KYIV – The most common expression in Kyiv these days is “anxiety suitcase” – the bag you pack when you’re worried that the Russians are coming. Recommendations on what to take with you – important documents wrapped in plastic folders, bottles of water, matches, flashlights, a compass – are being posted on news sites.
One site, RBC-Ukraine, says the people who really need a suitcase are “those who live near the eastern and northern border, and anyone whom such preparations might calm down.”
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On Tuesday, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament that Ukrainians don’t need a suitcase. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has added that there’s no need “to rush to buy buckwheat and matches.” But these soothing messages appear to be failing to lower the anxiety, as the Ukrainian capital appears to be shifting between denial and preparation.
On the one hand, the snow-covered streets are bustling, and the restaurants and cafes are full of well-dressed people closing deals, discussing their homes’ interior design and gossiping. On the other hand, people say that on the country’s largest shopping website, Rozetka, it’s hard to find flashlights, gas burners and other products you might need if the electrity goes.
With the winds of war blowing, the long lines that used to wind outside stores during emergencies have been replaced by swarms of online shoppers.
“The closest analogy to what’s happening now is the movie ‘Don’t Look Up’ – I know I don’t look up because there are so many possibilities and the confusion is so great that looking up won’t necessarily help,” says Vadim Fulmacht, 43, a financial adviser and independent blogger who lives in Kyiv.
“People prefer not to talk about it. My wife and I have talked about it for 10 minutes all told. It’s very traumatic. Maybe you can talk about it with strangers, but not with each other.” Denial or not, Fulmacht, a father of two, ordered a gas burner on Wednesday.
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Lessons from 2014
Many Ukrainians fear that the power grid and similar services will stop functioning even without a full Russian invasion. Irina Korotych, a manager at a Swiss cosmetics company, remembers the panic attack many Ukrainians suffered the last time Russian soldiers crossed the eastern border in 2014.
“I’m aware that many of these attacks stemmed from our not knowing how to filter sources of information,” she says. “I’ve learned my lesson.” She, her family and neighbors in a Kyiv suburb are planning for a possible winter with no electricity and heat.
“Our advantage is that we live in a one-floor house divided into several apartments. We have our own well. The year 2014 taught us to stick together, so we and the neighbors are ready to rent a tractor-size generator that two to 30 houses can be connected to,” she says.
“Plus we have a diesel tank and will probably buy gas as well. The house is heated by a central gas system, but if it’s cut off, my partner, son and I might move to a room with a fireplace and spend the winter there.”
On Khreshchatyk Street, Kyiv’s main drag, 16-year-old Karina came with her mother, Larissa, to take part in a national competition for young biologists. “Clearly there’s anxiety,” says Larissa, who is from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and around 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border.
President Zelenskyy himself, despite his soothing remarks, told The Washington Post last week that Russia could occupy Kharkiv.
As Larissa puts it, “On television you only see negative things. But we live in the 21st century and know that what they say on television has been ordered.” She’s echoing the general skepticism about the integrity of the media, which is owned by powerful businesspeople, some of whom support Zelenskyy. Others support his political rivals.
“We hear horror stories about our beloved Kharkiv. Tomorrow our relatives are coming from Belgorod [in Russia], and we’ll hear if there really are forces near the border, as they say,” she says.
“Many older people who have time on their hands say we should hoard gas in case we have to leave. But where will we go? The truth is, we’re patriots. We won’t go anywhere. This is our country and we’ll defend it.”
But Yevgeny, a construction contractor from Kyiv, takes a pro-Russian stance, saying that the Minsk Protocol, which achieved a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine in 2014, can be interpreted “in all kinds of ways. But it specifically says that Ukraine must recognize the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. This escalation is Russia’s way of making Ukraine implement the Minsk Protocol. It’s not a matter of confronting NATO or America. Sooner or later, we’ll have to do that.”
Ukrainian language law
A confrontation with Russia would be the climax of controversy in recent weeks, which has included the full implementation of a 2014 law to limit the use of Russian in the media and schools.
The law stipulates that at least 75 percent of radio and television broadcasts must be in Ukrainian. Russian-language newspapers have been instructed to print as many copies in Ukrainian as in Russian.
As Fulmacht, the blogger, puts it, “The Russian-speaking minority is trapped. Either you’re under Vladimir Putin – which nobody wants – or you have to declare that no one is oppressing you and you’re satisfied with everything. Every attempt to generate a political representation for the Russian-speaking minority is doomed to fail because it will become an easy target.”
In early 2000, 29 percent of Ukrainians declared Russian as their mother tongue, a number that might have decreased following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine’s de facto loss of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Alexander Borovsky, a 33-year-old high-tech entrepreneur, comes from a Russian-speaking family in Kyiv. He’s in favor of restricting the use of Russian.
“Since 2014 they’ve been broadcasting a lot more music in Ukrainian. At first the quality was bad, but it’s getting better,” he says. “I think restricting the use of Russian is essential for the development of Ukrainian culture and language. As for newspapers, let them be printed in Ukrainian.”
Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, is embroiled in a bitter political battle with his predecessor, the billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who aims to return to power.
“Many people in the political system are skeptical about Zelenskyy and his team’s ability to effectively handle the growing tension with Russia,” says a political commentator on the news site Censor.net, Yevheniy Kuzmenko.
“Many people mock them and say that it’s a nursery school, there’s no responsible adult. Give the reins to experienced people. Zelenskyy’s predecessors, including Poroshenko’s people, demand that we let them use the experience they gained from 2014 to 2019 and let them make decisions if there’s a war with Putin.”
But the chances of Zelenskyy conceding even some of the reins during the crisis seem nil.
“Zelenskyy’s party still has a majority in parliament,” Kuzmenko says. “He doesn’t believe there will be another violent escalation by Russia, and Poroshenko has very low support. He has been charged with corruption, while Zelenskyy has promised his voters a crusade against the oligarchs.”