Dispatches from Kyiv

James Meek’s reports from the Ukrainian capital in the week before the Russian invasion.

In Ruins

James Meek, 25 February 2022

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.

Willed Madness

James Meek, 24 February 2022

An airborne assault by Russian paratroopers using dozens of helicopters has seized a cargo airfield to the north-west of the capital. Ukrainian forces have fought back with the limited array of armour and missiles at their disposal. Aircraft have been shot down; tanks have been burned out; civilians killed and injured. In what so far seems like a pinnacle of willed madness, Russian and Ukrainian troops were reported to be fighting over control of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Leaving Kyiv

James Meek, 23 February 2022

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?


James Meek, 22 February 2022

Every day I ask people in Kyiv, and ask myself, whether the Russian president could seriously intend an assault on the Ukrainian capital. After Putin’s rant, and his announcement that he considers areas of Donbas controlled by Ukrainian forces no longer part of Ukraine, it seems more possible. More young men could be ordered to lay down their lives violently on Ukrainian earth around Kyiv, even as the bodies of Soviet soldiers from the 1940s are still being found.

In the Zone

James Meek, 21 February 2022

Thirty miles from our destination, we came to a police post and a striped barrier. A policeman with a Kalashnikov strapped across his chest allowed us to proceed but warned us that we shouldn’t on any account stop along the way. I wondered what he meant. We passed relatively modern buildings without glass in their windows, as if a significant settlement had been abandoned a long time ago. We passed through an area that had been swept by fire. Blackened birch trees stood with their crowns lopped off, like an endless henge. It was the world of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. ‘Is this the Zone?’ I asked.

On Prospekt Peremohy

James Meek, 20 February 2022

Artem 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.

Fog of War

James Meek, 19 February 2022

In the morning it was grey and windy and although I couldn’t see any snow as I walked along there was the faintest rattling on the shoulders of my coat, as if tiny snow particles were hitting it. Last night Joe Biden repeated his belief that the Russians intend to attack not only eastern Ukraine but Kyiv itself. Perhaps it would be better to take the grey skies as a blessing, since it would make it harder for aircraft to strike.

On Old Red Army Street

James Meek, 18 February 2022

It’s got to the point where people are passing on the wildest rumours to cheer themselves up. Alexander said he’d heard that Britain was going to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect it from Russian air strikes. When I told him the Royal Air Force didn’t have the capability to enforce such a zone against Russia by itself, he looked sad. I think I misunderstood the point of a rumour like that: it isn’t about whether it’s true.

Looking for Bulgakov

James Meek, 17 February 2022

The central Kyiv metro is deep. The old escalators take an age to clank down to platform level. I want to say that the great depth of the metro is reassuring, vis à vis air attack, but that possibility still seems fantastical. ‘How,’ my evidently flawed subconscious logic seems to go, ‘could Russia launch missiles against a city with so many nice coffee shops?’

Kyiv Alpha, Kyiv Beta

James Meek, 16 February 2022

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.

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