In front of my house I met Kirill, who is part of the Kyiv night club scene. He said: “It has become very difficult to have faith in others. As it turns out, they can suddenly throw bombs at other people and think they’re right about it, too.” [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 10 (Saturday, March 5): “A Great Beauty”
Tenth day of the war. I learned how to darken the windows of my apartment with the thin blankets I have, so that inside there is a soft, muted light. I remember the first morning of the war. Everything was as usual—I woke up a little late, at nine, and saw a series of messages on my cell phone from friends and acquaintances: “Please, answer the phone!” Again and again the same message.
The catastrophe needs to be represented: only as part of a story can it be recognized as a catastrophe. Communication can also be a way out—the hope is that once everything is reported and communicated, one of the addressees can end the catastrophe.
Our skies are still open to military planes and bombs. That is why our cities with men, women, children, homes, and museums are still accessible to artillery. This morning I read that in Bila Tserkva, one of the most beautiful towns in Kyiv Oblast, twenty residential houses were destroyed by an air strike. Bila Tserkva means “White Church” in English. The number of victims is still being clarified. Fortunately, a timely evacuation was organized.
A friend from Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine, called me and excitedly told me that humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine was finally being delivered to Mariupol. His neighbor heard from supposedly reliable sources that this war will be over as early as mid-March. Laughing, I said goodbye.
I remember an elegant lady I saw earlier today. She was wearing a long black coat with fur, high boots, and a hat, and was waiting in line in front of a pharmacy. My mother had also waited, for five hours, in this line. The air was cold, so my mother walked around to warm up. At some point I joined her and we decided to go for a little walk. No one in line, including my mom and I, looked particularly fancy. Businesslike, but dressed somewhat casually. So the lady in the fur coat stood out a little. Her eyes looked worried, but for me, at that moment, she was a kind of beacon. One that reminded me, and perhaps the others in line, of a bygone Kyiv.
On the way back, I met a young man in front of my house and spoke with him. He said his name was Kirill. He apparently was part of the Kyiv nightclub scene, which has developed very rapidly in recent years. Now, nearly every day, he makes an almost unimaginable trek from the eastern bank of the Dnieper across to the western bank, to cook food in the kitchen of a restaurant for people in bomb shelters and the Kyiv Territorial Defense. When his time permits, he engages in art, music, and shamanism. Our conversation was a little strange.
“It has become very difficult to have faith in others,” he said. “As it turns out, they can suddenly throw bombs at other people and think they’re right about it, too.” He looked directly at me. “Do you happen to be a journalist who could write about me?” I replied that maybe I could write about our meeting, in this diary. “Then I want to say,” he seemed very passionate now, “that everything that is happening at the moment is a great beauty. I don’t want to hide. Feel free to take my picture if you like.”
I must have looked at him in amazement because he launched into an explanation. “People are acting better than usual right now, and our country…” His thought trailed off. Then he said, “Everything is changing, even internationally.” His good humor mixed with my bitterness. I began to laugh.
When I got home that evening, I learned that the food and medicine that was supposed to go to Mariupol did not reach the city. The humanitarian corridor did not work and was closed because of continuous shelling. Two people from my circle of friends, an artist and an art historian who live outside Mariupol, have been unreachable for four days. The messages on the Telegram channels from Mariupol are becoming less frequent.
I know from a close friend that the village of Horynka, near the forest of Pushcha, was badly damaged. The number of victims is unknown, and my friend’s uncle is currently hiding in a basement. We are looking for evacuation routes for him.
It is difficult for me to finish this text. The war continues, but the fear of the aggressor—the respect for him—must finally stop. I get letters from my German friends, who write: “Save yourself! Putin does not tolerate any losses. He has a reputation for destroying everything.” I wonder what they mean by that. How did he get such a reputation? What does it mean that he doesn’t want to lose? What does it mean for the whole world?
As I took my camera out of my pocket to photograph an empty street, a car stopped next to me. Four armed men jumped out. They searched my cell phone, my bag, then asked who I was working for. Then they excused themselves, all four looked nervous and tired. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 9 (Friday, March 4): “Follow Me On Instagram”
During the night I read that in the city of Enerhodar the nuclear power plant was attacked. I slept fitfully. There were wounded employees who could not be evacuated for hours and bled to death. The fire department was shot at. Three employees died, and in the morning the wounded were evacuated. The nuclear power plant in Chernobyl is occupied, and for ten days the employees have not been able to go home. It is very dangerous to stay there for so long. The news was unbearable. I fell asleep again.
