Fog of War

James Meek

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

In the morning it was grey and windy and although I couldn’t see any snow as I walked along there was the faintest rattling on the shoulders of my coat, as if tiny snow particles were hitting it. Last night Joe Biden repeated his belief that the Russians intend to attack not only eastern Ukraine but Kyiv itself. Perhaps it would be better to take the grey skies as a blessing, since it would make it harder for aircraft to strike.

I was caught in Russian air strikes once, in Shali in Chechnya in 1995, and later the same day on the Rostov-Baku highway, when Boris Yeltsin rather than Vladimir Putin was running Russia. We thought it was safe when we left Ingushetia for Chechnya in the morning because there was thick fog, but by mid-morning, it had cleared. Russian jets flew round and round Shali’s market, absurdly low, low enough for me to see the white hemisphere of the pilot’s helmet in his cockpit. I dived into a deep foxhole. The planes had already fired rockets into the market and while I was there they fired more.

When it stopped (they came back later) I walked to the town’s hospital. The windows were all broken. I looked inside one of the offices, a perfectly ordinary office with a desk and chair and files, except that it was drenched in blood. Blood covered the entire surface of the desk, ran down the sides and spread out onto the floor. There was a small boy about five years old lying on a bed in the corridor. He seemed to be asleep; he was neatly and fully dressed in a jumper and trousers, with his eyes closed, quite still, and didn’t have a mark on him. But the bed had no mattress, it was a bare mesh of cold steel links, and the boy was not sleeping.

One of the eerie things about Kyiv at the moment is that as well as shops and restaurants working as usual and the roads full of traffic you don’t see signs of defensive preparations. Many embassies are spooked enough to have moved staff to Lviv, in the far west of the country, but in the capital there are no sandbags, no checkpoints, no taping of windows against fragmentation after a blast, no soldiers, few police. I haven’t seen a military vehicle since I got here. Today I did see a group of veterans – men in their fifties for the most part, who carried banners proclaiming their part in the fighting in the east of the country in 2014 – gather to pray and encourage each other near the memorial wall outside St Michael’s Cathedral. On each panel of photos of Ukrainian service personnel killed fighting rebels and Russians in the east there are 126 faces, and there are 32 panels – more than four thousand dead. Two more were killed today by rebel gunfire.

I went on to the Ukrainian parliament, crossing the ground most fiercely contested between protesters and government forces during the long battles of Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Everywhere there were plaques and posters and flowers recording the martyrs of those days. Monuments and shrines come and go quickly. They’re not always what they seem. St Michael’s – its proper name is St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery – is a replica. The original was razed to the ground in the 1930s, in the high atheist period of Stalin’s rule, only to be rebuilt, as close as possible to the destroyed baroque version, in the 1990s. Was this replication an example of the endurance of faith, or of stubbornness, or of a lack of imagination?

Although parliament wasn’t in session, the largest force of young men in uniform I’d seen so far in Kyiv was guarding it, a few score National Guard. They were policing an extremely well-behaved column of elderly people, perhaps a hundred, forming up to stage a protest. Nadezhda, a lawyer, who was going to address the meeting, told me they supported the government – she voted for President Zelensky – but they wanted him to fulfill his promises. ‘We want to be defended, we want our defence factories to work, we don’t want to have to hold our hands out and beg for help as we’re doing at the moment … America is helping, Germany is helping, even Britain, everyone’s helping, even Turkey is giving us its ships, France is giving us ships, why? We used to make everything ourselves … We had our own nuclear warheads, which [the first Ukrainian leaders] gave away for nothing. They left our country defenceless. They signed a non-aggression pact, and now the enemy’s at the gate. Who’s going to defend us?’

‘They gave Crimea away without a fight!’ interrupted another elderly woman.

‘They have to defend their people,’ Nadezhda went on. ‘And make it so we’re not afraid. So the people aren’t in fear. This Covid, war, Covid, war – there just isn’t any other news on television. They have to make it so that goes and the news is about how much grain has been grown, how many cattle, how many mines have been dug, how many factories have been built.’

I asked about OPFL. ‘They lean more towards Moscow and Putin, that we should be in one union. But there’s not going to be a union any more. The Soviet Union was destroyed thirty years ago and there’s no way of putting it back together. You can’t step in the same river twice.’

A third woman cut in: ‘We lived in it, and we don’t want to go that way.’

In the late afternoon I headed out to see friends in Brovary, a commuter town just outside Kyiv on the left, eastern bank of the Dnieper. Back in the 1990s it was rumoured in Francophone circles in Kyiv that one of independent Ukraine’s first foreign ministers, writing a university essay about Flaubert, had referred throughout to a certain Madame Brovary.

The sun had come out. The metro train crossed the wide Dnieper. On the bluffs above the river, like two glam-era fashion students about to go clubbing, the Pechersk Lavra gleamed in outré gold alongside the Motherland Monument, a 200-foot stainless steel woman holding a sword and shield. She commemorates the Great Patriotic War. Ukrainians have always found it funny that instead of facing towards Germany, she faces east towards Russia.

Yura met me at the metro station in a company van. His car was being fixed after a minor accident. He’d just recovered from heart bypass surgery. He had Covid last year. His daughter had come from Canada in 2020 to stay for three months and got Covid-stranded; she stayed for one and a half years. He was pretty sold on Brovary. It was a good commute. He took me on a quick tour, showed me the gigantic new shopping centre and indoor water park, the new tower blocks with hundreds of flats in each. Shops, restaurants. Brovary has enough doctors for all the new people but not enough school places. The developers pay for public services, he said, but the local authorities divert the money.

We reached his house, a roomy two-storey place with a yard, and his wife Lina was there, and their son, and their dog and cats, and we ate and drank Ukrainian wine. We hadn’t seen each other for seven years. We talked about porcini mushrooms, which they gather in the woods nearby, and about different kinds of blueberries, and about the boom in internet deliveries in Ukraine, and Zelensky’s experiment with electronic money – a kind of cash bonus for citizens who get vaccinated which can only be spent on certain things: gas but not medicine, flights but not food. We talked about all sorts of things rather than talk about the thing that none of us wanted to talk about, but we came round to it eventually.

‘We’re fatalists,’ said Yura. ‘What will be will be … From here to the Russian troops it’s about 130 kilometres, maybe less.’

‘It’s just frightening when it’s so close,’ Lina said.

‘And the border, it’s badly defended,’ Yura said.

A shooting club on a nearby military base had been mobbed with people wanting to get gun experience, he said.

‘A lot of young people gave each other shooting club vouchers for Valentine’s Day,’ Lina said.

Afterwards I went back over the river. On the internet this evening there were videos of a convoy of Russian military vehicles in Belarus carrying pontoon bridges.

Read on: ‘On Prospekt Peremohy’