International

Ukraine War: Ground Report From A City Under Siege

Jeffrey Witsoe tells us how the civil society of Kyiv has joined hands to fight the world’s second largest army

HOSTOMEL, UKRAINE - Oksana surveys the destroyed second floor of her multi-generational home
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“The  situation is positive—our land is free of orcs.” This was the answer I got when I asked a young volunteer driving me to Ternópil, about 460 km west of Ukrainian capital Kyiv, about the war in the country. It was March this year, barely a month since Russia invaded the country.

Since the Russian forces entered the country on Feb­ruary 24, they had been widely described by Ukrai­ni­ans as ‘orcs’, the monstrous soldiers of Mordor, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. Adapted into an epic trilogy of films by Peter Jackson in the early 2000s, various fantastical creatures from Middle Earth—such as hobbits, elves, dwarves, and of course, orcs—have passed into common parlance.

I had been picked up at the border and driven out of the mountains by members of the newly formed Territorial Defence Forces at Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv, then surrounded on three sides by Russian forces. Travelling on Ukrainian roads and highways was a surreal experience. Every crossroad had become a checkpoint or fortified position. Billboards displayed the defiance of the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island who, on February 24, on being asked to surrender to the Russian Navy, said: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” (Censorship laws had been changed in the country to allow the expletive to be displayed publicly.)

But many cars passing in the opposite direction, away from the frontlines, displayed ‘Children’ in Russian to avoid being bombed by the belligerents.

Everyone I met was energised and focused. For some, this meant joining the Territorial Defence Forces; for others ,volunteering to ferry supplies, helping to feed defenders and displaced civilians, or knitting camouflage netting.

I had never experienced such a transformation of public culture into a Manichean worldview centred on united resistance, not unlike in The Lord of the Rings. As people braced for the possibility that their city or neighbourhood could be invaded, the overriding theme was that all good must be defended against the approaching evil.

Getting In

For years, I have done fieldwork in Bhojpur, an area in the eastern Indian state of Bihar that the government in 2015 had identified as ‘economically backward.’ Locals told me that after spending so much time in Bhojpur, I would be prepared for anything. But they were wrong.

When my new field site, Kyiv, was attacked by Rus­sian forces, the largest military gathered in Europe since the Second World War, I was confronted with a question that few ethnographers have had to answer: what should one do when one’s field site is facing the threat of existential annihilation?

My response was to raise funds for emergency medical supplies that I planned to somehow get to Kyiv. This was an emotionally driven and naïve idea. How would I ferry supplies across the border? I heard that a Ukrainian student I knew was involved in relief efforts and reached out to him. His father, Vadym, was planning to enter Ukraine, from Slovakia, a brave decision since the country’s government had forbidden all able-bodied men from 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Vadym invited me to join him.

We stayed for a few days at a hotel in Slovakia, which borders Ukraine. We gathered the supplies that Vadym and I had brought, along with two duffel bags that a group of US doctors had left behind in Krakow.  A group of Ukrainian refugees bid us an emotional farewell as we made our way to the border.

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Imperialist Intent: The Russian ‘We Are Together’ rally after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 Photo: Getty Images

At the border checkpost, Vadym took a deep breath of Ukrainian air and declared: “The air of freedom!” It reflected a sentiment that prom­p­ted several thousand Ukrainians to return to their homeland, despite the risks involved.

Vadym’s network connected us to the Territorial Defence Forces. My journey was part of an informal but efficient influx that mobilised Ukraine’s soldiers, comprising many volunteers, quickly equipping them with essentials such as body armour and tourniquets. Similar arrangements delivered drones, fuel, vehicles, and, sometimes, even ammunition that proved crucial in those early days.

A City of Neighbourhoods

Returning to Kyiv in June, I found brutal destruction. As my rickety marshrutka approached the city, I saw buildings reduced to shells in the massive onslaught. It was a deeply emotional experience.

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Kyiv is a beautiful city, maybe even more so now. Its many parks were filled with families and people hanging out and working on their laptops at chic cafés. Beaches were packed with young people on warm days. Many thronged the pubs in the afternoon and dog owners could be seen walking their pets, soaking in the late summer sun. One day, I stumbled across children playing wargames, with a girl of about seven years yelling: “Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava” (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the Heroes!).

