By Emma Graham-Harrison and Artem Mazhulin
15 Jan 2023
At Kyiv’s Beatnik Bar last spring, the mixologists wrestled with the question of whether they should even try reopening. Their families were mostly under Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine, many of their friends were on the frontline. Was it really the right time to be worrying about making and selling high-end cocktails? But they had emptied their bank accounts while volunteering, needed money to live and to support the war effort, and figured the government could do with the taxes.
And maybe, in a city that had spent a month with Russian soldiers at the gates and was now unearthing the horrors they left behind in places such as Bucha and Irpin, people could do with a good drink. So in May they opened again, just 3pm to 6pm, more coffee shop than nightlife because of the curfew. “The atmosphere was changed. There was the same bartender, same regulars, same music in the background but something different. There was no cheering, no exclamations, somehow everything was more reserved, it felt like bar therapy,” said Igor Novoseltsev.
Kyiv was Vladimir Putin’s first objective when he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is both Ukraine’s political heart, which Russia’s leader wants to control, and symbol of more than a thousand years of history, which he wants to appropriate. After nearly a year of war, it has also become emblematic of the country’s suffering, and its resilience, having endured every horror Russia has visited on its neighbour.
In suburbs that became a byword for atrocity – Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka – Kyivites endured the reckless shelling turning homes into rubble across Ukraine, and the intimate brutality Russia’s soldiers bring when they arrive on foot, to torture and murder. In the centre, missiles have killed people while chipping away at the cityscape. And this autumn and winter, attacks on civilian infrastructure have cut off power, heating and water, sometimes for days. Still, once Russia retreated in April, many of Kyiv’s people returned, driven by pride, exhaustion with refugee life, the constant ache of homesickness.
And refugees arrive every month from the south and east, drawn, despite the occasional missile strikes, by the life that still pulses through one of Europe’s great cities, the hope of work, connections with friends, or relatives who can offer shelter.
Kyiv’s mayor, former world champion boxer Vitali Klitschko, said last month that the city’s population – which sank to around one million when Russian soldiers were at its gates – had returned to prewar levels, of around 3.6 million, based on phone usage data.
At least 300,000 of the city’s inhabitants now are internal refugees, Klitschko said. The Red Cross thinks that number is closer to half a million, including tens of thousands of children. Ukrainians, in a single evocative word, call these new arrivals simply “those who moved”, pereselentsi.
They have taken the places of others still in exile or at the frontline, soldiers now in hospitals, or who have been buried by their loved ones.
Some are middle class and came by choice, finding in Kyiv a city that understood their trauma. After escaping intense bombardment or occupation they can feel out of place in the west, where the war has intruded less regularly or intensely, despite the generosity of fellow citizens there. “People from Kharkiv, they know what bombing is, what it means to lose everything in your life and start from the beginning,” said Valeri Moroz, a chemist and head of R&D at a company once based in eastern Kharkiv that has lost its lab and its production line to the fighting. He spent the early months of the war in a western town, and begged his bosses to let him move to Kyiv. “There they don’t understand [our experience], and it’s hard to have something in common.” He has got used to scheduling his day around power cuts, and quiet nights in, going to the gym when there is no electricity or working in McDonald’s instead of at home. “I don’t feel any inconvenience. I accept that this is our life and we should get on with it: the guys and girls on the front suffer much worse living conditions.”
Others have ended up in Kyiv because they had nowhere else to go, and now struggle to scrape an existence in its freezing streets. In the city’s north-west these refugees were helping each other, with two recent arrivals now working for the Red Cross, handing out food packages and organising children’s workshops.
Alla Onyshchuk spent months living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, in the town of Enerhodar, built around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that is Europe’s largest. It was seized by Russia at the start of the war, and for months she wondered whether it would be blown up in a suicidal assault on Ukraine. A maths teacher, she only decided to leave when it became clear in the early autumn that Russians might punish her for refusing to adopt their curriculum. She wants to go home, as soon as the war ends.
Picking up food are Viktor and Liubov Havryliak, teenage sweethearts, forced from their home near Kherson when he was injured by shrapnel. A $400 bribe got them into Ukrainian-controlled areas, and their daughter lives in Kyiv so they came to seek medical help. Her apartment is on the 17th floor, and his injuries mean he can barely walk, so they are trapped inside for hours a day by blackouts. They want to talk about the pain though, to “let the world know what happened to us”.
Both 51, they pine for a home that is too dangerous now to return to, though they enjoy Kyiv when they can get out. “It looks like a foreign country to me, it’s beautiful,” Victor says. “In all my time here I’ve only seen two Soviet cars, the rest are imported.”
The first days of the war
Every Ukrainian remembers where they were the morning of 24 February, and what woke them. For many in Kyiv, it was the sound of the first Russian missiles landing. Very few, even among the military elite, thought Moscow would launch a full-scale invasion. It seemed reckless, even if Russia’s leader was clearly hungry for more of Ukraine, and entirely unconcerned by the human cost of claiming it. But when it happened, it needed no explaining. “Every holiday my grandmother did a toast: ‘For peace. I wish you never experience war’. As a child I didn’t understand it, I didn’t think war can come again. From February, I understand,” said Serhii Dubrov, a doctor.
