2 August 2022
‘Ukrainians were as ready for this trial as it is possible to be, though nobody can be prepared for the impact of war.’
by Anna Bowles
These days, Western visitors to Ukraine produce accounts of two basic types: war-as-military-endeavour and war-as-civilian-crisis. But the Ukrainian soldiers sometimes say, ‘We fight in order to live’, and people are still living.
So, with the initial horrors and uncertainties of March and April seemingly past, in June I went to visit my friends in Kyiv.
It was a two-day journey: flight to Poland, overnight train into Ukraine. The Ukrainians call railway workers the ‘second army’, and for good reason. Millions of people were and still are evacuated that way, and now you can get around the unoccupied parts of the country with nothing worse than delays when the ruscists blow up fuel depots. Or even no delays, in my case.
Forty-six hours after leaving home, I made it to my friend’s flat, fell asleep – and slept through an air raid siren. This, I was told, was my first Level 1 Authentic Modern Ukrainian Experience. In many suburbs the sirens are audible, but not overwhelmingly loud, as I had unthinkingly expected them to be. You can sleep through them. Or pause in what you are doing, pull a face and go back to the task. There was a notable difference between the journalists’ reports ( ‘Air raid sirens sounded over the capital again today… A chilling reminder that Russia is still at war with Ukraine… People are trying to return to some form of normality… I am sitting in a bunker…’) and the locals’ attitude. It must have been lonely in that bunker because most of the Kyivans were out eating ice cream, for all that the mayor’s official advice remains that people should go to the shelter.
You can also listen to the sirens while sitting in the Great Ukrainian Fuel Queue, though I didn’t personally combine those two experiences. The news reports don’t do justice to the subtle ramifications of this fuel queue, though fortunately the situation is less complex now, when queues are only about half an hour in duration, than they were back when the ruscists first started bombing fuel depots and you had to wait four hours. You don’t just drive to your local petrol station and sit there. You 1) consult the community app where people post about which stations have petrol and which are out; 2) hurry off to one that has stock, hoping they don’t run out; 3) join the queue; 4) depending on the layout of the pumps you may need to dispatch a passenger down the hard shoulder to check whether they run out of the particular fuel you want while you are waiting; 5) employ a stratagem for obtaining maximum fuel. One chain of petrol stations will sell you a maximum of 20 litres, another might offer 30 litres. Another has a loyalty scheme. Some have special secret reserves that you may only access if you have their app. They will explain these rules to you over the counter while you nod and attempt to memorise them before scurrying back out in the sweltering forecourt before the people stuck in the queue behind you start plotting your murder.
Once you’ve got your half tank of petrol, you can drive around the city gawping, or rather my friend drove while I gawped. I wondered what a city at war looked like. Well, much like it did in December 2021 when it wasn’t at war, except for all the hedgehogs. They’re no longer blocking the road, but they are lined up alongside it, waiting to be lugged into action if the capital is threatened again.
Also study the advert hoardings. About half are normal; half are not. These come in four main types:
1) Thank you to the army, often with a picture of a regular-looking person in military gear.
2) Adverts for toothpaste, lawyers, skin care, sofas et normal cetera.
3) Maps of Ukraine, doves, general yellow-and-blue regalia with hopeful peace-will-come messages
4) Adverts for luxury apartment developments and other large-scale activities that have evidently been there since before February.
If you go outside the city proper, there are checkpoints. Some are no longer permanently manned, meaning you can play hedgehog slalom! Back in March, when there were no streetlights, people inadvertently played ram-the-hedgehog. But now local drivers swerve with panache around lines of hedgehogs that jut into the road at the outskirts checkpoints while the passenger, if so inclined, cries, ‘Whee!’
The driver then proceeds confidently exactly where she wishes to go… thanks to satnav. Actually not all the road signs are gone, and I was a little disappointed not to see any of the ones that had been updated with such destinations as ‘to hell’ and ‘also to hell’, but there are long stretches without them.
Sometimes the checkpoints are manned, though, and the soldiers check everyone’s documents or stop people at random. They decided we didn’t look suspicious multiple times, even though coming back from Irpin we had a second-hand sofa-sized beanbag in the back, bought and ferried back as a birthday present for someone in another part of the city. We could have hidden at least a small Russian saboteur under that.
