Ukraine’s war realities are increasingly being felt in its media. Stories about life under siege are frequent fare on the evening newscasts,  on news web sites and in traditional print media. Yevhen Shybalov, the Donetsk correspondent of Ukraine’s respected weekly newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Weekly Mirror), which is published both Ukrainian and Russian language versions, is a popular writer and blogger. A native of Donetsk, he poignantly describes how life has changed since his city has been taken hostage by the separatist militants who have proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic. 
“We’ve quickly learned to live with war. So quickly, that it’s frightening,” he writes in an essay entitled “Happiness is when they don’t shoot at you.”

The  first to learn were children, writes Shybalov. “They have become completely different. They are little adults. They don’t throw temper tantrums anymore, they have become quiet and obedient. When they hear a plane in the air, they grab their toys and run home. When they hear an explosion close by, they take our hand and look at the sky with a strange calmness. They wait for us to tell them what to do. They have learned that in war, one must follow orders.”

The war has taught everyone something. The first lesson is not to go anywhere that isn’t essential. Shybalov’s travels have become very limited: work, home, the ATM, grocery store. No more shopping excursions, walks through the city. Suddenly everyone wants to be home before dark. No one remembers traffic jams in Donetsk anymore; the streets these days are eerily empty. Unemployment no longer seems such a tragedy; it has its silver lining. You need not leave your home.

Another lesson is not to trust people with weapons, writes Shybalov. “People with arms are the messengers of death, their own and that of others,” he writes. “They attract death.” This lesson was the hardest to learn the journalist says. “We are peaceful people whose experience of death was from action movies and video games, these deaths were not horrible but exciting, with special effects.”

Last week three civilian Donetsk residents were killed. There has been civilian loss of life in Slaviansk, the separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine, as well as the port city of Mariupol.

“We have learned to clear out as soon as we see a Donetsk People’s Republic patrol, or when we a truck filled with camouflage-garbed men without license plates speeding by.”

Don’t trust anyone. Ever. That’s the third lesson, and a particularly difficult one for opinionated and talkative Ukrainians, summarizes Yevhen Shybalov. You never know whom you are speaking with. If someone doesn’t agree with you he can call you a fascist and someone will come and take you away. “Better not risk it, better just to be quiet. Silence is your guarantee of safety.”

The absence of trust applies not only to strangers. The most mistrusted people in Ukraine are the police. “Earlier we were afraid of them but thought of them as representatives of our ruling powers, but who are they now?” asks Shybalov.

The Ukrainian police, never a particularly loved or respected bunch, have shown themselves to be uniquely unprincipled and elastic since the separatist movements began erupting in eastern Ukraine some three months ago. In many cities police have idly stood by while pro-Russian militants beat up pro-Ukrainian protesters, many have gone over to the side of the separatists, and others have supported them in less direct ways.

The police can be strangely useful, despite their absence of a moral compass, points out Shybalov. Whenever a shootout is about to break out in Donetsk, the first ones to run from the streets are the police, so it’s time for us to clear out as well, he writes.

“But we have found one thing that unites all of us, despite us hiding it from each other” concludes Shybalov. “In the evening we look at the starry sky through our curtained windows and pray “God, please let this end soon…”

The Great Tradition of the NKVD Lives On

Ukrainians should avoid traveling to occupied Crimea or to Russia, at least while Vladimir Putin is in power, writes Kyiv political analyst and author Serhiy Hrabowsky in the Ukrainian daily newspaper Den. Beware, warns Hrabowsky, “You might get snatched, roughed up, declared to be a Right Sector radical, [or] forced to confess all sorts of unspeakable things, such as wanting to blow up Lenin’s tomb.” While striking a lightly ironic tone, Hrabowsky reminds the reader that Russia’s FSB, the former KGB, has a long tradition of doing exactly that. Whether as the NKVD, or before that the GPU, generations of “famous chekists” have proven themselves very adept at getting “the necessary admissions, if not today, then tomorrow, or in a month, or even a year.”

Delving into history Hrabowsky writes how Jewish enemies of the Soviet state were forced into admitting that they were working for the Nazis and were Gestapo agents.  Sergey Korolev, the Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer, who was arrested in 1938 during the height of Stalin’s purges, confessed that he was intentionally producing ineffective rockets to undermine the might of the Red Army. He made this confession after his wife and daughter were brought to a cell adjacent to his in the notorious Lubyanka prison.

The latest “nationalist terrorists” arrested by the FSB are the Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and three activists who were campaigning against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Detained in early May and practically unseen since then, the four have been transferred to Moscow, where the FSB is claiming that Sentsov, civic activist Alexander Kolchenko, lawyer Gennady Afanasyev and Alexei Chirny are members of a Right Sector ‘diversionary terrorist group’ who planned to blow up buildings in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and in the Crimean capital,Simferopol.

(Right Sector a Ukrainian right-wing paramilitary organization, has become a favorite Ukrainian bogeyman in Russian media, its members portrayed as blood-thirsty fascists and Nazis intent on policies of ethnic cleansing.)

The detained Ukrainians have not been permitted any visitors. None have had any contacts with family members since their detention. After countless requests by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Sentsov was allowed a meeting with his Russian lawyer.

Another menacing development that Hrabowsky notes is the decision of the Russian Federation Prosecuting Committee to open “a criminal case against Ukrainian armed forces, persons from the Ukrainian National Guard and Right Sector for artillery assaults on the cities of Slaviansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk, Mariupol and other places in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.” The Committee’s web site ( even warns: “According to the international law, those responsible for the deaths of peaceful citizens and children must be held accountable. And if today there isn’t one country in the world capable of admitting the obvious, that what the Ukrainian authorities are doing is criminal, then the Russian Prosecuting Committee in opening this criminal case is taking that responsibility upon itself.”

“So beware Ukrainians, avoid drunks on the streets at night and the Russian Federation, day and night. Both of them are dangerous with their inadequate and aggressive behavior,” warns Hrabowsky.

About Poroshenko, Without Illusions

After two Leonids and two Viktors, Ukraine has a president with a new given name. (The first two presidents were Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma; the third and fourth were Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych.) Petro Poroshenko, elected president of Ukraine in an unprecedented landslide victory on May 25, is the first Petro to hold the country’s highest office.

Writing in Ukraine’s Economist-type weekly news magazine Tyzhden, writer and musician Roman Malko, a native of the western Ukrainian city Ternopil, compares Petro Poroshenko to Russian czar Peter the Great,  both of whom were compelled to take their countries to Europe. But this is where the comparison begins and ends.

Ukraine is a chaotic place today, points out Malko. You can’t envy Poroshenko for taking the helm of such a dysfunctional place. “And no one is expecting him to perform miracles. People knew his flaws, but elected him to move forward and end the chaos in which no one in the country wants to take responsibility for anything.”

Malko argues that Poroshenko has behaved with considerable dignity. He was the only oligarch who sided with Ukraine’s opposition during the Maidan protests and was often seen in potentially dangerous situations with minimal security (two bodyguards) and without a bulletproof vest. This is one reason why people entrusted him with their vote.

Ukrainians are past putting all their hopes in one person, and if Poroshenko is honest with himself, he ought to know this well, writes Malko. As president, he will have many fires to put out. It will be impossible to put them all out at the same time, but Malko believes that put them out he will. “Our Peter can become Peter the Great, filled with excitement and righteous anger (which he already seems to be). He can break the march of history and stop his armored commander-in-chief’s Mercedes only when he gets to the Ural Mountains.”

After all, in the aftermath of the presidential elections, Ukrainian armed forces had a series of successes against the armed militants, points out Malko. This could be a harbinger of great future leadership. Nevertheless, he refuses to dream. “If Poroshenko manages to channel Ukraine’s situation into a positive trend only by a third, this will be very promising. The fact that no one really expects this is an additional bonus for him. Illusions are dangerous” concludes Roman Malko.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.