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29 March 2022updated 30 Mar 2022 5:41pm

Ukraine is haunted by the ghosts of wars past

Veterans still proudly wear their old Soviet uniforms, yet they have nothing but contempt for the Russians and Vladimir Putin.

By Jeremy Bowen

The sirens are familiar now in central Kyiv and, as they are so rarely followed by attacks, many people do not pay them much attention. It is the kind of insouciance that President Vladimir Putin might be planning to eliminate with more missiles, as he has done in Mariupol or Kharkiv, or in the many other Ukrainian cities that he has pounded. 

Recently, on a bright spring morning, I was walking down one of Kyiv’s elegant 19th-century cobbled boulevards with Hanna Bondar, an MP from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, when the sirens started wailing. We watched as an elderly woman with a shopping trolley continued to wait until the lights changed. Ukrainians are law-abiding. Bondar and I both jumped when the siren was followed by a loud bang, but she told me not to worry as it was Ukrainian air defence firing out, not the Russians firing in. “We can’t,” she said, “live underground.”

The dogged old lady with the shopping was not very happy about having to walk down the street during an alert. “I’d like to see Klitschko doing this,” she grumbled, referring to Vitali, the older of the two boxing Klitschko brothers, who is the mayor of the city. 

In the past month, the only time that I have seen anyone move briskly towards a shelter in Kyiv was in a military training centre. Before the siren went off, a tannoy announcement warned they had received information that the Russians were going to target the building directly. The men were ordered to get underground quickly, and they did as they were told. 

The shelter was in a basement that had previously been used by a youth centre. The room had an unusual collection of yellowing military memorabilia that had been there since long before the Russian invasion, presumably to educate young people about the fight against Hitler’s Germany. On the walls were heroic portraits of granite-jawed Red Army soldiers with heavy guns, following their leaders into battle, and armed with the most potent weapon of all, the red banner of the Soviet Union. It made for a strange tableau, as the basement filled up with armed Ukrainian men from their late teens to late middle age, sheltering from the threat of a Russian missile, dressed in an assortment of military uniforms with Ukrainian flags on their sleeves. It turned out to be a false alarm, or a drill. 

I asked a 19-year-old Ukrainian volunteer what he made of it all. “Soviet propaganda,” he shrugged. “We had a room like this at school. We did some basic weapons training in it.” He was born more than a decade after Ukraine became independent in 1991. I was intrigued that contemporary Ukraine had not removed heroic commemorations of the Soviet victory over the Nazis. Weapons that were used in the Second World War were on display, next to Soviet wallcharts from the 1970s and 1980s showing how to don protective gear during a chemical weapons attack, and how to goose-step in the approved style. 

Instead of clearing out the past, modern Ukraine had added to it. It has been fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas in eastern Ukraine since 2014: the heroes of that conflict have their own section of wall, directly opposite a map showing every victory by Soviet troops from Leningrad to Budapest and Berlin. Perhaps it had all been kept as part of the historical record, or someone believed it was a good idea to use the past to help Ukraine fight its present battles. 

[See also: Letter from Kyiv: to keep from weeping, we start cursing]

I wondered what Vladimir Putin would make of the juxtaposition of the Red Army’s victories and the Ukrainian volunteers. He was born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in 1952, and grew up in a city that must have still been haunted by memories of the 872-day German siege of 1941-44. His father was wounded in the fighting and his older brother Viktor died of diphtheria. A month before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he laid flowers at a mass grave at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg, where his brother is buried alongside an estimated half a million other civilians who died in the siege (an estimated 1.5 million lives were lost in total). Putin has accused the West of disrespecting and disregarding the enormous sacrifices made by the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler. It seems to be one of the forces that drives his desire to restore Russia’s status as a world power. 

In Kyiv, the Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet armed forces who patrol the checkpoints proudly wear their old uniforms, including the distinctive striped telnyashka undershirts which are worn by Russian sailors, marines and airborne troops. These veterans do not believe that the vital part the Red Army played in the defeat of Nazi Germany gives Putin the right to accuse Zelensky, who is Jewish, of being a Nazi who has hijacked Ukraine. 

As present-day Ukrainian troops were stopping the Russian advance in Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, I met an octogenarian veteran of the Soviet army who had just organised his family’s escape from the shelling. His teenage grandson, cuddling the family dog, praised him as a hero for saving them. The elderly man, ramrod-backed, fur-hatted, and with a sharp crease in his trousers, told me he had been in the Soviet army for 30 years and had served in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. He was furious about the behaviour of his successors and their commander President Putin.

“If I was still young and healthy, I would take up a weapon and fight against the Russians and defend my land. I served in the army for many years, and now I would kill them, tear them to pieces with my bare hands, the fascists who started a war against us, killing us without any reason. It’s very painful.”

The invasion of Ukraine has raised many ghosts. Yet it is also a modern conflict, where the media is a critical battlefield. Zelensky’s videos and an army of social media warriors spread the country’s message of resistance. Many foreign journalists operate on the Ukrainian side, and, as far as I know, only the Kremlin-approved official media are allowed anywhere near the Russian army. 

Anyone who sympathises with Ukraine’s fight needs to realise that not everything that is pushed out by the Kyiv government and its supporters on social media is accurate. The liberation of Makariv, a town around 40 miles west of Kyiv, was used as evidence that Ukrainian forces were counter-attacking. I tried with my BBC team to visit the supposedly free city. We didn’t make it. The message from the mayor was that Makariv was still dangerous. 

A senior Ukrainian official told my BBC colleagues recently that the recapture of Kherson, the vital port on the Black Sea, was imminent. Without question Ukrainian forces have had extraordinary success, and have punished the Russians repeatedly for their blunders. But it looks as if they do not have the weapons to go on the offensive to drive the Russians out. Zelensky has asked Nato for tanks, armoured personnel carriers and warplanes. If Nato is not going to enforce a no-fly zone, then the Ukrainians want to step up air defence systems. At the time of writing, fighting continues in both Makariv and Kherson. 

[See also: “Kyiv holds its breath”: Lyse Doucet’s diary]

The day after a Russian general announced that the army would be concentrating on the “liberation” of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, I read excited headlines in the British media that the Russians were on the retreat. Nothing I saw between Kyiv and Makariv made me believe that was the case. 

In a village near the Russian lines several dozen Ukrainian men, helped by two JCB tractors, were furiously digging trenches. Villagers were repairing the damage in their homes and said that the night before Russia had answered Ukrainian shelling with cluster munitions. A line of smashed houses was still smouldering. 

It is far too early for an impartial observer to predict victory or defeat. A Ukrainian soldier told me that Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw on 26 March, where he framed the war as a generational fight between democracy and authoritarianism, had convinced them that they might spend years in uniform. 

Not far from the men digging the trenches is the village post office. Outside is a gleaming gold-painted statue of a kneeling Soviet soldier, commemorating a lieutenant and his men who were killed liberating the village in 1943. The postmistress, Lyuba, was working as usual. Parcels and letters were still being delivered and received, she told me, looking shocked that I had doubted Ukraine’s postal system. On her counter she had lined up her last packets of vegetable seeds: “bestsellers”, Lyuba said. The few residents left were tending their gardens, not just to grow food but to plant the seeds of their own small victories.

A Ukrainian gardener called Sergii, queuing for onion seedlings, couldn’t wait to get digging. “Onions. Ukrainians love onions. They’ll grow by the summer… Everything you plant is life, it is hope. Of course. We think about the future and believe in the future. Victory will be ours. Everything will be Ukraine.” 

[See also: “It’s impossible to say the whole world is behind Ukraine”: Andrey Kurkov’s diary from Kyiv]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain