Inside Kyiv on the night of Ukraines improbable win

    Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and is executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory. He is the author of New York Times bestselling The Cost of These Dreams.

KYIV, Ukraine — On the ninth floor of an apartment building near the local zoo, a group of friends gathered to watch a soccer game. Outside the sun set on the first day of summer in the capital city. They all checked the time. A little more than an hour remained before Ukraine kicked off against Scotland in Glasgow. The host, Ivan, laid out a spread for his friends. He iced down beer and opened takeaway fried cheese platters, chicken wings, salami and a few bottles of Wild Turkey. Ukraine needed a win tonight, and another in four days versus Wales, to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but nobody seemed particularly nervous.

“During war,” Ivan said, “you don’t really stress about sports.”

The guy in an easy chair down at the end of the coffee table, sipping on a local craft beer, is a soldier home on leave from the front lines in the east. His name is Volodya and before the war he worked as an IT guy. Just before the game got underway, there were moments when he seemed to disappear, his body here in his hometown but his mind back with his brothers in arms. He scrolled through his phone and looked at photos and videos from the combat. He handed over his phone to show me two dead Russian soldiers. He called his friends back at the front line. They are so close to Russia they can and do take potshots at the enemy border guards. His buddies in the trenches crowded around the phone to talk to him.

“Are you guys watching football?” he asked.

“Yes!” they said.

The soldiers cracked jokes, laughing, waiting on the game. So did the guys in the apartment. One draped a Ukrainian flag over his daughter’s pink and white dollhouse. Volodya ate a piece of beef jerky and told stories about the American military advisers who trained him. Someone opened a Corona. Two guys stepped onto the terrace to look out at the city and smoke.

Air raid sirens sounded.

Everyone in the apartment turned toward the balcony to listen to the noise — long, loud wails, stacking on top of each other, each new layer more shrill and urgent.

“Let’s pray,” Ivan said.

“I hate this sound,” my Ukrainian interpreter said quietly.

The sirens meant a Russian missile had been launched from a warship targeting somewhere in Ukraine. One hadn’t hit Kyiv in about a month and with the start of the match just minutes away, the guests opted not to head down to the building’s basement shelter. They made jokes. A guy named Misha started singing the Pearl Jam song “Sirens.” Volodya pulled up a photo of a huge bomb crater and said an air raid siren doesn’t scare him at all. As the noise found its way to every ear in the city, the television broadcast showed a graphic of the Ukrainian national team players and their positions.

“We have a starting 11!” Misha said.

They debated tactics and the players chosen to take the field. Empty beer bottles started to cluster. No one said another word about the missile flying through the darkness.

I CAME TO Kyiv to watch a city watch a game.

A security team and film crew rode in a black van with me from Krakow, Poland. On the road between Lviv and Kyiv we looked out the windows in silence. We stopped to see a car abandoned by the road. Our driver said a family trying to escape had been shot at in the car. There were no bullet holes in the driver’s side door where the mother sat, but the back doors were riddled. The children sitting there were killed, he said.

Further down the road, draft horses broke farmland for planting. Some teenagers soaped and waxed their cars. Others played soccer. Yellow buses chugged along the highway filled with people returning home, sleeping faces pressed up against the windows.

In Kyiv, locals sat at tables in the outdoor cafes. Our first night in town, a big group of journalists went to a Crimean restaurant to eat dumplings and kebabs, while a table of former British soldiers ate nearby. Later that night, we saw them at the Hotel Intercontinental. The lobby bar there has become the epicenter of a strange tribe of people orbiting the war: security details with beards and tattoo sleeves, reporters and producers from around the world, fixers and profiteers and humanitarian volunteers. Night after night, they sit beneath an enormous oil painting of Neptune plowing through the sea with a team of otherworldly horses.

Smoke curled up from ashtrays and waitresses dropped off draft beer. Journalists ate club sandwiches and tapped away on laptops. A local power broker, Markiyan, stopped by my table and over dinner tried to explain how this Scotland match felt to him.