The next morning I woke up quite early in a bright mood and with the feeling that this sunny day had something to offer me. I wanted to get out on the street earlier than I did yesterday, to see what was happening in the city. Little was left of the melancholy I felt yesterday. Then I discovered the reason for this change: I no longer believe in the war! It simply can’t be, I thought. It isn’t true. What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble, in the twenty-first century?
The invaders have no political plan, they have no ability to come to power here permanently. You can’t occupy this country. It is unrealistic. The war is a dream, a dictator’s fantasy.
I wanted to see if the little store next to our house still had bread. I have not been able to get bread since the third day of the war—it is usually sold out.
The store was full. With some amazement, I discovered a group who I took to be representatives of the international military. They spoke English and needed help translating. Then I realized that they were not soldiers, but unarmed, if well-protected, escorts of a war photographer who was also shopping in the store. I tried to help her choose a detergent. The small group exuded enthusiasm, humor, and inspiration. My mood suddenly darkened. One of the three escorts proudly said to me, “Do you know who you are standing with? This is one of the best photographers in the world!”
The photographer laughed and shrugged it off. “Please,” she said, “I’m embarrassed.” Then she told me her name. I can’t remember the name. I’ve been having a hard time concentrating lately. Then she said, “You can follow me on Instagram.” The group bought a lot of detergent, almost everything in the store. I told them, “Good to have you with us,” and said goodbye. But quickly an uneasiness came over me. I realized that it is not a good sign when a well-known war photographer sets up shop here with a group of escorts.
In a side street I discovered a bakery that used to be quite expensive before the war. It was open for business. Nice white bread was on the shelves, and they also had coffee. It was a miracle. My first real cup of coffee from a cafe. Men and women stood there drinking cappuccinos and discussing whether or not to stay in town. One older man, who looked like a geography professor, said he would not leave the city until he had to spend every day and night in the shelter. The bystanders tried to convince him that it would never come to that. Kyiv was a holy city after all. The city would never permit it!
Afterwards, I went to an empty street to take a photo. As I took the camera out of my pocket, a car stopped next to me. Four armed men jumped out. They took my cell phone, searched my bag, then asked who I worked for. It took a few minutes. Then they excused themselves, all four of them looking nervous and tired.
One of them said, “I understand it’s your job, but please don’t take pictures! You can see what they’re doing.” He meant the attackers. “They are shelling the residential buildings now, they are using everything as a target. It seemed unimaginable, but it is happening. There are 840 injured children.”
My photos are harmless, I thought. I’m being careful, after all. Besides, our city is photographed all the time anyway. But maybe I need to be even more careful.
I thought about that number: 840 injured children. Our sky must be protected! The news repeated that number, but it’s hard to really grasp it.
I am sure that the world will not continue to just watch this—I can’t watch it anymore either. Do not be afraid of this criminal, he acts without logic. If you protect the sky here, you save so much!
At home I got a message that a friend of mine is looking for her acquaintance, an artist who lives with his wife and two small children in Mariupol and has been unreachable for three days. The last message from him was, “If you know anyone who works for Western media, tell them: We are here almost without water, without food, without medicine, and now the electricity is cut off. They are destroying our town. Sartana, a village, keeps getting shelled. I don’t know if there is anything left. So many victims.” I know that Mariupol—a Russian-speaking town in the Donbas, with beautiful little houses from the nineteenth century—is in darkness, without electricity.
840. This is no longer war, this is mass murder of the defenseless. The Ukrainian army is protecting us, but the Russian tanks, artillery, and rifles are aiming at peaceful people, women and children, at residential houses! It is time to stop being afraid and close the sky.
In Russia, independent media are either shut down or censored; what remains is the opposition newspaper Republic, which is trying to survive despite censorship. One headline read, “Russia is trying to restore the Soviet Empire. But there is little chance of that.” That’s what some Russian oppositionists fear: they believe there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that the empire will be restored. In reality, there is no chance at all.
I came across this photo of an elderly woman on my camera today. It means a lot to me. The old people in Kyiv are so open, strong, and caring. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 8 (Thursday, March 3): Alienatio
It is the evening of the eighth day of the war, and I am looking at photos of empty streets taken on my cell phone or my small digital camera. When I take photos on the streets, I try not to show faces. I feel that anything that has a face, anything that could be identifiable, wants to stay in the shadows.
