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Kyiv doctor’s killing far from the front shows fallout of Russia’s war

Hryhorii Leontiev walks with his 5-year-old grandson, Hrysha, in Kyiv, Ukraine. He and his wife adopted Hrysha after a Russian airstrike killed the boy’s mother. (Alice Martins)


KYIV, Ukraine — Oksana Leontieva was late for work. The 36-year-old doctor was due at Ukraine’s top children’s hospital, where she treated patients with cancer and other serious diseases. But first she had to get her son to kindergarten.

An air raid siren was blaring across Kyiv, which meant, according to school rules, that Oksana, a widow and single mom, could not drop him off. It was Oct. 10. The alerts had been sounding for months, but there had been no strikes in the Ukrainian capital since the early weeks of Russia’s invasion. Most people went on with their lives. “I may be late for the morning meeting,” Oksana texted her colleagues, in a message which, along with interviews and traffic camera footage, confirmed her movements that morning. “Issues with accepting kids,” she wrote.

Finally, the school staff relented. Oksana told Hrysha, a blond, dark-eyed boy, goodbye. She put the car in gear and pulled out.

By October, more than seven months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a column of tanks rumbling toward Kyiv in a failed takeover attempt, an easy calm had settled over the city. Businesses reopened. After a quiet summer, displaced families flocked back from abroad, hoping to restart their lives.

That morning, as people bustled through their routines, dozens of Russian missiles streaked low and fast across a clear sky, tracking west across Ukraine from the Caspian Sea and other launch sites.

A little after 8 a.m., two missiles hurtled downward toward Kyiv’s leafy Shevchenkivskyi district. One slammed into a busy intersection, ripping a massive crater in the concrete as it erupted in a ball of fire. In an instant, the blast incinerated Oksana Leontieva’s car. She was just a mile from the hospital.

The strike at the junction of Volodymyrska Street and Tarasa Shevchenko Boulevard was part of a barrage of more than 80 missiles and drones targeting the entire country. At least 19 people were killed. It was the first wave in what would become months of relentless Russian strikes aimed at cutting electricity, heat and water during winter.

In Kyiv, the strikes hit far from military targets: a playground, a pedestrian bridge, an office tower. After the blasts, thousands of people packed into subway stations for shelter.

Putin, grave-faced in Moscow, said the assault was retaliation for an explosion that crippled a strategic bridge linking Russia to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed illegally in 2014. Russia would deal harshly with further threats, Putin vowed. “No one should have any doubt about that,” he said.

The attack highlighted Ukraine’s urgent need for air defense systems that might have saved Oksana and other civilians like Vira Hyrych, a journalist who died when a missile struck her apartment building in Kyiv in April 2022.

It also underscored the war’s human cost far from the front lines, robbing 5-year-old Hrysha of his only parent, and depriving Ukraine of a pediatric hematologist who provided children with lifesaving treatment.

Olha Daschakovska, a doctor who worked with Oksana at Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital, described her death as “murder.” “Russia took childhood not just from her son, but from other patients she could have cured,” Daschakovska said.

In February 2022, as Russian troops bore down on Kyiv, the staff at Okhmatdyt hospital hunkered down. Some slept in their offices for weeks.

While most patients were moved to the basement during air raid alerts, Oksana and her colleagues stayed on the floor where they treated patients with life-threatening immunodeficiencies. Leaving those sterile rooms, where children spent months recovering from bone marrow transplants and other procedures, would be as dangerous as a potential airstrike.

The Kremlin’s invasion marked the second earthquake in less than a year for Oksana. In August 2021, her husband, Artem, died suddenly of an aneurysm, at age 37.

After his death, Oksana juggled caring for Hrysha with long hospital shifts. Colleagues said that she smiled and joked less, but was managing.

Her father, Hryhorii Leontiev, said Oksana thought about leaving Ukraine when the invasion began. But she knew that she would need to start her career over, perhaps as a nurse not a doctor. Moreover, she would always be a foreigner, a solo parent far from her family.

Hryhorii said that staying was a practical decision. “She wasn’t a hero,” he said. “She was just considering the situation.”

In the meantime, she worried how Hrysha was coping with his father’s death. Oksana put out photos of her husband in the apartment. Daschakovska said that Hrysha did not want his mother to go work after his father died. “He was scared that she wouldn’t come home,” she said.

In the moments after the massive blasts in Kyiv on Oct. 10, Hryhorii Leontiev tried to call his daughter, but she did not pick up. He tried to tell himself that the cell network might be down.

Then he saw photos on social media showing that a car resembling hers had been hit, on a route he knew she might take. He hurried to one of the blast sites. Several burned-out vehicles were behind a police cordon. An investigator confirmed the license plate.

“What can I say?” the man said. There were human remains on the front seat. “Could it have been your daughter who was driving?”

Hryhorii knew it could not have been anyone else. But he did not know about Hrysha. Just tell me, he demanded: “Were there any remains in the child’s car seat in the back?”

The man said the car was too badly burned to know.

Hryhorii called the kindergarten. No one answered. The staff was probably sheltering in the basement with the children.

It wasn’t until an hour and a half later that he was able to confirm Hrysha was there. “If he had died, my wife and I probably wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “That was the hardest part.”

On a winter day four months after the Oct. 10 strikes, Hrysha dumped out a jumble of small plastic soldiers on a play table in his kitchen.

After Oksana’s death, Hryhorii and his wife, Ninel, moved into Oksana’s compact, tidy flat in a Kyiv high-rise. Staying in familiar surroundings, they thought, might make things easier for Hrysha.

Hryhorii noticed his grandson played with the soldiers constantly after his mother’s death. The boy says he wants to go to the front. “Those are bad soldiers,” he said one afternoon, referring to figures he designated as Russians. Hrysha knows the missiles are coming from their side. The soldiers smash together. Airplanes fly.

Hrysha used a calendar with cuddly kittens and bunnies to show off how he can count the days. He pointed to his birthday, which was circled: Oct. 5. “But it’s far away,” he said wistfully.

His grandfather pointed at Oct. 10, the day of the strikes. What happened then, he asked?

“I’m not going to tell you what happened that day,” Hrysha said.

After Oksana died, her older brother, who has three children, offered to adopt Hrysha. But Hryhorii decided it would be best if he and Ninel, who are in their 60s, adopted him.

Oksana’s friends and colleagues helped them navigate Ukraine’s complex adoption process, including medical checks.

“Now we have sort of a second youth. We get to be Mom and Dad again,” Hryhorii said. “But of course we can’t be Mom and Dad. He had a mom and dad, and he remembers them.”