Sweet James | Kyiv Alpha, Kyiv Beta LRB February 16, 2022
The city I arrived in from London today was Kyiv Alpha, one of two possible Kyivs that had to be imagined beforehand. Kyiv Alpha is Euro-Kyiv, three hours from Stansted on Ryanair, a Kyiv for mini-breaks, poor Western artists and ravers, a Kyiv for bankers and IT startups, the Kyiv of hipster hustle, grand Silver Age facades restored with extravagant slowness, neatly presented filter coffee, contactless payment and wifi; also poverty in the suburbs, gloomy concrete cliffs of new buildings on the left bank – east – of the Dnieper.
But there is also Kyiv Beta, the other possible Kyiv of February 16, traffic jams of refugees leaving the city to the west with mattresses strapped to the roof of their Toyotas, columns of smoke rising from government buildings, flames shooting from the windows of banks and department stores and frightened people crawling on broken glass from door to door, a city without electricity, heat, water, mobile signal or internet. Kyiv Alpha is where I arrived, and Kyiv Alpha is where I am still now that it is evening. Walking along Vulitsa Reitarska as it was getting dark, I heard birds chirping. Kyiv Beta is a fear, a prediction, a hallucination – an American panicked delirium, some would say – that did not come to pass and may never come to pass. But Russia moved Iskander missiles to Belarus, just minutes away, and nearly surrounded Ukraine with troops.
Ryanair cabin crew weren’t supposed to wonder if they might find themselves flying in the Kyiv Beta war universe. I asked if they were volunteers. They weren’t: unless they were told otherwise, Kyiv was just another European destination, like Malaga or Berlin. I had the luxury of preparing both. I thought I better have a helmet and a bulletproof vest, and a satellite phone. But they take up a lot of space and preparation goes both ways. Avoiding the possibility of arriving in Kyiv Beta without a bulletproof vest, I arrived in Kyiv Alpha without too many fancy clothes. In the heretofore imagined Kyiv Beta, my armor makes me wise, but in the reality of Kyiv Alpha, such caution feels like lack of hope, deficit of defiance, like a man dragging an anorak to the beach .
In some ways the fever dream of Kyiv Beta resembled the Kyiv I lived in for a few years in the early 1990s – not the burning and destruction, of course, but the imaginary subtraction of the means of constant connection by mobile and internet we swim. When I moved to Kiev, the only way to make an international call was to call the operator and reserve one for later. Among the first Russian phrases I learned was: “Can I book a call to Britain, please.” The operator said, with fine Soviet contempt: “Wait. At some point – it could be five minutes, five hours or the next day – your phone would ring, you would pick up, the operator would say “London, speak” and your group would be on the line. I had my first laptop, and just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, an American company struck a deal to set up a network of pre-internet data connectors across the country. In theory, all you had to do was plug your laptop into a phone line to be able to send messages. But the Soviet telephone lines had no socket. In old Kiev, and everywhere I went, I carried a screwdriver with me to dismantle the telephone booth on the wall and connect two bare wires from my laptop to the telephone system.
Everything is open in Kiev today and people are going about their business. The weather is gray and just above zero and small bits of dirty snow linger in hard to clean places. I walked along Volodymyrska towards Saint Sophia Cathedral and the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, surprised by the small changes. Ivy has pushed onto the base of the statue and the plaza where she stands has been partly paved and closed to traffic. Just outside the headquarters of what might be called “the Ukrainian secret police” or “the Ukrainian version of the FBI”, a new sculpture has appeared commemorating the soldiers who died fighting the separatists and their Russian allies in the east of the country. A Ukrainian Cossack on a rearing horse thrusts a spear into the throat of a creature that has the twin heads and crowns of the Russian Imperial Eagle, but the body and jaws of a dragon.
On Reitarska, I went to an antique shop and spoke to Alexander, who claimed sponsorship of Wolverhampton Wanderers first-team defender Max Kilman. (Kilman’s late father, like Alexander, worked in the Ukrainian antiquities business.) Alexander ridiculed the idea that Russia would dare to invade Ukraine. After seven years of fighting in the east, he said, the Ukrainian army was too strong and too experienced.
The shop had cupboards filled with porcelain ornaments. One contained mostly figurines from the Gorodnitsa factory in Zhitomir, Ukraine; the other from the Lomonosov factory in Leningrad, Soviet Russia. An exquisite figure from Leningrad showed the Russian characterization, or idealization, of a Ukrainian peasant woman: she wears a long embroidered apron and a spotted headscarf, and rising behind her, covering her arms, chosen in gold, are rich grain ears. . Both factories were founded in Tsarist times. The Russian factory, whose pre-Soviet name has been restored – Imperial Porcelain Factory – is booming. The Ukrainian factory fell on hard times as it could not compete with cheap imports and closed.