Coding in a war zone: A Ruby developer's life in Kharkiv

@zverok asks dev world for support as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues


Interview Victor Shepelev, known as @zverok on Twitter and GitHub, is a Ruby developer and software architect who lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Since Russia invaded his country on February 24, 2022, he's had more pressing concerns than writing code, such as keeping his family safe and helping his fellow citizens survive.

In a blog post on Tuesday, he wrote about his situation in the hope that public attention will encourage international political action to help Ukraine prevail.

Kharkiv (Ха́рків in Ukrainian) is the second largest city in Ukraine and home to about 1.4 million people, or about 2.6 million if you count the entire province (oblast), at least in peacetime. Therein, one can find the Derzhprom building and Freedom Square, Pokrovskyi Monastery, Dormition Cathedral, the Kharkiv Zoo, and numerous other landmarks now eclipsed by Ukraine's collective struggle to survive. For locals, the Kharkiv Metro has become a destination for its resilience against Russian bombs.

Victor Shepelev's family in the basement/shelter on the third day of war when Kharkiv was heavily bombed

War zone: Victor Shepelev's family in a basement shelter while Kharkiv was heavily bombed

Shepelev says his district has been relatively calm in recent days; other districts in the city have fared worse. The city overall has reportedly lost about 600 buildings since the war began. It's not currently occupied by the Russians, he says, like Kherson and Melitopol. Nor is it blockaded like Mariupol or obliterated like Volnovaha and other small towns. Nonetheless, Kharkiv has sustained heavy damage and continues to suffer bombardment. And worse may yet come.

From the start of the war through March 13, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recognized 1,761 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 636 killed and 1,125 injured. The OHCHR "believes that the actual figures are considerably higher."

Since his initial post on the invasion on March 3, Shepelev has managed to get his family, pictured above, out of Kharkiv and returned to assist people in need.

"With no military experience and even no driving license, I do things on a very small scale: just delivering food and other necessities (diapers, cat food, toilet paper, women hygienic products) to those in need in my district, on foot," he wrote.

"With a large tourist backpack, it takes just several hours of my day, and I am happy with this distraction.

"The rest of the time, I am trying to work on my day job (though my employer Hubstaff made it clear they’ll support me even if I am not able to, for which I am thankful). Doomscrolling. Talking with friends and family who stayed in other districts or went to safer cities."

Coding in a combat zone

On Wednesday, Shepelev took time to respond to a few questions from The Register about life during wartime.

The Register: Your Twitter account calls attention to two aspects of your identity: Rubyist and poet. Has Russia's war against Ukraine affected the way you think about yourself, and if so, in what way?

Shepelev: Well, the Twitter tagline is just a Twitter tagline (and the old one, and only related to my "tech" persona). If I'll try to declare my identity briefly, it would be rather "Writer (of code and texts) from Ukraine" – both parts are equally important. And no, this hasn't changed much recently. My Ukrainian identity had crystallized through the last years (when I was younger, I preferred to perceive myself more as a cosmopolitan person). That's what I am, at least publicly (my family and personal relations aside): live in Ukraine and write texts."

What should the world know about Kharkiv?

It is a big city with European aspirations. Not the prettiest, though it has its moments. Not the most patriotic (before the war), but definitely Ukrainian. A lot of factories, a lot of universities (some with an international reputation). Proud of its "second largest square in Europe" (Freedom square, the one that was bombed a week ago) and its architectural ensemble of Kharkiv State University and Derzhprom building, and some recently renovated parks (the largest was bombed 2 days ago).

Mostly Russian-speaking (but this is Ukrainians speaking Russian, not "Russians living in Ukraine"). Somewhat politically amorphous – before the war. Very calm and focused and defense/victory-oriented now.

Hometown of Serhii Zhadan, one of the most well-known Ukrainian writers/poets, and currently very active leader of a volunteer group.

Has your technical knowledge proven useful in your current situation and if so in what way?

Not directly, unfortunately. I am mostly experienced in writing expressive code, designing architectures of long-living systems, and mentoring people, not the most required abilities in wartime.

Does the Ruby or open-source community provide community and support in wartime? Should it function any differently than it has in the context of a crisis?

Sad to say, but I don't feel much support. There are some people in my social circles in the Ruby community who do a lot, but as for the community as a whole, I think it stays mostly indifferent.

My pleas to spread the information are by and large ignored.

Maybe I am being selfish here, but I see that even small steps that could be done (like banners on sites of big projects, tweets from prominent Rubyists, mentions in newsletters) – those steps aren't done even by a lot of people I know personally. I know some of them are sending money or helping in some other private ways, but I really lack the feeling of public support, people still mostly think it is some "politics they shouldn't mix with their everyday life".

There are others, of course, and to them, I am eternally grateful.

What has most surprised you since the invasion began?

Umm, a lot of stuff. When you are living inside the real war, like in books and movies, you get surprised constantly, you know! Say, the extent of shameless attacks on living quarters and civilian infrastructure by Russians can be called surprising by some; or the extent of their lies about "limited operation with only military targets attacked."

What most inspires you or gives you hope right now?

The unity that Ukrainians show from the very first days. I was not a fan of many politicians (including the President, or the Kharkiv mayor), but the way they became during the war shows an example of what's happening here. Basically, Ukrainians show their best in the toughest of times, and we have never seen tougher. The people are incredible, and however grim is our reality, it is the ultimate nation-uniting moment.

How do the security and privacy concerns that exist in a peacetime IT context change in a wartime context? Do people adequately understand these issues? And do software/hardware vendors provide the necessary tools for this transition? (I'm thinking about reports of people having to delete all the messages on their phones so they don't get detained if searched.)

Sorry, I don't have good answers to this group of questions. I am not really involved with any OpSec personally (and what I know second-hand from those who are, I'd rather not share), but for me here nothing changed much in the regard of privacy. Of course, I am not a public person that would be interesting to hack. Neither am I in battle/on occupied territory.

Is there anything else you'd want people outside Ukraine to know?

We are standing, and we will not fall. But we need as much help as the world can give: with spreading information, with supporting the Ukrainian army, refugees, and humanitarian causes, and with pressuring Russia with any measures that are available. The more help we get, the sooner it will end, the less innocent people struggle or die.

Sorry for speaking in slogans, but that's all I got. ®

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