It has been more than 24 hours since I left Berlin for Kyiv, and I am exhausted as the train pulls into the central train station. Despite the fog of two sleepless nights, I am struck by Kyiv's greenness. I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Charles de Gaulle, who, during his visit to Kyiv, is said to have remarked: "I saw many parks in cities, but I have never seen a city in a park." It's a fitting description for a city enveloped by lush greenery, as though the urban landscape seamlessly arises from the natural environment.
This is my second trip to Kyiv this year, and the transformation from my last visit is striking. The scars of Russian missile attacks amidst a grey January setting are now covered by thriving greenery drowning the city in intoxicating aromas of blooming vegetation. It's hard to believe this is a war zone, but the omnipresent tension is everywhere in anticipation of increased Russian missile attacks over the weekend. The fact that the conflict is never far away cast a pall over an otherwise idyllic spring day.
My visit falls on Victory Day on May 8-9, a symbolic holiday that Russia will not fail to exploit to rain terror upon the capital. Despite this, life in Kyiv continues, and people flood the streets, cafes, restaurants and parks on weekends. The sense of calm on the surface is remarkable, but scratch beneath it, and you'll sense the underlying dread that permeates the city.
Talking to people, you encounter fatalism in the face of danger. There is palpable exhaustion from living in fear. After over a year of omnipresent threats, everyone has given up on taking precautions and being driven into bomb shelters underground. The credo is “life must go on,” and whatever happens, happens. War fatigue has touched every face. Behind every easy smile hides the enervation of war and tiny wrinkles from worry touch an eye here and a cheek there.
On a stunningly sunny spring Saturday, I'm enjoying the weather as we visit St. Sophia’s Cathedral to view locations for an event we plan to hold. The golden domes of the churches shine and sparkle against the deep blue sky. It’s easy to forget I'm in a war zone as we navigate through throngs of people sharing in the glorious weather. Soldiers are everywhere, whether on break from the front or enjoying the last days of respite before returning to the fighting. They are a constant reminder of what is happening in the East.
I am with local friends, and we enjoy a wonderful day until the air-raid sirens start wailing at 11 pm. The alarm catches us as we are walking back to my hotel after a great meal at a restaurant on Andriivsky descent, a historic and extremely picturesque street connecting the neighbourhoods of Pechersk on the hill to Podil sprawling along the banks of the Dnipro River below. The sound jolts me, but my friends barely react, smiling as they assure me that it's just another night in Kyiv.
They laugh at me when I ask if we should go to a shelter, stating that only those who suffer from phobias go to shelters anymore. Everyone else is too tired to trek underground and let fear dictate their lives. The night is interrupted by another siren at 4 am. I refuse to leave my bed for the hotel shelter in solidarity with my friends. In the morning, I find out that the debris of downed drones and missiles has injured five people.
On Sunday, I spend the day with my family. We drove to the town where I was born, 70 km south of Kyiv. The house my grandfather built, where I grew up and which my uncle diligently and lovingly maintains, seems much smaller than I remember. The smells of the place bring me back to a happy childhood frolicking with my friends and cousins in the lush garden. The trees and flowers bloom, and the summer kitchen's smoky smell promises homemade sausages. I close my eyes, and it's as if forty-five years have not passed.
It is a sweet reunion. We visit the graves of old relatives, and then we have a full traditional Ukrainian meal with home sausages, salo, potato pancakes, wild game cutlets and a myriad of other dishes that vividly rekindle memories of huge family gatherings. This house was always filled with love and laughter and joy. We spend hours going through old family photos, the good times and the bad; we laugh, cry, and do not want the evening to end. We talk about the war and my uncle trying unsuccessfully to enlist in the army at 63. They joke about the many near misses of Russian ordnance flying above the town. There is no fear, however, only resolve to fight and win. Regrettably, this all comes to an end, and I have to return to Kyiv to try to get some sleep in preparation for meetings.
Sleep, however, remains elusive. In celebration of Victory Day, the Russians intensified their bombardment of the capital. Two more air raids on the night of the 8th again deprived everyone of a peaceful night. During the day, however, I am rewarded with a visit to the Kyiv School of Economics, a testament to the future of this country. Despite the war, it continues to educate the next generation of leaders who will be entrusted with the fruits of this victory to mold the post-war future of this country to deliver on the promise that all sacrifices are not for naught. A modern building, it is a beehive abuzz with activity. A sense of urgency is everywhere, from a lively discussion with the rector to young people zooming up and down the stairs the energy of the place is invigorating.
The night of the 9th offers the piece-de-resistance of my visit. I am jolted out of bed at 4 am by a massive explosion outside my window. I rushed to see a black plume hanging over St. Sophia's – a Russian cruise missile destroyed by Ukrainian air defences just a few hundred metres from my hotel. I feel a knot in my stomach, but no fear. Somehow, there is a strong sense that the Ukrainian army has this under control. The confidence that the military inspires in the population is palpable and intoxicating, leaving no doubt of the war's outcome.
I am pulled from the window by a phone call from my wife in Berlin. She is in a panic, asking if I am all right. She monitors Telegram channels constantly, keeping watch over announced air raid warnings. I calm her down but do not tell her about the missile outside my window. I am petrified of what her reaction would be. We video conference for the next hour until she falls asleep, and I pull out my laptop to write. I have given up on sleep altogether.
After another hectic day of meetings, I head to the central railway station to catch an overnight train to Przemysl on my way back to Berlin. There are a multitude of women and children boarding the train, seeking refuge in whatever part of Europe will take them. Huge suitcases, too heavy for them to haul down the stairs to the platform, hold possessions salvaged to provide some subsistence in a foreign land. I can’t help but wonder whether they will return after the war is won.
Leaving Kyiv, I am filled with a gamut of emotions. The unwavering faith in victory and the apprehension of what will come after the war is common in all conversations here.
There is a realisation that the post-war period will be no less challenging than the war in determining whether Ukraine reaches its potential or slides back into a European backwater. The war has disrupted lives and shattered families, and the threat of violence is never far away. It's a harsh reminder that life can change in an instant and that even the sweetest moments are tinged with melancholy hanging over the city like a light fog, hard to see but omnipresent.
Despite the ongoing conflict, Kyiv remains a city of life and vibrancy. Its people refuse to be cowed by the threat of violence and continue to live their lives with a sense of determination and purpose. They are a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is still hope.
In Kyiv, I experienced a stubborn determination that I have rarely seen in other cities. Life continues, and people still find joy and meaning daily. It’s a testament to the human spirit, a reminder that we can find the strength to endure even in the face of adversity.
Kyiv is a city that defies easy description. It's a city of greenery and beauty, war and danger, life and vibrancy. It's a city that is both familiar and strange, a place that challenges my perceptions and my understanding of the world. But above all, it's a city of hope, a place where the human spirit endures even in the face of adversity. As I leave this wonderful emerald city, I hope to get some sleep, and I earnestly wish the same for the people of Ukraine. Their bravery, resilience and conviction make victory inevitable, and perhaps they will be able to enjoy some well-deserved rest.
Alexander Kabanovsky is formerly Russia-based banker and entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his substack “Thinking Out Loud” here.
“Politics, history, culture, and whatever strikes me as important or interesting. For the time being, highly focused on the war in Ukraine.”