A Few Days in Kyiv
In just 500km, the situation is very different between L'viv and Kyiv. (Chapter V)
The Early Morning All-Day Train to Kyiv
The only apprehension I have about traveling east from L'viv, in this case to Kyiv, is that I don’t want to needlessly crowd any train heading back west to L’viv. Some areas in the east have been under near-mandatory evacuation conditions for the last week and so I’ve been expecting hefty IDP flows through Kyiv and into L’viv. (IDP meaning internally displaced people, a.k.a. refugees.) I haven’t seen any signs that we’re anywhere near flood stage at the rail stations, and so my concern shouldn’t bear out. We’ll see in a few days.
This train from L’viv to Kyiv is going the long way, though; sweeping across the south on a trip that’s more than double the transit time as the usual fast train. Trains are reportedly running slower so they can visually insect the tracks, but I'm not sure that alone is the reason for the slower pace since most of the trains are running at night in the dark. I'm sure there is a safety component to it, much like the lights not being on inside the trains that run at night.
As for inside this specific train, the prevalence of cats in cat-carriers tells me these families are heading home to Kyiv. We started out pretty empty in L'viv at 0700, but sweeping along to Ternopil, Khmelnytski, Vinnytsia, we’re almost 50% full by the halfway point.
Mayor Vitaly Klitcshko, the elder of the two former heavyweight boxing champion brothers, has asked that people not rush back to Kyiv just yet. They want to see when the battle for Donbas gets going and how it goes, he said. Still, the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) reported recently that nearly one-million people who went abroad have returned to Ukraine since the start of the war, at a pace of nearly 100,000 returning every three days.
I’ve met quite a few people in L’viv who plan to return to Kyiv later this month, with the similar caveat that they’ll postpone their return home if the battle in the east doesn't go well. It would be a big shot in the arm to Ukraine if the capital could come back to life like L’viv and all these smaller southern towns. We need to keep the economy churning as the squeeze on resources gets tighter around our fighting forces. We are getting word of food shortages and other resources to support our war effort, and that has been apparent in the lack of international food aid that we're getting in L'viv. It's probably dropping off at the source as well as getting redirected.
The purpose of this short trip for me is to see how things are in Kyiv. See how the stores are stocked, to see if there is a need among the IDP populations in Kyiv, if there is one. It’s also to see if The Blue Cup coffee shop is yet again making excellent coffee and all-day breakfast… if Musafir is stll serving up some of the best Middle-Eastern cuisine in Kyiv… or if St Andrew’s Descent is still shuttered and the buskers staying home… Those sorts of things.
My Seven-Year Evolving Relationship with Kyiv
I didn’t connect with Kyiv on my first visit in 2015, not like I did with L'viv, but it certainly has its tourist appeal. All the Orthodox churches and their shiny domes that glow like astronomical bodies against the summer twilight hours, it's not a sight you get anywhere as prominently in all Eastern Europe as you do in Kyiv.
On the other hand, I've never liked the Ukrainian Motherland Monument, as she feels unnatural and oppressive. I juxtapose that with our Statue of Liberty in the States, which has a classical artist’s attention to pose and weight. Lady Liberty isn’t really holding weapons either, more like lighting the way for those seeking a better future, and cradling the hope therewith. Kyiv’s monument holds aloft an impressive sword and an unimpressively small shield, but it does occupy better real estate. She can be seen easily from many parts of the city, particularly the opposite bank of the wide Dnipro River. No need to go down some north Jersey back roads for a distant view of the French masterpiece. (Yes, I know there’s a ferry, but not one that is really does anywhere other than Liberty Island).
