In Ruins

James Meek

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

As I wandered around Kyiv for seven days, leaving, it turned out, in the last daylight hours of its existence as a ‘normal’ city, I was trying to remember a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I found it today, at home, more ominous than I remembered:

No one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.

‘Ruins’ is an interesting word, since in the modern world, in peacetime, buildings are seldom allowed to reach the ruined stage, even after a natural disaster. They are either repaired, fall quietly derelict, or are demolished. Only war makes ruins. It is as if Austerlitz (the thought in the book is his) is saying that eventually all large buildings will be consumed by war. As if war were the overarching reality. And, indeed, it is striking how many commentators in the west have described Vladimir Putin, since he invaded Ukraine, as ‘detached from reality’, when he is not detached from reality. He is reality. We are the ones detached from the reality that Putin is real and his real armed forces are really killing people, and we really aren’t doing much to stop him, because we really are not prepared to send our children, or other people’s children, to die. And Putin really is.

But Austerlitz isn’t entirely right, either. Peace is just as real and potentially permanent as war. One of the consequences of Putin’s imposition of his bleak psychic condition on Ukraine is that, while Ukrainians are able to remember how peaceful Kyiv was before Putin began bombing it, to westerners unfamiliar with and previously uninterested in it, a city dragged into war can seem defined by it: as if war were somehow its natural state. As Katerina Sergatskova, the editor in chief of the Ukrainian news site Zaborona Media, pointed out in a tweet on the second day of the Russian onslaught, it isn’t. ‘Today is super shiny in Kyiv,’ she wrote. ‘It feels like it's a fake sun, not our sun that we used to see. Like somebody took the real world from us, and now we are in a fake one, on the other side of a black mirror.’ If there’s a shred of comfort against my gnawing feeling that I should be in Kyiv still, it’s that the memory of the city I hold is at least of that better real world, where war still seemed ridiculous, absurd, fantastical.

My hotel was close to Bohdan Khmelnytsky Square, and I often crossed it. It’s ringed by outsize buildings. One of the things about peaceful cities that makes them peaceful is the way they contain markers of old wars that have been contained and sterilised, as if reminders of ancient conflicts, made pretty for tourists and flâneurs, can never break free of the leash holding them to the past and snarl out into the present. There’s the blue, white and gold baroque tower of St Sophia, the more recent exterior of a cathedral whose interior is a thousand years old, evidence that Kiev founded Russia rather than the other way round (Putin sees it differently, although he very much sees it). St Sophia’s was ruined by war, by Mongols and Poles, then repaired, then nearly destroyed by zealous Bolsheviks.

From the other side of the square you can see down Volodymyrsky towards St Michael’s golden-domed monastery. The original was razed 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. The last time I went past it, a few days ago, it had hoardings outside with the photos of thousands of Ukrainian service people killed in the war in the far east of the country, four hundred miles away. Yet even that, even when I was expecting a Russian invasion any day, didn’t affect my sense of being in a peaceful city. Even when I stood and listened as a group of veterans of that war, standing by the wall of the dead, prayed and rallied each other’s spirits in the face of the bigger war we were anticipating, they seemed to be moved by something that had happened long ago and was now made safe. The complete absence of war preparations in the city, from the lack of tank barriers to the neglect of shelters, helped maintain the illusion. It was said the city authorities didn’t want people to panic, but perhaps it was more basic; perhaps, for themselves as much as for others, they couldn’t bear to break the spell.

On one side of the square is the block of flats where Oxana used to live with her parents, her grandmother and their cat. Oxana was my first interpreter in Kyiv in 1991, when I barely spoke a word of Russian, let alone any Ukrainian. She was a brilliant simultaneous translator, and brilliant and funny generally – is, not was; she is an academic now, living in the US. She was the granddaughter of a senior official in the Soviet Ukrainian government, so the family had certain privileges. She’d also been one of the stars of her school’s Kalashnikov-stripping team, able to disassemble an automatic rifle in thirty seconds, I think her time was. Before I learned Russian I was dependent on Oxana to tell me what was in the newspapers, what they were saying on TV, what signs meant in the immediately post-Soviet world.

Those years saw the beginning of thirty years of low-level derision and contempt from Russia towards Ukraine’s pretensions to statehood, but it didn’t occur to me to think of Kyiv itself as threatened by Russia (except that if it was going to be threatened by anyone, it would be Russia). The main threat to the city and the country then seemed to be that it was poor, badly run, dilapidated, and these things were getting worse. But it was also a city of relaxed amiability, full of bright funny people, where a man would come to your door selling a litre jar of black caviar for twenty dollars, where you could take the Metro to the beach and the markets were piled high with fresh coriander and home-made cottage cheese. Peace seemed an unchangeable state.

