The Russian threat revives memories and mistrust in the Ukrainian capital

Nearly eight years of war in eastern Ukraine have often seemed distant from Kiev, the gold-domed capital of three million people that stretches across the wide Dnieper River.

For some soldiers visiting or returning to the city, it can be infuriating that events 700km away seem barely registered here, while others see the normality of life in Kyiv and most other Ukrainian cities as a price. hard earned by those who risk it all on the front line.

Yet, right in the heart of Kiev, at the blue and white monastery of Saint Michael, the capital counts the soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine since Russia created a separatist army to take over entire swaths of the Donbass region in the spring of 2014.

Over eight years of faltering reforms, frequent protests, the rise and fall of governments, a pandemic, and the crowning of Kiev as the “new Berlin” by Western pioneers, the so-called Wall of the memory of St. Michael’s Monastery grew longer and longer as the death toll in the Donbass soared to 14,000.

With 100,000 Russian troops deployed near eastern Ukraine, units moving into Belarus for war games near northern Ukraine, and Crimea in southern Ukraine bristling with the forces of Moscow since its annexation in 2014, fears of a massive escalation in fighting now mingle with memories outside the monastery.

Andriy, a lieutenant colonel in the army, remembers three of his comrades whose faces are on the wall – Vitaliy Tilizhenko, Vasyl Lavkai and Andriy Bodyak – who died in a battle in Donbass in August 2015.

“Their position was hit by a 122mm mortar shell, so they weren’t very lucky,” said Andriy (48), who refuses to give his surname.

Ukrainian soldier Andriy (48) remembers comrades killed in fighting against Russian-led separatists at the Memorial Wall of St. Michael’s Monastery, Kyiv

“Vitaliy had his own business before volunteering to defend Ukraine. He was always joking. Every soldier has a call sign and Vitaliy decided it would be “Cake”, just to make the guys laugh. He said he was the only cake to fight in the East.

The three men who died were part of a huge wave of volunteers who held their country together – as soldiers, doctors, fundraisers and makers and deliverers of vital supplies – when Russia responded to Ukraine’s revolution against its president supported by the Kremlin by occupying the Crimea and by fomenting the war in the Donbass.

Two of the three were from predominantly Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, and the third from a Western bastion of Ukrainian language and culture, and they fought together for a unit of Right Sector, a group that included nationalists from different allegiances but whom Moscow has portrayed as a bunch of fascists who hate Russia.

“I’ve been in the army for 28 years and I represent the fifth generation of my family to serve in the army, since tsarist times,” says Andriy, who acknowledges that his ancestors may have found it difficult. to imagine a war between Ukraine and Russia – its imperial and communist master at the time.

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit train in an industrial area of ​​Kyiv as fears of a Russian invasion mount.  Photography: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit train in an industrial area of ​​Kyiv as fears of a Russian invasion mount. Photography: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

“Not many people have thought about it, but if you take the history of Ukraine-Russia relations…you come to the conclusion that Russian policy towards Ukraine has not changed for centuries,” he explains.

“It is a policy of destroying the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian literature, the Ukrainian state, etc. From there you realize that Russia as a country is not friendly towards Ukraine,” he adds.

“But you have to clearly separate the Russian government from the ordinary Russian people, because the Russian people are also to some extent repressed. The culpability lies with the Russian government.

As he speaks – in the Russian that most people speak fluently in this largely bilingual country – chants and cheers ring out in the snowy air.

Not far away, between St. Michael’s and the 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral, hundreds of protesters castigate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and demand that his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, be cleared of treason charges.

Poroshenko says the case is a political attack that divides Ukrainians at a time when national unity is essential.

Supporters of former Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko attend a rally in Kyiv this month.  Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP

Supporters of former Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko attend a rally in Kyiv this week. Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP

“I think Russia is planning something,” said Olha, a protester from Zaporizhia, a southeastern city where she thinks pro-Moscow sentiment lingers.

“It still exists, despite the war. But I was a volunteer who went to the front, and I know that there are enough Ukrainian patriots to defend the country,” she adds.

At the Memorial Wall outside St Michael’s, Private Andriy says the same.

“The progressive and active part of our population is not so large, but we will do everything to protect Ukraine,” he said.

“This is our country, we will never have another, and it is our honor and our duty to defend it – even with our lives.”

Christi C. Elwood