Amid a year of war, Ukraine is still moving forward

1 March, 05:22 PM
Kyiv (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Kyiv (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

When me and my family were leaving Kyiv on the first day of Russian invasion a year ago, we had no idea whether we would ever be able to return home and whether our media company would survive the next weeks. As well as Ukraine. And we definitely had no idea where we would end up a year afterwards.

What was planned by the Kremlin as an easy victorious blitzkrieg turned into a lengthy brutal and most destructive war in Europe since World War II.

A year down the road we have some good news: Ukraine has survived and even pushed Russians back, all our journalists and their families are alive. After two months of work in west Ukrainian city of Lviv, I am actually back in Kyiv as of May.

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The bad news is that we still live with non-stop air raid sirens, frequent missile attacks, and the war is as intense as ever, with no end in sight.

During this year each of us at NV – our media house that comprises a news site, a magazine and a talk radio station – went through tons of personal challenges and dramas that previous generations haven’t faced in a while.

My personal drama started with parting from my family for a year. My mother, my wife and my 9-year-old twins Peter and Anna (they were eight when they had to flee Kyiv) moved to Ireland a few days after the war started. After a stressful and exhausting trip, they settled with a local family in Dublin. My kids went to Irish public school.

Ireland is going through a severe housing crisis and accommodation is impossible to find even if you can afford it. The Irish host family are extremely generous and hospitable people – as well as the whole nation – but if you asked my wife to single out one thing that made her life miserable last year, she would definitely tell you it is not having your own home. The other thing would probably be uncertainty about the future and having to make all the decisions about her and the children’s life on her own.

I can’t leave Ukraine as under the martial law all men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave. So my family visited me in Kyiv three times already (it is difficult logistics – airplane to Poland and a train or a bus from there to Kyiv) and every time they have to leave my heart gets broken – I see how much my children want to stay when they give me a final hug.

Staying in Kyiv is a bit too early for them – we get frequent missile attacks and even more frequent air raid sirens. What’s also important is that the school year has virtually been destroyed – children run for safety to shelters during air raid sirens and when they return there is often a blackout. Their visits to Kyiv though helped us rebuild emotional bonds that are evaporating inevitably when people live separately for a year.

In Ukraine, my family life turned into a single one. I got used to taking care of myself and focused my energy on work to stay mentally safe (not all of my colleagues succeeded in that). For two months I shared a bed with a male colleague in a rented flat in Lviv, and for 10 months now at home with my cat.

At work, the company I am heading received a major blow in March, but has recovered since then and is moving forward. Our revenue fell to 20% of our expenditures in the first weeks of war. I was not sure whether we would last for more than a few months. The advertising market virtually stopped existing as the companies – quite predictably – stopped advertising and were trying to evacuate employees and equipment.

We had to resort to severe austerity measures. We halved our salaries and cut about 20% of our staff. We suspended the weekly magazine (very much like Time or Newsweek in the U.S.) and lost our radio signal in every city that the Russian captured – Kherson, Mariupol, Berdyansk, Melitopol.

We turned to international donors for help and received it. It covered part of our costs throughout the year. Surprisingly, we also received financial support from private German media – Die Zeit, Handelsblatt and Tagesspiegel. It also helped to weather our economic storm throughout the year.

Business wise, we moved to 100% digital. Our news site exploded and now we have 15 million unique visitors a month. In the first months of war, the Russians DDOS-ed our site, sending 200,000 requests per second and even managed to knock it down for five hours. Our programmers quickly learnt how to cope with these attacks and even penetrated the hackers’ telegram channels where they planned their assaults.

Our English-language version also grew substantially and now receives 70% of its visitors from the U.S. On radio, we immediately changed the format and dropped the music. We moved to non-stop conversations with military and political analysts and worked without a single day off during the year. Our audience on Radio NV’s YouTube channel exploded from 1 million a month before the war to 7.6 million a month now.

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I personally launched a talk show with a popular investment banker. It was a spontaneous tandem decision and a way to keep our brains away from what was going on. We tried to inject lots of sarcasm in our programs and continued the show when we returned to Kyiv. We’ve done more than 100 programs by now. We figured that a lot of people told us we didn’t only inform them, but also helped them not to go crazy, literally, during major stress in their life. This broadcast on YouTube meant that Ukrainians who left the country could listen to us anywhere they were – in Poland, Romania, Germany, Ireland, Moldova.

