‘It’s awful to think people who survived WWII in their youth have fallen victim in old age to the insanity of a mad man’

Published by The Daily Mail (23rd February, 2022)

VADIM was walking his pug dog when we met yesterday morning. The sky was blue, the sun shone and the park in front of Kiev’s main drama theatre was filled with parents pushing prams past a few elderly folk sitting on benches.

The scene, with its feeling of springtime, could scarcely have been more peaceful. Yet, like countless others of his fellow citizens, the 21-year-old engineering student is steeling himself for war.

‘I’m tired of the Russian aggression,’ Vadim said. ‘I don’t sleep at night, I just keep reading the news. I’ve been going to bed at 6am for the last four days.’

Vadim has already suffered once from Putin’s terrorism. He fled Donetsk with his family in 2014 when rebels backed by Moscow took over the city, declared independence and provoked a dragging conflict that has killed at least 14,000 people – including a soldier who died in shelling over the front line last night.

Now the shadow of war hangs heavy over the entire nation and, as Vadim says, the situation feels eerily similar to 2014 with all the lies, tricks and provocations to justify Russian aggression. ‘We can only sit and wait. If the war comes, I will not flee since I feel there’s nowhere to run now.’

His pain is all the more profound since his father is still in Donetsk, telling his son how the separatists create fake stories about Ukrainian shelling to feed Putin’s propaganda machine.

Yet now this student faces the prospect of fighting in a war – and his adopted city, the capital of a European nation, might just be enjoying its last few days of halcyon normality.

Indeed, as I talked to people going about their daily lives in this sprawling old city straddling the river Dnipro, it felt like we were trapped in a strange throwback to past times on our continent when nations clashed in battle, leaders drew lines on maps and ordinary lives were disposable.

Oksana, 59, works for a Jewish care organisation, looking after people in their eighties and nineties who survived World War II. ‘They tell me the stories about the bombings, the evacuations. They are very worried. I try to calm them down.’

Like others, she says she fears Putin is mad and ‘wants to rule the world’. But she cannot leave Kyiv since her elderly mother lives in the city with her pets. ‘Besides, I have nowhere to go. I don’t have any friends or relatives I can stay with.’

Ukraine is a country profoundly scarred over the past century with civil war, communist dictatorship, four million people dying in Stalin’s famine, 10 million killed in World War II – and now it must confront the cruelties of Putin.

Olga Lisowska, 30, an artist from Donbas, said her grandparents were uprooted eight years ago from their long-time home near Donetsk, due to Moscow’s meddling.

‘It’s awful to think these people who survived World War II in their youth have fallen victim as old people to the insanity of the mad man,’ she said. ‘I would very much like to embrace all Ukrainians who are now as anxious as I am. I wish us all to be brave and hold on.’

The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who finds himself leading his nation’s fight for survival, said in a rallying call to his nation at 2am yesterday: ‘We are not afraid of anyone or anything.’

Lisa Yasko, 31, an MP in his party who entered politics after the pro-democracy protests in 2014 that sparked Putin’s intervention, said life might seem calm on the surface but underneath there is often deep concern reflected in their conversations.

She told me she recently met a close friend who works in IT who became so emotional and angry about the threat of war that she spoke of emigrating.

An opinion poll published yesterday found that only 14.5 per cent of Ukrainians are ready to abandon hopes of joining Nato to appease Putin but 3.7 per cent plan to leave if attacked – which equates to 1.6m citizens in a nation already suffering depopulation due to economic struggles.

Miss Yasko says she was struck by Putin’s bellicose speech on Monday, saying he seemed deeply pained about Ukraine being independent and not part of a greater Russia. ‘His thinking dates from his Soviet mindset, his desire to show power and control to the world. He hates the West and cannot stand any success around him.’

As Ukrainian MPs debated their response, there was a stark reminder of the human cost of conflict as the funeral took place of Anton Siderov, 35, a captain in the Ukrainian army and father of three daughters who was killed on Saturday alongside another soldier in a shelling.

His devastated widow Natalia, clutching their six-month-old youngest daughter, led mourners in the Ukrainian Orthodox ceremony with candles, carnations and a choir singing over his open casket. Afterwards, his flag-draped coffin was carried out on the shoulders of eight military comrades.

Little wonder Anatoliy Semenko, 50, a former law enforcement official, said he was afraid that the crisis might have ‘strong impact’ on his family. ‘I have two sons in their twenties but, if needed, my sons and I will join the army. I don’t want my sons to leave their normal life and have to fight. But we can’t predict what will Putin do. We don’t know what’s in his head.’

Yet for all the fortitude on display, Ukraine is woefully under-prepared for full-throttle military assault. Last year, for instance, an official study found just 11 per cent of its 21,000 underground shelters to be operational – and when I checked the basements listed near my rented flat, the first four were locked with signs giving a number to call in a crisis.

And at times yesterday, I was reminded of how people in Sarajevo told me how they never thought their nation would slide into civil war – only to spend almost four awful years under siege from sniper fire and bombardment following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

‘I’m not worried,’ said Oksana, 48, a housewife and mother of two daughters whom I met by a red London double-decker bus converted into a cafe. ‘It feels very calm today. The schools are working, the shops are open, there are no queues at banks. I’m glad there’s no panic. Life continues as usual for us.’

She admitted, however, to concerns for mothers whose sons might be sent into battle. ‘The boys don’t want to die and it’s very hard for the mothers. I’m worried that my son-in-law might be called to the military.’

I met several more people similarly fatalistic, recognising that they are powerless pawns in a lethal game of global geopolitics between dictatorship and democracy.

‘What’s the point of being stressed – will it change anything?’ asked Elena, 31, outside a busy cafe.

Yet she admitted the consequences could be terrible. ‘We try not to discuss it with friends but I know that all men – my dad, my friends, my boyfriend – will take up arms and join the military. This is not even a matter of discussion. They say: “We have to protect you – our wives and daughters”.

‘There will be a war – but we’ll have to wait and see what is going to happen.’

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