On my several subsequent trips to Kyiv, I did start to connect with Kyiv more deeply. I got to explore some of its exclusive neighbourhoods, with some cool restaurants, as well as those neighbourhoods with a bit of a grittier underbelly. Those unpolished stretches of urbanity where they pride themselves on their craft beer at inflated prices, and where the lock for the toilet door is a hook and screw-eye that has had to be reseated a few times because the wood trim is a bit rotten. You have plenty of those neighbourhoods there in Philadelphia, Melbourne, and Seattle. Kyiv definitely has its Bohemian elements, as does all of Ukraine. There’s really little that is stunted about city life in Kyiv: excellent cuisine and strong culture with distinct neighbourhoods and a varying feel across the expansive cityscape. Before the war, the metropolitan population was estimated to be about 3.5-million.
The only thing that is really missing is the contemporary architectural scene. Reuse of old buildings can be quite good, but new construction, as I have witnessed it, seems to over-emphasise exterior shape over interior function. Support columns completely disrupt the function of rooms, and apartments that are 70m2 (800ft2) having almost one-third of the space consumed by hallways. So you have quite a few buildings that look cool, but are needlessly inefficient and uninspired inside.
Kyiv’s also not nearly as walkable as L’viv or Odesa. (But don’t get me started on the contemporary buildings of Odesa, many of which are like someone gave a child a bunch of blocks of varying shapes, all of which get used ostentatiously and abundantly. The facades are "busy" to say the least.) I think only Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro has metro systems, and Kyiv's is particularly resplendent and worth visiting on its own.
Actually, the Soviet subway systems, from Minsk to Tashkent, are all siteseeing destinations in their own right, with design themes and public artwork that are skillfully done in each metro station. What Kyiv has and all the others don’t (in my experience) is station platforms that are five minutes below the surface. It may take more than five minutes to get to the platform from Kyiv’s Golden Gate metro station entrance, I’m not sure, but I doubt it’s less. (Arsenalna Station, which is a bit down the river here in Kyiv is the deepest station in the world, at over 105m deep.)
I doubt that I'll have time go down and time the escalator expedition on this trip, and I'm not sure if it's operating like normal given that the subways around Europe were often built with the dual purpose of being bombshelters. Lots of people spent many days and nights in the last seven weeks in the metro stations in Kyiv.
An Update on the Lviv Alliance Activities
The train has turned north a while back and we’re coming up into Kyiv from the south. The clear blue sky and crisp morning that we had leaving western Ukraine has given way to low soft cottony stratocumulus clouds. We’re expecting warmer weather by the end of the week.
“The crew” in L’viv on L Ferenc street is going to be going shopping with Ihor while I'm away. I call them the crew, because it seems both ironic and fitting. It’s that team of eleven high-school and university-aged young adults from around Ukraine who are staffing the supply centre for our district. We’ve gone on a couple trips for food and hygiene products – usually stopping at a few different stores to get the best deals. We typically go out in one Uber, but then come back packed up with our loot in three different Ubers (or Bolts). Each day is about $1000, and each following day, it’s all gone. Except the wet wipes; they don’t seem to be in season, so we have lots of them still from before my arrival.
From what I understand, foreign food donations and such have dried up now, and there probably won’t be much public money coming from Kyiv because food supplies for the army are prioritised because of those aforementioned shortages. And that’s why we have the Hryada team. That’s the community that is making the food for the troops, our first shipment of which left for the east today. I couldn’t be there, but they sent me photos.
So there’s “the crew” on L Ferencs and “the team” in Hryada. The Crew is staffing an IDP centre and L’viv Alliance is supplying them with money to stock up on just about everything, except wet wipes. Then there’s "the team" in Hryada, the rural community that is using locally sourced agricultural products as well as some imported food aid (we had Dutch potatoes last week), to make food for our troops out east. The Hryada team has also put together a smaller food supply for a big IDP live-in shelter on the outskirts of L’viv. So now everyone’s clear on the crew and the team, right? Until next week, I suppose.
Then we have the business assistance for those industries that are outfitting our troops, specifically for helmets and knee pads. We’ve been searching for helmet suspension systems – the interior fittings that fit over the head – so that the manufacturer that’s now in L’viv can make the outer shell, and now it looks like we may have done that with a maker of mine safety gear. As a result, we could be producing as many as 10,000 complete helmets out of the new L’viv operation. It’s quite a substantial number when you consider that the US just ear-marked 30,000 to go to Ukraine.
