Fragments from a War Diary, Part #42
The effects of war upon Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, take a little time to observe. Facially the city has not much changed at all since the Russian invasion. Unless you go out of your way to look for it, there is little in the way of building damage. The streets are not awash with members of the army, and my military camouflage jacket captured some unusual stares in the streets of the centre from passers-by going about their business. One central hospital aside, where the wounded take daily walks around the streets as part of their recovery plans, I barely saw any soldiers in Kyiv at all. Although early in the Russian invasion Kyiv was briefly under threat of invasion, you realise when walking through the city that this would have been an impossible exercise. The enormous city would have bogged the Russians down in months or years of street fighting which is why they never seriously attempted to seize it.
Superficially, everything works normally in Kyiv. The metro and public transport systems are fully operational. There is a merciful absence of air raid sirens. The five star hotels and shops selling European luxury brands are open. There is nightlife and the city retains a groovy vibe. Kyiv was always substantially wealthier than the rest of Ukraine, and the differences in living standards became rather stark. Ukraine’s capital city became the province of an elite class of politicians after the end of the Cold War, and their friends, colleagues and advisors in professional services who grew fat from Ukraine’s economy that for some time was thriving until it nosedived following the political maelstrom that engulfed the country after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014. For the last ten years, Ukraine’s economy has been in free-fall and so has that of Kyiv.
In the post-2014 years, it became clear just how much of the political and commercial activity in Kyiv was intimately tied into economic relationships with Russia. It transpired that many political positions had been bought, and people had become wealthy, from their dealings with Russia and now Russia had exerted her underlying influence in Ukraine in military terms as well as political and economic ones, those who had grown fat from their over-cozy relations with Russia’s political and commercial classes, in particular the Oligarchs and their cronies who surrounded them in Ukrainian politics, were singled out for corruption investigations and prosecutions of various kinds. It transpired that overly close relationships with Russia were the means by which Kyiv’s elite classes had become rich, and therefore they attracted a significant part of the blame for the Russian aggression that has characterised the last ten years of Ukraine’s troubled history.
Kyiv became awash with expensive apartment buildings, the city’s suburbs attracting ambitious investments as second homes for the wealthy. Historical buildings were renovated and sold off to the super-rich. Much money was spent restoring the facades of Ukrainian culture in Ukraine, including cultural centres. Expensive shopping centres sprouted up. Luxury cars emerged. The international hotel chains entered the city in numbers. Pricey restaurants emerged for the wealthy classes to indulge themselves in opulence. These various features of Kyiv, enjoyed by a privileged class of those who had found success, often corruptly, in Kyiv’s boom years, are largely absent from the rest of the country.
Kyiv at war retains all these incidents of recent wealth. But the elite financial classes that one finds in any capital city have largely gone. Those with money are the first people to leave a country at war, because they realise that the easy profits they once accumulated will soon be lost if they are conscripted into the army or their rapid financial gains are investigated for their propriety. Hence large tracts of central Kyiv, in particular the wealthier districts, are oddly quiet. All those wealthy people that once populated the luxury malls and the expensive restaurants have fled, most abroad where they kept their offshore bank accounts. The malls and restaurants remain; prices in Kyiv are grossly inflated compared to the rest of the country. But they have no occupants. Residential areas of central Kyiv no longer have any residents. Apartment buildings lie idle and unfinished.
This is a sad irony, because one consequence of the war is that the city now has a homelessness problem that never existed before. Internally displaced peoples from the rest of Ukraine came to Kyiv in significant numbers as the war broke out, because Kyiv, being a long way from any active front line, is a safe place. But they have nowhere to live, because the departing elites barricaded their luxury accommodation and now the incoming displaced fleeing conflict elsewhere in Ukraine have to make do as best they can. While many of the wealthy citizens of Kyiv have left, those that remain seem to be in a sense of bewilderment. They pretend to themselves that their old lives, of expensive coffee bars and luxury restaurants, still exist, although these institutions now lie bereft of customers and have mostly ceased to be financially viable. With the exodus of capital from Kyiv, it seems unlikely that this high-end economy that came to characterise central Kyiv will ever return. The few remaining wealthy people in Kyiv are bewildered, wondering where their old lives went.
There is much talk of the conflict, but in Kyiv nobody seems to know anything about what war really means. Most people I spoke to had not left Kyiv since the beginning of the conflict. They have remained isolated in the city they knew, pretending to bask in Kyiv’s former metropolitan glamour when in fact everyone they know has left. They volunteer, trying to help the dispossessed who arrived in the capital without accommodation, employment or funds. But deep in their hearts, they must understand that their old lives are not coming back. As a result of this war, Ukraine has changed forever. The previously neglected regions and provinces have now become pivotal to the politics of the country, as the places where civilians and the military alike live on the front line resisting Russian invasion and occupation. Kyiv’s politicians feel a long way from the real action.
I was taken for a tour of an animal refuge in a glorious park full of Soviet buildings on the outskirts of Kyiv. The wealthy residents of the city, when they fled, tended not to take their pets with them although they had acquired a taste for expensive and rare cats and dogs. These former pets were then left to roam the streets, and efforts have been made to look after them by the proportion of the population that remains. I did what I could to assist, but my overwhelming emotional reaction was that we were seeing here the fruits of exuberance and decadence. The people of Kyiv had become wasteful and corpulent, like the citizens of Rome in the late period of the Roman Empire. Now their visions had been punctured, they could not quite believe it. The real consequences of war had yet to be visited upon them. I was given a fascinating talk on the history of the city, and the malign influence of the Russians that the people of Kyiv are now seeking to expunge from their cultural narrative. While I listened, I was served Russian vodka. Although in the West we have sanctioned Russian products, in Kyiv they still seem to be finishing off old supplies.
Whereas life on Ukraine’s front line is intense and vigorous, the decay of Kyiv is gradual and directionless. Ukraine’s educated classes, that always centred upon the capital city, know that many things have to change but they are not quite certain what this all really means. They lament the abominable corruption for which Ukraine and her politics are notorious, and they are eager to cast off the trappings of the Russian political and financial system that so embodies this pervasive atmosphere of institutional impropriety in which every document is forged or manipulated and every transaction is undertaken in an illegitimate way. They know now that the break with Russia is permanent and, watching Kyiv’s economy slowly implode since 2014, they see the process of separation from the Russian orbit not as something that started with the Russian invasion in February 2021 but as a process spanning a decade or even longer. For the people of Kyiv, Crimea and the Donbas are rather remote places; they are far more likely to have visited Switzerland, Paris or Spain than they are the regions of their own country now at war. But they do have an uneasy sense that something has permanently changed. Although you still hear a lot of Russian spoken on the streets of Kyiv, those lingering bottles of Russian vodka have already started drying up.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.