The first day of the end of the world

Paweł Pieniąźek from Kyiv – 02/19/2022. Originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Oleh uses an app where he records how he spends his time. It asks him if he spent the day as if it were his last. Recently, Oleh has been asking himself this question too. Every day. He strives not to regret any of them.

As early as Tuesday afternoon, Reuters started broadcasting live from Kyiv; the camera was placed overlooking Independence Square. The streets were already dark, illuminated by streetlights. Cars drove slowly along the busy Khreschatyk. Life in Kyiv, with a population of three and a half million, went on with its everyday rhythm. Yet the world held its breath.

From December 2021, above Ukraine hung the threat of an escalation of war with Russia. According to Western politicians and the media, a full-scale invasion could occur and Kyiv would be one of the targets. Emotions flared and politicians moved around the axis United States – European Union – Russia – Ukraine with a frequency never seen before.

There was information about the concentration of troops near the border with Ukraine: 110,000, 130,000, then 150,000. It was said that the war, arguably the worst since World War II, had become inevitable. US President Joe Biden and his officials maintained that it was only a matter of days. Finally, anonymous sources around him informed the media that it could be Wednesday, February 16. Then the British tabloids even gave the exact hour: three in the morning. Just as the end of the world was predicted before 2000 or 2012, so now it approached in Ukraine alone.

“We joke with our friends that ten years ago the world really ended, we all died. And what is happening now is just some fiction,” says 26-year-old Oleh Idolow, a graphic designer at one of the local IT companies.

Marusia will hide in the bathtub

35-year-old Alina Hajewa deals with art in a broad sense of the word. She paints pictures, draws, illustrates books, makes tattoos, and has also been designing clothes for several years. Immersed in many activities, she might not have noticed that something was happening around her if not for her 7-year-old daughter Marusia.

“Mom, there’s going to be a war tomorrow.”

“Okay. If anything happens, I will be at work,” Alina ignored her daughter’s words.

Marusia is better informed than her mother about what is happening in the country. She watches the speeches of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It was she who told Alina that the president introduced a new public holiday. “They tell us February 16 will become the invasion day. We will make out of it a Day of Unity. The relevant decree is already signed. On that day, we will hang national flags, put on blue and yellow ribbons and show the whole world our unity,” said Zelenskyy in a speech two days before the announced attack.

Since the next threat from Russia appeared, children at Marusia’s school started to be informed about a possible escalation. One day she told her mother that she had a plan in the event of an attack. Together with a friend who lives on a different floor, they would cover the bathtub in her bathroom with sheets and lie in it to avoid danger. On Tuesday, February 15, Marusia approached her mother and decided to take advantage of the occasion.

“Since tomorrow is the day, can I skip the school’s common room after classes and visit my friend?” She asked.

Alina Hajewa had no choice but to agree. She had no time for war or celebration. She had been writing pieces for the website where she presents her work until one in the morning.

Now Ukraine is stronger

Oleh Idolov left the town of Hurzuf in the Crimea to study in Kyiv a few months before Russia annexed the lands his family calls home in March 2014. Previously, he regularly traveled between the capital and the Crimean peninsula. He was tied to it and his parents live there to this day.

He had been in Crimea after Russia began its occupation. Everything there was still at a boil. As a person associated with visual culture, Oleh paid attention to various changes that were sometimes minor: replacing flags, changing uniforms, replacing one set of symbols with another. The metal mailbox stuck in his memory the most. The raised trident was painted with the colors of the Russian Federation, but the Ukrainian national emblem still caught the eye.

It was his experience of the events in Crimea that made Oleh skeptical of the current tension between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, so-called green men were sent to the Crimean peninsula, i.e. Russian soldiers without insignia. It was only after the annexation that the Kremlin officially admitted that they were its soldiers.

“Although Ukraine was much weaker then, Russia did not go to direct war, but used some half-measures,” says Oleh.

The same happened in the case of the war in Donbas, which broke out in April of that year and then over the course of eight years claimed—according to conservative estimates—about 14,000 lives. Although there were many locals among those fighting against the government forces, Russian soldiers actively participated—and are still taking part—in it. Only the Kremlin has never admitted it.

“Now, Ukraine is much stronger than it was eight years ago, so I see no reasons for the Russians to go to Kyiv with flags,” Idolov claims.

“Sleep” mode

Oleh stays informed, but this doesn’t awaken any exceptional panic in him. He believes that any unresolved conflict will eventually escalate, but doubts that this is the moment. Nevertheless he decided to take this opportunity to better prepare himself. When up to 170,000 Russian soldiers also stood near the borders of Ukraine in the spring of 2021, Idolov prepared documents, collected a basic first aid kit, bought a textbook on how civilians should behave during hostilities and discussed everything with his girlfriend. Now he stocked up on medicine, batteries and flashlights.

Despite his calm, he felt a certain melancholy. He found himself staring at the sky when he went out on the balcony to smoke.