One of the things to also keep in mind when I talk about protective gear for our troops is that more men in Ukraine (and from abroad) aren’t serving in the fight because there just aren’t enough firearms in Ukraine. That’s different than with some of the lower priorities, like knee pads. We can make those in western Ukraine with little new tooling, and organisations like our L’viv Alliance can pay for knee pads at a cost of about $15.75 a pair, and we’ve begun to do just that.
I’ve written quite a bit about protective gear and body armour in these entries, and realise that the subject is alien to almost all of you readers, but the concept is important. (I also realise we have quite a few vets on this list, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, for whom the subject is quite familiar.) The use of body armour and improved tactical gear has made forces like the US Army more lethal while suffering far fewer serious casualties in combat than ever before in history. For an example of how outfitting troops has changed in my lifetime, have a look at two of the more accurate war film depictions made in the last 20 years: We Were Soldiers (la Drang, Vietnam, 1965) and Blackhawk Down (Mogadishu, Somalia, 1993).
In the Mel Gibson film depicting the first major US engagement of Vietnam, the soldiers basically only have their helmets and uniforms as protection. In Ridley Scott’s film that presented the operation in Mogadishu that went badly sideways and eventually caused the US to pull out its mission in Somalia, the Army Rangers are equipped with body armour around the torso, many wearing knee pads, goggles (both films have troops brought in on helicopters), and an assortment of accessories that makes the Rangers look a bit more mechanical than their predecessors. Jump ahead another 30 years to now and there's even more sophisticated protection that not only reduces battlefield deaths, but keeps more experienced fighters in the action longer. Keeping experienced fighters alive and in the field improves the lethality of any fighting force and is something the Soviets, and apparently today’s Russians, never truly valued enough. There’s an amazing scene in the 2011 Korean WW2 epic “My Way” that really emphasises the victory at any cost philosophy of the Red Army.
With the mention of our Vietnam vets above, I am reminded that I need to make a correction to a prior quote that I attributed to Abigail Adams. It was British historian Lord Acton who said the bit about absolute power corrupting absolutely. I was thinking of 1st Lady Adams’s quote about all men being tyrants if they could be. Thanks for the correction, and I know others caught that so don’t hesitate to make me aware of them.
It’s also important to recognise that Adams made this point in a letter on the subject of women being equal contributors in the young democracy, but not being equally represented. They had no vote. It is a reminder that democracy is always improving on itself, and that it only does so because we tend to it, nurture it, and we push it along. If we fail to participate in our democracy, we simply fail the institution and eventually fail ourselves.
The Evening in Kyiv
So, yeah, Kyiv is nothing like its normal self and nothing like L'viv. In the 500km that the crow flies between Lviv and Kyiv, basically the width of Pennsylvania east to west, almost nothing is similar. It’s been over a week since the Battle for Kyiv was won, but it will be weeks until things normalise to anything like they have been in L’viv.
It seems none of my favourite places is open. Few places are. And the curfew at which we’re to be off the streets is earlier and more strictly enforced. The front entrance to my hotel, where I’ve stayed two or three times in the past, was blocked off to all road access. Checkpoints are guarded by at least a half-dozen competent-looking but helpful soldiers, mostly armed with the AKMS assault rifles and their faces largely obscured by military masks.
My Bolt driver could only get me within a couple hundred meters of my hotel given that there are quite a few government offices in the neighbourhood. Once on foot, I was redirected three times by soldiers on how to get to the hotel. I eventually phoned the front desk and was directed to a back fire emergency exit. That’s how we get in and out now. Someone from the hotel has to let us out and let us in that one solid metal door.
The streets are quite empty in the early evening and a bit spooky, made none the less so by a good wind whirling about, making some ghostly howls in the wires and the tall tower blocks. It’s the sort of scene a Hollywood director would set for something ominous. And while entirely safe on the streets of Kyiv, you can imagine my horror at the news that just about everything closes at 1800 in Kyiv, and there is a dearth of near-beer on the shelves of mini-markets that remain open for a couple hours more.
