The underground comedy club is heaving. It’s in a basement bedside the Golden Gate Metro at Kyiv’s Grand Central Station. Ukrainians laughing about their situation is one thing; young Ukrainian stand-ups doing their routine in English is another. Fluently, with impeccable timing, the mainly female line-up throws out gag after gag. Some hit the audience with lightning-fast quips, others take the circuitous storytelling approach, Dylan Moran-esque. Most are inflected with anti-Russian one-liners. Twenty-something Anna Kochegura jumps on stage and asks how many foreigners are here. Seven hands go up.
“Seven? We had none last week. You’re back, we must be winning!”
The place erupts.
With a strapline of “life goes on”, the Kyiv English Open Mic comedy club captures the essence of this city. Despite the daily rocket attacks, constant rumours of victory or setbacks in Donbas, and the ever-present threat of an imminent Russian second-front surge from Belarus in the north, daily life trudges on. Of the many achievements the Zelenskiy government – survival being the main one – maintaining the sense of normality in the capital is a remarkable one.
There is no sense of panic; in fact, the opposite is the case. Quite how the trains keep running, the electricity and heating stay on (granted, with intermittent blackouts) and society ticks over is hard to fathom. But it does. The defiance of people under attack is truly phenomenal to observe. Call it spirit, courage, character, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is but it’s not rage. Resilience for sure. And maybe a certain cheekiness. A brazen, rebellious collective two-fingers shoved up constantly to the bully in Moscow.
As Maryna Fishuk, one of the other comedians jokes: “Every rocket makes us stronger.” Kochegura muses on the muscle-toning upside of her nightly scurrying up and down 19 storeys to the basement shelter. The Vladimir Putin workout!
The 7.25am Ryanair Dublin to Lublin, Poland, flight is full. The excited Slavic chatter of grannies, children, teenagers and mothers fills the cabin. Just after take-off, families separated by Ryanair’s random seating policy reunite in mid-air. Everyone’s walking around, swapping seats, reallocating places and settling in excitedly for the trip home. Any apprehension I had about the danger of this journey ahead is put to bed by the attitude of these stoic women. If three generations of Ukrainian women can do this, surely I can? The Ryanair trolley service isn’t doing much business. These are not the sort to pay a fiver for a cup of tea. Try as they might, the flight attendants can’t flog a scratch-card this morning.
Landing in Lublin in the southeastern corner of Poland, close to the Ukrainian border, my compass is fixed on a particularly gregarious family. Unsure where to get transport, my strategy is: just follow them. We all pile into the FlixBus, headed for the unpronounceable Polish border town of Przemysl. A few bus changes, lots of standing around, and we head eastwards.
The sun is now fading in the west, with the temperature dropping fast. These people, well used to queuing, steel themselves for a long wait at Przemysl train station. Many years ago in Moscow, I recall one of my earliest memories of the then Soviet Union wasn’t the ideology, the KGB or the oppression, but the little dancing-on-the-spot manoeuvres of the women trying to keep their feet warm while waiting in the queues for bread. I’m seeing the same jigs now. I join them as we all wait for the Kyiv train.
One of the things not fully appreciated about displaced people is all the waiting they have to do: waiting for buses; waiting for trains; waiting for visas; waiting for passport stamps; waiting for work permits; waiting for it all to be over. Most of all, waiting for others. Being displaced means being constantly at the mercy of strangers, stuck in a limbo where you lack control over your own life.
At midnight, the Polish border guards, potentially wielding immense power, are cheerful and compassionate. The train heads slowly into the Ukrainian night. Let’s just call the conditions snug.
At 2.05am, Ukrainian female soldiers board, Kalashnikovs casually strapped over their soldiers. In another world, they’d be college rucksacks, but not tonight. Checking passports intensely, they lock each carriage, two sentries police each end of the sealed wagon. No one is going anywhere. My neighbour tells me there are Russian saboteurs everywhere, you can’t be too careful. I nod with all the self-assurance of Father Dougal.
We head further east, across the dense birch forests so prominent in Ukrainian and Russian literature. Outside, military hardware reveals itself periodically, but in general the passage is smooth. Taking my cue from the locals, I let the slow swaying of the train send me to sleep.
Kyiv is a city of women. The men are gone, or at least the men of fighting age. The entire country is mobilised, confident of victory and keen to talk about the economic reconstruction that will come after the war. What type of Ukraine will emerge from this conflict? Will it be in the EU? How can they create a prosperous economy? There’s a resolve not to return to the old system. Up to the war, Ukraine had been the worst-performing post-Soviet economy of all.
