Kyiv continues to thrive during wartime

Still, the idea of even having a drink or relaxing while so many people are on edge seems uncomfortable. Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day along the frontlines in the east and southeast.

Some others also find the return to business as usual in Kyiv and other cities hard to deal with.
Scratch the surface anywhere in Ukraine, in places like Dnipro, Kharkiv, Odesa and Zaporizhzhia, and that first impression of resilience makes way for weariness.

Visitors in Kyiv look at parts of Su-34, a Russian fighter-bomber, that was shot down by the air defense of Ukraine.

Visitors in Kyiv look at parts of Su-34, a Russian fighter-bomber, that was shot down by the air defense of Ukraine.Credit: Getty

People are incredibly tired. It is rare anywhere to get through a day or night without air raid sirens.

On this particular night in Kyiv 13 people were injured by a missile strike. But, unless you’re with the armed forces on the eastern front, you’re far more likely to die on the roads here.

According to the Department of Patrol Police, in 2023, there were 23,642 road accidents in Ukraine in which people were either killed or injured, which is 26.9 per cent more than in 2022.

Last year 3053 people died as a result of road accidents nationwide, including 283 in Lviv, a city in the country’s east towards the Polish border. About 93 people died from 501 rocket attacks in that city while in Dnipro, 220 people died on the roads compared to 17 in Russian strikes.

The war, no matter where you are here, is taking a huge psychological toll. Many of the deaths come from weary drivers blindly travelling through intersections, striking people at pedestrian crossings or driving into oncoming traffic.

Kyiv, founded in 482, is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe and has passed through several stages of prominence and obscurity. But today the phrase “the new Berlin” isn’t just shorthand for a European city that is cheap, fun, and up-and-coming. Like the German city post-WWII, it is quite literally on the frontline of the battle for democracy.

“Welcome to Kyiv”, says our one-man greeting party, Chris, as we arrive at the railway station. “You don’t think there’s a war here until there is.”

Kyiv, apart from the obvious things such as a working airport, is a fully functioning international city. Across it, there are reminders of the ongoing war: from banners calling for the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war, to the many men and women wearing uniforms and the endless blue and yellow flags.

People gather and talk outside a terrace bar in central Kyiv.

People gather and talk outside a terrace bar in central Kyiv.Credit: AP

I’m told by my new friends there are now more cafes and restaurants in Kyiv than there were before the start of the war, thanks to the economic incentives the city has offered to encourage people to open businesses.

Despite the fighting the city’s population has grown beyond 3.1 million, with many people having moved to Kyiv from other parts of the country because of its strong air defence systems, which have stopped hundreds of Russian missiles hitting the capital.

Kyiv’s basement bars and speakeasies have found that they are well suited to wartime. A new friend I meet sends me via WhatsApp a list of them and the passwords to get in.

To enter one of them I’d have to say “Geisha Kimono” and I get stressed that this is a practical joke, and they’d laugh at me, so I gave that one a miss. Instead, I go to another place, hidden down an alleyway, where the password is “loggerhead”.

People dance in an underground passage during a missile alert in Kyiv.

People dance in an underground passage during a missile alert in Kyiv.Credit: AP

They’ve emptied the bar of all Russian spirits, replacing them with Ukrainian or foreign brands.

Not too far away at the restaurant Under Wonder, they’ve said they will offer free champagne on the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s death, a modern echo of Washington’s 1203 restaurant, which back in 1953 offered free borscht on the occasion of Stalin’s death.

Despite the heightened stress and anxiety here, everyone is incredibly welcoming and grateful to see visitors. It wasn’t what I expected from a war zone, but thank goodness most people my age haven’t had to live in one.

I feel guilty leaving after only a week or so. But I tell everyone I meet we won’t forget them. There’s far too much at stake.

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