As Ukrainians around the country gathered glass bottles for Molotov cocktails and armed themselves against the Russian onslaught, Pavlo Servetnyk headed for the kitchen.
For the past two weeks since the Russians invaded, he’s been barely sleeping, working 20 hours a day to feed the people of Russian-occupied Kherson. Each day, the 28-year-old bakes thousands of loaves of bread, loads them into his truck or car, and drives them through the deserted streets, delivering them to people who are increasingly being cut off from outside food supplies as Russian forces choke the city of nearly 300,000.
Kherson was the first major city to fall since the war began. As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, the fight for survival around the country is intensifying. Basic supplies are running low, temperatures are dropping and multiple cities are under siege from heavy Russian bombardment.
Unified against a common enemy, Ukrainians are finding ways to resist – without even carrying a gun.
“All parts of my body are hurting – my wrists are hurting, and I am unable to open a door. That is why it is hard,” Servetnyk told CNN Tuesday, after spending hours a day kneading and baking.
Before the war, Servetnyk was a successful chef – he won Ukrainian MasterChef in 2019, and ran a pizza restaurant in Kherson. But on February 24, the Russians invaded Ukraine – and his life changed.
“There was no bread, it was a collapse,” Servetnyk says.
As the Russians shelled his country, Servetnyk and his partner drove to his parents’ house in a village on the outskirts of Kherson, desperate to flee Ukraine. “Get into the car, we will go somewhere,” he told them. His parents – who had witnessed other periods of tumult in their lives – laughed. “Where would we escape? Who is waiting for us there?” he remembers them saying. “The Russians are coming soon, they tell us that this is Russia now and we will go on with our lives.”
So Servetnyk decided to stay and resist. Many of Kherson’s bakers had either fled or gone into hiding, so Servetynyk turned his pizza restaurant into a bakery, and began making thousands of loaves of bread. To feed more people, he also roped in other bakers and distributed their bread, too.
“We did not escape, did not leave, but rather started saving people as best as we could,” he says.
Now Servetynyk begins each day at dawn, loading the back of his truck with golden loaves of bread baked either at his restaurant or the industrial bakery. Most of it is delivered for free to orphanages and elderly people on the outskirts of the city. Then he heads back to bake bread from midday late into the night.
The roads have been virtually empty since Russian forces flooded the city on March 2. By March 5, the city’s mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev said that Russian forces had “settled in” in the port city and showed no signs of leaving.
Russian occupiers met heavy resistance last weekend, with several hundred residents taking to the streets to protest, braving Russian gunfire and troops. In a video from a demonstration Sunday, an elderly woman defiantly looked into the camera lens and said quietly: “Save our country! Let them all die, together with Putin.”
But for the most part, residents have either fled or stayed indoors, afraid of encountering Russian troops who have set up checkpoints across the city.
Each trip Servetnyk takes to deliver bread carries a risk, he says, but without his deliveries, people would likely go hungry. He estimates that he and his partners only have about two weeks’ worth of ingredients left in their stores – and he doesn’t know what will happen afterward.
His recipe for “victory bread” is already basic – just made of flour, yeast, water and salt. Servetnyk is also being supported by donors from all over the world who help his team cover expenses such as fuel.
Servetnyk’s bread has become a lifeline for people in Kherson, but it’s more than just sustenance. In Ukraine – like other eastern European countries – bread has cultural significance, representing more than just food.
“In Ukraine, the smell of bread crust at the visceral level is something unbelievable just because we were baking it since the dawn of time,” Servetnyk says.
Even if Russians take Ukrainian land, they will not be able to take the Ukrainian people, he adds. When asked what Ukrainians are fighting for, he replied: “You should rather ask the Russians about it. We are fighting for our land… for our freedom.”
Servetnyk considered taking up arms against the Russians, until he heard the sound of a tank firing near the window of his home. He was terrified.
“That is when I understood that if I go to the battlefield and hear the sound of a tank, I would freeze and get killed,” he said.
“After hearing this sound, I understood that everybody must go about his own business. Military should fight and bakers should bake bread and help people,” he said.