A week has passed since the invasion began. No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember any particular news or event from that first day, even though I’ve been carefully writing down important news in a notebook. Have I become accustomed to these events? Today, a sense of alienation came over me: I felt at a strange remove from everything. I try to place the moment when this strange state began, and I find it.
In the morning, when I was still in bed, I saw a video clip of a Russian soldier operating a Grad system: a multiple-rocket launcher that the Russian army has been using to attack peaceful districts in Ukrainian cities. The soldier in the video was crying. He said he wanted to apologize to his young daughter because he may be guilty of killing children in Ukraine.
Then he addressed other members of the military and asked them to disobey orders and not to come to Ukraine. I watched him cry again and again. Then I saw pictures of the destroyed apartment buildings in Chernihiv. These two pieces of news merged in my perception. Many friends of my mother live in Chernihiv. They were always proud of this small and clean city. I know that now, as I write this, the city is being shelled. An oil depot has been set on fire, and the small town, which was a favorite vacation destination for many of my acquaintances, is now threatened with ecological disaster. The danger comes from the sky, the houses are bombed. One begins to count the victims.
Over the past few days, I have been wondering how obedience works. The soldier in the video cried only after he had obeyed his orders. That was too late. This war can be ended if the orders to shell homes are ignored—by soldiers, even by generals. I know that sounds naive. But on such a day, naivety is the best shelter. The walls are not very thick, but it is deep enough.
So far, thirty-three dead residents have been found in the rubble of Chernihiv. Today feels particularly ominous. Almost every half hour an explosion can be heard outside on the streets.
A young woman living in the house next door is trying to rescue pets that were left behind. Perhaps the owners could not take them when they fled. She finds them comfortable, warm places and gives them food. An elderly lady who lives across the street goes shopping several times throughout the day so that her neighbors can stay home in safety.
A well-known teacher, eighty-six years old, spends most nights in the basement of a school that is next to her house. Today she recorded a video. In a distinct, almost forgotten, and noble Kyiv accent, she addressed the women of Russia: they should not let their sons go to war.
It is snowing, the air is damp and cold, and it seems to me that I can no longer get close to my own city, the place where I live, whose events I witness. I resist the violence more than I used to, I resist acknowledging that the war is going on, that it is allowed, that it has been allowed.
I can try to accept it. I can try to face reality. But then I ask myself: how will we all be able to live with the thought that these war crimes took place, every day, on our doorsteps? At some point we will have to forgive ourselves that this inhumanity was even possible. But to really be able to do that, you have to protect the skies in my country. The bombing of homes must finally stop.
The streets of Kyiv are mostly empty these days, filled with droning silence. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 7 (Wednesday, March 2): Time to be brave
The city is sinking into spring fog, but it is still cold. Since yesterday, here, in the center of Kyiv, you can tell a story about the war on every street corner. Almost every intersection is guarded day and night by armed members of the Territorial Defense. There are more groups of saboteurs in the city, more violence. I look with relief into the eyes of the men and women of the defense. In one of the faces yesterday I recognized with amazement a barista who was popular in our neighborhood because he painted particularly beautiful swans on the milk foam of the coffees.
Outside, I hear another explosion. At such times, fear overtakes me, and I think about how to save myself and the people I love from this situation. It is always a chain of relationships that I think about, it is not only my father and mother, but also my aunt who is lying at home sick and weak. And not only my aunt, but also her whole family, and then I see other connections that are hard to break.
The answer is to keep everyone safe, not just individuals. Now is the time to act bravely and find strong, effective means against the aggressor. In my imagination, a hundred variants are already playing out for how all this can stop, how the war will end, at this specific moment. Then I imagine us dancing in the streets.
My day has been long and feels like it has several days locked up in it. The images of the empty streets filled with droning silence are still before my eyes. I have experienced and seen a lot today, I even visited an exhibition.
The artist Nikita Kadan, a friend of mine, has moved to a small private gallery located in a basement. Really, it’s not a gallery anymore, but a space that serves as a shelter and apartment for artists and their friends. Yesterday Nikita called me and invited me to a group show he was putting together from the gallery’s collection. I was about to go meet him, but then the sirens howled once again, and I had to stay inside.
So the exhibition “opened” yesterday without visitors and was supposed to close the same day. But then he decided that it would stay open for me to visit today. I would be unspeakably happy about such an honor in peacetime, and even now, when the air over the city becomes more sinister, I notice the traces of joy that this feeling leaves on the sandy bottom of my restlessness. The exhibition is called “Fear.”
