As Russian troops gather on its eastern border, war dominates the conversation in Ukraine. In its bustling capital, Kyiv, a novelist and reservist explores the uncertainty and escapism of a life lived in suspense.
Kyiv is full of life. I rarely visit the old town but every time I do I’m surprised at its metamorphosis. It is no longer a post-Soviet area of shabby tower blocks and kitsch advertising but a well-groomed European city with smart squares and illuminated landmarks. Kyiv has many faces, some of them increasingly modern and hip. Light seeps from restaurant windows, music erupts from bars and young people wait for falafel wraps at street-food stalls.
It’s easy to forget that this is the capital of a country that has been fighting a war in Donbas for almost eight years. Beneath the sophisticated veneer are signs of unease. Photos of dead fighters adorn the walls of St Michael’s monastery; there are street memorials made from car tyres featuring the faces of citizens shot dead by snipers during the Revolution of Dignity that overthrew president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Meanwhile, the windows of boutiques offer discounts: “Black Friday sales!” Such cognitive dissonance is familiar to Ukrainians.
When I arrive at Pizza Veterano, a restaurant started by veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian War, my wife, film-maker Iryna Tsilyk, greets me with a wave of her phone screen. “I’m looking at flights to Zanzibar,” she says. “Apparently, coronavirus restrictions aren’t a problem there.” “I don’t think that the virus is the problem,” I say.
Kyivans have been increasingly anxious since reports of Russian troops amassing at the Ukrainian border began to filter through in December. I haven’t felt this way since 2014 when Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea and the insurgency in the Donbas region began. The shadow of war now hangs over almost every conversation.
I work part-time as a model-maker and special-effects artist. Sometimes the cinematic worlds that I help to create feel more real than the city outside. On breaks, talk always turns to what we’ll do if – or when – the real war begins. Most people have a bag of essentials (clothes, money, toiletries) packed and ready to go. We discuss the possibility of the EU closing its borders to fleeing Ukrainians; we talk about cash savings and the reliability of the hryvna. Though they don’t say it, I can sense that my colleagues are thinking, “You have military training – will you stay and fight?” Perhaps it’s just paranoia but I don’t think about it and I don’t know the answer. The most important thing is that my wife and son are in a safe place.
But where is that place? My boss’s parents live 10km from the Russian border. “I have nowhere to move them to,” he says, before adding, “As long as we keep shooting commercials for Disney and Pizza Hut, and music videos for Florence + the Machine, I won’t panic. They wouldn’t come here if we were in danger.” Indeed, more Western film-makers are working in Kyiv than ever. Do they know something that we don’t? Or is the city’s proximity to danger part of its allure? Is its citizens’ hedonistic ebullience due to their impending doom?
While my boss goes to the Hyatt Regency to get singer Florence Welch’s costume measurements, I sit in the workshop doom-scrolling the news and social media. Most people are posting about the war and the presence of Russian troops. I approach the views of my bubble with caution. My friends are soldiers, volunteers, writers and artists – but they have a few things in common. They have never accepted Volodymyr Zelensky as president, they are pro-vaccination and they have a strong view of Russia as the enemy and aggressor.
For those who are outside politics, Zelensky is an incomprehensible figure. A trained actor, he says the right things but has shady people feeding him his lines: for example, his deputy chief of staff Oleg Tatarov and judge Pavlo Vovk, both of whom were under investigation for taking bribes, before their cases were mysteriously dropped. Before Zelensky’s ascent to the presidential palace, he was a comedian who lampooned the same people he now embraces. Prior to his election in 2019, he starred in a popular series called Servant of the People,in which he played a history teacher who becomes president after a rant against politicians in front of his students goes viral (now you see where the cognitive dissonance comes from).