Oleh uses an application in which he records how his day went and what emotions accompanied him. Every few days, the program asks him if he would have spent that day the same if it had been his last. As the threat of a Russian attack grew, he began to ask himself this question. Every day. He strives not to regret any of them.

On the evening of February 15, he thought about what to do. He had no specific plans. Before going to bed, he wanted to put his phone into “sleep” mode, which would block notifications. Or to set the alarm for three in the morning to check what’s going on.

“In the end I stopped myself. I figured this whole story wouldn’t take a healthy sleep away from me. At least I’ll get some sleep if the nightmare comes true,” he jokes.

He tries not to start the day by staring at the phone, but on the morning of February 16 he checked to see if anything was happening. He found nothing interesting: Covid; the hryvnia gained a bit against the euro and the dollar; the US wants to impose sanctions on Russia; Zelenskyy says that Ukrainians are united by the desire to live in peace.

You also need to rest

Andrij Kozinchuk, 37, spent the night at a hotel. He had been running workshops that are part of schooling for veterans. The main topic was how to conduct dialogue. He went to bed late, not because of fear but because he was engrossed in his notes. When he lay down, he did not turn the ringer on his phone off because he thought that someone might call and say: “Andriju, get ready, it is time to go.” Although he did not believe it, one can never be completely certain.

Kozinczuk is a psychotherapist and veteran. In 2014, he served in the Luhansk region, in one of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions. Today he works primarily with civilians in a private practice, but devotes the rest of his time to active military personnel and those who have left the service. He does it for free. He is also active in the Veterans Movement of Ukraine.

After finishing work, he went to bed. He had a lot to do starting first thing in the morning. He went to hotel breakfast. Filling his plate, he liked that everything was provided and he didn’t have to prepare anything or wash the dishes. “Oh hell, what about the war?!” He remembered at some point. He scanned the news on the phone. Nothing new.

Before training began, he met with journalists. They asked how to behave if communication in the country was cut off. Then a client came for a consultation.

Due to the situation, many people turn to him. It is not the fear of invasion but the tension that causes problems—within relationships with partners or problems with productivity at work.

“More tension means that you are now wasting more energy doing the same things that you’ve been doing. It’s like filling a car with twenty liters of fuel. Of course you will cover more kilometers on a straight road than when you go uphill and with a load,” says Kozinczuk. “That’s why I make people aware that they need to rest to have more fuel.”

Like a fan in the wrong sector

In Andrij’s experience it is military personnel, former and current, that are most calm. When he meets with a group of veterans, they talk more about where the cheapest place to buy cartridges is, not whether Russia will attack again.

Kozinczuk believes that this is so for two reasons. First of all, veterans do not believe there will be a major escalation. Russia would suffer huge losses, because eight years after the outbreak of the war in Donbas, the Ukrainian army has changed beyond recognition. It is better equipped—also thanks to Western support in recent weeks—and better trained. Besides, it would be very difficult to hold a territory where few people would look favorably at Russian troops. Kozinczuk compares this to the intervention of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“The chronicles from that time show how soldiers, although they were in tanks, felt anxiety. Everyone was scowling at them,” he says. “Here they would feel as if they went to cheer in the opposing team’s sector during a soccer match.”

Another reason why veterans have not been so anxious is that they know what to do when faced with an emergency. Andrij admits that planning and experience keep emotions under control. This is why a few days before February 16, he checked his first aid kit and uniform, and even polished his military boots, which he had not worn in a long time, to keep the leather from getting dry. “I didn’t want to go to war in red sneakers,” he says.

Together with fellow veterans, they also discussed what they should do. In the event of an escalation, he would not go straight to the front, but would keep order in the city together with others. Panic could easily break out, he says, people would fight for the last items in stores, there could be looters or riots and the police might not be able to deal with it all. Only after overcoming the first shock could he go somewhere else.

And then? “There would be fierce fighting, many would perish, perhaps us too. But that would be something. They would name schools after me…” jokes Andrij.

After a day of training, consultations and meetings, in the evening he decided to go to a bar. He tries to do it twice a week. Not so much to drink as to sit with people outside of his bubble and hear how they live. That evening, the threat of escalation was definitely not on the agenda.

Garage for sale

On Wednesday morning, Alina Hajewa escorted Maria to school and then went to her studio. She made an appointment with a photographer who would take pictures of her works – they will be published on her new website. For over ten years, Alina has created over 2,500 paintings, graphics and illustrations. She says it’s nothing difficult. You only have to go about it every day for a decade.

That day, she did not even check what was happening in the country or the world.

Around the time they were on their way to school, the Reuters broadcast was almost over. The sky above the city was empty and gray, cars were driving down Khreschatyk, passersby were coming in and out of the metro. On that day the central square of Kyiv did not turn into a battlefield that would attract viewers.

The calm in the shot was disturbed only by a drone. It had a piece of cardboard stuck to it. As it approached the camera, the message came into focus: “Garage for sale.” And underneath it a phone number. To the Russian embassy in Kyiv, it later turned out.

The embassy, of course, was not selling a garage.