Waiting for the Russians in Ukraine

Yury Shipolov/Soldier participates in Russian airborne exercises, 2018

I arrived in Ukraine on Saturday, February 12, the same day that the American embassy advised its citizens to evacuate the country. Invasion was “imminent”—the announcements repeated this word over and over. The U.S. embassy fled Kiev, the capital, and announced that it could provide only limited services for Americans in the country. Apocalypse was around the corner.

Why was I here? When I told people I was going to Ukraine, they reacted in some combination of disbelief and horror; it was as though I told them I was going to be backpacking through Somalia. But I was curious to see what I would find on the apparent eve of a war. I also suspected that media outlets and governments were overreacting based on poorly-vetted information.

I did have some lingering concern—and a bit of dread. The day before my flight, Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, announced the danger I would be in almost immediately upon landing in Kiev:

Putin has big weekend plans in Ukraine: 1) he’s going to cut power and heat, knock out Ukrainian navy and air force, kill general staff and hit them with cyber attack; 2) then install pro-Russian president and 3) resort to full-scale military invasion if Ukraine doesn’t give in.

Respecting Haring’s expertise on the matter—according to her Atlantic Council page, she “has worked for Eurasia Foundation, Freedom House, and the National Democratic Institute, where she managed democracy assistance programs in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia”—I passed the weekend like a Beckett play: waiting for Putin. I sat in cafés, toured Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and watched an excellent performance of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet at the National Opera in Kiev.

Through it all, I wondered when the lights would go out, or when I would hear the momentous news that Ukraine’s general staff had been murdered. By the night of Sunday, February 13, I was surprised to be enjoying the expected amount of power and heat in my apartment, and to have received no indication that the members of the general staff had ceased to draw breath.

Besides the usual disorder of a poor, low-trust country—a carjacking in progress outside my apartment, ignored by all who walked by, and an old lady openly selling IDs near Maidan Square—the Ukraine that I visited was a remarkably calm place.

There seemed to be two realities before me. The first was one where Europe’s largest conflict since the Second World War was about to unfold, where national-security reporters solemnly warned of the likely death of tens of thousands, where the dead hand of authoritarianism was about to sweep over a “young, vibrant democracy.” And the second was the Ukraine I actually saw: no war, no Russian soldiers, no great upsurge of domestic nationalist sentiment; only the usual boredom and dysfunction. More people mentioned Eurovision—the Ukrainian representative, Alina Pash, was talented but controversial, and ultimately had to withdraw—than the “imminent” war that was supposed to change their lives forever.

Where was the invasion? Unlike the many commentators, I had no predictions about what would or would not happen. But the anticlimax after daily signals of war was still palpable. I was reminded of the ending of a poem by C. P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” describing a Roman town waiting to be sacked:

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
Everyone going home lost in thought?

 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are barbarians no longer.

 

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

The anticlimax was a product of my own mind, and of the feeling online from Westerners like Haring or The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum. Ukrainians never felt the same way. In a bar in central Kiev, a young woman told me she had never expected an invasion of Kiev—the Americans were panicking, she said, God knows why—but expressed relief that the predictions had not come to pass, and that she would not have to go to her mother’s town in the west of the country, about two hours away. The mood was talkative and joyful. Young Ukrainians were on dates, drinking and joking with friends, vaping or smoking. In the warmth of the rose-hued bar, Ariana Grande was playing; everyone was wrapped in the ordinary rhythms of their lives. It seemed impossible to think that a few days’ time would make this a warzone.

The country in front of me was a charming one, culturally rich and relatively lax (smoking indoors is not so tightly controlled, and the lack of stringent traffic regulation means that drivers are gentler with jaywalkers). But while the imminent warzone slowly began to vanish from my imagination, so too did the optimistic story of a “young and vibrant democracy” told by Western liberals and their allies in Europe-oriented Ukrainian civil society.

David Oks/Dmitri, a casually employed beggar in Kiev, Ukraine

The regime that ruled Ukraine—in power, in one form or another, for the last 30 years—had an unvarnished record of miserable failure, tangible even in the richest parts of the country: the elderly beggars; the decrepit Communist-era housing blocks; the women pawning Soviet medals on the street for the equivalent of a few dollars. It was difficult to summon much optimism about this society’s future.

