James Meek

Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.

What is it about the 22nd of the month? Two months ago Vladimir Zhironovsky, the politician who once seemed the most dangerous face of Russian nationalism but is now just another ageing Putin fanboy, predicted the world would ‘feel our new policy’ at four a.m. on 22 February. It was on 22 June that Hitler began Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In a hit Russian folk song of the time, written a few days later, the date was liltingly linked to Ukraine:

It was June twenty second
Right on the stroke of four
Bombs fell on Kiev, radio news said
That we were having a war.

Every day I ask people in Kyiv, and ask myself, whether the Russian president could seriously intend an assault on the Ukrainian capital. After yesterday’s rant, and his announcement today that he considers areas of Donbas controlled by Ukrainian forces no longer part of Ukraine, it seems more possible. More young men could be ordered to lay down their lives violently on Ukrainian earth around Kyiv, even as the bodies of Soviet soldiers from the 1940s are still being found. A number of volunteer groups using metal detectors regularly turn up Red Army soldiers; their helmets make the detectors ping easily. I spoke to one volunteer, Pavlo Netyosov, who said his group finds up to fifty sets of human remains a year.

I met Netyosov in his museum, a dark little set of rooms on two storeys, festooned with old weapons from the war in Donbas, including the casings of anti-tank missiles. I sat on a sofa of sandbags and faced Netyosov over a desk lit with lamps that had rifle stocks for stands and Nazi helmets for shades. The detectorists find German remains too.

Instead of dogtags, a Soviet soldier carried in his pocket a screw-top ebonite cylinder, about the size of a pen cap, containing a roll of paper with his name, rank, age, family details and blood group.

‘In 2013, before the Donbas war, we found the remains of four soldiers, most of them from Stavropol [in southern Russia],’ Netyosov said. ‘We managed to reach the son of one of them. He remembered being four years old, his father very tense, his mother saying goodbye, him going to hug his father, his father putting him to one side and embracing his mother, and his father leaving. He never saw him again.’ In those days of relatively warm Russian-Ukrainian relations, a delegation came from Stavropol to collect the remains.

Netyosov ended up on the front in Donbas during the early years of the conflict, not fighting but collecting from no man’s land the bodies of Ukrainians killed. He realised that for all his avid reading of Second World War books he knew nothing of the scale of modern war. He might see eight dead in a blown-up column of vehicles, he said, but in three days of the defence of Kyiv in 1941, in a single area of a few square miles, the Red Army lost 2200 people. ‘You think: “If it takes me a whole truck to take away eight people, how can you take away 2200?” And then you understand that nobody did take them away.’

I asked Netyosov if he had any guesses about Putin’s timetable. He pointed to the enormous modern building opposite, surrounded by security fencing. It looked quite un-Ukrainian; like a slightly menacing retail warehouse. It was the US Embassy. ‘When they took the flag down from there and everyone left, I knew things were bad,’ he said.

He showed me pictures of the fortifications of Kyiv in 1941. It had been an ukreprayon, a fortified district; an elaborate set of defences were built on its landward side at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s. Citizens were marshalled into digging deep ditches; there were walls of sandbags higher than people; there were hedgehogs, three lengths of steel girder welded together crosswise to create a barrier against armoured vehicles. None of these things are to be seen in the city now.

‘Kyiv has a very advantageous territorial situation,’ Netyosov said. ‘It’s surrounded by rivers and swamps. All this can be used for defence. Right now it’s not being used. Evidently the powers that be are hoping for the best. There’s a very strong contrast between what people see there [in Donbas] and what it’s been like here, where people have been quietly going about their business for eight years.’

This afternoon I watched Iryna Tsilyk’s extraordinary documentary The Earth is Blue as an Orange, about a family of five – four children and their mother – living in the ‘grey zone’ of the Donbas conflict, in a town called Krasnohorivka, a couple of miles from territory controlled by the rebels and, now, openly, by their Russian sponsors. In the course of the film, while they deal with shellfire and fear and the breakdown of basic services, the children’s school somehow keeps going and the family makes a short feature of their own. The eldest daughter, Mira, gets into university in Kyiv to study cinematography.

When I’d finished the film, which came out in 2020, I got into a cab and took a short ride to see Iryna. The documentary is to go on tour, starting in the Baltic states, and the family is going too. Since the film was made, the mother, Anna, has had another baby, and Anna’s mother has died of Covid. They were all staying in a sweltering flat, watching cartoons. They offered me tea with lemon and slices of bread and sausage.

