My diary of war. Russians broke into my summerhouse

11 May, 06:36 PM

Finally, 72 days after I hastily departed Kyiv with my family on the first day of war I decided to return and check out my home for a few days.

After Russians destroyed Ukraine’s major oil refinery and most oil storages with missile strikes, diesel and gasoline became a precious commodity. In Kyiv or Lviv you have to wait in line for hours to get 10-20 liters of diesel or gasoline.

So me and a friend of mine, the head of McKinsey consulting firm in Ukraine, decided to reach Kyiv from Lviv by train. It is a more realistic and comfortable option as an overnight train ride from Lviv to Kyiv takes only 7 hours. Ukraine’s railway works perfectly well, despite Russians’ repeated attempts to disrupt supplies of weapons by rail with missile strikes. The only problem with it is that you may become one of the targets.

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On May 7, Kyiv appeared radically different from the city I left on Feb.24.

A month after Russia withdrew its troops from around Kyiv the city is still tense and lacks the carelessness that Lviv enjoys. The moment we got off the train we went through a document and luggage check by police with Kalashnikov machine guns – a procedure you wouldn’t have to go through in Lviv.

Everywhere in the city, you can sense it was on the brink of war or in the middle of the war in many areas.

Two things struck me immediately. First is the number of defensive fortifications made of concrete blocs and anti-tank hedgehogs surrounded by bags of sand. They are huge and are everywhere – almost every street and intersection.

City residents that stayed in the city were obviously ready to greet Russians with fierce street fighting in every district.

Some bridges around Kyiv were blown up by the Ukrainian military to prevent Russian troops from entering the city. The remaining bridges across Dnipro are still guarded by massive patrols. People with machine guns are still everywhere. My wife who visited me on a three-day trip to Lviv said her major impression is that the city became like Israel – lots of people with guns around. Well, if Lviv is Israel, then Kyiv is Israel multiplied by four - the city obviously went through a “total militarization”, as one of my friends put it.

The second unusual thing about the city is the number of cars. Usually one of Europe’s most congested urban areas is now a ghost of itself. In terms of traffic, Kyiv has probably returned to the Soviet days of around 1986. Finally, I have no problems with parking anywhere.

A beautiful park right along Dnipro river next to my house used to be always packed in good weather. It is deserted now. Gone is everybody who used to annoy me in the previous life – scooters and bicycles with bells inside crowded pedestrian areas, and dog owners with 10-meter long leashes on the sidewalk. For a while, I couldn’t understand what it was but one part of a healthy urban organism was missing in Kyiv. And it was children. There are very few.

Whenever I shared my impressions of Kyiv with those who stayed in the city all the way, they would get a bit irritated as if you underestimate the amount of suffering they went through. They would always respond that there are 10 times more people and cars in the streets now and there are 10 times fewer checkpoints than a month ago.

Maybe, they are right. My visit has probably caught the city between the war and revival. Throughout Kyiv, there are signs that life is coming back. Almost all coffee shops are now open on the Dnipro embankment.

Though they can’t serve even beer or wine after 4 pm, most restaurants have reopened too. During the war peak in the city only 10 out 120 apartments in my residential building had tenants. Now there are 45 of them.

Echoing my building’s statistics, Kyiv mayor Vitaly Klichko announced that most recent sim-cards data – a way the city often measures population - showed only 1 mln of Kyivans stayed in the city overnight every day during the war peak as compared to 3.5 mln before the war. Now the figure is up to 2.2 mln residents.

One of the days in Kyiv I reserved for what I knew would be an unpleasant experience – visiting my summerhouse north of Kyiv.

Major fighting took place there for a month, Russians stayed in our and neighboring villages there all the time and couldn’t advance further to Kyiv. Basically, it was frontline for a month. I knew all of the 252 houses in my village had been robbed by the Russian soldiers and I just wanted to see the scale of the damage in my house.

I heard numerous accounts from neighbors about how their houses were looted completely, with only a trademark signature of the Russian army remaining – human excrement in the center of the living room. So I was ready for that.

Surprisingly, my house got only a little touch of the “liberation,” as the Kremlin often describes its “special military operation”. Russians broke the door and turned things upside down. I never kept money or jewelry in the summerhouse, so they didn’t have many chances to find anything substantial inside. They checked all the drawers everywhere, including the bedroom and the kitchen, and found only an empty box for iPhone 10, opened it, and threw it on the floor. Sorry, I have the phone.

