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The Eerie Normality of Life in Kyiv
With the war entering its second full winter season, there’s a temptation to look away. Don’t.
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When I think of the first days of the full-scale invasion, in February 2022, what I remember are camouflage nets.
Shocked by the ferocity of the invasion, which most of them thought would never happen, Ukrainians flocked to universities, gymnasiums, and community centers to help get “our boys” what they needed.
One of the priorities was camouflage netting, which could be used to hide Ukrainian troop positions, checkpoints, and sensitive government buildings. Long assembly lines were formed, as men, women, and children began weaving various portions of the nets.
Machinists built hedgehogs to block Russian tanks; small businesses opened their space for displaced people to sleep; young drivers with cars rushed to the frontlines to evacuate the elderly and the sick.
The camaraderie of that period felt like, in that one moment, all of society had shifted to a war footing—every single civilian was working in unity to defeat the Russian military.
The feeling was similar in the international community: Republicans and Democrats united around billions in American aid for Ukraine, sending much needed hardware to the frontlines; and the Polish government accepted millions of fleeing Ukrainian refugees.
I call attention to that moment because that affinity, support, and solidarity look to be fading. A small but vocal number of Republican House members are trying to block additional funding for Ukraine aid. And Poland, which has been one of Ukraine’s closest allies, recently announced it was halting further military aid to Ukraine, on the heels of a dust-up between the two countries over Ukrainian wheat exports.
Even in Ukraine, the mood has shifted. While many still volunteer to help with the troops, the number of volunteers and the volume of work has dropped, based on my personal observations.
Not only that, but urban centers have returned to something approximating their pre-2022 activity: this evening, you could easily walk down the street in central Kyiv and have your pick of strong cocktails, or a fine espresso, or a platter of sushi.
Gone are the spooky, empty streets that were the hallmark of the early invasion period. Gone is that universal sense of activity, where everyone spent every waking moment working towards defeating Russia.
Who could blame the average Ukrainian civilian for trying to establish something of a normal rhythm in their lives? The persistent mental trauma of ingesting news about the frontlines, the spikes in adrenaline when the air sirens sound, the fear for your safety and those of your loved ones—you simply can’t live long-term with a 10/10 stress rating.
But the suppression of the constant misery and terror isn’t healthy either. Pretending like everything is alright merely postpones an eventual blow-up.
Ironically, one of the sources of the stress is that Ukrainian soldiers look around and see a society that is apparently not nearly as stressed out as they are! When soldiers come back from the frontlines, they’re deeply shocked to return to Kyiv or Lviv to find a city functioning almost normally.
“You can see yourself how [as] the war is starting to stretch out... people are starting to adjust,” said Andrii Gryzachenko, a former Ukrainian paratrooper who has fought in the Kyiv, Kherson and Bakhmut regions.
On the one hand, soldiers understand that this normalcy is what they’re fighting for—a prosperous and active Ukraine.
But on the other hand, it feels to many of them that all the pedestrians, passersby and coffee drinkers on patios are taking for granted the sacrifices that troops are making on the frontlines, where their friends have lost their lives, been injured, or left limbs behind.
Gryzachenko, who left the military with shrapnel wounds in his stomach, arm, and legs, told me he felt angry about the “rats” that are hiding from military service, or profiting from this war, or otherwise not doing their part.
I’ve noticed from no small number of soldiers and families this sense of bitterness.
This feeling found expression in a protest I attended recently, where Ukrainian civilians protested outside the offices of the Kyiv local government. They were angry about the government spending money on non-war projects. Stop spending money on repairing stadiums and maintaining roads, this thinking goes—spend every last cent towards the war effort.
“My friend needs a drone, not cobblestones!” read one demonstrator’s sign.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is now nearly four months old, and you can see why those making sacrifices feel this way: it’s not hard to see how cemeteries have swelled with new occupants over the ongoing military campaign. Ukraine is making steady and slow progress, but every meter is paid for in Ukrainian blood.
As the war enters its second full winter season, this is a time for both Ukrainian civilians and foreign supporters to redouble their interest and support.
This is a time for Western politicians to reflect on why it is that they voted for Ukrainian aid in the first place—to back a democracy threatened by an autocrat that believes Ukraine has no right to exist.
Ukraine and its population are currently facing the brunt of the war’s brutality. Our attention to the news doesn’t have to present as an ever-ringing alarm bell in the background of our psyches. But we should pay attention—that’s the very least we can do.
All throughout Ukraine right now people are asking each other: “So how bad do you think this winter will be?” Many expect Russia to continue its assault in the form of targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure. So: how cold will it get, and how bad will the blackouts be?
“We are used to surviving harsh winters,” a Ukrainian diplomat told me this week.
The better question might be whether, or by how much, Western support will decline this winter, or whether once-fervent supporters of Ukraine might turn to other items in the news.
Don’t turn away from the violence in Ukraine, as hard as it may be.
Tim Mak is the founder of The Counteroffensive, a Substack newsletter on the war as it’s experienced by ordinary Ukrainians.
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