The least Christmassy thing this Yuletide is the four o’clock boom-boom of Russian cruise missiles, and only afterwards does the air raid siren – “Putin’s lullaby” – carol its melancholy wail. It kills the festive spirit, and then some.
You lie awake, puzzling over why the sound sequence is the wrong way round. The boom-boom is the sound of Russian hypersonic missiles, coming at you at 2,000 metres per second, being taken out by Ukrainian air defence Patriot rockets. The hypersonics move so fast the sirens can’t keep up.
The Scrooge in the Kremlin does not wish us a very merry Christmas, but Kyiv is extraordinarily beautiful right now: trees sugared with snow, onion domes and cobbles on St Andrew’s Descent glinting in the winter sun.
Joy and sorrow pulse through the city, both at the same time, as hotels and restaurants play Bing Crosby’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, on repeat. The other day, on my way to the pub I took a tumble on black ice and knackered my left knee. Now I have three screws in my kneecap and a splint. I hobble to and fro on crutches.
Max, my friend who runs the Buena Vista, a night spot here in Kyiv, buys me a toy orange parrot, which he skewers into my jacket with a kebab stick, and I hobble around the bar looking like a 21st-century version of Long John Silver, the bird squawking: “Vladimir Putin: Do Fuck Off!” again and again, the whole bar laughing their heads off. As the salsa dancers do their thing, you could forget there is a war on.
Which is the point.
Sorrow, too, though: buckets of it. Everybody knows someone who has been killed or maimed or blinded or had their children stolen by the Russians. The least bad story I hear is from a friend this morning in the cafe I often go to for breakfast. She was woken by the boom-boom because it landed in her neighbour’s backyard. The sound was deafening. She told her son that it was only fireworks but “let’s have a look, shall we?”
Code for: let’s run to the shelter.
“How old is your boy,” I ask.
A loving mother racked with guilt for risking the life of her child is battling with a true Ukrainian patriot who does not want to surrender to Russian fascism – both are locked inside one person, nuzzling a cappuccino.
Welcome to Kyiv.
As Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine got up and running, you might have bumped into two clowns, their act called “Plasticine”, who entertain the kids passing through Kyiv’s main railway station. The smaller of the duo, almost always in yellow, was Andrey Obukhov, both a lord of misrule and a clever and subtle artist with a lust for life, and a creator of joy. He lived in the north-west corner of the capital on the 11th floor in a block of flats not far from Irpin and Bucha, two suburbs brutalised by the Russian killing machine. From his flat, day and, worse, night he had a panoramic view of the fires caused by the Russians’ bad metal. Andrey’s neighbourhood was hit by Russian rockets on several occasions and he had three heart attacks in a row. He died on April 7 last year, aged 51, just a few days after the Russians retreated from the Kyiv area.
His daughter, Mylana, had planned her wedding for April 9. “I cancelled the wedding for that month. When I came to Kyiv, I had to find a black dress as well as a white one. Because the Russians had just left and public transport was not working properly, not so many people as I had hoped came to his funeral. In his coffin, he wore a yellow tracksuit.” All his friends brought yellow flowers to the clown’s funeral.
She is still grieving for her father, still broken by his loss. “He was such a force of nature, so funny, very proud of me. Whenever I spent time with him, it was kind of a holiday. He wasn’t just a clown but also an actor and an artist, his paintings were original. Usually, for the holidays, we watched Christmas movies, Harry Potter or Home Alone. But my dad and I watched the Bugs Bunny cartoons. I think I’ll watch them again. While the war is going on, my defence mechanism is working. But when we win, if I’m alive, my emotions will hit me very hard.”
Olena Biletska lost her partner, Volodymyr Chorny, who fell for Ukraine. Volodymyr was a set designer for such famous Ukrainian films as Pamfir, Our Cats, The Gate, Iron Butterflies.
He died on May 9, Soviet Victory Day, an anniversary from the time before, whose Stalinist shadow he detested.
“Volodymyr couldn’t stand this holiday, couldn’t stand anything connected with the old Soviet nonsense,” says Olena. “He was for a free and independent and European Ukraine. We were together for years. We travelled together. We drew together. Together we went to the Maidan to protest against injustice. Together we read, ate, got angry, discussed, loved, admired, worried. I miss him very much.”
Once upon a time Olena adored winter. “I loved the snow. I loved the holiday atmosphere. I loved festive windows, noise, music, new year’s gifts. Christmas trees, toys, garlands. For me, Christmas always had the atmosphere of a fairy tale. Something that brings back childhood, the smell of cakes baked by my grandmother for new year’s parties.
“Volodymyr was a true traveller. He loved winter hikes. We would often spend the night in a tent. But, as a concession to me, we would not go far from home so if I froze we could get back to warmth and comfort. The last New Year’s Eve before the big war, we went to the Carpathians, walking in the mountains, admiring the snow-covered spruces, like giant snowflakes, beautiful, incredibly patterned.
