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Photo May 29 2023, 8 10 53 AM
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Missiles and Miracles: Notes from Kyiv

A story from wartime Ukraine.

Words: Mariana Budjeryn
Pictures: Mariana Budjeryn

“[T]he more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear…”

Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

This was my second journey to Ukraine since the great war started. The formal reason for the trip was to participate in the Kyiv Security Forum, an invitation I gladly accepted on its own merit but also for the opportunity to visit Ukraine, to bear witness to my country at war, and to see my mother in Lviv in western Ukraine.

Organizing an international conference in Kyiv, in a country where airspace is closed to all traffic except for Russian missiles, is no easy logistical feat. But, miraculously, with the aid of an invisible and meticulous online booking effort and a network of greeting staff at various Polish airports, our group of foreign conference guests converges from near and far corners of the world onto a small provincial train station in Przemyśl, far-eastern Poland. 

Like characters in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, we board an overnight train to Kyiv with our baggage and our backgrounds, cautiously getting to know each other in the process. It’s a motley crew of analysts and dignitaries from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Georgia, the United States, and even two former prime ministers, from Estonia and from Australia. I immediately step into the role of a translator between our conductor Vitalik and the rest of the group. One of the Australians wants to take a shower, I imagine it has been a long trip from Downunder and I don’t have the heart to tell him that he’s on a Ukrainian train and there are no showers, not even in our SV, first-class car. I translate and, to my amazement, Vitalik nods and offers to show the guest to a shower facility. 

Photo May 25 2023, 9 08 16 AM
Przemyśl-Kyiv train arrives in Kyiv. May 25, 2023.

We discover that it’s our British colleague’s birthday. It would be wrong not to celebrate and we inquire if there’s a restaurant car. There isn’t, but Vitalik has a bottle of wine to sell. He produces a bottle of Moldovan “Freedom Blend,” a special edition from the Purcari vineyard, with a blue-and-yellow heart bespeckled by white peace doves on the label, all proceeds from which are donated to the Ukrainian war effort. Someone brings Belgian chocolate, picked up on previous travel. I host a modest birthday party in my compartment. It is all delicious and convivial: Moldovan Freedom wine and Belgian chocolate shared by a Ukrainian, a Brit, a Latvian, and an Estonian, with one Australian in the shower, on a train chugging along to a security conference in a country at war. 

We arrive in our hotel in central Kyiv on the morning of Thursday, May 25, 2023. In the afternoon, we are invited to lay flowers at the Memory Wall spanning the perimeter of the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral, a short walk from the hotel. The wall is plastered with hundreds of neatly arranged photographs, for every soldier fallen in the war with Russia. There are so many. I note that the last set of photos is dated Feb. 24, 2022, the day of the invasion.

In the great war, Ukraine has kept its military losses close to its chest. How many more photos are waiting to go up? Will there be enough wall? I walk back from 2022 to 2014 and find my classmate Taras, who was killed in the Donbas in August 2014. It’s bittersweet to find his photo, like meeting an old friend, although we were never friends. I close my eyes and say the Lord’s prayer, although I am not a believer. It still feels meaningful.

The 15th annual Kyiv Security Forum is titled “For Our Freedom and Yours: Fighting for NATO.” Ukraine’s prospective membership in the alliance is an all-consuming theme for the following two days. Ukraine’s political leadership, the organizers of the conference, and the overwhelming majority of Ukraine’s citizens are convinced that the country’s long-term security can be achieved only within NATO. Article V of the alliance’s founding Washington Treaty pledges that an attack against one shall be treated as an attack against all. While there’s much ambiguity about what it would mean when tested, this short formulation is a deterrent for Russia. Latvia is dedicating 40% of its defense budget to Ukraine military aid, Estonia and Lithuania are right behind, as well as Poland, which is also a major transit hub for Western arms supplies to Ukraine’s war effort. But Russia has not dared to bring the fight to their territory. 

