We travel across Ukraine to find a nation fighting a war but also a people trying to prepare for a better future.
In an odd twist of fate, 24 August, which marks six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, is also the anniversary of the country gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. While that will probably result in a spike in international interest in the war, there has been a lull in global coverage. “What we’re facing is a natural decline in attention,” foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tells monocle. “It happens with every conflict – people get used to wars. But we’re making efforts to stay in the spotlight. We understand that the best things to put Ukraine back on the front pages are victories. That’s what we’re working on.”
We travel to Ukraine five months after Russian forces invaded. Listening to the stories of its people, seeing the destruction in Bucha and hearing air-raid sirens will inevitably change your perspective. But we witness something else too. It’s summer; cafés, restaurants and parks are open in Kyiv, Lviv and Chernihiv – even in Bucha. Ambassadors here marvel at this resilience but for Ukrainians it’s simply a matter of getting on with things. Why should everyday life and its little joys have to stop? Why shouldn’t this country rebuild and reopen?
Even as Ukrainians fight a war, international visitors are welcomed. People are eager to share their stories. Our interview with the minister of digital transformation is the seventh of 14 meetings he is having that day; we are the fourth round of journalists seeing the deputy mayor of Bucha. The head of passenger rail meets us while organising a train for the foreign ministers of Austria and the Czech Republic. Other delegations in the week we visit include MPs from Warsaw and the first ladies of Latvia and Lithuania.
There’s tiredness in the eyes of many officials but also a determination to ensure that this war doesn’t fall off the front pages. The security of Europe and the world is at stake, they remind us repeatedly. “These visits by senior officials from other countries are game-changers – for them, not for us – because when you witness everything with your own eyes, you become more sympathetic to what is happening,” says Kuleba. “I’ve seen world leaders come here with one perception and leave with a completely different one.” On that, we can agree and we hope to give readers a small taste of our experiences in the following pages.
Additional reporting by Monocle’s Olga Tokariuk.
The night train
We take the Kyiv-bound No 82 train from Lviv to meet those on board and find out how a railway keeps running in wartime.
There are 541km between Kyiv and the western city of Lviv. That jumps to almost 700km when you take the night train: the war has forced routes to be changed and speed limits to be lowered to 80km/h. “At first our focus was to fit as many people as possible and get them out of the country,” says Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, head of passenger services at Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukraine Railways). This has now become one of the country’s most popular routes. “We cancelled ticketing, so people could travel freely. Railcars that would normally hold between 36 and 54 people have been filled with as many as 200 passengers.”
Ukrzaliznytsia has played a crucial role in keeping Ukraine moving. While in those initial days most passengers were heading west, now there’s a regular flow in both directions. “We’re coming back from a stay in the Carpathian mountains,” says a couple whose youngest son clutches a souvenir from the trip. “We wanted to get the kids away from the constant sirens and try to give them a sense of normality.” A few compartments down, we meet a young mother with her daughter, returning to their home in Bucha after spending time in Germany. “It is our first time doing this trip by train,” she says. “Let’s just say that I found out she prefers flying.”
Carriage attendant Lyudmyla Shevchuk says that, in the early days of the war, she would sit with passengers to hear their stories and offer support. “I didn’t even think about fleeing – I came to work on 24 February [the day of the invasion].” Shevchuk has been working for the railways for 22 years; this isn’t the first time that war has disrupted her job. “My route used to be the Kyiv-Simferopol train in Crimea. That all changed after the annexation in 2014.”
Outside the train, it’s pitch black. Staying out of sight of Russia’s missiles is crucial. “We have protection tape on all windows, blinds need to be down and we apply ‘light-masking’ – no lights on at night,” says Pertsovskyi. “The priority is to keep everyone safe.”
The sun rises and Shevchuk offers us coffee. Through the window, the sunflower fields have been replaced by houses; Kyiv is not too far. In the next carriage we meet Serhii Viktorovych, director of train No 82, who has been working for the railway since he was 18. “The job has changed a lot over the years but this war has made people respect us more,” he says. “I’m proud to wear our uniform.”
Meeting the mayors
The war has upended the already complex roles of Ukraine’s heads of municipal government. Two city mayors explain how.
