Leaving Kyiv be heartbreaking


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August 3, 2022

Leaving Kyiv be heartbreaking

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: Depositphotos

Although the Russian army is already on the outskirts of the city, inhabitants of the Ukrainian capital try to find a new normality. They have already developed new bonds of solidarity.

Not far from the city center, the trendy restaurant Dubler is very busy. Not a moment goes by without someone coming or going. Some bring food, others take cartons full of food. The chef and the rest of the cooks work hard to keep packaging portions. Before the war, they were serving breakfasts like an omelet with brie and spinach, or main courses such as schnitzel with guacamole and salsa, which guests ate in a meticulously curated interior. After the Russian invasion, they focused on simpler meals. They prepare portions of chicken with pasta and tomato sauce, as well as pierogi. Volunteers place packed meals in boxes, adding bread and some snacks. Dubler is part of a cooperative of over a dozen restaurants that provide meals for 12,000 people. They deliver them to soldiers, hospitals and those elderly who are in need.

Radyslav Usiejev, 32, volunteered to help two weeks ago. When Kyiv was at peace, he was a photographer for the ruling Servant of the People party of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After Russian troops began to gradually approach the capital, he borrowed a neighbor’s car and began delivering food. He has become one of the almost one hundred drivers thanks to whom meals reach their destinations. Today he only got a few boxes.

“I have to deliver them to some older women,” says Usiejev.

In the pub, he sees what lured him from Kharkiv to the capital 11 years ago: the constant motion and energy that characterized Kyiv before it was stifled by war.

Work in time of war

Although this is only the third week of this stage of the Russian invasion, 25-year-old Maria Pidvysotska had to ask her friends from work to recall how it all started. In peacetime she maintained the social media presence of Dubler and the Dyletant cafe owned by the same person. Pidvysotska was afraid during the first two days of the invasion, especially when sirens blared, warning of air raids. She didn’t know what to do and was seriously considering leaving for a safer place.

The war in Ukraine broke out in 2014, but for eight years it was confined to the territory of Donbas. At least 13,000 died, but most of the country was at peace. It became a universal experience on February 24, when Russia attacked the entire country. All major cities have experienced rocket attacks; Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Sumy are regularly shelled. The conflict has ceased to be something distant. Ukrainians are moving west to the safest part of the country, and over 2.5 million have gone abroad, most of them to Poland.

The initial shock passed after several dozen hours. It was already clear that this would not be a lightning attack as Russia had planned, but an offensive at a snail’s pace. Pidvysotska became convinced that everything would work out somehow. A phone call from the restaurant owner reassured her. He said that since they had groceries in stock, it would be good to do something with them. Fifteen employees remained from the 50-person team of Dubler i Dyletant. Pidvysotska suggested that they come and support the country in a difficult moment. Word got out. Volunteers stepped up to help. The restaurant has resumed operation at full capacity. Initially, they prepared up to 1,200 meals a day. This number dropped with time, however, as the Dubler staff began coordinating an entire cooperative.

Not only people but also food products started to find their way to the restaurant. Someone offered to bring Pidvysotska five tons of vegetables. The owners of dairy product processing plants give them their wares because otherwise they will simply have to throw them away. The restaurant receives other items as part of food distribution, and also buys things with the owner’s funds and with donations.

“I realized that I couldn’t leave this. This is my city, a big part of me. Leaving this place would be heartbreaking,” says Pidvysotska. “If, God forbid, there is a situation like that in Mariupol, Chernihib or Kharkiv, then maybe I will leave. But I’m not sure.”

A volunteer for automation

The scenes from Dubler contrast with the situation on the streets of Kyiv. Until recently, it was one of the most congested cities in Europe, perhaps the world. There were 1.13 million cars in the capital city of three million people, and their number had almost doubled in seven years. Now the streets are empty. Sometimes congestion occurs at checkpoints here and there as drivers wait in their cars for a routine inspection.

Those cars that still move around the city often carry signs that they are transporting medical workers, volunteers, journalists, refugees from areas of active fighting, military servicemen or soldiers of the territorial defense. The vehicles of Kyiv’s defenders, covered with yellow tape, stand out the most. And what is particularly characteristic of urban life in wartime is that now everyone seems to have a purpose. Carelessness and nonchalance have almost completely disappeared.

The 31-year-old Viktor Shurapov stands out against this background. He had just taken a short break in Leo Tolstoy Square, downtown. A bicycle with the Ukrainian flag attached to it rests against the wall. Shurapov develops applications for mobile phones and tablets by day. In his spare time, he devotes himself to activism to protect three Kyiv lakes: Nebrezh, Martyshiv and Tyahle. Developers have been trying to build in this area for years while activists want it to become a national park.

It was during one of these protests that Shurapov attached a flag to his bicycle. He likes how, flapping in the wind, it elicits a reaction from passers-by and drivers. Some honk, some smile and shout “Glory to Ukraine!”

