by Lorenzo Bernasconi

Arrival

Not many foreigners land in Kiev in this period: you can quickly realize it once you land at Borispol International Airport.

At the Customs the only - few - questions are about the covid risk: no one asks what you have come to do or where you are staying, they have other things to think about. I arrive in Kiev in the evening, under a light rain, just as NATO is evacuating its personnel from the city. The radio plays cheerful music, both local and international, the traffic is quite heavy but the taxi driver admits that there is uncertainty in the air and that people are scared.

Day 1

The city appears semi-empty, with moderate traffic and few passersby.

On Saturday morning the city wakes up under a blanket of clouds. There is a cold wind that freezes the bones despite the various layers of clothing: for a capital city that is home to nearly 3 million inhabitants, Kiev seems frighteningly empty. The few passers-by are in a hurry and avoid meeting eyes, no one pays attention to me, perhaps because of my pale complexion and dark clothes that allow me to easily blend in with the locals. Every time I enter a bar or a store, I am greeted in the local language, and I can't help but notice the surprise of the waiters and sales clerks at hearing me reply in English: not many Westerners go around in Kiev these days. Among the younger ones, someone speaks a decent English, but as soon as I try to sketch a question about the crisis with Russia, the answer is always the same: "Sorry, I don't speak English very well". The imprint of the USSR is evidently still strong: talking about politics with strangers here is still considered dangerous, or at least inappropriate.

In the city center you can see a few soldiers in uniform and some policemen with automatic weapons protecting sensitive sites, but overall the scenario is not different from what you can find in any European capital; only the poor state of preservation of the buildings and the car fleet that, for the most part, seems to come from another era, remind me of the state of deep depression of the Ukrainian economy. Greatly absent, even today, the citizens of Kiev: vehicular traffic is moderately intense, but sidewalks and stores appear desolately empty, in relation to the number of residents of the Ukrainian capital.

In the museum complex around the cathedral of St. Sophia, right in the center, I am the only visitor: only towards the end of my stay do I run into a girl and an elderly couple, all locals judging by their speech. On the book where visitors to the cultural center leave messages and comments, the last traces of the passage of some Westerners - two English tourists and a Belgian - date back to early January, a month and a half ago.

In Independence Square there is a small patriotic demonstration going on, no more than 30 people: most of the passers-by seem completely indifferent, but the event has attracted several journalists and cameramen. Some volunteers, equipped with identification cards, ask me for a contribution for the soldiers fighting against the Russians. I can't figure out if they are referring to the regular army or to some militia, but everything takes place under the eye of the uniformed soldiers and policemen - not many, actually - who are guarding the square. At 1pm on the dot, a loudspeaker mounted on a lamppost in front of the square plays the national anthem for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, reports of clashes and bombings - by the Russians, according to Ukrainian authorities, and by the Ukrainian army according to Moscow's version - in the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk further raise the level of alert.

The local experts I was planning to meet, tracked down thanks to the help of a vast network of acquaintances among political analysts and researchers scattered across half of Europe, have all left Kiev - and several of them the country - in a great hurry, thwarting my hopes of a few face-to-face chats to get first-hand information. I console myself with a dinner in a trendy pub in the center of Kiev, Le Cosmopolite: it's Saturday night but, in two hours of stay, only 4 customers enter, including me. The staff of the pub confirms to me that this is absolutely not normal and yet, as soon as I try to ask if it is due to the crisis between their country and Russia, the only answer I get is the usual: "My English is very bad, I don't understand". Until one minute before, of course, they all spoke more than acceptable English.

On the way back to the hotel I meet a girl who speaks in English on the phone with a strong Slavic accent: from the shred of conversation that I manage to catch, I understand that she is looking for a way to fly to Germany, she is afraid of being stuck here. The feeling of being one of the few westerners left in Kiev is getting stronger and stronger.

Day 2

On Sunday morning I head towards the city center under a pale sun, trying to ignore the continuous gusts of icy wind. In Independence Square (known for the so-called "Euromaidan" of 2013) there are people (not so many, about 200-300): there is a demonstration in memory of the Ukrainian fallen in the war against the separatist republics.

A few people gather for a memorial for the fallen.

The photos of fallen soldiers are lined up along the avenue; the mother of an 18-year-old soldier who died in the war gives a speech in front of the crowd and the national and foreign media. There are those who carry flowers, those who wear clothes with the colors of the national flag, those who stop with emotion in front of the photographs of the fallen soldiers. However, it is impossible not to notice how the number of participants is extraordinarily low for a city with almost 3 million inhabitants: it seems that, for the majority of locals, the clashes in the east of the country are something remote. On the other hand, the patriotic impulse, here, seems to concern more the authorities than the people: in the city, it must be said, there is a triumph of flags with national colors, but these wave almost exclusively on public buildings; very few stores, and even fewer private homes, display the banner with the colors of Ukraine.