There was another air alert, and when I was finally about to leave this afternoon, my father called me and asked me to take him along. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. And then the three of us went! My father, my mother, and me.
Our way was long, the city seemed strange. We must have walked more than half an hour—it was my longest walk since the beginning of the war.
The way back was shorter, short like a jump.
I enjoyed the exhibition very much. I am still thinking about the pictures and this incredible opportunity to look at them in the midst of the war and include them in my memory.
What can art do? What can a single voice do? What can the courage of resistance do and what is the point of resistance in the first place? I keep getting emails and messages telling me to be pacifist. Ukrainians have never provoked a war, never wanted or supported a war. The values of pacifism are among the most important values of my country. I grew up with a saying: The most important thing is that there be no war (лишь бы не было войны). The shuddering memories of the Second World War, some of which took place on Ukrainian soil, are still very much alive.
However, there are values much bigger than Ukraine that need to be defended. There are situations where resistance means salvation. And it is not about self-help, it is about rescue from a much greater violence, from a much more terrible war. I hope that every day more people understand this, wake up, and put an end to this violence.
A friend of mine, the artist Nikita Kadan (right), has opened an exhibition in a basement gallery. Here he is chatting with my parents about the untranslatability of the exhibition’s title “Tryvoha,” which means “fear” and “alarm” at the same time. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 6 (Tuesday, March 1): Not a minute more of this war!
Russia has announced that it will bomb the area around St. Sophia Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not the St. Sophia Cathedral itself, but a secret service building that is in the immediate vicinity. If they do that, the cathedral will certainly be affected as well.
My parents and I live next to St. Sophia. I had decided to spend the nightly curfew at their place today. Meanwhile, our worried neighbors went to the shelters. Everyone has long since chosen a shelter for themselves; they try to do everything they can to feel comfortable there.
I am in an absurdly good mood. But this good mood is of little use, superimposed as it is on a deep anxiety and sadness. Our apartment is darkened. I learn that the western bank of the Dnieper River in Kyiv is under fire, including Zhulany Airport, which is on the eastern bank fairly close to the city center. The number of casualties is unclear.
However, all my thoughts are with Kharkiv. I see videos of burning streets on Twitter and Telegram, and I know from acquaintances in the city that people there have been staying in shelters for days. The well-known economics professor Oleh Amosov, head of the Department of Economic Theory and Public Finance at the Kharkiv Regional Institute of Public Administration, died of injuries after an attack. This is the second day the city has been bombed. My next thoughts are for two cities in the Luhansk and Donetsk districts: Severodonetsk and Volnovakha.
I was often on the road around Severodonetsk. Even in 2014 to 2016, during wartime, this city looked cheerful. Cafes and restaurants were open almost all night, and the mixed crowd there always amused me: Western-dressed and sometimes haughty representatives of the international press mingled with exotic, spoiled young women from Donetsk, who had decided to spend a few months in their home region on the escape route to central Ukraine.
Now, Severodonetsk and Volnovakha are being destroyed. There is no more electricity, no water, Russian mortar shells are falling from the sky. All those who try to provide themselves and their family with food or water are dying in the streets.
I would like to scream. Save these people! Journalists who have experienced wartime in Donbas and lived in the mostly peaceful Severodonetsk, get outraged! We need humanitarian corridors and zones where men, women, and children can save themselves. Put even more pressure on Russia. Putin has sentenced these cities to death, Russia is destroying the Donbas. No, that sounds wrong. “Donbas” is just a word, and this word says little. You have to save the inhabitants of these cities. Actually, you have to save everything, the whole country. Urgently.
Now I’m trying to understand where my good mood comes from.
It is the sixth day of the war, which I feel has already lasted fifty years. Today I drank a cappuccino for the first time since the invasion began.
I went for a walk to breathe some fresh air on this first day of spring and maybe do some shopping. Knowing that many supermarket shelves were already empty, I decided to visit a larger department store that had recently opened not far from us. How pleasant it was to be there! The shopping hall is deep underground, everyone felt safe and walked past the shelves with a slowness that has not been seen in Kyiv for six days.
An elderly lady stood next to the coffee machine. Her shopping bag was small and half empty. Then suddenly I saw a young, fashionably dressed woman approach the lady and press a bill into her hand. The lady was surprised and said, “But I didn’t ask for anything, I have everything!” A young man came up to her; he also slipped her a bill. The elderly lady resisted at first, but then she seemed happy and grateful.
