Story and photos by Ed Ram for The Washington Post
Feb. 5 at 4:00 a.m.
Angular shards of ice clink off one another, turn and clink again as they cluster along the banks of the Dnieper River in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in the early months of 2023.
Just next to the water’s edge, Valerya Dobrovolska, 28, a website developer, trudges through the sand and ice, looking out toward the last slither of sun as it sets over the city’s domed skyline on the opposite bank.
“This is my safe place,” says Dobrovolska, who stayed in Kyiv when Russian troops attempted to invade the city in spring 2022, “My whole life is connected to this river.”
After nearly two years of war, Kyiv is in the flow of a new normal — calm on the surface, but pain and uncertainty running deep.
A Kyiv native, Dobrovolska comes to the river to reflect and remember family days out on the Dnieper’s banks with her father, who died of illness when she was 9.
So much has changed for every Ukrainian, but for Dobrovolska, the huge river provides rare consistency: “The river is my battery, it’s my charger,” she says.
It is impossible to understand Ukraine without understanding the Dnieper — its role in forging the fortunes of the nation, and its meaning to Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Europe’s fourth-longest river at around 1,367 miles (2,200 km), the Dnieper, which Ukrainians call the Dnipro, rises from the Valdai Hills midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, flows into Belarus and curls through the middle of Ukraine, powering cities, carrying goods and watering precious land before spilling into the Black Sea.
Photographer Ed Ram traveled the length of the river, from north to south, in the winter, spring, summer and fall of 2023, to reveal its vital role in a country at war.
Map locating Kyiv, Strakholissya, and Demydiv and the Dnieper River in Ukraine
A monument celebrating the founding of Kyiv on the Dnieper River is boarded up to protect it from potential Russian drone attacks in February 2023.
A painting by Volodymyr Slepchenko representing the Great Baptism in the Dnieper River hangs on a wall in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.
Workers take shelter under a glass mosaic depicting the Dnieper in a metro station during an air raid alarm in Kyiv.
People walk by the river in Kyiv.
Between a busy highway and the riverside promenade, children play in the snow around the Kyiv Founders Monument, completed in 1982 to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of Kyiv and now shrouded by boards and sandbags to protect it from Russian missile strikes.
Spears belonging to Viking brothers Kyi, Schek, Horyv and their sister Lybid poke out above the gray boarding. According to legend, the siblings founded Kyiv on the shores of the Dnieper in the 6th century. In the sculpture, they are shown arriving by boat from the north on their way to Tsargrad, present-day Istanbul.
Ukraine’s cultural history is intertwined with the river.
In his 1845 poem “My Testament,” Ukraine’s most cherished poet, Taras Shevchenko, wrote of not being able to rest until Ukraine was free and the river’s water “bears … the blood of foes.” That same struggle against Russian oppression continues today.
Pushing large slabs of floating ice out of their way, wild swimmers start their day by plunging naked into the Dnieper’s brutally cold water on an island in Kyiv’s hydropark.
“The river is our life, it gives us energy — we can’t live without water,” says Valentina Shevchenko, 65, a retired economist who leads a weekly exercise class by the river. Shevchenko insists she has swum “every day for 17 years” — even in the first days of war.
“I feel amazing,” says Olena Korotchuk, 46, walking barefoot over ice and wrapping herself in a thin shawl. Korotchuk swims after weekend canoe training with the Salsa Dragon Boat team. In 2017, they won the European Dragon Boat Race Championship in France.
No matter the weather, the swimmers say, the water is good for their bodies and clears their minds.
“We are trying to fight our neighbor, work and pay taxes,” says Yevheniy Yakovenko, 35, his large beard soaked in river water. “So we need a release for all the negative emotions.”
With Europe to the west and Russia to the east, Ukraine’s identity and geography are united and divided by the Dnieper. Ukrainians understand their demography by referencing the river’s left and right banks; right being to the west and left to the east looking downstream.
When Russia invaded Ukraine from Belarus in February 2022, fishermen Andriy Bushuev, 53, and Olexandr Dvorianets, 40, from the riverside village of Strakholissya were sandwiched between occupying forces and a swollen section of the river called the Kyiv Sea.