For a country blessed with enormous resources and wonderfully resilient people, that economic calamity is partly the result of the war. Time and again, locals remind me that the war with Russia has been raging in Donbas for nearly a decade. When you put it that way, it’s hardly surprising that the Ukrainian economy has gone backwards, but in truth, endemic corruption is the culprit. Indeed, it was the fight against corruption that propelled Zelenskiy to power.
According to the locals, his slogan was simply “Let’s get them, together”. It wasn’t defined but everyone knew who Zelenskiy meant by “them”: the kleptocratic axis of aggrandising politicians and their patrons, the oligarchs. The view here today is that after the war, there’s no going back. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers will come home from the front, and they will want a stake in a new Ukraine. An example of a politicised, demobilised army with new ideas about the way their country should be run might be the British soldiers who chucked out Churchill after the second World War. They respected Churchill as a war leader, but they didn’t fight the Nazis to give the country back to the aristocracy.
The British welfare state was born on the beaches of D-Day. Similarly, the new Ukraine is being born in the killing fields of Bakhmut and Soledar, or at least that is the hope in liberal circles of Kyiv. The alternative could be Serbia and to a lesser extent Croatia, where some of the returning soldiers, frustrated at the lack of economic progress, turned to a diet of nationalism and atavism that has blighted both countries for two decades, and from which Croatia is only just emerging, while Serbia languishes.
For the next few years, Ukraine will be the most important country in Europe. It will receive tens of billions of euros in a 21st century version of Marshall Aid. Fast-track EU membership is a given, and the US will write a blank cheque. The problem with aid is that it is not innovation. Aid without trade means a current account deficit as money runs through the economy and out the far side. Ukraine needs companies, entrepreneurs and a long-term strategic plan. It could do worse than look to South Korea – the most successful economy on earth – as its model. Like Korea, it will face an unpredictable enemy on its border and, like Korea, it has the size to divert resources into specific technologies.
It will be Ukraine’s choice whether it becomes more of a frontier fortress or a start-up nation. Obviously, it will have to be a bit of both. Zelenskiy has suggested Israel (although the difference between Russia’s annexation of Donbas and the West Bank is hard to square) as an example, meaning a highly militarised society, surrounded by enemies, allied to a thoroughly modern high-tech economy. In Europe, the successful Marshall Aid model is the Federal Republic of Germany, which by 1968 had risen from the ashes of 1945 to become the third biggest economy in the world, but at the cost of being Europe’s buffer state between East and West.
With Russia a constant threat, Ukraine will undoubtedly be Europe’s frontier land, heavily armed and at the ready, forging strong alliances with Poland and the Baltic states. Putin’s objective may have been to push Nato back a few hundred kilometres but he has succeeded in achieving the opposite, as evidenced by Thursday’s meeting between Zelenskiy and the leaders of Poland and the Baltics.
The prototype for post-Soviet economic development is Poland, fast becoming a rich country and central Europe’s success story. Poland did this by inserting itself into Germany’s supply chain. Parts of German manufacturing were seamlessly outsourced east of the Elbe, locking Poland into the German business cycle and creating an entirely new Polish capital base. Yet time and again, young Ukrainians cite Ireland as a potential model. The English-speaking, loose, slightly American prototype appeals to them. Reports from the 70,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Ireland since February put the Irish model high on their list of countries to emulate. They see Ireland as a country that got rich quickly, a country that is a magnet for talent, home to the best companies in the world, and recovering after a global pandemic.
Fighting for Europe
An educated person in Kyiv, which has one of the lowest incomes per head in Europe, looks at Ireland and concludes: “I’ll have whatever you lot are having.” Historically, they could consider comparing their years of colonial conflict with Russia to our relationship with Britain. The David versus Goliath scenario plays well. Ukrainians constantly remind me that, in their eyes, Russia is a colonial empire as much as a country. Putin, fancying himself as Peter the Great, is an emperor who wants to obliterate Ukrainian culture.
They deduce that Russia can lose many times; Ukraine can only lose once.
But what does victory look like? Everyone, young and old, reiterates that triumph means complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine, and that means Crimea too. They say they are fighting and dying for Europe. If they lose, we lose. Give Ukraine weapons, tanks, artillery and they will win. They are convinced Ukraine can only lose if the West abandons them. Their contempt for Russia is total. Why would Putin stop at Kyiv, they ask.
The map of Europe is being redrawn. Whatever happens, reverting to February 24th, 2022, is not an option.
By night, this city of over three million goes dark. The 10pm curfew is unconditional for men, but not for women, who keep the place going. Fear of night attacks by Russian special forces means all men are off the streets, no exceptions. Lights are switched off. Last night, snowfall entombed the city, softly, silently, “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling… upon all the living and the dead”.
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David has been writing for almost 20 years and there are plenty of articles covering some of the most turbulent times in the world economy.
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