One of the leading emergency medicine physicians in Kyiv, that morning he said goodbye to his wife and daughters, who headed for the border while he moved into his hospital, blocked up the windows with boxes, then waited for the first casualties. Within 24 hours they were overwhelmed. After operating on a young girl, Sofia, whose family had all been killed by a Russian attack, the reality of what this invasion would do to Ukraine undid Dubrov. “I have worked more than 20 years in trauma hospitals, but after Sofia, I went to my office and locked the door and had a breakdown,” he said. “Because she is a child, she is 13 years old, her parents and siblings were killed and I knew that, even in the operating room. In that situation, when we Ukrainian people have done nothing to cause this war, I don’t understand the reason for this war.”
For several days, they didn’t even leave the wards. “The first time I stepped outside, it was maybe the 1st or 2nd of March. When I opened the door, I had to take a few steps back, because the light was very bright and we had lived like moles for days.” Eight days later he drove through the ghost streets of an empty city to pick up the family chinchilla, Lily, named for Harry Potter’s mum, who become mascot and therapy animal for the team.
The intensity of those early days have passed, and his family decided to return when schools opened in the autumn. But each time there is a strike, their hospital is one of the first calls for casualties. “It is difficult to know how this will change our lives, but I think that people can only come out of this different from how they were before.”
Olena Mushtenko, head of the green line on Ukraine’s metro, thought she would be going to the Red Sea for a snorkelling holiday on 27 February. Instead she moved into an underground bunker in Dorohozhichi station and was trying to rustle up food and mattresses for tens of thousands of people sleeping along her line. Today she is as undaunted by the muddy slush of winter streets as she was by Russian attacks, turning up for an interview in pristine white boots and long white skirt. “The metro was of course originally designed to serve as a bomb shelter, the stations have got a well for a water supply, sewers, protective gates. But when it began there were around 40,000 people living in the stations at the same time,” she said. Its designers also hadn’t reckoned with keeping trains running, as Kyiv did, even as thousands of people sheltered on platforms with their pets.
Mushtenko’s flair for improvised solutions to an impossible situation included drafting Territorial Defence soldiers patrolling the park outside into a dog-walking rota for the station’s resident pets – including a couple of cats – as they searched for Russian saboteurs.
With Kyiv under regular attack again, and officials warning of a possible second attempt to take the city in spring, the metro is still serving as a vital shelter for thousands. She spends her spare time sewing warm clothes for soldiers at the front, braced for a long war, but confident how it will end. “Even if there is a second attack, I think we will be fine,” she said. “This is going to last a long time, and it may not be easy, but we all know what the outcome will be.”
If you had arrived in central Kyiv on a late afternoon in summer, when air raid sirens had mercifully held off, the city might have seemed, for a moment, at peace again. Tables outside popular cafes were crammed with laughing friends. Dog owners strolled with their pets through lush parks where children raced around playgrounds.
But it was the most fleeting of illusions. Turn a corner and a sandbagged statue was a reminder of the ever-present threat of air raids. The demographics were all off; many children had left for the west of Ukraine, or elsewhere in Europe.
Even the soundscape of the city has been transformed. Moscow justified its war in large part by denying Ukraine’s nationhood, and so for many Ukrainians, resistance is not just in the trenches or the skies, it is at home, in daily life.
At the Beatnik bar, around three-quarters of their customers spoke Russian before the war. “At least half, maybe more of our clients use Ukrainian now,” estimates Novoseltsev. Somehow, despite the curfew, and the disruption war brought to ice and alcohol supplies – which the team are embarrassed to mention – they made it on to the global “50 best discovery” awards list for restaurants and bars.
Their dream before the war was to make the overall 50 best list, and so like many in Kyiv, they continue with a split reality. People try to hold on to professional dreams they chased for years, or decades. Yet they live with power that comes and goes, friends on the frontline, loved ones in occupied areas, the tightening web of loss and sadness spun by war, that forces people to live in the present, hoping for a future they can’t work towards. The Beatnik team all come from areas in or near eastern Kharkiv city, that were held by Russians or fought over heavily, so the war casts a long, constant shadow.
Igor’s father died in July from cancer, when his home village was occupied by Russians, so his only son wasn’t able to say goodbye in person. Then his mother refused to leave the village as fighting grew closer in September. “I would call her and ask ‘Why are you there, are you guarding the garden? It doesn’t make any sense’. She just said ‘I’ll think about it’.” After mobile phone coverage cut off, and he didn’t hear from her for five days, Igor set off through a shelled hellscape to look for her.
A soldier friend came with him, and lent him body armour; their quiet village was now the frontline. He found his mother in an evacuation camp and brought her home. “I’m a 31-year-old man living with my mum,” he says with a grin. It’s not the glamorous life of a top mixologist, but Igor is happy, at least for now. “Its fine, we have worked out how things go. She’s my mum, I only have her now and she only has me.”