With prospects of victory looking slim, Ukrainians are waiting – in hope rather than in confidence.
It was a strange but almost comical scene.
A dog was running towards me across Kyiv’s central landmark, Independence Square. And trying with some difficulty to restrain the animal, on a long lead, was the dog’s new master, 26-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash, Ukraine’s youngest member of parliament.
He had been driven from Kyiv to Bucha just after the Russian troops had pulled out, and saw bodies on the street and other evidence of atrocities. Special forces had broken in to a locked house to find the owner dead on the floor, and his dog alongside. Miserable and half-starved, the dog started yelping.
Soldiers, who had house-to-house searches and booby-trap clearance to prioritise, suggested the animal should be eliminated. Instead, Sviatoslav persuaded them to let him bundle the dog into his vehicle. In Kyiv,the dog was given its new name. The two have become closely bonded.
Sviatoslav has another claim to fame: eight years ago, he returned from a scholarship in India, aged 18, to take part in a huge popular uprising in this same square, against a Ukrainian president who was little more than a Russian puppet.
Brave and fluent in English, Sviatoslav became the revolution’s unofficial foreign press spokesman. More than 100 protesters died in months of unrest in that uprising, now also commemorated in the road in front of the Square, called The Alley of the Hundred Heroes. Sviatoslav showed me the cartoons that now adorn the square and large signs, telling the revolutionaries’ story in graphic detail.
The Russian puppet regime was toppled in early 2014. That triggered a series of events that led that year to the Russians occupying two key parts of the Ukrainian territory: the Crimean peninsula, and parts of Dombas in the east.
Yurash belongs to President Zelensky’s ruling party, Servant of the People – incidentally, the same name as the popular television show about a comedian who becomes Ukraine’s president. (Life imitated art — the star of that show was Zelensky).
Today, Yurash is livid. He’s been reading reports that the French and the Germans, and even some American voices, reflected in the New York Times, are suggesting Ukraine should offer to cede territory in the east and south in return for peace.
“Those who suggest this are nothing more than useful idiots,” he snaps. “Useful, that is, to Putin, subversive of our chances of success.” He argues that Ukrainians, if given Western support that includes full economic and military pressure, can and will eventually regain all the territories Ukraine has lost so far in this war, and even much, if not all, of the land occupied in 2014. And in any case, that even if Russia accepted ‘land for peace’, it would just lead to Russia launching new aggression within months or years.
I had first met Yurash and dog in early April just after a very memorable Shabbat. After a food-deprived night train journey from the Polish border through Lviv (Lvov), I had arrived at a city that was close to shut-down. The station was considered a military target – no photos allowed of an old steam train – as people wondered if the Russian forces had really withdrawn from their spearhead 30 kilometres north. One boy, about five, was calling for his mother and father; no-one had told him they were both dead.
I eventually found a small place serving coffee, no cake.
On that trip it was noticeable that fear was turning to exultation as the Russian failure to reach Kyiv became clearer and the extent of Putin’s losses were revealed. There was also shock and horror at the reports of its atrocities in Bucha and other just-liberated cities.
Now I was back for a third time. Even though the city itself was very seldom being struck by missiles (one or two sirens a day, ignored by most people) the mood was feeling grim again. The situation in the east was precarious. And the brave resistance at the destroyed southern port of Mariupul had finally collapsed.
Getting an interview with President Zelensky was proving impossible – “he is rather busy,” said the young MP with considerable under-statement. But I felt getting the capital city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko was an equally big scoop.
Last week he agreed. Inside a high-security sandbagged building – Klitschko like Zelensky is thought to be a prime target for Russian assassination efforts — the famous former world heavyweight boxing champion explained why despite some setbacks he is confident of ultimate victory.
“Firstly, no-one would launch this kind of war in 21st century Europe unless he’s suffering from a very sick mind,” he told me. “And secondly, our people fighting for our homes and our lives. I ask Russian soldiers: is it worth it to die here in a foreign land far from your homes?”
The mayor adds: “I have Russian blood in my veins. My mother is Russian, and speaks no Ukrainian, by the way. I cannot hate my mother. How can I hate Russians? I just hate what they do.”