What is there to be seen in the famously devastated town of Irpin? Giant beanbags, frying pans (very briefly), apocalyptic horizontal rain and traces of appalling atrocities.
My friend and I were responsible for the frying pans. One of the locals runs a very simple community operation out of the basement of a block of flats: people bring donations, and former IDPs returning to their homes come and take what they need. Which is not clothes. The exchange has racks and racks of droopy clothes. But frying pans? Plates? Bedding? Gold dust. Even the horde of murdering washing machine thieves that passes for the Russian army cannot steal built-in hobs, or hearths. A returning IDP sweeps their home for mines, cleans and fixes, then wants their dinner and a lie-down. My friend appealed for crockery, pans, cutlery and bedding on Facebook, and we collected a carload to run up to the charity. It was all gone within a day.
Irpin is the location of the famous wrecked bridge that was destroyed by the ruscists, thus stopping refugees escaping south in the early days of the war. It’s still a striking sight, but the Ukrainians have built a serviceable replacement road that dips down into the valley and up again. Blackened apartment buildings with stoved-in roofs loom over the streets – which are often pin-neat. What can’t be fixed easily won’t be fixed for a while, but the returning locals are making damn sure to reclaim what they can.
Just as well they’re good at street cleaning, because on the way into Irpin we had to drive through the most violent rainstorm I’ve ever encountered, turning chunks of vegetation effectively into missiles, and we might not have been able to get out again were there not locals out clearing the fallen trees the moment the deluge eased off. Someone was killed not far away, reportedly when lightning struck a mine.
It’s still dangerous in Kyiv oblast.
The most alarming signs of war are the huge signs saying DANGER! MINES! DEATH! on the beaches of the Dnipro. However, the central beaches are so well-trodden that any mines would have been discovered by now. Best of all is swimming from a forest beach outside the city. In places you can have the vast river to yourself, as there is no boat traffic. It’s just you and the train possibly carrying Western arms trundling over the nearby bridge which is heavily flanked by huge motion sensors. I swam across a tributary of the river twice on one occasion, which amused my friends, even though it wasn’t very wide. (It’s exciting! I can’t swim in the Thames in central London! At least three police boats would attempt to prevent me from drowning, and I’d be reported as a stray dolphin with pink stripes from pollution damage.)
Of course you have to make sure to be home for curfew. If you’re a man caught out late on the wrong night, you might get conscripted into the army. But these days it’s only 11pm to 5am, so there’s plenty of time to sit at a pavement café and drink ‘dead Russian’ cocktails (rebranded white Russians), discuss knotty contemporary problems such as what happens if people break the law on not playing Russian music in public by getting drunk and caterwauling drinking songs, and… toast the British.
This is a seriously exotic experience. For a long time I found it hard to believe we are helping Ukraine as much as we say, thinking there must be some cynical political catch, but not according to Ukrainians. You can get Johnsonyuk cakes – meringues with Boris hair – in some Kyiv cafes (are we soon to see Truss rolls? Sunak profiteroles?) Particularly stylish Ukrainians can even get a tattoo of St Mary Javelina: a Madonna holding a British-supplied missile.
You can also debate the rumours at the cafes. The latest concern while I was in Kyiv was the possible invasion by Belarus. Some people were really worried about this. Others kept in mind the reality that the Belarussian army is equipped with the junk so low-grade that the Russians didn’t want it, and their tanks may or may not be able to reach the border so that the Ukrainian tractors can tow them away.
So I experienced a sliver of life as it is now lived in Kyiv. What my visit lacked were the Level 2 Authentic Modern Ukrainian Experiences: joining the army/territorial defence or directly witnessing any physical blyadina – blyadina, which roughly translates as ‘shit-ssiles’ is the Ukrainians’ word for rockets, missiles, air-raid sirens and other undesirable incoming.
You might be thinking this account is flippant. That’s because it is, and this is the point: duality.
In the Ukrainians themselves, I would call it survival dissonance.
