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‘They’re already on their way’ After three weeks of war, Kyiv and its residents have changed irrevocably. A dispatch from Meduza’s Liliya Yapparova.
The war arrived in Kyiv on February 24, the day Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Three weeks later, what’s happening on the front lines indicates that Moscow still hopes to take the Ukrainian capital — Russian forces are still trying to encircle Kyiv (albeit unsuccessfully). Many of the city’s residents have fled. Mayor Vitali Klitschko says “one in two” have left, which means the local population has dwindled to less than two million people. All of Kyiv’s remaining residents — and not only those who are taking part in the defense — are bracing themselves for encirclement and siege. After spending a week and a half in Kyiv, Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova reports on how the war has changed this previously vibrant city beyond recognition.
Please note. This report was originally published in Russian on March 16, 2022.
A night underground
The Kyiv metro is a very cold place to spend the night. Especially if you (like Meduza’s correspondent) only packed a travel mat and a thin blanket.
The Universytet metro station is located in the center of Kyiv. Today, it serves as one of the most overcrowded bomb shelters in the Ukrainian capital. At 8:08 p.m., eight minutes after the beginning of the nightly curfew, the escalators come to a halt. The hermetic door takes several minutes to rise into place, but no one pays it any mind. Everyone is glued to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s evening speech, which is playing on a television in the lobby. Three minute later, the tunnel is completely sealed; for a moment, the ensuing silence is deafening.
A man in a down coat and slippers strolls around the center of the station. Along the edge of the platform walks another man with a towel casually thrown over his shoulder. Then comes an elderly woman in a heavy peacoat, carrying plates of what looks like freshly cooked food. Nearly three dozen people have been living in the Universytet station full-time since the Russian invasion began, hardly ever going above ground.
Most of the spots in the hall have already been taken; Meduza’s correspondent settles in near a wall with a bust of writer Maxim Gorky. Across the way, under a bust of chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, there’s a girl lying on a blanket with her bags piled next to her.
The train is the most comfortable place in the station. Clothes and towels dry on the railings inside the carriages, and there are mattresses and blankets spread out on the floor. The window sills are packed tightly with goods — bottles of mineral water, bags of dried apricots, mayonnaise, cookies, bottles of iodine, paper cups, and books.
Picking your way across the floor, it’s all too easy to infringe on someone’s space — some of the people in the bomb shelter react sharply, studying all newcomers closely. Others are glad to help you get comfortable, explaining how to dry wet clothes or offering to let you wash up at a nearby hostel for 50 hryvnias ($1.70). “They open the service washroom for us in the morning, everyone lines up to brush their teeth,” explains Tamara, a Kyiv resident who has been living in the metro station full-time. “Washing your hair in there is pretty dreadful though, because of the drafts.”
Tamara has been staying at the station with her sister Daria and her new friend Ekaterina, who came to this bomb shelter on the second day of the war. The women are glad that down here, you can’t hear what’s going on outside. “I remember how, on February 24, the glass began to crackle and screech like crazy,” says Daria, recalling the morning Russia invaded. “And then I saw light. At five o’clock in the morning, through thick curtains, it was bright because of an explosion.”
Even the sounds inside the subway station are enough to make some people nervous. “When I first got here I listened out for everything: I thought the Russians would run in here immediately and shoot everyone,” Tamara remembers.
Two days ago, Ekaterina went on a date. “Not in the metro, but aboveground. We met on Tinder before the war, and have already been on dates during the war. He was surprised that I’ve been staying down here so long — he wanted to take me away: ‘Sleep in a normal bed and you’ll see that it’s not so scary in the city’ [he said].” But Ekaterina says she isn’t ready to leave.
The lights inside the subway station are turned off at 10:00 p.m. — within an hour, everyone is asleep except for a group of three people sitting on a marble pedestal at the far end of the station (where a statue of Vladimir Lenin once stood). They’re playing cards with a homemade deck cut from pieces of cardboard — the same cardboard they slept on during the first three nights of the war.
“We ended up here with nothing, but we settled in,” says Oleksander. His wife, an economist named Oksana, has her head buried in a blue down jacket. “I dreamed of our fish,” she says. “We left our fish at home, she must have died.”