When Ukrainian army on Nov. 11 entered Kherson – the only regional capital the Russians managed to capture – they saw lots of outdoor billboards in the city which said “Russia is here forever!” On most billboards, the locals covered the last word and wrote on top of it “Till Nov. 11”.

A few days later, our radio station also returned to Kherson. Russians stole all our equipment when they retreated. They even climbed 100 meters up on an industrial pipe and cut off our antenna. We brought the new equipment and re-turned our signal to Kherson. It was highly symbolic.

Things for everybody in Kyiv became tougher when Russians launched massive missile attacks on the city in autumn. On Oct. 10, when they sent a downpour of about 100 missiles, about half of them came through and reached their tar-get. Then for the first time since the start of the war that had gone down to the underground parking lot which serves as a shelter for several neighborhoods. There were about 100 people there with children, cats and dogs. People from outside Kyiv often ask me if I can hear the explosions. I can hear them and I can see them from my window on the 20th floor, and the main thing is that I can feel them, because the whole building is trembling. Russian missiles carry 500 kg of explosives (as opposed to Iranian drones, which carry around 50 kg of explosives). So when a missile hits the ground even five kilometers away from you, it feels like it hit the ground right next to you.

The perception of an air raid siren changed from a possible danger to a real life threat. And I don’t think anybody can really get used to the sound. With frequent missile attacks arrived blackouts and major inconveniences. When you have a blackout, it’s not only light that disappears. That also means that your electric stove is not working and you can’t cook. It means there is no wife and bad or no mobile internet because mobile operators’ towers also have to power. That also means that I have to walk up and down 20 floors in the dark because the elevators are not working.

If a blackout is long like the one we had for 57 hours, that also means you don’t have heating and, most importantly, water. That means you can’t use the toilet. Surprisingly, Russian TV changed their tactics and started openly boasting that their army is hitting civilian targets in Ukraine. For the previous seven months, they had avoided admitting that their army is hitting civilian targets in the country, claiming that they targeted only military units and neo-Nazis (we now know by the latter they mean all 40 million Ukrainians). The change in rhetoric on Russian TV arrived after several major military defeats in the east and south of the country, as the Russian public demanded victories. So the only victory the Kremlin could deliver to the public is the fact that millions of Ukrainians, including women and children, have no electricity, heating, internet, and water in winter.

To the disappointment of the Russian public, we managed to cope with this as well. All businesses immediately switched to diesel and gas generators. When blackouts come, an orchestra of generators turns on. They produce noise and an unpleasant smell, but they also produce light. Almost every small business acquired a generator – I think we purchased pretty much all the power generators that were stocked in Europe. As a result, all businesses work during a blackout in Kyiv – restaurants, food stores, pharmacies, fitness gyms, barber-shops. All of them function smoothly. I learnt to charge autonomous sources of light and powerbanks when we have power, and keep at least half my bath full of water in case the water disappears again. But that doesn’t happen anymore.

First, Ukraine switched to scheduled electricity cut-offs, which meant that you know that three times a day you won’t have power for four hours in a row and can adjust. The last week we had no single blackout, what a miracle!

At work, we knew that the Russians were happy to create problems for us and were readying for that. We purchased a big power generator and two tons of diesel. We bought sleeping bags and Starlinks. Our office didn’t experience even a single hour’s interruption of their work. Moreover, journalists and editors, used to remote work during COVID and war, started flocking to the office, often with their children and spouses. They simply needed an internet and a toilet. I joked that I know knew what it takes to make people come back to the office – a Russian missile attack.

We’ve also become quite sophisticated with predicting the missile attacks and defining the nature of the threat. Everybody in the city has an application called Digital Kyiv. There you receive a push notification the moment an air raid siren turns on. Then, within minutes, we know the nature of the threat – whether jet fighters launched from an airport in Belarus (that is considered a minor threat and nobody even moves), or whether it is a launch of actual missiles from the Russian bombers in the Caspian Sea or warships in the Black Sea. Then you can decide whether you want to move to a bomb shelter. With the nearest shelter quite far and air raid sirens quite frequent, most people in our office just opt to stay and work. We never interrupt our live broadcast during air raid sirens and even missile attacks. It’s everyone’s personal choice.

Ukrainian air defense has improved greatly too, thanks to foreign help. The ratio of intercepted missiles grew from 50% at the beginning to 85% now. The army also learnt to cope with Iranian kamikaze drones, intercepting almost all of them.