Ukrainians were as ready for this trial as it is possible to be, though nobody can be prepared for the impact of war. Eight years ago when Crimea was invaded, families around the country sat at their tables and discussed what they would do when the tanks came. Both racial and living memory ingrain in most Eastern Europeans an awareness that at some point in your lifetime Imperial Russia will decide to come and have a go at murdering you. It’s just that hardly anyone expected anything on this scale, not me feeling clever in London with my Russian studies degree, nor Ukrainians in Kyiv with their weather eyes permanently turned east.
When you are not immediately blown up, how do you live as opposed to survive? My friends are part of a network called Freefilmers: filmmakers in peacetime, within days of the start of the war they transformed themselves into a grassroots NGO. Most of them were based in Mariupol and the east: now they operate out of a base in Zaporizhzhia, supporting IDPs, especially LGBTQ+ and other vulnerable groups, arriving from the occupied territories. They sometimes get aid into the Russian-controlled territories too.
Looked at from inside Ukraine, the ‘refugee issue’ perceived in the West turns inside out: it’s not about how many anonymous human units can be absorbed into other countries, but when and whether your friends and family will come home. Some don’t want to, but a lot of people who fled from danger are now finding that they would rather return to Ukraine even though nowhere can be guaranteed ‘safe’ for the foreseeable future. For the simple reason that being in foreign country where nobody really wants you is a rotten experience. Better to be under threat in your own home than silent under provisional welcome in a stranger’s.
When, at the start of the war, British people learned I had Ukrainian friends, their response was often surprise, followed by ‘I hope they get out of there in time.’ The Ukrainians’ own hope, as I think everyone knows at this point, is to drive out the occupiers and stay forever in their rightful land.
Ukraine is not a monolith, even with the social cohesion imposed by survival needs. Ordinary people resist occupation and attempted obliteration in a thousand ways: by grieving and battling their trauma; by making art and films; testifying on social media; creating memorials or survival hubs for their culture; joining the territorial defence force; ensuring their kids get remote access to education so the country can be rebuilt; and by risking their lives to resist and undermine the occupation directly. And, whether we like it or not, some rationalise the situation on the ground by buying into the Z propaganda. That reality will persist even after Ukraine wins the war. All we can do is spread the truth as far as possible.
If I had to sum up in one line my most meaningful impression of Ukraine during wartime it would be this: everyone lives their own war. Nobody is experiencing exactly the same thing, or coping exactly the same way: because the lived mix is so complicated. This summer in Kyiv is about air raid sirens, and ice cream in the park, and trying to get through to your parents in occupied Melitopol, and listening to war podcasts in the fuel queue, and mutual practical support, and arguing with other Ukrainians who pop up on Facebook claiming refugees from Mariupol are ‘telling fairy tales’, and making sure you’ve towels at the ready in case you need to soak them and stuff them in your flat’s ventilation points in case of gas attack, and basking on the beach.
But perhaps there is one universal experience: a haunted kind of waiting. Some people say they felt they were living one endless nightmare day for about two months, but the psyche can only sustain that so long, and eventually the shock softened and reordered itself into a version of normality. People who stayed in Kyiv through March carry the memories of actual bombardment in a kind of psychological suspension, waiting to break through into reality again. It’s often said that the cost of the war is not measured just in deaths, but in ruined lives; a further cost is suspended lives. How do you plan when you don’t know if the tanks might be back next month or next year?
My friends told me a story from occupied Kherson. A soldier accidentally left his Kalashnikov in a supermarket, and the locals just looked at it, and at one another, acutely uncomfortable. After a while, somebody decided they’d better run after him. He came back, said ‘Oops, sorry,’ and collected the weapon as if it was an umbrella. Everyone continued about their business.
What else was there to do?
Pro-Ukraine demonstrations are held on Whitehall in central London three times a week:
6pm-8pm Wednesdays, 4pm-6pm Saturdays and 3pm-5pm Sundays.
The Freefilmers are Ukrainians, mostly from Mariupol, helping other Ukrainians on the ground. Money sent to large charities often seems to fall into a black hole; £10 donated to Freefilmers might become fuel to drive a family out of the immediate warzone as soon as the next day.
I am collecting laptops, phones and tablets for Freefilmers, so internally displaced teenagers can access remote education. Please contact me on anna @ annabowles . co . uk if you can help with this.
The Freefilmers also hold solidarity screenings in cities around the world to raise money. If you know of a venue that might be interested in doing this, please get in touch.