Digital Army

Hugh Barnes

I encountered Kaisi Berick at the Poland-Ukraine border. He was larger than life but also unreliable in terms of what he said about himself. A music producer born in Los Angeles, he lived in Kyiv with his Ukrainian wife. He’d been in California visiting his family when the war broke out on 24 February and was coming back to Ukraine to rescue his ‘girl’. But the first time I noticed him, in the queue at the border, he was telling a woman that he was returning to his adopted country to fight as a volunteer. ‘I have a lot of military training fyi,’ he texted me later, offering a lift to Kyiv. ‘We will come up from the south roads. Everywhere else is compromised.’

Yet he was always getting delayed en route. Soon after I arrived in Lviv by train I got a message from him saying he was still on the road: ‘See if you can find out where I can get a weapon,’ he went on. ‘I was thinking police command headquarters so I have a hotel near it, see attached map.’ I explained that I was in Ukraine to report on the war, not to fight in it.

Also queuing at the border post was Alex Sokol, a 46-year-old human resources manager at a Ukrainian bank. He’d been skiing in the Pyrenees when the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, and he cut short his holiday to return home, even though he had no military background. ‘I have only seen weapons on TV,’ he said. ‘It’s better to give weapons to people who are experienced. But there’s lots of other things I know how to do. So I will do them, to help my country.’ One of the things he knew how to do was bulk purchasing. He’d left his skis in Andorra and flown to Poland with body armour in his luggage.

One evening I met Denis Struk, a 44-year-old painter whose work has been exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery. He’d joined up as a reservist in Ukraine’s army as soon as war broke out. ‘I don’t like to see my country defenceless. It is my duty to enlist. I have no choice. In this situation, it’s better to go and do something rather than just sitting and watching the news. So I will fight and we will win. I am sure of it. And then maybe, in two months, we will have peace again.’

Andriy Khlyvnyuk, the lead singer with BoomBox, one of Ukraine’s biggest rock bands, cancelled a North American tour in order to join the Kyiv police. Somehow I can’t imagine Ed Sheeran doing the same if London were under threat, though who knows. There’s a video of Khlyvnyuk outside St Sophia Cathedral, wearing combat gear and carrying a high-powered assault rifle, belting out a song created by the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen during the First World War.

‘I’m big in Russia,’ Khlyvnyuk said. ‘I’ve had a platinum album over there, and young people sing my songs right across the country, except now Putin says I’m a Nazi!’ He had offered to come and talk to me at my hotel, but a 35-hour curfew scuppered that plan. ‘We are no longer businessmen or nightclub owners or pop stars or whatever for the next I don’t know how long,’ he said on a WhatsApp call. ‘We are soldiers.’

Taras Topolia, the frontman of Antytila, felt the same way. He has joined the army in Kyiv, delivering medical aid to wounded fighters. ‘I’m still a pop star, just wearing body armour,’ Topolia told ITV News. The TV host Serhiy Prytula, the actor Aleksey Tritenko and the comedian Yuriy Tkach are also in uniform. So is the film director Oleg Sentsov, for a second time, having been captured by the Russians in Crimea in 2014 and jailed for twenty years for allegedly setting up a ‘terrorist group’. He was released in a prisoner swap in 2019. The heavyweight boxer Oleksandr Usyk joined up but has now left Ukraine to train for his rematch with Anthony Joshua. The actor Pasha Li, 33, who dubbed the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Ukrainian version of The Hobbit, was killed on 6 March during a Russian artillery bombardment of Irpin, his hometown.

In a bomb shelter during an air raid I met the 29-year-old video artist Alexey Smishchenko. He’d worked with Volodymyr Zelensky, then a comedian, at the 1+1 television channel that produced Zelensky’s show State of the Nation about a comedian who becomes president of Ukraine. Now Smishchenko was working on propaganda videos and websites for the government. It was his way of volunteering.

‘At the moment we are all working for our country, for the hearts and minds of the people, doing whatever it is we do best,’ he told me. ‘If you ask me, the best thing anybody can do is to defend your country in armed combat. Unfortunately for me, I’ve only ever held a weapon once in my life. I feel embarrassed about it. Because I have two legs and two arms, and I go to the gym and so on and so on, but I’m not a military man and – you see – that’s embarrassing to me.’

Like many young creatives I’d met in Ukraine, Smishchenko didn’t vote for Zelensky. ‘When he was running for office I just couldn’t see him as president,’ Smishchenko said. ‘But now I think he’s a great leader, and very brave, and that’s what people like about him. They see a man with principles. They see a man with some dreams for Ukraine, actually. He communicates with people. He’s very kind and tolerant, just as he was at 1+1. He doesn’t have a star complex. He just behaves like an ordinary person doing his job.’

Smishchenko said Ukraine would have to change after the war. ‘Young people are way more progressive … The problem lies with our government, not just the president but his ministers and parliament were all formed in the USSR, and that’s what’s interesting because when – not if – we win this war, all that is going to change.’

Now a presenter on 1+1’s Morning Show, Olena Kvitka had once appeared in an episode of State of the Nation, playing herself. She agreed that Zelensky’s superpower was his ability to communicate. ‘At the studio he was never standoffish. He was always a team player, and he’s transferred that idea to the presidency,’ she said. ‘With Zelensky, unlike with Putin, it’s not all about him. He listens to advice.’

She agreed with Smishchenko about the generation gap. ‘We stand with Ukraine to the very end, but we won’t stand for a return to the status quo after the war. There’s going to be a revolution in our hearts and minds. We are Ukrainians, that is our superpower – we are a digital army – and now we can feel it like never before.’