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21 February 2023updated 04 Jul 2023 9:09am

Ukraine Diary: A year on, Russia’s war has failed to break our spirit

We started the Kyiv Independent as the horror of war loomed – and now Biden and Zelensky walk through the heart of the city.

By Illia Ponomarenko

It’s astounding how things that seem rock solid can suddenly change. On 20 February, I woke up in my tiny apartment in Bucha outside Kyiv – the quiet town in the woods that has become a symbol of Russian atrocities and mass graves. The whole of Kyiv and the region were swearing on social media: the four million people living in the capital city had turned into one giant traffic jam. The main avenue, as well as with key downtown passages, was closed to all movement. Many had to text their bosses to apologise for being late to morning meetings!

For the sake of whose visit was the city paralysed on a Monday morning? The US president, Joe Biden. He was accompanied by the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, and their entourage. Biden was paying his respects to the portraits of killed Ukrainian soldiers displayed on Mykhailivska Square – the heart of ancient Kyiv. Biden came to declare, against all expectations, that Ukraine was winning the war. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. He arrived on the day when Ukraine commemorates those killed in the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. And on the day, a year ago, when I finally admitted to myself that doomsday was inevitable – and we were falling into the abyss. 

When hope abandoned Kyiv

Hope always wants to have another chance, no matter what. But on 20 February 2022, four days before the Russian invasion, there was very little hope left. 

Life in Ukraine continued as usual. But the news headlines told a different story: “Russian commanders have orders to proceed with Ukraine invasion.” “Airlines cancel Ukraine flights as threat of war grows.” “Russian invasion of Ukraine ‘inevitable and imminent’.” Reason tells you this can’t be happening; the Russians just can’t be that delusional. There seem to be a hundred compelling arguments why their troop build-ups are a bluff, and everything is going to be alright. But one had to admit – this was going to happen. And it became clear that we must forget about sound judgements and rationality: they no longer belong here.

[See also: Death and literature in Ukraine]

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Media start-up in a war zone

Has there ever been a group of people reckless enough to try to establish a media outlet from scratch, without any starting budget, and during a war? That’s us, the Kyiv Independent. On November 2021, four months before the Russian invasion, some 30 writers were sacked from the Kyiv Post because we refused to compromise on our editorial independence. There was a very strong feeling of dedication and resolve – screw this, we’re not going down just like that. This country is hanging by a string, two steps away from war, and we, the team, need to recover our role as Ukraine’s top English-language voice.

Western leaders were saying the worst was coming, Russian tanks were amassing a few hours drive from Kyiv, and we at the Kyiv Independent covered the horrific transition to war sitting behind laptops in a café. We had just moved into our first, very simple office in the Kyiv neighbourhood of Podil, but we had to interrupt the house-warming party because Biden announced that the war would erupt within days. We had to have a plan for how we survive the attack and keep the Kyiv Independent running online, in case the country was cut off from the rest of the world. We knew our friends in North America would be there for us.

The Kyiv Independent became much more than a job. Wartime is about dedication, especially when it comes to journalism. Several of us took care of our loved ones – and stayed in the besieged city, living in apartments a few kilometres away from Russian lines. We work while we can – nothing else matters.

Russia’s fake-news offensive

I confidently call this one of the most idiotic wars in human history. It was mind-blowing to see such absurdity and boldness from Russia. The Kremlin was almost openly staging what it called “a Ukrainian aggression threat” in Donbas that would “force Moscow to intervene and protect the Russian-speaking population”. They were shamelessly lying – and were not good at it.

Propaganda channels on the messenger service Telegram were painting a picture of a “Ukrainian offensive”, complete with descriptions of manoeuvres, Ukrainian armoured hordes, river crossing operations – things that were never happening in objective reality. There was a televised hysterical “evacuation” of civilians in Russia to save them from “the Ukrainian genocide”. At the same time, in Russia the adult male population of the occupied Donbas was being mobilised “to defend the homeland”. 

They wanted war. They had prepared for it. Now they were only staging a casus belli, and they didn’t care much if it looked remotely believable. 

[See also: Ukraine deserves better than Boris Johnson]

The night before doomsday 

On 20 February 2022, it was clear we didn’t have much time left.

It’s hard to accept, but everyone has to decide what they are going to do when this moment comes. Everyone has to make a moral choice. And if one’s choice is to stay until the bitter end, it makes sense to get up, close the laptop and go to the nearest supermarket to stock up on food and basic survival supplies. It is also important to take care of loved ones. To talk softly, and optimistically. “Honey, I’m sure nothing bad is going to happen, but it will be great if you go to your parents for the next several days. Just to be safe.”

After that, one could spend the last night of peace sipping whisky alone in front of a laptop. If they are going to tear this country apart, and raze this city to the ground, it wouldn’t hurt to relax before doomsday. Then there is Vladimir Putin’s face, twisted with sick anger live on Russian TV at 5am, and the rolling thunder of missile attacks come through the windows.

[See also: Biden’s trip to Kyiv reiterates Western support – but not everywhere feels the same]

History’s plot twist 

But here we are, a year on, waking up to see fellow Kyivans complaining about enormous traffic jams. That anniversary, 20 February 2023, was a beautiful, sunny day in Kyiv: a great setting for making history. As Biden and Zelensky walked together in the heart of the city, an air-raid siren roared – Russian missile-carrying jets had again taken off from Belarus.

By this time we were all supposed to be lying in a mass grave. And those historic streets were supposed to be charred ruins under the Russian flag. But events took a very different turn, because people in Ukraine and beyond made a moral choice to say no to the seemingly inevitable triumph of evil. History is full of surprises.

Illia Ponomarenko is the defence and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent. “War Diary of the Ukrainian Resistance”, a collection of journalism from the Kyiv Independent, is published by Flint on 23 February

Read more:

The Zelensky myth

Enraptured MPs put aside their squabbles for Volodymyr Zelensky

Will Zelensky’s anti-corruption drive help Ukraine join the EU?

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon