Humor

kyiv comes to life with a mix of heartbreak, dark humor and triumph

As kyiv cautiously reopens, Ukrainians await the start of a play inspired by the life of poet Lesya Ukrainka at the theater that bears her name. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — The men wore blazers, the women sequined dresses. They walked quietly into the quiet theater, and an usher directed them to their seats.

It was the first room anyone in kyiv had seen since the war began more than six weeks ago. A morning—the curfew wouldn’t allow it otherwise.

The lights went out and an announcement came over the loudspeakers: if the air raid sirens went off during the show, everyone, including the actors, should hurry to the nearby subway station for shelter. .

Before the first act, the Ukrainian Minister of Culture gave a short speech.

“I believe that art heals wounds,” said Oleksandr Tkachenko. “We will slowly recover the cultural life of our capital.”

Kyiv, beloved Kyiv, is coming back to life – despite half of its 3 million people having fled and Mayor Vitali Klitschko warning them to stay away. Rocket attacks can happen at any time, he said; Russian saboteurs may still be in the city. However, some people have already returned. Six times as many cars were on the road last week as the previous week, according to police officials.

The capital escaped the destruction and chaos many feared, a fate its suburbs instead suffered as Russian forces attempted to encircle kyiv during their month-long occupation. In these outlying towns, mass graves and torture chambers are still being discovered. Investigators gather evidence of thousands of potential war crimes amid flattened rows of homes and modest buildings.

People exit Teatralna metro station in downtown Kyiv.  Many feel safer now that Russian forces have withdrawn from the capital.

People exit Teatralna metro station in downtown Kyiv. Many feel safer now that Russian forces have withdrawn from the capital. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)

And the sirens here still sound daily, even though the last shell fell more than two weeks ago. Checkpoints block traffic. Regional police said 10,000 mines left by the Russians in Kyiv and its suburbs were found and deactivated. There are certainly more, they added.

Yet signs of re-emergence are everywhere: joggers along the banks of the Dnieper, resuming alcohol sales and electric scooter rentals, modified metro service. More than 900 supermarkets are open, as well as 460 cafes, the city government announced on Sunday.

“Even with the situation in the suburbs, we felt we had to come back,” said Iryna Stohniienko-Vyhovska, 28, who arrived from western Ukraine on Friday with her husband, Dmytro; two children, Davyd, 7, and Ester, 3; and Porco the bulldog. “It’s a historic moment to be here.”

They are at his father’s house in a quiet area along the river. The children are playing in the yard and all are sleeping well for the first time in weeks. Vynohradar, the district on the northern edge of kyiv where they lived, was bombed again and again. Davyd’s school was destroyed, as was the kindergarten next to Ester’s daycare.

Although the town may seem relatively safe, parents like the Stohniienko-Vyhovskas fear exposing their children to scenes of destruction, death and decay. A friend of theirs, who had run away in a hurry, came back to his apartment, opened his fridge and promptly vomited from the stench of rotting food.

“Because Davyd is older, he understands what happened better,” Iryna said. “On the way back, he was assessing the risk out loud. He was asking, ‘Mom, what if there were mines on this road?’ “

The boy started playing war with his Nerf gun, attempting precision shots at his grandfather to flip the switch on an electric kettle across the room.

Davyd Stohniienko-Vyhovska plays with a toy gun in his grandfather's house in kyiv.

Davyd Stohniienko-Vyhovska plays with a toy gun in his grandfather’s house in kyiv. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)

It will be a long time before daily interactions and routines feel affected by the war. Ukraine continues to be in battle mode and the regions surrounding Kyiv are bracing for a new assault even as Russia’s strategic orientation appears to be shifting well to the east of the city.

In part, what reopens depends on access to an air-raid shelter. The zoo, for example, does not have one and remains closed. But restaurants in kyiv are trying to welcome customers again. Many spent March and early April cooking thousands of meals a day for soldiers at checkpoints, overcrowded hospitals and residents sheltering in the subway with no way to feed themselves.

While the need for contributions has slowed, upscale steakhouse and Asian bistro Oxota na Ovets – named after novelist Haruki Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” – is still cooking around 150 simple meals a day at a nearby hospital. Last week, it started serving a limited menu including dry-aged ribeye and shrimp Tom Yum soup.

“The hospital was receiving 350 injured people a day and had only two cooks,” said restaurant manager Olha Akizhanova, 28. There was no question of not helping – like millions of Ukrainians, she has spent the past six weeks doing it for everyone. .

The warehouse where his meat and seafood supplier had a cold room, in the nearly obliterated suburb of Bucha, was set on fire in an artillery battle. Akizhanova opted for dark humor to cope, joking that with the Russian withdrawal, his delivery people might be able to pick up “pre-grilled items” there.

“We find a way,” she said. “I called our regulars. They are very polite and ask if they can reserve a table.

Kyiv airport has been bombed, however, and businesses that relied on air shipments will have to adapt to an indefinite future without its services. All of the country’s ports are cut off by Moscow’s blockade on the Black Sea.

Chef Oleg Bilous is once again serving dinners at Oxota na Ovets in Kyiv.

Chef Oleg Bilous is once again serving dinners at Oxota na Ovets in Kyiv. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)

Oxota na Ovets head chef Oleg Bilous, 51, continued with a blackened spirit. “Australia is sending Bushmasters,” he said, referring to the recent announcement of the arrival of armed personnel carriers for the Ukrainian army. “Maybe they can put some of their famous beef in the compartments.”

People are trying to restore what normalcy they can. kyiv is generally a bustling city, with hordes of hipsters and herds of groceries shopping in equal measure. It has a rich theater, music and club scene.

Finding some form of daily rhythm is a way of reassuring oneself that the worst may be over – that life could well go on.

“On that first bombing night, as my daughter was crying, I realized that we were all going to go through this huge wave of negative energy together, as a city,” said Kirill Kashlikov, 52, executive director of the Lesya Ukraine National Academic. Theater. “People need something to take them away from the atrocities they see on their news feeds, away for a moment from the anger and sadness we all feel.”

Both Saturday and Sunday theater shows sold out immediately. A special children’s show next week is also sold out.

Kashlikov had to make significant adjustments. Some of its actors are not ready to return to kyiv. Others are part of the Territorial Defense, a mostly civilian division that has taken over some law enforcement responsibilities. Saturday’s show had only eight actors instead of the usual 17, necessitating the play’s script to be rewritten and adapted to a smaller stage.

An actress speaks on stage at the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater in Kyiv during her first performances since Russia invaded Ukraine.

An actress speaks on stage at the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater in Kyiv during her first performances since Russia invaded Ukraine. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)

Petro Sova, 42, one of the cast members, received notice from Territorial Defense that his first day in office would be the same day as the play’s premiere.

“I haven’t slept for two nights. I couldn’t imagine him, holding a gun,” he said. “But I spoke with Kirill and he said in this situation we should all do what we do best.”

For Sova, that meant finding a way to defer his enrollment so he could be in the room. He arrived in Kyiv on Thursday from the Carpathian Mountains, where he had left the rest of his family until the city was safer. After rehearsal on Friday, he downplayed his singing skills.

But on Sunday, when he appeared on stage and broke into song, his voice was soaring, confident and full of life.

Kostiantyn Khudov of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Iryna Stohniienko-Vyhovska and her family, who evacuated to western Ukraine at the start of the war, have returned to kyiv and are spending time with her father.

Iryna Stohniienko-Vyhovska and her family, who evacuated to western Ukraine at the start of the war, have returned to kyiv and are spending time with her father. (Serhii Korovayny/for The Washington Post)