Yaryna Arieva and Sviatoslav Fursin are not going to celebrate their first wedding anniversary this Friday.
The Ukrainian couple got married on the day Russia launched a full-scale attack on their country. A year later, Ukraine is still at war. Russian missiles are still falling from the sky and people are still dying.
There isn’t much to celebrate, they say. “A year has passed and all the memories, they start coming back,” Arieva told CNN at her and Fursin’s home in Kyiv.
She said that, for months, she avoided wearing a suit she got just days before the invasion because it was bringing back memories of the darkest moments of her life.
“It’s not the memories you want to have in your head all the time,” she said.
Arieva, 22, and Fursin, 25, rushed to tie the knot in St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on February 24, months before their planned wedding in May. They wanted to be together, whatever came next. The place has since become a favorite spot for visiting foreign dignitaries on their show-of-support trips to Kyiv. Most recently, US President Joe Biden was photographed there with Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky during his surprise visit on Monday.
“I remember my wedding ceremony and that feeling of not knowing anything. That unpredictable and really scary future,” Arieva said.
The same day, they collected their weapons and signed up as volunteers with their local unit of territorial defense force, the volunteer branch of Ukraine’s armed forces, determined to defend their city. Arieva serves as an elected Kyiv City councilor, a part-time unpaid government position that meant she was given a weapon.
Fursin was immediately sent toward the front lines. He told CNN he saw a bus full of volunteers and simply jumped in, unsure where it was headed.
He and other volunteers were forming the second line of defense north of Kyiv, in Irpin, Hostomel and other areas that quickly became key battlegrounds.
“The first night, we were totally not ready. We didn’t have any trenches, nothing,” he said.
Fursin was put in charge of a group of 10 people, mostly other very young men. His qualifications? He was the only one of the 11 who had held an automatic weapon before.
“The commander watched how I handled the weapon and said: ‘Take these people and make shelters and ambush positions and think about which way you will run,’” Fursin related. “We were digging trenches. Just digging, digging, digging, all night.”
Arieva, meanwhile, was back at the base of their territorial defense unit in Kyiv, trying to be helpful.
“The first night when I was waiting for my husband, when he left for his first battle, I think it was the scariest night of my life, because of course, I couldn’t call him because he had to turn his phone off,” she said.
“I wasn’t religious but at that moment I prayed to all [the] gods I know for him to come back safe.”
The next month and a half is a blur.
Fursin kept going on missions. He was mostly manning checkpoints and forming a second line of defense, but he did find himself face-to-face with Russian troops a couple of times and was trained in firing anti-tank missiles. He refuses to go into details beyond saying he had used his weapons during that time. “We were told not to talk about it,” he said.
Arieva, meanwhile, was working in a tiny office with eight other people, 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day. There were three small tables with barely enough space for the computers, let alone the people. Bounty and Snickers bars, cigarettes and tobacco sticks became hard currency during that time.
They both admit the experience was a tough one.
“In our dreams, when we were imagining it, we were so heroic and strong. And the reality was that we washed once a week because there were no showers in there and it wasn’t very pleasant, [with] the lack of sleep and sometimes food,” she said.
Still, they look back at the time with pride and fondness.
“Everyone forgot who they are, if they were very famous or very, very rich or very [influential] politicians, they were just helping each other, standing together smoking and not knowing what was going on,” Arieva said.
Arieva said she quit smoking just days before the war began, but her determination didn’t last.
“I said I will quit on victory day, but I might have to try earlier,” she said.
When Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region in early April, Arieva and Fursin’s time in the territorial defense came to an end. The military decided it needed to make the volunteer units more professional and only those with previous military experience were allowed to stay.
Fursin and Arieva were asked to leave the force.
“It was hard to become civilians again, because we didn’t want to be protected, we wanted to do something,” she said.
They tried to enjoy the small things, like the first cappuccino since the start of the war.
“It was the tastiest thing. That cappuccino with the foam, that beauty, that taste, it [the war] has really made us value things much more,” she said.
