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

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian tanks arrive at the home of 4-year-old Taras, open fire and bury his mother in the rubble. Taras tries, with all her strength, to pull her out of the rubble, but she is too heavy, so she tugs uselessly on her arm.

She then wakes up, 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 refuge.

One year after the Russian invasion, the war is affecting Ukrainians in the early hours of the night, even those who live far from the front lines and have not personally witnessed the violence, such as the Haidukevych family, who live in Kiev.

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

Psychologists say that vivid dreams are a common response to big life changes and that Ukrainians will probably continue to have war dreams long after the fighting ends.

Ukrainians who have seen combat or destruction often relive the trauma in their sleep. “Some people see disturbing events repeated in their dreams,” DreamApp said in a report on your surveyin which more than 700 people participated.

But the psyche adapts to big life changes in different ways. And so some of the survey respondents did not recount dreams of anguish but of safety and comfort, of life before the war, sometimes set during childhood.

They show “that what you’re missing in life right now can come in your dreams and help you feel better,” said Victoria Semko, a psychologist who helped found a group of therapists who help people who lived through the brutal Russian occupation of Irpin, a suburb of Kiev.

But even nightmares can be useful.

“When people dream of traumatic events, it helps to relive them again, but in a calmer environment,” Ms. Semko said. “Helps heal.” But experiencing trauma with the understanding that it’s in a dream re-traumatizes others, she said.

In interviews, more than a dozen Ukrainian civilians and soldiers who did not participate in the DreamApp survey described vivid, anxiety-filled dreams of a kind 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, had trouble sleeping, she said. A doctor prescribed antidepressants and then her dreams began. “A lot of dreams were about me killing people, killing enemies,” Mrs Bond said.

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

“I recently had a dream in which a very powerful explosion lifted me into the air and then I fell in a long, slow fall,” Mrs Bond said. “As I was falling, I was thinking, I’m alive, I’m still alive.”

Ivan Chuiko, a soldier fighting in eastern Ukraine, recalled his pre-war dreams as generally light and happy.

No more.

“Once I woke up in the ditch in the middle of the night and I couldn’t understand if I was still sleeping or it was reality,” said Mr. Chuiko, 37. “I was talking to my friends, but we couldn’t find a common language. It was as if some devil or an evil force came between us. I couldn’t see the devil well, but I knew he was there.

The visions that haunt your sleep are usually less abstract.

“Mostly I dream of tank battles,” Chuiko said.

But another soldier, 45-year-old Svyatoslav, said that his dreams at the front were for the most part extremely pleasant. “I often dream of what 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 I don’t remember my dreams,” 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 also flock to Anzhelika Vagorovska.

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

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

“In Germany, I dreamed of my home,” he said, “and here in kyiv, I dream of my childhood in Lysychansk.” That city was largely destroyed during fighting last spring and is now occupied by the Russian army.

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

“Whatever I am dreaming, in my dreams I always have the knowledge that there is war,” he said.

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

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

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

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

Other dreams are even more disturbing.

“Often, I go back in my dream and talk to my friends and family who are dead or missing,” he said. “I am trying much harder to persuade them to run. I tell them that staying will not end in anything good.”