KYIV – Monday 28 February, 8am. A cold quiet Kyiv winter’s day. A 36-hour curfew finally lifts. Like runners poised on starting blocks, people anxiously unlatch locked doors, push open the hatches, emerge from basements, bunkers, bomb shelters, race to the shops for supplies, walk their dogs, let their children run. The sun comes out too.
At 8.30am, air raid sirens blare across the city. It’s that nerve-jangling signal to turn back, take cover. Russian warplanes could be on the way. Some nervously hesitate. Others flee underground again, if only for a while.
By 9am, on the street outside, I see a woman pushing a pram, a man pedalling a bicycle. It’s a measure of the moment that these acts count as courageous. And Ukrainian soldiers, many more than before. They seem to be taking up positions, kneeling behind hedges. Across the street, in the elegant pastel-pink block, a long queue has already formed at this early hour outside the police station; volunteers are signing up to fight. My colleague Orla Guerin and her team say they drove by a blue Lada car, the driver slumped, dead, over the wheel. Was he a Russian saboteur or simply someone who dared to venture out in the dead of night? Such is the rhythm of a European city locked in a dance of death and life.
By lunchtime, the sirens have sounded three times. By night, Russian attacks came so close, our building shook, for the first time. It is the first day of peace talks on the border between Ukraine and Belarus. In the evening, we hear that an armoured column of Russian tanks and troops is inching towards Kyiv. War and peace in 2022.
When I came to Kyiv weeks ago, before this invasion, I was dazzled by the lights. At night they washed over ornate facades and towering columns: the golden domes of the magnificent St Michael’s Monastery, the stunning St Sophia Cathedral, not to mention the buzzing restaurants and cafes. It is a cityscape shaped over 14 centuries, many of them spent entangled in a tortuous relationship with Russia.
Now Kyiv lives in darkness. A dead silence hangs in the air, the streets eerily empty. Everyone can recognise that feeling of living in lockdown after our battle against a deadly virus. But this is a whole lot darker, and dangerous. There’s an occasional crackle of gunfire, a thud of artillery, constant explosions on the edge of Kyiv as Russian missiles land. Every day everyone wakes up wondering if Russian troops have reached the city centre. Some people aren’t sleeping at all. It’s a 24-hour nightmare.
Like everyone else, we’re living in a Ukrainian version of Upstairs, Downstairs. Our downstairs is an underground basement, a communal home shared with Ukrainians from all parts of the city; foreigners include a gaggle of British journalists, a visiting Australian businessman and, at last count, five dogs, including a puffy white Pomeranian whose Ukrainian owner sports a matching shock of white hair. Our colleagues from the BBC’s Ukrainian service have their “editorial cat”. He sits on his owner’s lap, a reassuring anchor in a life torn from all its moorings. Hard as it is to report on a war, it is far harder when your own country, all you hold dear, is the target.
Liana and her mother Vera, our new Ukrainian neighbours in this subterranean world, rush towards me in the gloom. Dread washes over me. What’s happened? “Thank you! Thank you!” they shout. Our live broadcast last night, filmed as discreetly as possible on a smartphone, caught the attention of their nervous family and friends watching BBC World News in the US and the United Arab Emirates, and BBC News in Britain. Their loved ones spied them, bent over their phones, sitting in the distance, on a thin mat along the wall, their large cat carrier nearby. “They know we’re safe!” they gush excitedly, words tumbling over each other.
Their huge Maine Coon cat Tyson, named after Britain’s champion boxer Tyson Fury, didn’t have a starring role. He usually sleeps upstairs, under a bed. When he emerges, he and Liana’s 13-year-old son Rustam snuggle in this shelter, each comforting the other. Like everyone else, Rustam is glued to his phone, checking social media to follow the war in the world above ground. Sometimes he asks me which videos are true.
On one corner of one street, in one neighbourhood, we come upon a vivid vignette of this life. There’s a screech of suitcases on the sidewalk as a crowd of young women, children in winter parkas in tow, hurry to a safer space. A throng of men pushes past in the opposite direction, pouring into a yard where volunteers are signing up to fight. The murmur of the crowd is punctuated by the ripping of bright yellow tape being wrapped around arms – a badge of honour at this hour. This is the neighbourhood of Lukyanivka, about a ten-minute drive from Obolon to the north, where Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed earlier in the day. “It’s a matter of hours, not days,” Alex tells me as he makes haste to pick up a gun – for the first time in his life.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Enter stage left – Volodmyr Zelensky, the comedian-turned-president-turned-wartime leader. In the run-up to the Russian onslaught, Ukrainian friends and opposition politicians made snide remarks when he called on the world to “stay calm!” as warnings multiplied of an “imminent invasion”. Now he’s a beacon in this darkness, in his olive-green uniform, speaking calmly, directly, to Ukrainians, to Russians. Other videos keep popping up, letting us know he won the Ukrainian version of Strictly Come Dancing in 2006, that he was the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear. But he has a new role now. It’s the only one that matters.
There’s an extraordinary sense of a people pulling together. Soldiers, armed with Western weapons and ammunition, fight Russian forces at close quarters. Grandmothers swear at the young invaders. Villagers come out en masse to stop convoys of armoured vehicles. A farmer hauled away a tank with his tractor. One man stood in front of an armoured vehicle and somehow stopped it.
In the basement, I ask Liana how she’s feeling. “I can’t be sad,” she declares brightly, just moments after she shares news that her father, in another city, just saw Russian tanks rumbling by, heading towards Kyiv. “I must be hopeful,” she insists. Below ground, above ground, there’s remarkable resistance. In an existential war unleashed by a Russian leader who believes their country shouldn’t exist, Ukrainians have become ever-more Ukrainian.
[See also: The fight for Ukraine is only beginning]
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times