Defiance And Resilience, A Year Of Living Dangerously In Kyiv
One year after the Russian invasion, Kyiv has become an international symbol of resistance, also in the way that ordinary life continues, despite air raids and bomb blasts.
KYIV — Bombs at breakfast, jacuzzi at noon. Like many residents of Kyiv, Alina Sugoniako's daily life at the end of January is anything but normal. That Thursday, at dawn, the Russian army fired about 20 missiles onto the Ukrainian capital. The young woman, five months pregnant, takes refuge between the walls of the corridor of her small apartment with her husband, Dmytro.
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They waited there for nearly an hour, their eyes glued to their phones, looking for information on the impact points of the bombs. Then the news falls: one dead and two wounded in the south of the city. The air raid alert faded into the icy sky, and life could try to resume its course.
The couple, who had planned to spend a few hours relaxing in a downtown spa, decided to keep to their schedule.
"It's been a year since the invasion began and four months since Kyiv was bombed at regular intervals. We have learned to control the fear and try to continue living, whatever the cost," explains Alina, standing by a blue pool, her belly bulging under her swimsuit. This is also why we decided to have a child despite the war. We didn't want to delay our lives for a single second, so as not to give the Russians any small victory."
A message to the rest of the world
One year after the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II, Kyiv remains determined to stand up to its aggressor. Yet the city has had several opportunities to give up. On Feb. 24, 2022, nearly 20,000 Russian soldiers crossed the border, covered by a gigantic air assault and a rain of missiles.
The invaders reached the outskirts of the city, but they had underestimated their opponent. The Ukrainian army, which was anchored to its position, shot the attackers, driving them out of the capital, and sent a decisive message to the rest of the world: small Ukraine can resist the Russian bear.
The Kremlin's army repositioned itself further east and offered Kyiv a summer of respite. Terraces and concerts are back. Western leaders flocked to the gardens of the presidential palace. Some of the winter exiles, who had fled to Europe at the beginning of the invasion, chose to return.
The war, it is believed, will now be contained to the eastern part of the country. But the victorious counter-offensive of Ukraine in the Kharkiv region and the attack on the Crimean bridge, in early autumn, change the deal.
Humiliated, the Russian president has reorganized his military staff and inaugurated a new strategy: striking the energy infrastructures. Kyiv in particular will pay the price.
A capital plunged into darkness
A first explosion thundered in the distance, then a second, then a third. The colorful crowd of the Obolon district, which had been going about its afternoon quietly until then, rushed towards the nearest metro station. A tide of frightened passers-by poured onto the platforms. "I saw a missile split the sky in front of my house, it was horrible," says Darya, in her 70s.
After the initial shock, the atmosphere relaxed. The inhabitants of Kyiv have, over the months, become accustomed to having their daily lives interrupted by bombs. At the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to the subway trains, a group of high school girls are doing their homework, notebooks on their knees.
The sumptuous Saint Andrew's Church is nothing more than a ghost veiled in icy fog.
Further on, a man is quietly typing on his laptop, sitting on a camping cushion. At the ticket machines, a group of friends share a beer and laugh. The flickering of the lights, indicating that some missiles have hit the target, goes almost unnoticed. After an hour or so, the hundreds of phones vibrate in unison, signaling the end of the air raid alert.
But a desolate sight is revealed once back in the open air. The metropolis, home to three million people, is entirely plunged into darkness. The sumptuous Saint Andrew's Church, a Baroque masterpiece of the 18th century, is nothing more than a ghost veiled in icy fog. At its feet, a group of pedestrians with ghostly silhouettes grope with flashlights.
A few candles flicker in the windows, giving the facades a gloomy look. Car headlights cast a terrifying halo of white light.
Despite the importance of the anti-aircraft means provided to Ukraine by its Western allies, a significant part of the Kremlin's bombs still slip through the net. Of the 31 missiles fired that day on the Kyiv region, a dozen could not be intercepted, killing three people, injuring a dozen others, and putting one of the city's main power stations out of service.
Advanced anti-missile systems
In mid-January, an 11-metre-long cruise missile crashed into a residential building in Dnipro, a large city in the east of the country, killing at least 45 people and injuring 80. According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, eight Russian bombs hit their target in the most recent wave of infrastructure strikes on Jan. 26. Another 40 or so were reportedly intercepted.
"Despite their sophistication, the anti-aircraft weapons provided by our partners are still not enough to completely seal off our airspace," says Oleksandr Kovalenko, a Kyiv-based military expert. We can now intercept most cruise missiles or prowler munitions, but not ballistic missiles."
Successfully shooting down the latter, which travel at speeds of more than 7,000 km/h, requires the most advanced anti-missile systems in the world.
With Christmas drawing near, the White House officially dispatched a battery of Patriot missiles to Ukraine. A few days later, the German Chancellery followed suit. But the training of Ukrainian soldiers will take several months.