Klitschko, whose daily energies are devoted to bringing in and supplying food and electricity and shore up military defences, has become so disillusioned with the Russians that he ordered “with great reluctance” the dismantling of a famous landmark in his city. Underneath the Friendship Arch lay a huge statue of two men facing each other, arms held aloft — the Soviet-era Statue of Friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian Peoples.
“When Russians have killed tens of thousands of my people, including so many civilians, and when they want to destroy my entire country, this is not the time to have statues about our so-called friendship,” he tells me.
He and his younger brother Wladimir — they never boxed against each other because, they told me, their mother ordered them not to — together dominated world heavyweight boxing for more than a decade.
Boxing has taught lessons in persistence and tactical nous that have proved useful in combating the Russian invasion, the mayor tells me. “And I’ve learned not to judge from appearances – some macho people crumbled, and some mild and meek people turned into lions here.”
Like most Ukrainians, the Klitschkos are contemptuous of Germany and France for continuing to pay billions for Russian gas and oil, feeding its war machine. But, says Vitali, “I love Boris”. He pens a message, on a set of Klitschko official-tribute postage stamps, writing: “To Boris”. He dates it and draws a heart.
In the streets there similar determination but somewhat less confidence. A taxi driver tells me you can avoid conscription into the army if you have the right connections or the right large sum of money. “I love my country, but I don’t want to die,” the taxi-driver says.
A well-connected couple tells me: “We know things are being kept from the public, and it’s good they think we’re going to win. But the truth will start to filter through to them within a month.” They left the country by train a few days later.
Reports of troop movements around the Belarus border suggest a new Russian attempt will be made to drive south and, this time, penetrate into Kyiv. Social media is abuzz with these reports, urging people to retreat to their underground shelters again. The army counters that it’s false propaganda spread by Russian psy-ops. Who knows?
“Of course, as the capital city, we remain a top Russian target,” says Wladimir Klitschko. The idea of another thrust fills many people with justified dread.
I make my second trip to Bucha and Irpin, satellite towns about twenty miles north of Kyiv. The famous bridge near Irpin over the Dnepr River was destroyed by Ukrainian explosives, not by the Russians, to prevent the invaders thrusting further towards Kyiv. Already a new temporary bridge is carrying traffic across into the satellite towns.
In Bucha, the railway station has been reopened, and, nearby, where destroyed Russian tanks have now been removed, I buy a few frozen pastries from a bakery that’s going to open its doors to customers within days. Not much else is working, apart from a gym. But electricity is running again – supplied now Mayor Klitschko has erected cables from Kyiv.
In a nearby village I walk through ruined apartment buildings, and despite the Russians having laid it waste more than two months ago, the smell of burning and charred remains still lingers. An enterprising builder has put up a notice on cardboard saying: “Windows replaced: cheap prices.” Despite a trickle of people driving past to inspect their ruined apartments there’s no sign that the builder will be doing much trade soon.
I’m in the company of Viktor Synytsky, aged 43, who shows me where he escaped death because his Russian jailers fled during a Ukrainian bombardment. In a cellar nearby I can see and film blood and bullet-holes – Ukrainian police had found the bodies of five men held prisoner there by the occupation forces.
I later visited a local blogger who has taken in two boys whose mother was allegedly killed in her apartment by Russians. At her temporary graveside, alongside their apartment block, the distraught confused child had brought his mother some food. The five-year-old refused to talk at all for a month. Now, he chatted and laughed as we sang Happy Birthday over a small cake, as his brother turned eleven.
I also met a Ukrainian officer, Matvey Dykhanvovskyi, who had gone into Russian-held Irpin on a reconnaissance mission and when challenged had shot three Russians at close range. He showed me the knife he said he’d taken from one of them. Matvey suffered from severe symptoms of shock for days afterwards.
If things remain gloomy in these shattered towns, the sense of foreboding is even worse in villages and towns in the east. Russian forces are making sporadic but steady progress in their blunt tactics of concentrating huge bombardments and slow moves of infantry. And in the south, after the fall of Mariupul, the Russians have a major supply line to the east, and have shut off all the Black Sea ports to the west of Crimea, ensuring a disaster for the export of grain.