Oksana and Oleksandr fled their home in a panic on February 24. “There was gunfire and booms coming from the balcony, and there was a very powerful rustling coming from the kitchen,” Oksana recalls. “And I realized that if they hit the Kyiv reservoir the entire left bank would be washed away.”
Asked why they’re still staying in the metro station, Oleksandr and Oksana list a number of reasons: taxis are too expensive, the trains to Lviv depart after curfew begins, and it’s difficult to get through the checkpoints on the bridge. But when pushed, they admit that they could, in fact, leave the bomb shelter — and even head for western Ukraine, where it’s relatively safer.
“It’s just that you spend the night here once and then you start vacillating: stay here or go home, go to Lviv or Poland — what to do? You don’t understand,” Oleksandr explains. “Besides, you get the feeling as if it’s almost over, as if it’s your last day in the station and then the war will end.”
Oksana admits that she’s afraid to confront the “other life” that awaits her outside: “Lest we come up from the metro to [find] ruins, like when Kyiv was destroyed in 1941.”
‘We aren’t Mariupol, yet’
For Vadym Vasylchuk from the fourth company of the 128th Territorial Defense Battalion, the most difficult moment of the war was saying goodbye to his children: his daughters Anya and Bohdana, both age six, and his son Vasyl, who’s 10 years old. “You know, I don’t really remember a single word that I said to explain why I wasn’t going with them [to Western Ukraine],” Vadym tells Meduza’s correspondent. “It was more the emotions that you felt, and not the words you used to explain.”
Vadym had conversations with his children about war before the Russian invasion began. “They had already seen me come home in uniform a couple times after drills [at the military department],” he says. Vadym coughs, stretches his jaw, and continues speaking with difficulty: “My wife and I also had a psychology book [that recommended] we play with them — ‘how to hide from a bad cat like a mouse,’ for example. We tried to turn it into a game.”
Vadym isn’t sure if these preemptive conversations really helped: “I don’t know how much they understood…” — he pauses, rubbing his eyes forcefully. “They cried and we hugged them. We said that papa was going to protect the country. Of course it’s hard to explain to them what a ‘country’ is, but I also said that I’m going to protect each one of them, too: Anya, Bohdana, Vasylko, grandma, and mama. When you say clearly who you’re going to protect, they understand.”
After Vadym’s wife and children left on the first morning of the war, he went straight to the enlistment office. He had to stand in line. “I waited for a weapon, there was some confusion, but we [the reservists] were very persistent. We went to our checkpoint immediately [afterwards],” the Kyiv resident recalls.
Russian troops, Vadym says, may very well be headed towards this very roadblock. Indeed, Russian forces are currently trying to break through to the left bank of Kyiv through the suburb of Brovary. “Everyday we track how many kilometers closer they are — that’s how much time we have to get ready,” Vadym explains.
The number of roadblocks like this one grows daily in Kyiv. The city is preparing for an assault, Vadym confirms, adding that Russian troops will advance towards Kyiv “no matter what.” “They’re already on their way,” the territorial defender says. “You look at the city and you don’t recognize it. But we aren’t Mariupol. We aren’t Mariupol, yet.”
‘I have so much hatred’
Natalya Nimchenko’s legs are orange from the iodine. The laceration on her thigh is so deep you can see the gray of her muscles. You can’t stitch up a wound like this, it has to be treated in several stages. There are white tubes connected to the damaged tissue — part of a VAC (vacuum-assisted closure) system that’s meant to help the wound heal.
Having made sure that Meduza’s correspondent was able to get a look at her injury, Natalya covers herself back over with the sheet.
“It’s your move now,” says seven-year-old Varvara Nimchenko; she and her mother are in the same hospital room. “Throw the dice!” I roll red. “That means you need to pull a red block from the base of the tower,” the little girl explains. We’re playing Jenga. Varvara is playing with one hand — her other arm is hooked up to an IV drip.
Varvara and Natalya have been in the Okhmadet Children’s Hospital for a week, recovering from shrapnel wounds. This medical facility also came under shelling — children with cancer and those on dialysis have already been evacuated from the hospital; during air raids, all of the newborn babies are taken down to the basement.
