A pedestrian in Kyiv passes by destroyed Russian military equipment.
Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL
The cafés are open, restaurants are booked up and the squares are full of people. After months of fear, residents of Kyiv are slowly resuming their old lives. But it’s harder than it might seem. A walk through the traumatized Ukrainian capital.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Thore Schröder und Johanna Maria Fritz (Photos) in Kyiv
If it weren’t for the handful of soldiers sitting in their sandbag hideout on the opposite bank, you wouldn’t see any indication of the war here, on the outskirts of Kyiv. The afternoon sun glistens on the waves, the air is warm, and a fisherman reels in a freshly caught pike. Below, on the sand, two men, Viktor Yaresko and Yura Pyndyk, are lying in the early summer sun, their torsos already a bit red. They’re talking about Olaf Scholz.
Why is the German chancellor so reluctant to supply weapons to Ukraine, one asks? Perhaps Putin has something he can use to blackmail Scholz and his government, the other replies. Pyndyk is 36 years old and used to be the marketing manager of a home-lending bank. And he’s amazed by the fact that he can’t even leave the news behind when it goes to the beach.
Yaresko, 32, is a furniture maker by profession. Pyndyk is his brother-in-law. Both have lost their jobs because of the war. Pyndyk wants to return to Kharkiv in the northeast now that the Russians have been pushed back and start looking for jobs there. First, though, they want to try and enjoy some sun and tranquility on the outskirts of downtown Kyiv.
When they close their eyes, they hear the lapping of water, birds chirping and a couple of teenagers drunkenly bawling out a song. This is the new version of the old everyday life in Kyiv.
Much has happened since the end of February, a point when the Ukrainian capital found itself peering into the abyss. Putin’s army stood at the gates of the city, the outskirts were being shelled and Russian missiles were landing on apartment blocks. Before the war, around 4 million people lived in the city. “At times, only around 800,000 of them remained,” says Kyiv Deputy Mayor Mykola Povorosnik. It was a ghost town where soldiers had set up checkpoints every few meters and were examining cars and passersby. “Now, we’re back to around two and a half million people,” Povorosnik says, “and more are still returning.”
The stations of the Kyiv metro, which had been converted into shelters, have reopened for business. The number of checkpoints has been reduced, and armored barriers and sandbags have been pushed aside. When the Russians were on the outskirts of Kyiv, officials had imposed curfews for days to facilitate the search for spies and saboteurs. Now, the curfew is from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. When the air sirens go off, residents here hardly flinch any longer.
In the meantime, the war has shifted to the south and east of the country. Many people have returned to the capital. And even though almost one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory is now occupied by the Russians and the country’s economic output has been halved, many restaurants in Kyiv are once again fully booked, bars are busy and stores are full of customers.
The Dnieper Beach, Trukhaniv Island: “People Need a Break”
And yet the war is deeply ingrained in minds and determines the lives of all people, every day. Viktor Yaresko says he could earn almost 1,000 euros a month working for the Territorial Defense Forces. In the regular army, for deployment directly to the front, you can earn the equivalent of over 2,500 euros. He and his brother-in-law can just about get by on their savings. “But if I don’t find a job soon, I’ll have to go to the front,” Pyndyk says.
He had to get his wife and daughter out of the country, and now they live in Germany. Other relatives of his live in Izium under Russian occupation. “My grandmother was sick,” he says. “Because of the constant shelling, my mother couldn’t take care of her after the war began. She died. Later, they had to bury her body in the back yard.” Viktor Yaresko is originally from Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. His mother is also living under Russian occupation. When he manages to reach her by phone, the connection is poor. “She says the supply situation there isn’t good, that guerrilla fighters are attacking the occupiers, and that the Russians are killing former military personnel in retaliation.” He communicates with resistance fighters using the messenger service Telegram. “They want German weapons like Panzerfaust 2 (anti-tank grenades) and Leopard tanks,” he says.
Given such news, of course, it might seem strange that they are now on the beach, Jaresko says. “But people need a break every now and then.” Ultimately, Pyndyk says they are unable to relax, despite the boredom. “We can’t escape thoughts of war,” he says.
