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‘Remember me with a smile’: A diary of war in Ukraine

A Ukrainian novelist describes his family’s escape from Kyiv and a harrowing week of war.

The run-up to the invasion

It was not long ago that a friend joked with me about the weather forecast for Kyiv. “Tomorrow will be mostly cloudy, with sunny spells and a light east wind,” he said. “The chances of a Russian invasion: 35 percent. But it will feel like 95 percent!”

That was only last week — a week in which so many things happened. So many terrible things. As a boy, I remember my mother recounting how she, with her parents, crossed the wide Volkhov River in a dilapidated wooden boat on the morning of June 22, 1941 — the day of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. Her father was heading to the front. She never saw him again.

I wonder, now, whether they saw that war coming. In the run-up, did they also live, like me and my fellow Ukrainians today, perched on a wild seesaw of emotions? Did they also look west and wonder, the way we have looked east and tried to guess: Will he attack, or won’t he? As they tried to guess, did they also go about life as normal?

Hear more from Tom Nagorski and Andrey Kurkov about this story:

Peering out into the quiet evening streets, we saw no reason for fear. Around the end of the month, I noticed that the streets were strangely quiet during my regular afternoon walks. It made me wonder: Was there an exodus underway? Should we also leave? I talked about it with my European diplomat friends. Would he really do it? Would he invade? No, they said, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, would do something around the already-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, but there was no reason to fear an all-out attack. And so, when my wife, Elizabeth, who is British, received an email from the Foreign Office saying that she should consider leaving the country while commercial flights were available, we shrugged our shoulders.

We shrugged — but we also wondered why the U.S. and the U.K. had taken this approach. Did they know something we did not? Some evidence that the other Europeans had not seen? “Certainly not!”— that is what our friends said. So we shrugged some more.

On the evening of Feb. 23 — the day before he did it — we sat around our dining table in central Kyiv with some friends. We joked about whether it would be our last meal in Kyiv. The journalists at the table did not laugh; by then, they had started hearing that war was coming. It would begin at night. They were right.

Thursday, Feb. 24

The first Russian attacks around Kyiv occurred at about 5 in the morning. My wife and I were awakened by the sound of the explosions. There were three of them. Then, an hour later, two more, and then what turned out to be the last, precious moments of silence.

The truth is that even then, it was hard to believe that the war had begun. In fact, I am not sure I fully believe it now; the destruction is still sinking in. But I know this: From now, war will determine our way of life, our way of thinking, our way of making decisions.

The day before the invasion, our children — including our daughter, who had just flown in from London — had gone with friends to the beautiful city of Lviv, in western Ukraine. They wanted to visit the cafes, museums, the medieval streets of the old city center.

The same day, I met my old friend Boris, an Armenian artist, now a citizen of Ukraine, who has lived in Kyiv with his Ukrainian wife for 30 years.

He looked confused. He has been suffering from cancer for years and had just returned home from the hospital after yet another operation. “You know, I have a big problem with my memory,” he complained to me. “After the last operation, I bought a gun to defend Kyiv. But my wife forbade me from keeping it at home. I gave it to a friend for safekeeping, and now I cannot remember which friend. I have asked everyone.”

We laughed, for Boris has too many friends. Half of Kyiv loves him, trusts him and counts him as a friend, because he is always happy to chat with everyone. As the Russians attacked us, I wondered if Boris had found his gun. I still do not know. But I am sure he is helping the military somewhere. Maybe filling sandbags for barricades. Maybe digging trenches.

Another friend, Valentin, a retired doctor, is in the hospital. Diabetes and, recently, covid-19. Such were the complications that both his legs have had to be amputated. As explosions shook Kyiv in the first wave of the Russian attack, he was in intensive care on the eighth floor of a local hospital; I would visit him regularly.

When the war began, his wife told me she was worried that the Russians might fire a missile at the hospital, hitting the upper floors, so she asked that Valentin be moved down to the fourth-floor ward. He is still there, as is his wife, who cooks for him. There are almost no patients left in the hospital; those who could leave had fled. And there is almost no medicine.

We spent that first night of bombing with a friend, the English writer and journalist Lily Hyde, who has been living in Kyiv for many years. We were seeking safety in numbers.

Friday, Feb. 25, morning

The next day, we decided to leave for the country, to our house in Lazarivka, a village between Kyiv and Zhitomir, close to the Polish border. It is about 90 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) from the Ukrainian capital.

Before setting off, I checked Google Maps and saw that the exit from Kyiv to the west, in the direction of our village, was open and traffic-free. We packed a few things, took food from the fridge and the freezer, loaded everything into the car and hit the road.

Putin was moving faster than Google Maps. By the time we reached the western exit, the rush to get out was such that the traffic stood motionless. I noticed numbered plates from around the country — from Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and even from the far eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk — and realized that these drivers must have been on the road for at least two days. You could see it in their pale faces, in their tired eyes, in the way they drove their cars.

On the way, my wife called her friend Lena, a music teacher at the Kyiv School of Arts, asking if she wanted to escape with us. Lena, still processing what had happened, took a few moments before deciding that, yes, she would come. She said she would bring her son.

We agreed to meet on the highway, which was so busy that I could not drive to the side of the road; Lena and her son had to run between trucks and buses to reach our car. With them in the back seat, our little escape transport was full.

The drive to Lazarivka usually takes about an hour; that day it took four and a half. Almost everyone was on the left side, heading out of the city; the right side of the highway was busy with military vehicles moving in both directions. Guns, tanks, mobile artillery — reminders (not that we would forget) that we were now at war.