Mayor of Kyiv
Running a city is challenging at the best of times, let alone during a war. Kyiv’s mayor (pictured, top) tells us about the capital’s daily life, Russia’s failed attempt to take it over and plans that had to be put on hold.
How would you describe the mood of the city?
If you look outside, there’s a beautiful blue sky and this doesn’t feel like a country at war. But people are nervous: we could have rocket attacks from Russia at any moment. Everyone is asking the same questions: how long will this war last and how can they stay safe? Meanwhile, the economy has been destroyed; many people have lost their jobs and have no social support; petrol prices keep rising. We are looking ahead to the winter and wondering how we will heat our homes because we used to depend on Russia for gas but now have to be independent. There are a lot of questions and not enough answers.
How do you balance giving people a sense of normality with the need to avoid complacency?
On one hand, we try to give the community an ordinary life: studying, going to work, having businesses open and operating. But on the other, we must also follow the rules – there’s a curfew, military checkpoints, strict regulations. All of this has a huge effect on the lives of residents.
As the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv is a target. Because you’re its mayor, you’re a target too. How do you keep the city and yourself safe?
It’s not about me. Every Ukrainian is a target. Russia wants to occupy the whole country. This is a war without rules: they attack civilians with no explanation. I come from a military family; both my father and my grandfather served and they always said that the greatest honour of an army man was to be able to defend his country. That’s why every single one of us is doing it. Defending my city is my mission and there’s no time to think about myself.
You’ve been an effective communicator, making the case for Ukraine internationally. Why is it important for you to play that role?
Ukraine is one of Europe’s largest countries. If we go down, it will destabilise the whole region. This war could affect everyone if we don’t win. It has been more than 150 days since it all began. For me, it feels as though it’s been one long, long day. This feeling began in February and March when Kyiv was almost taken. Russian forces encircled the city and there were explosions all around. We could feel the buildings shaking, the air-raid siren kept sounding and people spent weeks living underground in bunkers. There are many stories from that period about Kyiv residents and their humanity. I am very proud to be Ukrainian. We would rather die than kneel down to Russia. It was this spirit of defiance that surprised a lot of people internationally.
Do you still feel support from the international community or do you sense fatigue?
It’s important for us to feel this support, that people understand what we’re going through. It’s why we have been receiving humanitarian help from the West and political support to help the millions of Ukrainian refugees across Europe and around the world. Our candidate status for EU membership is a huge step. Now we need weapons so that we can defend our country. We don’t want to live in a dictatorship. We are fighting for European standards, democratic values, human rights and press freedom.
Despite the destruction, there’s a lot of rebuilding going on. Tell us about the importance of this.
Rebuilding critical infrastructure is crucial for Kyiv. More than 600 buildings have been destroyed, about 200 of which are residential; over 120 people have been killed by airstrikes, more than 500 have been injured – and this is just the level of aggression here in the capital. So it’s my responsibility to bring these services and structures back as soon as possible. It’s not easy, because we don’t have a city budget right now; we’re working with a budget of survival.
Are you able to focus on the everyday bureaucracy of running a city?
Kyiv can’t be frozen. People still need roads to move around; they need water, electricity and public transport. The city is a big organism and it’s important to ensure that these services continue to operate. Before the war we had 3.6 million citizens. While many have left, others have moved in too. We have about 100,000 registered refugees from the east and they all need the city’s services. We were quick and started working on it pretty fast so right now, despite all the challenges, things are under control in Kyiv.
What do you love most about your city? What are you most proud of as its mayor?
I’m actually so upset because we had great plans for the city this summer. Behind me, you can see the plans for a great wave-like pedestrian bridge in Natalka Park, which is one of the most beautiful spaces in the Obolon district. It should have been open by now but the war put it on hold. We were planning to redevelop the main street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk; we were revamping the parks. There were so many ideas about how to develop our city and this war has destroyed all of that. I enjoy my job and like being able to change my home city: build new schools, organise the streets or create new parks. Right now I can’t do these things because it’s all about stopping this senseless war and kicking Russia out. I’m a former boxer; I know that if you don’t fight, you don’t win.