“And now that he has gone? There is no more holiday for me. I no longer believe in miracles. I don’t have that childlike sense of magic any more. I don’t like the snow. I don’t go to the forest. It’s difficult, I don’t light garlands, I don’t prepare gifts. And I myself no longer wait for the holidays.
“Because the fucking Russians came to our land and killed the love of my life.”
Life feels more precious here because everybody understands that someone you love could die tomorrow, soldiers at the front, civilians in the rear.
Vlad Demchenko is the Ukrainian soldier who arrested me on day two of the war for being a Russian spy. Since that not so wonderful start, we have become great friends. I haven’t seen him since the summer, when he told me over a bottle or three that the news from the front was bad. In simple terms, the west’s rhetoric has been good, its delivery of promised ammunition, drones, the rest, poor. One statistic: the west has sent 105 main battle tanks to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have knocked out around 2,500 Russian tanks but the Kremlin has some 8,000 left. The spirit of the Ukrainian army is strong; its sinews are getting more exhausted by the day. And that is the fault of the west.
On the frontline, you hear that there is a growing sense of despair that the west is mucking about, getting bored with the war, wanting it to be over. You have a sense that the western public wants to change the channel. In the run-up to Christmas, the news was grim. A strike of Polish truckers, led by people from a far right party loyal to the Kremlin, blocked the main border to Ukraine. In Washington DC MAGA senators were going out of their way to whistle up the Kremlin’s tunes. In Germany and in Brussels, anxiety about effective control over budgets heightened fears that Ukraine would soon be outgunned by the Russians.
Meanwhile, Vlad Demchenko and his friends are fighting in the snow, fighting against an army that has more tanks, artillery pieces, fighter jets and now drones, and fighting for a cause and a country that the west seems to have got bored with. The Ukrainians have made it a policy not to disclose their casualty figures. That, to me, seems a little Soviet-minded. The word is that, although the Ukrainians’ numbers of dead and seriously injured are nothing like as bad as that of the Russians, they are not good. The Ukrainians, living in a democracy, care about their people; the Russians, living under their dictator, do not dare to care.
These days, Vlad Demchenko is fighting in a Special Forces battalion. Recently, he wrote on Twitter: “Do not set yourself outstanding tasks, soldier. Your immediate task is to survive until breakfast, then until lunch, and if you survive until dinner, then one more day of the war is over. Now you just have to survive until breakfast…”
Jan, 37, is a soldier in the Svoboda or Freedom battalion. “Before the war my Christmas holidays weren’t remarkable. A small, modest feast with my parents, a couple of delicious dishes, tea with cake and maybe a glass of wine. In recent years, on holidays, I usually had a girlfriend with me. With whom, after the feast, we stayed together and spent an almost ordinary, cosy evening, watching some kind of TV series, with goodies. And maybe a glass of wine.
“Quiet time with loved ones is the best. And whether it was active – walks, trips, some other entertainment – or passive – at home with TV shows and popcorn – it doesn’t matter. After the beginning of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, holidays simply disappeared. There is no feeling of a holiday, no space inside for holidays any more. Last year, during the winter holidays, our unit was posted to the Bakhmut front. Some of my comrades died in battle, some injured, some bruised, some drowned in mud, some froze to death in trenches.
“Of course, we put up an improvised Christmas tree and there were goodies on the day itself. But personally, last winter, I had an ever-present feeling of anxiety for my brothers and sisters in arms. That overwhelmed all the Christmas stuff.
“This year, the anxiety is the same. Our unit is under daily shelling, battles are lost and won. The best Christmas present for me is a victory that secures a future for Ukraine.”
This Christmas one person will be missing at the home of Anna Mykan. Her husband, Volodya Mykan, went for training in Odesa with his battalion and then in April he was sent to the crucible, Bakhmut. On April 29, Volodya led a raid against the enemy and their position was shelled. The next morning the phone rang, and the world where Anna lived, rejoiced, had dreams and desires, was shattered, for ever.
“Now, it’s the 8th month since the darkest day of my life. In this time, our younger son has turned seven and I have turned 36. I spent my birthday in tears. From now on, every approaching holiday is a psychological challenge. Work is a great distraction. Living mechanically, you can at times forget. But the holidays are the cruellest. The flashbacks come at you hard. Every detail, every gift, words filled with love and care come back to me. Volodya was a profoundly family-oriented person, so no celebration passed without him. This year’s Christmas and new year will be filled with grief and tears, which I’ll hide from the children. For them, I will wake up, breathe, work, and create a festive atmosphere every day. With a dreadful emptiness in my soul and a heart that continually bleeds, I’ll put on a smile, prepare gifts, and learn a few poems from our national writers with my sons to continue the traditions started by Volodya. Once again, we’ll gather as a family around the festive table. The war won’t hinder us. Only, the 10th chair at our table won’t be there.”
So the mood this Christmastime in Kyiv is bleak, bleak beyond the saying of it.