Defiance in Kyiv

As lives are turned upside down by war, Bennett Murray reports from Kyiv on the defiant mood in the Ukrainian capital.

A woman kneels down next to a child smiling
A woman and child at a railway station in Uzghorrod in western Ukraine, near the Slovak border. Credit: Isabelle Merminod

Yuri Fedorenko was asleep in his Kyiv apartment on the morning of 24 February, when he was woken up by a telephone call. Having slept through the first Russian bombardments of his city, the 27-year-old artist was confused when his friend told him that Kyiv was under attack.

Fedorenko was incredulous at first. ‘He said, today you have the day off, because we have war,’ he recalled.

On the one month anniversary of the war, Fedorenko was still at home in downtown Kyiv, not far from the Khreshchatyk thoroughfare that serves as the main street of the Ukrainian capital. He now spends his time cooking at his friend’s cafe, which is closed to the general public but provides meals to the territorial defence force that patrols the streets. Sometimes he volunteers to drive cars around the city, transporting supplies.

Fedorenko said he will fight, or even die, to resist the invasion. ‘This is Ukraine’s last chance to make a normal culture, normal relations with other countries, because if now if we bend down to Russkiy Mir [the ‘Russian world’], the world is not going to see us as independent,’ he said.

The mood was defiant in the Ukrainian capital at the end of March. With Russian forces stalled in the city’s suburbs, supermarket shelves were the fullest they had been since the war had begun. Less essential businesses were also beginning to reopen.

Soldiers and members of the territorial defence were also building increasingly sophisticated fortifications in the streets, with stashes of Molotov cocktails kept on standby in case they were needed to attack Russian armour.

This is Ukraine’s last chance to make normal relations with other countries’

While it remained to be seen if Russia would again try to push into the city itself, citizens were mentally preparing themselves for the possibility. ‘If we don’t put up a fight then my country will disappear, and this is not an option for me at all,’ said a 25-year-old academic researcher turned citizen soldier who was helping to bolster the frontline around the war torn suburb of Irpin. He requested his name not to be used as he had not told his parents that he had joined the battle.

He said that finds the actual experience of combat easier to live with than the awful anticipation that preceded it. ‘When I hear the shell landing right near me, I feel this bad feeling inside me, but that’s just a natural reaction of your body,’ he said.

Fedorenko recalled the moment earlier in the week that he felt the explosion from a Russian missile attack. Although it was 10 kilometers away, the windows of his apartment rattled. Eight people died when the rocket destroyed a shopping mall in the city’s Podilskyi district.

‘In my head I think of more happy times, not about bad times,’ he said, adding that he reminisces with his father – who is not in the city – on the phone everyday.

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.