In a way Anna is relieved to be away from home with her family. There’s been intensive shelling. The water supply has been cut off to the town of six thousand people, and won’t be restored for months. She has to go two kilometres to get water from a well. The town used to have gas, but when that was cut off, everyone made their own stoves and burned coal; then electricity came back, and people abandoned their stoves for electric heaters. Now the electricity keeps going off. Sometimes people die of cold. Mobile signals keep cutting out. Movement around town is constrained by minefields and snipers. And yet in spite of everything the house is their home. She wants to be able to go back to it; she hopes it will still be there. But – such is the confusion of the times – she also thinks about the possibility of moving, even though she would be lucky to get two thousand dollars for the house. She began to weep.

‘I took the childhood of my oldest children, and I can’t bring myself to take away the childhood of my youngest,’ she said. ‘Nothing’s keeping us there any more. Why should we put up with that? It’s so hard.’ In 2015, a family in town were sitting down to eat; it was quiet outside; they were near the window. A shell went off and a fragment of glass killed their son.

Read on: ‘Leaving Kyiv’


  • 23 February 2022 at 4:18pm
    Camus says:
    Time for some analysis of the origins of the conflict and the effects of US and NATO decisions on the politics in the region. What can you offer on this topic?

    • 23 February 2022 at 6:42pm
      Fred McElwaine says: @ Camus
      Have you read Putin’s lengthy diatribe from July 2021? This has nothing to do with NATO. Putin simply does not accept that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and NATO is a voluntary alliance, it’s not the Warsaw Pact, other than antiquated notions about ‘spheres of influence’ Putin has no legitimate grievances. Ukraine as a sovereign nation would like to join NATO and the EU, Putin rejects their right to self determination and if it wasn’t for NATO, he’d have already put troops in the Baltic states. There’s far too much false equivalence in the debate about who is to blame for the situation, Putin is to blame, no one else.

    • 23 February 2022 at 9:24pm
      Camus says: @ Fred McElwaine
      Assurances were given to Yeltsin that NATO would not extend into the former Soviet allies and Yeltsin was generous enough to take their word, just before he gave the Crimea to the Ukraine. The heart of the problem lies in the enmity of Ukrainians, who view the Russians as second class citizens.

    • 23 February 2022 at 11:00pm
      haroldsdodge says: @ Camus
      What is this gibberish? Thirty years ago Yeltsin was "given assurances" (allegedly) so it's OK for Russia to invade a sovereign country? Ukrainians regard Russians as second-class citizens (allegedly), so it's OK for Putin to send the tanks in?
      Can you clarify, in plain and simple English, whether you think that the alleged grievances you outline above justify military invasion. If you're pushed for time, a simple yes or no will do.

    • 23 February 2022 at 11:41pm
      whatnot says: @ Camus
      so the Baltic states shouldn't have held referendums to join NATO, because Yeltsin had been "given assurances''? and now we learn it was Yeltsin who "gave the Crimea to the Ukraine", and not Khrushchev in 1953! was he drunk?

    • 24 February 2022 at 3:42am
      Richard Vanderbrug says: @ Camus
      NATO encircles Russia; demonizes Putin. With what intention? To create an enemy? Keep poking, and you get a reaction. What else do you expect?

    • 24 February 2022 at 6:57am
      Fred McElwaine says: @ whatnot
      Exactly, it’s utter nonsense. Either you accept that former SSRs have the right to be sovereign nations, who set their own paths, or you don’t. No one has the right to tell Ukraine how to pursue its foreign affairs, not George HW Bush, not Yeltsin, not Trump, not Putin. They voted in 1991, to become independent, and independent they must be, if that means joining NATO and the EU, that’s their decision, not Putin’s. The idea that Ukraine or NATO presents a genuine security threat to Russia is just nonsense. It was nonsense before Afghanistan it’s even more nonsensical now. If that was going to happen, it would have happened in the 1990s, when we had a unipolar world, a dominant USA before Iraq/Afghanistan and a supine Russia.

    • 24 February 2022 at 8:44am
      Camus says: @ Fred McElwaine
      "This has nothing to do with NATO". Glad you cleared that up.

    • 24 February 2022 at 10:21am
      Richard McCarthy says: @ Camus
      I laughed out loud at the term “Soviet allies”.

    • 24 February 2022 at 11:19am
      Camus says: @ haroldsdodge
      Insightful comments, thank you. Of course it was Bush, then Thatcher, Kohl and co who first assured Gorbachev that NATO would include a united Germany but no further extension would occur. I have never said that an attack on Ukraine could be justified. Timothy Snyder's work on the effects of war, occupation exploitation and famine clearly show the underlying causes of the conflict.

    • 25 February 2022 at 1:47pm
      Reader says: @ Richard Vanderbrug
      What is all this talk of NATO? Ukraine is not a member of NATO so it's irrelevant. As for 'encirclement' - which by the way was Hitler's excuse for aggression in Europe - why not look at a map of the area? Russia is not 'encircled'; it is bounded to the West by more or less democratic countries: which is precisely why Putin wants to destabilise them.