Mayor of Lviv
“My life has completely changed,” Andriy Sadovyi (pictured, bottom), mayor of Lviv, tells monocle when we meet in his office. “There’s the part that existed before 24 February and my new life since then.” Just 70km from the Polish border, the largest city in western Ukraine has become a key entry and exit point since the start of the war, with as many as 60,000 people a day passing through its railway station in the conflict’s first weeks. Almost overnight, it transformed into a hub for diplomats as nearly 100 embassies temporarily relocated here. Today the city is home to one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons. “I feel a huge responsibility towards my city,” says Sadovyi. “We need to build territorial defence and support my new citizens as much as possible.”
Despite being one of the furthest cities from the front line, signs of the conflict can be found all around. In the inner courtyard of city hall, officials give civilians a regular briefing on what to do in the case of a chemical weapon attack. On the lower-ground floor, corridors that used to host the works of the municipal museum now serve as a bomb shelter for staff and citizens, complete with a makeshift mayoral office. “There was a lot of fear when it all started but today there’s an understanding of our new reality,” says Sadovyi as we look onto the balcony in his office with a view of the statues in Rynok Square, covered by sandbags.
But Lviv’s role during the war goes far beyond its strategic location. The city is home to one of the country’s top medical hubs that is treating many of those injured in the attacks. For Sadovyi, now is the time to invest in this expertise and prepare the city for when the war is over. “I need €77m to create Unbroken, Ukraine’s largest physical and mental rehabilitation centre,” he says. This plan includes a leading prosthetics centre, 3D-printing facilities, housing for patients in rehabilitation and an expansion of the hospital. To turn all this into reality, he is counting on international support from his peers; the cities of Wrocław and Freiburg have each pledged almost €1m for the cause already.
Sadovyi remains positive and offers a lesson before we part ways. “It’s very important to find some moments of happiness every day,” he says. “You have to keep living and find inner strength to be able to have a smile on your face.” Perched on top of a cabinet in his office is a model of the aircraft Antonov an-158 in the Ukraine International Airlines livery. Sadovyi smiles as he dreams of the day when his country becomes an aircraft manufacturer once again.
Summer in the city
Beneath the surface of a balmy evening on the town, danger remains an inescapable reality for Kyiv’s citizens.
It’s a hot summer night in Kyiv as we make our way through the Zoloti Vorota district. In the distance, the joyful sounds of a crowd can be heard, muffled only by the techno-meets-disco music that two DJs are playing. We’re at Pure & Naive, one of the city’s many cool wine bars and restaurants, where a large group of people have gathered to celebrate the venue’s second anniversary. “This is a neighbourhood of artists, designers and even some engineers,” says Pavlo Huk, co-founder of the venue. “It’s a place for people who are open-minded.” On the surface this might seem like an ordinary night in any European city but the war with Russia remains a constant anxiety. “We’re throwing this party to collect money for our friends who are volunteering to rebuild three houses in the Chernihiv region,” says Huk.
“This is a neighbourhood of artists, designers and even some engineers. It’s a place for people who are open-minded”
This duality has permeated life here over the past few months: learning how to unwind by the riverbanks of the Dnipro while ensuring that you know where the nearest shelter is; going for a jog across one of the many bridges but having your documents on you in case you encounter a military checkpoint. Parks are busy with children playing, people queue outside restaurants for tables and ride-hailing apps continue to annoy taxi drivers.
In the few years preceding the war, the nearby town of Bucha had evolved into a de facto suburb of Kyiv. Connected both by the highway and a fast urban electric train, this leafy area had become the go-to neighbourhood for young families seeking a home near the capital. This proximity placed it straight on Russia’s war path when tanks rolled in the direction of Kyiv from the north. When we visit, the scars are still visible – nearly 3,000 buildings were destroyed and more than 1,000 people killed in what became known as the Bucha massacre. Yet there’s a sort of defiance in the act of carrying on. “This is a sign of our recovery,” says Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, Bucha’s deputy mayor, as she takes us to the local park and lake. “People are in the water; they’re enjoying the summer, the same way they did a year ago,” she says. “They are enjoying life. We are OK.”
Visiting the embassies
European nations have been resolute in reopening their embassies in Kyiv. We meet the diplomats who have returned to Ukraine.