On the way back, I took a picture of an old man sitting alone on a bench in a park. He wanted to talk to me. His wife was ill, he told me, and he was taking care of her. He wanted to take care of her until tomorrow—then he will join the Kyiv Territorial Defense. He and his wife are sixty-six years old.
In his youth he served in the military. He said he no longer wanted to just watch our city suffer from this constant shelling. I started thanking him—I couldn’t stop. I used all kinds of words and phrases of thanks, but I wanted to add more to these expressions, as if that would prevent this elderly man who is caring for his sick wife from risking his life.
I expect a solution. The solution must be discovered, worked out, and implemented. The aggression must stop. Not one more minute of war!
The sirens are wailing again. My father sits in the next room learning English vocabulary. A good friend of mine calls and says that perhaps the last evacuation bus will leave from a Kyiv synagogue tomorrow. Maybe I can try to convince my parents to leave the city after all. In vain I try to talk to them about it. We are needed here more, they say, it is not the time to leave Kyiv. I agree and try to sleep a few more hours. We’ll stay and see what happens.
On the way back from shopping, I photographed an old man in the park. He said his wife was ill and he was taking care of her. He intends to take care of her until tomorrow, then he will join the Kyiv Territorial Defense. [Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
A wrecked car near the botanical garden: the unbearable realization that this war, this unimaginable, illogical, criminal war, is still going on after all. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 5 (Monday, February 28): the new vulnerability
It’s a sunny spring day that, like the last three, ends in darkness. I sit in the darkened apartment. Some lights burn, but those lights are dim and hidden. I read the news that Mariupol is bravely resisting Russian troops, but is also largely in darkness. Russia is attacking infrastructure as planned, putting people in the city under artillery fire, without electricity. Fighting around Kyiv continues.
But my thoughts are with Kharkiv. I see the images of apartment blocks destroyed by rockets and mortar shells and know that today Putin’s army murdered nine people, including three children, in this Russian-speaking city that is resisting occupation. Thirty-seven people are injured, eighty-seven apartment buildings ruined. I live in Kyiv in a similar building—a vulnerable refuge, my own apartment, where I always feel so good. Even now! Even now!
This war is demonstrating a new level of vulnerability to the world. Almost all pharmacies are closed. Electricity, water, and heating are under constant threat of failure. The wounds are getting bigger. But there is a whisper constantly repeating in my ear, even if it is sometimes almost silent: they keep fighting, we keep fighting—then the wounds heal faster.
The public spaces, squares, streets in the city are empty. The horizon is suddenly closer, the Kyiv hills, the asphalt, the courtyards of the buildings, everything seems to be invited and involved in the war.
At noon I decided to go for a walk: on the fifth day of the war, when the curfew lifted, I accompanied a German friend, who could not stay in Kyiv, to the railway depot. We were going to take the subway first. Inspired and almost drunk by the idea that the subway in Kyiv was working again, we walked to the “Golden Gate” station. Then, at the entrance, we learned that this station could only be used as a shelter.
(As I write this, sirens shatter the silence. It is 2:30 in the night and I decide to stay where I am and finish this diary entry).
So we had to walk to the railway depot. A journey of twenty-five minutes, which for me was a walk into another vast reality. Since the beginning of the war, I have not visited Shevchenko Boulevard, a wide street leading down to the depot. We walked along the street and every house, every intersection carried something new, a new language, a new narrative about our shared reality. The city looked peaceful, the sun’s rays made this image even more jarring. We quickly said goodbye, and I strolled back alone.
I wanted to cross the street, so I could overlook the old botanical garden. Suddenly I saw a pile of metal on the side of the road—a shot up, deformed car—then a second one nearby, plus a broken advertising sign—shattered glass, metal, and plastic on the ground. The botanical garden was wiped from my mind. What remained was the unbearable realization that this war, this unimaginable, illogical, criminal war, was still going on after all.
At about the same time, peaceful residents of the city of Berdyansk in the south of the country gathered in front of their local government building, which was occupied by Putin’s army and guarded by armed soldiers. The women shouted at the soldiers in Russian, “How can you look your mothers in the face? You brought war and slaughter to our land! Shame on you!” Old people were also in the crowd, they were not afraid. The soldiers looked demoralized, they replied: “We came to protect you!”
