Bucha? It was the leafy outskirts of kyiv where we spent a Saturday afternoon eating ice cream and exploring an urban park defined by neatly trimmed hedges, classical sculptures and fathers teaching their sons to fish.
Mariupol? It was the pulsating steel town where I covered an international development conference. Bankers, corporate presidents and European ambassadors lined up to announce investments totaling more than $1 billion.
Chernihiv? It was the quiet regional capital where my wife joined a Ukrainian choir while my son and I explored a fine arts museum, park and 11th century church.
Kramatorsk? It was a hockey game between the local team Bilyi Bars (White Leopards) against Kyiv Sokils (Falcons). Leaving the rink, my Canadian sports journalist friend Lee Reaney and I joined a few hockey players for a beer dinner at the Ria Lounge Bar.
It was my Ukraine, a cultured and family country where I lived for six years until I returned to Lenox last fall. Based in kyiv, my wife Pen Soy, our son George and I explored this little-known European nation, an expanse larger than France.
Painful scenes, familiar places
After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his pet war against Ukraine, every city I visited in Ukraine was bombed. For me, reading the news is seeing a friendly, familiar geography become perverse.
From kyiv, the now iconic photo of the bandaged young woman breastfeeding her baby in a government hospital touched my heart. Last August, our George was admitted to the same hospital, the State Children’s Hospital in Okhmadyt. We spent five days with him in the old wing. Looking through the news photos, I see that the woman with the bandage around her head has been granted a room in the new wing.
Bucha is now known worldwide as the dormitory community where Russian soldiers tied prisoners’ hands behind their backs, shot them and then left their bodies on the streets as terrorist warnings to residents.
Mariupol is now in competition for the title of Ukrainian Stalingrad. This once bustling port city is now a dusty landscape of bombed-out buildings, an apocalyptic moonscape where 100,000 people cower in basements. Above our heads, Ukrainian soldiers fight to defend every block and every street.
Chernihiv emerged this week from a month-long Russian siege. In what may be the greatest damage to this ancient city since the 1239 sacking by Batu Khan’s Golden Horde, Russian artillery bombardment and aerial bombardment hit churches, museums, hospitals and apartment buildings. The mayor claims that 70% of civil infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. Sometimes 100 civilians were buried every day. In a nearby village, used as a staging ground for Russian soldiers, 300 civilians were locked in a cellar for a month. Last week, most came out alive after liberation.
Yesterday morning, two Russian missiles hit Kramatorsk railway station, killing at least 50 people and injuring nearly 100, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region. The platforms were packed because two days earlier the governor of nearby Lugansk had warned civilians that a Russian offensive was brewing. “Cities in the Luhansk region are in ruins,” he said. “Thousands of people have not left yet. Get out of here!”
What used to be…
Only two years ago – before COVID, before the war – Ukraine was a fast-growing destination for European Union residents seeking new horizons for a city vacation. Wizz Air and Ryanair have opened direct flights from 30 EU cities to Kyiv. Other flights took holidaymakers directly from the EU to Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv. Upon arrival, Uber taxis took visitors from newly upgraded airports to international chain hotels or Airbnb apartments.
Attractions included low prices — dinner for two, with wine, for $25 — and low crime. Today, a candlelit dinner for two in a basement bomb shelter may be romantic for some, but it certainly isn’t safe.
After HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries aired in the spring of 2019, 125,000 tourists flocked to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster that year. On the two-hour drive north of kyiv, tour guides reviewed safety rules and showed off their radiation dosimeters.
Last month, thousands of Russian soldiers marched through the carefully guarded Chernobyl exclusion zone. They spared the new $2.3 billion sarcophagus built on the radioactive remains of Reactor Number 4. But convoys of Russian military vehicles drove through the “Red Forest,” a four-square-mile strictly off-limits area considered as one of the most contaminated places on earth. Last week, it was reported that 100 Russian soldiers had been hospitalized in Belarus after digging trenches in the Red Forest. Of the soldiers evacuated, 26 were in intensive care and one died of radiation poisoning.
East of kyiv, IT investors often traveled to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and “the Boston of Ukraine.” Nicknamed “Smart City”, Kharkiv had 34 universities, 300,000 students and 25,000 IT professionals. We went on a fall weekend to visit friends and explore the city’s newly renovated parks. The collections of roller coasters, cable cars and sculptures were far superior to what kyiv parks offered. This Saturday afternoon, thousands of people thronged Shevchenko Park in Kharkiv.
Today, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, estimates that 15% of housing – 1,292 residential buildings – have been destroyed. Russian rockets and artillery shells destroyed 16 hospitals, 76 schools and 239 administrative buildings. Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, calls the military headquarters “the Stalingrad of the 21st century”. Adjacent to Shevchenko Park, Kharkiv Zoo says it may be forced to destroy animals.
…and where we are now
The siege of Kharkiv could be lifted as Russian troops move south. One of the objectives is to attack from behind Ukrainian troops who for eight years have been facing the other direction exchanging fire with separatist forces. Another objective is to take control of Mariupol, the main Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov.
When I visited Mariupol three years ago, the battle lines were static. After years of paralysis, investment was picking up. Metinvest, the Ukrainian integrated steel company, planned investments worth $1 billion to meet EU standards for “green steel”. Eurocape, a French renewable energy company, had obtained loans from the American Ex-Im Bank to buy wind turbines from General Electric Co.
Mariupol’s population had swelled to nearly 500,000, swelled by refugees from parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have been controlled by Russia since 2014. To cope with the new population, France was lending money to rebuild the Mariupol drinking water system. The EBRD and its sister bank, the European Investment Bank, are investing millions of euros to build a modern trolleybus and tram system. With EU assistance, the seaport has been upgraded to handle more grain for export. Today, Mariupol looks like a European city after an epic battle in World War II. In the words of a woman who escaped the siege, the largest city in southeastern Ukraine is now a “graveyard”.
Vladimir Putin claims he is “liberating” the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. But its bombs cause the most damage and the most victims in the cities of the East, which are mainly Russian-speaking. In Kharkiv, where 94% of the city’s population are native Russian speakers, bombs fell around the Gagarin Planetarium, Gorky Park and Pushkin Street. Elsewhere in the East, the proportion of Russian speakers varies from 80% in Chernihiv to 98% in Mariupol. If the Russian president wants a Ukraine without the Ukrainians, that is called genocide.