KYIV – We talk a lot about beginnings, but they are usually projects, plans, love affairs, or summer holidays. How does a war begin? How does an announced war actually begin, especially one that intelligence sources are already predicting will be a horrific campaign, with tens of thousands of deaths and days of carpet bombing from the air? I kept asking that question to everyone I met in the Ukrainian capital this week. Would the lights go off? Undoubtedly, but, as an experienced foreign correspondent in Kyiv told me, it makes more sense to start a war in the middle of the night. There is a full moon on Tuesday night.
Will there be sirens the moment the Russian planes cross the border? Will the church bells ring? We agree it is much more likely we will be awakened by the sound of bombs raining on Kyiv, including the government buildings surrounding my hotel. “Remember there are 400 missiles pointed at Kyiv, including Kalibr cruise missiles,” one security officer reminded me. “One missile, one building.”
Living like this may soon become impossible. The mood is not of danger or fear, but imminence. Ukrainians have been told to wait, but how can a people be expected to live in permanent abeyance for a future event over which they have no control, which can arrive at any moment, and which makes normal life increasingly impossible? It was interesting that in early February the White House announced it would no longer speak of the Russian invasion as “imminent” since there is no direct translation in Ukrainian. This is a dubious conclusion about Ukrainian, and yet true at some level. Human beings cannot comprehend or control the imminent.
Kyiv these days is not a city of spies but a city of journalists. I cannot have a coffee with anyone without two or three journalists jumping out of a dark corner and announcing:
“I heard your conversation.” Reporters from all over the world have converged on the hipster cafés of Kyiv. You can spot them rehearsing live broadcasts in pizzerias and parks, occupying the penthouse floors in every major hotel, and then arguing about geopolitics until the early hours in bars once favoured by supermodels and oligarchs. The large groups of journalists are the only indication that city life is not quite normal, which is ironic since they have come looking for signs of just that.
The supermarkets are fully stocked. There has been no stockpiling, although some people have carried water and wood to their second homes in the countryside. The price for a gas canister has gone up from 900 to 1600 hryvnias, about £40.
Everything is done with measure and discretion. I am told of a few wealthy families who decided to leave Kyiv. Instead of large suitcases, they carried a few small bags. Patriotism is a serious duty in Ukraine. The main preparations are to fight, not to flee. In the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border, so many guns have been sold they have now run out. The authorities in Kyiv have put out a map of bomb shelters, but many residents refuse to consult it.
A week after new warnings of an imminent attack, the two city airports continue to operate without any disruptions. You can even buy tickets, although prices have gone up. The shopping centres are full, the restaurants as memorable as during my previous visits, and on Valentine’s Day, I attended a concert by the soprano Olga Chubareva with a programme of romantic arias and other love songs. During the performance, I stole glances at my phone and discovered the Americans are now certain the invasion will happen in less than two days. No one else in the concert hall seemed to care about the news. On 15 February we woke up to reports that Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had introduced the Canadian equivalent of martial law in response to blockades and protests over Covid measures. In Ukraine, with one of the largest armies in the world poised to attack the capital, there is no increased police presence or any restriction on civil freedoms.
Ukrainians feel the pressure, but they have learnt over centuries of hardship and foreign occupation to respond with grace. Daily life proceeds unruffled, but conversations do eventually turn to the threat of the great and apparently inexorable disaster announced by the US. I spent a long time discussing geopolitics and philosophy with a Ukrainian author. Not once did he express the slightest concern about a Russian invasion, which he thought implausible. At times he seemed amused by my recapitulation of all the disturbing signs arriving from the border, which now include artillery movements to attack position. But as we walked slowly down Andriivskyi Descent, the pretty street connecting downtown Kyiv to Podil, his mood changed. He confessed he had considered sending his daughters to live with a relative abroad and added that watching one of them play the piano that afternoon, he could not stop himself from wondering if she would be able to play a week later.
What a contrast. On one side, thousands of nameless soldiers sent marching in the frozen mud by one man who would never look them in the face. On the other, a young girl playing piano. It is not human life or human comfort or even human rights that war aims to exterminate. It is beauty that those troops hate the most.
There is defiance too. “If the Russians come,” a member of parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, told me, “they will find their private hell here.” And dissatisfaction with the West has grown in recent weeks. What the Americans have created with their repeated warnings is a sense of fatalism that cannot but remind Ukrainians of their historical ghosts. Some even suggest the US must have reached some kind of deal with Russia. Why else would it be closing its embassy, scaring foreign investors and airlines, or waving the possibility of a poisoned peace deal involving impossible concessions? Why, if the war is inevitable, have sanctions against Russia not been announced? Why, if war is not inevitable, has it been presented as such? Why has Russia escaped sanctions while the Ukrainian economy is actively punished? The panic among foreigners has led to capital flight and the urgent need to use public funds to provide insurance for airlines flying in Ukrainian airspace. Does the US want to drag Russia into a quagmire in Ukraine? Or does it want Russia’s help against China?
I have been coming to Kyiv almost every year since 2014, when the ousting of President Yanukovych led to two Russian invasions in Crimea and Donbas. And every year the city looks different and more aware of itself. The political turmoil and the embrace of a European future accelerated its development. On the surface, an explosion of new galleries, cafés and international restaurants have transformed Kyiv into one of the most vibrant European capitals. More deeply, this is a city embedded in history and politics. Monuments to its famous three revolutions – in 1991, 2004 and 2013-14 – cover the city landscape. Long ago Paris may have evoked the same feelings and associations. Today it is Kyiv that best preserves the European legacy of revolution, the collective effort to rise above circumstances and build a new future.
Enter restaurants such as Veterano or Ostana Barricada and what you find are living museums of recent Ukrainian history. In Veterano the cook baking your pizza is probably a veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine. In Ostana Barricada, the walls are covered with precious relics from the three popular uprisings. The hipster waiters even gave me a tour of the small museum. On one wall hang the gloves once worn by the bell-ringer Ivan Sydor. In the early hours of 11 December 2013, while the Berkut special forces started to storm Maidan, the young theology student kept ringing the bells at St Michael’s cathedral, urging Kyiv to wake up and stand for the dream of a European Ukraine. The last time the bell was sounded as a warning was 800 years ago during the occupation of Kyiv by Batu Khan, the Mongol ruler, founder of the Golden Horde.
How does a war begin? If one returns to my initial question, a new answer emerges. For the foreign visitor, it will be a senseless explosion in the darkness of night. For the inhabitants of Kyiv, it is a link in a long historical chain, one more chapter in the national story. There is comfort in history, the knowledge that many generations of Ukrainians have gone through the same hardship before, and others will follow in future. Ukraine, however, is immortal.
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War