There had been concern for weeks that Russian President Vladimir Putin would use the holiday to announce an escalation of the war. In Kyiv, there was a strict 10 pm curfew in place, and mayor Vitaly Klitschko had banned mass gatherings in the days leading up to the holiday, while increasing the amount of military and police patrols. Men in camouflage gear holding rifles and carrying hard ballistic helmets were rarely out of eyesight along Khreshchatyk Street, the city’s main drag. Still, the mood in Kyiv seemed defiantly optimistic, even as intense fighting raged in the east and Russian rockets bombarded the seaside city of Odessa in the south.
The weather in Kyiv was warm and sunny. People were out strolling on Khreshchatyk, shopping, and sitting on benches in the shade. On one bench, a father and mother sat with a small child, each eating ice cream cones. Short lines formed at Khreshchatyk’s ubiquitous coffee kiosks. Just below ground, at the Khreshchatyk Metro Station, which has doubled as a bomb shelter since the recent invasion, Bono and The Edge of U2 performed an impromptu concert.
Meanwhile, American diplomats returned to the embassy in Kyiv for first time since fleeing at the onset of the invasion. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made an unannounced visit to Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, toured the destroyed suburb of Irpin, and was perhaps upstaged by the Ukrainian bomb-sniffing dog, Patron, who was given a state award for his service. Further to the west, in Uzhhorod, first lady Jill Biden met with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, who handed Biden a bouquet of flowers.
While it would be a mistake to characterize these scenes as a return to some sort of pre-war normalcy, taken together, they have shown that life can go on amid so much death and destruction. Even in Mariupol, one of the cities hardest hit by the Russian invasion, there emerged some semblance of hope, as the last civilians sheltering at the embattled Azovstal steel plant were finally evacuated.
But the Ukrainian soldiers who remained at the plant held a press conference via Zoom, expressing desperation and a fear of imminent death, unless there is some sort of drastic military intervention soon. “Surrender for us is unacceptable,” Azov lieutenant Illia Samoilenko said. “Being captured means being dead.” And reports of atrocities flowed in from the east: the bombing of a school that had served as a shelter in Luhansk, a 12-year old boy in Dnipro who was allegedly killed after he picked up a piece of ordnance that exploded when he brought it home. These served as a stark reminder of what’s at stake: the lives of the Ukrainian people, the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, and the right to exist in relative peace.
Sunday night was surprisingly free of air raid alerts; the final all-clear sounded at 10 pm (compared to the early hours of May 7, for example, when the siren sounded three times between 1 and 5 in the morning). It was an eerie calm, and it made sleep uneasy somehow, after anticipating something much worse.
The next morning, on Russian Victory Day, a popular restaurant and coffee shop in Kyiv was about one-third full. An Australian journalist with shock-white hair sat alone in the corner and chatted loudly on the phone, laughing occasionally. An air raid siren sounded and no one seemed bothered; the all-clear alert rang out loudly over our cell phones less than 20 minutes later.
A few hours earlier, Zelensky released a slick video showing him walking along Khreshchatyk while giving an impassioned speech. He sounded confident and assured. “We won then,” he said, referring to World War II. “We will win now, too! And Khreshchatyk will see the parade of victory!”
Meanwhile in Moscow, Putin gave a speech as Russian troops marched during a parade at Red Square. He said nothing new, really; there was no war declaration, just unfounded accusations of Western aggression and rampant Nazism in Ukraine. There was no mass mobilization of troops, and no missiles sent en masse to the west.
At around 4 pm, when the day’s second air raid alert sounded, I was at the Sky Loft, one of the main hotels downtown and a popular spot among the many foreign journalists staying in Kyiv. I asked the concierge where the basement shelter was, and she calmly pointed me in the direction of a stairwell behind her to the right. I was the only one down there, aside from several hotel employees doing the guests’ laundry.
The day came and went. I went out for a walk, and by the time I got back in the evening the streets had emptied. Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that everything could come crashing down in seconds, in the form of rockets raining from the sky. But they never came to Kyiv—at least, not today.