The women resisted, they continued to protest, “We were never in danger here. There was no threat to us here before you came. Now, with you, because of you, we are in the greatest danger.” Then came cursed insults, which have a very great richness in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.
This ability of the residents of Berdyansk to fight on and on, to approach the soldiers unarmed and shout the truth in their faces, even when the city has almost fallen into Putin’s hands, promises a lot. It is hope itself.
I see fewer and fewer journalists in the city. Here, someone is filming a line of people in front of a pharmacy that was closed for almost two days. Only a few pharmacies are still open. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 4 (Sunday, February 27): an extinguished city
Normally, the many brightly lit windows in Kyiv warm the city’s cold February days. The lights have something secret, private, but at the same time cozy about them. But now the city has gone out. People are afraid of Russian missiles and artillery fire. I have taped my windows shut in case of shelling, so that they won’t shatter. I go out on the balcony to check if my apartment is dark enough. I put only one lamp in each room—they hardly give any light and are on the floor. It is difficult for me to find my way around the apartment, but I try to discover a new form of coziness.
The sirens that warn of air strikes wail with a long signal, somewhat reminiscent of the playful sounds that elephants use to communicate. In Kyiv, the wailing of sirens is also a form of communication, but the message is always the same: hide, hide well!
When dawn came, for some reason I decided to clean my apartment. I thought: right now you have to stick to the plans, to the usual routines. From the outside, my apartment is almost black, with its empty, dark windows greeting all the other apartments in the city, which are also empty and dark.
The darkness is frightening, but at the same time I sense that the city has decided to defend itself. On official Telegram channels, I read about so-called “diversionary groups,” Russian units moving into Kyiv as a vanguard. Like terrorists. Their goal is to destabilize the city, carry out attacks on politicians, and ultimately take Kyiv. One such group appears to have shot at the car of two women who had decided to flee the city with their children this morning. The women and their children died.
My thoughts become as dark as the windows of my apartment. While cleaning, I thought that when I write this diary, I should make a joke about housekeeping during war. My tip would be: “Cleanliness is a must in a dark room with taped windows—if you were going to do it earlier and are almost crying now, go ahead and mop your apartment anyway. True, you will not see anything. And the apartment may not get much cleaner, but following procedures and implementing plans is more important.”
The fourth day of the war is over. Half the city is fighting against the normalization of violence that is knocking on every door. War also tests us to see if we have even a touch of compassion for those sent here to murder. Since the war began, 16 children have been killed across the country. In my town, nine “civilians” (I hate that word more and more) have died so far and 47 have been injured, including three children.
The destruction of the small town of Shchastye, “Happiness,” in northeastern Ukraine began with an electrical station being shelled. At some point it was destroyed, the light went out, the water, the heating. In distress, people, especially elderly residents, went outside to get water or food. Then the soldiers attacked, with artillery and rockets. A bus with fleeing people was fired upon. No journalists work in this area at the moment, no one counts the injured, the dead. Who will describe what Putin has done to the Donbas since the beginning of the war, since his operation to “Protect of the People of Donbas from Ukrainian Fascists”?
By occupying these territories and waging information warfare, Putin has managed to isolate this region from the world. Human rights organizations have not been able to freely operate there since 2014, and now the Russian army is once again showing how little it values the lives of its people.
From the news I learn that in the settlement of Ivankiv in Kyiv Oblast, the Regional History Museum was destroyed. In it were the works of Maria Primachenko, one of the most famous twentieth century artists in Ukraine. A joint exhibition of my photography and her painting had been planned for the fall, which is a great honor for me. I am sure that, somehow, somewhere, this exhibition will take place.
Day 3 (Saturday, February 26)
My first night in the bomb shelter. The Telegram channels of the Kyiv government warn that it will be a heavy night and that the Russian military will attack the city. But here in the shelter it’s pretty much empty. Many are trying to stay at home, in hope that nothing will happen. As of Saturday night, there is an almost 30-hour curfew in the city. It probably won’t be possible to leave the room on Sunday.
Our small shelter is located in the center of Kyiv, not far from the Golden Gate. It is one and a half floors deep underground, to be precise—a network of corridors and corridors. They are clean, comfortable, and warm. I like this place because it provides shelter for more than 100 people. There is drinking water, everyone brings something, there is also enough food. Everyone who can’t stand the sirens and the thunder of the artillery and rocket fire is allowed to come here. There are also some families who are here most of the time.
At the dark entrance to our basement, I see the silhouettes of residents scurrying past each other. You can overhear their occasional, petty arguments.