With other locals, the men evacuated about 1,500 civilians using two small fishing boats, crossing the river’s 10-mile breadth with up to 16 people per boat, three times per day.
On return journeys, their boats were first full of food and medicine — then later, with explosives and Ukrainian soldiers, who secretly massed on the Dnieper’s western shores.
In Strakholissya, by the Dnieper’s edge, stand gold-painted busts of middle-aged men and a statue of a woman holding a baby and pushing back a dragon. The monument is dedicated to water management workers who risked their lives to stop the radioactive contamination of the river after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Further south, some lowlands remain underwater near the village of Demydiv, which was deliberately flooded to halt the Russian advance in spring 2022.
Near the village of Vytachiv, south of Kyiv, soldiers Lyric, 27, and Borodo, 52, stand watch with a strobe light and a Soviet DShK-M heavy machine gun from 1946, ready to shoot down Russian drones as they fly up the river toward Kyiv. In keeping with military policy, they are being identified only by their call signs.
Lyric’s great-grandfather was captured while fighting Nazis by the Dnieper near Kyiv in World War II. “It scares me that we have to do the same job again now, in the 21st century,” he says.
By mid-February, their company of 80 men had shot down five Shahed 136 drones. “What else can we do?” asks Borodo, who is originally from Donbas. “I lost one home in Donetsk. I was very close to losing a second home here in Kyiv. If not us, who else?”
Map locating Cherkasy and the Dnieper River in Ukraine
The Dnieper River at dusk in Cherkasy.
An irrigation system uses water pumped from the river at the STOV Lomovate farm in Cherkasy.
Ivan Husak stands in a pumping station for the farm.
A woman tends to her allotment in central Cherkasy.
For hundreds of years, the Dnieper has delivered life to Ukraine’s industrial heart, helping to keep economies working and production growing — even in war.
Three hours’ drive downstream from Kyiv, in the seed-producing Cherkasy region, the 4,000-hectare Lomovate farm, owned by French firm Lidea, is irrigated by the Dnieper with 3 million to 4 million cubic tons of water a year, farm manager Eduard Kozin explains.
“Everyone was shocked and lost” when the war broke out, Kozin says, but he and his colleagues quickly realized their work was part of Ukraine’s survival. “We decided to plant seeds wherever possible,” he says.
On the outskirts of Cherkasy, locals grow vegetables, watering shoots using crumpled bottles. “This water is from the tap — but it all comes from the Dnipro,” an elderly man says with a laugh.
Before Russia’s invasion, the Dnieper was a grain superhighway. Nibulon, one of Ukraine’s biggest grain companies, used its fleet of 86 barges and tugboats to lug up to 3.7 million tons of grain from storage facilities along the river to ports on the Black Sea. In wartime, shipping is banned, and the vast grain containers now stand next to the boatless river.
Nibulon’s founder, Oleksiy Vadatursky, 74, and his wife were killed by a Russian missile strike in Mykolaiv in July 2022.
Dressed in long, green coats, workers at the Irkliiv Fish Nursery heave a net across the width of one of the site’s 54 fish ponds. The water boils with flashes of fin and tail — and an occasional carp makes a lucky leap to temporary freedom. The men scoop the wiggling fish into a rusty container.
Map locating the cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia and the Dnieper River in Ukraine
People swim at a public beach on the banks of the Dnieper River in the city of Dnipro.
Plants grow on the dried-out river bed near the town of Maryanske.
People collect water from emergency water containers in Marhanets.
Evgeniy fishes at dusk near the city of Kamianske.
As dozens of delighted children splash and cool off on the river’s grassy banks in Dnipro city, the unmistakable smell of sewage carries in the 98-degree heat. From a nearby drainage canal, filthy water slides directly into the river.
“Of course I’m worried about the pollution, but we don’t have a sea. We want to spend time on the water,” says Ludmyla Kulykova, 33, a bank worker whose 18-month-old toddler, David, is playing at the water’s edge. Kulykova picks up her boy as a small black water snake slithers past.
Before the 2022 invasion, Ukraine’s Accounting Chamber warned that the river was heading for an “ecological disaster” when 161 pollutants were found. About 70 percent of the country’s prewar population used the Dnieper and its tributaries as their main water source.