My hotel isn’t far from Maidan, pronounced more like an Australian saying “my den”, which is the famous square of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity that resulted in over 100 civilian deaths. The event also ended of the highly corrupt Yanukovich regime in Ukraine, and caused Putin to panic, seeing Ukraine as lost to Europe if he didn’t act to take what he could quickly. That manifested itself in the military annexations of Crimea and the failed war in Donbas and beyond. (Maidan, by the way, is borrowed from Persian, via Crimean Tatars, and simply refers to a central town square. The square is Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti.)
It would probably be helpful to a great many of you to quickly rehash what string of events brought us to this war and those events of 2014. I suspect it might also clear up some misconceptions about the history of Ukraine in the last 100 years as well. It’ll be quick, I promise.
Ukrainians had been angling to reposition themselves toward the West for quite some time almost since independence in the early 1990s. In 2013, then-president Yanukovich – a terrible (or superb) kleptocrat beholden to Putin – decided to derail Ukraines progress toward EU membership. That started the aforementioned revolution that also eventually brought about this full-scale war. It’s not that all Ukrainians wanted a divorce from Russia, but you also have to remember that much of Ukraine wasn’t removed from Russian state media either, even after independence in 1990. Russian propaganda is, as should surprise no one, not new. In the time of Putin, no part of the Russian diaspora has been outside the reach of the nationalist chest-thumping. For many Russians, even in the US, they simply didn’t want their being Russian to be equated with being everybody’s bad guy. Inside and outside of Russia, there are many people who believe Russia never invaded anybody, ever.
Here, some further distinctions should be made. Slavery/Feudalism in Russia really only ended less than a couple decades before my 101yo grandmother in Allentown was born. Russian society has never made any serious strides toward being an egalitarian society. The Bolsheviks certainly were no real improvement. Stalin, I think we’ll all agree, was no improvement on the czars. Millions upon millions of poor, average Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, etc died from the ineptitude and disregard of the Communists in Moscow. Many more millions died in the fight against Nazi Germany, not all of whom as canon-fodder, but many.
Don’t confuse that last statement as disregarding the critical role the Soviets played in victory in Europe. Any history of World War 2 that does not include the huge contribution of the Red Army, or the resistance of the Chinese against occupying Imperial Japan for that matter, is woefully incomplete. We would be wise to pay as much attention to the Battle of Kursk as D-Day, and probably push back the start of WW2 to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
All of that being said, people my age and older often don’t recognise enough that the Soviet people have been the primary casualties of the Bolsheviks, the Communists, the Kremlin, or however you want to encapsulate the recurring theme of Muscovite military expansionism. They have been terrible to themselves, which is one reason why trust is in such short supply and why cynicism so rife. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the Georgians, Ukrainians, or any of the former Soviet republics have wanted to separate from Moscow and seek protection from the Russian war machine. We also shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a difficult and messy process for several reasons.
Despite how damaging single-party, communist/socialist rule was to the economies and social fabric of the eastern three-quarters of the European landmass, it’s still difficult for many of my contemporaries who lived through it to believe that all they were taught in school was so wrong. You’ll see it in Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, people in the second half of their lives who consider those youthful times as better or at least having their good points. Few of those positions stand up to reality, but we know it’s not uncommon for people to hold on to, say, abusive partners or protect their neglectful parents. It’s easier on the ego to believe we weren’t entirely duped.
So when you see the Russian pole numbers with surging support for Putin, realise that the numbers may not be very accurate, but more importantly that they also make sense in light of how much so many Russians need to believe in the greatness of their state. That’s what they’ve been told really matters and what they hold on to when their personal lives are such a struggle.