A remarkable thing is that nobody in Kyiv complains about missile attacks or major inconveniences. Everybody understands that is the price we pay to kiss farewell to Russia. The missile campaign has had absolutely no effect on Ukrainian resilience. After the first attacks on the cities, we were shocked and discussed it for a week. Now during major attacks in the mornings the restaurants go empty for a few hours – just to be fully booked again by the lunchtime.

The air campaign to terrify Ukrainians failed. It is difficult to even remember all the crises that we’ve had since the beginning of the war. First, we have a food deficit. That was solved. Then we had no diesel and gas and huge lines at gas stations. That was solved. Then we had blackouts, no water and internet and that seems to be over now. We were supposed to freeze this winter, according to the Kremlin’s plan, but the winter is almost over.

If Vladimir Putin wanted to wipe out Ukrainian identity, he achieved the opposite effect – a swift derussification of Ukraine. A lot of people who thought their native tongue was Russian switched to Ukrainian. On my talk show, I switched from my native Russian to Ukrainian as well. And I figured it is not easy to speak and joke spontaneously for an hour about complex issues in a language that is not your first. But I progressed a lot.

Monuments to Soviet military generals from WWII have been knocked down, streets named after Russian writers have been renamed. Basically, the message from most Ukrainians is that we don’t want to have anything in common with barbarians who bomb cities, kill children, and rape women – neither linguistically, not culturally. And most of all politically.

Pro-Russian parties, which abounded before the war, became non-existent. The level of support for joining the EU and even NATO (which was slightly higher that 20% several years ago) peaked at 85%.

Since the beginning of the war, seven of our journalists and designers have joined the armed forces of Ukraine. Two of them have already returned, including our financial reporter Petro Shevchenko who for seven months headed a mortar unit in Donbas. He now has a medal received personally from President Zelenskyy. At some point when he was at the frontline, he wrote to me that his unit lacks drones to correct fire. The drones he needed were Mavic-3s. I asked volunteers around and they said they’ve run out of Mavics completely. Then I posted an announcement on Facebook where I have 40,000 followers that our guys need these drones and, maybe, somebody has one. Within one hour I hadfour – from a bank, a private tech company, and some individuals. None of them charged me a single euro. The drones were at the frontline two days later. Later I learnt that half of all bullet proof jackets on the front were supplied by volunteers. Ordinary Ukrainians raised billions of dollars and channel edit to the front. Donations for the army became a must and a pattern. One day, three kids approached my car near a food store, knocked on my window and asked me to buy a bracelet. They said they were raising funds for the army. They were about 7-8 years old. In a Lviv, a primary school run by my friend for children of 8 to 12 years old conducts auctions for their drawings to collect money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Today, I was at the meeting of Zelenskyy with U.S. President Joe Biden, who arrived in Kyiv on an official visit. In his speech after the meeting, Biden said that Ukrainian resilience was astounding and he was awed to find out that even little children joined forces to help the army and do something for our victory.

The reason why is simple: we know it is an existential fight. If we stop fighting, we disappear. If the Russians stop fighting, the war is over.

Militarily, the situation on the frontline became tougher for Ukraine since the Russians mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. We were amazed to find out that they don’t really care about losses. Their casualties in Ukraine during this year exceeded those during ten years of war in Afghanistan by six times, according to the Ukrainian army’s reports, and at least three times, according to most conservative independent estimates.

Ukrainian army also grew from 250,000 to 900,000. Our losses are also horrendous.

After inspiring military successes in autumn, we know now that we are in for a long and exhausting war with a huge and ruthless opponent – one that has no mercy for us and its own people. And it is difficult to see what and when may stop the war.

Most people I know hope that Ukraine’s military successes, coupled with soaring economic problems in Russia, will eventually lead Putin and Co. to under-standing that it is better to end the war than continue it. His military failures Ukraine also undermine perception of his force, the only source of legitimate power in Russia, and that may also get him in trouble at home.

A year ago, Kyiv was supposed to fall within a week. A year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. The country has, over the past year, weathered all possible storms and is up to a long fight. And I am sure of a better future.

For the first time in my life, I believe that Ukraine has a realistic chance to join the European Union. When that happens, it will be a civilizational turn for the country and a farewell to its post-Soviet legacy. Ukraine truly deserves it.

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