Photo May 25 2023, 1 10 30 PM
Memory Wall in Kyiv, commemorating the fallen in the war with Russia.

Ukraine’s “fighting for NATO” comes through in a different sense, too. In all my conversations with Eastern Europeans at the conference, there’s a profound understanding that Ukraine is the one providing the Article V guarantee to them by holding back the brutal, kleptocratic, cynical, war-crime-committing Russian regime. Essentially, Ukraine is doing NATO’s job — defending against the threat the alliance was created to defend against, with the weapons NATO built for the mission — without the mutual protection the rest of the alliance members enjoy. 

I used to think that Ukraine’s NATO aspirations were misguided. I argued that Ukraine should rather seek a bilateral defense alliance, even if informal, with the United States, I held up Israel as an example. This no longer seems sufficient. The continued military support by the United States and the Western coalition of the willing is helping Ukraine defend itself and increases its chances of prevailing in the war Russia brought to its soil. But only NATO membership will prevent such a war from happening in the first place. The prospect that Ukraine will be invited to join the alliance at the upcoming NATO Vilnius summit in July 2023 are at best uncertain, but the alternatives for exorcizing war from Europe seem rather nonexistent.

I wonder if any other country needed NATO membership as acutely as Ukraine, while at the same time being so far from getting it. I wonder if NATO absorbs those states easiest that need it least.

May is the best time to be in Kyiv. The skies are the purest blue, the city is drowned in chestnut and acacia blossoms, the air is fragrant and fresh. May 2023 is the time of the most intense aerial bombardment of Kyiv since the war started seventeen months ago. There’s an air raid on the first night of the conference, and the foreign dignitaries I met on the train file into the hotel bomb shelter, where different backgrounds and statuses no longer matter: everyone is equal before a Russian missile. 

On Saturday, May 27, 2023, after the conference is over, I depart the hotel and move to a friend’s apartment near Maidan, Kyiv’s central square. That afternoon I’m due at a festival dedicated to Roman Ratushny, a 24-year-old civic activist who fell in the war with Russia. In 2013, Roman, then only 16, was among the first to join student protesters in what became the Revolution of Dignity to defend Ukraine’s European choice and to hold Ukraine’s corrupt leaders accountable. A few years later he mobilized a group of like-minded activists to save Protasiv Yar, a green ravine in central Kyiv. Without Roman’s intervention, city authorities would have sold the land to oligarchs to build luxury condos and offices. With his intervention, the space remained green and public, featuring a park, a ski slope, and an outdoor theater. 

The festival’s name is “Never fear anything.” Roman was not afraid, nor did he relish his freedom from fear in the comfort of passivity. He confronted riot police batons, corrupt city officials and oligarchs, and Russian bullets, one of which ultimately claimed his life. When the great war started, he enlisted. His father enlisted with him, hoping to protect his son. Roman wrote a meticulous and detailed will — what is it like to write a will at 24? — bequeathing the leadership of various civic initiatives and the money raised for those to his comrades. On June 9, 2022, he was killed in action near Izyum, a city in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, which would be liberated by the Ukrainian forces in September 2022, and join the towns of Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol as a site of Russia’s most egregious war crimes. Roman’s short but purpose-filled life earned him an obituary in The Economist

The continued military support by the United States and the Western coalition of the willing is helping Ukraine defend itself and increases its chances of prevailing in the war Russia brought to its soil. But only NATO membership will prevent such a war from happening in the first place. The prospect that Ukraine will be invited to join the alliance at the upcoming NATO Vilnius summit in July 2023 are at best uncertain, but the alternatives for exorcizing war from Europe seem rather nonexistent.

Part of the festival is held outdoors at Protasiv Yar, which Roman helped save from greed. Another part, a concert, takes place at the nearby Institute of Bioenergy Crops and Sugar Beets of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. My Kyiv host Yura offers to drive me there and I gladly accept. We descend into the courtyard of his apartment building, and I am invited to board a Tesla. This is the first time I ride in one. It’s very quiet.