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Near the square I meet a small group of volunteers who collect funds for the war wounded: in a very poor English they express a strong hostility towards Russia and, above all, towards Putin. However, they confess that they do not expect a Russian attack on the capital: according to them the clash will continue, as in past years, only in the disputed territory of the separatist republics.

A little further on, another demonstration in favor of the anti-Russian fighters: there are about ten individuals, one of them in military uniform. I try to ask them a few questions, they are friendly but speak only Ukrainian. I meet three American journalists on the street, the first Westerners I have seen in two days.

In the early afternoon, the city finally seems to come alive. The streets are filled with young people and families, the stores are full; in the streets of luxury stores and restaurants, near the Olympic stadium, I can't help but notice a row of top-of-the-range BMW and Audi SUVs. There are even a few brand new Maseratis: for the wealthy oligarchs of Kiev, it seems, Sunday is shopping day. It is impressive how wide is the gap between the (few) ultra-rich and the (many) poor in this country: it is a further indicator of the poor health of Ukrainian democracy and rampant corruption. The supercars burn the traffic lights and speed dangerously in the alleys of the center between the old cars driven by the majority of locals, under the heedless gaze of the policemen; the impression is that, down here, money allows you to do whatever you want and is able to guarantee absolute impunity.

Nazionalisti in piazza per raccogliere fondi.

Stopping in less glamorous areas, I realize that, despite the cold, the city parks have been invaded by children running around, youths chatting, street musicians, even some old people playing chess; there is a desire for normality today, it doesn't seem at all like a country on the brink of war.

I return to the hotel and manage to contact by phone a profound connoisseur of this part of the world, who regularly travels for work in the three major countries in the area: Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. We talk at length and, on condition of strict anonymity, he authorizes me to report the salient points of his analysis. "Russia has no interest in permanently occupying the entire territory of Ukraine" explains my source "the Russians are only interested in the Donbass, where the country's Russian-speaking minority is concentrated. That is the real reason why they will never accept Ukraine's accession to NATO: they fear that the Ukrainian government could, one day, exploit the NATO umbrella to regain the territories of the separatist republics without having to fear a reaction from Moscow". "I'm still hoping for a diplomatic solution" he goes on "but the risk of escalation is unfortunately concrete. The Ukrainian army is increasing the pressure on the pro-Russian separatist republics: if they will be invaded by the Ukrainian army, they will ask for help to Russia and Putin will not be able to stand by and watch, it would be the end of his political career. Putin will react, and there is a risk that what happened in Georgia in 2008 with the South Ossetia crisis could be repeated on a larger scale. Russian tanks could enter Ukraine and even arrive in Kiev, not to occupy it permanently, but to give Ukraine and its fragile economy such a hard blow that it would give up definitively on an effective re-annexation of the separatist republics of Donbass".

In the meantime, the media continue to report clashes with dead and wounded in the above mentioned republics, but this does not seem to worry the citizens of Kiev: young people crowd restaurants and pubs, some adults walk their dogs, there are no particular signs of nervousness.

Day 3

Monday morning I return to Independence Square, the fulcrum of street politics in this country, but there is almost no one there. I take a walk in a park not far away, everything seems quiet; at 13, as every day, the notes of the national anthem resound from the usual loudspeaker, but passers-by don't seem to notice.

Time to leave: a nice taxi driver with a passion for metal drives me to the airport on the notes of a song by Rammstein. At the airport, a Czech TV crew interviews the departing foreigners, and then rushes to get on a flight to Prague. I buy a couple of bottles at the duty free shop and board the plane to Milan.

Analysis

From this brief experience in Ukraine, which gave me more questions than answers, I take with me the awareness of how the Far East of Europe is a complex world and, in many ways, difficult to understand for us Westerners. I've learned that the reality here is much more nuanced than the media portrays it at home, that the nationalist movements that are given a lot of prominence in our press are not, in fact, the mass phenomena that one would expect, and that the vast majority of the population just wants to live their lives and prefers to stay away from politics. It would be interesting, on another occasion, to try to better understand why.

Unfortunately, along with many questions and food for thought, I also take home with me the unpleasant feeling that, in spite of the will of the population to live as much as possible in peace, due to the short-sighted choices of the local government and its allies, on the one hand, and the desire to show the muscles of Russia on the other, for this difficult and fascinating country very dark times will come soon.

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He graduated in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan, where he collaborated with the chair of History of Ancient Philosophy. He spent six years in Brussels working for the European Parliament. Returning to Italy in 2018, he served at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and, later, as a consultant at the Chamber of Deputies.