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Normalcy and Horror

Normalcy and Horror

On soccer fields, Russian missiles, and the rhythms of everyday life in a country under siege.

Paul Kroeger

On the second anniversary of Russia’s senseless invasion of Ukraine, life behind the front lines has evolved into a sort of normalcy punctuated by spontaneous horror. Last September, my NGO colleagues and I reconvened at a youth soccer club in Kyiv to discuss humanitarian projects. Hyper teenagers in jerseys assembled for practice outside the meeting room. On a previous visit, a coach corralled a team of middle schoolers fresh from the soccer field to take a picture with us. Realizing we were Americans, they practiced some stock English greetings. 

Last month, Russia targeted that club with one of forty-one missiles it launched in a wave to overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses. It got through, along with nineteen other missiles that day, and the purely civilian community building was destroyed. It wasn’t immediately clear whether anyone was hurt. Some hours later, it emerged that one person was in a coma and others were treated for shock. The person in a coma died that week.

Where I live in Lviv, though foreign tourism has mostly dried up, the old city center is still filled with ornate, crumbling Austrian and Polish architecture and chic cafes. It’s a beautiful city, and for a moment, one could forget that there’s a war on.

But every morning a police escort leads a fallen soldier’s funeral convoy to the Garrison Church. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for the daily funeral service to honor two or three Leopolitan soldiers at once. The military cemetery that I found so impactful when I visited Lviv a year ago now contains twice as many graves, and workers have cleared ground for more.

It’s also not uncommon to see amputees. There are an estimated fifty thousand amputees in Ukraine, and while inspiring and cutting-edge facilities such as Superhumans treat them, the need is far greater than the capacity. To make matters worse, Ukraine’s aging Soviet infrastructure is not very accessible for mobility-impaired people.

Lviv is one of the safer cities in Ukraine. We get regular air raid sirens, but successful attacks on Lviv itself generally only happen every few months. Unlike cities closer to the front, such as Kharkiv or Kherson, we at least receive some warning that a missile or drone is incoming. The problem is that you don’t know you’re safe until the siren is over. Russia regularly attacks civilian targets, and even intercepted missiles kill whoever happens to be below.

To cope with this mortal uncertainty, Ukrainians have leaned into normalcy where they can. Instagram and TikTok are very popular. People take selfies in front of storefronts decorated with lush plastic greenery and flowers. They scroll through aspirational social media content dedicated to fashion, travel, or cozy cafes. In one of the strangest experiences of my life, a fashion-oriented Ukrainian Instagram account recently caught me walking back from the gym in shorts during the winter. This behavior is apparently either very American or very British; either way, it’s definitely funny and foreign. At the time of writing, the video has more than 235,000 views.

Accounts depicting peaceful, cosmopolitan life are nothing compared to the popularity of the iconic demining dog, Patron. Patron has become a powerful Ukrainian symbol, inspiring a line of books, plush toys, greeting cards, fan art, and stickers. He meets foreign dignitaries, raises money for charities, and visits schools and hospitals. When Patron was briefly sick last year, the State Emergency Service kept it quiet so as not to worry the public.

Grim humor also helps take the edge off the stress. At the end of a night shift earlier this week, my boyfriend, a Ukrainian journalist, was tracking a Russian drone as it flew a circuitous path through Ukraine. The air force was apparently unable to shoot it down. A map showed each oblast turning red as the sirens turned on, tracing the drone’s path. My boyfriend joked that the drone was vacationing in Ukraine and made a travelogue-like video showing each region lighting up in succession. It was funny to imagine until the drone made a final turn, zoomed south, and blew something up in Odesa.

For all the myriad problems Ukrainians face today, I’m generally optimistic about the trajectory of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian political system, provided that the West continues to supply materiel to fight off the Russian occupiers. While the U.S. political caste has largely calcified into a gerontocracy (who’s excited for Biden vs. Trump redux?), Ukrainian democracy is young, dynamic, and passionate about forming an honest, liberal democratic government.

One of my Ukrainian language teachers, Marta, grew up in the last days of the Soviet Union. Her family suffered through the deprivations of the 1990s. As a young adult, Marta refused to pay the bribes that were traditional in Soviet universities. She traveled frequently to Kyiv with other young democrats to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt, pro-Russian regime in the Maidan Revolution, and fortunately was not among the 108 protestors killed for exercising their political rights. Marta’s brother joined the military in response to the 2022 full-scale invasion. Last year, she helped organize a memorial for one of her friends who was killed defending Ukraine, and she set up a traveling traditional Ukrainian Christmas pageant to raise money for the military and perform for recovering soldiers at the Lviv military hospital.

Marta’s civic engagement is impressive but by no means unique. Every government agency we work with is stocked with idealistic, patriotic Ukrainians, many of whom are under forty. Young journalists track down and report on corruption, following through on valuable training from Western NGOs and protected by Ukrainian press freedom laws. Perhaps because of this, Ukraine’s Transparency International corruption metrics have miraculously improved since the start of the war, despite the influx of foreign money that incentivizes corruption.

The final round of the Ukrainian Eurovision Song Contest provided an illustrative example of today’s Ukrainian society. Perhaps because this year’s political election cannot take place, over one million Ukrainians enthusiastically cast their votes for Eurovision. The demand was so high that the government’s digital ID app Ukrainians used to vote in the competition, DIYA (which ironically means “action”), crashed. Ukrainians responded with a flood of memes and an attitude that “this too shall pass.” After economic devastation, a couple revolutions, coronavirus, and an invasion, waiting for DIYA doesn’t seem so bad.

The results had to be postponed until the next day. Before the announcement, a hip, thirty-something bureaucrat from the Ministry of Digitalization, wearing a plain white T-shirt and bearing a Ukrainian trident tattoo on his neck, explained why the app crashed and apologized. The internet connection stuttered a few times during his address, which was reassuringly authentic. This young bureaucrat’s unpretentious acknowledgement of a problem and pride in a government ID and social services app gives me hope for the future of Ukraine. 

Mstyslav Banik from the Ministry of Digitalization explaining why the Ukrainian government app DIYA crashed during the Eurovision finals.

For all its problems, today’s Ukraine is driven by people galvanized by hardship and mortal danger. The young Ukrainians who remain in their country today are serious about making things better. Passive Soviet-style bureaucrats are giving way to young reformers who want the exact opposite of Putin’s Russia. Ukrainians are tired of the fear, the random attacks, the economic devastation, and the possibility that their country could be overrun if the West loses interest or confidence in Ukraine’s fight to exist. Despite all of that, young Ukrainians are shaping their country into a functioning democracy and applying their innovation and passion to government and civil society. If Ukraine survives this war with its young population intact, its future will be bright. 

Paul Kroeger is based in Lviv, Ukraine as a field officer for an international NGO. Previously, he worked as an opera singer in Germany, holding soloist positions at Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater, Landestheater Coburg, and the Thüringer Opernstudio.

Image: A blue and yellow soccer ball in a field. (Unsplash: Joshua Hoehne)

DemocracyEastern EuropeUkraine