Everybody who knew Taras and Olha Melster was surprised when they signed up for a Ukrainian volunteer unit on the first day of the war.
They had no military experience. They were professionals building their own businesses. They were trying to have kids.
“I was afraid — immediately,” said Taras’s mother, Liudmyla Shestakova, who was close to both her son and daughter-in-law. “I knew what war meant. War means death. War never brings anything good.”
But Olha brushed it off. “We’ll be fine,” she reassured everyone. “No worries.”
That was always Olha’s line. No worries.
What ultimately happened to Taras and Olha, a middle-class husband and wife who shared a trench on the front line, and died in it, represents the hole in Ukrainian society that plunges deeper every day. No part of this country, even quiet places like Kropyvnytskyi, where Taras and Olha were mapping out their futures, has been spared.
The blows absorbed here are like internal injuries. On the surface, Kropyvnytskyi, a city of 230,000 people surrounded by vast wheat fields, looks untouched. There are no boarded-up windows, blown-out buildings or soldiers crouching behind sandbags. “Even the Russians aren’t interested in us,” one woman at a store recently joked.
But everyone here seems to know someone who died. It’s as if a long, thin nerve connects this city, in the center of Ukraine, and so many others like it, to the bloodshed along the inflamed front line.
The city’s military cemetery won’t stop growing. Nearly every day, another coffin is slipped into the cold black soil. Each grave is marked by a mound, a cross, a flag and a framed portrait. The gallery of faces stares back in silence, scores of young men and exactly one young woman cut down in their prime.
While Russia has relied on prisoners and mercenaries to do some of its dirtiest fighting, all ranks of society have been mobilized in Ukraine. Among them are countless urban professionals like Taras and Olha who felt moved to serve, along with famous athletes, award-winning filmmakers, inspiring environmentalists, one of the country’s best pyrotechnics experts, a beloved urban tour guide, singers, dancers, poets, painters, scientists, entrepreneurs and linguists. A year into the war, thousands of them are dead.
“The choice we face is simple,” said Yevhen Mahda, a political scientist. “We continue fighting and lose the best of the best or we let them turn this country into Bucha,” the ravaged Kyiv suburb where, last spring, Russian troops killed hundreds of civilians in cruel, barbaric ways.
Street fighting and major airstrikes never reached Kropyvnytskyi, where Taras and Olha Melster started their life together.
While Ukrainian officials have provided detailed information about civilians killed by Russian forces, they remain tight-lipped about military casualties, saying such information could “demotivate” troops, maybe even help the enemy. Intellectuals like Mr. Mahda don’t disagree.
“Now is not the time for mourning,” he said. “It’s a time for hate.”
Websites and gingerbread
Taras and Olha met when they were 8 years old, part of Kropyvnytskyi’s tiny Jewish community, the remnants of what was once a vibrant group massacred during World War II. They went to the same Jewish school before it closed because there weren’t enough students and later joined environmental protests together. In one picture of them as teenagers, Taras flashes an easy smile with a green scarf cinched around his neck; Olha stares at the camera with dark eyes radiating intensity.
They attended college here — Taras studying electrical work, Olha studying art — and they entered and exited relationships with other people. Six and a half years ago, at age 25, they married.
The State of the War
- Western Support: Nearly one year into the war, American and European leaders pledged to remain steadfast in their support for Ukraine amid worries about how long their resolve will last.
- Harris’s Comments: Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the United States had formally concluded that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” in its invasion of Ukraine.
- A Russian Mole in Germany?: A director at Germany’s spy service was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Russia. German officials and allies worry just how deep the problem goes.
- Rebuilding Ukraine: As Ukraine’s leaders lay postwar plans, businesses around the world are positioning themselves for what could be a multibillion-dollar effort.
When war erupted on Feb. 24, 2022, they were living in a tiny apartment with bare walls and a huge dog, Mika. Taras was building websites. Olha had created a business doing online classes for gingerbread decorations.
Like so many other Ukrainians seized by patriotic duty and a real fear that the Russians were headed their way, they rushed to volunteer. But no one wanted to take Olha, friends said.
So she latched on, as a cook, to a different unit from Taras of the Territorial Defense Force, a nationwide network of volunteer groups helping with the war effort.
Taras thought he would be working on the sidelines with his computer skills. One of his friends who signed up with him, Vitalii Bilous, a bus driver, said: “We never thought we’d go to the front.”
They didn’t, at first. Taras ran a checkpoint in town — unnecessary, because the Russians never came close to Kropyvnytskyi, which is tucked into an agricultural area far from major strategic targets. Olha worked in a giant kitchen churning out stuffed cabbage rolls.
In late May, Taras received new orders. His unit was deploying to Donbas, the eastern region where, just as they are now, the Russians and Ukrainians were slaughtering each other in World War I-style trench warfare.
