Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv, a kind of citizens' militia, checks everyone who comes in or out of the city.

Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv, a kind of citizens' militia, checks everyone who comes in or out of the city.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

Impressions from an Embattled Kyiv Courage, Desperation and Defiance Fuels the Defense of Ukraine

Russian troops have been slowly advancing on Kyiv for the past several days. But the city remains defiant and determined to fight back. Some in the city even believe they will be able to hold off the Russians.
By Christoph Reuter in Kyiv, with Photos By Maxim Dondyuk, Johanna-Maria Fritz und Mila Teshaieva

There is this one sentence that you find everywhere in Kyiv. Initially, it began appearing as hastily scrawled graffiti, but before long, it could be seen carefully painted on a yellow bus being used to barricade a highway into the city. It then showed up at the entrance to the city administration building and, on day three, it was projected on digital display panels. By the end of the week, we started seeing it carefully printed on Ukrainian flags: "Russian warship, go fuck yourself!"

It is perhaps a bit vulgar, but it’s a sentence which, in the second week of this war, accurately expresses the survival instinct of the 1.5 million people who remain in Kyiv, Ukraine’s besieged capital.

DER SPIEGEL 11/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2022 (March 12th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

This sentence made its debut on the afternoon of the very first day of the war, Feb. 24, when 13 Ukrainian border guards on tiny Snake Island off of Ukraine’s south coast spewed it at the commander of the guided missile cruiser Moskva. The commander had demanded that the radically overpowered unit capitulate or face attack. A hopeless situation. But certainly not a reason to surrender. Following reports of their deaths, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proclaimed them to be "Heroes of Ukraine." And the sentence, audio of which was shared throughout the country and the world, quickly became a rallying cry for a desperate underdog in its fight against an arrogant attacker.

Since the initial days of the shock, when Vladimir Putin renounced Ukraine’s right to exist, when Russian troops attacked from three sides and columns of tanks began rolling towards Kyiv, the mood in the city has changed. Fear is still a daily companion. Everyone has seen the images of children killed by rockets and the short video clips of Russian tanks firing at passing cars.

But defiance is growing among the population, as is the certainty that they won’t be easily conquered. Not even by the Russian war machinery, which has seen numerous tanks and transport vehicles roll to a stop outside the city with defective tires and empty fuel tanks. Nobody knows what will come next – perhaps air strikes on the city center or missiles fired from Belarus.

Russia battalion tactical groups are approaching from the north, and the enemy is marching on the city from the east as well, with Kyiv now blocked from the west to the northeast. The Russians aren’t making much effort to avoid civilian casualties, but they are making only slow progress and are apparently suffering heavy losses.

The complete encirclement of the city was expected to come this week, and nobody can say with any certainty when it might actually be complete. Kyiv, after all, is a huge metropolis and surrounding it is a difficult undertaking, particularly against fiercely determined defenders who are armed with state-of-the-art anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from the West.

Even at the now world-famous river crossing near Irpin, northwest of Kyiv – where Russian ground troops have transformed neighborhoods into piles of rubble, and from which images of the family slaughtered while trying to escape spread around the world – the defenders continue to put up significant resistance.

The bodies of civilians who died during the evacuation of Irpin, killed by the Russian military.

The bodies of civilians who died during the evacuation of Irpin, killed by the Russian military.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

On Friday of last week, the DER SPIEGEL team made it to the center of Irpin and met with Mayor Oleksandr Markushyn, who is now leading the defense of the Kyiv suburb as a local commander. By Sunday, the Ukrainian troops were stopping journalists fully 5 kilometers from Irpin and Russian rockets were detonating in the forested area between the suburb and Kyiv. But then, on Monday, even as the roar of artillery was horrific, a 32-year-old woman named Sasha sought to reassure us: "That’s from us," she said.

She was a baker in her former life and has set up a free snack bar at the last intersection before the forested area. It is dug into the sand and covered with branches and tarps. Even on the way to this place, salvos of rockets screamed into the air above the road on the city’s western outskirts as a mobile multiple rocket launcher fired at a Russian position from a nearby field.

"Russian fire is growing more intense, but they are no longer advancing."