“In a previous life, before the 24th of February, I would have said it’s a nucleus for unity,” he said. “It’s really easy to unite around the team. After the 24th there is no need for that. This is just an outlet of this national unity that hasn’t existed in the past.”

The game wouldn’t create something new so much as it would give the rest of the world a chance to see what is clear to everyone who has come back to Kyiv. This is a war about land and resources, sure, but also about memory and symbols. Vladimir Putin says there is no such thing as Ukraine. The Russians have tried to erase Ukrainian identity by bombing museums and targeting cultural artifacts. In the city center of Kyiv, the most important monuments are pillowed in sandbags. Win or lose, a soccer team putting on its colors for this game delivers a message to the Kremlin: If we don’t exist, then why are we running together onto this pitch in Scotland? Why do our people cheer and wave banners?

These are fragile days in Kyiv but its roots run deep. It is an old city. Moscow was still a swamp when a great empire rose here. The Mongols laid siege in 1240 and split the empire into pieces. Some people went north and became Russians. Others stayed and became Ukrainians. It has been an article of faith for Russian leaders, going back to Peter I and Catherine the Great, that Ukraine should be a subservient little brother to their more powerful northern neighbors. Putin wanted to erase a culture but has instead unified one, and while unity and resolve are ineffable ideas, they are also unmistakable.

Around the city, people ordered fancy coffees. They made dinner reservations. They walked through rubble to work out at a gym that had reopened in a bombed-out building.

My interpreter asked a woman if she was scared. She laughed at us.

“Scared of what?”

Kyiv was safe for the moment but still bore deep scars: ruined buildings; phalanxes of big metal barricades called hedgehogs, designed to stop tanks; dozens of concrete and sandbag bunkers protecting key intersections. At the northern edge of the city, soldiers held trenches and barricades, brushing their teeth by the roadside. The Ukrainians have pushed the Russians back in many places but down in the east, every day brings scary news. Land lost, citizens killed.

Sitting in the hotel lobby, I asked Markiyan for a prediction.

“The war or the match?” he asked, smiling.

THE HOTEL FRONTED a big square with a monastery at one end. This is head coach Oleksandr Petrakov’s favorite place in the city, where he “feels his soul rest” as he told me a few weeks ago. Parked in between the Intercontinental and the gold domes of the church were burned out wrecks of Russian military vehicles. A steady line of citizens walked solemnly, visitors at a strange museum. They looked closely at these alien tombs. The day before the game, one of those pilgrims was Petrakov’s daughter, Viktoria.

She stood next to a destroyed tank.

A cloud passed over her face as she tried to explain how she felt standing here. Finally she found the right word: happy. It made her happy to stand so close to the place where her enemies perished.

“This is what death looks like,” Viktoria said to me, and then almost to herself, “I hate f—ing Russians.”

She looked down at a line of canned rations.

“Their food,” she said.

She touched a burned piece of camo coat.

“Their clothes,” she said.

She read the labels. Soot from the uniform stuck to her hands and she wiped it off. A kid walked around the tank holding a wooden sword. Nobody said much. There were burned mess kits with orange handles, a single onion, and coffee cups bent from the heat. A child kicked a piece of metal that had fallen off an armored troop carrier.

Viktoria looked around at her city and said it felt empty. So many people haven’t returned. Down by the river, there should be tables of people drinking coffee and pretending to be annoyed by skateboarders. Yes, there are proud attempts at normal life, which they all celebrate, and the city is alive with cranes and construction crews, dancing to the sound of hammers and bulldozers, rebuilding, cleaning, standing back up again. But still there is an unspoken feeling hovering over everything, a mixture of worry that the success they’ve known so far could turn to defeat, that the destruction of war might return to Kyiv, and this vague sense that nothing will ever be the same again, no matter how defiant the citizens remain.

“There is something flying in the air,” she told me, trying to explain. “The pain of the Ukrainian people is in the air.”

