It had been three years since I had last visited Ukraine. Back then, the country was in anticipation of the Euro 2012 championship, the road to the airport lined with portraits of then President Yanukovych and large illuminated sculptures in the shape of soccer balls. This time around, the monumental political changes that had rocked the country were noticeable in subtle ways. For one, there now were designated lines at passport control for Ukrainian and EU citizens only – a sign of the country’s pivot to Europe. A Ukrainian border guard– now sporting brand-new US Army style camouflage instead of the drab Soviet-era uniforms of the past – peered attentively at my passport, leafing slowly through every page from front to back. Noticing my place of birth and Slavic sounding name, the border guard looked up with a smirk. “Too bad you’re not traveling on a Russian passport, my friend. It’s a shame, really. It would have allowed us to get to know each other a little better around a nice cup of tea, shoot the breeze a little in the company of my superiors, you know?” he said with what seemed to a be a mix of humor and a genuine sense of disappointment, handing me back my passport with an entry stamp.
On the bus to Kiev, a recently married Russian-Ukrainian couple behind me talked about their ordeal of going through passport control and seeing dozens of Russians getting turned back at the border. “They only let us through when I showed them the marriage certificate and told them we were here to visit you” the newlywed wife complained to her Ukrainian mother holding her Russian husband’s hand as the rickety Chinese airport shuttle bus drove through the city’s outskirts. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and the State Border Guard Service had been gradually introducing restrictions on entry to Ukraine for Russian citizens deemed to be a threat to the state. What started out as an arguably legitimate attempt to curtail the flow of Russian fighters, mercenaries and other rabble-rousers to potentially volatile areas of the country, had more recently turned into a form of collective punishment of all Russian passport holders for the crimes being committed by the Russian state on Ukrainian territory. The same day I arrived in Kiev, a Russian acquittance of mine – a successful computer programmer sympathetic to Ukraine and highly critical of the Putin regime – posted a picture of himself on Instragram with the caption: “Stuck in the deportation area at Boryspil airport”. Instead of spending a few days as taking in the sights of post-Maidan Kiev, he was sent back to Russia the same day on an evening flight to Moscow.
From a distance, there was nothing ominous about Kiev, no hint of a country embroiled in a military conflict. The dark and crowded metro underpasses teamed with old women selling pickled goods, wool socks and poppy seed bagels reminiscent of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 90s. In a bizarre way, Kiev in some ways represented the ideal of what an “ethnically Russian” city should look like in the eyes of Russian nationalists and white supremacists, currently busy stirring up anti-Ukrainian hysteria. There were no labor migrants from Central Asia – just old babushkas trying to supplement their miserable pensions with produce from their gardens. The people with “Slavic facial traits” that Russian white supremacists and xenophobes love so much to defend were on full display in the Kiev subway, their noses hidden behind – of all things – classic Russian novels ranging from Bulgakov to Dostoevsky.
In the city, I headed towards St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, passing the monument to Princess Olga. Despite the beautiful weather, the streets seemed rather deserted, void of the usual tourists and strolling couples. Walking around Kiev, I noticed a new economy emerging around the current war in Donbass. Alone on Mykhailivska Square, I was approached by a young woman clutching two doves. Before I could react, the two doves were perched on my shoulder and the woman was asking me to pay to get my picture taken with these “birds of peace”. When I politely declined, the young woman scolded me out of frustration: “Why won’t you take a picture with these doves? Aren’t you for peace? Only a separatist would refuse to pay. Are you a separatist?” I walked away hearing a trail of insults being hurled at me by the woman trying to make a living on people’s hope for a peaceful future. On Maidan Square, I was surrounded by groups of volunteers collecting money in plastic boxes in support of the Ukrainian troops. After giving a few bills to a woman collecting money for injured soldiers, others circled around me rattling their boxes for donations. A stern-looking man dressed in black military fatigues selling bead necklaces “made by children made orphans by the terrorists” saluted me with a muted “Glory to Ukraine!” and scowled rather unpleasantly when I failed to give the expected patriotic reply. Were these people legitimate volunteers or just opportunistic crooks looking to use the war as a pretext to make a quick buck? As much as I wanted to believe them, it was impossible to be sure.
The more time I spent wandering the streets of Kiev, the more I couldn’t help but feel a palpable sense of despair in the air. Though daily life seemed to carry on as usual, signs of the military and economic crisis were becoming increasingly unescapable. The conflict itself was being turned into a consumer product. Souvenir stands along the city’s main drag replaced their regular inventory of Ukrainian football jerseys and magnets in the shape of traditional Ukrainian foods with conflict-related paraphernalia in support of the Ukrainian troops and ridiculing both Putin and his crony Yanukovych. There were t-shirts with Putin sporting a Hitler mustache, toilet paper with Putin’s portrait and the abbreviation “Putin is a dickhead” on it, but also disturbing fridge magnets with graphic images of Putin shooting himself in the face. Some shops stood empty and closed on what had been a bustling shopping street before the economic crisis. Two men in uniforms with traditional yet exaggerated Ukrainian Chupryna hairdos sipped their espressos at a coffee shop in an empty shopping mall, exchanging muted words about their experiences on the frontline.
Kiev seemed steeped in an atmosphere of patriotic despair. Billboards and placards across the city called on Ukrainians to rally around the flag in support of their beleaguered homeland. While a fortune-teller offered palm readings sitting on a stool under a tree in the park, the words “Pray for Ukraine!” from a banner overlooking the Dnepr captured the city’s somber mood. With over 6,000 casualties since the start of the war and no end in sight, religion and superstition were making a comeback, looking to capitalize on the uncertainty and growing fears surrounding the future of a country on the brink. The hopeful slogans calling for a European Ukraine scribbled on the walls of buildings on the Maidan Square at the height of the revolution contrasted powerfully with the grim reality of a country facing economic collapse and stuck in an unwinnable war.
There was a palpable feeling of frustration and disappointment among Ukrainians at the dissonance between the piecemeal invasion of Ukraine by Russia on the ground and the international community’s insistence on classifying the war as an internal conflict. This sense of powerlessness permeated my conversations with people in Kiev, struggling to come to grips with the surreal experience of living in a country under attack. “If they’ve taken Donetsk and Lugansk, what will stop them [Russia] from occupying Kharkiv or Odessa? We’re screwed, son. Mark my words: Russia’s bleeding us dry, one drop at a time” the driver of a gypsy cab originally from Mariupol told me as we drove back to the airport, past the rows of the now rusted remnants of the soccer ball sculptures from the Euro 2012 tournament. While people in Moscow remain largely oblivious and apathetic to the violence in Ukraine, the conflict is taking a toll on the people of Kiev who are seeing their hopes disintegrate in front of them. As Ukraine struggles to keep its economy afloat in the face of mounting casualties, an emboldened Putin regime and an international community reluctant to get involved, hope for a positive future in Ukraine is rapidly dwindling.