A man helping evacuees outside of Kyiv flee the violence

"I am originally from Donetsk," Sasha says with a tired smile. "We've been living with war since 2014," the year when Putin launched the separatist war in eastern Ukraine. At some point, she says, she couldn’t stand it any longer and moved to Kyiv – or, to be more precise, into the 10-story residential building just behind the intersection where she is now serving tea, coffee, sandwiches and pickles to the fighters of the neighborhood unit and to the drivers of the delivery trucks racing to the bridge through the forest to pick up those who have survived the onslaught. Even an armored cash truck has been mobilized to carry the country’s most valuable commodity back and forth from Kyiv: its people.

The road to the bridge and to the heavily damaged village of Romanivka in front of it was again secure enough on Monday to approach the river and watch the ongoing evacuation effort, even before the vague agreement with Moscow about the establishment of a humanitarian corridor was hammered out. "Back there, Russian fire is growing more intense, but they are no longer advancing," says one of the drivers as he drinks tea at Sasha’s stand.

The collapsed bridge is the only way across the Irpin River for refugees from several towns. Whenever the firing eases up, distraught, hungry and freezing evacuees pick their way across the wobbly wooden beams, some of which are covered by water, as they escape to the city – from which hundreds of thousands of people are likewise trying to flee. Shortly before dusk on Monday, it was even possible to carry across the river a couple of confused pensioners from an Irpin retirement home who didn’t seem to fully comprehend what was going on around them.

The ability of a randomly assembled collection of death-defying plumbers, truck drivers and furniture makers to provide accurate military analysis as they receive sustenance from a battle-hardened baker may be limited. But in assisting the evacuation, they have observed the fighting from up close. Their lives are at risk if they even make such a tiny mistake as driving 50 meters too far. And on Monday afternoon, they are certain that the Russian army will not be able to advance even to the northwest edge of Kyiv. Much less the southern outskirts, where Ukrainian supply convoys, including even tanker trucks, continue rolling into the city.

But for how much longer?

Defiance, hope and despair: They are all present in the city, but they are found in different places. As calm and determined as the mood is in Sasha’s frontline café, it is just as fragile and fearful at Kyiv’s central train station.

Grand train stations are planned as symbols of hope and faith in a promising future. And with its vast, arched entryway, the station in Kyiv, built 90 years ago in the Ukrainian baroque style, radiates the pride of the city.

These days, though, it has become a shunting station for the desperate who stream inside to get away from the city – to the west, to the south, and even to the north, where the Russian troops are approaching. The main goal is to escape Kyiv, as half of the population has already managed to do. Young couples can be seen everywhere bidding each other farewell, as she evacuates and he is forced to stay. All men between the ages of 18 and 60 are no longer allowed to leave. She draws a heart on the inside of the fogged-up window while he stands outside and tries not to cry.

The crazy thing is: Trains are still in operation almost everywhere in the country. A train even heads out in the late afternoon for the heavily bombarded city of Kharkiv in the far east of the country, just that hardly anyone is interested in boarding. Almost two weeks since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian rail network appears to still be largely intact.

It’s just incredibly difficult to find a spot in one of the trains heading away from the front. The halls of the train station are full of people waiting to leave, most of them with just light luggage, but some with huge trollies. In the middle of the crowd stands a brass birdcage almost a meter high with a Yorkshire terrier perched on top. Next to it is a box containing two cats.

"This wasn’t planned," says Kateryna, whose daughter is embracing a cardboard box full of a parrot and five canaries in an attempt to keep them warm. "These animals belong to friends who thought they would be leaving for just one or two days before returning. Now, they are afraid their pets might starve or freeze to death." So Kateryna collected them.

She and her daughter want to leave the country. Emma, the dog, will only be with them until Lviv, in the comparably safe western part of the country, while the parrot and three of the canaries will be handed to friends out of the train’s window in Zhytomyr, located 150 kilometers west of Kyiv. Many of the evacuees have a cat or dog with them, preferring to bring less luggage than to leave their pet behind.

On the platform from which the train to Kovel – near the Polish border – is to depart, a family with two small children is forced to disembark. "The conductor says that the cars have no toilets and they can’t take children," says the mother. She goes silent, and then suddenly falls trembling into the arms of the DER SPIEGEL photographer. "Why?" she sobs. "What is the point of all this?"

