The Pop Star and the Film Student Now Defending Kyiv
"Rolling Stone" article by NATALIYA GUMENYUK
“I could have been in Santa Monica, drinking smoothies,” says one of the newer members of the city’s civil-defense police unit. Now, he’s bracing for an all-out assault by Russian forces — and says he’s determined to fight.
KYIV, Ukraine — I rush out of my apartment in Kyiv with the clear understanding I might not ever be back. It’s easy. Books, paintings, clothes — all had no value. In any case, our lives would never be the same. I take my laptop, money, and a few black-and-white photos from my childhood, and some essentials for a month.
So far my neighborhood has been safe. Kyiv, a megapolis of 4 million, is divided by the Dnieper River into the eastern Left and western Right banks. The Left bank, where I live, is residential and so far not under bombardment, while the government and the city’s downtown are on the other side. If the Russian troops move from the East, the bridges might be blown. On the second day of the invasion, a curfew was imposed, and all the bridges blocked. I’m worried about becoming trapped.
I had driven past a building that was hit by an airstrike a few hours before. Four floors of a 25-floor residential house were destroyed. Luckily, the family whose flat was hit survived. The parents and their young daughters hid behind the wall, but neighbors were wounded. (Overall, according to the minister of health, up to 352 civilians were killed in various parts of Ukraine. Among them 14 children.)
I cannot stop to help because I have to get to my assignment. I’m embedded as the reporter in the headquarters of the Kyiv patrol police, based one kilometer away from the airport, and one kilometer away from the building where my mom and sister’s family have their apartments. Both had fled the day before.
The Ukrainian patrol police are one of a few success stories that have taken place since Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution, when the peaceful protesters toppled the kleptocratic president. Back then, Ukrainians revolted against police impunity and corruption. Run by former Euromaidan activist Yurko Zozulya, the Kyiv police are now a reminder of how far the country has come. In front of the heavily guarded building, I have a flashback: Eight years ago, law enforcement felt like the enemy, supporting an authoritarian regime, and independent journalists were their adversaries. Today, I know they’re here to defend us.
I walk through the basement where many men and women (at least a quarter of Ukraine’s police force are women) are sleeping on mattresses with guns.
The head of the city patrol police speaks to his subordinates. He needs to tell them that one of them was shot today, but he’s also trying to keep their spirits up as they face the dire prospect of the city under siege. Most of the patrol police have no combat experience.
“Do you think I am not afraid?” the chief tells them. “I am afraid. I have not fought myself, as many of you. We all are studying here. And this situation is a test for us. Yet, if somebody decides to resign, I would understand.”
The Ukrainian Army servicemen and the National Guard are on the front lines fighting, but the police could become involved if the Russian forces breakthrough during the battle. In the city, which has not seen war since WWII, there’s already sporadic street fighting in various areas, and a few saboteur groups attacking Ukrainian forces and infrastructure.
In the face of a massive existential threat, Ukraine’s government has allowed civilians to join Territorial Defense, and to receive guns and wage guerrilla war if Russians enter the city. The police need to coordinate how the militia acts during the curfew. Every day I find out that another friend — a sociologist, a journalist, a writer, a historian, a filmmaker, both male and female — has joined the Territorial Defense. One day, they’re driving their kid to a safer town from the Eastern border, the next they are digging trenches. Soon, they could be manning checkpoints or searching and destroying. Within days, Ukrainian citizens alone donated $3.3 million to support the army.
In a video, I see local residents in Kyiv have just captured a person with a distinct Russian accent who had a stash of guns in his basement. What Putin underestimated was that hipsterish Kyiv barbers, barmen, and social media managers would be ready to resist. Of course, not everybody can do this. There are lines in the railway station of people with kids and the elderly, moving West. My mom, who was one of them, told me that the railway allowed travel for free, and citizens who bought the tickets were ready to share their cabins with as many people that could fit.
A group of men with guns, some in uniform and some in plain clothes, come to the office of the chief of city patrol police. They know each other well. The core group consists of veterans from the Donbas War, who in 2014-15 served together with current leadership of the Patrol Police, National Guard, and Territorial Defense. This informal civil-defense unit is unique. It’s made up of civilians — some are well-connected, others capable of doing whatever is necessary, and others adept at overcoming bureaucracy that the police or military don’t have time to handle during war (from acquiring thermal imagers to the specialist who can explain how the newly brought light anti-tank weapon NLAW systems work). The unit formed when the threat of a full-scale invasion became real. Among them are some who otherwise work in IT (in Ukraine, this means earning a good salary); the founder runs a famous pizza restaurant where veterans gather and is the owner of a shooting range.
The unit brought some equipment for the police, but also soup cooked by a famous TV host. “I could not sleep the last three nights because of the anxiety,” she says. “So I got up from bed and started to cook, to bring to the defenders, to be somehow useful. But because of the curfew I couldn’t reach home to change, so I’m still wearing the dress I wore during the broadcast, and a bulletproof vest on top.”
When it gets dark, the chance of shelling grows. So the civil-defense unit cannot leave, and stays in the office overnight.
While unpacking bullets, I see Andrii Khlyvniuk — a famous Ukrainian musician, the leader of the Boombox band — sitting on the floor unpacking boxes with ammunition. At the end of the 2000s, his song was one of the top hits in Russia and the whole post-Soviet space. A tall guy in a baseball cap, he is well-equipped and carries a gun he bought himself.