Grey Cat Kyiv: Podil: “Once We Have Won”
Normally, it’s the right of youth not to care about the future. But is that still true when one’s own country is in the midst of an existential defensive struggle and up to a hundred soldiers are dying every day?
When they held their first parties just over a month ago after reopening, there were “some haters,” says Valery Letshenko, 24. She is wearing a pink shirt, eye-catching glasses and is responsible for collecting the cover at the door of the rock club Grey Cat Kyiv.
The club is housed in an old cloth factory in Kyiv’s hip Podil neighborhood. Letshenko says that in the beginning, the entire proceeds went to the army and to needy families, but now it’s 50 percent. “We also need income to keep things going,” she explains. A rock club in wartime is absolutely necessary, as registered in the faces of the invariably young people who crowd out of the dark event room into the courtyard. Red cheeks, sweaty hair, euphoric, shiny faces. Inside, at the concert of up-and-coming Ukrainian rockers, the 16-to-20-year-olds mash uninhibitedly to the music.
The cover is 100 hryvnia, the equivalent of less than three euros. They can celebrate the happiness of being among the living and forget the ever-present horror for a moment. Letshenko says that half of her friends have fled. Many families don’t want to return to the city. “My parents would also like me to leave,” she says, “but I can’t abandon my Kyiv now.” Once the war is over, she says before pausing briefly to gather herself. “Once we have won, we will rebuild everything.”
“Slavi Ukraini,” the tattooed singer in the mesh shirt shouts on stage – honor to Ukraine. “Heroem Slava,” the crowd shouts back – honor to the heroes. The invasion by Putin’s army is not only bringing death and destruction to Ukraine, it is also robbing an entire country of its youth.
After the concert, Dima Kustovit is standing in front of the door. The 19-year-old has long hair and is wearing a T-shirt of the heavy metal band Slipknot. Kustovit smiles shyly. “I love my country,” he says. “I want to help my people.” After some hesitation, he follows up a bit more quietly, asking if there might be a job for him somewhere in Germany. He says he has family in Berlin and that he will get there somehow. His father, a construction worker, doesn’t have a job any more, and his mother, a policewoman, is supporting the family on a reduced salary. He says it’s just not enough. “There’s unfortunately nothing that I can do here in Kyiv.”
Besarabsky Market, Central Kyiv: “We Were Brothers”
Valentina Ziganska, 54, knows what matters. Not so much the good location – her fish stall is right at the entrance to the Besarabsky Market in the city center – but being able to attract customers and provide them with the very best goods. As soon as you start looking at the fishmonger’s products, she spreads butter as thick as a finger on the bread, topping it with smoked sturgeon or salmon and a generous portion of caviar. It’s all free to the point where you feel compelled to make a purchase. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any vodka,” she says.
Besarabsky Market is celebrating 110 years of existence this year. It’s a sad anniversary. Two-thirds of the businesses under the steel structure in the heart of Kyiv have given up. At the remaining stalls, vendors tap away bored on their mobile phones. In a corner stall offering dried fruits from Central Asia, the only worker has dozed off. The market was able to reopen on April 15, but the visitors have stayed away. “Just some journalists now and then,” says Ziganska.
She’s the perfect representative of her profession and can draw on over 40 years of experience as a fishmonger. She began working here in 1981 as a 13-year-old girl. Her family owned a small plot of land just outside Kyiv and in summer, they harvested berries, apples and peaches. In the winter, they would slaughter a pig. Valentina’s father died when she was young, and she, her mother and two brothers sold everything they produced from baskets at Besarabsky Market.
She often had to get up at 4 a.m., first heading to the farm, then to the market, and only then to school. “I always sat over there,” she says, “where the bouquet of peonies is now.” Many of their goods came from the far reaches of the Soviet Union. As did their customers. “We were brothers,” Valentina says, “and now they’ve attacked us. I just don’t understand it. When I think about it, all I can do is hate them.”
