Fragments from a War Diary, Part #18
Mykolaïv feels like a ghost town. Walking down its principal central boulevard, I can barely recall the cosmopolitan city of old that I once remembered. Mykolaïv, virtually universally known by local people as Nikolaev, was a Russian-speaking city of some 700,000 people from across the former Soviet Union. It had several prestigious universities, particularly in the fields of shipbuilding and engineering, and it also attracted a range of successful businessmen, particularly those in the grain business. It was awash with 24-hour bars and rowdy nightclubs, beautiful girls showing off in their latest designer clothes, and a range of retail stores to cater to every taste and budget.
All that has now gone, as an inestimable proportion of the population fled in 2022 amidst the Battle of Mykolaïv, in which Russian Armed Forces attempted to occupy, and then attempted to destroy, a city they presumed that by reason of its linguistic affiliations would welcome them with open arms, while the Ukrainian Armed Forces successfully resisted the onslaught. Anyone who could leave did, and now few remain except the elderly, infirm and sick. A handful of young girls of schooling age run such shops and accommodation as remain. Catching the morning trolleybus into town today, I was struck by the emaciated looks on people’s faces and the prevailing sense of malnutrition. The streets are empty. It seems as though every third building had suffered substantial damage from aerial bombardment. Some of my favourite old bars and restaurants were boarded up, to operate no more. A lonely Russian Orthodox Church stood isolated amidst the empty tenements, its doors reinforced with steel sheets to prevent vandalism.
Those remaining in Mykolaïv are rushing to learn fragments of Ukrainian, a language they barely spoke before 2022. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, and a variety of government agencies from Kyiv, have descended upon the town, both using it as a garrison town for the front line in neighbouring Kherson, an hour down the road to the east; and also civil society reconstruction units bearing badges indicating EU funding. These new residents of the city speak Ukrainian, and suddenly it has become unfashionable to speak Russian openly in free Ukraine although it is the preferred language of the longer-term residents of the city. Language wars and cultural assimilation are likely to be sore issues in Mykolaïv’s near future, especially as the city as effectively had a change of name imposed upon it.
Although there are few air raid sirens or other signs of hot war in Mykolaïv itself, many things feel extremely strange. A number of the banks in the city centre seem to have been indefinitely closed. The principal pedestrian avenue in the city centre, once constantly lined with shoppers and walkers from dawn until desk, lies empty amidst blowing leaves and rolling trash. Many of the shops appear to be closed indefinitely. There are no longer any signs of wealth, as there used to be. The curious hotel in which I have spent my first night, very oddly for a Ukrainian establishment, has no alcohol behind the bar. I wonder why not; this is virtually inconceivable in modern Ukraine. I assume that the young men I see on the streets are all somehow associated with the military or the Police, or internal security services. Nothing is very clear, but there are lots of new and unfamiliar faces who do not know their way around town as well as I do.
I wonder whether the Mykolaïv I recall can ever be rebuilt. It was the cosmopolitan atmosphere in Mykolaïv that made the city so distinctive: the fact that it was full of people from all over the world. Although before the Russian invasion of Ukraine few foreigners had heard of Mykolaïv, save perhaps for its reputation as a “city of brides” (the women are reputed to be very beautiful), it was well known amongst the CIS countries, and it had substantial minorities of Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Turkmen and other groups from across the Soviet empire. It is not clear whether those people will see any attraction in returning to Mykolaïv in the near future. Although Ukraine used to have an international reputation for decent quality higher education at reasonable prices, and Mykolaïv was one centre of that, students are highly unlikely to return under conditions of war and wartime hardship, and will probably never return even after the war has ended.
Mykolaïv is mostly now a cash city, which presents a challenge given the shortage of banks. The town seems destined for now to live in limbo, as a garrison for soldiers, occasional aid workers who make it this far and for international observers of the uneasy ceasefire in Ukraine’s south. These people cannot alone reinvigorate Mykolaïv’s devastated economy. It is immediately obvious to even the most casual visitor to the city that enormous quantities of reconstruction assistance are required to rebuild a city which in many parts has been flattened. A city in which the armed forces have dug trenches and ditches through the centre is hardly an attractive place to live. Now the battle for Mykolaïv has come to an end and the city’s position in free Ukraine is secure - the Russian Armed Forces simply cannot maintain supply lines this far west, so any future assault on the city is highly unlikely - the battle for the city’s heart must begin. The city must be rebuilt, and this will require not just foreign investment but also foreigners on the ground to manage the investment are civil reconstruction projects. Assistance with city government will also be required to market a renewed Mykolaïv to the CIS and to the rest of the world as an attractive place to move back to. All this will take time.
Mykolaïv does not feel nearly so dangerous as Zaporizhzhia, but it does feel eery. Unlike Zaporizhzhia, the streets and shops are not bustling with people. The handful of nightlife venues seem to ignore the 10pm curfew but they are far from vibrant as nobody has any money. The mood is drab, fearful, wary and grim. People go about their daily business, seeking to survive, and avoiding unnecessary interactions. There is little happiness or frivolity in this town. If southern Ukraine, often forgotten in Kyiv’s recent modernisation initiatives, is to thrive, then Mykolaïv will have to be rejuvenated once more.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.