The public fell in love with this incorruptible character who served purely out of devotion to his countrymen. The show’s poster shows the schoolteacher cycling to work in front of armoured secret-service cars. In the election campaign, Zelensky delivered his lines with feeling. When asked how he would stop the war in the Donbas, which had by then been raging for five years, he replied, “Just stop shooting.” This populist phrase became a kind of meme; if only it was so simple. In the end, he won the election by a landslide (73 per cent) against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko. I wouldn’t dare impugn on the wisdom of the Ukrainian electorate but it seems as though many thought that they were voting for the schoolteacher rather than Zelensky.
Even as the crisis escalates, the president seems to be winging it, auditioning for the role of a much-loved wartime leader without putting in the hard work. I’m heartened by my friend’s anger at his unseriousness.
Perhaps I’m biased but these are people who not only care about the fate of Ukraine but also confirm their devotion through action. I remind myself, however, that this is only a very small part of the population. What worries the majority? I don’t know the answer any more.
I was in Maidan Square during the protests that brought down Yanukovych. I witnessed massacres by government snipers but my fellow protesters and I were uncowed. It seemed like a chance to change the direction of Ukraine for the better. It felt as though my country was being dragged out of the swamp of impoverished thinking, freed from Russian propaganda and becoming its own nation. But it wasn’t long before our new leaders became embroiled in corruption and Putin and his fellow kleptocrats started to sink their claws into Ukraine once more.
Twenty years ago it was rare to hear the Ukrainian language spoken on the streets. In the city and in most professions, Russian dominated. But now it’s the other way around. It is mostly older people who retain a fondness for Soviet times. In the south and east, pro-Russia views are more pronounced but this is about ethnicity and culture more than political preference. Most people just want better opportunities, a more comfortable life; some see this as more likely under Moscow’s yoke but most believe it is only attainable as a modern European nation, looking west not east.
Such a future will be impossible without standing up to Putin, for whom Kyiv will always be a Russian city. In the Middle Ages, it was the capital of Kyivan Rus’, a federation of peoples from which the first Russian state sprang. At that time, Moscow was a malarial swampland but history has since made its adjustments, or maybe not. Soviet Kyiv was an important, if quiet city – one with government offices, tractor factories and ancient history. To stifle separatist ambitions, the Soviet authorities destroyed medieval temples and built huge Stalinist monstrosities. After independence, in the 1990s, the city’s leaders restored some of these, including St Michael’s, whose golden-domed monastery winks above the old town. The Kremlin wishes to reabsorb the city into its orbit. That’s the root cause of the current crisis.
When it comes to solutions, the suggestions of the active and brave fall into three categories. There are those who, filled with fatalism, call for us to fear the worst and begin preparing bomb shelters. Others declare their intention to fight and defeat the enemy on the frontier. Then there are calls for a “diplomatic solution”. But who will achieve that? Even before one considers Putin, can we really rely on Zelensky’s diplomatic skills? How seriously do our Western allies even take him? Can a man whose entire career before politics was spent telling jokes on TV lead the defence of the largest country in Europe? To the final question, the answer is surely no.
Not even Zelensky’s core supporters take him seriously any more. His poll rating continues to plummet; it has sunk to 24 per cent. Aren’t wars supposed to bolster an incumbent’s popularity? Is this the leader we deserve at our time of greatest postwar peril? Many acquaintances who voted for him in 2019 agree that they made a mistake but cloud it with the assertion that all politicians are the same. As for me, I must admit that the worst fears I had when he was elected have not come to pass. I believed he would plunder the state for its money and assets. But, after failing to take the Russian threat seriously enough, he is now forced to ape Poroshenko, still his closest rival, by going on TV to conduct bellicose rants. In other regards, he is acting out the worst impulses of the pre-revolution kleptocrats. He recently called for Poroshenko’s arrest under the spurious charge of treason.