We went inside the church. She and a priest talked about the match. The priest loved having the great coach’s daughter with them and took her up in the bell tower overlooking the square. When the first Russian attacks came, the church played a World War II resistance ballad that’s become a kind of shadow national anthem during the past 90 days. Now the priests play the song on the bells every morning at 4. On the afternoon before the game, they played it special for Viktoria. Down in the square, people walking in laps around the burned tanks took out their phones and recorded the sound of the music.

THE FIRST TIME I heard the song was two weeks ago in Italy. Ukraine was playing a warm-up match against a Serie A team, Empoli, and the stadium was full of refugees. Wind blew across the pitch. The public address system played one symbolic song after another and when this folk anthem started, a woman named Olena sang along. She had escaped from Kharkiv, which has seen some of the worst fighting. Standing near the pitch, she told me her story. She hid in her basement for 10 days with her husband and five children. For the first three days the Russians only fired missiles. Then one day around 5 a.m., she heard the sound of an airplane. That was their warning. A bomb hit the school three doors down from there. Her 10-year-old daughter woke up screaming.

She has recurring nightmares now. About airplanes.

Olena’s children are adopted and she explained that she wanted to get them away from the Russians because she feared they would take children from Ukraine and give them to Russian families. They struggled to leave. The family car, an old broken-down thing, didn’t work. Three times the local government scheduled, then canceled, buses. Her husband went to the garage and somehow got the car to start. He drove. She sat next to him. Four of their kids squeezed into the back. Her oldest son, 19, refused to leave. He and many of his classmates stayed in Kharkiv and joined the army.

The sirens went off as they left town. Bombs fell. It took four days to reach safety. They didn’t have food, but in little towns along the road local citizens fixed meals and handed them out to travelers. She and her family slept with strangers. One night, around 3 a.m., they got into a town and an elderly couple — “grandparents,” she said — invited them into their home. Inside, they found a dining room table covered with food.

A city in the west of Ukraine let them sleep in a gymnasium and after three days, her husband secured passage on a bus to Poland. He dropped her off and then turned around to go back to Ukraine to join the army. He was offered two exemptions — one because of his age and the other because he has three or more children — but he refused.

They said goodbye quickly, like he was stepping out for milk.

“I am still praying I will see him again one day,” she said.

Her eyes filled with tears as she talked but she didn’t cry. None of the adults cried. They just looked hollow and spent, out of tears. Ukraine won and the team gathered to sing the national anthem. About three dozen orphans stood to sing with them. Olena did, too, and finally, the tears started to fall — her emotions released not by memories of pain but by this celebration of home. She tried to wipe them away, all the while singing, “Our enemies will die … we’ll live happily in our land.”

KYIV LOCALS SHOWED me around the places hit hardest by Russian missiles and bombs. I parked and walked with residents toward their apartment building, which had been hit by a Russian cruise missile. The building sat directly between a hospital and two schools. A man named Kostyantyn led me to the elevator. The lift sounded like a wounded animal, grinding gears, climbing slowly up into the air. He led me around and down some stairs and then opened the door to his old home, unit No. 102. The entire skyline of Kyiv stretched out across a huge gaping hole. There were no walls. He pointed out at empty air and sighed.

That was his daughter’s room. She’s 9. The day the missile hit he had been sitting in his chair, like always, watching television. It struck the unit directly below his and the shock wave flipped his chair over and blew him into the kitchen, where his wife was cooking macaroni for their kids. His daughter had been sleeping in the hall for safety, which saved her life. His voice got quiet.

“This is a miracle,” he said.

We were standing there, 21 stories up in the air, with no walls or visible supports — the floor and ceiling are connected by temporary struts — and an air raid siren went off. He told me he won’t let his family come home until he can protect them, and nodding at the noise echoing around the city, he said that day had not arrived. His daughter confronted him after the attack and said he’d promised the Russians couldn’t hurt them and he’d lied.