Usually not very talkative with the press, he is tired of requests for selfies since he joined the civil defense. He’s been on duty for the past few days. I ask him what kind of support he thinks Ukraine needs from the West.
“We do not need anything,” Khlyvniuk says in a low voice. “It’s them who need us. Both the West and Ukraine declare adherence to the same principles: equal rights for all, rule of law, right to choose, human rights above all, not the animal rule of the strongest, but morality and intellect. They need us as the shield to protect it all.”
Khlyvniuk stopped performing in Russian at the start of the war in 2014, and became an active campaigner for the release of the most famous political prisoner in Russia: the film director Oleg Sentsov, who spent five and a half years in Siberia and North Pole prisons before being exchanged in 2019. A week before the war, Sentov finally released his new film (long delayed by his imprisonment), but instead of going to international festivals, he also joined the defense.
I ask Khlyvnyuk whether his Russian colleagues, famous musicians and artists, have sent him messages asking for forgiveness. I myself have received a few from fellow Russians.
“Forgiveness? Shame? You know, I’m fed up with that,” he answers calmly. “In the end, it’s me who is ashamed of them. I do not feel any hatred, but I feel ashamed that so many creative, smart, and talented Russians still support the regime as if they are slaves. I do not say we, Ukrainians, are superior. I’m just ashamed.”
I ask his commander how Khlyvniuk is doing as a soldier. He reassures me that he’s one of the bravest, but also when needed, would silently do dishes for the whole unit.
I approach another person in this team largely because of his appearance, smile, and Baby Yoda chevron, along with the Ukrainian trident coat of arms. “I’m studying in New York Film School, and I live in Los Angeles, but I am from Kyiv,” he tells me.
Miro Popovych, now 32, won a green card when he was 19 and moved to the U.S. For three and a half years, he served in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Afghanistan for eight months. Now, his pension pays for his studies at a school where Al Pacino and Mel Gibson were among the lecturers, he tells me.
The choice of profession was not unusual for him. His father is a Ukrainian musician; his mother, an ethnic Russian from Ural, a ballet dancer, who moved to Ukraine 40 years ago.
“My parents are here, though, that’s the only place for me. It’s where I went to school, where I had my first kiss, first love,” Miro says and smiles. He came home from the U.S. earlier because of the pandemic. A citizen of both the U.S. and Ukraine, when Miro received an alert from the U.S. embassy about the need to be evacuated, he deleted it before even reading to the end.
He says sometimes, when asked to do tasks he doesn’t like, he mocks his pals by pointing out: “I could have been in Santa Monica, drinking smoothies.” Yet the key reason for him to join was the combat experience that he is ready to share.
From time to time we hear sirens and rush to the basement. There is a lot of gallows humor, bravado, but also bitterness. From time to time, policemen and the volunteers call their moms, husbands, kids, and wives. Sometimes to calm them down, sometimes to explain that they’re doing everything they can to destroy Putin in Ukraine. Yet with time, it becomes more cheerful; either from another photo of Ukrainians in small towns stopping tanks without arms, or Elon Musk promising a satellite internet to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s veteran community was largely critical of current President Zelensky, a former comedian, who came to power on the platform of peace by dialogue. Many former military personnel participated in anti-Zelensky marches when he was trying to withdraw troops from the separation line in the Donbas, as the infamous Minsk Peace Agreement demanded. Now, at the police station, they look at their phones after every Zelensky speech, showing each other the image of Zelensky dressed as “Captain Ukraine” with the shield, an image that went viral. They admire the Army head of staff and respect the minister of defense, who prior to the war was one the most successful lawyers in the country, with no military experience. They discuss the number of Russian soldiers killed. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense claims there are 4,300 after the first four days. This is almost as much as the official losses of the Russian army during the First Chechen war, which lasted more than a year and a half. They lower their voices when I ask how many Ukrainian military personnel have died so far. These are at least 370, with up to 1,500 wounded. Yet all agree, this is far from all, and official numbers are smaller.
But the main discussion is devoted to the possibility of the Russians overtaking the airport nearby. This might give them an opportunity to land the plane with thousands of troops and special units to attack the government. All of the fiercest battles of this war were for the airfields, yet none of them were successful for the Russians. All of a sudden there is a call, photos are sent of parachutes. The units should be ready in 10 minutes. Police and civil-defense people coordinate. When everybody is ready to leave for the airport, it becomes clear that the paratroopers-landing picture was not current. The police are ordered to stand down.
In the middle of the night, we hear loud shooting outside. We retreat back to the basement. Then back to the command room, then back to the basement. Yet, the night ended up easier than we all anticipated. Many of the officers may have even gotten some sleep for the first time in a few days.
Early in the morning, a policewoman, Inna, comes to ask whether I need tea. She asks me how I slept. It was cold, but to be polite, I said it all was good, yet the best of it was that I slept at all. Before joining the police she used to work in a store, selling kids’ clothes. In 2015, she enlisted in the police force. She smiles, admits that everybody’s getting tired. What makes her confident as a single mother is that she has sent her 11-year-old daughter to western Ukraine. But she explains that now she has a dog to care for, which she can’t reach because of the curfew. She couldn’t send a dog with her daughter, as she was afraid it would be a burden upon the people who agreed to host the girl. She takes her cell phone to show me her only child, but asks me to scroll the photos myself, as the only moment these days when she cries is “when I see her face.” So she turns away, but she couldn’t resist looking at the picture. I saw tears in her eyes.