Witness to history: Amidst sirens, experience the real Kiev under the Ukraine crisis
Published: Jul 31, 2023 09:33 PM
Editor's Note: 

The crisis in Ukraine has escalated dramatically over the past year, with ongoing hostilities inflicting enormous trauma on both parties involved - Ukraine and Russia. In mid-July, Gao Zhikai, vice president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based nongovernmental think tank, visited Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. During a recent interview with Global Times reporters Chen Qingqing and Bai Yunyi, Gao shared his observations and experiences in Kiev, as well as his interactions with Ukrainians from various fields. Gao said he hopes for an early end to the crisis and wishes for the Ukrainian people to lead peaceful, harmonious, progressive and prosperous lives. "Peace will not come easily," he said, "but it is worth every effort to strive for." 

This story is a part of the Global Times' series of "Witness to history," which features first-hand accounts from witnesses who were at the forefront of historic moments. From scholars, politicians and diplomats to ordinary citizens, their authentic reflections on the impact of historical moments help reveal a sound future for humanity through the solid steps forward taken in the past and the present.

A boy rides a tank in front of St. Michael's Monastery as daily life continues amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Kiev, Ukraine on July 5, 2023. Photo: VCG

A boy rides a tank in front of St. Michael's Monastery as daily life continues amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Kiev, Ukraine on July 5, 2023. Photo: VCG

Three air raid alarms within 36 hours

Gao's journey was somewhat complicated due to the no-fly zone over all of Ukraine: He had to first fly from Beijing to Warsaw, Poland, then take a train to the Polish-Ukrainian border, and from there catch another train to Kiev. He only spent 36 hours in Kiev, but the round trip took him four days in total.

What struck him the most was that during his 36-hour stay in Kiev, he experienced three air raid alarms. The first was at noon and was quickly lifted, so he didn't pay it much mind. The second occurred at 4 am in the dark of night when the alarm suddenly sounded, prompting him to quickly put on his helmet and rush to the second basement level of the hotel, which has since been turned into a "shelter" since the outbreak of the conflict. 

He then noticed that the decent-sized hotel only had five or six guests. Everyone was silent yet tense, and they waited in the silent, anxious atmosphere for over an hour.

The third air raid warning occurred at noon the next day, just as he finished a working lunch with Ukrainian officials and was about to board a car. Suddenly, the alarm sounded again over the entire city of Kiev, and every person's phone also buzzed with an alert, making it seem as though the entire world was booming. 

Many people ran past Gao in a panic, and the streets quickly emptied. Gao said his Ukrainian friend quickly pulled him into the basement of the restaurant, telling him that during an air raid warning, anything moving above ground could potentially become a target of attack for both sides.

Gao said his Ukrainian friend told him that since the outbreak of the conflict, almost all underground spaces in Ukraine have been turned into shelters: City subway stations have become the largest "air-raid shelters" - due to the influence of the Soviet era, Ukraine's subway stations are very deep underground, so they are relatively safe. 

Many restaurants, office buildings, and hotel basements, first, and second floors have also been converted into shelters, but many are quite "basic" and it's hard to guarantee safety. As soon as an air raid warning sounds, everyone must immediately seek shelter in the nearest bunker.

Gao said that although he experienced three air raid warnings during his 36 hours in Kiev, the main target of Russia's military action is not actually Kiev. The frequent air raid warnings during this time were mainly because the NATO summit was taking place in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Russia was trying to express its dissatisfaction and display its "toughness" through air raids on the Ukrainian capital city.

'Hardly see faces of adult men' 

While the frontlines are mostly concentrated in Eastern Ukraine, the traces of the crisis are very evident in and around Kiev.

Heading north out of Kiev, one can see that the suburban roads are still heavily patrolled with numerous roadblocks and iron fences set up to impede the progress of tanks. 

Gao said that he noticed that Ukraine's preparations are strict, with the rigorous inspection of people and vehicles at each checkpoint, and the tense atmosphere is palpable.

The destruction of suburban buildings is severe: Some buildings are half-destroyed, revealing their contents like pianos, furniture, and even children's backpacks hanging on the walls inside; there are also half-collapsed shopping malls, the insides of which are in disarray. 

Gao Zhikai in Kiev Photo: Courtesy of Gao

Gao Zhikai in Kiev Photo: Courtesy of Gao

Life inside Kiev is much calmer. Aside from the occasional air raid siren and nightly curfews, people can generally continue to work, shop, and eat normally. In Kiev's supermarkets and shops, aside from medicine, Gao said he didn't notice any significant signs of shortages, and prices were stable. Prices for grains, vegetables, and fruits were even slightly cheaper than in Beijing and neighboring Poland, though imported goods were more expensive. Most restaurants were operating normally, and the one in which he had his working lunch was almost "packed." 

