In a minivan driving from the EU border to Lviv, a U.S.-educated Ukrainian quizzed me about my family. My wife, I told him, was brought up in Siberia but born in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, then part of the Soviet Union.
“So, she’s Ukrainian,” he advised me.
The man was in his mid-20s, perhaps, and spoke rapid-fire English. I’d met him in an “International Legion” tent on the border that offered -- with a sign translated into 12 languages -- help to foreigners volunteering to fight the Russian advance, a sensitive role that made him an obvious target for Russian spooks.
I never asked his name; he never offered it.
“No, she considers herself Russian,” I said, sensing I was on shaky ground with someone who seemed eager to press ahead with the topic.
“That’s her choice,” I added.
“It’s so strange she would identify as Russian,” the man replied, adjusting his sunglasses. “They really have nothing to be proud of.”
He then listed the various aspects of Russian culture he claimed were, in fact, only stolen from others. Even matryoshka dolls, he explained, were simply a shoddy rip-off of a Japanese tradition of “souls within souls.”
It was the kind of ugly cultural supremacy you might encounter in the Middle East or perhaps from some slurring 3 a.m. racist in a dive bar. To be having the conversation in front of strangers in a minivan passing the pretty green villages of western Ukraine was shocking. Hatred so casual is new to Ukraine but feels as if it will take generations to be undone.
I was in Ukraine on assignment. I have little interest in photographing the misery of war or joining the foreign press pack, but several quieter stories of art and endurance were given the green light and on June 21 I set off for the overland journey from Prague to Ukraine.
Around Kyiv, sites that Russian soldiers occupied, then abruptly left, have been cleaned up but still feel wild and unpredictable. Scraps of scorched Russian uniforms and rusting bullet casings lie on the road. In one cafe, unexploded 30mm shells serve as decoration and customers sit beneath a ceiling shredded by shrapnel.
Spray-painted messages left by both occupiers and the occupied give a sense of the terror of the invasion.
In Hostomel, the Islamist chant of “Allahu Akbar,” along with “Akhmat Sila” -- the rallying cry of Chechen Muslims loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov -- are scrawled on an apartment block in orange and green paint. On a highway running toward the Belarusian border, someone had dashed onto the road with a can of blue spray paint to warn unwitting drivers about the dangers of the road ahead. “Leave, they are shooting there!” they wrote in huge letters that mixed Ukrainian and Russian spellings.
In Irpin and Bucha, where hideous massacres took place just months ago, life continues under the summer sun as if nothing evil could happen. Children push scooters through the manicured parks, and friends greet each other with hugs and laughter.
Watching normality return so quickly is a reminder of the importance of anniversaries. No one can be expected to weep and grieve endlessly, but nor can the murder of innocents be forgotten. For now, the memorials at the massacre sites are basic and temporary. One day, perhaps, they will be stone and metal reminders of how swiftly even a sleek suburb like Bucha can be reduced to a nightmare zone of running, killing, or being killed.
Gasoline is a scarce and coveted resource. After Russian missiles destroyed Ukrainian oil refineries, and with the country’s Black Sea ports blocked by the Russian Navy, gas stations stand mostly empty, with prices set to zero. Occasionally word gets out that one or another gas station has something to sell and long lines of cars form. Anyone who wants more than the maximum allowance of 20 liters has to fill up, then go to the back of the queue and line up once more. A friend told me he sets aside at least three hours to find, queue for, and buy gas.
In eastern Ukraine, it feels as if the ties that bind society have slipped ever so slightly. Air-raid sirens howl over the suburbs on most days and by 8 p.m. waiters glance at their watches if you try to take a seat at a restaurant, warning you to eat up well before 9 p.m. closing.
One evening, I attempted a trip from Dnipro to the town of Petrykivka, famous for its painting traditions. As I arrived by minibus, I realized I’d made a mistake. A local woman responded to queries about how to reach various sites by repeatedly questioning how I intended to get back to Dnipro before nightfall. Picking up on her anxiousness, I gave up on photographing and walked straight to the nearest bus station. Buses had finished for the day, and no taxis would make a trip that risked breaching the night curfew.
With the sun low in the sky, I held out a thumb and hoped for the best as my mind started to race. Would anyone much care about some foreigner being robbed in eastern Ukraine when scores of the country’s finest men and women were being killed in battle nearby?
Eventually, a woman named Antonina pulled up driving a modern-looking Renault.
