As Jews huddle in Kyiv synagogue, Putin rains down bombs across their country

Reporter John Sweeney on the hell being faced by Ukrainians still in Kyiv


IRPIN, UKRAINE - MARCH 04: A woman cries after not being able to board an evacuation train that departed carrying women and children that fled fighting in Bucha and Irpin from Irpin City to Kyiv that was scheduled after heavy fighting overnight forced many to leave their homes on March 04, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues its assault on Ukraine's major cities, including the capital Kyiv, a week after launching a large-scale invasion of the country. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

A matronly woman cradles her chihuahua as tightly as a gangster grips his Tommy gun. An old lady smiles from her chair beneath an oil painting of a grand old rabbi. Anna Sytnychenko, 40, holds hands with her five-year-old daughter. These are just part of the crowd packing the lobby of the Central Synagogue in Kyiv, waiting to get out.

“Good morning,” I say to the little girl in my best ex-BBC English. Mum prompts her daughter to say “Good morning” back. We could be in Fitzrovia, apart from the Russian Army being 15 miles north from here, apart from the cruise missiles killing ordinary people as they slam into villages to the west, apart from the south where the war is going badly for Ukraine. It’s a good time to get out of Kyiv, before the city is completely encircled by Vladimir Putin’s killing machine.

But Anna does not want to go. “We want to live here in Ukraine,” she says. “We want to be an independent country. We don’t want the Russians here. I am taking my children to Israel but I don’t want to go. I want to stay here. Please stop this war.” She starts to sob and I turn away because I can’t bear to watch this woman’s agony and it is not in my power to stop Putin’s war.

We say our goodbyes to this fragment of the Jewish community waiting for a bus to get them out. We have half an hour to kill before we have an appointment at Kyiv’s Children’s Hospital. There’s a milk bar called Milk Bar opposite the synagogue and it’s the eighth anniversary of their opening and they are serving customers coffee and sticky buns for free and that is a miracle. My team – Eugene, the world’s worst translator, Vlad the driver and I – get stuck in. I tell the manager that Milk Bar is the best milk bar in the whole world, and I mention to her that some poor Jewish refugees are getting out. She gives me a tray of cakes and wrapped-up picnic boxes to give to the people now loading their suitcases onto the bus.

At the hospital, it’s the same story. Grim, grimmer than before. Evgenia has a one-year-old daughter, Mariana, with a dangerous lung disease. “My daughter cannot leave the hospital,” she says. “As a mother, I cannot leave Kyiv. There’s no way out. I hardly sleep at night. The sounds of the bombing, the sirens. I could never imagine in the 21st century there could be a war where children die for nothing. I have nothing more to say. Just stop this horror.”  

She bursts into tears in front of me, the second desperate mother to do so in the space of an hour. Through her tears, she explains the depth of her agony. She has another daughter who is not in Kyiv, and her love for her two daughters is torn in two.

Nothing better tells you the story of the madness of Putin’s war than hurrying down the steps to the basement of the kidney dialysis unit of the Children’s Hospital to see around 20 desperately ill kids with sour yellow faces trapped inside a gloomy corridor, laughing their heads off.

If the children move from the machines that keep them alive, they may die. If they stay in Kyiv, thanks to the Russian army, they may die. But they and their mums and dads – locked in Vladimir Putin’s gunsights by their love for their sick children – are smiling and giggling thanks to Chou-Chou “Crazy-Crazy” the Clown. There’s a 12-year-old girl on a stretcher who is very sharp, her smile faltering, knowing that the red nose and the rest are for the little kids and she is not so easily fooled. I ask her a name and she says Alyona but I mishear and say “Elon?” and the clown goes: “Elon Musk” and the girl and I snort with laughter at the absurdity of the American rocket man ever ending up in a place like the basement of the Kyiv Children’s Dialysis Unit. Chou-Chou, real name Anastasia Kalyuha, is very good.

She is, of course, a refugee herself from Donetsk, the city in the east of Ukraine which was seized by Russian armed forces in 2014. “A clown should not get into politics I think,” she says, out of her character role, “but this war, it should stop.”

Anastasia’s gift of joy to the kids trapped by their own bodies in a war not of their making is a light shining in the darkness. And there have been times in the first two weeks of this war that things have been ever so very dark.

The attack on Kyiv’s TV Tower by four Russian missiles is a case in point. The missiles flew in around 6pm in the evening, two hours before curfew, with people doing a last bit of shopping before they had to hurry home to their hiding places. The next morning I hitch-hiked a ride to the TV Tower and a bloke called Vlad picked me up in his wheezy little red Skoda. I appointed him my driver on the spot. We sailed through the checkpoints, no big shots us as the screwed up ball-bearings in one wheel howled in pain, and I got into the TV Tower complex before any other reporter. A guy called Rost, sinister in hoodie and gun, showed me the blitzed TV transmitter control building and a huge hole in the masonry caused by a direct hit. Nearby, staining a light dusting of snow, was a puddle of bright red blood where one of the workers had been killed.

“F**k Putin,” said Rost.