It was hard on my heart. Everyone was silent. I turned on the car radio, and we listened to the news. The news was now from the front, except the front was now everywhere. The length of the front today is 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles), the length of our border with Russia and Belarus. Kharkiv and Mariupol were being bombed; hundreds of Russian tanks had entered the territory of Ukraine in several places, including from Crimea. Ballistic missiles flew from the territory of Belarus to Ukrainian cities.

The news did not calm us, but it did distract us from the traffic jams — at least for a while.

Two Ukrainian fighter jets flew low over the car. Then we heard explosions that grew louder as we inched forward. The radio news reader began talking about a battle in Gostomel, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Kyiv — which is when I realized where we were: Gostomel, near the cargo airport.

As a child, I had climbed the fence of the runway with my friends and looked for pieces of aluminum in the grass, little bits that had fallen off during the making of aircraft body parts. It was a novel thing; to us kids, the metal seemed valuable and surprisingly light.

I wonder what today’s Russian invaders have left in the grass.

Friday, Feb. 25, evening

I turned off the radio when we reached the village. It was peaceful. No explosions, no shooting. Birds sang, rejoicing at the coming of spring. We unloaded the car, showed Lena and her son to their room, and made tea for everyone. I tried to do normal things.

I called on our neighbors, Nina and Tolik. The retired couple was delighted to see us. “We were expecting you yesterday!” Nina said.

“We would not have made it! The traffic jam on the road out of Kyiv was 50 miles long,” I told her.

But it turned out her son had managed to escape the city on the day of the invasion. “He drove through the fields and villages,” Nina told me. “Not along the highway.”

We agreed that I would visit them several times a day to talk; we have always been friendly.

Back in our village home, I set up my desk, thinking I would focus on work. But just as I got out my laptop and turned on the heating in my study, a friend from Kyiv rang me, asking where we were. I told him. Go farther west, he warned — the Russians were everywhere.

I looked at my desk, thought about the heating, about the friends who had come with us. Must we go? And then I remembered the tanks and guns on the highway.

“Let’s go to the children in Lviv,” I said to my wife. “Lena and her son can stay here. It is safer for them here than in Kyiv.”

Elizabeth was silent. Finally, she said, “You’d better talk to them yourself.”

Lena flatly refused to stay. They would come with us, she said firmly.

And so back in the car we went. Elizabeth went to say goodbye to the neighbors. Nina cried and hugged my wife. Her husband, Tolik, just stood there, his face pale. He was leaning on a walking stick. I noticed that his left hand was trembling.

Saturday, Feb. 26, morning

The road to Lviv, 420 kilometers (250 miles) long, took 22 hours. Cars on the three-lane highway crawled along nose to tail, sometimes halting completely for several minutes. It was hard to drive, and I began to fall asleep around 2 a.m.; we had to stop on a side road.

We rejoined the endless snake of vehicles shortly before dawn, finally arriving in the city early in the morning.

Looking at the familiar old houses and villas in Lviv’s beautiful streets, I wondered: Will the Russian army come here or not? Will Putin really bomb Lviv? I had to force myself to push these thoughts out of my head; they were sapping my energy.

We found our children disoriented and sad. I was tired, and my body was telling me that I should nap in the apartment they had rented. But my mind was painfully alert; I knew there was no point trying to sleep.

Not far from the apartment, I noticed a gun shop. It was still closed — but already there was long line forming in front of it. Men, boys, girls — everyone was waiting for it to open. How could I sleep at a time like this?

A friend rang to ask if we had left Kyiv. He was relieved to know where we were because the Ukrainian military had blown up a highway exit near the capital to stop Russian tanks.

Soon after came a message from another friend, Svetlana, who was still in Kyiv. “I decided to say goodbye just in case. They’ve warned us of terrible shelling. I’m going to stay in my flat. I’m tired of running to the basements. If anything happens, remember me with a smile!”

That is when I remembered that I had not called my older brother or my two cousins to check on them; we had been on the road for such a long time.

I got through to my brother easily. He said he was still at home, in the same old apartment opposite the airfield, listening to the sounds of explosions in Gostomel.

But my cousins — one lives in the old part of Kyiv, the other in a northwestern suburb — did not answer the phone. I wonder when I will see them all again.

Saturday, Feb. 27, afternoon

Elizabeth and I wanted to get our daughter out of the country and on a plane back to London. Getting her into Poland, which is next door to Lviv, seemed impossible; there was a five-day-long queue to get across the border. So hours after arriving in Lviv, still tired, we were back in our car again, en route to the Hungarian border.

Saturday, Feb. 27, evening; Sunday, Feb. 28, morning

The drive to the Hungarian border from Lviv is via the section of the Carpathian Mountains that stretch into Ukraine. It is a beautiful, scenic route. Although the road is relatively narrow, only one lane on each side, it was, when we started from Lviv, flowing freely. That did not last very long. Soon we were slowed again, barely edging forward. Once again, after nightfall, I had to stop and get some sleep.

The hotels along the route were packed, but an acquaintance had tipped us off about a ski hostel that might have some space. We found it and were shown to dormitory rooms that seem to have been decorated and then forgotten; it did not look like anyone had stayed there for a while. There was hot water but no towels in the bathroom. I mentioned this to the man who showed us in; I guessed that he was the caretaker. He immediately found us some new towels; they still had the price tags on them.

Then my daughter pointed out that there was only one roll of toilet paper in the bathroom — could we get some more? The caretaker apologized; the hostel was out of supplies, but he said he would go and wake up the lady who ran the local shop. “No, don’t do that. We can share,” I told him.

Better to let the shopkeeper sleep while she still can.

Sunday, Feb. 28

I slept well, given the circumstances. But it was only a temporary reprieve: We had to leave immediately if we wanted to get our daughter across the Hungarian border.

Thankfully, the road was still relatively clear. By 10 a.m., we were in sight of the border.

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