They left cigarette butts everywhere – on the wooden staircase and on the terrace floor – so I’m lucky they didn’t burn the house. The only proof my family belongs to Nazis that they discovered was a toy crossbow (arbalet) that my 8-year son Peter received as a gift for his birthday.

They left it in the middle of a table in the kitchen next to an uncorked bottle of inexpensive prosecco brut. They sipped a bit and just left it on the table – they probably hoped it would taste like semi-sweet Soviet champagne. But it didn’t. They didn’t even touch expensive champagne in a gift box.

They took almost nothing from my house and later I realized why. By the time Russians broke into my house they probably didn’t have room left in their military vehicles for cheap stuff.

A worker from the neighboring village Bogdanivka told me that during retreat Russians packed their armored personnel vehicles with fur coats, jewelry and anything else that had value for them. They were so preoccupied with looting that they left three trucks full of ammunition that were later handed over to Ukraine’s military, he said.

In my village, the Russians killed one neighbor who tried to escape in his Toyota. No houses were burnt or destroyed. Neighboring Bogdanivka was far less lucky. Russians shot dead more than 40 men, raped women and destroyed every third house. Atrocities and personal accounts in Bogdanivka even became a subject of a big story on Meduza, a popular independent Russian site that works from outside of Russia.

The world now knows the towns of Bucha and Irpin but it is still to discover dozens of the names of other towns and villages that suffered Russian atrocities and barbarianism. When I was leaving Bogdanivka by car, the locals were already repairing roofs and fences. It looked like they wanted to get rid of anything that reminds them of a month of horror that their village of 4000 residents went through. 

My final conclusion in Kyiv was that I am ready to return. But my wife and children probably shouldn’t.

On May 9, I got back to Lviv.  There was a lot of speculation in Ukraine about what Vladimir Putin is up to on a highly symbolic Russian day of May 9. Taxi drivers in Lviv and Kyiv feared he may announce mobilization in Russia which possibly means tens or hundreds of thousands of new soldiers recruited and sent to Ukraine.

That would mean the mobilization of more men in Ukraine and no end to the war in sight.

Others were worried that Putin, desperate to deliver victories to overheated by the propaganda Russian public, may use tactical nuclear weapons to strike a Ukrainian city.

Ivano-Frankivsk mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv quite unwisely publicly recommended to his city residents to leave the city on this day, just in case. He was heard not only in Ivano-Frankivsk. The streets of usually vibrant Lviv got almost deserted. The neighboring offices on the floor where we work in a shopping mall usually accommodate about 30 employees. All of them were gone on May 9.

In fact, Putin did neither of these. He delivered a regular defensive speech justifying aggression peppered with traditional historical distortions. He announced that “he started the war to avoid the war” which makes no sense to a mentally sound person but obviously those were not his target audience. At the end of the day, he said nothing new but recycled the same senile narratives that we’ve grown tired of.

He canceled a military airshow and deprived his compatriots of the ecstatic satisfaction of enjoying a Z-shaped aircraft parade in the sky. A popular joke on my WhatsApp channel was that the President of Eritrea (one of the four countries supporting Russia on all the occasions in the UN along with Cuba, Belarus and North Korea) said that he would come to the parade in Moscow if the Kremlin covers the flight. I am not sure Moscow did.

No country that was a part of a huge anti-Hitler coalition sent its representatives to the parade on the Red Square. In a childish-style explanation, Russian officials said they didn’t come because Moscow didn’t invite them.

It reminded me of an explanation of a Russian retreat from around Kyiv. They said the Russian forces retreated from four Ukrainian oblasts in the North of the country because they didn’t actually want to capture Kyiv. That was a distractive maneuver to keep a part of the Ukrainian army away from Donbas, they said. Well, a maneuver that left thousands of Russian soldiers dead and hundreds of tanks and armored personnel vehicles burnt.

At the end of the day, the worst was avoided during the Victory Day of May 9. Putin didn’t declare a war on Ukraine, didn’t announce mobilization in Russia, and didn’t dare a nuclear strike. And he didn’t look happy and lacked his regular self-confidence but still sounded quite aggressive and militaristic. It looked like he was ready to continue the war, despite major setbacks.

This column was first published by Die Zeit. NV is republishing it with permission.

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