“F**k Putin,” I replied.  

“What did you do before the war?” I asked.

“I was a hot air balloon pilot,” said Ros and we both burst into laughter at the otherness of war.

Nearby, one missile undershot, slicing through some trees at the Babyn Yar shrine, a monument to the worst single mass murder by shooting of the Holocaust. Putin says that the government of Ukraine is neo-Nazi. The president and prime minister of Ukraine are Jewish; the Russians attacked Babyn Yar. I don’t have to explain who the people behaving like the Nazis are in this war.

Rost led me outside the complex and across the street, two more missiles had overshot their target and hit a row of shops, smoke still billowing out from the fires within. The bodies of an old man and a mother and her child lay on the ground as the men from the morgue found blankets from a dark green van and draped them over the corpses. When the Kremlin says it is not targeting civilians, it is a lie. I know. I saw Russia’s civilian victims with my own eyes.

Perhaps that’s why in the middle of the night I got a report from Microsoft saying that I had been hacked and the hacker was based near or in the Kremlin. It’s not exactly clear what’s happened, it’s also possible (and better) that it was a failed phishing attempt. But you know that just being here and making films for Twitter and writing articles for whichever news outlet will run my stuff makes you a target of the Kremlin. One feels so proud.

The war is not going well for Vladimir Putin. “I trust no-one, not even myself,” said Stalin towards the end of his life and the same is true of the current master of the Kremlin.

Before the war started I met my old pal Semyon Gluzman, who back in 1971 published a report denouncing the abuse of psychiatry by the Soviet state against dissidents, the first Soviet psychiatrist to do so. Semyon’s report focused in particular on Major General Petro Grigorenko, a Soviet Ukrainian war hero who fought the Nazis all the way to Berlin but was locked in an asylum for the criminally insane because he had protested about corruption by high-ups inside the Communist Party. Semyon got ten years in the gulag for his courage. The old zek (as Russian prisoners are called) knows the mind-set of the KGB better than anyone else and is now the President of the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association. I asked Semyon about Putin over a bottle of cognac.

“What’s with the long table, the one Putin used when he met Macron?”

“The distance between him and his death.”

“Is Putin mad?”

“No, he’s not mad. He’s a very bad man. He’s becoming like Hitler.”

I shuddered a little then because Hitler is in his own circle of hell but my old friend is right, I think, with one qualification. Putin is a rational actor inside a bunker, so deep, so deprived of light and information, that he is pulling levers without understanding how the modern world is responding, without understanding that some of his levers at least are no longer working, without understanding that invading countries at peace is what the Nazis did.

The chaotic muddle of the Russian invasion is largely due to Putin’s unwillingness to share his intentions with the army. So they have been throwing everything they have got at Ukraine but in a hopelessly uncoordinated way. To date, Ukrainian David is doing far better against the Russian Goliath than anyone dreamed.

To be fair, I did say on day one that this war may prove a terrible mistake for Putin because the electricity in Kyiv was still working and the internet was still on and I, a 22-year-long critic of Putin, was still here, mainly thanks to my duffle coat as worn by Major Calloway in The Third Man and my lucky orange beanie.

I really don’t look like a Russian spy so it was annoying when a Ukrainian soldier, Vlad Demchenko, arrested me on suspicion of being that very thing last Friday. True, I had been filming Ukrainian soldiers guarding the Fraternal Arch of the Unity Between the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples – no irony there, then - so I was in the wrong. We shouted at each other for a bit but he had a rifle and I didn’t and soon I was sitting on a chair surrounded by Ukrainian fighters with guns while they toyed with my passport and press card.

They called Ukrainian intelligence, the SBU, and they took on my case. Then Vlad googled me and saw that I had doorstepped Vladimir Putin in a mammoth museum in Siberia in 2014 after the shooting down of MH17 and I got a cup of tea. My spell in the SBU HQ was tense, very, because it is probably the number two target of the Russian missile force. But they were correct and let me go and now Vlad and I are great friends and we had a drink last night. As we did so in a bar that doesn’t exist because all bars have been closed under Ukrainian martial law, all my reporter friends came up to him and shook him by the hand and congratulated him for arresting me.

It’s hard to know for sure how the war is going. But the Russians are far too close to Kyiv for comfort. One British reporter pal of mine got stopped at a Russian army checkpoint yesterday. They got out and he was back in Kyiv but this is scary. The goliath is beginning to wage a war of attrition against Ukraine and David may not survive.

Vlad was at the frontline yesterday, up against the Russian soldiers about fifteen miles from the centre of Kyiv. The enemy is fighting for Vladimir Putin’s vision of a loyal Ukraine, subject as it was in the days of the Soviet Union, the one Semyon Gluzman knows all too well. Vlad and his pals are fighting for the folk in the synagogue lobby and the people in the milk bar across the street and the clown making the sick kids laugh in the basement.

I know whose side I am on.

John Sweeney is a freelance reporter, currently in Kyiv. He tweets from @johnsweeneyroar and his Patreon in JohnSweeneyRoar.

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