The Tesla pulls up to the Sugar Beet Institute which looks exactly as one might expect: a dilapidated Soviet building, with crumbling concrete stairs and walls lined with posters showcasing the virtues of sugar beets. The youth that files into the “Beet Hall” sports a wonderful mix of tattoos, piercings, traditional embroidered shirts, ripped jeans, doc-martens, meticulously groomed hipster beards and punkish dreads. Their eyes beam with purpose. War, Tesla, sugar beets, and dreads at a hope-filled celebration of a young, bright, now extinguished life. A surreal concoction.

Photo May 27 2023, 8 48 46 PM
Beet Hall, Kyiv: “Never fear anything,” a festival dedicated to Roman Ratushny, a civil activist who was killed in action on June 9, 2022.

Roman’s parents are at the festival, and I see where he got his good looks. Roman’s mother, poetess Svitlana Povaliayeva, is a Buddhist. She is said to have been a laissez-faire mom, calling her children “bodhisattvas,” and letting them chart their own paths. She supported Roman’s decision to enlist and is now bearing her loss with amazing composure. As she watches her dead son’s peers repose on the Protasiv Yar meadow and dance at the Beet Hall she delights. Roman would have loved this. Is this a façade that covers her maternal grief, willfully pushed to some impenetrable depth of her soul? Or did her Buddhist worldview equip her to carry her loss with so much acceptance, to dissolve herself in the current of the now, in which her child is only a memory?   

I later buy Svitlana’s latest compilation of poetry “Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Sunshine.” One of the poems is titled “Messenger.” If I were to translate it into English, it would go something like this:

First, he wrote,
Then only responded,
Then only read.
Then delivered messages stayed gray for several hours, days — unread.
Then undelivered messages burned the eye with their white circles,
Eventually turning gray like snow.
And filled with color suddenly like earth in spring:
He read them.
And then
Messages stopped,
Like snow in spring,
Like March grayness in May,
Like all color at the end of life.
The last read message,
Like a photograph on a grave,
Stays unchanged,
If protected by glass,
If undeleted,
If visited at times to lay flowers…

That night comes the largest drone attack on Kyiv since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of some 52 Iranian-made Shahed drones, essentially loitering munitions packing up to 20 kg/45lb of high explosives, launched by Russia that night, 40 head for Ukraine’s capital. The guest bedroom where I’m staying is on the top level of the top-floor apartment, right under the eaves. 

I wake up to the wailing of an air raid siren. It’s about 12:30 am. Instead of jumping to my feet and rushing to the shelter, I lay still and take in my situation. There’s nothing between me and the Shaheds, ballistic and cruise missiles Russia is lobbing off at Kyiv, but a blanket, a roof, and probability calculus — as well as Western-supplied air defense systems and their deft Ukrainian operators.

I recall discussions in the West a year or so ago about the imprudence of supplying Ukraine with US Patriot air-defense systems because they are very complex and take up to 18 months to train in. I wonder how long it took to train the guy who knocked out of the sky seven out of seven Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin bragged were invincible to air defenses. I later learn that the name of the Patriot operator is Vyacheslav, he’s 30, and it took three and a half months to train him. His identity is kept from public view, but inside the Ukrainian military he is a celebrated hero. That night, none of the 40 drones get through. 

I wake up at 8 am to find a barrage of texts on my phone from Yura: “Are you okay? Are you not afraid? Our neighbors are going down to the brothel, do you want to join?” The brothel is a local establishment that is exactly that, a brothel. It lets neighbors in during air raids and provides a welcome alternative to the building’s assigned bomb shelter: though it’s in the basement, it has Wi-Fi and beds. I miss the chance to check out the local brothel because, incredibly, my musings about roofs and air defense lull me to sleep, and I’m dead to the world during the most massive Russian drone attack of the war. It’s both embarrassing and surprising because I have been sleeping poorly since the Covid pandemic. Missiles, brothel bomb shelters, deep slumber of an insomniac. How bizarrely unexpected.

