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Notes from the Field: Ukraine’s War Feels Distant from the Capital

October 3, 2016

UW Jackson School of International Studies M.A. student Chris Collison spent part of his summer in Ukraine. He worked on a project about coal mining as part of an internship with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Before beginning his master’s degree in the Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies program (REECAS), he worked as a journalist and photographer in Ukraine during the conflict that erupted in the Donbas.


Soldiers attend a ceremony in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris Collison)

In Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, it’s easy to forget that the country is at war. The only real reminders that violence is still bubbling away in the east of the country are the occasional groups of men in fatigues walking through the central streets during their breaks from the front and the billboards encouraging others to join the army. Otherwise, the war in the Donbas feels as distant as any foreign conflict.

In the two-and-a-half years since violence erupted, Ukrainians in the rest of the country have largely continued with their lives. Unusual for many modern conflicts, Ukraine’s war is almost entirely confined to the areas immediately near the front line that divides parts of the far-east Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Hundreds of kilometers away in the capital, new and exotic restaurants are popping up, a vibrant arts scene and nightlife are beginning to rival those in other European capitals, and activists are at work trying to plan the future of their cities and neighborhoods.

That isn’t to say that the conflict hasn’t taken its toll. The economy remains woefully sluggish as the resource drain to support the military diverts money from the national budget that could be used for infrastructure projects. Reform efforts stall in parliament as lawmakers bang the drums of war. The conflict and perceived political instability have also scared away foreign investors and European tourists, putting further pressure on the country’s currency and private sector. Violence in the east has also spurred millions of Ukrainians to leave their homes, with hundreds of thousands settling in the rest of the country. Kyiv’s population has swelled as Donbas residents resettle in the capital.


A pedestrian bridge illuminates the Dnipro River in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris Collison)

But despite the economic challenges and the pressure on an already strained social safety net, city residents are looking to the future, heavily promoting a promising IT sector that has proved competitive in the European market. On a more local level, entrepreneurs and activists say they hope to make Kyiv a more “European” city that caters to the tastes of a young and open-minded group of people who participated in the pro-democracy Euromaidan protest movement. The number of fine espresso shops has grown exponentially, Ukrainian fashion brands have begun making a splash locally and regionally, and dozens of micro-breweries have sprung up, offering American-style ales as Western tastes infect the capital—something that was almost impossible to find only two years ago.


A man rides a bicycle through the town of Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region. (Chris Collison)

Traveling east, the conflict becomes clearer. In the town of Pokrovsk, which was known as Krasnoarmiysk until decommunization legislation went into effect earlier this year, military ambulances speed through the streets, transporting wounded soldiers from the front line to the nearest hospital. The local hotels are full of internally displaced residents and it is hard to find a room unless you are willing to pay a premium. Traveling between cities, it is not uncommon to be stopped at a checkpoint, where Ukrainian soldiers check the documents of all men on buses. This has become the new normal for those living near the front line of the conflict.

These two realities exist within the same country, and it is easy to see why so many young people are choosing to move to large cities, where residents are looking to the future. One Ukrainian in Kyiv told me that he believes there are actually two fronts in this conflict: one taking place on the battlefield of eastern Ukraine and one taking place in Ukraine’s cities, where activists are strengthening their networks and trying to build a more vibrant, democratic culture from the bottom up. Whether they can succeed in the face of war and political deadlock is too early to predict with certainty.


Soldiers walk along the bank of the Dnipro River in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris Collison)