oDR: Opinion

Waiting for the Ukrainian spring: a letter from Kyiv

A journalist’s account of the astonishing resilience her city is showing in the face of Russia’s invasion

Anastasiya Stanko
23 March 2022, 12.00am
A police officer stands guard at the wreckage of shopping mall in Kyiv after Russian air strikes
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

On 23 February I was debating whether to order a new shoe rack for our apartment in Kyiv. The next day, at four in the morning, I woke my one-year-old son with shaking hands. As he cried, I threw clothes and essentials into a bag, thinking that I might never see my home again. Neither the shoe rack nor any other lovingly acquired and arranged possessions would matter any more.

My son said goodbye to his adored black moose; goodbye to the toy car he had just gotten old enough to ride; goodbye to the board books, the photographs, the crib, the teddy bear.

Now I am back in Kyiv. My husband and I returned home after leaving my son with his grandparents in Western Ukraine. We’d hoped that Ivano-Frankivsk, my hometown, would be a safe haven, but the Russians have recently been firing cruise missiles at the city’s airport. By now, all Ukrainians understand that there are no safe places left for us any more.

My husband and I are journalists, and we try to keep doing our jobs. But in a city under siege, we also do anything we can – anything that friends or strangers ask for. We give people lifts to the train station, because public transport is virtually defunct. We bring food to bomb shelters. We water plants. We feed fish whose owners have fled. We search for blood pressure pills for elderly neighbours.

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Sometimes the errands are unexpected: grandmothers sheltering in a basement ask for a sack of flour to make buns – pyrizhky – for the remaining children in the neighbourhood.

Over half of the capital’s inhabitants have left; just under two million people now remain. In the street, we mainly see men and the elderly – most older Ukrainians fiercely refuse to leave their homes. All the shops are closed, except supermarkets and some pharmacies. There are long queues.

My husband and I have moved from our apartment on the left bank of the river to a friend’s place on the right bank. It’s safer here. We’ve been added to the building’s group chat. Today, the neighbours are discussing where to find a common space to store the supplies we’ve all stocked up on, and how to best set it up to survive a blockade, if we lose gas, electricity, phone signal and heating.

The subject is timely: Ukraine already has several cities where people cook on bonfires outdoors and melt snow for drinking water. One of them is Mariupol. I’ve visited this city many times. Now, my friend’s mother is there, under the bombs. She’s been unreachable for 12 days, as are many thousands of other Mariupol residents – children, parents, brothers, and sisters.

I haven’t cried yet during this war

When someone in Mariupol manages to catch a signal for a few minutes, we inundate them with messages asking to please check and see if our relatives are alive. But the neighbourhoods the Russians are shelling are too dangerous – no one has been able to reach them to assess the damage.

My friend whose mother is in Mariupol tells me she is ready for the worst – after all, this is war. For a week now, volunteers have tried to bring humanitarian aid to the city and evacuate residents. Every day, they prepare to set off and every day they are turned back because the routes have been mined by the Russian army. We grit our teeth and listen to the reports of two thousand civilian deaths. Some people have died not from bombs but from hunger or dehydration. We wait for another evacuation attempt tomorrow – what else is there to do?

In two and a half weeks of war, I’ve seen bodies turned to ash by a missile that hit the Kyiv television tower. I’ve seen mothers and children evacuated from shell-ridden suburbs with eyes full of terror and hope. I’ve seen the exhausted faces of doctors who have been living in Ohmadyt, the children’s hospital, since the first day of the war, where the ambulances bring wounded children, some of whom they cannot save.

The only thing I haven’t seen is tears or despair.

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I haven’t cried yet during this war. Not even when we had a chance to visit my son, who I’ve never been apart from for this long.

I’m shocked by Ukrainians’ steely acceptance of their fate. No one I know complains that Ukraine should surrender, retreat, give Putin what he wants. We end every conversation by wishing each other a swift victory.

Eight years ago, Ukrainians came to Maidan to demand our freedom

In the meantime, Kyiv is transforming itself into a fortress. Passers-by help municipal workers pour sand into bags to build new roadblocks. There are hundreds of roadblocks; residents build them from trams, from freight cars, from dumpsters. We collect bottles for Molotov cocktails. Ambulances keep arriving from the suburbs where the fighting is. Several times a day we hear air-raid sirens. Nobody trembles any more when we hear the rocket launchers and the missile defence systems at work.

In addition to the queues at shops, there are queues at the Territorial Defence headquarters. More and more people are ready to take up arms to defend Kyiv. The city is half-surrounded. We are all waiting.

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The Territorial Defence volunteers joke that each of them hopes to get their hands on at least one Russian. Veterans of the war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014 are returning to the armed forces, as are those who fought against Russia in the two Chechen wars, as well as activists who were injured during the Euromaidan uprising.

Almost all of my friends have joined the Territorial Defence Forces: journalists, writers, musicians. The head of the anti-corruption prosecutor's office has brought along 14 prosecutors who have never held a gun before. Their usual weapon is the law, which they wield against corrupt Ukrainian officials. Now, even some of these corrupt officials have asked the court for permission to join the Territorial Defence Forces; the prosecutors are all for it.

The anti-corruption prosecutor’s office was created during one of the many reforms that came to Ukraine after 2014’s Revolution of Dignity. Western support played a role, of course. But first and foremost, these reforms came because Ukrainians wanted them.

Eight years ago, Ukrainians came to Maidan to demand our freedom: the freedom to voice our thoughts, the right to assemble peacefully, for a government that doesn’t steal from us and a police force that doesn’t beat us. People died for liberty in 2014 and Kyiv is still adorned with the images of these heroes.

And what did we get in response? A ruthless dictator forcibly annexed Crimea and started a war in the east, while the world stood by. Emboldened, the dictator has now set his sights on our entire homeland.

We continue our impossible fight. We have nothing more to lose

When NATO won’t help Ukrainians even with old Soviet-era planes, when world leaders almost gleefully announce that they will not protect our sky, we understand that our children, women, churches, hospitals, schools and homes will be blown to pieces. We feel that the values we’re fighting for mean nothing to the West – to the world we believed in and tried so hard to join.

What Western values, we wonder, allow our allies to decide that some lives are more worthy than others? What do you tell your children when they see their peers in Ukraine dying under Russian bombs while the West stands by?

Friends abroad, supposedly our allies, shrug and tell us that they’re just trying to avoid World War III, to save more innocent lives. But for us, World War III has already begun.

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Every Ukrainian understands that Russia is fighting a war with the West. Today, they fight it on our territory, murder our children, and bomb our maternity hospitals. But Putin is using Ukraine to send a message to the entire world. A message that evil will go unpunished. A message that people who dream of freedom will be rewarded with Russian tanks in their streets. A message that the strongest will win while the world looks away.

How can we win if our sky fails to be protected, for lack of jets and missile defence systems? Stingers and Javelins cannot withstand the might of the entire Russian army. Every Ukrainian sees that. Why don’t our allies?

Yet we continue our impossible fight. We have nothing more to lose. We will keep defending our homes and yours, our children and yours, our freedom and yours. We have no plans to surrender.

Our mayor announced that we have enough food and essentials for two more weeks. Today, it snowed in Kyiv, but by lunchtime, the snow had melted. Spring is in the air. We all believe the spring will be Ukrainian.

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