Ukraine lags behind other European countries, including other Eastern European countries, in practically every regard. The most obvious failure is an economic one. Economic performance has been abysmal: adjusted for inflation, GDP per capita was lower in 2020 than it had been in 1990. Nearly every post-communist state experienced some sort of collapse in the 1990s; Ukraine’s collapse was actually less severe than Russia’s, in part because the privatizations were not carried out so rapidly. But Ukraine is unique in that it has simply never recovered from its experience, instead transitioning from stagnating state socialism to oligarchic competition. Ukrainian economic growth from 1990 to 2017 was the fifth-worst in the entire world. At the dawn of independence in 1990, Ukraine was the second-richest among post-Soviet republics in terms of real GDP per capita (ignoring the Baltic states, for whom solid records were not kept by the World Bank until 1995); by 2020, it was richer only than three Central Asian backwaters—Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Ukraine’s dysfunction maps onto the very physical health of the population. As in Russia and Belarus, the transition to capitalism in the 1990s saw a collapse in standards of living that significantly shortened Ukrainians’ lifespans. In 1964, male life expectancy was 66.8 years; in the 1990s it fell all the way down to 61.2, and only by 2019 was it back to 66.9. Nor did Ukraine ever match Russia or Belarus in the strength of its recovery from the brutal ‘90s. The most “democratic” of the three countries became the worst place to live: Ukraine’s overall life expectancy, once the highest of three East Slavic nations, is now the lowest. By 2019, male life expectancy was about a year lower than Syria’s, a year and a half lower than Iraq’s, and more than two years lower than North Korea’s.

To these measures of underdevelopment and regression, Ukraine adds indicators of social decay familiar across eastern Europe: low social trust, a high suicide rate, and a declining population. Ukraine’s fertility rate has not exceeded replacement levels since 1971; its population has been declining since 1993, due largely to low fertility and emigration. In 2019, the suicide rate was the 11th-highest in the world. Brain drain continues to sap the country of its most productive citizens.

The Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Ishchenko calls his country “the best candidate to be called the northernmost country of the Global South.” But unlike much of the actual Global South, in which there is at least a general trend of development, Ukraine has reached this position on a generational downward trajectory.

This should create a great deal of gloom within Ukraine. And that pessimism is certainly present—though unequally distributed. Older Ukrainians were often the most pessimistic, and much of the country’s despair seems centered on them. Nearly all the homeless are older; Kiev’s train station has a fair share of white-haired seniors slumped over in winter gear or hiding behind wooden doors. When I spoke with older Ukrainians they always seemed to have some story of personal diminution that matched the story of Ukraine more broadly.

At 2 A.M. on the night I left Kiev, I met an older man named Vladislav at a fast-food establishment. He was depressed and eager to find company amid the patrons. We split a donut and he told me the story of his life: born in Kiev, he had been a boxer, a military officer, a professional artist; he had found himself among “scoundrels”; and now he was here, alone, without a place to sleep, because of a family dispute that left him unable to see his granddaughter. Vladislav was full of regrets. And now he was an old man, “alone as a poplar.” Time had stripped him of his dignity. “I am no longer the same Captain Vladislav as when I was younger,” he said. Like many Kievans of his generation, Vladislav couldn’t care less about politics. He simply hung onto what remained of a life.

David Oks/Vladislav, Soviet veteran, boxer, and professional artist, in Kiev—with a sketch of the writer.

For those in the east, the pessimism took a more political flavor. On February 16, the day the media had selected for the invasion, I visited Kharkiv—Ukraine’s second-largest city, and the largest in the east. Its oblast borders Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway states. Kharkiv’s predominant language is Russian, and the city had been a stronghold of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the 2000s and 2010s.

But Kharkiv does not fit in neatly with the common picture of eastern Ukraine. Alongside the Russian-speaking pensioners who are such a key population in the east are a large number of students—many of them internationals, from China, India, or Africa—who occupy the city’s relatively decent cafés. This gives the city a surprisingly global character, even as its built environment is overwhelmingly Soviet.

The day I visited, the predicted invasion had changed almost nothing. Everything was open; the sidewalks were full of people, and the streets were full of cars (a good number of them clearly from the 1970s or ‘80s). Apart from a few uniformed and masked Ukrainian soldiers, most of whom seemed to be more occupied with buying coffee or cigarettes, a visitor would have little idea that this was a place under threat. The croissants were delicious, and the coffee decent. No one was talking about politics. Kharkiv was rather dilapidated, especially around the outskirts, and it was here that I encountered the greatest degree of pessimism about Ukraine.

