Monday nights in any city — even the liveliest — can be quiet, but on this Monday evening, Kyiv was noticeably more subdued than usual. The roads were emptier, there were fewer pedestrians about, and the bars and restaurants were pretty much abandoned.
It was as if the season finale of a popular reality TV show was being broadcast. In a sense, an episode of reality TV was playing, but it wasn’t clear if this was a finale or the opening of an especially dark new season.
Reports from Russia had been circulating from late afternoon that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, would be making a big announcement.
And when it came — all 56 minutes of it — people were left open-mouthed and afraid about what it might presage. They had half-expected he would recognize the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that Moscow had fashioned eight years ago in the wake of the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president in a popular uprising that infuriated Putin.
But the bellicosity of the speech; the depth of hostility to the West, as Ukrainians saw it; and what they say was a fanciful narrative about the history of Ukraine left them reeling.
“I was surprised, but maybe it was to be expected,” 27-year-old makeup artist Aleksandra told me as I interrupted her conversation with her friend Katya, 36, a singer, near Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan.
“We all started phoning each other, all my friends and family, and some people said his speech means a much bigger war, not just in eastern Ukraine,” she said. “Some people talked about packing their bags and leaving, but we calmed them down.”
Aleksandra and her husband have talked about what they should do if war creeps nearer.
“We have discussed two options,” she told me. “Leaving Kyiv for my parents’ village in northwestern Ukraine near Poland. Or maybe we will stay here and be useful — people will need free hands to help.”
But, she added, “I did think as I listened to Putin, how does one get a gun?”
That thought has occurred to others. And Ukrainians, who have guns for sport, hunting or self-protection, have been stocking up on ammunition, said Andriy, who works at a gun store in the affluent historic neighborhood of Podil, which overlooks the Dnieper River.
His store, Armelit, advertises itself as a hunting boutique and stocks some expensive high-end weapons, including vintage British double-barreled shotguns of the type wielded by aristocrats on the historical TV drama “Downton Abbey.” His store was low on ammunition, he said, and he had heard others had none and were scrambling to buy more.
The buying spree started several weeks ago, when U.S. leaders started to issue ever more dire warnings about the imminence of war.
“People are buying guns and ammunition for self-protection, national defense and because they worry about looting,” he said. He reels off a list of the most popular calibers of ammunition: .233, 5.56, 7.62. He proudly hands me an English double-barreled shotgun made in 1909 and valued at $20,000. He nods approvingly when I check that the barrels are clear of cartridges.
Outside in Kontraktova Square, two young boys clamber over a statue of a Cossack. The square is full of people sitting on benches and talking or reading alone. I fall in with two widows, both dressed in red quilt coats, both silver haired.
“We don’t want war,” 75-year-old Halyna said. She was born in Moscow and married a Russian army officer. Her face livens when she tells me how they traveled before settling in Kyiv.
“What happens to us doesn’t matter; we have lived our lives,” she said. “But the young — our sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters — are who I worry about. We will give them to Ukraine to help the country, but I worry about them.”
Then she looks me directly in the eye and says: “What’s happening is a big state is bullying a small state; Russia is an elephant, and we are a rabbit. I have friends all over the world — in Russia, America, Israel and Europe. I like everyone. There’s no need for this.”
Nearby 20-year-old Myroslava is reading a book. She’s a business student and has just got an internship in a company. Her reaction to Putin’s speech was firm.
“Yes, unfortunately I saw it,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate his thoughts, and he was telling Russians what they should think.”
She says that Ukraine has been at war for eight years and she is not afraid.
“Ukraine has a strong army, and we can protect ourselves, and other countries are supporting us. I just have to believe that,” she said. Her parents have asked her what she intends to do. Will she come home? They would prefer that. But for now, she will remain in Kyiv.
Later I have drinks with Lesia Vasylenko, 34, a mother and lawmaker. She’s one of 20 parliamentarians from Holos (Voice), a liberal and pro-European political party. She says everyone feels as though they are in limbo.
“It is a crazy time,” she said. “We are certainly living in a period which will be in the history books, and we are the people who are witnessing and making history, each one of us separately.”
She judges Putin’s speech as a “declaration of war” or an intention to wage a bigger war, a continuation of aggression against Ukraine that goes back to 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and shaped the creation of what she sees as “make-believe” republics in eastern Ukraine.
She isn’t happy with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who she says should have given his response to Putin not in the early hours of the morning and on television “but in parliament, on the podium, addressing lawmakers, the representatives of the Ukrainian people, and not a short speech saying I have had so many calls with international leaders.”
“It would have had immense impact and meaning to the people of Ukraine and could have raised morale and sent a much more powerful message to Putin,” she added.