As the world’s attention turns to other conflicts, the onslaught here continues. This is the story of one December day in Kyiv

Oleksandr Mykhed

29 December 2023

The Guardian


Morning: day 659 of the full-scale invasion

From early, picket lines are set up near the walls of Kyiv’s city state administration. My friends and acquaintances are protesting, demanding that the capital’s budget be directed not to the repaving of roads, but towards the purchase of drones and FPVs for the battlefield. People close to me are saying: “I don’t want new roads; I want my friends to come back alive.”

A deputy from Kyiv city council has the audacity to suggest that the cities have enough on their plate: let the state take care of the war budget, he argues. Cities need their budgets for maintenance. And this perfectly sums up the widening gap between civilians and the military. Every day the same discussions take place – who should be mobilised? Who is ready to enlist? Can we live our lives for anything other than the war? We are not even talking about replacing the hundreds of thousands of military personnel who have served in the army for almost two years now. Not to mention those who were already defending the country before the invasion. The latest mobilisation is a question of somehow restoring the military after daily losses. The night before last, Kyiv was woken up by our air-defence sirens. But they began to sound after the first explosions, which meant that no one had time to run to the shelters. Russia had fired 10 missiles and 10 attack UAVs (drones). Our air defence forces shot down all of them, but the debris fell in four Kyiv districts. Fifty-three people were injured, mostly with lacerations. Nine of the victims are children. The Russians are targeting infrastructure to deprive civilians of heat and electricity. The harsher the winter, the more missiles we can expect. And this expectation, the psychological threat, has been going on for three months.

Noon: day 659 of the full-scale invasion

A Russian cyber-attack targets one of the major phone networks. About 20 million Ukrainians are left without mobile connection and mobile internet for three days. On social networks Ukrainians post messages of support and gratitude to the network operator for its efforts. For three days I have been catching a signal in wifi hotspots. I think about those areas where mobile is the only way to access the internet. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, the phone connection reappears. I call my mother. I ask whether everything is OK, whether she has been worried. She says everything is fine, it is just wartime.

Every day there are reports of the deaths of artists at the front. Friends of friends. Within one week, several members of the film community perish. A cameraman, an actor. Not for the first

time, I think: Russia is knocking us out one by one, dozen by dozen. Civilians, military. Cinema, literature, visual arts, agriculture, architecture, education, economics, sports – pick any field, there are irreparable losses everywhere. The full-scale invasion turns social media feeds into endless obituaries of black-and-white photos. And at any moment in time, when it seems that the heart can no longer contain the losses, there’s another newsflash and another death appears.

Afternoon: day 659 of the full-scale invasion

A broadcast with Vladimir Putin is on at the Kremlin – a media spectacle during which the dictator allegedly speaks to the Russian people live. And while the tsar is talking to his lackeys, he is also sending a message to Ukraine – a MiG-31K is taking off from a Russian airfield, and Kinzhal missiles are flying in our direction. Those missiles will reach Kyiv in three minutes, and Kharkiv in two.

We discuss Oleksii Anulia’s story about his time in Russian captivity. The catalogue of torture inflicted on him is unfathomable. In civilian life, he used to be a kickboxing champion and an elite sportsman. He used to weigh 102kg; he lost 40kg in captivity. Oleksii also lost 6cm in height. Barely a single organ in his body remains intact – the Russians made sure of that. Among other inhumane punishments, prisoners had to stand still for 18 hours a day. Holding their hands behind their backs with their heads lowered, they had to splay their fingers and were not allowed to move. They cut the tendons on his thumb with a rusty knife, saying: “You were shooting at our military with this finger, killing our soldiers.”

Once Oleksii brought in an earthworm from outside. He put it in the toilet cistern and after a week he had a whole brood of them. This is how he got his first portion of protein in a long time. Another time, he was hunting a little mouse and had to shove the not-yet-killed pest into his mouth and eat it alive so that the guards would not take his nutritious prey from him.

Evening: day 659 of the full-scale invasion

At one of the many new bookstores that, despite everything, have opened in Kyiv this year, a “book of the year” ceremony, awarded annually by editorial staff of BBC News Ukraine, is taking place. The fifth air-raid alarm of the day sounds. The organisers suggest that in keeping with their security protocols, we should go to the air-raid shelter. To which one of the members of the jury, a respected professor, replies: “Let the BBC be scared, we are not.” The ceremony carries on uninterrupted, but most of us have phones in our hands. Mobile internet has been restored, and we monitor Telegram channels tracking Russian missile and drone launches. Just another day of full-scale invasion, packed with pain.

I look around the event; these are my friends and colleagues, representing several literary generations. And as has become a habit in recent months, I simply cannot help but imagine all of us dead. All. At once. In the rest of the world, hearts are hardening. Attention is divided between conflicts. Activists’ focus is absorbed by the rise to power of populists and rightwing conservatives. But two important things remain constant in the beating of these hardened hearts of ours.

The first: Russia always strives for chaos and for rightwing politicians to be in power.

The second: what Ukrainians have had to accept – is that there will be no other life. This is the way it is. And when you hear the promise of a politician who, instead of fighting for democracy and the future, promises you a return to stability, be sure to check who is financing him. Perhaps this is another Russian puppet.

Late evening: day 659 of the full-scale invasion

News breaks about discussions on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. What started nine years ago on the Maidan is now being decided on the battlefield. The future of Europe, in which the question will be determined: where will Russia stop?

Soldiers’ canteen. Eating with a colleague. It’s the 22nd month of my service in the military. Every time I scoop up the soup, I feel like I’m sipping my own sadness. I tell her about my anxiety before missile attacks, about my anger at those who dodge serving in the armed forces, and those who desperately pretend that the war is not about them.

She listens to me, puts her plate aside, looks me in the eye and says: can you imagine Ukraine without Kharkiv? Without Kyiv? Sasha, we might lose the country. And I will be in the armed forces until this threat goes away.

These are simple, clear words. But someone has to say them out loud. And when I think about the coming year, what 2024 will bring, I realise once again that the issue is not about my personal lack of hope, burnout or my non-existence. The question is whether my country will still be there. And when will the F-16s finally soar in our skies.

Morning: day 660 of the full-scale invasion

9am. As it does every morning, the country stands still, for a minute of silence in memory of the dead.

The thought occurs to me that by the end of my life, these minutes of silence will add up to 24 hours of silence for those who are no longer with us.

For those thanks to whom we still exist.


Translated by Maryna Gibson

Oleksandr Mykhed is a writer and member of PEN Ukraine. His book Language of War won the George Shevelev prize on 17 December 2023 and will be published by Allen Lane in June 2024.