An elderly pensioner named Anatoly, whom I met in Kharkiv, proudly showed me his military identification card from his time as a Soviet officer, and mentioned that he’d served in Afghanistan. He explained that he saw independence as a catastrophe, a process of forcibly becoming like America—a society that he said was defined by materialism, the making and having of money, and a lack of patriotism. The Americans had gone on the radio and told the people that their ways were bad, and ever since then, there had been more materialism and less patriotism in Ukraine. For him, this was not a matter of ideology. Anatoly wrote down the Russian words for “capitalism,” “socialism,” and “communism” and crossed each of them out; he went on to explain that it could all be explained via a numerological system derived from the Kabbalah. This, Anatoly explained, was a matter of massive symbolic and cosmic importance.

David Oks/Anatoly, veteran of the Soviet Army, in Kharkiv.

It was in the younger places, like Kiev and Lviv, that people were the most hopeful. Often, these were also the same people most intent in their nationalism. Lviv, in many ways the most optimistic place in the country, is also the place where the wartime nationalist Stepan Bandera is most deified. A young, buzzcut ultranationalist I met in Kiev named Gania—originally he was from Donetsk; easterners who became nationalists seemed to go further in order to compensate—was proud of Ukraine, and would stay behind to defend it. “Слава Україні!”: glory to Ukraine. I asked him what he thought of Bandera: a hero, he said. Ukraine was the greatest country. But he liked other places too. Would he move to America if he got the chance? Absolutely, he said: it’s too hard to get a good job here.

The people whose views most closely tracked the ones I saw on Twitter were invariably associated, in one way or another, with liberal civil society. I went to a bar in Kiev’s Shevchenko district—one of the more affluent parts of the city—where I met a couple who represented this view exactly: the woman formerly an official in the Petro Poroshenko administration, the man a full-time cryptocurrency trader, particularly passionate about XRP and Litecoin. (Crypto, as every self-described founder in Kiev will tell you, is increasingly popular in Ukraine; by some measures, Ukraine has the highest cryptocurrency adoption rate in the world.)

The trader didn’t talk politics with his wife because he’d voted for Poroshenko’s triumphant rival, Volodymyr Zelensky. His wife had the full stock of opinions one would expect from someone of her background. But even these two liberal Ukrainians expressed a great deal of disillusionment—though not quite despair—in their political system. The woman had participated in the Maidan protests in 2014; the outcome of all of it was not that which she had hoped for. The oligarchs remained in power. No matter who the Ukrainians elect, she said, that remains unchanged.

And that appears to be the crux of the matter. Ishchenko offers a provocative thesis: that Ukraine, rather than being any more of a “democracy” than other post-Soviet states, is more aptly “a more competitive authoritarian regime.” To be sure, Ukraine’s political system is relatively pluralistic; elections are held regularly, and there is no one strongman who has managed to dominate the country for decades. Its leaders do not possess the singular political power of their Russian and Belarusian counterparts.

The Ukrainian government’s “anti-democratic” actions are not quite as brazen (or effective) as those of Putin or Lukashenko. Recent moves included Zelensky’s recent blocking of opposition TV channels; the customary legal prosecution of political rivals, from Poroshenko to Viktor Medvedchuk; the government-linked Myrotvorets website listing “enemies of Ukraine,” with the dead ones marked as “liquidated”; restrictions on minority languages like Russian or Romanian; and decommunization laws that prevented the Communist Party from participating in the 2019 elections.

But the matter of the political system is largely irrelevant. Power does not lie in the hands of these formal political institutions. Instead, it is held by the various “clans” of oligarchs who profited massively from the privatizations of state assets in the 1990s and 2000s—like the powerful Donetsk clan (led by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man) that was famed for its thuggishness and relatively open criminality and which is said to run the Party of Regions, or the Kiev clan (like Medvedchuk, seen by Ukrainian liberals as a figure on par with Lucifer).

Distinguishing between “licit” and “illicit” is useless on this level, since these conglomerates usually blur any lines between political, business, and criminal activity. Akhmetov has established himself as an international businessman and investor. In 2011, he bought the most expensive residence in London for £136 million. He has bankrolled the Party of Regions that controlled much of the east and which produced Yanukovych—all this despite decades of alleged ties to murders and organized crime. (“The Akhmetov Clan,” writes the sociologist Danilo Mandić, “is arguably the most successful mafia in Eastern European history.”)

Criminal ties are a familiar feature of Ukrainian politics. It is not uncommon for politicians to be widely suspected of crimes for which they are not prosecuted, or to have several criminal convictions (Yanukovych had two for violent offenses), or to have mysterious net worths in the tens or hundreds of millions. Ballot-stuffing and vote-buying have been marked features of Ukrainian public life; so have murders, poisonings, and open bribery.

