View from Ukraine: Calm on the surface — but preparing for war

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View from Ukraine: Calm on the surface — but preparing for war

On a recent morning, a snowstorm was blowing and the wind was howling outside the window of our Kyiv apartment. But by noon, the sun was out over the historic center of the city. Everything was calm, or at least it looked calm.

With Russian troops massed around Ukraine, my mind was 90 kilometers away in our little house in Lazarivka, a village between Kyiv and Zhitomir, closer to the Polish border than the Russian one. I enjoy working there, listening to the soothing silence.

But on this day, I was thinking about something more mundane: I was wondering if the heating was working in case a Russian attack forces us to flee the capital and take refuge there. After all, the nighttime temperatures in Lazarivka can drop as low as 8 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year. If the gas goes out and the boiler fails, as sometimes happens when the weather worsens, we might have to wait until spring to repair it. Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, might not wait quite so long.

You might think me naive — shouldn’t I be worried about bigger things? And wouldn’t a full-blown invasion also affect my little village?

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Possibly. It would certainly affect Kyiv. And our neighborhood as well. My logic goes like this: If Putin bombs our capital, he will no doubt target our security and law enforcement services, some of which have their headquarters just a few hundred meters from our apartment. This includes the SBU intelligence agency, housed in a gloomy, gray monument to terror that, during the German occupation, was used by the Gestapo, and then later by the Soviet Union’s KGB. Next to the side entrance, there is a commemorative plaque recording the passage of Ukrainian prisoners taken inside to be shot.

So I imagine we will be taking advantage of that little place in Lazarivka. Still, I’m not panicking. Call it preparation, after years of practice. I remember well how I checked on the heating back in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea. (The heating was fine, and anyhow, we never fled the capital.)

In fact, today, on the surface, no one is panicking. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy isn’t panicking, at least not in public. When I go outside, the young people in the trendy bars on the historic Yaroslaviv Val Street appear to be having a good time, as do the older middle-class folk and foreigners at Kyiv’s classic French-style cafes. I don’t overhear any talk of war. Some have just returned from holiday in Egypt and are looking unusually tanned. Others are planning an escape to the Dominican Republic for February.

No one is queuing outside bank branches. There are no crowds outside the currency exchanges. Yet make no mistake: Much in the way I phoned my neighbor the other morning, asking him to check that everything was in working order at my village home, Ukraine is preparing. At those banks and currency exchanges, as the value of the Ukranian hryvnia drops, more and more Ukrainians are converting their savings into something more reliable — euros or, ideally, U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, under a recently enacted national resistance law, scores of military reservists and volunteers — in between visits to the cafe — are preparing for conflict under the leadership of professional soldiers. The young, in particular, are signing up to learn how to handle small arms. A journalist friend of mine is taking first-aid courses. She is hardly alone. A local nongovernmental organization is running a program on “how to survive during street fighting.” As many as 30,000 women and girls from across the country are reported to have signed up for its courses. Among the trainees is a friend who recently shared on Facebook a long set of rules for survival in the event of conflict. I found one rather strange: Don’t rely on bomb shelters. Why not? Because by the time you hear a warning siren, it will already be too late, and too many people will be rushing to one anyway.

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Kyiv’s mayor clearly thinks otherwise. He recently announced plans to use the capital’s subway stations as shelters to supplement the already 5,000 bunkers built during Soviet times in the cellars of schools and residential buildings. The station nearest to our apartment is Golden Gate, and it is reassuringly deep: These stations were also Soviet creations — and it takes five or six minutes to reach the platform, using two consecutive escalators. But having read my friend’s Facebook post, I’m not sure what to do if the sirens near my apartment go off.

It all feels a lot like 2014, when Ukrainians attempted to go about their lives as if everything was normal. There were in those tense days protesters massing in the center of Kyiv, in the square we call “Maidan.” And there was, across Ukraine, a sense that Russia might invade the country, moving in from the east, at any moment. The threat of conflict was everywhere then as it is now, with Ukraine a top story in the international press. And I remember this: that in Kyiv, it was impossible to purchase theater tickets.

Something similar is happening now. At the end of January, I went to the Theatre on Podil, in one of Kyiv’s oldest districts, to see “Last Summer in Chulimsk” by the Soviet playwright Alexander Vampilov. Performed in Russian and set in Siberia, it has nothing to do with war, or for that matter with Ukraine; it is, at its heart, a love story. The performance was sold out, and at the end of the evening, the actors received a well-deserved standing ovation.

I checked to see what would be on the next day. A Viktor Rozov work, called “Forever Alive.” This one about World War II. I can report that it was sold out as well.

  • Andrey Kurkov
    Andrey Kurkov

    Special Contributor

    Andrey Kurkov is one of Ukraine’s best-known writers and the author of the critically acclaimed novels “Death and the Penguin” and “Grey Bees.”