The Kremlin is threatening to invade Ukraine. So what are young people doing in the capital city of Kyiv? They’re keeping the party going. Because the last thing they want to show Vladimir Putin is fear.
By Lina Verschwele in Kyiv
The new year starts with a bang. Anna Stavychenko is standing in the middle of a crowd as silver confetti rains down from the ceiling. At the stroke of midnight, the DJ had fired off the confetti cannon. For a few minutes, “I Will Always Love You” reverberates through the hall before the DJ switches back to electro.
In her black velvet dress, Stavychenko, 36, raises her arms and dances. Next to her, there are revelers wearing unicorn costumes and dazzling masks, while others are wrapped in pink fake furs or fairy lights. Admission wristbands with the slogan “Be Happy” dangle from the wrists of the guests at Squat 17b, a former squat in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv.
Three years ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised his compatriots that he would bring the war in the east to an end. But peace is further away than ever. Indeed, there is a significant chance that the conflict will expand.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved more than 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine. And just recently, municipal authorities in Kyiv advised residents to pack a suitcase so they can flee more quickly in the event of an invasion. But Stavychenko and many others in the city are not letting it dampen their mood.
Anna Stavychenko, executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra
Indeed, there is more of a party atmosphere in Kyiv right now than worries of war. A poll taken in December found that people see a possible escalation in eastern Ukraine as the fourth greatest threat facing the country – behind rising gas prices, the growing economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Even the citizens’ militia, which regularly conducts exercises to rehearse the defense of the city on weekends, is taking a break.
How are people able to remain so calm? “We’ve been living with this stress for almost eight years,” Stavychenko says. Ever since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in the spring of 2014 in violation of international law, and pro-Russian rebels occupied the east of the country soon thereafter, Moscow has repeatedly threatened Kyiv with an escalation of the conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin began amassing troops on the border with Ukraine back in the spring. Stavychenko insists that she has stopped worrying, saying she has better things to do.
Stavychenko is the executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. This week, the ensemble is performing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” for the Orthodox Christmas. In the new year, Stavychenko plans to tour with the orchestra to Germany, where she went to university. She’s also hoping to travel to Venice and Salzburg.
Roman Nabozhnyak, on the other hand, finds it difficult to make new plans. The 31-year-old sells brownies in Kyiv’s trendy Podil district, and his café has around 20 different types available. The idea came to him during a trip to Asia. Nabozhnyak wears his hair in an undercut and has earrings, smiling often as he speaks with expansive gestures. The only thing suggestive of his time in the army is his tattoo, a bat on his left arm, the former symbol of Ukrainian military intelligence.
From summer 2015 to autumn 2016, Nabozhnyak fought in the east against the pro-Russian separatists. Formally, the war should have come to an end long before that. In early 2015, Ukraine and Russia signed the Minsk Agreement, which formally brought fighting to an end. In truth, though, the conflict continues to this day, with more than 13,000 people having thus far lost their lives.
War veteran Roman Nabozhnyak
Nabozhnyak left his job as an IT specialist at a marketing company to join the fight because he feared that his family would soon be living under separatist control. With tears in his eyes, he describes how he told his father about the decision. As a soldier, Nabozhnyak was active in a reconnaissance unit behind enemy lines, where he searched for snipers and mines. Later, he shot the way clear for fellow soldiers in retreat. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his deployment and says he still sees a therapist regularly.
Building Rather than Destroying
Nabozhnyak hoped that his café would help him find his way back to everyday life. His operation is part of a program to help veterans reintegrate. Nabozhnyak, for his part, wanted to build something rather than destroy it, but he has been unable to get the war completely out of his mind.
After his deployment, Nabozhnyak agreed to rejoin the army within a day if needed. Now, he wonders who will run his business if he soon has to return to the front. He believes it’s just a matter of time,and insists that he’s not afraid – even saying he almost hopes it will happen, because it could mean the end of the uncertainty as well as the possibility of true peace. For now, Nabozhnyak has put any major decisions on hold, including planning a family or buying a home. “I constantly have the impression that tomorrow I might be forced to drop everything,” says Nabozhnyak.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers have fought in the country’s far east. The Ukrainian military managed to retake a number of towns in the Donbass in 2014 with the help of volunteer battalions. The Ukrainian Defense Minister says the country can draw on up to 400,000 fighters. But military experts doubt that Ukraine is prepared for an attack by Russia. In December, the head of military intelligence warned that his country could only stand up against Russian forces with outside help.
