Postcard from Kyiv: In Ukraine's capital, sadness, pride and determination



Rob Stothard

KYIV, Ukraine — Flying into this city doesn’t give you the impression it’s a place on edge.

There’s no visible sign of tightened security at the airport.

TV crews and well-wishers with bouquets are on hand to greet athletes returning from the world indoor track championship in neighboring Poland — one wears ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian and European Union flags intertwined on her backpack.

Leaving the terminal, the taxi speeds into town along an eight-lane highway past giant billboards advertising German sports cars and Italian fashions.

The car radio blares electro-pop only occasionally interspersed with the latest news about the Russian takeover of Crimea.

Flashing blue lights signal a police road block, but they seem to be checking that trucks are in compliance with safety regulations rather than searching for Russian infiltrators.

For all the fear of war, cars with Russian license plates are common in the rush-hour traffic.

However, the air of normality evaporates as you pull into the city center.

Amid gold-domed churches, men in camouflage cluster around fires. There’s a strong smell of wood smoke from the stoves warming the militia posts.

Story-high barricades of brick, tires and garbage block city streets. Everywhere there are photos surrounded by piles of flowers marking spots where demonstrators fell when the security forces opened fire on them last month.

In the vast central plaza known as Maidan — the ground zero of the revolt that toppled the pro-Russian regime and triggered Moscow’s invasion of the southern Crimea peninsula — a concert is taking place.

A folk choir intones a haunting patriotic tune on a stage decorated with Orthodox Christian iconography and a giant painting of insurrectionary militia fighters waving the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag.

The music is part of a festival to mark 200 years since the birth of the poet Taras Shevchenko, whose verse is credited with reviving the Ukrainian language and remains a potent national symbol today.

Around the stage, couples, families and groups of friends stroll in the clear early evening browsing the Zara and Adidas stores on Khreschatyk — Kyiv’s main street — before crossing the street to greet the men and women in military fatigues whose banner-draped tents still fill the approaches to Maidan.

The atmosphere is a curious mix of frontline army camp, new-age rock festival and solemn pilgrimage. Children line up to pose for photos with a wizened old Cossack complete with fur cap and upturned moustache, a woman in a embroidered peasant costume plays a flute, groups of teenage girls flirt with “self-defense” guards. People with bowed heads form silent groups in front of the makeshift shrines to the fallen.

There’s debate about NATO’s decision to step up reconnaissance flights along the borders of Ukraine’s western neighbors, of upcoming talks between the Russians and Americans and the threat of new EU sanctions should the Russian-backed regime in Crimea go ahead with Sunday’s planned referendum on joining Russia.

Despite complaints about an insufficient international response to the Russian advances, EU flags with their circle of gold stars still flutter above Maidan’s tent city.

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Ukraine is locked in a standoff with its giant neighbor that NATO has called the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the Cold War. Russian troops are tightening their grip on Crimea and there’s fear of war if Moscow expands its intervention into other regions in the south or east.

Despite the bluster from the Kremlin, however, there’s little sign in downtown Kyiv that this is a city that’s about to be cowed into a climb-down. Instead there’s evident pride — both among pro-Western democrats and the more radical nationalists — in their achievement toppling the old regime and a determination to ensure that their efforts and the sacrifice of the slain won’t be in vain.