It is a restive night in the subway car. Those sleeping on the floor or narrow benches snore, rustle and cough their way through the night as cold air seeps through the cracks in the doors. From above, from the surface, the muted sounds of war can sometimes be heard. Kyiv is under attack, on this night as well.
"It’s rumbling longer than usual. What is that?" asks a woman in the half-light.
"No idea. Why don’t you go up and have a look," a man’s voice jokes, earning a giggle from someone.
Kyiv these days is a city on the frontlines. It is a city where the subway stations are for sleeping, providing protection against rocket attacks. It is a city where the streets are blockaded with automobile tires and cement blocks. Where men with yellow armbands made of tape examine identity papers at roadblocks and hunt down spies and saboteurs. A city with burned-out cars standing at intersections and long lines of people in front of the grocery stores. Where bizarre signs are ready to greet the enemy troops who hope to force their way into the city: "Russian soldier, go fuck yourself!"
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine a week ago. And even if he wasn’t able to rapidly take control of Kyiv, one thing is clear: This city remains his primary objective. On both sides of the Dnieper River, which runs through the Ukrainian capital, Russian troops are advancing from the north in the hopes of cutting the city off from the surrounding countryside. It is a city where just a few weeks ago, the cafés were full and the streets bustling with life – and which is now preparing for a long siege and house-to-house fighting. For the residents of Kyiv, dark days are upon them.
On Tuesday evening, a few colleagues and I do the same thing many Kyiv residents do every evening: We pack up pillows, blankets and food and descend into the subway. The heavy metal doors that can seal off subway stations in Kyiv are almost completely closed, we have to slide through a gap to enter the station at Poshtova Square. It’s 6 p.m. and an air-raid warning has sounded. Our plan is to make our way to the Obolon station to meet up with my colleague Krystyna Berdynskych, a Kyiv journalist.
The train station in Lviv: Many Ukrainians pass through here on their way to the Polish border, not too far awayFoto:
Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
The nightly curfew is set to begin in two hours. Those who remain on the streets after that will be treated as saboteurs or spies, city officials have warned. Fears of Russian spies and of a pro-Moscow fifth column are widespread in Kyiv. And they are growing as Russian troops advance on the city, especially from the north. The first Russian soldiers have long since reached the Kyiv suburbs.
The Obolon District is also in the northern part of the city. On just the second day of the war, on Feb. 25, shooting erupted there, with Ukrainian military leaders reporting the incursion of Russian agents. For Kyiv residents, it was a shock that the enemy had turned up in the heart of their city so early on in the conflict. In hindsight, there is much to suggest that it was a false alarm.
As we head north, I look into the tired faces of the passengers and begin wondering if those in the subway far below the city would even realize if Kyiv were to fall to the Russians in the night.
In the Obolon station, around 100 people are preparing for the night. There is a water fountain and an electric kettle available for all, and a toilet way in the back down the tunnel. Air mattresses are being inflated, dogs are snuggling up under their owners’ blankets and TV screens show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking to CNN. Some have set up camp on the train platform, but Krystyna has reserved spots for us in a stationary subway car where it’s a bit warmer.
Since the outbreak of war, she has spent every night in the subway together with her mother and her 17-year-old cousin Nastya from Kherson, who is holding on to a pink stuffed rabbit. The port city of Kherson in southern Ukraine is under attack. It will, on this night, become the first large city to fall to the Russians in this war. Just how Nastya might make her way back home at some point is unclear. Not even relatives in Kherson have much to say about the situation in the city because they aren’t leaving their homes. We watch videos on our phones of Russian soldiers in front of the Kherson train station.
"I can’t view this war as a journalist. I can only see it as a Ukrainian," says an exhausted Krystyna. She expresses pretty much the same emotions as the other Kyiv residents I meet: Fury with Putin and the Russians. Astonishment at the absurdity of this war. Pride in their own soldiers who are standing up to a vastly superior army. Pride in their own president, who has displayed more courage and determination than many had expected he would. And complete confusion about what to do next. Should she stay or flee? She essentially became the head of her family overnight, now that she also has responsibility for her cousin. She has to decide for three.
When we leave the subway the next morning, chilled to the bone, the air-raid sirens go off again, but many passersby hardly react at all. Though the warnings have been a constant, Kyiv has experienced relatively little damage to civilian structures – in contrast to Kharkiv, where a residential area was targeted with multiple rocket launchers. Many Kyiv residents have stopped spending their nights in the subway or in air-raid shelters.
