Armed and ready: Meet the shul-goer and the imam braced for Putin’s onslaught

John Sweeney reports from Kyiv on how this multi-faith city is preparing to repel the Russian invaders


The old Jewish lady cradling her chihuahua like a gangster holds his Tommy gun is long gone from the Central Synagogue. But in her place is a chain-smoking geezer called Alexander, with a mean-looking Kalashnikov on a sling. The Jewish community in Kyiv is preparing to welcome the Russian Army to the Ukrainian capital, but not with chicken soup and gefilte fish.

Alexander is one of the heavily-armed civilians running an exodus operation out of the not-quite-yet wholly encircled city. He is helping old men, women and children, both Jews and non-Jews.

“Do you know how to use the AK?” I ask. Alexander nods and grins. Stupid question. Suddenly, the scene from Casablanca pops into my head when Humphrey Bogart’s Rick tells the Nazi officer: “There’s certain sections of New York I’d advise you not to invade, major.”

Every day, people gather outside the synagogue, waiting for the buses that will take them out of the city. Some to Israel, some to Poland, Romania, anywhere out of harm’s way. The Russian Army is 13 miles away from Kyiv, making its presence felt by shelling and killing, targeting apartment blocks on the outskirts stacked with ordinary people, generating spasms of terror when its heavy metal falls out of the darkness.

But people of all faiths and none are determined to stay, to do their bit, to stick to their guns or buns. Take Rachel, who is another volunteer running the exodus operation from the synagogue. She tells me: “I am staying because I live here and I am teaching Hebrew.”

A few days ago I went to a mosque and met a fighting imam, Said Ismahilov, every bit as determined to defend his bit of Kyiv as Alexander and Rachel theirs. I asked him about the claim made by the Kremlin that President Zelensky’s government is neo-Nazi. The imam said: “That’s not true. This is a democracy where people of all faiths are respected.”

Across the road from the synagogue is our Milk Bar, the best milk bar on the whole planet. The kindness of strangers in Kyiv is out of this world. Yet again the JC team – Vlad the driver with the dodgy Skoda, Eugene, the world’s worst translator and me, the dishevelled reporter – get free everything from the delightful staff. I have been in Kyiv a month now and I do miss a proper cuppa, so I ask for a cup of tea with milk. Eugene and Vlad are horrified: “There are other ways of proving you are not a Russian spy,” says Eugene. (I tweet that and it currently has had 7,000 likes.) I start to hum There’ll Always Be An England, but they look at me as if I am nuts.

With us is Kristina, a friend of Eugene’s who is studying languages at the same university as him. She is from Mariupol, the port city on the Black Sea that is currently being hammered back to the Stone Age by the Russian army. Three days ago she got a call from her mum: “We’re OK. Our flat has been destroyed.” And then the phone call was cut. Kristina sips her coffee and says she hasn’t been able to sleep at all.

This morning, she got a fresh call from her mum. She and Kristina’s dad had managed to walk out of the besieged city and were alive. Eugene smiles: “Tell John about the cat.”
Kristina whips out her phone and shows me a photo of a frankly terrifying tabby and grins. “The cat is out too. They got him out in a box.”
Eugene: “The cat was in the bag.”

This is what it is like in Kyiv. Every conversation lurches from grim horror to surreal humour and back again, every minute of the day. The effect is exhausting and exhilarating, both at the same time.

Yesterday, Russian shells hit an apartment block in Obolon, five tube stops north of Leicester Square, if you follow me. In Kyiv, the tube stops have much longer gaps between them, so it’s more like Brent Cross than, say, Camden. But still. Vlad sashayed the Skoda through the checkpoints and around the tank trap barriers. Generally we sail through, the soldiers clocking my orange beanie, British passport and tailored greeting, “Putin hoolyo”, which, I’m told, is not very polite.

As usual, we’re joking, taking the piss out of each other. I think I was moaning about Eugene wearing an Alice hairband in the mosque when we see what the Russian army has done. A great dark hole has been blown into the front of the apartment block. All the windows and their frames and their surrounds have gone, as if some evil giant has removed the whole front of the block as a child would take the front off a doll’s house. Inside, you can see inside what home means for other people: a fridge, an Orthodox icon, a girlie calendar, a kettle on a table.

The smell of burning hits you on the nose like a bully. Firefighters and council workers are cleaning up, as other residents from the blocks come to gawp, open-mouthed. From the front line, roughly four miles or so from this block of flats, comes the crump of artillery duels, sharper and more terrifying than you can hear in the centre. Faces are knotted with anxiety. I ask a mother for her reaction but her little boy pulls her away. Eugene: “The kid is frightened.”
Not just the kid.

A young man emerges from a ruined doorway and walks purposefully to a car, laden with blankets and bedding. He tells me that he and his mother and father were sleeping at the back of the flats when the missile hit. “The second I heard the explosion, I knew this was from Putin. I can’t say what I feel about him. I don’t have the words.” They are all right, now staying with friends in another neighbourhood.

But slowly the Russian Army is constricting the city. Vlad the driver lives on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river and last night was rough. He couldn’t sleep and when he comes to pick me up he’s still, well, he’s shell-shocked. And even as I type this, I can’t quite believe that a good man and a good friend of mine is suffering from shell-shock in 2022.

The good news?
In the centre of the city, the electricity is still on, the internet is still on and reporters like me are still free to report the work of the Russian army. More or less. Days ago, an American video journalist, Brent Renaud, was shot dead approaching Russian lines at Irpin, four miles or so north from Obolon, where the missile hit the block of flats. Fox News reporter Benjamin Hall suffered shrapnel wounds to the leg. Someone on Twitter put up a poorly worded tweet which, if you read it quickly, pointed to me being the victim.

Fox later announced that Irish journalist Pierre Zakrzewski and Ukrainian fixer Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova were killed. Putin’s attitude to the free press is clear. Militarily, smart people who know their stuff in London, Washington and, especially, Tallinn, are saying that the Russian army is in a mess.

Their blitzkrieg on Kyiv hasn’t worked; their soldiers keep on abandoning tons of kit; their morale is low. One former British army officer who passed through town told me: “The Russians are not burying their dead. Any army that does that tends to lose.”

And, then, of course, there is the not small matter of the strength and courage of the Ukrainian resistance. It has been shockingly good. Kyiv is going to fight. If you doubt my word, all you have to do is ask Alexander with the Kalashnikov down the synagogue or the fighting imam down the mosque.

John Sweeney tweets at @johnsweeneyroar. His Patreon is JohnSweeneyRoar

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