The director of the Mykolaiv office of the national postal delivery service keeps his windows open so he can listen to the sound of the barrage across the grassy plain, so he can tell how close he is to danger. He looks out to his left, and he can sometimes see smoke rising from the Russian-occupied town of Snihurivka; to his right, further out, is the occupied city of Kherson. He sees the jet streams of Ukrainian fighters flying low, just above the tree line. He once stood in the field nearby, posing for photos near the burned corpses of Russian vehicles and troops.
Nothing scares him anymore. He enjoys the sound of the air raid siren. He finds the quiet moments unsettling.
Since the invasion began, Kosorukov’s days have been the same. For the past two weeks, as Russia has stepped up its attacks on Mykolaiv, he wakes in his apartment in the city center to the sounds of shelling; first at one in the morning, then at three, then at four, and sometimes again at five. He comes in to the office at eight, and returns at six or six-thirty to his apartment, with its boarded-up windows, shattered by a recent blast, and sleeps in a makeshift basement shelter, on a street lined by buildings with their tops severed by explosions. He hasn’t had a day off, he says, because the Ukrainian military hasn’t either. Heavy bags hang beneath his tired eyes.
Kosorukov fills an imperative role for both civilian and military life in southern Ukraine: He directs the shipping of supplies to the southern front line, and helps civilians in outer settlements get their pensions and personal correspondence. All the while, he knows he is a target for the Russians. He keeps a loaded Makarov pistol within reach in his office. “It’s just one part of my arsenal, and I have a good position for shooting,” he says, gesturing out the window.
For the past four years, Kosorukov has overseen about 2,000 postal employees across the Mykolaiv region. Since the war began, that number shrank to about 1,200, as many in Mykolaiv fled for safer places. Out of Mykolaiv’s prewar population of 500,000, only about 20 percent remain, according to Kosorukov. At one point early in the war, he was one of about 10 people left in the main branch office, which used to employ more than 300. For three months he filled the roles of those who left, washing the floors, fixing electrical problems, and even keeping the fish in the tank in his office alive, despite the scarcity of pet food.
Some of his employees have been captured while delivering pension checks in Russian-occupied territory. One was badly injured in a missile attack, suffering lifelong injuries. One missile struck outside of the main branch, leaving a civilian badly wounded; another time, a short-range artillery blast ripped a hole through the roof of the old train platform near the loading dock. Russian soldiers have stolen nine of his new mail trucks in Snihurivka, and another two have been destroyed over the course of the war. Each morning, before the mail trucks depart for their delivery routes at 8 o’clock, he checks the grounds and the rooftop for evidence of damage from any shelling overnight, when the city turns completely black and waits in silence for the shattering booms and bright flashes of fire and light from above.
All the while, he has continued to deliver the mail, sending drones, food, clothes, and other vital military gear to soldiers at the front, and ensuring that civilians in small towns surrounding Mykolaiv get their pensions and shipments of humanitarian aid. For his own employees, he’s procured clean water from nearby Odesa, as tap water has been unsafe to drink since the onset of the invasion. Despite the harsh conditions for living and working, he says he has never considered leaving.
“I’m the captain, and I’m the last one who leaves my ship,” he says. “What would happen if I left? Imagine what would happen to the rest of the workers if I left? How could I explain to those who stay why they should do their jobs? Who will help the military who need equipment? I want to see Ukrainian forces crush the Russians.”
One afternoon in early October, he shows his stockpile of supplies destined for soldiers and civilians. The air raid siren blares in the background, followed by the sounds of his employees shuffling down the steps to the shelter. Kosorukov is unmoved by the siren. “I love the sound,” he says. He points to boxes of diapers, gauze bandages, and tourniquets, children’s toys, and freeze-dried bags of borsht. There’s a box filled with a half-dozen empty fire extinguisher canisters, used for sending clandestine shipments to occupied Kherson. In his office he keeps a pile of handwritten letters from supporters from all over the world, people from Georgia, Belgium, Norway, Poland, and the United States.
“Sometimes you feel like you want to cry,” he says while flipping through the letters. “I’m a man, but it’s emotionally difficult to see letters from children.”
He keeps envelopes with popular wartime stamps, like the one commemorating the sinking of a Russian warship in the Black Sea, and his personal favorite, an image of a Ukrainian soldier’s hand grabbing the shoulder of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his back turned and gazing at a map of Ukraine, with text reading, Welcome to hell.
“If the Russians come, I’ll burn everything,” he says. “This building is mine. I’ll evacuate everyone and everything according to military procedure, then everything burns. Hopefully this never happens, and I’m 99 percent confident it won’t. But I will be the last to leave, and I will throw a cigarette in the fire behind me.”
But for now, he sits and waits for the air raid siren, for the sight of smoke billowing in the distance, for another day of delivering the mail.