Postcard from Kiev: We won’t let Putin disrupt our lives here
“The atmosphere in Kyiv is surreal”. This is the phrase I often hear these days from international journalists, who have flocked to the Ukrainian capital in droves to cover the news of a possible new Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is something I was thinking too.
The atmosphere is surreal as everything seems surprisingly normal in Kiev – as if there weren’t 140,000 Russian troops stationed on Ukraine’s borders, some of them about 100 miles north of Kiev, in the territory of the neighboring Belarus. People go to work, send their children to school and carry on with their daily routine. Cafés and restaurants are full and several Christmas markets were open until the end of January. Traffic is lighter and public transport less crowded than usual, but that’s probably due to Omicron rather than fear of an invasion.
In fact, I don’t know of any Ukrainians who have fled Kyiv so far because of the disturbing news – mostly spread by Western media – that Russia could attack Ukraine “at any time”. I know that some Americans, after receiving alerts from the American Embassy in Ukraine, have left the country or moved to the western city of Lviv, which will most likely be spared a possible invasion. But for others in Kiev, little has changed. Or at least it looks like it at first glance. Business as usual is yet another way for Ukrainians to show resilience, as if to say “Putin, we won’t let you disrupt our lives.”
It’s only after you start talking to people that you realize that their lives have indeed been affected. While the war in Ukraine has been raging for eight years, it is only now that people in Kyiv feel it could really hit close to home. Today, Russia and Belarus began 10 days of joint military exercises, which NATO says marks Russia’s largest deployment in Belarus since the Cold War, and alarming estimates cited by the media say which Kiev “could fall” in 48 or 72 hours certainly does not help to remain calm.
For many, working days go by normally; it’s the weekends that have become very different. They seek less to have fun and spend time with friends and family, and more to learn survival skills and train to resist a possible Russian attack.
Kseniya Kharchenko, a publishing editor and single mother, has spent the past two weekends learning how to survive in a city at war and how to provide first aid. “I learned to use tourniquets and bandages, to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and to use a defibrillator,” she tells me. “I want to rely on myself in case something bad happens, to make sure I know what to do.”
Kharchenko has bought two cans of gasoline which she keeps on her balcony, in case she needs to urgently flee Kyiv and there is a fuel shortage. On a recent catch-up weekend with her and her friends, we talked less about family and work, and more about our escape plans and whether 15 minutes will be enough to get to a bomb shelter just in case. where a siren would go off to warn with an air attack.
Check the nearest air-raid shelter – and make sure it’s open and can actually accommodate people (and hasn’t been turned into a strip club or pub) – is yet another weekend task for many Kievans. City authorities created a map of all bomb shelters; many were built in Soviet times and only a tiny fraction are operational.
Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, said that in the event of an airstrike, residents would have to take refuge in underground metro stations. The problem is that they can only accommodate 300,000 people; The population of Kiev is at least three million. To be frank, the idea of taking refuge in a metro station terrifies me. I live in one of the most densely populated areas of Kyiv and can well imagine the rush if all the inhabitants of the hundreds of 25-storey buildings here rush to the nearest metro station.
The perpetual state of uncertainty is exhausting and drains mental and psychological resources
The mayor’s words were not very encouraging. His younger brother Wladimir, also a well-known ex-boxer, is trying to cheer him up. Last week, he announced that he had joined the territorial defense forces, which were supposed to protect Kiev in the event of an attack. These volunteer units have been officially incorporated into the Ukrainian Armed Forces since the beginning of the year. A new law provides that they will include up to 90,000 people.
I attended home territory exercises in the suburbs not long ago and was surprised to see the diversity of their ranks. Men and women, young people in their twenties, over 50s. Computer scientists, clinician-researchers, translators and football coaches from Monday to Friday, they train on Saturdays with dummy weapons to defend their city. “We have seen a massive increase in applications for membership of territorial defense units since Russia started to reinforce its troops on the Ukrainian border,” Captain Yuriy Kostenko told me. “Even women over 60 call us. Unfortunately, we cannot accept everyone, but we suggest other ways for them to help. »
The mobilization of Ukrainians to defend their country is not limited to this. Mass rallies were held in cities to demonstrate people’s will to resist any further Russian attacks. At a demonstration in Kyiv, participants waved flags of the countries that most actively support Ukraine and banners of thanks. The Union flag was there too; the UK government’s decision to send military aid to Kyiv was widely welcomed and #GodSaveTheQueen made headlines on social media in Ukraine.
While the determination to resist is definitely there, so is the anxiety. The perpetual state of uncertainty – will Putin invade or not? — is exhausting and drains mental and psychological resources. “I kind of feel frozen. On the one hand, I’m very active, doing a lot of things to prepare for a possible Russian attack, but on the other, I feel exhausted and helpless,” Kharchenko says.
I understand. When I visited my doctor last week with complaints she said were the result of anxiety, she noted that there was an increase in patients whose chronic conditions seemed to have worsened due to voltage. One solution I’ve found for myself is to limit my news consumption on weekends and do more physical activity, like ice skating with my child. To survive in a war, you have to be in good shape, right?
Bitter jokes aside, it’s the kids that worry us the most. We middle-aged Ukrainians came of age in a peaceful Ukraine and were shocked when Russia attacked in 2014. Our children, and those who were children in 2014, grew up in a country at war. The soldiers, who were in school at the time, are now defending Ukraine on the front line.
And while my six-year-old knows that Ukraine is at war with Russia, I am wary of discussing with them that our still peaceful life in Kiev could soon be turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Ukrainian psychologists have created a pamphlet for parents with advice on how to talk to children about emergencies, including war.
I saved it on my laptop and read it, but I still can’t start this conversation with my child. Like many Kyiv residents, I try to keep my cool and pretend to carry on with a normal life, but there is something very different going on beneath the surface.
Olga Tokariuk is a freelance journalist and non-resident researcher at CEPA, Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Kyiv, Ukraine.