An excruciating moment of waiting in Kiev
For now, she will stay in Kyiv and do what she can. She and Polunin have stored some gasoline: five ten-litre cans. “If it’s not too cold, we can run the generator for an hour or two a day, to cook food and charge our devices. After that, we can play the piano by candlelight. They have invited eight friends to move into their house if the town is attacked. “It’s easier to survive as a commune, even just to watch the kids if the adults have to go out to fetch firewood.” During the revolution, Samoilenko learned first aid and how to help trained doctors in other ways. In January, she took two refresher courses and is considering enlisting in the civilian reserve.
In 2014, the Ukrainians formed ad hoc volunteer combat battalions to help the under-equipped and under-prepared regular armed forces. Since then, civil resistance units have been legalized and formalized. A law that came into effect on January 1 makes these units, now known as territorial defense troops, a separate part of the armed forces under the command of a specially appointed general. Today, according to Anton Holoborodko, a journalist who acts as press spokesman for Kyiv’s Territorial Defence, what began as a largely self-managed voluntary organization is being integrated into the military.
Holoborodko and I met at a cafe near the Maidan, where he works in a small office, producing his own YouTube news show. He is thirty-two years old, blond, with a perfectly round face. “Before 2015, my only connection to the army was that my father was an officer,” Holoborodko said. He worked as a journalist, first in the Maidan, then in the Crimea and in the occupied east. “And then I thought, wait, there’s a mobilization campaign going on. Why didn’t I sign? He served for fourteen months but never fought: his battalion remained in the second line of defense. “I guess I was lucky, although at the time I felt cheated. When I was released, I thought I would never want to have anything to do with the army again. But little by little, I understood that our eastern neighbor – rather its political regime – had a problematic relationship with reality and could go crazy at any time. And then what am I going to do? It occurred to me that I should think about what my role should be. In the summer of 2020, Holoborodko signed up as a civilian volunteer.
As we spoke, his phone kept ringing: people who find him on social media want to know how to register with Territorial Defense; journalists want to report on the civilian reserves. So far, about five hundred people have signed contracts with the Territorial Defense in Kyiv. The week we met, Holoborodko said he held about 20 interviews with volunteers. Every Saturday, about eighty people (“That’s a lot!” protested Holoborodko, before I had a chance to say otherwise), most of them men, aged eighteen to fifty- seven years, gather somewhere in Kyiv or just outside to train exercises. They work on their urban or forest combat maneuvers, using prop guns and other equipment they bought with their own money. Holoborodko feels lucky that his girlfriend supports his work. She’s willing to drive him around town for exercises on Saturday mornings, as other volunteer partners have been known to complain about the family’s money going to buy as much as a multi-tool to use in exercises.
“Everyone should decide who they are going to be,” Holoborodko said. “If it’s civilians, they should probably plan to evacuate. If they become soldiers, they should probably join the Territorial Defense now. On January 22, Holoborodko called his parents, who live a few hundred miles east of Kiev, and told them, “If you lose cell service and internet, get in the car and drive. I want to see you here in ten hours. They agreed. Holoborodko has put aside a few gas canisters so that his girlfriend and 15-year-old son can travel to western Ukraine, if need be. But, despite giving clear instructions to his parents, he doesn’t know how to determine when it’s time to send his family members on their way. (He himself will remain in Kiev to fight.) “When it will be time to evacuate has not been determined with certainty,” he said. “But we know when it will be too late: when the city will be bombarded from the air.”
Until then, Lena Samoilenko plans to party. “I use all my free time to see people,” she told me. Recently, she rented a hotel room with friends; they talked until dawn, then piled into a car and drove to the Kiev Sea, a giant man-made reservoir. “Along the way, we listened to the best music in the world.” She played a bit of Devendra Banhart’s “Shabop Shalom” on her phone. “It’s fun, as un-warlike as it gets. We arrived there, it was very cold, the sea raised large blocks of ice. We lit sparklers, but it was windy and my clothes nearly caught fire. It was wonderful.” She showed me the scorched cuff of her jacket, an oversized black men’s suit jacket. She also showed me, on her phone, a photo of a gold lamé dress that she really want to buy for this holiday season.
When will it be time to stop partying, or stop preparing and start taking action? It is often difficult to determine the exact moment when a modern war began, and it is especially difficult to define a moment of substantial change in a country which, in fact, has been at war for eight years. “If they shut down the internet, I will know about it,” Samoilenko said. In past conflicts, Russia has carried out major cyberattacks. People bring up other scenarios, like the bombing of Kiev or a ground invasion of the city, and then say they are unimaginable. “On the other hand, the unimaginable has been happening for eight years,” Holoborodko said.
Towards the end of January, the Ukrainian government continued its message of calm. A think tank led by the former defense minister has released a report saying the troops Russia has amassed near the Ukrainian border are not yet sufficient for a full-scale invasion. President Zelensky called together foreign correspondents to chastise them for writing “as if an army were marching through our streets”. Most Western media do not have a permanent correspondent in Kiev, or even in neighboring European capitals such as Warsaw or Vienna, and yet more than twenty journalists gathered to listen to the president in person. Their mere presence cast doubt on his message that there was no story there.
“There are more foreign correspondents here than at any time since 2014,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, told me. “I wonder: are we normalizing the expectation of war? Or do they know something we don’t? When do we say, ‘Stop overdoing it,’ and when do we have to start preparing?” Gumenyuk, who is 38, covered the Maidan and wrote a book about occupation of Crimea. When I dined with her and her husband, Pyotr Ruzavin, in a restaurant with a tin ceiling, ‘Brooklyn pizza’ on the menu and an elaborate selection of teas, war seemed more unimaginable than ever.” I read all the scenarios,” Gumenyuk said. “Some Western newspapers are reporting that there will be an invasion of Kiev by troops crossing the border with Belarus, but how are they going to get here, through the swamps It’s five hours by car.
It’s really not far, I thought. “It’s really not far,” Ruzavin said.
Ruzavin, 30, is a Russian journalist based in Moscow. He is tall and skinny and squints and blushes when Gumenyuk corrects something he said, which happens often. They got married four and a half years ago in Minsk, Belarus, a place their friends from Kyiv and Moscow could reach. They continued to work in their respective cities (Ruzavin worked for several outlets which the Russian state called “foreign agents”), so their marriage is a suburban marriage, i.e. Ruzavin goes to Kyiv. Travel became more and more difficult. There have been no direct flights since 2015. When covid hit, the night train from Moscow also stopped running. Ruzavin started flying through Minsk, but after Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident who was on board, European airlines stopped flying there. Today, Ruzavin commutes via Istanbul or Amsterdam, a long and expensive journey.
Ruzavin believes that the declaration of war will come through Russian television: when prominent media personalities start calling for an invasion of Kiev or the abolition of the Ukrainian state, it will have begun. “These are the sirens of war,” he said. He was due to return to Moscow in mid-January, but postponed his departure until after the Beijing Olympics. It’s something of a superstition: Russia launched its offensive against Georgia on the first day of the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 and invaded Crimea as the Winter Games in Sochi drew to a close. (A rumor, vehemently denied by China, is that Putin promised Xi Jinping not to start a big war during the Olympics this time around.)
“I kept an eye on the Kerch Strait,” east of Crimea, Gumenyuk said, continuing to ponder possible signs that a new stage of the war has begun. “Or a cyberattack, they could shut down the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. Two weeks ago, when someone hacked into a dozen top government sites, I thought this might have started. But that was just the homepages, the hacks didn’t go any further.