Russian soldiers near a metro station in Kyiv: The Russian troops are advancing from the northFoto:
Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
Neither I nor the people I talk to in Kyiv can really comprehend this Russian invasion. It makes no sense, at least not within the boundaries of our imagination. The annexation of the Crimea, the triggering of war in the Donbas, the intervention in Syria: Putin’s actions have frequently defied our expectations. But this time, he is defying the world we live in. This man simply refuses to accept the collapse of the Soviet – or, in his eyes, Russian – empire. He wants to turn the clock back three decades. He is no longer laying claim to certain territories within Ukraine, he is aiming for the entire country.
He has refuted Ukraine’s historic right to exist. I watched his recent speeches – including his apoplectic declaration of war – from a hotel in eastern Ukraine. He has defined his war aims as the "demilitarization" and "de-Nazification" of Ukraine. He doesn’t just want to shift borders, he intends to reshape an entire nation according to his whim – to destroy its army and overthrow, arrest and convict its leadership. And to do so, he needs to take the Ukrainian capital. Without Kyiv, he won’t be able to impose the pro-Russian regime change he so desires. But does he really believe that he will then have the entire country under his control?
For the residents of Kyiv, that is perhaps the craziest part of his crazy plan. Russia’s president wants to reshape the country by getting rid of its leadership. But that’s not how Ukraine works. It is not organized vertically like Russia, but horizontally, with the anger of the people pushing out the Kyiv government from time to time. Ukraine can’t be changed from the top. It would have tremendous consequences for Russia if the president were to die. But the same isn't true for Ukraine.
This horizontal structure is currently on display as well. In Kyiv, preparations for war are being undertaken as a kind of popular movement – in a sort of do-it-yourself process. The city administration has handed out weapons to all those willing to fight, while makeshift roadblocks are going up using whatever materials are available. Most of the city’s residents are doing what they can to help. That has, to be sure, resulted in chaos. Indeed, some of the battles against alleged Russian agents in the city have quite clearly been the result of newly formed militias failing to communicate well enough with the army. The consequences can be seen on International Square in the west in the form of a burned-out military truck and a shot-up army bus. They apparently drove in darkness toward a new checkpoint that nobody had told the army about, and didn’t stop quickly enough. That, at least, is the version a soldier tells us.
But the self-organization is impressive. Those who may have had their doubts as to what side Kyiv residents would be on in this war must only look at the bustling preparations being made. In front of Kyiv’s large military hospital, I watch as donations for the army are delivered by the minute. Before we can get there, though, a nervous soldier searches our car. Medical supplies are stacked up next to one wing of the building, along with toilet paper, potatoes, noodles and fruit. It is less reminiscent of supplies for a regular army than it is of the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, when one group of residents made sandwiches to feed others who were protesting on Independence Square with their homemade shields and hard hats.
The donations at the military hospital are received by Yulia Nizhnik-Zaichenko, a former make-up artist who has been organizing aid for Ukrainian fighters and civilians in the Donbas since the Euromaidan protests. When I ask her about possible scenarios for the future, she sees two: Either the Russians are able to take control of the city – "in which case I will leave the country if I survive." Or, Ukraine emerges victorious, "and then society must be cleansed so that pro-Russian elements leave us." It sounds threatening.
Yulia Nizhnik-Zaichenko, a former make-up artist who is now an active volunteer: She has been supporting the Ukrainian military since 2014Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
The anger and enmity that Putin is currently generating run deep – far deeper than the wounds left behind by the 2014 war in the Donbas. Even if Kyiv political leaders aren’t saying so out loud, the coal mining region in eastern Ukraine is far away and foreign for many in Kyiv – just as it is to many in Moscow. But a Russian attack on Kyiv and on the whole of Ukraine is something else entirely. Russians and Ukrainians are not a single people, as Putin claimed in his historic essay one year ago, but family ties between the two countries remain tight, even after 30 years of Ukrainian independence. "Thirty years aren’t enough," Nizhnik-Zaichenko tells me drily. "Moses wandered the desert for 40 years. That’s how much time we need to be truly independent."
"I am constantly receiving Facebook messages from Russian friends who are ashamed and ask for forgiveness," Slava Balbek, a prominent architect and restaurateur, says in his café Dublyor. On the day before the invasion, Balbek resolved to only speak Ukrainian with his wife from that moment on, and to only write Facebook posts in Ukrainian, "even if I make mistakes." His mother tongue is Russian, as it is for the majority of Kyiv residents. In his café, the peace and comfort of prewar Kyiv seems to still be firmly in place – though it isn’t actually open. The staff is preparing food for the territorial defense forces. Balbek also wanted to join such a battalion, but too many volunteers had already reported, so he helps out with food and evacuations along with a Telegram bot for organizational questions and a drone that is supposed to help find "diversants."