Olha begged to go too, friends said, and everyone tried to talk her out of it — her mother, her mother-in-law, the unit’s commander, even Taras.
“I was really worried about Olha,” Liudmyla said. “If she went, it would be harder for Taras. He would have to protect her. But I didn’t know how to stop her.”
They got some firearms training — for one and a half days, Mr. Bilous said. Then they deployed to a pine forest near the city of Sievierodonetsk where they were supposed to be the second or even third line of defense, the unit’s commander, Capt. Volodymyr Kanchuk, said. With so many professional soldiers killed, they were pushed all the way forward to what is called the “zero line.”
Olha was the only woman in the unit. Their mission was to hold a trench and keep the Russians from advancing. But the Russians were shelling the area so hard that by mid-June, the 80-person combat unit had — because of desertions, casualties and other problems — been cut down to 25.
All of Olha’s messages home were upbeat and reassuring. “Everything is fine here,” she texted. “All is quiet.”
But looking back on it, Liudmyla says, “I think they knew they were going to die there.”
She had the ‘will of heart’
Ukrainian military officials have not disclosed what percentage of the million-or-so strong fighting force is made up of people with no previous experience. Estimates put it as high as 40 percent or 50 percent.
“This is the Ukrainian Army,” explained Oleksandr Mykhed, a Ukrainian writer who recently lost a good friend, a celebrated film editor turned soldier. “It started in 2014, with the first wave of volunteer battalions who went from Maidan to the front,” he said, referring to a protest movement that began at the Maidan square, in Kyiv. “We are a combination of official armed forces and the fresh energy of those who come by will of heart.”
Olha clearly had the will of heart. She was supposed to stay at company headquarters in an abandoned sawmill, two kilometers back. But she kept sneaking back to the front line with her body armor, gun and sleeping bag.
“We used to chase her away from the trenches, but she kept trying to get to her husband,” Captain Kanchuk said.
She also seemed to take to combat. Several times, other soldiers said, when Russian infantry charged, she helped repel the attacks, peeking her head above the trench and opening fire with her assault rifle.
“She was totally into it,” Mr. Bilous said.
None of the other soldiers, including the commander, thought it was a great idea for Taras and Olha to be together but they all said they didn’t have the heart to separate them.
Mr. Bilous said: “When I asked Taras about this once, he said: ‘Vitalii, don’t bring it up again. We’ve made our decision. I’d be worried about her if I wasn’t with her. And she’d be worried about me.’”
In quiet moments, the two lay together in the pine trees. They weren’t overwhelmingly affectionate in public, soldiers said. Maybe they’d kiss on the cheek.
On June 21, the first day of summer, a clear blue sky stretched over Sievierodonetsk. Olha arrived at 10 a.m. and joined Taras and Mr. Bilous in the trench. The Russians fired a few shells as they always did. Everyone took cover.
But the shelling intensified. Trees around them were blasted apart, Mr. Bilous said. The smell of smoke and split pine filled the forest.
Mr. Bilous doesn’t remember exactly what happened next.
He said he heard a deafening explosion and felt the earth rising up around him. He felt weightless. He felt blood sticking to his face. He didn’t know if it was his.
Something was lying on top of him in the trench. He groped through the dirt. He found the bodies of Taras and Olha next to each other, ripped apart. Then he passed out.
‘More than terrible’
Western officials have estimated that more than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded, and 200,000 for Russia. Each one is like a stone cast into a pond creating endless ripples of unbearable pain.
It was either a large rocket or a bomb from an airplane that killed Taras and Olha, the surviving soldiers said. Because it was such an unusual story, their funeral drew a crowd. The Memorial platform, a Ukrainian organization that commemorates the war dead, said that of the tens of thousands of Ukrainian casualties, Taras and Olha were the only case of a husband and wife serving and dying together on the front line.
Even eight months later, people in Kropyvnytskyi still come up to Taras’s mother, who leads a small environmental organization, and express condolences, which makes her feel uncomfortable.
“You have to understand, everyone in this country is fighting,” she said. “In my office, we have six people and all have someone on the front line. It’s terrible; it’s more than terrible.”
Taras was an only child. Olha was like a second child.
The other afternoon, Taras’s father, Yurii Melster, sat next to his son’s grave and shared a cigarette. He lit one and put it on the grave then lit another and smoked it. As his ash grew long and the last rays of whiskey-colored light poured through the trees, he asked Taras to forgive him.
“I should have tried harder to stop this war,” he said. “We all should have.”
Liudmyla still talks to Taras, too. She needs to keep him and Olha close. She allows herself to dream of their coming back.
She thinks of what has been lost and says: “How are we going to rebuild our country? How are we going to make it without all these people?”
And she never visits the graveyard. She says if she does, she will never leave.
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.