Even as someone who put on a uniform and fought for Ukraine against Russia, I can’t get on board with this new jingoism. When I went to war in 2015, I believed, at the very least, that this threat would have abated by now. But it has only worsened. My service fell during a relatively quiet period in the Donbas but the only thing I know, definitively, is that I don’t want to go back. After demobilisation, I was assigned to the priority reserve. This means, in case of any significant escalation in the region or full-scale war, I am compelled to dust off my uniform and take up arms. As a child, I imagined the wars of the future, if fought by infantry at all, would involve highly mobile troops using sophisticated weaponry. I never imagined that farmers, journalists and even ceos would be engaged in close combat with Soviet-era guns in the forests of my homeland.
I try not to think about the reality of returning to the front, especially in the middle of winter. Here it is so cold that spit freezes on the pavement in seconds. Imagining having to dig another trench in the rock-hard soil sends me into a stupor. This is the kind of war that Putin favours: why else would he only mobilise 100,000 troops instead of a million? He wants to grind Ukraine down without committing too much blood.
I’m working on a new novel, for which I have high hopes. Last spring my wife and I bought an apartment in a nice part of the city. But it’s impossible to enjoy it without reservation. Our son is 11 years old and traumatised by a war that has lasted two-thirds of his life. He can just about remember when I went to the front. The other day he asked me and my wife, “If the Russians want Kyiv so much, why would they bomb it?” Perhaps we haven’t been as careful as we thought with our late-night conversations.
Desperate for some respite from the latent dread, I meet some friends at the cult establishment Barmandictat. It’s late December; Joe Biden and Putin are trading warnings about red lines. Over drinks we discuss Kyiv’s vibrant cultural scene. Around the table are three writers, a film-maker, an editor, a publisher and two gallerists. The winter is a time of openings, of ballet and theatre.
But within five minutes we’re discussing war and what we want to achieve before the shooting starts. The publisher says that he wishes to put out one more book, then leave the country. He is rebuked by a writer who insists that Putin is bluffing, seeking cast-iron assurances that Ukraine won’t be allowed to join Nato. He mentions an episode of British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, in which the defence secretary discusses the Soviet tactic of “salami slicing”, whereby long-term strategy is concealed by smaller actions or “slices”. The intention is that the enemy doesn’t realise that all is lost until it’s too late. I say I’m ready for anything – salami or none.
When I speak to fellow veterans and those still serving in the Ukrainian army, we agree that the idea that 100,000 Russian troops are enough for a swift attack on any country, let alone one with a land area of 604,000 sq km and population of more than 40 million, is ridiculous. Ukraine’s army has 250,000 active servicemen and almost a million reservists. In addition to a large cache of Soviet weapons, the country has been receiving sophisticated hardware from the US, including fgm-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles. Negotiations are under way in Washington to provide Kyiv with offensive as well as defensive weapons; in this year’s budget, the US Congress approved an extra $300m (€265m) in military aid. However, until that arrives, my veteran friends and I agree that it is important to prepare for the unexpected. It also goes without saying that our neighbour outnumbers us in armaments and human resources. Even so, Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s defence minister, talks darkly about Ukrainian chemical weapons and far-right nationalists armed with modern American guns planning to attack a defenceless Russia. Everyone knows that this is an attempt to secure a casus belli.
In Crimea the Mejlis and Crimean Tatars, who disagree with the new Russian-backed government, are being repressed. I have heard stories from witnesses about Donbas separatists building torture chambers in makeshift prisons. Surely the people of Europe know about Isolation, a former gallery in Donetsk that has been turned into a prison? Ukrainian journalist and former prisoner of war Stanislav Aseyev wrote a memoir called In Isolation about his terrible time spent there. With this reality so close to home, it is not surprising that many people here are suffering sleepless nights.
It’s not just soldiers who will suffer but civilians too. Who will protect the women and children of Kyiv? No one wants to fight but, in the event of a big war with Russia, many like me will do so. The Ukrainian forces are no longer the whipping boys they were in 2014. But when European leaders say that Russia will pay dearly for aggression, are they talking about the fighting power of reservists like me? We know that they will act with sanctions but military assistance might be harder to secure. US troops won’t fight Russians in the field and Putin knows this.
