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Dr. Andreas Umland studied political science and history in Berlin, Oxford, Stanford and Cambridge. He has been a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) since 2010 and an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Relations (UI) since 2021.
The Podil district of Kyiv along the Dnieper River
Back from a two-week trip to Kyiv, I share here my experience of visiting a country that is suffering from Europe’s most important war since 1945. I can recommend to people interested in history and politics to visit Ukraine’s central and western regions today. One should at once mention, however, the risks involved in such a private or professional research or experiential trip. Going to a war-torn country is more than extreme tourism.
Above all, Russia is unpredictable in its approach to Ukraine. Those Ukrainian regions that are today relatively peaceful may tomorrow be under massive attack. Going to Ukraine you might, as has happened already to some foreign civilians, be killed or maimed. Worse, Russia may at some point decide to use radioactive material or poisonous chemicals, as it did earlier on British soil, to kill presumed enemies of Putin in Ukraine. If you go there, you could be shot, wounded, poisoned, infected, and/or trapped.
Yet, my feeling in Kyiv in late July and early August 2022 was that the likelihood of being hit by a scooter, bicycle or private car was much higher than being hurt by shrapnel or dying in a collapsing house. In fact, wartime Kyiv was, in summer 2022, surprisingly similar to the peacetime Ukrainian capital where I had before lived for 17 years. To be sure, the mood and rhythm of the city are different than half a year ago. There is more poverty visible on the streets, a curfew between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., as well as occasional siren alarm. Yet, explosions and killings are rare exceptions in Kyiv as well as in Western Ukraine. Ukraine’s capital enjoys a good air defense system that takes down most Russian missiles trying to reach the city. While one can feel the tension in Kyiv, as everywhere in the country, the actual war is absent from the city. Instead, Kyivans are trying to recover some normality and even certain daily joys.
The public transportation system is less dense than it used to be. Yet, the metro works during the daytime with a limited schedule and stops during air raid alarms. Taxi services are fully functional again. Prices in the national currency hryvnia have risen sharply since the start of the war. However, foreign visitors benefit from favorable exchange rates for hard currencies and will thus find most services as well as goods to be still cheap. Banks, money machines, private hospitals, pharmacies and most shops operate in largely regular ways. The streets in the city center are filled with people and cars. Flowers, drinks, and ice cream are being sold on popular walking lines.
Most hotels and some daytime bars operate in regular ways. Numerous websites offer affordable rooms and flats across the city. Restaurants are open again. Many serve inexpensive high-quality meals, a variety of wines, liquors, and cocktails, as well as imported and locally crafted beer. Especially, the dozens of Georgian restaurants that have in recent years opened across Kyiv continue serving delicious Caucasian cuisine for relatively small money. Several beaches on the large Dnipro River are open for free-of-charge swimming. Fishing is as popular as ever. My traditional Thai Massage place was open again; however, the original Thai massagists have been replaced with local specialists.
Whereas gasoline was a problem during the first war months, it now seems to be again in stable supply. After shortages in March and April, the range of choice in supermarkets has largely recovered and now offers again almost everything needed for daily life. Police and soldiers are numerous on the streets. Some streets of the governmental area as well as the two central metro stations in downtown Kyiv are closed off. You may occasionally be asked to show your passport, at a checkpoint. Yet, the atmosphere is friendly and semi-relaxed. Summertime Kyiv is no raving party city anymore, as it used to be until 2014 when Russia’s war on Ukraine started. Yet, it is a European capital especially worth visiting and exploring today.
For those interested in geopolitics, historical matters, Eastern Europe, military affairs, and international relations, Ukraine has become a unique travel destination today. One can observe European history in the making and watch one of the most consequential post-war confrontations of the continent playing out first-hand. Nevertheless, in cities like Lviv and Kyiv, one continues, at the same time, to enjoy most of the spoils of modern life. A new type of tourism to the mass crime locations near Kyiv, at Bucha or Irpen, is developing. Kyiv’s city center has several open-air exhibitions related to the war. This includes an assembly of destroyed Russian war machinery, with a tank, self-propelled howitzer, and APCs displayed in front of the foreign affairs ministry building on Mykhailyvskiy Square.
Visiting Ukraine these days is no plain fun anymore, as it used to be for many tourists until half a year ago. However, if you want to experience on the spot something important now happening in Europe, Kyiv is the place to go. Reaching the Ukrainian capital has become inconvenient, as there is no air traffic at all in the country. However, there are several different train and bus routes operating from cities like Warsaw and Prague. You may have to do a stopover stay in an East-Central European city before getting on a train or bus directly reaching Kyiv.
Your visit itself will – unlike most other trips you did and will do – have some larger meaning. By visiting Ukraine, you can show the world what you stand for. Going to Kyiv in these times, you bring some hope, support, and money to the Ukrainians. Your mere presence will signal to East Europeans that Ukraine’s cause is not lost. While Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles may not see you as a hero yet, they will be grateful to you for taking a position and some risk to express it. Last but not least, Putin & Co. will not be amused.