The father looks away sheepishly and the two boys gaze at their mother with wide eyes until she gathers herself. "Thank you," she says as she grabs the children by the hand and heads off to find a different train.

The crowd is biggest on Platform 1, from which the trains to Lviv embark. Some of them pull into the station already packed to the gills from cities in the east and don’t even open their doors. Such is the case with a train from Kharkiv. Through the fogged-up windows, it is possible to see small children lying and sitting all over the place, with mothers crammed between bags, cat transporters and bottles of water.

Many of the faces are relaxed, the people are happy to have escaped the horror. Outside the train, meanwhile, are those who have been waiting for hours, or even days, for a train to Lviv. "But the train really is full," an elderly man says in at attempt to calm his wife.

Next to a train that is still taking on passengers stands Ivan, a retiree in coat and hat who is listening to an altercation between evacuees and a train conductor. "We don’t mind standing!" says a man. "Everyone inside is already standing," the conductor says, holding onto the door to avoid being bowled over.

Ivan has just managed to put his 100-year-old mother-in-law on the train with the help of the same conductor. She is to be picked up in Uzhhorod, a city near the Slovakian border, and taken onwards to Munich.

"I don’t understand the guys," Ivan says. "Why are they leaving?" He says he is over 60, which means he could have left the country. "But I’m staying. I’m going to fight," he insists – if he is allowed to. He says his mother-in-law is suffering a bit from dementia, but that she still has clear memories of her last evacuation in 1941. "Just that it was in the opposite direction back then."

On the empty platform for the train to Kharkiv, the conductor in his peaked cap is smoking a cigarette. "If you want to come along, climb aboard. We are scheduled to head all the way to Kramatorsk even further to the east." Even before the war, it was an unsavory place, known across the country for the contract killings of local criminals. When asked if he isn’t a bit afraid, the conductor responds: "This is the Ukraine railway. I’ve been a conductor my entire life. When the train runs, I’m on it." Shortly before departure, a young blogger runs down the stairs. "I want to report on the war from Kharkiv," he says, adding that things are too quiet for him in Lviv, where he’s from.

It's also quiet in Kyiv, at least in the center of the city, where only the really big detonations can be heard, though they are relatively rare. Most of the streets and large squares are deserted, as are the parks on the hillsides with views of the magnificent czarist-era buildings and golden church domes.

It could be the calm before the storm, as Maksym Ponomarenko, a surgeon at the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital, fears. He spent several hours on the previous day operating on a 16-year-old who had been struck in the groin by shrapnel, tearing out a fist-sized chunk of flesh. "Had he arrived at the hospital half an hour later, he would have died," Ponomarenko says.

The boy and his mother had been trying to reach Kyiv via Irpin, the doctor says, adding that the mother had died in the explosion. So too did the father and the uncle of a 13-year-old boy, both of whom were in a car that morning when it was struck by pieces of an exploding rocket. The boy lost his left cheek, "but he’s alive." Ponomarenko, who has worked for several years in the emergency room of this hospital, the largest in Ukraine, pauses briefly: "Gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries, I’ve never experienced such things. I’m a pediatrician!"

Nurses run past him as they rush to move heavy equipment and medical supplies into the basement. The mattresses laid out there with their colorful blankets are still empty. All chronic cases, such as dialysis patients and children suffering from cancer, have already been evacuated by city bus toward Poland. "We have to make room to make sure we have beds available when more patients start coming in."

The calm on the streets, though, is deceptive, contrasting sharply with the enormous effort being made to keep the city functioning. An immense public spirit is driving people to move food, medical supplies and sandbags to wherever they are needed. Neighbors have organized themselves since day one of this war via WhatsApp or Telegram.

In front of a welfare center in the Pechersk district, volunteers have been passing out food to the elderly in the neighborhood every day. "On the first day, we had to explain to a couple of old grandmas that they didn’t have to carry 10 liters of milk home," says Olga, sounding like the neighborhood therapist. "They can return every day and there will be something to eat here every time they come. They have calmed down since then."