Kyiv residents playing with fitness equipment on a square on Feb. 22
"We have not yet received these weapons, and Russia is also using hypersonic missiles that will probably be able to evade the Patriot batteries," worries Oleksandr Kovalenko. So the people of Kyiv are not done with air raid shelters and candlelit evenings. Their morale, however, remains unshaken.
"The circumstances are difficult, but the city is united. This solidarity makes adversity much more acceptable," explains Kateryna, 32, who came to celebrate her birthday in a chic downtown establishment with three friends. Behind the counter, a bartender in a white shirt is making clever cocktails by the light of a red candlestick.
Despite the electricity shortages, Kyiv continues to run. Equipped with generators, restaurants and cafés make a point of staying open. City workers salt the icy boulevards, shopping malls are always full, trains arrive at the station on time, and the traffic wardens continue to crisscross the city. Even in the middle of a war, you have to pay for parking.
Movie night on the Maidan revolution
"Coming back to Kyiv is good for me. The city has become a kind of rallying point, where the country is replenished to gain strength before facing the enemy," says Andrii Khokholkin, a soldier on leave who has come to attend the preview of a documentary on the Mayan revolution in 2014. All around him are a hundred spectators, wrapped in their coats to fight against the coolness of the movie theater, to applaud wildly the film crew present on stage. "Glory to Ukraine!" they shout in chorus.
A few dark alleys away, 30 or so theater students are improvising on the second floor of a venerable-looking building. Many of them have returned from exile in Europe during the summer. None of them is planning to go back the same way.
"For three months, I tried to rebuild my life in Poland," says Kateryna, one of the students. But I soon realized that I didn't want to live anywhere else but here, at home in Kyiv. This is where my future is it, it’s my country, my dreams and my loved ones are all here. I will stay until the victory, whatever it takes." A murmur of approval runs through the small group.
Europe is a bit like a big sister.
This tenacity is not limited to the wealthy neighborhoods of old Kyiv. On the other side of the Dnieper, the gigantic river that divides the city in two, the Soviet building blocks of the Dniprovsky district vibrate with the same lust for life.
"The power is cut off for four hours at a time, three times a day. But I've learned to live with it, I organize my day differently," explains Dima Zhiltsov, a 57-year-old parking attendant who lives in a small apartment. This is the price we have to pay for the final victory, and compared to what our soldiers are going through, it's not much."
Planted in a flowerpot next to his microwave oven, two tiny paper flags interlace. One is Ukrainian, the other European. "I kept them after the Maidan revolution, in which I participated," the man explains proudly. "For me, Europe is a bit like a big sister. I hope she will continue to support us, so that we end this war as soon as possible."
The Russian bombs dropped on Kyiv since October, which were supposed to undermine the morale of the population, have indeed missed their political target. According to a survey by the Institute of Sociology in Kyiv, 86% of Ukrainians this autumn considered that it was "necessary to continue the armed resistance even if the bombing of cities continues".
Beyond the military victory, their long-term objective is clear: according to another poll by the same institute, 88% of the population believes that Ukraine will be "a prosperous member of the European Union" within a decade.
The cases of corruption within the Ukrainian government, revealed at the end of January by a Ukrainian newspaper, have hardly dented this unbridled optimism. The speed with which President Volodymyr Zelensky cut off the heads has reassured the public.
"These scandals have certainly caused a stir, and we will have to see whether the judicial investigations are successful before we can judge the sincerity of the measures taken by the executive. But this episode has not made the country forget the most important thing: winning the war and maintaining national cohesion," says Maksym Panchenko, a journalist from the Ukrainian media outlet Ukraine World.
Complaining is not an option
In the small town of Moschun, on the outskirts of Kiev, in the middle of the field of ruins left by the Russian troops at the beginning of the invasion, a few hundred inhabitants face the winter inside their bombed-out houses.
Few of them have so far been able to count on the help of the State to rebuild. However, complaining is not an option.
"I haven't received any help from the authorities, but I understand that, because the government has other things to worry about," says Liubov Bichik, an 83-year-old pensioner who has shut herself up in the only room of her home still insulated from the snow and the freezing wind. "My children helped me to protect the house a little before the winter came and they visit me every week. To keep warm, I burn the rubble from my neighbors' house."
A few streets away, Valerii and Nina Yakovienko, aged 71, have also insisted on living in the remnants of their past life. Despite their connection to the electricity grid, which was restored during the summer, they remain vulnerable to the cold war waged by Moscow.
"Because of the bombing of the power plants, power cuts are still very frequent, although it is getting better with time. I hope our engineers will hold out for the rest of the winter," Valerii worries as he inspects the wooden boards that are supposed to seal the shell holes in the walls of his house.