Which was strange because, geographically, war wasn’t that far away. I dragged Oxana, with justifiable reluctance on her side, to the front line of the conflict between Slavs and Moldovans in Transnistria, just next door to Ukraine; we got there in time to meet the grim and theatrical Russian general, Alexander Lebed, who had flown in with troops. The troops are still there. The summer before I met her, Oxana had taken her holidays with university friends at a resort in Soviet Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast; one day when we were watching the Russian TV news she turned from the screen to tell me that war had broken out there between Abkhazians and Georgians. Years later I would go there while it was under attack. Abkhazia is now an unrecognised Russian protectorate.

In a way, the lesson of this is that we were naive, that Kyiv itself was never going to be allowed to be normal and peaceful, that the Russians would come eventually. More than a hundred people died during the Maidan revolution in 2014; at the time, although it didn’t happen, it was perfectly rational to predict that President Yanukovych would call on Russian troops to protect him, and they would come, and crush the rebels. But that line of thinking takes you back to the notion that Kyiv, and Ukraine as a whole, are somehow doomed to sporadic outbreaks of war. That Kyiv, and Donetsk, and Kabul, and Baghdad, and Belgrade, are infected with the incurable disease of war; whereas London, Melbourne and Zurich are either immune, or cured. Even within the first list, as writers like Nabih Bulos point out, there is a distinction: ‘I’ve covered so many wars in the Middle East,’ he wrote, ‘and the difference in the level of empathy and attention compared to what you see regarding the war in Ukraine really gives one pause.’

It was pretty nice in the middle of Kyiv before the war arrived. It was even better in the summer; it’s a very green city. Even twenty years ago I remember a friend telling me how people coming down from Moscow for a break would say it was like a resort. The threat of war, combined with the complete absence of war, seemed to legitimise bourgeois indulgence. I discovered a rich red wine from Odesa, Kolonist. The night before I left I was in a bar on Yaroslaviv Val, drinking Kolinist with Andrei Kurkov while he told me the vineyard’s history. He’s been writing a series of crime thrillers set in the years of the first Ukrainian republic, after the First World War.

There’s an error here, a temptation to identify ‘peace’ with prosperity and comfort, and a rather limited form of it at that. Kolonist isn’t cheap; nor is the coffee in the slick joints around Yaroslaviv Val. In Kyiv as a whole, and even more in Ukraine as a whole, there are still many poor people. It is an unequal society. Russia is also unequal; Russia, too, has its hipster reservations in its big cities. They have coffee and nice wine in Russia too, as they do in China. On the far side of my invasion, Putin promises, you’ll have pretty much the same life as before. Thousands of people will be dead, and thousands more will be locked up, and thieves and murderers (in suits and ties) will be in charge, and we’ll shuffle the pack of billionaires a bit, but the damaged buildings will be repaired or replaced, like in Grozny – no ruins! – and you’ll still be able to buy nice things, and go to night clubs, and get good wifi in coffee shops, and speak Ukrainian if you must. The bourgeois will still be bourgeois and the poor will still be poor and everything will still be a bit corrupt. You will get over the war, and forget the pain, and your shallow consumerist lives will go on as before; and if your shallow consumerist lives consist of sitting in wine bars complaining about how shallow your consumerist lives are, well, that’s fine too, as long as you don’t really want to change anything.

This proposition for Ukraine is obviously ghastly, but also terrifying for the western world: if the fundamental obstacle to a transition from a democratic capitalist peace to an authoritarian capitalist peace is not the nature of the peace, but simply the nature of the transition – if the transition is one short bloody war, or one rigged election – everyone’s in trouble. But I don’t think it is. The peace and prosperity of Moscow is built not only on repression and raw materials but on predictability and stagnation. The peace of Kyiv before the war was nervous, dynamic, unpredictable. Full of obvious mistakes – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of people who strongly and openly disagree with each other, and have hope of having more political power – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of fearless bitching about how useless the president is – as an actual democracy is bound to be. Full of people who’ve zoned out of politics altogether – as an actual democracy is bound to be. I was never sure whether the unpreparedness of Kyiv for what was probably coming was carelessness or denial, but I think it is quite clear now that it was courage.


  • 26 February 2022 at 9:57am
    RegPresley says:
    I'm not sure I grasp what the 'error' is in identifying peace with comfort and prosperity. Mr Meek is eloquent in the passages of nostalgia but somewhat obscure in the more analytical arguments. The 'peace' of Moscow is undoubtedly of a different quality to that of, say, Zurich, and peace is of course never absolute (until you're dead!). But if peace is not comfort and prosperity, built on some sort of foundation of security, then what is it?

  • 26 February 2022 at 3:42pm
    Matthew Leahy says:
    "Full of people who’ve zoned out of politics altogether – as an actual democracy is bound to be." I was with you until here. Poltical apathy is not on my Functioning Democracy wish list.

    • 28 February 2022 at 11:03am
      Rory Allen says: @ Matthew Leahy
      The article makes it clear that the 'zoned out' were (no longer are?) just a proportion of the population. Meek was describing the actual situation, not the ideal democratic state. And as such he was right, just as there are many among us in the UK of whom the same could be said.

Read more