In the outdoor gym on Venice Beach, the name given to an inviting stretch of sand on the majestic Dnieper River that courses through the capital of Ukraine, Serhiy Chornyi is working on his summer body, up-down-up-downing a chunky hunk of iron.
The aim of his sweat and toil isn’t to impress the girls in their bright summer bikinis. Working out is part of his contribution to Ukraine’s all-hands-on-deck war effort: The National Guardsman expects to be sent eastward to the battlefields soon and doesn’t want to take his paunch with him for the fight against Russia’s invasion force.
“I’m here to get in shape. To be able to help my friends with whom I’ll be,” the 32-year-old said. “I feel that my place is there now. … There is only one thing left: to defend. There is no other option, only one road.”
So goes Kyiv’s bitter summer of 2022, where the sun shines but sadness and grim determination reign, where canoodling couples cannot be sure that their kisses won’t be their last as more soldiers head to the fronts; where flitting swallows are nesting as people made homeless weep in blown-apart ruins, and where the peace is deceptive, because it’s shorn of peace of mind.
After Russia’s initial assault on Kyiv was repelled in the invasion’s opening month, leaving death and destruction, the capital found itself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of becoming largely a bystander in the war that continues to rage in the east and south, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has redirected his forces and military resources.
The burned-out hulks of Russian tanks are being hauled away from the capital’s outskirts, even as Western-supplied weapons turn more Russian armor into smoking junk on battlefronts. Cafes and restaurants are open again, the chatter and the chink of glasses from their outdoor tables providing a semblance of normalcy — until everyone scoots home for the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, less constraining than it used to be when Kyiv had seemed at risk of falling.
Sitting on a lawn, savoring wine with friends one evening this week, Andrii Bashtovyi remarked that it “looks like there’s no war but people are talking about their friends who are injured or who are mobilized.” He recently passed his military medical check, meaning he could soon be thrown into combat, too.
“If they call me, I need to go to the recruiting center. I’ll have 12 hours,” said the chief editor of The Village online magazine, which covers life, news and events in Kyiv and other unoccupied cities.
Air raid alarms still sound regularly, screeching shrilly on downloadable phone apps, but they’re so rarely followed by blasts — unlike in pounded front-line towns and cities — that few pay them much mind. Cruise missile strikes that wrecked a warehouse and a train repair workshop on June 5 were Kyiv’s first in five weeks. Dog walkers and parents pushing strollers ambled unperturbed nearby even before the flames had been extinguished.
Many, but by no means all, of the 2 million inhabitants who Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said had fled when Russian forces tried to encircle the city in March are now returning. But with soldiers falling by the hundreds to the east and south, the surreal calm of Kyiv is laced with nagging guilt.
“People are feeling grateful but asking themselves, ‘Am I doing enough?'” said Snezhana Vialko, as she and boyfriend Denys Koreiba bought plump strawberries from one of the summer-fruit vendors who have deployed across the city, in neighborhoods where just weeks ago jumpy troops manned checkpoints of sandbags and tank traps.
Now greatly reduced in numbers and vigilance, they generally wave through the restored buzz of car traffic, barely glancing up from pass-the-time scrolling on phones.
With the peace still so fragile and more treasured than ever, many are plowing their energy, time, money and muscle into supporting the soldiers fighting what has become a grinding war of attrition for control of destroyed villages, towns and cities.
Trained as a chef and now working as a journalist, Volodymyr Denysenko brewed up 100 bottles of spicy sauce, using his home-grown hot peppers to enliven the troops’ rations. He dropped them off with volunteers who drive in convoys from Kyiv to the fronts, laden with crowdfunded gun sights, night-vision goggles, drones, medical kits and other badly needed gear.
“All Ukrainian people must help the army, the soldiers,” he said. “It’s our country, our freedom.”