I went around the city on shared electric scooters or bicycles. Everything is simultaneously completely normal and completely its opposite. The beaches are officially closed, and public facilities like toilets and showers have stopped functioning. But lifeguards continue to report for duty and kiosks sell food and drinks.

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The daily curfew began at 11 pm. The metro stopped its services at 9:30 pm and most establishments downed shutters at 9 pm. Parties peaked at 10 pm and the music stopped. Some parties continued even after the curfew, remaining underground till 5 am — the hour at which the curfew is lifted. But ignoring the curfew had its risks. At a much-discussed event, male partygoers were handed conscription notices on being found violating curfew orders.

I went around the city on shared electric scooters or bicycles. Everything is simultaneously completely normal and completely its opposite.

Kyiv is reputed for its nightlife but, for most citizens, obeying the curfew orders is part of war-time duty. After all, its purpose is to prevent nocturnal infiltration by Russians.

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So, after 11 pm, most thoroughfares of Kyiv are desolate. Once finding myself out late, I had to walk home as no taxis were available even if one was willing to pay an elevated fare, five times the usual. I took the side streets to avoid police patrol and checkpoints.
 The curfew, however, has given rise to a neighbourhood culture. Many people can be seen drin­king on their doorsteps with their neighbours late into the evening, or hanging out at the local park.

“Kyiv has become a city of neighbourhoods,” said a friend.

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The Best Tango in the World

“I am here mostly for the tango,” said a man I met at Punkcraft, a cavernous underground club that specialises in Craft beer and techno. music. The man, who did not want to tell me his name, said he had lived for years in different parts of the US and Berlin and had reached the conclusion that Kyiv had the best tango scene in the world. That was his reason for staying back in the Ukrainian capital even during the invasion.

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Everyone had a different reason, a different story to tell about continuing to live in the city even as it was bombarded and besieged by one of the largest armies in the world. For many, their homes and livelihoods were here. Others, who went to western Ukraine in the early days of the war, returned when they ran out of money. And yet, many others stayed back to take care of the sick and needy. Thousands, however, remained by choice, volunteering their services to help the defence forces.

By June, volunteering was being done mostly by NGOs and the government. people were trying to hold on to a semblance of normalcy.

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The city, however, had changed, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Anti-tank traps dotted the parks and traffic intersections. SUVs painted in camouflage and fitted for combat zones were parked on the streets and foreign volunteer fighters had replaced tourists.

Uniforms everywhere

On the streets, in cafes, restaurants, and government offices, soldiers are everywhere in Kyiv. As the invasion began, Ukrainian society coalesced around the armed forces. People from every social class, region and background enlisted. Now, investment bankers serve along with taxi drivers, IT specialists, plumbers, artists, construction workers and professors. 18-year-olds serve alongside 60-year-olds. Men and women serve side by side.

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With relatives and friends at the border, most people are keeping track of the developments in the conflict zone through Telegram and other social media. “I have a friend fighting in Donetsk (the main target of the Russian invasion) and a friend in Kherson (the focus of Ukraine’s main counter-offensive),” said a taxi driver when I asked him about his outlook on the future of the war. “I am optimistic,” was his response.

But the emotional impact of the war is unavoidable. Young men disabled in conflict have become a common sight. It reminds one of the heroism but also the high cost involved in defending one’s homeland.

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What is Your Superpower?

Hundreds and thousands of volunteers are organically integrated with the armed forces through informal, personal ties. Three of the 12 board members of the Ukraine Student League — the umbrella organisation of student unions in the country — are on the frontlines. So are many others from many companies, sports teams, university departments, rock bands, alumni associations and social groups of every sort.

In areas under attack, the number of volunteers has soared. A manager of a factory outside Kharkiv, whoe nose was bruised from an early morning boxing bout, told me that 30 percent of the 700 workers were fighting, while 20 percent more were frontline volunteers. “I was quite surprised,” he said. “I had thought most of them were pro-Russian.”

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Public culture all over Ukraine aims to promote the certainty of victory. On TV, competing news telecasts have been replaced by an endless telethon that is the source of information for most people. It regularly displays a QR code for contributions to the army. At an upscale shopping mall in central Kyiv, a large screen alternates between displaying patriotic scenes valorising the armed forces and the images offashion models. Advertisements by private companies—on billboards and storefronts—emphasise public support for the defence effort. “What is your superpower? I am Ukrainian!” they cry out.

