

Early in the war, Olena Bond, 44, struggled to sleep, she said. A doctor prescribed antidepressants — and then the terrifying dreams began. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
A bedtime lamp for two children in Kyiv. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“Whatever I’m dreaming of, in my dreams I always have the knowledge that there is war,” she said.

Ukrainians who have borne the worst of the war sometimes find that their nights follow common paths.

“We all have similar dreams,” said Halyna Balabanova, who evacuated from the besieged city of Mariupol last March and has stayed in touch with others who fled.

Ms. Balabanova, a 34-year-old civic activist, lost friends and relatives in Mariupol and barely survived herself.

“I have a repeated dream that I have very little time and I’m going back home to pack my things,” she said. “Sometimes in my dream, I go back to only pick up the photo albums and my favorite scarf.”

Other dreams are still more disturbing.

“Often, I return to the past in my dream and talk to my friends and relatives who are dead or missing,” she said. “I am trying much harder to persuade them to flee. I tell them that staying will end with nothing good.”

A dugout next to a Ukrainian checkpoint in the Sumy region.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
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