Striking examples are plenty: the “cassette scandal” of the early 2000s, which revealed that President Leonid Kuchma had implicitly ordered the killing of an anti-corruption journalist who was found beheaded in a forest north of Kiev (Kuchma has never been prosecuted); the open rigging of the 2004 Yushchenko/Yanukovych election by Yanukovych’s party, followed two years later by Yanukovych becoming prime minister to Yushchenko; the 2005 death by two gunshots to the head of Kuchma’s former interior minister, shortly before he was due to testify about the journalist’s murder case (the minister’s death was ruled a suicide); and Yanukovych’s notorious history of graft, which earned him and his son hundreds of millions of dollars—partly spent on a garish estate outside Kiev, with a replica Spanish galleon and a private zoo with kangaroos and ostriches.

Less openly criminal politics in Ukraine are still remarkably dysfunctional—reminiscent of a stereotypical Latin American country, dominated by personal charisma, inchoate populism, and the constant demand for “new faces.” Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, is named after the TV show in which he starred; the western-based Fatherland Party is nakedly a vehicle for the personal ambitions of Yulia Tymoshenko, for a time one of the most popular politicians in the country; and UDAR, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, is built around Vitali Klitschko, a globally renowned heavyweight boxer who now serves as mayor of Kiev. (The name is well-selected given Klitschko’s career history: удар, udar, means “punch.”)

The dominance of personalistic parties, the thriving culture of corruption and retribution, the regional cleavage within Ukraine, and an elite formation process of economic privatization widely viewed as illegitimate have all conspired to cripple each attempt to establish a stable elite hegemony. Regardless of whether the attempts were of a patronal-regionalist character (Yanukovych or Medvedchuk) or liberal-nationalist character (Viktor Yushchenko or Arseniy Yatseniuk), they have resulted in a succession of ineffectual governments, which quickly lose their popularity as they are unable to deliver on much beyond symbolism. No single faction of the oligarch clans has been able to triumph over the others; neither have any of the liberal-democratic reformers managed to subdue the oligarchs as a class.

The repertoire of contention available to opponents of this system is narrow, and it centers on ideologically vague urban uprisings of a national-democratic character, always centered in the Maidan Square. These are the occasional flowerings of “democratic renewal” or “national salvation,” like the Orange Revolution in 2004 or the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, that briefly capture the liberal imagination. But this results only in some elite circulation. Ukraine’s political economy is largely unchanged, and business as usual eventually returns. Yushchenko, champion of clean government, was unable to transcend the system’s logic, and the oligarchs remained largely untouched; the 2014 revolution against the Party of Regions resulted in the election of the opportunistic oligarch Poroshenko—who had helped found the Party of Regions in the 1990s.

David Oks/Late afternoon view of Kiev, Ukraine

In Kiev, I wondered if the possibility of invasion might lead to real change to this status quo. But this seemed unlikely. Most Ukrainians simply didn’t care. Outside Maidan Square, middle-aged men who were not quite in shape handed out fliers imploring people to sign up for the local self-defense militia; they got little interest. By now, Maidan has been incorporated into the national mythology as a place of ceremonial rebirth—slain protesters are remembered as “the Hundred Heroes,” and have a day in their honor. The square now features large slabs telling the story of their martyrdoms in a rather derivative graphic novel format—but, in light of the disappointments of the post-revolutionary era, that seemed to be far from their minds.

On the night before the supposed invasion, I went to Maidan Square again, wondering if there might be some demonstration or rally for the cause of Ukraine. But there was nothing: the square was virtually empty save a few passersby, going somewhere more interesting. Near the Kentucky Fried Chicken, there were some teenagers vaping; in the center, there were a few foreign students taking photos in front of a large sign reading “я ♥ україну” (“I ♥ Ukraine”). What did they think about Ukraine, I asked? “Nice country,” an Algerian named Walid told me. But he was not going to stay here for long; he was going to live in France.

On the one hand, this was an admirable sign of calm under pressure: the only people fleeing the country en masse were the oligarchs. But I wondered if the country had become so disillusioned, so disappointed by 30 years of failure, that it simply couldn’t be bothered to care much about foreign troops outside its borders. Why were there so few demonstrations, so few patriotic rallies? More than not being scared—many people had some residual fear of the invasion, they confided in me—many were simply resigned: what could they do?

The crypto trader told me it was all the same: the answer was just to go on, to muddle through. I asked him about the possibility of invasion; he didn’t want to talk about it. He shrugged his shoulders.

A moment of silence passed. Changing the subject, I asked him about Eurovision. His eyes lit up.

David Oks studies at Oxford University, and divides his time between England and New York. He tweets @davideoks.