Two older shadows pass by two younger ones:
“Good evening!” “But the evening is not good!” the younger ones protest. “We wish you a good evening anyway,” the older ones say in a triumphant tone, “because we mean well. And we will continue to wish it, to you and to the others!” The shadows disappear into the depths of the cellar.
I orient myself in the present because the days offer little structure. At some point I visited my parents, both of them are not ready to leave Kyiv. They want to stay here until the moment of “our victory,” as they say.
My father is a translator, he translates German poetry into Russian. Thanks to his translations of Paul Celan, I fell in love with this poet when I was still a student. For years, since the Maidan Revolution, he has published his translations almost exclusively in Ukraine.
He took part in protests back then, I remember calling him from Berlin and finding out that he was standing with the demonstrators at the parliament building. Then I heard an explosion; luckily he wasn’t hurt. Now he is in Kyiv. He feels quite weak after a long cold and cannot go to the shelter. Maybe he doesn’t want to either. Every day I see how he continues to work on his translations. Despite the rocket attacks, despite the danger, or maybe because of it.
As I write, it occurs to me that during the day I saw many smiling people. For example, a woman who was sitting in the park on a bench next to two big shopping bags. She spoke to me in an absurdly happy voice, saying that she was waiting for her nephew to help her carry the bags home. “I’m so happy to have you standing next to me now, talking to me. When there are two of us, I’m less afraid of the artillery.”
She used to work as a museum guide at St. Sophia Cathedral, she said, now she’s a pensioner. She is convinced, she said, that Ukraine will defeat the Russian invaders. “When I think about the frescoes of St. Sophia, I believe that Ukraine will be protected by the whole world.” She smiled, tears standing in her eyes. “We will be victorious,” she said. I didn’t know if she was crying more or laughing more, but I felt her courage and admired her.
Is today only the third day of the war? Mariupol: 58 civilians wounded. Kyiv: 35 people, including 2 children. This is far from a complete list. It feels strange to find myself in this broad, unarmed, almost delicate category: “civilians.” For war, a category of people is created who live “outside the game.” They are shelled, they have to endure the shelling, they are injured, but they do not seem to be able to give an adequate response to it.
I don’t believe this to be the case. There is something hidden in the smiles that I saw several times today. A secret weapon, a sinister one. I must try to sleep at last and reach my apartment in the morning. Having breakfast in your own kitchen—that would be an enormous pleasure!
The smiling woman with the shopping bags in the park said: “We will win.” [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
The night has suddenly become silent. Just an hour ago, around midnight, sirens could be heard, then distant thunder, perhaps rocket or artillery hits. And now—a tense silence.
We should be in the shelter by now, but I’ve already been there twice today. My parents are tired and I’m staying in the apartment with them for the night. The idea was that you can rest up here, if only a little bit. We are ready to leave the apartment on a minute’s notice and take shelter in the basement of the house.
I find it difficult to collect my thoughts. Different experiences of today crumble into the sensation of many days, more or less the same, standing grey one next to the other. The space in the city is changing. The walk from my house to the nearest grocery store, which usually took no more than ten minutes, stretches out, the distance becoming a longer trek.
The fact that the store was open at all was a miracle. I bought apples, vegetables, and buckwheat—but when I returned to the area an hour later, I saw the disappointed faces of two women now standing in front of a closed door. Someone said there was another grocery store 500 meters away, down the same street. But it wasn’t good news for the two women—500 meters on foot? The sirens are wailing, and fewer and fewer people are in the streets.
Time is also changing. On the way back from the grocery store, I found out that a kindergarten near the city of Sumy, in the north-east of the country, was shelled today. A kindergarten and a shelter. 17 children injured, two seriously. I stopped and leaned against a wall of a house. The day suddenly became infinitely long. Can this war be endured one more minute? Why doesn’t the world put an end to this happening?
It was a spring day, the sunspots played on the walls of the houses and the white walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral. The sirens wailed again—the signal to go to the shelter. A good friend of mine, the artist Nikita Kadan, had lost his credit card and the two of us walked the streets to find a working ATM.
One journalist had a backpack with him, with everything he might need in the coming days. We saw some passers-by and reporters standing in front of one of the big hotels with their cameras, reporting. The second day of the war, as it turns out, is a step already taken in a repeating sequence.