“The only feeling I have is rage,” he said.

I walked down a story and entered the apartment where the missile actually hit. The owner, a woman named Oksana who had evacuated the city two days before the attack, met me inside.

“Be careful,” she said. “This floor does not exist anymore.”

Inside there are pieces of her old life: Mermaid brand moisturizer, a hair dryer, a bottle of shampoo. Her shower has a tile portrait of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Pieces of couch cushion lay at strange angles on the floor. A neighbor stuck his head in the door and said the missile strike sounded like a church bell. Smoke filled the whole building and people ran to the stairs. A brave resident ran to the basement and turned off the gas line so the whole place didn’t explode. People looked out for one another. They raised money to repair the building. Someone planted flowers outside the entrance, tiny little daisies rising up from the dirt.

The people wonder why they were targeted by the Russians.

A resident walked back outside with me. She carried a stuffed unicorn that belonged to her daughter. It had gone missing in the explosion until the gardener at the school next door found it. He remembered seeing a kid carrying it around and he searched until he could reconnect a pink unicorn with a little girl who’d lost almost everything else that felt even a little like home.

I LEFT THE wounded building and went to an elegant restaurant run by a local chef who has become famous for preserving and elevating traditional Ukrainian recipes. Our fixer, who evacuated Kyiv on Feb. 24 and hadn’t returned until now, took me there to have a bowl of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup. She said if she had to choose, borscht from this restaurant would be her last meal on earth. We had a big group but everyone ate in silence, still processing the violence of a cruise missile slamming into an apartment building. That’s Kyiv. Something devastated just steps from something cherished. At war and at peace. Modern and ancient. Beautiful and ruined. That’s what Viktoria was talking about, I think, when she talked about the shadows she could sense all around her in the air. Kyiv might exist as a beacon for a new and proud Ukrainian future or, if the foreign money dries up, there might be Russian tanks rolling through these streets. History is being written in real time and nobody knows how things will end. These could be the last days of a regional war or the first days of a world war. Someone told me the best part of a day in Kyiv is the 15 seconds between waking up and your brain clicking into gear. In those fleeting moments everything is like it was before.

THE MORNING OF the match I went to a local wedding chapel. They had three ceremonies scheduled before lunch, on a Wednesday, which would have been unheard of not that long ago. A lot more people are getting married in Kyiv than before the war, every day of the week. “People don’t want to postpone anything,” the woman running the chapel told me. The strict 11 p.m. curfew means there aren’t big parties like before, so these ceremonies are quick but joyous. The guests arrived first with a bottle of champagne. Then the bride and groom arrived, he in gray slacks, a white shirt and a fresh fade, she in her white dress, standing in front of a big circle of flowers. Harpsichord music played on the stereo. Their friends greeted them coming out onto the sidewalk as church bells rang somewhere out in the city. The next bride and groom waited for the room to be reset so they could get married, too. Everyone was smiling and laughing. These are days of hope and forgetting.

These are days of pain and memory, too.

Thirty minutes after that last wedding, a man named Denys met me at his house in a northern suburb called Bucha. He is a quiet guy, a little nerdy, who loves military history and wears a Velcro tactical hat. Russian troops occupied Bucha in the early weeks of the attack on Ukraine in March, and the town’s name has become synonymous with the extreme violence of the invasion. Journalists and human rights groups have reported the torture, rape and execution of hundreds of citizens found in mass graves there. The road from Kyiv to Bucha is lined with medieval destruction. There are burned gas stations and shelled houses. The walls are covered in thousands of bullet holes. The forests are littered with land mines. Tanks left tread marks on the highway.

We sat in Denys’ living room. He told me the Russians had sat here too, and had broken into his safe. He said he and his mother hid in their chicken coop and a soldier poked his head inside but didn’t see them. That’s why he is alive to tell this story. All his grandparents are Russian. He has family in Russia who insist that the Ukrainians killed themselves in Bucha to make Russia look bad. He doesn’t speak to them anymore.