    • 25 February 2022 at 3:12pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Camus
      Well, what's wrong with Fred's comment, Camus? Or are you just trying to avoid replying properly to his point, because you cannot?

    • 28 February 2022 at 11:11am
      Rory Allen says: @ Richard Vanderbrug
      I am struggling to see this 'circle' of NATO countries round Russia. There are precisely two countries in NATO that border Russia: Estonia and Latvia. The others on Russia's Western border are Belarus, Ukraine and Finland, none of whom are NATO members. The vast bulk of Russia's border is with countries that are not NATO members and almost certainly never will be. So where on earth does this paranoid talk of 'encirclement' come from? And more to the point, how do you expect anyone with access to a map of Europe, to believe it?

  • 23 February 2022 at 5:08pm says:
    See James Meek's recent, insightful article on Ukraine in the LRB:

  • 23 February 2022 at 5:12pm
    Patricia Leroy says:
    Putin invaded Ukraine on the twenty-second day of the second month of 2022 after 22 years of reign. He invaded Georgia on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, after 8 years of reign. Clearly there's a numerologist at work in the Kremlin. Putin himself? Or one of his acolytes?

  • 23 February 2022 at 5:16pm
    Denis Mollison says:
    Timothy Snyder has written several recent peces on Ukraine, including a good long term perspective at
    As to the recent politics, it seems Putin has never believed that Ukraine and Russia should have separated in 1991, despite Ukraine voting in a referendum for independence. His position more or less is that Ukraine doesn't have the right to exist. His strategy seems to be to eat away bits of Ukraine - Crimea, Donbas, .. - in a way where at least his own population can be convinced that he is not an aggressor, just a peace-keeper protecting dissident Ukrainians.

  • 23 February 2022 at 6:48pm
    jomellon says:
    Everywhere has history, social tensions, bad people.
    Everywhere the US 'intervenes' in a Great Game to extend their geopolitical power, their economic influence they ally with the worst, most extreme elements of the area.
    Everywhere the result is the same: social breakdown, war, civil war, dictators, criminality blossoms.
    At ground level it looks like the proximate causes, the local tensions caused the problem. At the meta level the ultimate cause is the same - bad people are empowered nd enabled by the US.

    • 23 February 2022 at 8:17pm
      MS says: @ jomellon
      I think it's possible for that to be true in some cases without it always being the ultimate cause everywhere. And however bad the US is, it is still possible for other countries to be worse.

      In this case we're talking about Russia, a country that fights wars of conquest every few years, using real and manufactured separatist movements to expand its own territory, and either assisting in or turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing within its new de facto borders. And then complains when its neighbours want to be in an alliance that will defend them against that - and uses the fact as an excuse for the next war of conquest.

    • 23 February 2022 at 11:06pm
      haroldsdodge says: @ jomellon
      Please tell me that's satire. The US has done many bad things but the idea that it's responsible for Putin invading the Ukraine is beyond parody. I'm proud to call myself a progressive, and someone who's deeply sceptical about Western foreign policy, but your post (if serious) makes me realise why it's so easy for the Daily Mail to treat us with derision and contempt.

    • 25 February 2022 at 1:49pm
      Reader says: @ jomellon
      So by this logic, Putin is a 'bad person' empowered by the US. Seriously, do you really expect us to believe this argument? That America is to blame because Putin invades Ukraine? Or is this another technique of Russian propaganda, which seems to be that it doesn't matter how riduculous your arguments may be, they serve to degrade the discourse so that nobody can distinguish truth from lies any more?

  • 24 February 2022 at 12:51pm
    Richard Crowe says:
    Talking of propaganda listening to the BBC and comparing it to say RT this morning I seriously wonder who is getting it most strongly? Where is the balance? Because there are other views out there about how NATO and the US behaved for a long time especially around the time of the Maidan. The most sensible views I have heard were from Richard Sakwa talking from Kent University on Al Jazeera who without supporting Putin in the least, pointed out that Ukraine had a violently anti Russian government which the West had done nothing to try and moderate which had even spoken of wanting to become a nuclear power. As he said if China were building bases in Ireland how would we react. Earlier hubris and hidden agendas from the West have done a lot to create this crisis ...all it has needed was an aggressive figure like Putin to make it a tragedy.

  • 27 February 2022 at 1:21pm
    Nicholas Hampson says:
    While I accept unreservedly that Ukraine had, and has, the right to apply to join NATO, it has occurred to me wile reading others' contributions that NATO also has free will; it doesn't have to accept the application. If we gave assurances in 1991 that NATO would not expand eastwards, why should we not stand by those assurances. If those assurances were qualified, I've not seen such qualifications advanced here. If they were not, but have been since, again no one's mentioned that.

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