Kyiv itself is sunny and astonishingly well-kept – no rubbish whatsoever in the streets or gutters, for example. Cafes, supermarkets, phone-shops and even barbers and hairdressers have reopened. Things though, are not normal. Sandbags are stacked at restaurant doors and at places of worship, and many ‘hedgehogs’ (X-shaped metal barriers) restrict passage in many places. There’s an 11 pm strict curfew. Posters and electronic signs proclaim the heroism of the soldiers and declare: Glory to Ukraine – the same statement that ends many conversations.
Most statues remain literally under wraps – protected as far as possible against shrapnel from any future rocket or missile attacks. (Nothing can protect them from a direct hit.)
Kyiv had a population of 4 million and though the main train station is bustling with returning refugees, well over a million are not back. Millions have been displaced, and millions have left the war-torn country altogether – including the majority of the Jewish community.
On the wall of the Chabad synagogue run by the city’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Inna was a photograph of its football team. I asked Rabbi Jonathan – who served twelve years in the Israeli air force — how many of the football team players were now in Kyiv. None, was the answer.
“They’re shooting at me with my own rockets,” exclaims an elderly gentleman in a smart Kyiv apartment. Boris Prister, 87, shows me photos of his various international trips – something not allowed in Soviet times for most people. He had become the deputy chief of a secret Soviet production facility for missiles, based in Moscow, and had designed a key part.
He is offered a food parcel, which he and his wife say they don’t really need — and the opportunity to put on tefillin for the first time in his life. His wife scowls and he says: “Perhaps next time”.
Two days before the Russian attack, the leadership in the army and in politics were assuring everone that there would be no invasion. Then, amid the shock of the first few days of the war, the Ukrainian intelligence service heard that, in particular, rabbis would be attacked by Russian agents provocateurs.
“They told us once we rabbis and their families were attacked the Russians would claim the Ukrainians were killing Jews – to back their propaganda that labelled Ukraine as a Nazi-led state,” Kiev’s chief rabbi Jonathan Markovitch told me.
Special agents gave them ten minutes to pack their documents and grab some frozen bread, recalled the rabbi. The rabbinic families were then spirited out of the country on a long hair-raising high-speed convoy, overtaking thousands of fleeing Ukrainian vehicles. “It was like the exodus from Egypt,” the Rabbi says. “Except we were not fleeing from a Ukrainian pharaoh, just a Russian one!”
As the Russian advance stalled the Rabbi and his wife returned.
“The courage needed here is different to the kind I had to develop in the Israeli air force,” Rabbi Jonathan concluded. “To help other people is not just something I can do, it’s something I must do, at all costs.”
But much of his community has fled. Next morning the once bustling Shabbat service was one short of a minyan.
The ebullient Post Office chief Igor Smelyanksy is not as upbeat as before.
He’s done a poll to see if the next stamp he issues should show Putin in chains. Instead the public voted to display a dog called ‘Bullet’ that has become a sensation because he’s trained to sniff out hidden bombs and booby-traps. “I expected the anti-Putin stamp would get the most votes, but no. So it shows the nation’s not dwelling on hate, it’s looking for some form of hope and positivity,” Smelyansky says.
That positivity is hard to find though. Most businesses are shut or struggling to survive. I hear that a top legal firm has just laid off two senior staff, and a woman lawyer working there tells me she’s relieved to still be working, though her salary has been cut from 5 thousand dollars a month to one thousand. Despite their plight, people are friendly and kind.
The city is making efforts to bolster morale. Some of the ruined Russian tanks I first encountered on the road to Bucha and Irpin have been deposited in a square right opposite St Michael’s golden-domed church, along with samples of the casings of Russian rockets and missiles. On weekends, the public is out in force here — to exult. Posters on the relics appeal for volunteer foreign soldiers to sign up for the fighting.
One foreign fighter on the eastern front-lines sends me graphic WhatsApps, including a video of a captured Russian soldier being interrogated. That soldier “did not live much longer,” the foreign fighter says, without being more specific.
Less dramatic, domestic soldiery makes the biggest impression on me.
Alex Flolov is just 20, and each early morning patrols his square mile of apartment blocks, alongside Kyiv’s no-longer-working zoo — looking, he says, for spies. The Russians, he says, are infiltrating people to seek out where next to attack. He shows me a crater from a missile strike. Part of it struck a children’s playground, and holes are gauged in the wooden slides. No children died here – it was hit at 6 a.m.
“They will never crush our spirit,” says Alex. “But we’re ready for worse.”