However, in downturn Kiev, the exteriors of all major institutional buildings are tightly surrounded by makeshift defensive barriers made of sandbags and bricks. The doors are tightly sealed and guarded by soldiers to prevent sudden infiltration, and military vehicles and personnel are visible everywhere on the roads. On his first day in Kiev, Gao saw a long row of ambulances standing by at the train station, perhaps waiting for the arrival of injured personnel from afar.

What he will never forget are the faces he saw on the streets of Kiev: There were women, children, and the elderly, but very few adult men, and it was the same on the train from the border to Kiev. Once, while he was walking on the street, a soldier in uniform came out from barrier behind to check on him. Upon closer inspection, Gao noticed that the soldier was a boy of 15 or 16 years old. His face was rosy and still had some baby fat. Gao believed that perhaps most adult men in Ukraine have already gone to the frontlines.

Regrettable process of 'de-Russification'

During his trip, Gao had conversations with the Ukrainian government personnel, military officials, and ordinary citizens about their perspectives on the future of the crisis. Every Ukrainian he encountered essentially held a "resist to the end" mentality. The Ukrainian government displays Russian tanks and weapons captured during the conflict in some squares to boost morale.

However, most Ukrainians, including those in the military and government, still place their hopes of "victory" on NATO, Gao said. They like to talk about "if NATO approves Ukraine's membership, this or that could happen," or "if NATO provides us with more weapons, we could do this or that," despite the US clearly stating that it won't admit Ukraine into NATO before the end of the conflict.

Some Ukrainians place their hopes on political changes within Russia. One member of the Ukrainian military told Gao, "The key to Ukraine's ultimate victory may not lie in the battlefield, but in Moscow." 

A building in Kiev Photo: Courtesy of Gao

A building in Kiev Photo: Courtesy of Gao

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the process of "de-Russification" has become increasingly apparent throughout Ukraine. This trend began in 2014, but the outbreak of conflict undoubtedly accelerated it. Nowadays, it's rare to see statues or symbols from the Soviet era or related to Russia in the streets of Kiev and other cities. Not only were statues or monuments of Soviet politicians like Stalin and Zhukov toppled, but also the statues of Russian writer Pushkin and Soviet writer Gorky were gone.

Ukraine is also renaming streets and villages, eliminating any associations between place names and Russia. Moreover, the government has issued orders that effectively ban the use of Russian in newspapers and broadcasts.

From the perspective of an outsider like Gao, all of this evokes a sense of regret. For many foreigners, it's hard to distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians when walking on the street, and to his ears, Russian and Ukrainian sound as similar as the Beijing dialect and the Tianjin dialect. The intertwined histories and cultures of the two countries are so deeply entwined.

Importance of China's role

How do Ukrainians view China's role? China and Ukraine established diplomatic relations on January 4, 1992, built a comprehensive friendly cooperative relationship in 2001, and jointly announced the establishment of a strategic partnership in 2011. The two countries have fostered friendly and mutually beneficial relations across various fields, with rapid cooperative development.

During Gao's visit, he had this discussion with many Ukrainians and sensed a kind of "complex" feeling among Ukrainians toward China.

On one hand, over the years, American media and public opinion have had a great influence on the Ukrainian public. Since the outbreak of the conflict, American narratives have attempted to demonize Russia, while also portraying China as a "complicit party." 

Today, many Ukrainians have been blinded by the American narrative, believing that the US is helping them achieve independence and freedom, while China is "assisting Russia," which is a clear misinterpretation of China's real stance. 

China is neither the creator of the Ukraine crisis nor a party involved. On the issue of the Ukraine crisis, China has always stood on the side of peace, and its core position is to promote peace and encourage dialogue.

On the other hand, they have expectations for China - they are very aware of China's significance in promoting peace and talks.

"For instance, a Ukrainian government official once suggested to me that China could act as a 'middleman' in taking care of the prisoners of war from both Russia and Ukraine. Currently, both sides have captured a large number of prisoners, who are being treated very poorly with frequent reports of abuses," Gao noted. 

In the eyes of Ukrainians, the relationship between the West and Russia has deteriorated to a freezing point, and no Western country can play this role. 

Only China might be able to help the prisoners on both sides to receive humanitarian treatment. This shows the importance Ukrainians attach to China's role, as well as their complex yet expectant feelings toward China, Gao said. 

Upon leaving Ukraine, Gao said that he kept thinking that Ukraine is a country rich in resources, its people are hard-working, kind, intelligent, and brave. 

With proper governance, Ukraine can certainly become a prosperous country on the Eurasian continent. And the beautiful future of Ukraine firstly lies in ending the current crisis and restoring peace as soon as possible.