Walking around yesterday (Wednesday) evening, finding that curfew hits most of the stores very early, I was almost SoL in finding something to eat. Down on the near-empty massive square that is Maidan, the underground market that I was told should be open was already closed. But there I found two 30-something brothers who were walking around handing out cheese sandwiches that they just bought from a nearby Georgian restaurant. They were handing them out to the handful of homeless people hanging around the square and in the stairwell going to the underground mall that one can enter from the square.
I asked them where they bought the sandwiches, and they explained and offered one to me after telling me that all the food-service places were closed at this hour. At that time, a woman of 40 years approached us, asking not for money but for food. They were happy to help. As we walked away, I slyly handed them 500 hryvnia, enough for about 10 of those sandwiches, and told them to keep up to good work. They initially declined the money, but I said that their generosity needs to continue. I may see them again this evening.
Kyiv doesn’t appear to have the same IDP population that L’viv and other safe towns have. Perhaps anyone who made it here from the east probably continued west or southwest. I do know people who chose to stay who live in Kyiv, often out of fear or necessity, but I don’t know of many people who left Kyiv and opened their homes to others quite like has been the case in L’viv. That’s important to me because it doesn’t look like Kyiv is set up to aid people here like in L’viv. That may change as the war in Donbas continues and Kyiv receives more IDP from the east and those people perceive Kyiv as being safe and functioning.
That view is shared by some of my fellow guests here at this hotel, most of whom are English speakers here for humanitarian reasons or for journalism. There is, I should say, a Korean-born Japanese-American from Oahu, now living in Manhattan, who is in Ukraine with the “foreign legion,” as he calls it. Shane is on a little R&R in Kyiv, and despite the cold of the hotel (the central heat is off), he says this is much more comfortable than the school basement back east where they’re encamped. He’s a scout. A poorly armed scout, he’ll assure you, which is a point that goes back to the shortage of firearms here.
There are other narratives coming out of Kyiv that are worth following, but this entry is already pushing new heights in length, so it’s soon time to take it to the press and see how it all comes out.
One note of housekeeping: Something funky went down with my original Instagram account @ tom4ukraine. Somehow a corporate “bot” determined that I might be an insideous “bot” myself and asked me to prove I was a person by sending an SMS to the phone number on record. Well, Meta – the parent company of Instagram and Facebook – determined that it shouldn’t actually send the text messages to US phone numbers if they’re abroad. So that was that. I could verify my personhood and so I was kicked off with no other fanfare or communication.
LLater that day I started a new account @lvivalliance and so now I encourage you to go there to get more illustrative updates on what we’re doing. I try not to put too many photos in these entries because they can break it up a bit too much, but there’s much more information here than on IG.
Not Yet Done
Finding the time to edit and get images and videos added has been harder than I planned. I’m on a full, but not flooded, train back to L’viv. The gloomier weather has returned after some lovely spring weather visited Kyiv yesterday. On top of the lovely walk-around weather, I had dinner with an Italian reporter who recognised me from the last hotel in L’viv. (How funny.)
We went to Musafir, as I did the previous night. I’m lucky that one of my favourite restaurants is one of the very few that is open after 1800. Antonio the reporter was surprised that any place was open that late after his several days in Kyiv. It pays to have some prior knowledge, indeed. As is probably not surprising, all the foreign reporters I meet are new to Ukraine. They don’t have much understanding of what normal is in Kyiv or L'viv, or even about the recent history in Ukraine. By now, though, they’re getting caught up on the history and the demographic statistics and such. I think all the different perspectives have something to offer.
Walking around yesterday, Friday, was encouraging. About 10% of the food and drink establishments were open and those that were open were quite busy. There were reports that many of you may have seen over Thursday night into Friday morning: “Kyiv was rocked by three missile attacks.” That was news on Friday morning to all the reporters at my hotel. None of us heard or felt anything. So keep in mind the scale of everything we’re talking about in Kyiv and across Ukraine. Media headlines are mostly sales pitches to get you to click on links or stay tuned to on TV. As I’ll experience today, over the distance of just 500km, there are huge differences in daily life, even within the borders of Ukraine.