Kyiv Alpha, Kyiv Beta

James Meek

The city I arrived in from London today was Kyiv Alpha, one of the two possible Kyivs that had to be imagined beforehand. Kyiv Alpha is Euro-Kyiv, three hours from Stansted on Ryanair, a Kyiv for mini-breaks, poor Western artists and ravers, a Kyiv for bankers and IT startups, the Kyiv of hipster bustle, grand silver age facades being restored with extravagant slowness, fastidiously presented filter coffee, contactless payment and wifi; also of poverty in the banlieues, of bleak concrete cliffs of new apartment blocks on the left – eastern – bank of the Dniepr.

But there is also Kyiv Beta, the other possible Kyiv of 16 February, of traffic jams of refugees heading west out of the city with mattresses tied to the roofs of their Toyotas, of columns of smoke rising from government buildings, of flames gouting from the windows of banks and department stores and frightened people creeping over broken glass from doorway to doorway, a city without power, heating, water, mobile signal or internet. Kyiv Alpha is where I arrived, and Kyiv Alpha is where I still am now that it’s evening. Walking along Vulitsa Reitarska as it was getting dark I heard birdsong. Kyiv Beta is a fear, a prediction, a hallucination – a panicky American delusion, some would say – that hasn’t come to be, and may never do so. But Russia has moved Iskander missiles to Belarus, only a few minutes flying time away, and almost encircled Ukraine with troops.

The Ryanair cabin crew weren’t supposed to wonder if they might find themselves flying into the war universe of Kyiv Beta. I asked if they were volunteers. They weren’t: unless they were told otherwise, Kyiv was just another Euro-destination, like Malaga or Berlin. I had the luxury of preparing for both. I thought I’d better have a helmet and a flak jacket, and a satellite phone. But they take up a lot of space, and preparedness cuts both ways. By avoiding the possibility of arriving in Kyiv Beta without a flak jacket, I arrived in Kyiv Alpha without much in the way of smart clothes. In the so far imaginary Kyiv Beta, my armour makes me wise, but in the actuality of Kyiv Alpha, such prudence seems like a failure of hope, a deficit of defiance, like a man dragging an anorak to the beach.

In some ways the fever dream of Kyiv Beta was like the Kyiv I lived in for a couple of years in the early 1990s – not the fire and destruction, of course, but the imagined subtraction of the medium of constant connection by mobile and internet we swim in. When I moved to Kyiv the only way to make an international phone call was to ring the operator and book one for later. Among the first Russian phrases I learned was: ‘May I book a call to Britain, please.’ The operator would say, with fine Soviet contempt: ‘Wait.’ At some point – it might be five minutes, or five hours, or the next day – your phone would ring, you’d pick it up, the operator would say ‘London, speak,’ and your party would be on the line. I had an early laptop, and just before the Soviet Union fell apart an American company made a deal to set up a network of pre-internet data connectors around the country. In theory you only had to plug your laptop into a phone line to be able to send messages. But Soviet phone lines had no socket. In old Kyiv, and everywhere I went, I carried a screwdriver to dismantle the phone box on the wall and plug two bare wires from my laptop into the phone system.

Everything is open in Kyiv today and people are going about their business. The weather is grey and just above zero and little nubs of dirty snow linger in the hard to clear spots. I walked along Volodymyrska towards St Sophia’s Cathedral and the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, startled by the small changes. Ivy has grown up over the base of the statue and the square where it stands has been partly cobbled over and closed to traffic. Just outside the headquarters of what could be called either ‘the Ukrainian secret police’ or ‘the Ukrainian version of the FBI’, a new sculpture has appeared commemorating the soldiers who died fighting separatists and their Russian allies in the east of the country. A Ukrainian cossack on a rearing horse rams a spear down the gullet of a creature that has the two heads and crowns of the Russian imperial eagle, but the body and jaws of a dragon.

On Reitarska I went into an antique shop and talked to Alexander, who claimed godfathership to Max Kilman, a first team defender at Wolverhampton Wanderers. (Kilman’s late father, like Alexander, was in the Ukrainian antiques business.) Alexander ridiculed the idea that Russia would dare invade Ukraine. After seven years fighting in the east, he said, Ukraine’s army was too strong and experienced.

The shop had cabinets filled with porcelain ornaments. One contained mainly figurines from the Gorodnitsa factory in Zhitomir, in Ukraine; the other from the Lomonosov factory in Leningrad, in Soviet Russia. One exquisite figure from Leningrad showed the Russian characterisation, or idealisation, of a Ukrainian peasant woman: she wears a long embroidered apron and a spotted kerchief, and rising up behind her, covering her arms, picked out in gold, are rich ears of grain. Both factories were founded in Tsarist times. The Russian factory, with its pre-Soviet name restored – the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory – is going strong. The Ukrainian factory fell on hard times when it couldn’t compete with cheap imports, and has closed.

Read on: ‘Looking for Bulgakov’


  • 17 February 2022 at 5:22pm
    Camus says:
    I look forward to your reports on developments. I believe that most people in Western Europe have very little knowledge of Ukrainian history and have forgotten the causes of the civil war that began in 2014. The bloodshed, the famines, the genocide, the foreign occupations, the exploitation of resources and the loss of lives through wars go far beyond the losses suffered by any other country. Timothy Snyder's book "Bloodlands" tells the tragic story.

    • 21 February 2022 at 1:16pm
      olesia_ka says: @ Camus
      "civil war"? as someone from Ukraine, I strongly disagree

  • 18 February 2022 at 6:33am
    nlowhim says:
    Thanks for this. Hope to hear more about the issues people on the ground are feeling, talking about. What about the Minsk agreement and other issues?

  • 21 February 2022 at 4:16pm
    Scott Oliver says:
    Beautiful writing.