“Dnipro?” I asked through the window.
“Yes. And who are you?" she shot back. “Not a bandit? No pistol? No rifle?”
I opened my bag, laughing, to show that I had only a camera. It was a move I would later regret.
Cruising at speed down the mostly empty highway was a relief, and we made small-talk in Russian, still the main language used in eastern Ukraine. Then, suddenly, she pulled off the highway and turned into an industrial area.
“Probably you’re thinking, ‘Why are we heading this way?’” she asked, laughing with weird enthusiasm.
“Right. Right,” I agreed with a fading smile, waving a hand at what looked like a vast grain storage facility in front of us.
She never stopped driving, but turned to me and said: “I’m feeling...”
Whatever it was she was feeling was a Russian word I didn’t know. But from the way she was looking at me, I suspected I understood perfectly well.
She changed tack to clarify: “Well, everyone loves sex, right?”
I could not believe what was happening. Antonina was 52 -- a sturdy babushka. If it came to it, I could overpower her, but was she armed?
“I just want to get straight to Dnipro,” I responded.
“We're going to Dnipro!” she said, touching my neck and hair, cackling at my unease.
For the rest of the trip, I mumbled responses to this and that query as I kept one eye on my map. We were, in fact, heading to Dnipro, but via a rural road that ran parallel to the main highway. Perhaps she had wanted to avoid the military checkpoint on the main route, but her repeated touching, along with the weird hints at sex, made the ride deeply uncomfortable.
When we finally arrived in the northern suburbs, I remembered I’d offered to pay some money for gas and handed her 200 hryvnyas.
“How about one more of those?" she said, and slid a second 200 hryvnya note out of my hand.
I've never felt remotely in danger from criminality in Ukraine, but the car ride crystalized a thought that had been forming: When virtually all of the state’s resources are being poured into the defense of its land and the ties that bind society start to loosen, bad people begin to show themselves. Antonina was feeling the freedom to be herself and it was not pretty.
But if the subtle anarchy of war brings out the worst in some people, the day after that car ride I saw how it can turn good people into near angels.
The owner of an animal rescue center near Dnipro called Shelter Friend agreed to let me come and film as they dealt with an unprecedented wave of animals abandoned by their fleeing owners. I had long admired and donated to the shelter and was able to see firsthand that it is exactly what it claims to be: Workers -- some of whom clearly had difficult backgrounds -- cuddled, cleaned, and fed animals that would have no chance without these humans.
Then I met Alina. Incredibly, she remembered seeing me in a store near Popasnaya in December 2021 when I made a visit to the front lines of the low-level conflict that existed before the February invasion.
Alina could have fled to the West years ago but instead stayed behind to look after her ailing grandmother -- working as a shop assistant even as fighting simmered nearby. Then, when all-out war began in February, she remained, sheltering with her grandma as Russian artillery pummeled their town.
Alina stayed by her side even as she was told her elderly relative’s age made the pair a low priority for evacuation from the ferocity of the Russian invasion. They eventually fled on foot and later reached Dnipro -- as far, Alina told me, as they would go.
Today, Alina is caring for animals -- some severely disabled, others traumatized by war -- around the other workers and volunteers who have chosen to stay on, even as warplanes roar past overhead and missiles occasionally explode in the nearby city of Dnipro.
I was able to get a tiny glimpse of the anxiousness of that life as I attempted to leave eastern Ukraine. Air-raid sirens are frequent enough that they are mostly ignored, but early on the evening of June 28 I was in Dnipro's main station waiting for a train that would take me west to Lviv. With half an hour until departure, I nodded off inside the waiting room. Ten minutes later a soldier nudged at my foot.
“Foreigner, get up,” he said. “Air raid.”
Staff and soldiers were herding people into the underpass beneath the railway platforms. More and more people packed into the tunnel, glancing at their watches as the departure time for the Lviv-bound train ticked closer. Then, in the distance, came the boom of explosions. Two Russian cruise missiles hit the city that day, an event that just a short time ago would be the single biggest news story on Earth. But in the brutal new reality created by the Kremlin, the death of two civilians from the missiles barely received a mention in the world's media.
The atmosphere in the tunnel felt like one of relief: The missiles had hit, and they hadn't hit us. The suspense was over, and within a few minutes we were let out to board our train.
Ukrainians have been so inured to ultraviolence that a missile strike felt something like a car crash, a somber event to witness or pass by, but in the new Ukraine, life simply keeps moving forward.