Back in Ukraine after months, it feels like living in a parallel reality

On his return to Kyiv, our columnist David Lepeska captures the mood of a nation at war

Ukrainian servicemen during a funeral ceremony at Independence Square in Kyiv last week. Reuters
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Getting to Kyiv these days takes some doing – though thankfully it’s still much easier for the average traveller than it is for the Russian military. Assuming your starting point is outside Eastern Europe, the journey will probably have three legs: a flight to a neighbouring country like Poland, a train or bus to a border town, and finally an overnight train to the Ukrainian capital.

My trip from the US took some four days, which means I was in a drowsy half-daze last week as my train approached the Polish border town of Przemysl. Still, I noticed the shift in mood, from folks enjoying an outing to people returning, more heavily, to a war zone, perhaps headed towards a home that may no longer be there or a loved one’s funeral.

Yulia, a 20-something Kyivan who works in marketing and lost her husband a few weeks ago, was returning after visiting relatives in Vienna. She told me she had recently gone to a humanitarian organisation in Kyiv to volunteer, but they said they had enough people. She had donated to the war effort, but it felt inadequate. She wanted to start a new initiative that made a real impact but wasn’t sure where to start.

In the months I’d been away, several of my American friends and relatives asked why I planned to return to Ukraine. The question came as a bit of a surprise, so my responses tended towards the predictable: great reporting opportunity; reduced cost of living due to the imminent threat of death; a lovely apartment empty and waiting.

Perhaps because it would have been too self-aggrandising, I left out the most obvious reason: to join, or at least report on, Ukrainians defending their right to live freely. That this needed to be laid out seemed either a sign that I’d gone all in on Ukraine’s fighting spirit or that my homeland, and perhaps all of western society, had become all too steeped in cynicism.

It’s understandable that Ukraine’s leaders would seek out novel ways to stay top of mind

Former US president Donald Trump valourises sexual assault and suggests he could commit murder without losing political support. With his citizens in lockdown, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts lavish cocktail parties. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pals around with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Moscow is accused of one atrocity after another in Ukraine.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, and whether accurate or not, it’s hard to believe our world today has as many leaders worthy of respect as it had a generation or two ago. It’s not so surprising, then, if we western folk have begun to lose faith in the myths that sustained us for so long – that strong institutions prevail, that the US is a shining beacon, that democracy is the answer and authoritarianism is not.

Maybe they were always a bit silly. But now here comes Ukraine, purported defender of democracy and freedom, offering clarity. To travel there is to turn back the clock to a simpler, darker age, like the Cold War or Nazis on the march. (I haven’t seen a single mask, by the way, in the week since I arrived: when you’re staring down Russian bombs, Covid-19 is about as troubling as a mosquito.)

This helps explain the Volodymyr Zelenskyy phenomenon – his Churchillian courage and determination seem to prove the righteousness of his cause, to the point that countless people around the world view Ukraine’s fight as their own. The Ukrainian President’s certainty may have gone too far in recent weeks, in his dismissal of top security officials inexplicably deemed untrustworthy and denaturalisation of oligarchs whose offences against the state seem unclear.

Ukrainians may also be inching towards an Icarus-like over-confidence. Human rights advocate Amnesty International published a report last week detailing how Ukrainian troops have embraced tactics that endanger civilians, such as setting up bases in schools and hospitals.

To me it seemed reasonable and reliably sourced, and other dependable reports acknowledge that the Ukrainian military has set up bases in schools when it may have been avoided, but pro-Ukraine Twitter exploded with angry denunciations. The next day, the head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office resigned, explaining that the report’s authors had ignored her office’s opposition to its contents.

Opponents of the report argue that Amnesty dismissed local views and essentially offered a gift to Moscow – a chance to undermine Ukraine in the court of public opinion. But even defenders of democracy and freedom are flawed, and to ignore or dismiss such criticisms is to start down a dark road.

Similarly, many saw the Zelenskyys' recent Vogue photoshoot as sending the wrong message while Ukrainians die in defence of their country. But Yulia, my train companion, saw it as expert PR. “Some people might see the romance of that photo, while others might connect with the heroism, and others with a powerful woman,” she explained. “It really doesn’t matter what they connect with, as long as they connect with Ukraine.”

She’s got a point. Ukraine war fatigue has begun to take hold, with the war moving off the front pages of newspapers and online outlets as folks enjoy their summer holidays. It’s understandable, then, that Ukraine’s leaders would seek out novel ways to stay top of mind.

As my train crossed the border, a Ukrainian mother reached down from the top bunk across from mine and tapped her daughter laying below, listening to music. “We’re in Ukraine,” she said, prompting the teen to look out the window.

A golden-domed church came into view in the distance, before two camouflaged soldiers walked past lugging automatic weapons. A female soldier popped into our cabin to collect passports. Minutes later she returned with a colleague asking to talk to the American.

“You have knife, bullets, gun?” he asked. Nope. “Are you a soldier?” No. “Journalist?” Yes. “Good luck,” he said and moved on. After a momentary wave of concern, the air raid siren that rang out a few hours later, as our train stopped in Lviv just before midnight, left me grinning. There’s a simplicity in fighting monsters.

We pulled into Kyiv just as the first shipment of Ukrainian grain since the start of the war sailed out of Odesa. The sky was blue and the city gleamed, full of hope. As I walked through Maidan on the way to the market, the plaza’s speakers blasted My Kyiv, a Soviet-era tune that emerged as the city’s anthem during the revolution that shook the square eight years ago:

Fall my weary city into restful sleep,

the necklace of lights are on over the Dnieper,

the late afternoon is a blissful wave,

how can one not love you, my dear Kyiv

A young couple pulled out their phones to capture the scene. It felt thousands of kilometres away from the war, in which 50-some Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a recent bombing, a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia may be at risk of meltdown, and several occupied chunks of Ukraine may soon face referendums to become part of Russia.

“It’s like living in a parallel reality,” my Ukrainian artist friend Iryna says of her new life in Poland as her husband fights with Ukrainian forces in the east.

I know just what she meant. But which is the reality, and which is parallel? Some days I’m not sure.

Published: August 09, 2022, 4:00 AM