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The Ghosts of Kyiv and the Shadow of War

Reflections on the spirit of Ukraine’s capital, as worries of a Russian invasion grow.
January 28, 2022
The Ghosts of Kyiv and the Shadow of War
People walk past Saint Sophia Cathedral at Sophia Square on January 27, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. International fears of an imminent Russian military invasion of Ukraine continue to remain high as Russian troops mass along the Russian-Ukrainian border and diplomatic talks continue to stall. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

In the last years of his life, my father would frequently toast his friends with the phrase, “Glory to Ukraine!” “Glory to the heroes!” their traditional reply went.

This call-and-response used to be strongly associated with nationalists and Nazi collaborators, and before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, my father wouldn’t have been caught dead saying it. A Kyiv-born former Soviet officer, he disdained nationalists and referred to them dismissively as “Banderites,” i.e. followers of the militant Stepan Bandera.

War with Russia changed my father’s mind, and the minds of many Ukrainians. When my Russia-born mother criticized him for using the chant, he would become visibly upset. “I don’t care about what happened decades ago, I care about what’s happening right now,” he told her during one of their frequent clashes over politics.

Formerly divisive, the chant was uniting Ukrainians—especially because it so upset Russians. Similar things were happening with the Ukrainian language. Both my father and I—it must be said that the man raised me in his image—would catch ourselves speaking Ukrainian to people if we knew that it would piss them off.

On the other hand, vehemently Ukrainian-speaking friends and relatives were changing, too. “Natalia will speak whatever language she wants in my house! Because she is one of us!” My uncle Taras, the father of my beloved cousin and a transplant from western Ukraine to Kyiv, snapped at his dinner guests when they tried to criticize me for using Russian.

My uncle had become sensitive to Russian accusations of Ukrainian militancy—and he had come to admire me when my personal loyalties to Ukraine, the country of my birth, had cost me two jobs in a row in Moscow.

Today, my father and my uncle are both dead, my father gone last spring and my uncle this terrible winter, and Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing more and more troops on the Ukrainian border. Long an American, I am shielded from this naked aggression—my friends and family not so much. Family group chats have become conversations on bomb shelters, evacuation routes, how far Putin might go, who will go and who will stay if the worst happens, and what kind of non-perishable goods are best to stock.

It makes me feel almost glad that my father picked the right time to die. Yet when I think about him, and all that he stood for, this sense of relief withers inside me. “He would want me to do something,” I think.

What I do best is telling stories. Kyiv has many of them. It’s an ancient city, long coveted by Moscow due to its historic status and significance. But for millions of us, it’s just a place we love. I was born in Kyiv, and although I grew up in North Carolina, I’ve come back frequently as an adult, particularly whenever I’ve needed to lick my wounds, when a job ended or a relationship soured. The echoes in the courtyards, the crows perching on the poplars, the moody folk songs sung at dinnertime, even the persistent bickering of family members have worked like a healing spell for me. The air is thick with ghosts in Kyiv, and one’s personal pain tends to get lost among them.

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote once about a trip to Kyiv, and observing the statue of Prince Vladimir (or Volodymyr, as we call him in Ukrainian) raising a black cross above the river Dnipro. The cross faces the east, from which danger has frequently come.

Akhmatova also wrote of the way the stars look in Kyiv, reaching needles of diamond light up to God. “And with me only you / My equal, and my love,” she finished the poem.

I’ve quoted Akhmatova’s poem to several men in my life—being my father’s daughter, I’ve always been of the opinion that love comes and goes, and that it’s okay to be corny and sincere in its presence—but looking back on it, I think that most of all, Kyiv inspires a profound sense of solitude. Not loneliness, which is very different, but inward contemplation. Maybe it’s the heavy sedimental layers of history. Or the competing ideologies that are forever clashing there, transforming one another in the process. I prefer to ascribe it to Kyiv’s peculiar magic, the sense of time slowing down, pooling thickly around your ankles as you stand in the caves by the river, or sit nursing a beer, watching the dark gather outside.

Having said that, the city of my birth is also one where you stop taking yourself very seriously. Trapped in one of Kyiv’s notorious traffic jams once, I got out of my taxi and began the process of climbing a roadside fence, as I was late for a meeting and needed to cut across. It was so cold that the air shimmered, and my mother’s vintage fur coat was heavy on my shoulders. Instantly, a man materialized out of nowhere to boost me.

“Young woman, this better be important!” He grunted under my weight. “Or are you late for a manicure?”

“I am a journalist!” I squealed as I clambered up.

“So journalists don’t get manicures?”

“I wouldn’t be climbing here if it was just a manicure!”

“Who knows, young woman, who knows.” Up over the fence I went, crashing down on the other side, narrowly missing an old woman who had leaned a bunch of old paintings against the fence, antiques she was trying to sell. She called me crazy. I bowed apologetically, and promptly stepped into some dog shit, which is rarely cleaned up in the Ukrainian capital, almost as if it is designed to bring you down a notch when you are busy and important. The old woman laughed. I scampered on. It was just another day in Kyiv.

When recounting that story, I am sometimes asked if the man, the old woman, and myself spoke Russian or Ukrainian. The truth is, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. Most Kyivans switch easily between the two languages, and we rarely notice ourselves doing it. Russian propaganda would have you believe that we are all bloodthirsty russophobes, but propagandists are paid to tell lies.

The best time to be in Kyiv is at sunrise, when the light begins climbing over the city’s many hills. I’ve greeted the dawn in the city in many places—on the river, in a graveyard, on a roof. The city’s ghosts don’t leave with the sun but become gossamer and benign, absorbing the light reflected by the weighty golden domes of the many churches. Today, my family members visit those houses of worship frequently, praying for deliverance.

Experts are paid to tell you what is going to happen—particularly when a war heats up. The truth is, sometimes, it’s important to say, “I don’t know.”

What I do know is that on the nights I’ve come home at a reasonable hour, my parents often left a candle burning for me in my window in Kyiv, a flicker to welcome me back. I like to think that I carry that light inside me now, and that it can’t be extinguished. Сome friend or foe, some candles keep burning, some truths are inevitable. With the prospect of annihilation, I like to close my eyes and think back to seeing that light, and the only words that come to me then are the words of my father. Glory to Ukraine, he whispers in my ear. Glory to the heroes.

Natalia Antonova

Natalia Antonova is a writer and investigator based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @NataliaAntonova.