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In the early days of the conflict, a song called ‘Bayraktar’ named after the Turkish drone that the Ukrainian army used effectively, went viral online. Now, an eponymous radio station broadcasts music supporting the war effort. Bayraktar has become a catchphrase for the defence of the country. At a small coffee shop I frequented, a donation box carried the label: ‘For a Bayraktar!’

Surviving the Horrors

Despite the upbeat mood, the horrors of the war are very real. As Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv, the extent of atrocities allegedly committed by the Russian army came to light. “A feeling that this is death,” said president Volodymyr Zelensky on his first trip outside the capital. “When there is silence and silence, and there is nothing left living.”

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At Borodyanka, many of the buildings have been reduced to rubble by Russian bombardment. Several residents were apparently buried alive under the rubble. In Bucha and Irpin, the Russian army allegedly carried out torture and rape, not sparing even children as young as 14 years old. They also reportedly carried out executions at random.

I met Natalya at a restaurant in a building that was a Russian base during the occupation. Her husband had taken part in the defence of the neighbourhood; he was captured by the Russian army and executed. “It wasn’t only murder,” she told me. “It was torture.”

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Telling of tragedy Natalya (left) and Yulia (right) whose husbands were brutally murdered during the Russian occupation of Bucha Photo: Jeffrey Witsoe

The bodies of Ukrainians were found with broken arms, twisted legs and gouged-out eyes. “Have you seen the photos?” asked Natalya. “It was a war crime. There are many witnesses. And every family here has its own terrible story.”

Yulia, a young woman who works at the restaurant, described how she found out that her husband had been shot to death in the streets. She had no idea why.

Much of the anti-civilian violence in the early days of the war was allegedly committed by elite Russian forces. It was aimed at dampening the spirit of the people but it had the exact opposite effect. The Russian tactic of demolishing whole cities in Pryazovia and Don­bas, by raining artillery before capturing the ruins, added to the popular perception of an evil enemy bent on destruction. Ukrainians repeatedly told me: “We are fighting evil.”

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Air Raids and Anxieties

Air raid sirens ringing out over the cities and villages of Ukraine had become banal by summer. This is because Russian missiles can change trajectory mid-air, making it impossible to predict where they will hit. So, the air raid sirens go off all over Ukrainian territory at all times of day or night, and people are reluctant to stop whatever they are doing and rush to the bomb shelters. They wait to hear explosions nearby before seeking shelter and were often caught exposed.

When I returned to Kyiv in November — with a cold, dark winter fast approaching — people continued going about their daily life. But now there was a general sense of unease, even as the situation on the battlefield improved markedly after Ukraine liberated thousands of square kilometres of occupied territory by autumn. Instead of frequent missile strikes, Russian tactics shifted to less frequent, large-scale missile and drone barrages targeting civilian infrastructure, especially the city’s electrical grid. I found it impossible to ignore air sirens when 30 missiles were incoming, as was the case in late November 2022. In the wake of this attack, water supply to the entire city of Kyiv was completely disrupted for two days, in addition to the electricity outages that had become part of the fabric of daily life for the first time in many decades (before the invasion, Ukraine produced a surplus of electricity).

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When I returned to Kyiv in November — with a cold, dark winter fast approaching — people continued going about their daily life. But now there was a general sense of unease.

For countless people, this caused great suffering. For instance, for a mother of young children living on the 25th storey of a building that now often had no working lift and no water. For the elderly and disabled, these are particularly trying times. The severe disruptions and civilian casualties of past attacks generate anxious anticipation of future strikes. Looming in the background is the menacing spectre of a complete shutdown of the electrical grid that would render daily life in the capital and across the country almost unbearable, shutting down water supplies, heating and sewage systems.

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The city of Odesa lost electricity for the foreseeable future after a drone attack on December 10, 2022. And yet it was also clear that the principal effect of these strikes was to strengthen the peoples’ defiant resolve, intensify the cultural rupture with Russia and toughen the popular determination to achieve victory at any cost.

