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Dispatch from Kyiv: the madness of Putin’s war

In Ukraine's capital, the absurdity and tragedy of the conflict is everywhere.

By John Sweeney

KYIV — A brother and sister, 12 and eight-years-old, watch a film on their phone as if they’re at home, their silly little dog at their feet. Only they aren’t at home, they’re sheltering inside Kyiv Arsenal, the deepest underground station in the world, more than 100 metres below the high cliff that made the city a natural fortress a millennium ago when the Rus forged their civilisation.

Built in 1960 as a tube stop and a nuclear bunker, Arsenal station is now a bomb shelter, packed with people hiding from the Russian army. The children manage to tune out but most adult faces twitch, eyes wide, signalling panic or worse. Brain-fade eats at reason, people spin on a sixpence, collide into each other, muscles jerk, legs scribbling fear. Welcome to the madness generated by Vladimir Putin’s war.  

I am hanging out, loosely, with my fellow freelance reporter Oz Katerji. He’s a veteran of the recent wars in Iraq and Syria, yet I’m ancient in comparison. At 63, if there is an older freelance foreign reporter in Kyiv right now, I’ll buy them a vodka — a Ukrainian vodka that is. Oz has heard that there has been some fighting by the River Dnipro. We walk from the Arsenal north, the river to our right, patches of ice gyring in the stream.  

Before Putin’s heavy metal pushed west, before the war, we drank cognac with my old pal, Semyon Gluzman, the first Soviet psychiatrist to denounce the USSR’s abuse of his branch of medicine. In 1971 he’d written a report on General Petro Grigorenko, a Soviet Ukrainian war hero who in the late Sixties protested corruption inside the Communist Party and was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane as a result. Gluzman’s report got him locked up in the gulag for ten years. Today he is 75, still sharp as a pin and the president of my favourite organisation, the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association. What’s with Putin’s long table, I asked him. Gluzman wheezed, then replied: “The distance between him and his death.”

Is Putin mad? Gluzman said no, not mad but bad: “He’s becoming like Hitler.” I kind of shuddered then. Now that Putin’s killers are 15 miles from where I am typing this, I find myself agreeing with Gluzman. 

The path Oz and I take runs parallel to the great river through leafless woods, up on the left the People’s Friendship Arch celebrating the fraternity between the Russians and the Ukrainians. No irony there, then. On the bluff I see Ukrainian soldiers in their light green camouflage etched against the skyline. I stop to record an interview with Jeremy Vine for his BBC Radio 2 show while Oz walks on.

Interview with Vine done, I walk down a track, filming the Ukrainian soldiers in the distance with my phone camera. They shout at me to stop filming and I obey, having got them in the bag. I walk on, filming myself. Having left the BBC in 2019, I’m freelance and funding my stay in Kyiv by spending the last of my BBC pay-off and crowd-funding a podcast on Putin.

I met him once. In 2014, after the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, I doorstepped the master of the Kremlin in a woolly mammoth museum in Yakutsk, which is a lot closer to Alaska than Beijing. Putin’s botox makes him look plastic. To me, he came across as cunning, cold and strangely effeminate. 

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My livelihood requires me to film mostly everything, all the time, and post it on Twitter so that people will bung me a fiver via Patreon to pay for my alcohol and, one day, a flak jacket and helmet. So the moment I see some more Ukrainian soldiers near by, I film them too. Big mistake.

A young Ukrainian soldier, dressed in civilian clothes but carrying an AK which is all too real, shouts at me to hand over my phone. I shout back that I am not going to do that. I ask him to look at my Twitter profile picture, which shows me doorstepping Putin. He demands my phone. Things get a bit dark. I find myself sitting in a room surrounded by Ukrainian militia fighters armed to the teeth. One of them snarls that I am probably a Russian spy. I did Russian O-level, forgot it all, but remember enough to know that russkiy shpion is not a great phrase in the current circs.

My sense of the absurd saves me. I start laughing my head off and say: “I’m not a fucking Russian spy.”  

And then everything gets nicer. The guy who arrested me, Vlad Demchenko, looks me up on Google. Next comes a cup of tea. But by now I am in the bowels of military bureaucracy. They take me to the HQ of SBU, the Ukrainian intelligence service. The atmosphere inside is tense, very, it being the number two target for a Russian missile attack after the presidential palace. They check me out, I delete the video I shot of the soldiers, apologise for wasting their time and I’m on the streets again.

Vlad and I are now pals and, it turns out, he is a journalist and filmmaker too. He’s made a brilliant film you can see on YouTube called A Day In the Life of Donetsk Airport, about the first Russian invasion in 2014.  

I’m walking home when a friend from London texts me to say that her mother is trapped in Kyiv. She has a train ticket but needs it to be printed. Mum doesn’t have a printer; all the printing shops are closed. I have no solution. Fear of imminent bombing means that central Kyiv is a ghost town. The streets deserted, only the sound of cars zooming over the cobblestones breaking the eerie silence.

In a park I start chatting to a Ukrainian woman, an accountant, Lana. “Has everyone gone mad?” she asks. “Only me,” I reply. She walks me to a shop where I buy more plonk, chocolate and loo paper — life’s necessities — and I ask her if she knows anyone with a printer. That night she texts me with the address of someone who has printed out the train ticket. All I have to do is go get it. 

The next morning I walk along even emptier streets, filled with silent dread, pick up the ticket and then track down my friend’s mum. Her joy at my train ticket printing sorcery is something to behold. If I can do that when you can get shot by mistake walking the streets of Kyiv, why can’t the Home Office decide to open the doors to Ukrainian refugees?

On Tuesday (1 March) night, a Russian armoured column, 40 miles along, is fifteen miles away from me. The Ukrainians have enough fire-power to destroy it and most of the Russian soldiers in it, but I suspect they fear that if they do that then Putin will rocket Kyiv to pieces. Stalemate. 

In Kyiv, we wait for the good people in Russia to rise up against the monster in the Kremlin and do our best to live the life that we have, for now.

The next day I hurry out early, thumb a ride to the TV tower in Kyiv. Four missiles had landed the previous night, smashing into the tower complex, killing a worker and four civilians by a row of shops. I watch as the ambulance men wrap a blanket around a dead mother and child and place them in the back of a van.

The killing in Kyiv has begun.   

[See more: Putin’s miscalculation could be his downfall]

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