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Opinion

A year into war, there’s still optimism to be found in Kyiv

Putin's invasion of Ukraine has killed thousands and displaced millions over the last 12 months. But the hardy spirit of Kyiv endures, writes Steven MacKenzie

Ukraine

Thousands of people fled Ukraine and arrived in the UK as refugees. Image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr

Three years ago I was in a hot tub in Kyiv, Ukraine. Such is the time distortion of Covid that it feels like last month. Such is the surrealness of seeing war in Europe that it feels like a different dimension. 

It was February 2020. Cheap flights and an even cheaper hotel; just off Independence Square and only a few hryvnia more to upgrade to a room with a spa bath. Who could resist? So for less than £25 a night I settled into bubbly opulence.  

Kyiv is a great city. I visited the Microminiature Museum containing astounding works of art you view through a microscope: a chessboard sitting on a pin head, a caravan of camels in the eye of a needle. I rode escalators down to the deepest underground station in the world (soon to become a bomb shelter). I went to the National Opera, bought a box ticket for £5 and watched ballerinas dance to the Boléro, bringing with it inevitable thoughts of Torville, Dean, Sarajevo. 

At that time, there was a spectre on the horizon. Reports of a virus spreading in China – surely wouldn’t come to much. In Kyiv there were other signs of circling shadows.  

In 2014 Russia had annexed Crimea and was undertaking military operations in the east of the country. Around the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War were buckled and broken tanks that had been captured and put on public display. A reminder that the country was under attack. Inside were boards with pictures of soldiers and stories of how they had died in the recent conflict. 

Then a year ago this very week, there was the shocking but not surprising invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s forces. Thousands killed, millions displaced and no end in sight. There are not enough streets in the city to show off every captured tank, not enough space in a museum or in anyone’s head or heart to remember the lives lost or understand why. 

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One year on, infrastructure has increasingly been targeted to disrupt civilian life. People in Ukraine are struggling through winter with limited electricity and heating. Maybe this is why I think of the hot tub. Clearly it’s completely insignificant next to the scale of devastation but it seems a symbol of the incomprehensibility of it all. A hot tub shouldn’t belong in a war zone. A city, like pretty much any in the world, shouldn’t be in a war zone. Neither should people who just want to go about their business in security and peace.

My Uber app tells me that the driver who took me from the airport into town was called Олексій (Oleksij). During that short journey he gave me an insight into the politics of the region that no news report has been able to rival since. And I think of the enterprising owner of the hotel who decided to plonk a hot tub in every room of his converted apartment hotel. I still have him on WhatsApp. His status update reads: All will be ok : )

The hotel is still welcoming guests. A couple from Azerbaijan recently left a review praising its amenities, including one I wasn’t aware of – the “very safe underground shelter”. Daniel from the USA recently left a review complaining about the “dark water”. 

Daniel writes: “I filled up the beautiful jacuzzi style tub only to find the water was significantly greenish brown in colour and it had an ever-so mild off-putting smell.” 

If travellers visiting a city at the centre of a geopolitical crisis only feel the need to complain about the quality of water in their hot tub, people must have found a piece of normality against the odds and maybe all will be ok. 

Steven MacKenzie is deputy editor of The Big Issue.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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