The Nimchenko family — Natalya, her daughter, and her son Kirill — came under mortar fire on March 6, while fleeing Irpin. This satellite city near Kyiv, now famous around the world, has come under constant attack by Russian forces as they try to reach the capital. “We decided to go through the Stoyanka [checkpoint] in order to get to Vinnytsia. There was a kind of green corridor there and the Red Cross,” Natalya explains. “Maybe we got there late?”
As Natalya drove up to the checkpoint with her two children, the car directly in front of her managed to slip through. But the Nimchenkos, as Natalya puts it, were “unlucky.” “It was a mortar attack. The driver’s seat — where I was [sitting] — was hit,” she recalls.
“And the car…well, it took the hit,” Varvara chimes in, carefully choosing words she’s heard grownups use before. “Shards from the windows rained down on me and mom’s legs. I thought it was the Russians who hid somewhere and just threw a grenade closer to us.” Varvara says she didn’t hear an explosion — “just the sound of the windows going to pieces.”
Natalya remembers this moment differently: “I was conscious from beginning to end, and I saw how pieces of my skin and flesh were scattered around the inside of the car. At that moment, I didn’t even realize that Varya was injured too. My ears were ringing and I heard Kirill screaming very loudly: ‘Mom don’t die! Save my mom!’ [...] I just didn’t understand why we were so unlucky.” Kirill wasn’t injured at the checkpoint and is currently in Kyiv. Varvara had to have shrapnel removed from her legs.
The Nimchenko family tried to leave Irpin amid days of heavy fighting as Russian troops attempted to occupy the city. “The shelling was non-stop,” Natalya recalls, adding that Kyiv seems “quiet” by comparison. “I’m thankful for our soldiers: they carried us in their arms,” she continues, describing her family’s journey the bridge — destroyed in the early days of the war — that once connected Irpin to Kyiv. “Four people carried me. Varya was also carried. And even as we were being loaded in the ambulance, they were still shooting.”
Varya hangs her head off the side of the bed, she’s clearly lost interest in her mother’s story. “Do you hear how I speak Russian?” Natalya asks Meduza’s correspondent. “My father is Russian, from the Kursk region, and my mother is Ukrainian. I studied at a Russian school. I don’t understand who they [the Russians] are ‘liberating’ us from.”
“I have so much hatred. Honestly,” she continues, short of breath. “I just hate now.”
‘Not everyone managed to stock up on alcohol’
During the first three days of the war, Kyiv’s bakeries stopped baking bread. The smell of someone cooking food is enough to make Meduza’s correspondent stop in her tracks. The scent wafts from a Georgian restaurant, which, like the other cafes that remain open, is only preparing food for hospitals and territorial defense units.
By March 10, every other Kyiv resident had left the city; the rest had stopped turning on their lights in the evenings, so their apartment buildings wouldn’t become targets for shelling. During the first two weeks of the war, not even the traffic lights were turned on. The vacant roadways, littered with machinery and debris, went uncleared.
Locals told Meduza’s correspondent that if you see an approaching car when you’re crossing the street, run — don’t walk. There are few cars on the road, but the drivers don’t stop. “Some people are lashing out, trying to cope with the stress,” says Kyiv resident Roman Zakharov, during a walk around the city center. “Not everyone managed to stock up on alcohol before the introduction of prohibition.”
With so many Kyiv apartments hurriedly abandoned amid the war, one can still get alcohol “with the permission of [apartment] owners who are willing to share their supplies,” Roman explains. The medicine cabinets of acquaintances who have left the city are also a vital source of day-to-day medicines, which are suddenly scarce. There are long lines outside of the few pharmacies that are still open; they haven’t received any new stock since February 24.
There are no lines at the grocery stores, though they are only open a few hours a day. The lines disappeared after the initial panic subsided and half the population left Kyiv. Specialty items like soy milk and German-made protein yogurt are readily available, but Meduza’s correspondent didn’t see ordinary household staples, such as kefir and sour cream.
Before the war, Roman Zakharov was an advertising analyst and entrepreneur. Now, he’s a coordinator for a volunteer movement. He tries to hold on to his old habits to help cope with the anxiety from the war: “I used to go for a walk every day — and I go for a walk every day now. Today, I’m with you. Sirens or no sirens, it doesn’t matter.”
