Many have a specific idea of what a country at war looks like — endless rubble, destruction, and obvious signs of suffering. Even in Ukraine, people often say that the war can't be seen and felt when they are walking through large cities like Kyiv. But for someone who knows the country but has not visited for some time since Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, the signs, remnants, and reminders of the ongoing armed aggression are scattered everywhere.
I was born in Ukraine and lived there — in Donetsk, Kyiv, and Lviv — for most of my life until mid-September 2022. I came back to Ukraine in July 2023 after not seeing it for 10 months and spent about six weeks there, crossing the country several times. This is what I saw.
Soon after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government prohibited displaying the currency rates to curb financial panic and speculated growth. Some currency exchange sites found a way to attract customers in other ways. Here, a sign in a market in Ternopil, a city in the west of Ukraine, says the purchase rate is “expensive” while the sale rate is “cheap.”
In Lutsk, a city in the northwest of Ukraine, the war is fairly unnoticeable as, despite being close to Belarus, a Russian military ally, it hasn't been a common target for Russian air attacks. The city is also among the most underestimated tourist destinations in Ukraine. It has several impressive landmarks, like this 14th-century fortress and castle, one of the few well-preserved fortresses in Ukraine.
At the Soviet-era apartment blocks of cozy Lutsk, time seemingly stopped, with children playing in the yards amid drying laundry and flowerbeds planted by their elderly neighbors. In the cities and towns closer to the frontline, even the few remaining children generally don't play outside because of the danger of shelling and mines.
First, the stork at a central park in Lutsk approached the young couple from the back, and when they started to feed it, it became more confident and came closer. My local colleague said that she had never seen anything like this before. A war affects not only humans but also causes changes in the ecosystems, even far from the frontline.
A building housing the paintings by Maria Prymachenko, the most celebrated Ukrainian folk artist, was destroyed by Russian shelling in February 2022, but the locals in Ivankiv, where it was situated, managed to hide and save the paintings. In July and August 2023, the paintings were exhibited in Kyiv. Prymachenko's style is known as naive art; her lions, turtles, cobras, and crabs are dreamlike and fantastic.
The former Arch of People's Friendship was erected in Kyiv in 1982 as a commemoration of the anniversary of the establishment of the Soviet Union as well as a symbol of the centuries-long “unity” of the Ukrainian and Russian people. In 2022, the authorities dismantled a statue under it of two men representing a Ukrainian and a Russian, and even earlier, in 2018, someone painted a crack on it.
Many other memorials in Kyiv and Ukraine have been changed significantly or dismantled. The country is trying to purge all signs of the Russian imperial and Soviet rule — a move which still stirs controversy, though much less than before 2022. The memorial to the greatest Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin, in Kyiv has been covered by a palimpsest of graffiti demanding its removal. Imperial and Soviet authorities commonly used Pushkin statues to mark their political presence and sphere of influence.
Ukrainian authorities have not disclosed the number of military casualties, but this “lawn” in Kyiv's central Independence Square (better known as “Maidan”) offers a glimpse of the death toll. Each small flag has a name and other details about a dead soldier.
A mural at the Kyiv City Administration depicts Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces taking Russian President Vladimir Putin before a panel of judges. He is in a prison jumpsuit with the word Huylo (“dickhead”), the nickname he earned in Ukraine in 2014, on his back. The popular sentiment in Ukraine is that the country will never be safe unless Russia is defeated and its leadership legally punished.
While Kyiv was empty in the first months of the Russian full-scale invasion, it is now the safest city in Ukraine thanks to the enforced air defense. It continues to be among the main targets of the Russian forces and saw a record number of strikes and interceptions in May 2023 when the Ukrainian capital was shelled 20 nights out of 31, also by the “unbeatable” Kinzhal ballistic missiles, which appeared to be interceptable. Air sirens are heard in Kyiv every day and night, but they do not necessarily prevent the local youth from enjoying life.
Public events are back in Kyiv, and many of them are organized to fundraise for the Ukrainian army, like this live concert in Podil, the city's historical area.
After the dark months of most of the autumn and winter of 2022 from October, when the Russian forces started to target the Ukrainian power infrastructure, Ukraine has been relit, although the infrastructure has not been repaired entirely and could be knocked out again, so many Ukrainians expect even more rocket attacks and more difficult cold months ahead.
Some names and signs in Ukraine have felt like a phantom pain since 2014, and especially since 2022. The sign at the Kyiv metro points to the station where passengers could change to another means of transport to reach the Boryspil airport, which was actually destroyed by the targeted Russian strikes in February and March.
Kharkiv, the largest city of Ukraine after Kyiv before 2022 (now significantly depopulated), is located in the east and has been among the most shelled in 2022 until October when Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian military away from part of the Kharkiv region they have occupied since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. The city center, including offices of the city and regional administration facilities, has been seriously damaged, and these were some of the city's districts that suffered the most.
Many businesses closed in Ukraine or its most dangerous areas following the Russian full-scale invasion in 2022. Empty billboards and closed storefronts are among the reminders of the dangers and economic challenges Ukrainians continue to face.
Ukraine is now regarded as the most mined area in the world, primarily because of land mines planted densely in its frontline, mostly by the Russian forces who dug out to defend their positions in the territories they occupied, but also because of unexploded ordnance in any place which has been recently shelled. The warning sign in Odesa is in the treeline dividing the largest city park from the seaport.
Fruits and vegetables had been scarce in Ukraine in 2022 as the main agricultural areas appeared to be the most heavily affected, and the entire country had been a logistical mess. Local agriculture and logistics have partly recovered since then, but the prices remain higher than they used to be, and apparently, more of the local production has been replaced by imports.
Odesa, on the Black Sea shore, used to be one of the biggest tourist destinations for Ukrainians, Moldovans, and even Belarusians and Russians for decades until 2022. That year, the local authorities prohibited swimming in the sea because of the mines. The situation was expected to become even worse this year after the Kakhovka dam in the Russian-occupied part of the neighboring Kherson region was destroyed, leading to dozens of tonnes of chemicals, poisons, trash, and more mines being washed out to the sea. Following the regulation, many paths to the shore and beaches remained barricaded in early August 2023.
The prohibition, however, did not stop Odesans and some tourists from swimming, especially in the areas farther from the center with no or almost no control by the authorities. In this photo, people are at a beach behind the warning sign reading, “Swimming is prohibited.” The day after this picture was taken, the local authorities reopened several beaches in Odesa.