Stavychenko of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra says she finds it difficult to fathom that fighting over territory is still going on in the 21st century. “Did we not learn anything from the last century?” she asks.
Stavychenko often travels abroad for her work. For years, she has commuted between East and West, like many of her peers. To this day, she maintains friendships in both directions. Before the pandemic, she spent three to four months each year in the European Union as a music critic and she says she would also be willing to move abroad permanently for an attractive position. Stavychenko doesn’t make enough money from the orchestra to live on and she has always needed several jobs to make ends meet. Before the annexation of Crimea, she often worked for Russian clients as well, but she says doing so would now feel like treason. She wastes few words on Putin. “How have the Russians been able to live with this monster for so long?” Nabozhnyak is even terser: “He’s the enemy.”
For Nabozhnyak and Stavychenko, it’s also a matter of defending the democratic change they won during the Maidan Square protests in the winter of 2014. That year, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Kyiv in support of closer ties with the EU and against Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time. Nabozhnyak and Stavychenko also took part in the protests, with Nabozhnyak procuring gasoline for Molotov cocktails and Stavychenko medicines for the injured. Both were less concerned about proximity to the EU than with Ukraine’s right to self-determination. “We fought for our country, for a better life,” Stavychenko says. “The EU is great, but sorry, no one should die for it.”
Many Ukrainians hoped the Maidan protests would rid the country of its Soviet legacy: the corruption and clientelism, but also Moscow’s paternalism. When Yanukovych finally left the country, one goal seemed to have been achieved. “Maidan made us more confident because we saw what we can achieve,” says Stavychenko.
The revolt triggered a boom in Kiev’s cultural scene, with new festivals, galleries and clubs emerging. Many of the guests in Nabozhnyak’s café speak English, while at Squat 17b, one visitor greets another by exclaiming: “Welcome to the new Berlin!”
But for Russian ruler Putin, Ukraine’s orientation toward the West is a nuisance. In a summer op-ed, he once again portrayed Russians and Ukrainians as being a single people. Nabozhnyak, for his part, worries the negotiations are taking place about Ukraine’s future without Ukrainian involvement. Starting on Jan. 10, meetings are planned between the United States, Russia, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ukraine has been largely left out of the talks.
Moscow’s provocations have led to a surge in patriotism in Ukraine. A poll taken last spring found that more than two-thirds of Ukrainians considered Russia to be an aggressor. In the Podil district, “Go vegan” graffiti blends with love messages to Crimea. Nationalist avowals of Ukraine hang next to stickers for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Nabozhnyak has also hung the national flag in his café – but in one of the back corners. His grandmother, who spent most of her life in the Soviet Union, still identified as being Russian. But Nabozhnyak views the Soviet period as one of occupation. Although he grew up speaking Russian, he has been trying to speak only Ukrainian for several years now. It seems like he has become a nationalist out of spite.
When Nabozhnyak went to war, his primary focus was defending his family, but today, his motivations seem to run deeper. At one point, he pounds the table with his hand as he describes how his unit reclaimed territory. For him, the conflict won’t be over until Crimea and the occupied parts of the Donbass are back under Ukrainian control.
“If We’re Afraid, then They’ve Already Won”
Polls show that about half the population would actively resist a new Russian invasion, be it military or civilian. Stavychenko says that she, too, would fight if she had to.
For the moment, the orchestra executive director is devoting all her concentration to the performance of “The Nutcracker.” She sits motionless at the edge of her chair as the orchestra plays dramatic music on the stage. There’s also a battle in “The Nutcracker,” with the Nutcracker and an army of tin soldiers facing off against the army of mice. During the concert, an artist traces the scenes onto transparency film, and the images are then projected onto a cinema-size screen. All it takes is a swipe across the drawing for both armies to disappear again. Despite this symbolism, for Stavychenko, “The Nutcracker” is still what it always has been: a fairy tale that has been with her since childhood. On the way out, some can be heard humming along to the familiar melodies.
Stavychenko thinks people should keep going for as long as possible – with the parties and the concerts. “If we’re afraid, then they’ve already won,” she says.
With additional reporting by Katja Lutska