Roman continues along Peizazhna Alley, a park on a hill overlooking Irpin, which has been heavily shelled by Russian troops. He’s mostly avoiding the main roads; “So as not to cut through the downtown, where the soldiers check literally everyone. So that you don’t have to explain to them how you [Meduza’s correspondent] ended up in Kyiv with a Russian passport,” he explains.
An hour and a half later, as we cut through the government quarter in the city center, we’re immediately stopped, questioned, and searched by the security guards from the Presidential Office building. Since the beginning of the war, there have already been dozens of attempts on Zelensky’s life, according to his advisors. The Times reported that “more than 400 Russian mercenaries” from the Wagner Group have been dispatched to Kyiv with orders from the Kremlin to assassinate the Ukrainian president.
Today, Irpin isn’t burning, but there are low-hanging clouds made up of “yesterday’s smoke” — as Roman puts it. “There were black pillars — and you could see the rockets flying,” he says, remembering one of his recent walks around the city. “And then I saw flashes, such bright trails. After that there was even more smoke.”
‘An Evil Ukrainian Nazi-hacker in all his glory’
“Sea Fox” — a Ukrainian hacktivist who uses the screenname “s34f00x” — ran out of booze at 11:00 o’clock this morning.
“I drank the last, victorious drops when we ‘took out’ the server of a Russian company that automates business processes for a bunch of your state structures — Russian Post, Gosuslugi, Moscow’s Information Technology Department, Rostelecom, Gazprom,” he says, turning his flask upside down. “This had 200 milliliters [6 ounces] of a collectible whisky. Living under prohibition is very sad! I was saving it: whenever things got hard I took a tiny, tiny sip — I wet my tongue.”
Sea Fox didn’t manage to stock up on alcohol before prohibition came into force — even the flask just happened to be in the pocket of the jacket he threw on before evacuating to a dacha near Kyiv. “It’s dead quiet here, it’s far from everything — except Vasylkiv was burning 10 kilometers [6 miles] from us,” the hacker says. “I have power and Internet [access]. That’s all I need.”
Sea Fox is giving the interview over video chat from a mattress spread out on the bare floor — it’s around one o’clock in the afternoon and he just woke up from a nap. The window is covered with a blanket so the light doesn’t disrupt his sleep during the day (he carries out his cyber attacks at night, when the technical support staff of most Russian companies are sleeping).
The hacker grabs a shotgun from somewhere on the floor and points it at the camera: “I went to the shooting range, had some fun, and bought cartridges. But I’m trying to fight on my own plane, I’m no use on the real front with a shotgun.”
Before the war, Sea Fox was a civilian DevOps engineer. But on February 24, he said goodbye to all of his colleagues over the work chat and joined Ukraine’s cyber resistance. “I just wrote that now I’m ‘cyber fighting’ — I’m a cyber volunteer,” he recalls. “And I haven’t looked [at the work chat] since.”
Since Russia invaded, tens of thousands of people have joined Ukraine’s cyber resistance (the largest DDoS-attack Telegram channel known to Meduza has more than 70,000 members). Together with the well-known hacking group Anonymous, they’ve claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks: taking down the websites of the Kremlin and RT, plastering anti-war messages on the homepages of state-controlled Russian media outlets, and leaking information from the Russian Defense Ministry and Roscosmos.
“My favorite banner appeared on my the website of [Russia’s] Federal Penitentiary Service: a man under a Ukrainian flag, who’s stopping a tank, and a gray mass under the Russian [flag] that’s running from a cop with a truncheon,” the hacker tells Meduza’s correspondent. “I personally sent text messages to State Duma deputies, which went like this: ‘He [Vladimir Putin] shot himself. They [Ukrainian soldiers] are coming this way in tanks — run’.”
Sea Fox considers hacking into the website of a contractor that organizes business processes for the Russian public sector his greatest achievement (he declined to name the firm in question).
“The battle has been going on since March 3: we started to break into [the company’s website]. They kicked us out, but we came back,” Sea Fox says enthusiastically. “I took out three terabytes of enemy data, without leaving this same mattress [...] This hurt them a lot. We launched a scorched earth campaign.”