On Monday, May 29, 2023, I have a busy day, packed with meetings and interviews. My time in Kyiv is limited and I’m trying to make the most of it. I make my way to a library housed in a grand old building at the end of Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard. I am recording an interview for a documentary about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. Serhiy the director and I set up in a lovely reading room, lined with tables and green lamps, complete with large arched windows and chandeliers. We go through his questions, and the librarian ladies are being as quiet in going about their tasks as only librarians can be.  

About an hour into the interview, we hear an air raid siren. It feels like a déjà vu: last January, on my previous trip to Ukraine, I was recording an interview for another documentary at the same library when it was interrupted by an air raid. Normally, you get half an hour or more before the strikes come. We decide to continue and breeze through the remaining questions. The librarians seem unsure but accommodate us. I carry on for another five minutes, when suddenly, a loud explosion splits the air overhead, the whole grand old building shakes, the large windows rattle in their frames. Camera rolls. We drop everything and together with the librarians run out onto the street and to the pedestrian underpass beneath the European Square. A few dozen people are sheltering there already. The cannonade above continues for another 30 minutes. 

Photo May 29 2023, 10 10 19 AM
A reading room of the Yaroslav Mudry Library in Kyiv.

Meanwhile, I get a message from my next appointment, a retired general who commanded a nuclear-armed strategic missile division in Ukraine in the 1990s and whom I interviewed for my book about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. We are due to meet at a metro station about 30 minutes from the city center, so that I can give him my book and he can give me his, and we can talk about the war. The general has already arrived from his dacha outside Kyiv and is waiting for me in a shopping center next to the metro station. I feel terrible that he has made a special trip for me, and I’m trapped in an underpass waiting out a missile strike. 

The air alert is still in force but the explosions overhead cease. I order a taxi through an app and tell Serhiy that I must run an errand but will be back to finish the recording. We’ll stay in touch. It is foolish and reckless of me, but I take a chance. The taxi arrives in 4 minutes, and I jump in. I greet the driver and casually remark that he works during air alerts. He turns around, looks me straight in the eye, and says: “I’m from Mariupol.” A silence falls under the weight of his words. 

Another flashback: I recall a random encounter with a woman in a Berlin airport café a month prior. She sat next to me and overheard me speak Ukrainian to my son on the phone. When I hung up, she said how nice it was to hear Ukrainian. I asked where she was from. “I’m from Izyum, Kharkiv oblast.” A similar weighty silence fell. Then she told me how she fled from the advancing Russian troops, under incessant bombing, but was unable to evacuate her elderly parents. They spent a week in a bomb shelter, her father, 80 years old, disabled, unable to walk. Finally, volunteers, two strong men, carried her father out of the basement, under shelling, and her parents were able to make it to Germany, by cars, buses, and trains, without a wheelchair. They are now in a hospice in Berlin, in the care of the German government. She found a job in Spain as a cleaner. Back home in Izyum she was a teacher. She has stayed in touch with her former students, many of the boys are at the front, so young, she shakes her head, so young. Some were killed, some had limbs torn off, one was in a psychiatric hospital suffering from severe trauma, others were still fighting. She recounted these things slowly, calmly, her continence undistorted by access emotion. But all the while tears streamed down her face. It must be her new normal, the freely crying eyes, with nothing left to hold the tears back. We hugged, for a long minute, a warm, familial hug of two perfect strangers in a Berlin airport. I never asked her name.

My taxi driver’s name is Ivan, Vanya, he’s 55 years old, a Mariupol Greek. “After the things I’ve seen, an air alert in Kyiv is nothing,” Vanya finally says and goes on to tell me how he evacuated from Mariupol on March 16, 2022, with the help of the Red Cross, through apocalyptic scenes, rubble, burning buildings, explosions, and dead bodies strewn everywhere. Hell. Everything he had, everything he worked for, is gone: his house, two cars, a warehouse full of cosmetics and household goods, which he traded wholesale. Half a lifetime and half a million dollars in goods and assets wiped out in two weeks. He escaped with the clothes on his back and a few thousand dollars in cash he managed to salvage from the wreckage of his home. His brother, who lives in Greece, helped him buy a car, and now Vanya sustains himself, just barely, driving a cab. 