“This is a clean place,” insists Volodymyr Pogribnyi, 60, an electrician, tanning bolt upright in the Sunday afternoon sun.
But experts aren’t convinced. The decades-old drainage system was designed to release city rainwater into the river, but small businesses and private homeowners illegally dump waste into the storm collectors, says Victor Demianow, Dnipro’s leading hydrologist.
“It’s a huge problem,” Demianow says.
A recent water test found a highly alkaline pH of 9.7 — toxic to most freshwater inhabitants and very toxic to humans. On hot days, the Dnieper’s slow-moving reservoirs can turn bright green with vast blooms of blue-green algae, which produces toxins that deplete the water’s oxygen, starving fish and other aquatic life.
As the last light fades from the sky, Evgeniy, 65, sits and jokes with his friends by a promenade near the city of Kamianske at a spot where they fished for years. “Every year there are fewer fish, and some types of fish have gone altogether,” he said. “It’s the pollution.”
Map locating Kherson and the Dnieper River in Ukraine
Contested territory and, beyond it, occupied land lies behind the Dnieper River at a roadblock in central Kherson.
A curtain hangs in the rubble of a cultural center destroyed in the fighting in the village of Posad-Pokrovske on the outskirts of Kherson.
Olena Kotulya, center, lies in a pose at an aerial yoga class in Kherson.
Speech therapist Tetyana Zynevych sings with a group of children in the partially underground basement at the Kherson Regional Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation of Children with Disabilities during an air raid alarm.
Medic Vitaliy Tokarev, 46, snaps on white surgical gloves as the ambulance races down Kherson’s eerie streets, about one-third of a mile from the river. Albina Belous, 56, crying as she stands in the middle of the road, flags the medics and directs them to a house. Inside, her husband, Vitaliy Belous, 56, sits motionless on a sofa — a gaping hole in his left leg. Tokarev attaches a tourniquet and asks if there is anything else. Belous winces, leans forward on the sofa and points at his back. There is a large bloody hole between his shoulder blade and spine.
Ukraine liberated the riverside city of Kherson in November 2022. Since then, the Dnieper has been a front line, with the east bank still largely held by Russia.
In the city, danger levels increase as one approaches the Dnieper from the city center. Russian forces use drones and sniper sites to target military positions. Buildings close to the river’s edge are hit repeatedly.
Vitaliy Belous was walking his dog, Cosmos, when an artillery round landed behind him. He and Cosmos, who was also injured, staggered home.
Between 30 to 100 munitions land in the city every day, said Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for Kherson’s regional military administration.
Kristina Synya, 22, lives with her grandmother Zinaida Shykita, 75, in a riverbank community and coordinates food aid delivered by volunteers to residents in the area. Every few buildings are pocked by shell damage. Some houses and a science library are destroyed.
There is no power in the area. Synya and her grandmother are served tea by their friend Valentyna Chukhray, 76, with water boiled on a gas stove.
Despite the danger, life goes on. “We are already used to it,” Zinaida Shykita says. “And whatever the circumstances, we will not leave home.” Many of Ukraine’s elderly have refused to leave no matter how bad the war gets. “We grew up on this Dnipro,” Chukhray says. “The river is of great importance to us.”
Death also goes on. In a cemetery on the outskirts of Kherson, a funeral takes place for soldiers Oleksandr Ulanovskyy, 37, and Dmytro Medvid, 33. New graves are filled every week.
At the start of November, Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian poet and writer, came to Kherson to read to a packed basement in a city theater. The audience hung on his words, some with hands clasped, eyes brimming with emotion.
“Culture is not only entertainment … it is a natural need of people to be together, support each other and exchange energy,” Zhadan tells The Washington Post.
“I always felt like a left-bank Ukrainian,” Zhadan says after his performance. “This is not an opposition to the right bank, but it is an understanding that the Dnipro River is such a great metaphor, a great emblem, which seems to divide Ukraine, but actually unites it.”
Photography and text by Ed Ram. Editing by David Herszenhorn and Olivier Laurent. Design by Allison Mann. Design editing by Joseph Moore. Copy editing by Paola Ruano.