On Prospekt Peremohy

James Meek

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

The writer Artem Chekh, the film maker Irina Tsilyk and their 11-year-old son, Andrei, have a flat in one of the beige brick blocks on Prospekt Peremohy, Victory Avenue, the great boulevard leading west out of central Kyiv. If you keep going, the road takes you all the way to Calais. The block is old, but I noticed the lift is quite new; it was made in Mogilev, in Belarus, the country where Russian troops, aircraft and Iskander surface-to-surface missiles have been massing, purportedly for exercises, allegedly to invade. We learned today, the day the exercises were supposed to end, that they aren’t going back to Russia after all.

It was strange to think of those Belarussian workers carefully putting together an item as useful and peaceful as a lift, testing it, making sure it wasn’t going to let anyone down – people’s lives might depend on the reliability of a lift – and preparing it for despatch to Ukraine. And in the forests and swamps of Belarus, near Chernobyl, Russian troops testing their rockets, making sure they aren’t going to let anyone down – people’s lives might depend on the reliability of a rocket – and preparing them, perhaps, for despatch to Ukraine.

Chekh served in the Ukrainian army in the mid-2010s, on the front line in Donbas. He wrote a book about it. He’d be first in line to be called up in the event of mobilisation. He has a bag of odds and ends left over from his service; most of what he had he gave away to other soldiers. He still has a three-point strap for an automatic rifle, boots and a summer uniform. He’ll go if he has to.

One of the things that struck me about Chekh’s book was his sense of Ukraine’s post-revolutionary army as a place that mixed the country’s liberal-intellectual-bourgeois class with workers and smallholders, something that was less true of the revolution preceding it. ‘The skeleton and centre of the revolution was the bourgeois,’ Chekh said at the family dining table, over sour cherry cake and coffee made in a new electric Turkish coffee maker. ‘These were middle-class people, people with mid-size businesses, who went onto the Maidan in the first instance.’

‘Everyone was a little bit represented,’ Tsilyk said. ‘Of course there were a few extreme right-wingers.’ She mentioned a recent ‘march for unity’ in Kyiv, to defy Russian pressure, where LGBT banners waved in the same column as the flags of extreme nationalists. ‘A crisis brings them together,’ she said.

So it was with the army Chekh served in, although by the time he was called up, the early phases of the war – first the complete failure of the original Ukrainian military, then a flood of volunteers – had given way to a conscript army rife with drunks. ‘Lots of guys from the villages just had nowhere to hide from the recruiters. The local policeman came and said “You go.” There was a problem with alcohol in the early days. Not any more, because now we have a professional army, but in those days, recruiters with no conscience simply picked people the village had no use for: “This one drinks, that one drinks, they’re bad for the community, mobilise him.”’

‘Come on, I don’t think it was that massive a thing,’ Tsilyk interrupted, laughing.

‘Maybe not massive, but that problem was real.’

‘Yeah well of course there was more chaos in the army then,’ Tsilyk said. ‘It’s more professional now.’

‘There were all sorts,’ said Chekh. ‘It was a mass of people who weren’t always motivated.’

‘But I remember what surprised me about your time in service – Chekh wrote himself [the couple refer to each other by surname] that he felt he was seeing Ukraine in close-up for the first time, who these people actually are who live in his country. Because these are people he would never normally cross paths with. His closest comrade was a miner…’

‘From Dnipropetrovsk.’

‘…who before he met Chekh considered that Ukrainian was the language of [the extreme nationalist right] and who’d never been to Kyiv. He’s still never been to visit us. He’d never left eastern Ukraine.’

‘He reckoned that west of Poltava it was all ultra-nationalists,’ said Chekh. ‘And yet he couldn’t not go and defend the country.’

Chekh couldn’t get his head round the notion, argued by the US and Britain based on intelligence reports and denied by Russia, that Putin means to conquer Kyiv with an old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground invasion, the way the US sent troops into Baghdad. The population of Kyiv, including the commuter towns around it, is around four million. ‘They haven’t got enough troops,’ Chekh said. ‘There are more people in Kyiv than there were in Leningrad during the siege, and that didn’t work.’

Walking to the metro, I passed a monument to the Soviet cities given the title ‘hero city’ by the USSR for their role in the defeat of the Nazis. Kyiv was one of them. There was a Great Patriotic War-era T34 tank on a concrete ramp and a hammer and sickle emblem inside a red star. Each hero city had a giant medal stuck to a column, a photograph and a story; Kyiv’s showed the city’s liberation by Soviet troops crossing the Dnieper in 1943. Before the city fell to the Nazis two years earlier, it held out for 72 days. Hitler’s original plan was to reduce the city literally to rubble, but the Nazis didn’t have enough bombs and shells to do the job.

Read on: ‘In the Zone’


  • 21 February 2022 at 4:17am
    Podge says:
    Thank you