Photo May 29 2023, 12 36 21 PM
A taxi ride with Ivan, a refugee from Mariupol. May 29, 2023.

I ask if he will go back to Mariupol once it’s liberated. He hesitates, there is nothing left for him there, the place is a ruin. But then he says with determination, “Yes, I’ll return,” if only to confront those of his former friends and business associates who stayed and collaborated, who scavenged the remains of his warehouse. He knows their names, he keeps a list. 

We arrive at our destination, and I ask him to wait a few minutes for me and drive me back to the city center. I offer him some cash as security before I disappear into the shopping center but Vanya refuses. He says he trusts me, he’ll wait. A man who lost everything to Russian bombs and was betrayed by his business partners trusts a perfect stranger to return and pay her fare.

The general has been patiently waiting for me for nearly an hour. Our meeting is short, I sign and give him my book “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine.” It’s in English and he won’t be able to read it, but I tell him that many of his recollections are recorded there. He signs and hands me his book, “The Lost Nuclear Missile Shield of Ukraine,” written in Russian. He is an ethnic Russian from the Rostov region who was caught by the Soviet collapse in Ukraine. He decided to stay and serve in the nascent Ukrainian armed forces, refusing a transfer to Russia. It was not an easy decision: the branch of the military he was serving — the Strategic Rocket Forces, the mighty and prestigious bulwark of Soviet nuclear deterrent — were being dismantled in Ukraine following the country’s decision in 1994 to disarm and join the Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. He presided over the dismantlement of the missile division he commanded and basically worked himself out of a job, together with another 30,000 missilieers in Ukraine. 

I give in to my urge to know, to experience for myself, to bear witness to what a missile strike on a European capital in the 21st century looks and sounds like. Not only witness, but record, and explain this war to the world, to posterity, and to myself, using simple, ordinary words to capture and convey extraordinary things. An impossible task. 

Now he heads the union of veterans of the Ukrainian Strategic Rocket Forces, which were officially disbanded in 2002. Once these missilieers studied together in military colleges and served side by side with the Russians. Today, their children and grandchildren are fighting and dying on the frontlines of the war Russia unleashed against Ukraine. The general has no loyalty, not even an inkling of respect left for his disgraced homeland. Since 2014, he has cut off all communication with his former Russian comrades. He relates that when the full-scale Russian invasion started, his daughter thanked him for making the decision back then to stay in Ukraine, the decision that spares him and his family the dishonor of being a Russian today. 

I give the general a hug and rush to find Vanya in his taxi to take me to Serhiy, who’s waiting back in the library to finish the recording. The air raid is over. Vanya speaks Ukrainian very decently, but admits he started only on February 24, 2022. For 54 years he spoke only Russian. It seems to be a trend. Kyiv, thoroughly russified under Soviet rule, has now chosen Ukrainian. When I arrived in Kyiv from Lviv to begin my university studies in 1993, my native Ukrainian, spoken in public, turned heads and raised eyebrows; some asked if I was from Poland. The balance improved somewhat and by the 2000s the city settled into a largely indifferent bilingualism: a Ukrainian speaker and a Russian speaker could switch to either or continue a conversation each in their own language. Today, the indifference is gone and, while Russian is still spoken widely, the balance shifted decidedly in favor of Ukrainian, especially among the youth. 

