Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.
I got up early for a last walk around Kyiv before leaving. I expected war to come to the city sooner, and it seems wrong to leave before it has really begun, as I fear it will. On the other hand, perhaps, in my self-indulgent psychodrama, it’s easier to go now, when Kyiv is still at the parmesan shaving, wine sipping, guided architectural tour stage, than later, when I’d be turning my back on a city under attack.
There are some extraordinary works of architecture in Kyiv, but the greater beauty is in the streets of tall Silver Age apartment blocks, some restored, many painted in now faded colours, each brick distinct, often ornamented with art deco ironwork balconies, caryatids and elaborate stucco. In and out of this old cityscape, often in a way that seems chaotic, is blended the new consumerist capitalist world of cafés, restaurants and boutiques. There are exclusionary prices; there are a fair number of giant advertising screens, although these, rather than being garish, create a kind of Blade Runner vibe of energy and purpose set in a built fabric that’s half dilapidated, half lovingly conserved. Kyiv has become a city of small businesses and local chains, rather than being overrun by global brand eateries.
When a place is poised between a past of late communist and post-communist stagnation, and a possible future of violent oppression, the most banal manifestations of comfort, the kind of thing I either take for granted or am saddened by because it’s an exploitative piece of mass produced crap – a bottle of Radisson shower gel, a bag of fries, a pair of Nikes – can be seen as scatterings around a crater, reminders of a life that was. I remember as a teenager in the early 1980s returning from a trip to Europe and sneering at the bourgeois habits of a German family that had been kind enough to put me and my friend up. My father listened and said: ‘People who grew up in war find it more important to be neat, and ordered, and tidy.’ And they know the value, he might have added, of electricity, and running water, and children not having to go to school with their blood group marked on their schoolbags.
I went into the antique shop to buy something from Alexander. He looked a little more worried than before. A soldier in a unit commanded by a friend in the east had been killed by Russian, or rebel, shelling. Alexander was still repeating the popular mantra that the Ukrainian army is strong, that it is large and experienced, that it has anti-tank missiles. But I’ve noticed that Ukrainians talk often about tanks and soldiers, never about the other, more ghastly armaments Putin has in abundance: helicopter gunships, long range artillery rockets, cruise missiles and the Iskander rocket, a much modernised version of the Scud missile used by the Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War.
Alexander said he was flying to Germany on business at the weekend. He was booked on Wizz Air. ‘Are they still flying?’ he asked. ‘I think so,’ I said, and immediately thought: ‘Why did I say that? I have no idea.’
I arrived in Kyiv Alpha, the Kyiv of peace – where, in a remarkable example of mass consciousness change over time, drivers, even of big, fancy cars, will stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road, despite the near disappearance of the once ubiquitous traffic police – and Kyiv Alpha was the Kyiv I left. But the baleful alternative of Kyiv Beta, the Kyiv of war and the rage of slighted men, seemed closer. And that presence compels me to imagine – especially since I lived in Kyiv for two and a half years, at the time Ukraine came into independence – the choices faced by Kyivans. To stay or flee? To flee when, where, how? To stay and take up arms, or hunker down and look to your family? And if defence fails, what then? To join the resistance? To demonstrate against the new regime, risking prison or death? To accept the occupation? To see your enemies returned to power at the barrel of a gun? And what happens to your house? And what happens to your land? And what happens to your café? Well, of course, they do have cafés now in Grozny, an earlier target of Putin’s wrath: the city looks quite smart, if you can get past the torture, the abductions, the total intolerance of dissent, and the bones and ruins the new city is built on.
As my plane was about to push off from the terminal – Ryanair continues to fly to Kyiv – the Ukrainian government announced a state of emergency. By the time I landed in London, the country was under cyber attack. I hope for the best; I fear the worst. Artem, a reservist, is expecting to be called up. Iryna is going to Europe (with Andrei) not because they are fleeing but for work; she has every intention of returning. Lina and Yura and their son live closer to a Ukrainian military base, a potential target, than I would like. The injustice that Putin threatens Ukraine with is so large, so criminal – essentially, without exaggeration or over-emotiveness, a choice between rape and murder – that few can really believe he might carry it out.
Read on: ‘Willed Madness’