Many older people in Ukraine are loathe to throw away even the smallest piece of bread. The Holodomor, the Great Famine, is etched deep into the country’s collective memory. In the early 1930s, Stalin commandeered grain from Ukraine despite a series of poor harvests to sell it on the global market. Entire villages were raided, farmers lost their property and 3 to7 million people died, primarily in Ukraine. Nobody here has ever forgotten.

"We are an extremely well-organized country. By the fourth day of the war, we had already set up our humanitarian headquarters."

Valentyn Mondryyivsky, deputy mayor of Kyiv

Kyiv works like an association of autonomous cells, each of which takes care of its own. Those in need of medical attention are transported to the hospital, the streets of the city quarter are barricaded or they are patrolled day and night. The ability of Kyiv residents to proactively take their well-being into their own hands was put on display once before during the Maidan protests of 2013-2014.

A deputy mayor from Kyiv, Valentyn Mondryyivsky, has just half an hour. He is standing on the sidewalk near one of the city administration’s secret alternative locations and is a bit bemused by questions about the state- and city-sponsored emergency supply plans. There is, of course, a national emergency reserve, he says, but mostly such work is taken care of by private initiatives. "We are an extremely well-organized country," says Mondryyivsky. "By the fourth day of the war, we had already set up our humanitarian headquarters, which coordinates for Kyiv and all other places where what supplies are needed. But everything else just keeps going. The cooking is done behind closed doors in restaurants, volunteers are baking bread in shifts at decentralized locations, and there are places at each border where donations can be reloaded. Companies are doing everything they can, making their delivery trucks available and donating money."

Museums are packing up their most important items and storing them in the deepest cellars they can find. Even several insect specialists from the renowned Natural History Museum in Kyiv have brought bags of irreplaceable specimens to safety in Romania. The curator of the amber collection made his way across the river through a several-hour traffic jam to hand over a small, scientifically spectacular fly to the DER SPIEGEL team for evacuation to research colleagues back in Germany.

Get out or go underground: Such are the options facing those unwilling or unable to fight. And the Kyiv subway has opened its stations for those seeking shelter. Underground garages have become places for thousands to spend the night. The deepest bunkers in the city, which were dug during Soviet times and are supposedly able to withstand a nuclear strike, have the disadvantage that Moscow knows precisely where they are.

But perhaps not all such bunkers are known, at least that’s what Vlad believes, who happened across one. Until two weeks ago, he operated a chain of cafés that served specially imported coffee. But on the morning the war began, he took a closer look at the old underground spaces beneath his company’s headquarters – spaces that used to be part of a building that had once stood at the site before being demolished. "Even quite some time ago, I had taken notice of the monstrous steel doors and the many rooms. But they were full of decades of junk: dozens of wooden crates full of gasmasks from the 1970s, cabinets, construction material. Everyone just disposed of stuff there that they wanted to get rid of."

What he had found was a Soviet-era nuclear bunker. "But what’s even better, it’s not listed anywhere – not with the city administration, not on Google. It was apparently forgotten decades ago when the old building was torn down." He and some employees spent five days cleaning out the junk while volunteers procured food, water and generators along with a router to provide the bunker with WiFi. They also rounded up medical supplies and fluorescent armbands for each of the 300 residents who have since moved in. "So that we can see in the dark who belongs here.”

Surveillance cameras and guards at the entrances keep tabs on who is coming and going. A playroom was set up for the kids. Within a week, the bunker was up and running – complete with "likely the best supply of espresso in Kyiv."

Nearby is a textiles workshop that produced hip-hop hoodies until the beginning of the war. Now, employees are producing gloves with removeable fingers to enable volunteers to fire their weapons in the cold. They are also printing Ukrainian flags with the sentence of all sentences: "Russkiy voenyi korabl, idi na chuj!” Russian warship, go fuck yourself!

Countries need myths – heroic memories that bring people together. The fact that the profanity-laden greeting from the small unit on the Black Sea-island outpost is an indirect historical reference to the Kiel Mutiny, the "Battleship Potemkin" and the beginnings of the revolution in Russia is but a small element of irony in the overall picture.

And it should be mentioned that the 13 members of the Snake Island brigade are thought to have survived and been taken prisoner, as was later announced.

But that hasn’t taken anything away from the sentence’s impact.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.