For Fursin, last year’s invasion was the second of his life. He grew up in Crimea and was living on the Ukrainian peninsula when Russia forcibly annexed it in 2014. His grandmother was too ill to travel at the time, so they stayed.
“I remember how the place has changed after that. We used to joke that you go to sleep in one country and wake up in another,” he said.
When Fursin’s family finally left Crimea, they settled in Irpin. Just three years later, their home was, once again, invaded by Russian troops.
The couple describes the shock of coming back to Irpin after it was liberated in early April. The town north of Kyiv became the front line during the battle for the capital city. It was here that Ukrainian forces managed to repel the attack.
The family home was still standing, but was severely damaged, with windows shattered and half of the building scorched.
Back in the civilian world, the couple began volunteering, bringing food and basic supplies to liberated settlements north of Kyiv. The demand was so overwhelming that sometimes they had to make multiple trips a day.
“I remember Katyuzhanka, because we brought a lot of bread and macaroni and some pasta sauce and batteries and there was a huge amount of people waiting. We gave out everything we had and we had to go back and bring more bread because more than half [of the] people didn’t get anything and they didn’t have a slice of bread in that town,” Arieva said.
She still remembers people sharing terrifying stories of life under occupation and bursting into tears upon hearing strangers speak Ukrainian.
“It was really … hard to even listen to these stories, it hurts,” she said.
Slowly, life started to return to normal. It was spring, and Kyiv was in full bloom. It really felt like renewal, they said.
They had their official town hall wedding and a small celebration in May, mostly because the deposit was paid and non-refundable. Arieva finally got to introduce her husband to her 97-year-old great-grandmother.
They had both lost their jobs right at the beginning of the invasion. Arieva was working for the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an observer organization, and Fursin for a housing co-op in Irpin.
As they started running out of money, they decided to focus on work and their studies.
Over the summer, Fursin finally graduated from university. He began his degree in Crimea, but when his family fled the occupied peninsula in 2019, he had to start over. He is now working on and off on software development projects.
Arieva, meanwhile, decided to focus on learning to code. Tech is the only sector that is still growing in Ukraine, because it allows people to work remotely.
But their plan to work and study remotely got derailed when Russia launched a wave of attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in the fall. Working was quickly becoming impossible.
“We would have two hours of electricity, then five hours without electricity, then three hours of electricity, it was really demoralizing,” Arieva said.
“The worst thing about that was that the streets weren’t lit. And not all people use their torches or have [reflective] jackets to be seen on the road. And every week I would see a car crash from my balcony and some people died,” she added.
In the fall, they adopted a cat and called him Kus, Ukrainian for “bite.” Even now, months later, Fursin’s arms are covered in cat scratches.
As Christmas started approaching, the couple, along with their families, decided to switch the date they’d celebrate the Christmas holiday.
Instead of January 7, which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Julian calendar, still used by the Russian Orthodox Church, they celebrated on December 24, which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Gregorian calendar.
“So we had two Christmases in 2022,” Arieva said.
Ukraine’s Orthodox church announced in the fall that it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas in December.
“It makes more sense. It was more symbolic and I really liked it. And also it feels good that we are not celebrating with Russians anymore,” Arieva said.
The family didn’t have the usual full spread of 12 dishes for Christmas dinner, because the electricity was on for just six hours that day. They cooked Kutia, the traditional Ukrainian porridge-like Christmas meal that consists of wheat or rice, raisins, walnuts, honey and poppy seeds, using the emergency gas cylinder.
As the first anniversary of the war — and their wedding — approaches, Arieva and Fursin are reflecting on how the year has changed them.
Arieva said she is a completely different person. “I became less naive and less childish. And maybe it has made me a little bit stronger. Because what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, of course,” she said.
“Only when you see this, you understand the value of life. And for me, this is 100%,” Fursin said. “What we went through together, I understand that [we are] completely different. And that we [continue] to love each other, that, for me, is maybe the biggest sign that it’s true love,” he said.
Yulia Kesaieva, Ingrid Formanek, Dasha Markina-Tarasova and Mark Phillips contributed to this report.