She was staying with relatives in Kyiv, when the war suddenly upended her life. Before that, she had been living with her family in the suburb of Hostomel, where Russian paratroopers landed on the first day of the invasion. The Ziganskas’ home was also struck by shelling. She points to a photo on her mobile phone showing a gaping hole where their apartment used to be. They had saved up their whole lives to buy the place. Six months ago, her husband Konstantin died of a heart attack. She called an ambulance, but it was too late.
And then came the war. Ziganska lives with her brother now. “We’ve come together again as a family,” she says. She wants to keep working. “What else am I supposed to do?” She says she hopes that the mothers of Russian soldiers will understand that what their sons are doing is wrong. “And that they bring their children back home.”
An Apartment Block in Darnitsky: Too Old to Flee
Quiet reigned in Kyiv for quite some time. Until June 5, when several Russian missiles struck the left bank of the river, there had been no attacks on the city for fully 38 days. But on this 102nd day of the war, missiles struck a railroad repair plant and a tank repair factory. For the latter, it was the third time it had come under attack by the Russians since the start of the war. “I had been awake for an hour when there was a blast,” says Nikolai Retshitzki, 73. He’s standing in front of his apartment block in the suburb of Darnitsky on the left bank of the Dnieper River. His shirt is buttoned right to the top, his jacket faded.
Retshitzki used to be an ambulance driver in the city. Twelve years ago, his wife died, and then, his daughter passed away. Recently, the only person he had left was his granddaughter Anya. They lived together in a three-room flat on the 12th floor of the apartment block, the facade of which is decorated with huge heads of wheat. At the beginning of the war, she took care of him here. “She helped get me down to the basement when the air raid sirens went off,” he says.
He invites the reporter into his apartment, which is undergoing renovation, and his granddaughter’s room has been freshly repainted. Even several hours after the missile strike, smoke can still be seen hanging over the factory site from the room’s window. Living next to a military target, Retshitzki says, isn’t optimal, of course. At the beginning of the war, they could hear the fighting in the suburb of Brovary, which is located less than 10 kilometers from his home. When it got really loud, Anya grew more nervous than he did. “She couldn’t take it in the long run,” he says. A few weeks ago, his granddaughter moved to Istanbul. But Nikolai Retshitzki stayed behind.
When the shelling began again, he briefly thought about going down to the basement. But his legs hurt, so he decided to stay in the apartment. “I just took a sedative,” he says. “It was the first one I had taken in over a month.” Was he scared? “Of course, but I am too old to flee.”
Taras Shevchenko Opera House, Downtown Kyiv: The Show Finally Goes On
If Anastasia Shevchenko hadn’t returned to the Kyiv Opera, she might have stopped dancing entirely, she says. “I even had trouble practicing,” she says of her time in Western Europe. When the war broke out, she first fled to Zurich before later heading for Tallinn. “I kept thinking about my family the whole time there.” She returned to Kyiv at the end of May.
Shevchenko, 28, is a prima ballerina. It’s early June and she’s sitting in her dressing room at the Taras Shevchenko Opera House in Kyiv. The make-up artist applies more hairspray before the dancer goes out to warm up. This evening will mark the first time she has a participated in a full ballet production since the war broke out. “I was full of fear when I came back,” she says.
Things only improved for her when she walked up the city’s Andriyivskyy Descent on May 29. Kyiv celebrated its 1,540th birthday as a city that day, right in the middle of the war. With its baroque facades and cobblestones, the boulevard leading down from the city center to the port neighborhood of Podil is reminiscent of Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood. The sun was shining, people were smiling. Shevchenko says that really gave her a boost.
For some in Kyiv, bringing joy to others means everything in their lives. Sergey Skus, 60, is one of them. The director of the ballet company felt miserable when he had to sit at home idly after the start of the war and was unable to offer any more performances. He didn’t start training again until mid-May.
So far, only 45 of the 180 members of his company have returned. “Many of those who are still away are raising money for the army in Europe,” he explains. Now, though, he says, it’s time to give a bit of happiness back to the people of Kyiv. However, of the theater’s 1,300 seats, the Ukrainian security service only allows him to fill 300, because there aren’t enough shelter rooms in the basement in the event of an air raid alert.