In the evening I learned that a town in the Luhansk region had been 80 percent destroyed by the Russian army, a beautiful little town that was in Ukrainian-controlled territory. It was called Shchastye, meaning “Happiness.” The husband of a friend, who was already safe, managed to escape. He left town without a toothbrush, socks, or suitcase.
A car picked him up on the road. He told my friend that as he drove along, he saw the corpses of people lying next to their houses, doors, and the small cellars where many Ukrainians store potatoes for the winter. So these were “the people of the Donbas” that Putin claimed he was saving from “genocide.”
Happiness no longer exists. I was there a few years ago and photographed streets, also admiring a hill that dominates the landscape. In the city people spoke Russian and Ukrainian—I wrote about them and about their strange and funny homemade playgrounds.
Then I fall asleep in this black night after all.
Day 2 (Friday, February 25): air alert
I wake up at seven in the morning to the sirens warning of air raids. My mother is convinced that Russia will not dare to shell the thousand-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral in the city. She believes that our house, which is in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral, is safe. That’s why she decides not to go to the shelters. My father is sleeping.
I think if a UNESCO monument would actually stop the Russian army from shelling, this war wouldn’t have started in the first place. My head is throbbing with thoughts: Kyiv under fire, abandoned by the whole world, which is just ready to sacrifice Ukraine in the hope that it will feed and satiate the aggressor for some time.
Kyiv is being shelled, for the first time after the Second World War.
I am struggling with myself. I know slowly the world is waking up and starting to see that it’s not just about Kyiv and Ukraine after all. It’s about every house, every door, it’s about every life in Europe that is threatened as of today.
Everyone in Kyiv is trying to stay alert and do whatever they can to protect themselves and others. Here, our neighbors get a pink balloon from a tree. [photo: Yevgenia Belorusets]
Day 1 (Thursday, February 24): the beginning
Today I woke up early in the morning to see eight unanswered calls on my cell phone. It was my parents and some friends. At first I thought something had happened to my family and that my friends were trying to reach me because for some reason my parents had alerted them first. Then my imagination went in another direction and I thought of an accident, a dangerous situation in the center of Kyiv, something to warn your friends about. I felt a cold uneasiness. I called my cousin, because her beautiful voice always has a calming effect on me, brave and rational. She just said: Kyiv has been shelled. A war has broken out.
Many things have a beginning. When I think about the beginning, I imagine a line drawn very clearly through a white space. The eye observes the simplicity of this trail of movement—one that is sure to begin somewhere and end somewhere. But I have never been able to imagine the beginning of a war. Strange. I was in the Donbas when war with Russia broke out in 2014. But I had entered the war then, entered into a foggy, unclear zone of violence. I still remember the intense guilt I felt about being a guest in a catastrophe, a guest who was allowed to leave at will because I lived somewhere else.
The war was already there, an intruder, something strange, foreign and insane, which had no justification to happen in that place and at that time. Back then, I kept asking people in the Donbas how all this could start, and always got different answers.
I think that the beginning of this war in the Donbas was one of the most mythologized moments for the people of Kyiv, precisely because it remained incomprehensible how such an event is born. At that time, in 2014, people in Kyiv said, “People from Donbas, those Ukrainian Putin-sympathizers, invited the war to our country.” This alleged “invitation” has for some time been considered an explanation for how the absolutely impossible—war with Russia—suddenly became possible after all.
After I finished the phone call with my cousin, I paced around my apartment for a while. My head was absolutely blank, I had no idea what to do now. Then my phone rang again. One call followed the next, friends came forward with plans to escape, some called to make sure we were still alive. I quickly grew tired. I talked a lot, constantly repeating the words “the war.” In between, I would look out the window and listen to see if the explosions were approaching. The view from the window was ordinary, but the sounds of the city were strangely muffled—no children yelling, no voices in the air.
Later, I went out and discovered an entirely new environment, an emptiness that I had never seen here, even on the most dangerous days of the Maidan protests.
Sometime later I heard that two children died from shelling in Kherson Oblast, in the south of the country, and that a total of 57 people died in the war today. The numbers turned into something very concrete, as if I had already lost someone myself. I felt angry at the whole world. I thought, this has been allowed to happen, it is a crime against everything human, against a great common space where we live and hope for a future.
I’m staying with my parents tonight. I’ve visited a bomb shelter next to the house, so I know where we’ll all go when the shelling comes later.
The war has begun. It is after midnight. I will hardly be able to fall asleep, and there is no point in enumerating what has changed forever.