Shurapov has been living in Kyiv for eight years, moving here from the south. He liked the capital city already when he visited it in his childhood. He was struck first and foremost by its unique atmosphere, which consists of a huge urban massif, eclectic buildings and, above all, a sense of constant motion. In Kyiv, everyone tries to do something and, often unable to count on the support of city or state authorities, do it on their own. Initiatives spring up like mushrooms after rain: commercial, collective, or something in between.

After February 24, Shurapov decided to stay in Kyiv. He doesn’t want to stand idly by. He helped to automate the database of one of the organizations supporting the army so that its employees did not have to write everything down by hand. He delivers parcels if anyone asks him to. He often looks at an online bulletin board where people turn to with all sorts of issues—for example, with food for a family in need; for help leaving the city; for shoes, drones, walkie-talkies or bulletproof vests for territorial defense soldiers. He looks for what he can help with.

A bit of the old world

Passers-by are even rarer than cars. Popular promenades — e.g. the Andriivs’kyi descent, where residents and tourists from all over the country and the world walked between old tenement houses that centuries ago were the center of Kyiv, drawn by monuments, museums, theaters, pubs and surrounding parks—were crowded not long ago, especially on weekend afternoons. Now they are almost deserted, regardless of the day and time.

People who have a purpose now usually walk the streets—shopping, lining up at the pharmacy, paying someone a visit. Most of the old city life can be seen in the few open cafes. People enter them hesitantly, as if surprised that they are actually operating. One of these spots serves hot dogs, nuggets & fries, and anyone who walks in looks like they’ve discovered a lost world. However, even there, the topic of the war comes up every now and then—the situation around Kyiv and up-to-date information.

Recently, Dyletant has also reopened. Pidvysotska explains that the cafe will operate commercially. They will sell coffee and drinks, and soon there will also be dessert.

“I was in Dyletant because we were preparing it before the opening. It was as clean as before the war inside, as if life went on as usual. But it is not like that,” she says.

She admits, however, that it is also about restoring an ersatz normal life, when you could leisurely leave the house, sit down with a coffee, and explosions did not thunder in the distance & sirens did not frighten.

Solidarity in deeds

So what has the war changed in Kyiv? Traffic has stopped, almost everything is closed, the shelves in open stores are badly picked-over, checkpoints have been set up and it is difficult to even say when the background sounds of artillery became the new normal. However, something else appeared.

“Amazing solidarity,” says 34-year-old Pawlo Kaluk, a real estate broker and one of the animators of the community in the Kyiv district of Podil.

It is a certain paradox in a state of emergency. On the one hand, people have become as suspicious as ever. Because of fear of subversive actions, every new face in a neighborhood raises questions. Not only the police ask for documents, but it happens that random people do too. Sometimes, even after they are presented, people remain unconvinced of the intruder’s intentions.

On the other hand — as many people with whom I spoke after February 24 emphasize — Ukrainians have never been so united. Even during the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan and after the outbreak of the war in Donbas.

“They have become very friendly and help each other. I don’t want to say that I like what is happening, but people are showing their best side. It is solidarity not in words but in deeds,” says Kaluk.

Podil is a historic part of old Kyiv, formerly a place of trade, craft and industry. It is characterized by low buildings. Kaluk claims that this is where the strength of this district lies.

“Fewer people live here, so it’s easier to get to know each other. Thanks to this there is a functioning community, which is not often the case in Kyiv,” he says.

He is one of those people who knows everyone. He has spent most of his life in Podil. He has lived in different parts of it. He jokes that he rarely left before the Russian invasion and even the war has not changed that.

One long day

Kaluk considered joining the territorial defense but figured he could do more in the rear. He used his network of contacts to organize a volunteer initiative in the district. Following calls from the authorities to resist, the Podil community organized the production of Molotov cocktails. They soon prepared so many that they exhausted the demand. They then marshaled people to weld anti-tank hedgehogs to stop the Russian army if it invaded the city. Kaluk also started collecting money for military equipment: for thermal imaging, walkie-talkies and automobiles. Together with the neighborhood community, he provides necessities for the local territorial defense, which guards the streets of Podil at numerous posts. When he mentioned to one of the groups that soldiers needed tea and cigarettes, several people appeared with supplies at a moment’s notice. People who leave Kyiv leave their apartment keys with Kaluk so that he can provide accommodation for volunteers, enlistees and people fleeing towns near the capital where the most fierce fighting is taking place.

One of the latest initiatives is a training course on how to stop blood loss as quickly as possible.

“Shrapnel or shelling can reach anyone. And loss of blood is the first matter to deal with,” Kaluk explains.

As we talk, people gradually gather. In a moment they will be discussing further action. Kaluk states that he feels as if it has been one long day since February 24 because he is constantly doing something, going somewhere or meeting someone.

Although at first glance it seems that life in Kyiv is dead, in reality it is buzzing. In a sense, maybe even more intensely than before the invasion. The inhabitants of the capital, until now distracted and preoccupied with their private affairs, now have a common goal. Defending the city — so that in the end they can return to their everyday life.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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