Ukrainians Set Sights on the New Year, Not a New War
KYIV, Ukraine — To gauge the mood in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near the border and raised the specter of an invasion, look no further than the Dilettante coffee shop.
The City Council designated its basement as a bomb shelter, along with 4,928 other underground spaces, including parking garages and subway stations.
But at the cafe’s counter, customers have better luck asking for a double espresso than for instructions on using the shelter.
“I have no idea,” said the barista, Anfisa Bilaonova-Diachenko, 19, who was busy serving a rush of last-minute shoppers for New Year’s Eve, among the most important holidays of the year in Ukraine. The basement is always locked, she said, and she does not have a key. “I would advise to run to the subway” instead, she added with a shrug.
Kyiv — a jumble of medieval churches, cobblestone streets and sprawling outlying districts of high-rise apartment buildings — is a city coming to grips this holiday season with the newest additions to its urban environment: bomb shelters.
Many people ignore them. Others are worried. But the general nonchalance of residents highlights a peculiar aspect of the tensions with Russia. Western governments, analysts and military experts appear to have taken the threat far more seriously than ordinary Ukrainians.
Hardened by years of smoldering war in their country’s east, and in any case not inclined to contemplate catastrophe right before the holiday, many have put the risk out of mind.
“People don’t believe Russia will invade,” said Svitlana Zalishchuk, a former member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Ukraine’s Parliament. “It’s such an outrageous thing, you simply cannot reconcile it” with ordinary life, she added.
Indeed, a kind of gallows humor has set in among some across Kyiv. Instead of saying, “See you after the holidays” — the usual farewell among colleagues before New Year’s Eve — some say, “See you after the invasion.”
It is not frivolity or a casual disregard for potential danger so much as fatigue and a determination to press on in a modern, bustling city of three million people. The United States government has said that Russia has plans for an invasion, but that there is no indication that President Vladimir V. Putin has decided to execute them.
“Definitely the situation is very dangerous, and it is escalating, but at the same time, we are living in this situation for seven years,” Hanna Shelest, the editor in chief of the academic journal Ukraine Analytica, said at a panel discussion this month, referring to the continuing war in the east pitting Ukrainian troops against Russian-backed separatists.
“From the inside it looks less dangerous, probably, than from the outside,” she said. “That is the basis of crisis psychology: The person in the accident usually is less afraid than people who are watching.”
The relatively calm atmosphere can also be traced to a decision by President Volodymyr Zelensky not to put the nation on a war footing with public announcements about conflict. Doing so would admit that opposition political parties who have been sounding the alarm for months were right all along. It is also seen as an effort to prevent panic, even as the government has stepped up military training for civilians to resist a possible invasion.
So, Ukrainians are being asked to carry on and draw their own conclusions from the blend of the ordinary and the alarming, like the appearance of bomb shelter signs in public places like coffee shops.
There are plenty of reminders of a potential conflict, if people care to notice. Along with the festive lights and caroling in the streets, Kyiv residents can take in a program on television about duct taping window glass to prevent flying shards.
The City Council has advised residents to read instructions for what to do if bombs start falling, or if “an emergency situation of a military nature” arises: Residents are to remain calm, not wear a military uniform in the street and stay away from windows. And it has published its map of possible shelters, including offices, restaurants, bars and apartment buildings with basements — like Raisa Pryshchepa’s home.
The basement of her building is now a designated bomb shelter, and as superintendent, Ms. Pryshchepa, 68, keeps the key.
“Oh, do not scare me!” she said when asked if she would be ready to open the makeshift shelter in case of a bombing. She lives on the seventh floor, and the basement, a cramped space underneath a tangle of plumbing pipes, is ordinarily locked.
Ms. Pryshchepa said she would try to make it quickly down the stairs if an invasion came. “I guess I will have to run,” she said. “If needed, I will make it.”
The city government categorizes bomb shelters by their levels of protection. The highest level is supposed to withstand a direct strike from artillery or an aerial bomb. Ms. Pryshchepa’s basement is near the lowest category, meaning it protects from shrapnel sprays from explosions, but not much else.
There are other options for bomb shelters nearby, including the basement of a fish restaurant.
Asked whether it would be possible to take shelter in the restaurant’s basement in case of bombing, a woman who answered the phone there said that, yes, it would. But it is also a storage area, where, among other things, “we keep our herring,” which they had no plans to move.
Other neighborhoods have better options. Roman Tkachuk, the director of the city’s Municipal Security Department, recently led journalists around a site with a high level of protection: a Cold War-era nuclear bomb shelter on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Several heavy metal doors opened with deadbolts turned by wheels. Two flights of stairs led down to a bunker, where the furniture is covered in light green upholstery. Metal water canisters are on hand. It can shelter 350 people.
But most people are expected to resort to the cobwebby basements of apartment buildings — or to the subway.
Alyona Marfina, 25, was selling Christmas decorations on a recent evening near a subway entrance. But, glancing at the holiday crowd packing in, she said she would not choose a dark, dusty basement. “I would be scared,” she said.
Ms. Martina said she had not thought where she might go, and in fact, she had not been taking the preparations very seriously.
“I heard there was a war,” she said. “But I don’t think about it.”