On Monday night comes another massive missile strike. I am up for this one but again skip the brothel bomb shelter. I stand on the apartment’s rooftop terrace with my host, in my pajamas, a borrowed sweatshirt, and house slippers and behold the macabre air show. The panorama over the rooftops of central Kyiv is breathtaking. The sounds in the night sky are ominous. I hear a Shahed, very distinctly, it sounds like a moped and seems about as fast, coming up along the Dnieper, soon automatic gunfire fills the air, then I see a flash, and count as if in anticipation of a thunder after lightning: one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four… Then it comes, a deep-throated expansive crack. A friend later tells me that her eight-year-old son, awakened by the strikes that night, came running into her bedroom: “Mama, I’m afraid of the thunder.” “It’s not thunder, baby, it’s missiles,” she said. “Ah, okay.” The boy came down and went back to bed. 

Photo May 25 2023, 10 00 57 PM

Watching Star Wars over Kyiv at night on the rooftop terrace, instead of hiding in a shelter, is foolish and reckless. In the morning, I learn that a woman in Kyiv was killed by a falling piece of a shot-down missile while watching the strikes from her balcony, like I did. I am no adrenaline junkie, I have a mother to care for and kids to raise. But I am a historian. I give in to my urge to know, to experience for myself, to bear witness to what a missile strike on a European capital in the 21st century looks and sounds like. Not only witness, but record, and explain this war to the world, to posterity, and to myself, using simple, ordinary words to capture and convey extraordinary things. An impossible task.

My sports watch shows 4:36h average sleep for my 6 nights in Kyiv, and that’s with two full, uninterrupted nights. Kyivites have been operating in this mode for the whole month of May which saw no less than 20 missile strikes on the city. Over the course of the war, Russia launched some 8,000 missiles of various kinds on Ukrainian cities, killing nearly 7,000 civilians and injuring another 13,000. And yet, a new morning dawns and Kyivites, as well as millions of other Ukrainians, get up, have their coffee, go to work, volunteer for the war effort, help their children with homework, make dinner, and go to bed, until the next air raid siren. Amid every night missile strikes, everyday life is a miracle.

Strolling in downtown Kyiv in search of a much-needed coffee next morning, I note how clean the city is, how well cared for: lawns are mowed, planters brim with flowers, statues are sandbagged. I come across a display of mangled Russian armor, some damaged Ukrainian military vehicles, and finally a whole field of little Ukrainian flags on the Maidan. Each one commemorates a person killed by Russia, many with inscriptions by loved ones. One flag says “Miss you very much and love you, little one. Memory eternal.” Another, simply “Mama. Amstor. 27.06.22.” Amstor is a shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, where a Russian missile strike killed 21 last June. In the sea of blue and yellow, there are also a few Polish, Georgian, and even a US flag, for volunteers who came to Ukraine to fight the good fight. Each one of these flags was once a life, each one is a story. 

On this trip stories of loss, grief, heroism, and resilience are all around me. I read many more, captured by Ukrainian and foreign journalists. A story of a six-year-old boy who turned gray after Russian soldiers repeatedly raped his mother in front of him; she later died of injuries. A story of a mother, who with trembling hands wrote her daughter’s name, date of birth, and contact number of relatives on her back, in case one of them was killed or they were separated during evacuation. A story of a Kyiv-Rakhiv-Kyiv train and its crew, whose shift lasted 43 days and who evacuated three million people from Ukraine’s east when the great war started. A story of Ukrainian volunteers in the northwestern Volhynia region, the site of mass atrocities committed by Ukrainian nationalists against the Poles during the Second World War, cleaning and restoring old Polish cemeteries as a sign of gratitude to Poland for its generosity and support in this war. 

Some stories will become legends, like that of Roman Ratushny. Most stories will remain untold. There are just too many. But all these stories, of the living and the dead, bleed into one powerful torrent that is the story of Ukraine today, its urgent living history, heartbreaking and heartwarming, unbroken and unbreakable. 

Correction Feb. 9, 2024: A previous version of this article referred to Ukrainian-Polish atrocities in WWII, implying equivalency. The description of the Volhynia region and its WWII history has been updated to specify the atrocities were committed by Ukrainian nationalists.

Mariana Budjeryn

Mariana Budjeryn is a senior research associate at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, Project on Managing the Atom and the author of "Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine."

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