Beneath the culture of defiance, there are all sorts of anxieties. Men aged 18-60 must be conscripted. Yet most seemed unworried by this, some even actively preparing to go to the frontline. An investment banker, who told me in the summer that he would only fight as a last resort, was attending a volunteer training camp when we met again in November. He explained that feeling better prepared gave him peace of mind. Others said they were embarrassed to go on living normally while their countrymen fought and died.

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A middle-aged special operations fighter, a solar engineer before the war, echoed the feelings of many soldiers returning from the front. He said people should try to continue living like they did before the war. “To come home to a peaceful, pleasant city, to keep the economy growing, that gives me hope,” he said. “People should take care to be mentally healthy so that they can rebuild the country and care for wounded soldiers.”

The Logic of Empire

Kyiv had always struck me as a deeply divided city, riven by tensions related to language, politics, religion, geopolitical orientation and civilisational identity. Is Ukraine Russian or European? Family trips to St. Petersburg or Paris? Is nightlife oriented towards Moscow or Berlin? The invasion decisively resolved all these questions. Newfound unity among Ukrainians, therefore, is transformative in deep and subtle ways.

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Ukraine’s independence was gained in the cont­ext of the breakup of the Soviet Union and did not involve a prolonged popular struggle, as is now occurring. There was a war for independence from 1917 to 1921 that ended with a Bolshevik victory, followed by Stalin’s genocidal famine in 1932-33, occurring simultaneously with a violent suppression of Ukrainian language, culture, and identity.

This initiated decades of Russification, as had occurred under the Russian Empire. Surzhyk, the language for most of rural Ukraine, involves regionally varied overlays of Russian on top of a Ukrainian base and exemplifies Russification. Surzhyk, like Ukrainian, was widely seen as a language of uneducated villagers, while Moscow was the metropole to which Ukrainian cities and their Russian-speaking elites were oriented.  Russian, therefore, functioned somewhat like English did in colonial India, except geographical proximity resulted in large population transfers. Soviet industrialisation produced a Russian-speaking urban proletariat.

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If British colonialism operated by manipulating cultural difference, Russian colonialism denies difference, terming Ukrainians ‘little Russians’ and Ukraine ‘little Russia’. The areas of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia also have abundant iron, minerals, gas reserves, nuclear energy and, most importantly, control of the Azov Sea and the coastline and ports of the Black Sea.

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A men’s memorial: For men executed by Russian solciers in Bucha

Oksana Syroyid, once called the most powerful woman in Ukraine, explained the colonial logic of the invasion to me on the patio of a classic Italian restaurant in central Kyiv. She had helped set up the legal infrastructure for the newly for­med Territorial Defence Forces since January and is now enlisted in a senior command position.

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“What Russia is doing is completely rational,” she said. “This is why I knew there would be a war. It was only a matter of which day it would start. I have been warning everyone about this since 2015. People, including those in the German leadership, accused me of being a paranoid nationalist. Once we realise that this invasion is rational, we can win by putting pressure in the right places.”

Continuing her bracing critique, she adds “If Russia is irrational, like the devil, you can’t win. Politics prepared me for this war. Politics is all about money. Similarly, geopolitics is all about resources and trade routes. Russian ideology claiming Ukrainians and Russians are one people was needed to justify ruling the colony and colonies are only needed to secure resources and trade routes. No one keeps a colony for no reason.”

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The Choice of Being a Ukrainian

Denying differences is central to Russian ideology. It also has an interesting counter-effect. The differences are indeed malleable and collapsible. Like the Surzhyk language, the base of everything is Ukrainian. This is very different from ethnic or religious differences such as the Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka or the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Everyone in Ukraine speaks both Ukrainian and Russian and frequently switches between the two dissimilar languages. As journalist, Nataliya Gumenyuk, puts it, “Being Ukrainian is a choice.”

Changes since the Euromaidan protests, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas in 2014 provided a cultural infrastructure ready to be rapidly scaled up. Language laws had made people accustomed to the use of Ukrainian in official contexts and increased their consumption of Ukrainian-language media. It also incentivised a cultural sphere in Ukrainian, especially in music. Among certain crowds, especially the cultural elite, being hip and sophisticated became increasingly defined in relation to a Ukrainian-language cultural renaissance, and an increasing orientation towards Europe.