Back at Pizza Veterano, my wife asks for the bill. As a scriptwriter, she knows about dramaturgical turning points and plotting. But predicting what 2022 will bring is beyond her or my prowess. Walking along Kyiv’s main commercial street, Khreshchatyk, I find it easy to let my worries melt away. Rounding the corner after Barmandictat, I spot the Tatar restaurant Musafir, whose dumplings draw crowds at this time of year. I make a mental note to visit next week.
Even in the middle of winter, Kyiv’s clubbing scene is in full flow. I don’t remember it being this rowdy in years gone by. Youthful crowds usually gather at the Killer Whale café in the old town. After beer and cocktails, they bounce along to Closer or one of the many other booming lairs of electronic music that have opened in the derelict theatres and warehouses along the river. I’m too old for that, so decide to visit Mystetskyi Arsenal, a wonderful gallery with an exhibition of the 1920s avant garde showing. Outside, posters advertise forthcoming performances by Iggy Pop and Slipknot. There are so many options for forgetting the war.
As I walk across Sofia Square, I admire the beauty of the giant Christmas tree and decorations, ripe and abundant with the ostentation of the Eastern church. Once again, I marvel at how much Kyiv has changed in the past decade: it looks wealthier, more self-confident in its new, restrained European costume. There is more freedom, more opportunity.
Apart from some obvious exceptions, it doesn’t matter what you look like, what you believe, whether you choose to express your opinion on a subject or not. You can go about your life without fear of repression. This is a Ukraine that I dreamed of that has come to fruition. I scold myself for not realising this but then remember something that a fellow soldier said to me at the front: “War is not a reason to forget about normal life; you’ll return home soon and begin worrying about petty things. That is real freedom.”
As we turn the next corner, I notice a group of tourists outside a hotel. Are they holding escape bags, or just suitcases? They can’t be worried because they’re laughing. “I’d better call a taxi,” I say to my wife. “It’s getting cold.”
Artem Chekh is a Ukrainian writer and former soldier. In 2014 he was involved in the Maidan Square protests that brought down the government of Victor Yanukovych; in 2015 he enlisted in the Ukrainian army to fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. These experiences inspired his book ‘Absolute Zero’, which has been translated into several languages including English. He lives in Kyiv with his wife, the writer and film-maker Iryna Tsilyk, and their 11-year-old son.
Chaos by design
Russia’s strategy in Ukraine
Since the dissolution of the ussr in 1991 some in the Russian government have mourned the loss of its dominions – and what vexes them most is the loss of Ukraine. Vast, rich in resources and home to historic cities such as Kyiv, it commands the Black Sea to the south while jutting into Europe proper in the west. For the ussr, Ukraine was both breadbasket and bulwark.
Since its independence, Russia has worked to thwart any ambitions it might have of following former Warsaw Pact neighbours such as Poland into the EU and/or Nato. Vladimir Putin has seemingly proceeded on the assumption that neither bloc is interested in buying trouble and has therefore sought to make Ukraine unattractively chaotic. A similar strategy has been pursued with Georgia, another ex-Soviet Nato aspirant. In essence, it’s a policy of: if we can’t have her, nobody can.
Moscow has propped up pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and undermined those it suspects of westward yearnings. It has tinkered with (and in 2006 turned off) the taps supplying gas to Ukraine. Russia overplayed its hand in 2013, leaning on then president Viktor Yanukovych to abandon an association agreement with the EU. Popular fury escalated, forcing Yanukovych into exile in 2014. Shortly afterwards, barely disguised Russian troops seized Crimea and began arming and directing separatists in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Russian-aligned forces have since held an area of Ukraine roughly the size of Denmark, which looks like a plausible bridgehead for further incursions. Yet Russia appears pleased with the situation as it stands: unresolved and volatile, a constant background din that can be amplified or hushed as the Kremlin pleases.