“I think they’re zombies,” he said.

Denys walked me out his front door and down a narrow road. He pointed ahead. This is where a column of evacuating civilians moved. He pointed behind himself. This is where the Russian army started shooting at them.

He slipped beneath a wire and walked over to a deep hole in the ground. A shovel was still stuck into an adjacent pile of dirt. He pointed once more. This was a mass grave. He watched his neighbors bury four strangers killed by the Russians while trying to escape. One day when the history of this war is written, there will be volumes on the tiny acts of humanity and love that ordinary Ukrainians showed, not because they knew one another, but because they were bound together by something more powerful than friendship or geography. His neighbors dug a grave and buried four strangers because nobody should have to rot in the sun.

Those bodies stayed in the ground from March 5 to April 15, when people arrived to give them a proper funeral. Denys and I don’t talk much. We make eye contact a few times but mostly retreat within ourselves. The thick comforters used to cover the bodies remained in the hole, along with a piece of thin light blue cloth, like the kind a dress might be made of, covered in blood. One day the people here will get around to filling up this hole but Denys will remember it.

My interpreter asked him if he had plans to watch the game.

“Is there a game?” he asked. “Who’s playing?”

AT THE APARTMENT by the city zoo, the host, Ivan, told everyone to stop talking.

“OK, guys,” he said. “The anthem.”

They all stood up. Two guys smoking outside came in. The team on the field in Scotland sang and the guys in this room sang along with them, loudly, unembarrassed, hands over their hearts. There is no way to know how this war will end, or what will happen to this fierce Ukrainian unity, but on this night around the city of Kyiv, people gathered in little groups to see their nation try to win.

Everyone had to be off the streets before the game ended. One local pub showed the match as long as the viewers brought a sleeping bag and didn’t try to go home until 5 a.m. Only about 30 people showed up. This game, then, wasn’t a mass public expression but rather a repeated private one, happening in little pods all over the city. The men at the apartment around me talked about the war. They asked what Americans thought about them. They wanted to show pictures of their children. They wanted to see pictures of mine. The soldier said he wanted the aircraft carrier Harry Truman to come park off the coast of Ukraine. The sound cut in and out on the television and they joked that Putin had hacked the feed.

In the 33rd minute, Ukraine scored to take a 1-0 lead. Amid the cheers and the high-fives, there was, for just a moment, no mention of the war or the past or the future.

I left the apartment at halftime to get back to the hotel before the curfew. Only a few people remained at the tables in the bar. The game wasn’t on. The hotel didn’t get the channel, the staff said. My fixer and security guy showed up and pulled up chairs. Low saxophone music played through the lobby speakers. We all listened to the game on the radio, following as Ukraine scored again to go up 2-0, and then as Scotland scored to make it 2-1. My fixer shook her head about the radio.

“Like olden times,” she said, laughing. “This is World War II!”

A guy across from us lit a cigarette. Some security contractors paid their tab and left. American network news producers moved through the room. We learned that the missile that sparked the earlier air raid siren landed in western Ukraine, near Lviv, injuring two people.

Ukraine scored again in the last seconds and the game ended, earning them a chance to play Wales on Sunday with a trip to the World Cup on the line. A few people cheered in the bar and then folks headed upstairs. My fixer checked her phone and smiled. Denys in Bucha, who’d looked so gray and weak while telling his story earlier, had decided to watch the game after all.

He sent us some videos a friend had taken of their watch party. In one, the camera pans across the room until it lands on Denys’ face and he gives a thin smile and a thumbs-up. Three months ago, he hid in his own chicken coop and listened to Russian soldiers loot his house and Wednesday night he watched a game like any other person in any other country. He was still standing. His team was still playing.

I just watched that video again, sitting in my hotel room, about to pack and leave Kyiv. It was a little after 5 a.m., and I opened the blinds to find the sun already up, the morning sky blue with soft white clouds, and birds winging down a side street leading to the square.

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