After the performances of five short pieces, including ones to music by Camille Saint-Saëns and Herman Levenshold, the audience rises in applause for several minutes, the cheering filling the half-empty theater. The guests look visibly pleased as they walk out into the evening sun on the square on Volodymyrska Street. Skateboarders jump from the steps. It’s the 100th night of the war, yet everything seems disturbingly normal.
“What I feel today is mostly gratitude for our military – without them, we couldn’t be here,” says physician Svetlana Bekoeva, 61. As in internist at a specialized clinic, she cares for radiation victims from the Chernobyl disaster and was unable to leave Kyiv during the war. For the evening at the opera, she wore her vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian top. She says an event like this proves the tenacity of Ukrainians, “our unconditional desire for freedom.”
Mykhailivska Square, Downtown Kyiv: “Death Is Our Reality”
Mykhailivska Square in the center of Kyiv has long been a place of commemoration for other chapters of suffering in Ukraine’s history. A statue of an angel commemorates the deaths from starvation during the Holodomor in the early 1930s, the famine imposed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians. Photo walls also commemorate the dead of the 2013 and 2014 revolutions and the subsequent Russian separatist war in the Donbas.
Now, at this very picturesque spot between the Foreign Ministry and St. Michael’s Church, the most recent war, still ongoing, is also commemorated. Burned-out Russian tanks and other army vehicles were brought in by the Interior Ministry and the Museum of Military History to make the “Ukrainian War of Independence” tangible for those who were not directly affected.
On this particular Saturday, other state institutions, including the Ukrainian Emergency Service, have pitched tents on the other side of the square. Disarmed Russian ammunition of various calibers as well as booby traps from the occupying forces of the kind that were likely left behind in thousands of places when Putin’s soldiers had to withdraw from the area near Kyiv are on display in a red tent. A blond boy points to an improvised explosive device. “Look mom, an iPhone.” His mother points to a soccer ball, which also has a bomb in it.
“We simply have to inform people about what the Russians have done, because it will continue to cost lives, even in places they have already left,” says bomb disposal expert Yuri Zikinyuk. He says the worst thing he discovered and defused was a hand grenade without a pin in a coffee mug that had been turned over in the apartment of a family in Irpin near Kyiv. Zikinyuk says he would love to be able to provide information about space travel on the square, “But death is our reality now.”
The carefree abandon with which Ukrainian children climb around on the wrecks of tanks would likely cause parents in many parts of the world some concern. “But shielding them from the war doesn’t help either,” says Yura Kovalchuk, as he keeps an eye on his six-year-old son Dima. The boy has just climbed onto the turret of a 2S19 type artillery system and is now complaining about the smell of molten metal and burned oil. “Dad, it stinks!”
Ukrainian children climbing on destroyed Russian tanks – it’s hard not to see a symbol in this: good triumphing over evil. “But for us, it’s not symbolic at all – it’s part of our lives,” says Kovalchuk. He says they just have to explain to the children that they have been very unlucky to live in a country “with such an evil neighbor.”
Kovalchuk and his wife Katya, 35, returned to their Kyiv apartment from western Ukraine a week ago. “I could hardly stand it there, I was going crazy with worry,” Katya says. For weeks, her parents lived in the suburb of Brovary under Russian occupation, and they were unreachable for several days.
When the Russians left and the massacres at Bucha and elsewhere came to light, they realized how lucky they had been, despite everything.
Kovalchuk is an economist – her English and German are excellent, and she and her husband work for international consulting firms. They could basically live anywhere. “But even then, if my husband were allowed to leave the country, we wouldn’t leave,” she says.
She says she’s fighting for Ukraine’s survival, despite heavy losses on the battlefield and economically. “We continue to pay our taxes, we donate money and we support friends and family members who serve in the armed forces,” she says. “We just hope that many Ukrainians who have left the country will come back, that we won’t become like Syria.” Still, even though they haven’t fled themselves, they don’t want to blame others who have left, says Katya Kovalchuk. “None of us is to blame for this situation. It has damaged all of us.”
With additional reporting by Nikita Ilchenko