The hackers decided to “cash out” before the company’s IT team got the upper hand. “From 6:00 o’clock this morning, we manually downloaded all of the interesting databases: terabytes and terabytes [of data] — I simply didn’t have anywhere to put this junk,” Sea Fox recounts. “By 10:00 o’clock in the morning we began breaking down their infrastructure as a farewell: we deleted all of the backups and posted a single picture in this empty space: the one with the person stopping the tank.”
The fact that the cyber resistance’s target was a Russian “civilian” company doesn’t bother Sea Fox: “I sleep soundly. We’re responsible for what we’ve tamed. And [for] who was put on the throne. And this very feeling — that right in front of me there’s a structure for a thousand servers, a very expensive one, with a whole bunch of teams, and I just sit down and take it all to hell…It’s unforgettable.”
“I’m leaving women, the elderly, and children penniless,” Sea Fox laughs. “The very same evil, Ukrainian Nazi-hacker in all his glory, yep.”
‘There was a sniper in the McDonald’s’
On the third day of the war, Asya Kunitska, a combat medic of the 130th Territorial Defense Battalion, came under fire from a Russian sniper. She recounts the attack to Meduza’s correspondent in a dreamy tone. “It wasn’t the first time I’ve come under fire in my life — it was probably the hundredth,” Asya says with a smile. “But no matter, thank God, everything worked out.”
Asya heads a territorial defense first-aid station in northwestern Kyiv — it’s located inside a district administration building that now serves as a military base. On the day of the sniper attack, one of Asya’s fighters wasn’t feeling well. “A sensitive boy, 21 or 22 years old. He probably put on a bulletproof vest for the first time — and, well, he passed out right here, at the checkpoint. His blood pressure dropped,” Asya explains. “I was handed a tourniquet and three vials of dexamethasone [an anti-inflammatory] — and as soon as I reached for a vein, my orderly Taras said ‘There’s someone there watching’.”
“I looked up,” Asya continues. “And there were two little men — and suddenly there was machine gun fire [coming from the window of the empty building across the street]. [...] We crawled along the asphalt to get away and they were shooting at us the entire time. And as we were running to the car, I turned my head and there’s a sniper sitting in the McDonald’s [near the administration building]. A black silhouette. I only just managed to duck down and heard a whistle above my ear — and that was it, there was a hole in the wall.” (Meduza was unable to independently confirm that there were machine gunners and a sniper operating in this district on February 26.)
Asya’s orderly, Taras, is Taras Topolia — the lead singer of a very famous Ukrainian pop-rock band called Antytila. Serhiy Busyk, the group’s keyboard player and producer, is another member of Asya’s brigade. “They follow all commands, they aren’t like ‘stars’ at all,” Asya says. “I’ve known Taras for eight years. We met in 2014, when he helped the army with humanitarian aid. A friendship that’s born in war is doomed to eternity.”
Antityla ended up releasing their new album “MLNL” (Millennials) at the territorial defense base on the second day of the war. “Two weeks before [the invasion], we were dealing with the release, PR, stadiums,” recalls Antytila guitarist Dmytro Zholud, who also enlisted in the territorial defense. “We’ve had a guitar in the first-aid station for a week now — I don’t know whose it is, I only picked it up yesterday. We congratulated our doctors on the first day of spring, we played old songs, proven hits. But I don’t want to play anymore.”
Asya’s first-aid station is set up in two parking spaces under the administration building. It’s fenced off from the rest of the rest of the parkade with sandbags. The administration building itself was gradually turned into the headquarters of the 130th Territorial Defense Battalion: during the first three days of the war it didn’t have any surrounding fortifications. “And now the companies have made themselves deployment points,” Taras says, pointing towards another parking space, where office chairs and sleeping bags are set up.
There’s a leaflet pasted to one of the pillars that says “Support Office No. 205.” “That’s our center for psychological aid,” Taras explains. Another sign that says “Volunteer Headquarters” is attached to the back of a nearby chair. There are barricades built from safes, chairs, and wooden pallets. “There’s a room with Molotov cocktails,” Taras adds. “But I probably won’t take you there.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart
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