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16 February 2022

Letter from Kyiv: While Ukraine’s oligarchs flee, my friends and I have Sunday lunch

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov writes how life in his country feels – mostly – ordinary.

By Andrey Kurkov

KYIV – As yet another tank army moves out of the Russian city of Voronezh towards the Ukrainian border, and the prospect of war looms larger, life in Kyiv is strange. The departure of American diplomats from Ukraine and the relocation of the US embassy from the capital to the city of Lviv came just weeks after an announcement that the American University in Kyiv would soon open its doors. This has created a pleasant kind of dissonance.

I already envy the future students. The university is located in the building of the former river port on the bank of the Dnieper, the country’s major river. There is a long strip of pleasant embankment nearby, with berths for pleasure boats, as well as many cafés and restaurants, and Podil, one of Kyiv’s most ancient districts. The university was opened jointly with the University of Arizona. Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, along with other eminent academics, will soon lecture there. Classes are due to start on 1 March.

At the other end of Kyiv, on its southern outskirts, the construction of the Presidential University has begun. Why build another university using public funds at this time? The presidential office has offered vague explanations that none of the existing universities meets contemporary standards and it is impossible to modernise them. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has promised that the best of the best will teach at the new institution.

It immediately occurred to me that those professors at the American University might have to work part-time at the Presidential University. Getting there every day will not be easy. The distance between the two universities is nearly 20 kilometres. There are traffic jams in Kyiv from morning to evening. And, to slow things down further, there are almost always protests of one sort or another going on.

At the moment it is small-business owners holding regular demonstrations in front of parliament. They are opposed to a new law making the use of cash registers mandatory; until recently, small businesses were able to sell goods and services without controls using mostly cash. But the government needs money. Even now, during the crisis with Russia, roads are still being built and repaired throughout Ukraine. And dotted along these roads across the country, advertising billboards can be spotted bearing the message: “Major construction. A President Zelensky Project.”

These billboards, too, cause protests. Activists launched an official petition to the presidential office demanding that the signs mention that these projects are taxpayer funded. Zelensky clearly did not like this idea; the petition has been ignored.

I have a small house in a village about 16km from the main highway heading west out of Kyiv. The road was last renovated ahead of Euro 2012. It is now once again full of holes. But the motorway towards Russia is in excellent condition. I recently had to drive on it to the village of Kozelshchyna, in the Poltava region. The village is about a five-hour drive from Kyiv, and I was giving a lecture in the local library titled “The Role and Significance of the Local and National Elites”. I was very curious to find out what people in that part of Ukraine think about the subject, and what it is like to live not only so far from the capital, but also so much closer to the Russian border.

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The discussion that followed my talk went on for about an hour. All those present were interested in the question of how to help members of the local elite become members of the national elite. That is: how can we replace the “new faces” who came to power together with Zelensky with even newer faces? Many people in Ukraine are disappointed by Zelensky’s unfulfilled promises to bring an end to corruption and poverty. The politicians Zelensky brought with him were unable to enact positive change.

After the meeting in the library, I was given a tour of the village. The only historical attraction in Kozelshchyna is a convent with a huge church, in which a large portrait of Tsar Nicholas II hangs in a conspicuous place. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas was canonised as a saint. The portrait indicates that both the convent and the church belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In other words, they are affiliated to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine is still very strong. In its churches, worshippers regularly say prayers for the health of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, an associate of Vladimir Putin and one of the leaders of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a so-called humanitarian project whose goal is to unite all Russian speakers in the world around Moscow. There are no other churches in this village.

On Sunday 13 February, while oligarchs and their business partners were rolling out their private jets or chartering planes to leave the country, Ukrainians were debating who should represent the country at this year’s Eurovision song contest. After a tough competition, the singer and rapper Alina Pash, from Transcarpathia in the west of Ukraine, was chosen. This decision has provoked a storm of protest. Pash visits Moscow and has allegedly performed in the annexed Crimea, which for many, is clear proof of her compromised patriotism and pro-Russian views.

While the oligarchs were flying abroad, my friends and I were looking for a place to have Sunday lunch. Popular restaurants such as Chinese Hello and Pop-up Breakfast Café on Franko Street in the old city centre were packed with customers. After half an hour of searching, we finally found a free table at the Mafia chain restaurant. It was surprisingly quiet. Maybe the customers were put off by the coexistence of pizza and Japanese dishes on the menu. While we were having lunch, the restaurant gradually filled with couples – lovers apparently celebrating Valentine’s Day in advance.

Outwardly, there is no evidence of panic in Kyiv. The French embassy has advised nationals who have chosen to stay in Ukraine to stockpile drinking water. When I heard this, I also decided to buy a few five-litre bottles.

On 14 February I learned that work had begun on a film based on my novel, Grey Bees, about life in the grey zone of the Donbas region. The film is being shot near Severodonetsk, not far from the Russian border and only 16 kilometres from the front line.

I found out about this by accident when a director friend of mine spotted me in a café and came up to tell me that a special effects specialist he knew was working on the pyrotechnics for my film. I find the idea of pyrotechnics at this time and so close to the Russia-Ukraine border bizarre. I wrote an email to the producer asking her to send photos. In fact, I would really love to attend the shoot myself, but I am afraid that my wife is unlikely to approve of such a trip. Especially now, when it may be necessary to make important decisions very quickly.

That same day I also learned that some of our members of parliament, including several from Zelensky’s party, have chosen to leave Ukraine. I assume the country will manage without them. Most Ukrainians are staying – some because they see no real threat, others because they see the threat and are preparing to defend the country.

As for me, I keep checking the airport website to see if my flight to Vilnius next week is still available. I am invited to the book fair there, and will spend three days in the city. Then I will come back to Kyiv.

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War