‘It’s hard to leave’: New wave of Moscow missile attacks reignites fear of Kyivans

Viktoriia Vasylieva, a wedding photographer, and her eight-year-old daughter have returned home to Kyiv in recent weeks, enjoying the relative peace in a city that felt remote from the brutal artillery war raging in the eastern region from the Donbass in Ukraine.

But the calm was shattered again this week by a deadly rocket attack. In a series of missile strikes across Ukraine, from Kremenchuk to Odessa, Moscow has sent a message: it is always ready to kill civilians, wherever they live. Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, became the latest city to face bombardment, during a roadblock on Friday and early Saturday morning.

“I understand that staying here can be dangerous,” said Vasylieva, who moved from Crimea to Kyiv years ago. “But I feel this is my home.”

She and her daughter have become familiar with the “two walls rule” when air raid sirens sound, rushing for shelter in a hallway or bathroom. But having fled Kyiv three days after Russia invaded in February, they are not about to go after it again. “There is nothing worse than being a refugee,” Vasylieva said.

Months after Russian troops shelled parts of the capital and brutally occupied Irpin and Bucha, two leafy suburbs in the northwest, Kyiv residents are trying to restore something resembling normalcy.

Viktoriia Vasylieva, with her daughter

Downtown cafes and bars – which before the war were a magnet for a growing middle class and foreigners looking for a Berlin hipster vibe at Ukrainian prices – are starting to buzz again. At 6 p.m., cocktail drinkers on Reitarska Street spill out onto the sidewalk. The 11 p.m. curfew means some parties start a little earlier.

But escaping the signs of war is impossible.

A display of destroyed Russian military equipment brings onlookers to central Mykhailivska Square. The murals honor the war dead. A huge banner on the administrative building of Mayor Wladimir Klitschko calls – in English – for the release of fighters captured by Russia after the destruction of Mariupol.

Cars still have to squeeze between the spiked steel anti-tank barricades called “izhaki”, or hedgehogs, which are strewn across the streets of the capital. Sandbags cover statues and buttress official buildings.

Some of the biggest creative lights in town wonder if a candle has been snuffed out by Putin’s invasion.

“Everything was booming, the whole country was booming. Kyiv was the new Berlin. The art scene was huge,” said Darko Skulsky, who moved to the city from Philadelphia and became executive producer of Radioaktive Film, one of the companies behind the Chernobyl HBO series. “It had the coolest bars and nightclubs in the world, great restaurants. Then it happened.

Skulsky now lives in Warsaw. “There are definitely tears. All the time,” he said.

Moments after a missile strike on Kyiv on Sunday June 26
Moments after a missile strike on Kyiv on Sunday June 26 © Derek Brower/FT

Nearly 4 million people lived in Kyiv before the February 24 invasion. The population plunged as the Russian troops approached. He has recovered at around 2.7 minutes now, but the trauma remains.

“The city is different. It’s empty,” said Vladyslav Piontkovskyy, a 29-year-old analyst who left Kyiv with his wife and baby daughter in March. They came back a few weeks ago.

“Subtle things have changed. Your favorite restaurant no longer sells your favorite food… We gave our pets a rabies vaccine and the vet told us they were missing everything.

Like many others, his anxieties extend far beyond Kyiv. As the Russians invaded, her grandparents chose to stay near Kharkiv, in a city now occupied by Russia. The family lost contact with them in March.

Many in the city have similar stories of a war-torn country. But the atmosphere is also provocative.

Just hours after the missile attack on Sunday, the music was rising just down the street at HVLV, a “pre-party” hangout, where hipsters smoked rolled cigarettes, flipped through vinyl records and shared cocktails with soldiers burned by the sun.

The men had taken part in the retreat from Severodonetsk a few days earlier, but were preparing to return to Lysychansk, another town where the Russians are pushing their Donbass offensive.

“We are going back to take Donbass,” said Serhii Filimonov, a soldier with a “Victory or Valhalla” tattoo on his chest.

Anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ in Independence Square in central Kyiv © Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA/Zuma Press/eyevine

In the Brodsky Central Synagogue, Rita Korol and her husband Viktor Prister recounted living through World War II and the Nazi invasion, when both lost parents. Many members of their synagogue also left Kyiv this time around, fearing Putin’s army. Few had returned. Korol and Prister stayed.

“It’s hard at our age to leave,” she said. Did they feel safe? “Nope.” The couple have no bunker to hide in. “When I hear the sirens, I’m scared.”

While many foreign brands have closed stores or suspended operations, local businesses are showing more steel. The kosher grocery store next to the synagogue still manages to sell products imported from the United States and Israel. Inside the Gulliver Shopping Center on the road, which remained open during the invasion, the upmarket Silpo supermarket is stocked with ripe fruit, choice meats and fine wines.

Piontkovskyy, the analyst, is one of many Russian speakers in Kyiv trying to switch to Ukrainian, avoiding the language, literature and music of the invaders. It’s another identity adjustment for people who never believed Russia was a threat.

Vasylieva, the photographer, says she is now back to business taking pictures of Kyivans returning briefly for a final visit to their city.

She has fallen out with her Russian-supporting father in annexed Crimea, who denies news of Russian atrocities and missile strikes. But his daughter’s mental state, not her father’s, is his priority.

“I don’t want her to see anything horrible,” she said. “His psychological state depends on me.”

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