Editor’s note: This article was written and translated before the Russian military began its invasion of Ukraine.
Kiev is a different city as it wakes up the day after Russia recognized the independence of the separatist republics of the Donbass. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Kostya says as he exits the Teatralna subway station; after I insist, he adds: “How would you feel if someone had just announced to the world that you don’t exist, that you’re just a ‘mistake in history’? Would you be happy?”
One can see that hostility has grown and that for once it was the Russian president’s words, even more than his actions, that left a mark. The inhabitants of the Ukrainian capital, usually quite willing to give statements, are quieter than usual. That’s also because there seems to be a journalist out on every block who will more or less ask them the same questions. What everyone has been saying for weeks that they didn’t fear and were ready to handle is now at the gates, in the form of an army that some are calling a “peacekeeping force,” a bitter irony of propaganda.
After all, it’s not the first time this has happened, even in recent years, and they have used the same rhetoric on all sides, but this does not subtract anything from the gravity of the situation. The images of tanks crossing the border and the celebrations in the separatist capitals have gone around the world. What now?
Camila, at the coffee kiosk near the Bessarabian Market, suggests an interesting interpretation: “Finally, the American journalists will be happy.” She says this without acrimony, not to criticize anyone but to talk about her situation and that of millions of other Ukrainians who for weeks have been waiting for the fateful date of the invasion, loudly announced by the world’s media and, until Sunday, always postponed. Almost as if every day was a scene from Waiting for Godot, the Ukrainians were waiting for something that didn’t happen. “Don’t panic” and “We are ready” were the two standard formulas of the national self-narrative. On Saturday, there were the trainings outside the city with the instructors of the “Territorial Defense Forces.” At school and university it’s better not to talk about it; at work, you never know how others will react and it’s better not to have problems; at home, who knows. All was swept under the rug, or rather kept in the silence of their own minds, tormented by the statements of Stoltenberg or Lavrov.
Then, just as the fireworks in the central square of Donetsk broadcasted by the Russian broadcaster RT showed people extolling the end of an era, in Ukraine Putin’s statements brought the awareness that it was not just mental torture.
Nelly, an Armenian who moved here for love and opened a small merchandising company, says: “I was trying to avoid talking about it so as not to distress the employees, then I realized that as soon as I left they were talking only about that, so I called a meeting to discuss it all together; maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner, but I felt bad thinking that I had waited all that time.” And Nelly, an Armenian, cannot be said to be unfamiliar with the suffering caused by war.
It’s certainly not all over, indeed. One can’t heave the fateful sigh of relief that the worst is over. On the contrary, the worst is most likely ahead of us.
In a country where society has been experiencing a kind of general mobilization for months and the intermittent war in the Donbass has taken on the characteristics of an irredentist battle, weak points are emerging more powerfully. For example, the thousands of veterans who have returned from the front suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and who are finding it difficult to find a place in civilian life, the ideological proselytism of the extreme right that is finding fertile ground to grow its poisonous fruit in the stadiums and in some groups close to military and paramilitary battalions, foreign interference in national politics, the accelerated rearmament by the “allies” from the NATO area and the countries that are frightened by Russia.
And Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is starting to feel the pressure from those who would like that a military intervention would start soon, from those who extol heroism and sacrifice for the homeland (but who never talk about it in the first person). “Meh,” three guys in their thirties tell me when I ask them how the president is doing. “Anyway, it’s important to stick together.”
How long this attitude of tolerance will last, especially if armed clashes escalate, is hard to say; as to who might come after Zelensky, it’s perhaps better not to speculate.
But all this is not obvious on the streets of Kiev on this sunny winter day. Everyone is carrying their own anxieties with them, and to a distracted observer it might look like this is just an ordinary day in an ordinary city.