One begins wondering where all the feared pro-Russian saboteurs and agents are supposed to come from when every single person you talk to is furious about Putin’s invasion. Are these internal enemies just a figment of the collective
imagination? And with Putin claiming that the Ukrainian government is holding its people hostage – is there anyone in Kyiv who wants to be rescued by him at the barrel of a gun?
"A network of people has, of course, been established in Ukraine who deeply believed that this was a liberation army riding in on foreign tanks. But it is an extremely small number of people," says Serhiy Yushchyk, pro-rector of the Kyiv Theological Academy and priest of a nearby church. The academy and church are both located just south of the city center near the Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Kyiv Caves, which hovers over the Dnieper on the steep banks leading down to the river. It is one of the most important holy sites of the Orthodox Church and was founded in the 11th century. It essentially embodies the Kyiv that Vladimir Putin was imagining when he invoked in his essay the "spiritual unity" of Russians and Ukrainians and spoke of their shared roots in the Rus, the first Christian empire of eastern Slavs.
The Pechersk Lavra is still under the authority of the Moscow Patriarch; it belongs to the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The head of the monastery isn’t just notorious around the country for his anti-vaccination stance, he was also an explicit opponent of the Maidan revolution and staunch defender of Moscow’s policies toward Ukraine. Father Serhiy’s academy and church also belong to the Moscow patriarchy – which has developed into a problem in these times of war.
I get to know Father Serhiy as he is trying to donate meals for the army at the military hospital. He has brought along a large pot, carefully covered with cloth. But the volunteers accepting donations are suspicious. They want to know what church he is from, and they aren’t happy with his response. This is because the Moscow Patriarch has close ties to Putin. Many believe that the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church – which has more parishes than any other church in the country – is unpatriotic, much to Father Serhiy’s chagrin.
Pastor Serhiy Yushchyk: "I won’t be opening my church to an army of occupiers"Foto:
Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
Sometimes their donations are even rejected, he complains. He leaves no doubt about the fact that he is shocked by the Russian attack and supports the Ukrainian soldiers. He compares Putin with one of his predecessors in the Kremlin, the brutal czar Ivan the Terrible. "We thought this was the Russia of Dostoevsky, but it is the Russia of Ivan the Terrible. This crazy Ivan the Terrible has to go!"
Large crowds at the train station on Wednesday were trying to get on what are likely to be some of the last trains out of the cityFoto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
But Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is apparently more concerned about his ties to Putin than he is about his Ukrainian flock. In his first Sunday sermon after the beginning of the war, he didn’t condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Even worse: He didn’t even call it a war, instead expressing regret over the "current political situation" in Ukraine and his concern that "evil powers" could win – powers, he said, who want a separation of Kyiv and Moscow. Kirill essentially confirmed all of the reservations that Ukrainians have about his church. The Ukrainian priesthood was appalled and church leaders in Ukraine wrote a letter to the patriarch urging him to demand that the Kremlin leadership put an end to the violence.
Serhiy Yushchyk says defiantly: "In any case, I won’t be opening my church to an army of occupiers." Putin’s war has put the Moscow-loyal church in an extremely difficult position. The centuries-old tradition of the Moscow Patriarchy in Ukraine, which even managed to survive the annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas with remarkably little damage, could become a collateral damage of this invasion. Putin may be in the process of destroying that which he professes to hold so dear.
On Wednesday, as we drive out of Kyiv, we stop at the main train station. Kyiv residents are crowded inside waiting for the last evacuation trains, afraid that they won’t be able to get out of the city. Taxi drivers in front of the entrance are selling rides to Lviv, near the Polish border, for 250 dollars per person, too expensive for many in the city. If the encirclement of the city by Russian soldiers continues, the price will likely climb even higher.
And that eventuality is looking increasingly likely. Satellite images show that a vast convoy of Russian military vehicles, fully 60 kilometers long, has assembled outside the gates of the city. But this convoy has hardly moved for several days.
Is the wait part of the plan? The more time passes, the more powerful resistance to this invasion grows – not just in Kyiv and in Ukraine, but everywhere in the world. And likely also in Moscow itself.
How many will still make it out of Kyiv? Complete encirclement by Russian troops is looking increasingly likelyFoto:
Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
There, fears are rising that Putin may not just destroy Kyiv and Ukraine, but also his own country. That his attempt to violently reunite elements of a long-dissolved empire won’t just lead to the end of his regime, but also to the demise of Russia as a major power.
For Kyiv residents who are currently preparing for the Russian onslaught or who are spending their nights in subway stations, this is but a minor consolation.