The most difficult winter since the Second World War
The mayor of Kyiv had warned as soon as the first snowflakes were sighted in November: "This will be the most difficult winter since the Second World War. Taken by surprise by the Russian bombing campaign on the electrical infrastructure, the Ukrainian authorities had, for a time, considered evacuating part of the population of Kyiv.
Putin and his generals have not turned off the lights completely.
The UN estimated that three million additional Ukrainians were at risk of having to flee their homes because of the cold. But the much feared humanitarian cataclysm has so far not happened.
Ukrainian power grid maintainers, aided by significant Western resources and a myriad of NGOs, are working a minor miracle in the midst of the harsh continental winter. Ukraine is still in dire need of electricity, but Vladimir Putin and his generals have not turned off the lights completely.
"We have provided materials to repair the homes of more than 40,000 families and have helped restore access to heating for about 1.3 million people. But the humanitarian needs remain enormous, especially in areas close to the front line," says Achille Després, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine.
Living conditions remain very difficult for the most vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled and the sick, who have no choice but to stay and try to survive in a very difficult context.
A devastated economy
On the economic front, the picture is entirely bleak. Ukraine's GDP has plunged by a third in 2022 and is expected to stagnate in 2023. The grain deal reached in August has saved the agricultural sector, the country's main exporter, from going under for good. Ukraine's world-renowned IT services companies have been able to stay afloat thanks to telecommuting.
But the metallurgy and mining industries, the real pillars of the secondary sector, remain devastated by the logistical chaos of the war. And many national flagships are still cut off from capital markets.
"Before the war, I could raise 50 million euros of debt at 2% interest per year. But now no foreign insurance company will guarantee my loans. I can no longer finance myself, except at astronomical rates," says Vasyl Khmelnytskyi, one of the country's most powerful businessmen and director of the Kyiv Economic Forum. Like many Ukrainian businessmen, the influential 50-year-old built part of his fortune by trading with Russia.
Today he swears he has wiped the slate clean. "I have broken all ties with my former Russian partners," he says before taking a more personal tone. "I haven't spoken to my father in five years. He lives in Crimea and supports Russia, just like my brother."
During an air alert in the Kyiv metro on Feb. 22
Cutting ties with Moscow and with friends
Kyiv's business community is not the only one to have cut its last ties with Moscow over the past year. The war stains the city with an indelible resentment. Inside an art gallery nestled in the heart of a bohemian-scented neighborhood, Olha Balachova, the director of an emergency fund for Ukrainian artists, rages against the Russian art scene.
"Our former friends in Moscow, the so-called avant-garde artists, have done nothing to stop this war. All they have done is to flee abroad and pose as Putin's victims from the comfort of their exile. We feel betrayed, and the word is weak," she says, in front of a series of paintings depicting war scenes of terrible violence, all painted since the beginning of the invasion.
A few kilometers farther, on the benches of school 309 in the Pozniaky district, the pupils practice putting on a gas mask, they learn how to react in case of a nuclear attack and they tell the story of the martyrdom of the city of Marioupol.
"Our Russian neighbor is very bad, because of him many people died or fled abroad", says Maksim, 7 years old, in an angelic voice, under the approving glance of Viktoriia Nazaruk, his teacher, originally from Boutcha. "We can never forgive them for stealing the lives of so many people," she tells her class, a plastic fighter plane hanging above the blackboard.
As the conflict enters its second year, Kyiv is ready to go the distance. But this reprieve of freedom always comes at a high price. "The husband of one of my colleagues was killed in Bakhmut a few days ago. It was terribly sad," sighs Alina Sugoniako. "The longer this war goes on, the more of our people are lost."
And there is no sign that the conflict will end soon.
Will Kyiv be subjected to a new Russian assault? After two major military defeats this fall, Moscow is expected to launch a major offensive in the coming weeks. The first option is to concentrate efforts on a part of the already active front in the east of the country, in order to consolidate the territorial gains made during the first year of the war.
This is the most likely scenario at this stage. But a surprise attack from the north cannot be ruled out. Kyiv remains the Kremlin's final objective, and the opening of a new front would make it possible to divert part of the Ukrainian forces from the eastern flank.
On the Ukrainian side, it is hoped that the Western arms deliveries announced in January (long-range missiles, tanks) will arrive in time to counter the attack. Especially as Russia can now count on several hundred thousand new conscripts.
Kyiv in numbers
- Kyiv had 3.5 million inhabitants before the war. Nearly two million of them fled at the beginning of the invasion.
- 90 kilometers separate the Ukrainian capital from the Belarusian border, where thousands of Russian soldiers are still stationed.
- Between 1,700 and 2,000 inhabitants of the Kyiv region have lost their lives in one year, including nearly 400 in the town of Bucha alone.
- The Ukrainian capital is now hosting between 300,000 and 500,000 refugees from the rest of the country.
- The city accounted for a quarter of Ukraine's GDP before the war.