Italy had urged its citizens to leave Ukraine but few heeded the warnings. On the eve of Russia’s invasion “they were in the clubs, in the restaurants” in Kyiv, Pier Francesco Zazo, Italy’s ambassador to Ukraine, recalls. “For them it was a shock.” Zazo’s embassy jumped into action: more than 100 vulnerable Italians were brought to the ambassador’s residence until the embassy could organise convoys out of Kyiv. Hailed as a hero by Italian media, Zazo tells monocle that he has “no reaction” to the praise. “Anyone would have done the same in my place.”
Zazo himself relocated to a temporary embassy in Lviv, from where he maintained communication with Rome and with Ukraine’s government. He was among the first to return to Kyiv, on 18 April. The return of embassy teams was a bold move. Though Russian troops had been repelled from Kyiv, Zazo says that the atmosphere was “very gloomy” in those first few weeks, with curfews, air-raid sirens and ongoing missile attacks. Zazo spent the first month sleeping at the fortified embassy rather than his residence. “Today it’s completely different,” he says. A level of normality has returned – even if there are still sandbags piled under the embassy’s covered windows.
Rémi Duflot, chargé d’affaires of the European Union’s delegation, chose Kyiv as his first diplomatic posting in 2004. Now he finds his team in uncharted territory. The EU’s technocratic experts, who before the invasion were helping Ukraine to modernise its institutions, have been thrust into providing practical aid. “We have repurposed all of our projects,” says Duflot, who is helping to disburse more than €4bn in EU humanitarian assistance. And, for the first time, the EU is financing the provision of military weapons by member states; more than €2bn has been earmarked for lethal and non-lethal military aid.
The more lasting impact, Duflot believes, will come from EU membership, which he calls “perhaps the biggest weapon that Ukraine will ever receive from the bloc.” He describes 23 June, when Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, as a day of “immense joy” for him personally. And while he understands the doubts of many Ukrainians, Duflot rejects the idea that membership will never happen. The decision to move forward, he says, “was not a gift but something Ukraine has earned”. Though the war is a “catalyst”, Duflot believes that it shaved only a few months from the timeline. “We’re reflecting quickly on how we can help again,” to push Ukraine forward with institutional reform, even amid an ongoing war.
Claude Wild, Switzerland’s ambassador to Ukraine, was visiting the eastern city of Kharkiv when the invasion began; he heard three rocket strikes in quick succession, about a kilometre from his hotel. He says the decision to bend Switzerland’s neutrality and impose sanctions on Russia was a no-brainer. “By law we cannot send weapons into a war zone,” he says. “But on the rest, there is no neutrality. We are behind Ukraine and the respect for international law, which is being violated by Russia every day.”
While the Swiss debate whether their neutrality laws should be amended or abandoned, Wild says his country has been playing to its strengths on the ground – providing humanitarian aid, capacity building and aiding the rebuilding effort. Switzerland also played host to the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano in early July that kick-started the reconstruction process. It is now exploring how to contribute to the rebuilding of Vinnytsia, a city in central Ukraine with ties to Switzerland – it runs on Zürich-manufactured trams – and which was struck by a rocket attack that killed at least 25 people in mid-July. Wild visited the city with 16 other ambassadors shortly after the attack.
Wild’s key message to those back home? “We cannot afford to let Ukraine fatigue take hold, as it normally does with a conflict after six months, when it’s far away,” he says. “It’s not far away; it has changed the paradigm in Europe. There is no more business as usual.”
Many still question whether Ukraine being granted EU candidate status will actually lead to membership. “The Ukrainian people have paid – and keep on paying – a significant price for keeping up this European path,” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European affairs, tells monocle. And while Kyiv still needs to “do our homework” in this next phase of the process, her message to Brussels is “don’t wait too long; we are very impatient in these times of war”. She also urges the EU to release additional tranches of emergency financial aid. “This is a matter of survival,” she says. “We have political recommendations [for membership] and we will deliver on them – but we also need to survive to deliver further.”
