When I arrived in Lviv in the last days of February the city looked like it was on the verge of apocalypse.
A usually vibrant touristic city with rich history and architecture turned into a ghost of itself. Streets were empty, only a few bars worked, a ban on alcohol sales was imposed, and in shopping malls worked nothing except food supermarkets.
Lviv was packed with refugees from Kyiv, and I met lots of them – restaurateurs, bankers, and journalists. It felt surreal like we all were a new chapter in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel "The night in Lisbon".
Colleagues and friends from Kyiv and Kharkiv were all on the phones. Their families went under heavy bombing and they were trying to connect and help them evacuate. I was no exception.
My elder daughter Masha, 26, got stuck in Kyiv with her boyfriend. By the time they figured that they needed to flee the city, it was too late and too dangerous to evacuate.
Our northern Obolon district was the site of shelling and street fire – Russians were trying to enter the city from the north where they met Ukrainian armed forces and territorial defense.
Masha spent a week in a basement hiding from possible missile strikes. She would call regularly, cry and retell reports about Chechens who were close to Kyiv.
The Chechens would soon enter the city and rape girls and women, she said. Her fears weren’t groundless, as we later figured out, but at that point, I was trying to calm her down telling her that Chechens had already been smashed in Bucha along with their notorious general.
And that was also true. A week afterward they managed to leave the city taking a highway south and that was a major relief for me.
Even though Lviv didn’t experience even half of the problems Kyiv did, food products on the shelves became scarce. Buckwheat, rice and pasta – and everything else with a long shelf life - were the first to disappear.
Partially, thanks to me – I purchased enough to last for the whole month along with my colleague. Meat and chicken supplies were broken. Only expensive types of coffee, tea, and cookies remained. For a month the 10-meter long pasta section in a supermarket was filled with one type of fusilli in blue packaging.
That felt a bit like back to the USSR where one type of fish cans was kept on the shelf in pyramids to create an illusion of choice.
At work, the major concern was that Putin had managed to convince Lukashenko whose army would join the Russians and launch an offensive in Volyn.
That would bring the war right to Lviv’s border. Then two missile attacks hit Lviv during the weekend. A colleague of mine then said: “You’ll see, on Monday most of our female employees will be gone to Poland.”
To our surprise, on Monday not a single woman left. Everybody developed a sort of higher tolerance to risk. And Belarusians still haven’t ventured into Ukraine even though we were warned four times it may start in Volyn the next night. Lukashenko is definitely a monster but he is not an idiot and is probably good at gathering statistics about Russian losses from his hospitals and morgues.
Half the time I shared the office with managers from an investment banking firm who also had to move from Kyiv to western Ukraine. They followed military developments on the frontline closely and cheered with satisfaction every time a Russian army convoy was burnt.
In the evening we developed what would be an absolutely pervert entertainment in a peaceful time – enjoying the photos of destroyed Russian military equipment and dead soldiers.
Hundreds of them circulated through rising telegram channels abound with black humor. Most girls discovered that they also enjoy the views.
You wouldn’t expect that from a normal person in peaceful times. But after reading hundreds of reports about children bombed, ordinary Ukrainians executed and women raped – and you know some of them - well, your optics change. At the end of the day, you have to be something between a human and an animal to massacre hundreds of civilian men, rape their women and then just take their coffee machines home as a memory.
Endless flows of negative news and information inevitably led almost all of us to sleep disorders. I still suffer from it.
On our radio, one of our anchors came up with a joking test. Well, not quite joking. He started asking his speakers whether they would press a red button that instantly kills all Russians, including friends and relatives there. And added that he would do so with no hesitation. Most of the speakers admitted that such an opportunity would be tempting.
On the radio we also tried to investigate the topic of to what extent the Russian people are actually to blame. Did they give Putin a mandate for the war and mass murders in Ukraine or it was his personal decision? After a couple of weeks such a debate was redundant – surveys in Russia showed 80% of the people supported the war. It is difficult to find objective public opinion polls in a totalitarian country.
But now even anecdotal evidence suggests more than half of the Russians support the war. And it wasn’t Putin who bombed Kharkiv and murdered civilians in Bucha. These were Russian pilots and Russian soldiers. Orders were given by Russian officers. They could have refused but they did not.
My wife’s sister lives in Moscow, she moved there when she was 16 and is now a Russian citizen. She and her husband were terrified when the war began. They were ashamed and called many times to offer words of support. They followed developments of the war closely and knew all the details about Mariupol, Kyiv and Kharkiv. That meant an ordinary Russian could find out all the information about the war easily, if he wanted.
Three weeks into the war, their 14-year old daughter came back from school and asked, if it was true that their country was killing children in Ukraine. And they said yes, it was true and asked her not to tell anyone. By then a Stalin-style tradition was reanimated in her Moscow school when teachers asked kids what their parents say about the war back home and then report the findings to the administration.
The reality is that the Russian public could if it wanted, but doesn’t want to know the truth. Because it makes them feel good and they don't want to leave their comfort zone. For years highly intensive and highly emotional propaganda on Russian TV massaged widespread chauvinistic and neo-imperial sentiment among the Russian public, dehumanizing Ukrainians.
A lot of them now call any information about atrocities in Ukraine fake. I understand – it is difficult to admit you’ve been made an idiot by your country’s leadership and TV and that you actually support mass murders of civilians, looting and rapes.
My school classmate from Chelyabinsk, a city in the southern Ural mountains, moved to Ukraine many years ago. He was trying to describe to her mother in Russia what is happening here in Ukraine but she called everything a fake.
“Am I a fake too?” – he asked her and banned his mother from all the messengers after week. They have not been in touch since then.
This column was first published by DIE ZEIT. NV is republishing it with permission.