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However, most people in Ukraine continued to consume Russian media and music, and many even resented what they felt as elitism associated with the new Ukrainian cultural production. Over the past few years, I was repeatedly ridiculed by older residents of Kyiv for choosing to learn Ukrainian instead of Russian.

Russia’s full-scale invasion obliterated any populist appeal of Russian culture in Ukraine overnight, replaced by a far more united and militant Ukrainian national identity. When interacting with strangers, speaking Ukrainian became a matter of basic safety, to ensure that one’s interlocutor is not a Russian saboteur. Rather than mere ‘tradition,’ choosing to speak Ukrainian literally became a matter of life or death for even the most adamant Russian.

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Honouring Resistance: Banner at the iconic Maidan in Kyiv

The boxing gyms where I train in Kyiv were till recently saturated with Russian hip-hop. After the invasion, Russian hip-hop was virtually absent and the boxers mostly now train to Armed Forces of Ukraine-oriented techno tracks and a new genre of Ukrainian language hip-hop. The head coach of one gym had become a commander in a volunteer battalion, and many others are now fighting in the armed forces instead of in the ring. If many boxers had considered Russian to be the more masculine language before the invasion, this had now been inverted. I am no longer ridiculed for speaking Ukrainian.

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Fading Divisions

Before the invasion, there were deep divisions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarch, Kirill, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv) formed from a merger in 2019. This fault line nearly collapsed in the wake of the invasion. Many members and entire congregations of the UOC (Moscow) changed to UOC (Kyiv) as the Moscow Patriarch blessed the blo­ody invasion. The UOC (Moscow) severed ties with the Patriarch in response and signed a previously unthinkable joint statement with the UOC (Kyiv). Tensions continue, with many suspicious of the loyalties of clergy formerly under the Moscow Patriarch. Raids on churches and monasteries by the Security Service of Ukraine have regularly unearthed Russian propaganda materials. Never­theless, a religious system instrumental in the colonisation of Ukraine since 1722 is rapidly collapsing.

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“Older guys have difficulties,” Volodymyr explains, “I am like this (while shaking his hands to mimic trembling) after but, at the time, I can do what needs to be done.”

Many institutions that had once reinforced Russian influence have been dismantled. The oligarchic system had been instrumental in perpetuating Russian influence within institutions, and more importantly, ideological sway over the population through ownership of television and print media. Furthermore, continuous competition between oligarchs weakened the Ukrainian government: the courts, the prosecutor’s office, Ukraine’s parliament, and regional elected offices, for instance, all became arenas for oligarchic competition and control, and economic growth was structurally constrained through oligarchic monopolies. The net result was a weak Ukrainian government highly susceptible to Russian influence, enabling a long, colonial relationship.

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Pro-Russian political parties were outlawed. TV news was consolidated into one channel, depriving pro-Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin of influence over Ukrainian news consumption. The oligarchs’ economic and political influence has been greatly weakened, at least temporarily, especially those who had been conduits of Russian influence, whose assets were in eastern Ukraine, and suffered destruction or appropriation.

These decolonising effects of a cultural rupture post-invasion are rapidly removing Ukrainians from the ‘Russian world’. Perhaps most remarkable have been individual transformations. Volody­myr, a 20-year-old law student, who retained am­azing vitality and optimism for someone who had been through so much so quickly, described how the invasion began for him: “Mother came to my room and said, ‘Russians are coming to kill us.’”

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A week later, he was on the frontline. In the space of a few months, he became a ‘combat surgeon’ all the while continuing online Law studies at a Polish university. He explained to me that often “younger guys can do this better” than older, more qualified medics because there is often so much blood.

“Older guys have difficulties,” Volodymyr explains, “I am like this (shaking his hands to mimic trembling) after but, at the time, I can do what needs to be done.” His only training prior to the invasion was first-aid instruction during driving classes. He spoke passionately about seeing then-occupied Kherson through binoculars, completely confident in Ukraine’s victory. By the time I met him again in December, he had been promoted to chief medical officer of an entire company of 120 soldiers.

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Ivan, a young, Russian-speaking businessman, who had been largely apolitical, took but two days after the invasion to decide to join the Territorial Defence Forces and was subsequently promoted to an elite unit, as he also happens to be an international-level marksman. He explained the remarkably simple logic that has so transformed his life: “Everyone has only one goal—defending our house.” 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Defending Our House")

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