Role of opposition
Ukrainians are known for their self-reliance, a trait that stems at least in part from a history of poor governance. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, this self-reliance has helped Ukraine to survive by prompting all citizens to play their part, whether on defence, aid or rebuilding. “Every one of us is having our own fight,” says Lesia Vasylenko, MP for the opposition Holos party. “The soldiers are out in the field; the nurses are nursing the wounded; teachers are preparing for a tough school year; families are rebuilding homes or starting new lives. We are all doing the best we can to keep living and fighting for Ukraine. We don’t have another choice.”
Speaking truth to power in times of war is a tricky balance. Opposition parties and even media outlets feel a responsibility to show unity. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity has massively increased due to his effective leadership and communication skills since February. And yet, calls for greater accountability and transparency are growing in this still-young democracy. “Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the priority for all political forces has been to defend the country and speak with one voice,” says Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, MP for the European Solidarity party. “But it’s very important to preserve checks and balances. At this moment, we see some hurdles to ensuring that we have the chance to carry out our control function as the opposition – but we will continue doing so.”
Near the Belarussian border, the city of Chernihiv is being rebuilt by volunteers – even as Ukrainian soldiers prepare for futher attacks.
“I was afraid that my flowers would die,” says Nataliia Ivanytska, principal of school #35 in Chernihiv, as she points to the colourful orchids by her window, many of them gifts from teachers, students and parents. “When I came back to this office, I was very happy because all of this was alive.”
Chernihiv is one of Ukraine’s oldest cities; its origins date back to 907. It’s a picturesque town just 70km from the Belarussian border, which made it the first major city that Russian soldiers reached when they attempted to occupy Kyiv from the north on 24 February. Of the 35 schools in Chernihiv, just seven escaped undamaged from the shelling, which lasted six weeks. At Ivanytska’s school, a third of the windows were blown out by an explosion some 100 metres away. Yet summer school is in session when we visit and classes are expected to resume in September. “I am an optimist,” says Ivanytska. “I am a strong woman. I like life... and I like this school.”
Volunteers have flocked to Chernihiv over the past few months, many making the two-hour drive from Kyiv (longer when you factor in the many remaining military checkpoints). They’re helping to rebuild schools, homes and other critical infrastructure in their spare time – even as this city faces the threat of another invasion from Belarus. Serhii Dikalov, who is co-ordinating with subcontractors to rebuild schools, hopes to have three institutions rebuilt by September, complete with the now required bomb shelters. “The only limitation we have is the amount of money we receive – and time until September,” he says. Dikalov and the schools are soliciting donations via a fundraising initiative known as Angels of Freedom.
Among those helping to co-ordinate in Chernihiv is Prism, a Kyiv-based foreign policy think-tank that has retooled, like many other Ukrainian organisations, and is now spearheading relief efforts. Yevhen Romanenko, who normally organises foreign-policy conferences, is managing Prism’s humanitarian aid centre in the city. “I’m still a project manager,” he says. And it gives him “moral satisfaction” to help his city recover from its terrible losses.
As the months passed, Prism’s warehouse moved on from supplying emergency needs such as food to longer-term items like bed linens and construction supplies.
Elsewhere, authorities are working to get public transport up and running again. Oleksandr Ryzhyi, head of Chernihiv’s department of transport and infrastructure, spent the invasion defending his city as part of Ukraine’s territorial defence force. Now back to his regular job, he says that public transport is operating at about 70 per cent of pre-invasion levels. One sign of the return to normality? Residents are filing complaints about late buses again, he says.
The city is also relying increasingly on bikes, supplied by an ngo, Eco Misto (“misto” means “city” in Ukrainian). Founder Sergiy Bezborodko has provided some 286 bikes donated from the Netherlands and Germany. With petrol prices doubled (when petrol is available at all) bikes are a useful alternative. “We feel that this is a historical moment,” says Bezborodko. “We can end the war better than it was before.”
The city remains vigilant. Sitting at an outdoor café enjoying a rare day off, we find Yevhen Zhovtyk, a tour guide who had planned to take Ukrainians to Rome this summer and bring Europeans to Chernihiv; instead, he signed up for the army at 09.00 on the day of the invasion. Asked how it felt to have played a role in repelling Russian forces from his town, his demeanour sours, “I didn’t have any feelings,” he says. “This war is not over yet.”