In Kyiv, restaurants and cafes are open, and some cultural venues have reopened their doors to visitors. But Russian missiles have recently struck the Ukrainian capital. Photographer Fabian Ritter, from Germany’s DOCKS collective, spent three weeks with young people in the city getting to know their outlook and documenting their new everyday lives, as they grow up and find their identity, while being confronted with Russian aggression.
Of course, no one is really in the mood for a party: almost every young person knows someone who is fighting or otherwise affected by the war. Many have family members in more dangerous areas who often don’t want to leave their homes. And every day the media present further news coverage of the invasion. Although Kyiv can sometimes evoke a past normality, the threat of Russian missiles is never far away.
All the while, more than 100 soldiers die every day on the frontlines; and the Russian army appears to be increasingly attacking civilian targets, including residential buildings and shopping centres.
Young people in the capital are trying to support their home country as much as possible: volunteering, collecting and sorting donations, activism and raising awareness on social media.
No one knows yet what their future holds. But amid all the uncertainty, many are optimistic that the Ukrainian military will win.
Sasha, a prospective student who lived for weeks under Russian occupation during the first weeks of the war, tells how absurd it feels to send out job and university applications, even though the long term future cannot be foreseen at all: “The phase of danger and uncertainty during the occupation in Kyiv oblast is still very close for me. It was a time without electricity, running water, internet connection and the certainty of whether friends and family would survive. Now to make plans in a more safe situation, for a long term future when it was just about survival back in the days of occupation, is such a huge difference of perspective that is hard to handle.”
A singer in the band Skinkedy, Nick reports that he has deleted all his songs in Russian, he only wants to sing in Ukrainian: “My main goal it to prevent the disappearance of our language, our music and our culture.”
Many young people talk about the difficulties they face finding new jobs to replace those they lost when the war began. Anton says: “There is not really an entertainment industry any more, where I worked for the last years. I now spend my days volunteering, but I don’t know what will get me money in the long term.”
Young artists often feel like their creativity has been put on stand-by and if they produce something, it should at least be useful to their country or sold for a good cause. All over the city, solidarity initiatives committed to working for the survival and victory of Ukraine are to be found. For example, Grisha from Irpin says: “We want to stay at our city and rebuild it, even if much is destroyed; and the memories of the first weeks of war will stay.”
Even a well-known alternative techno club is collecting money for anti-tank guns; it is clear to everyone that they will only be able to celebrate again when they have done it together. Artem, a member of staff at the club, says: “It is not the time for rave parties, as we had them before. Our soldiers are dying every day for the freedom of Ukraine. Kyiv and its rave parties were once on the way to be considered the new Berlin; that’s just something that doesn’t matter any more.”
The residents of the city celebrate Ukrainian culture, clothing and music whenever possible and appropriate. They are afraid that Russia’s long term plan is to deny Ukraine’s independence by destroying homegrown traditions and culture. For example, Ksenia says: “It is more important than ever to keep Ukrainian culture alive; this is the reason I joined a dance group celebrating the anniversary of Kyiv.”
In the suburbs of Kyiv, a lot of clean-up work has been completed by volunteers, but the reconstruction will take a long time, as will the processing of many traumas.
For young people, there are many different levels of how the war keeps affecting them emotionally. They cannot avoid the seriousness of the situation, one unlike any other in Europe at the moment. For Dymitry, the war is having a devastating effect. “I call my grandfather every day. He lives near Kramatorsk and has a farm there. He already had two Russian missiles in his back yard. Still he wants to stay and support the Ukrainian military as best as he can with food, water, gas, everything he can support with. He could die any day and I’m very afraid of that.”
For months, air raids have been part of everyday life in the city, just like the burial of fallen soldiers in the cemeteries. And having long term plans is impossible for most. After months of mental stress, many young residents of the city are looking for short moments of distraction, brief normality and security, in a country where there will probably be no definite security for months to come. For instance, Dimar says: “We usually check the news in Telegram groups and other social media every hour, we cannot detach ourselves from the fate of our country.”
In their shaken emotional world, gratitude for help from abroad is mixed with the feeling that there is simply not enough help coming from some countries. City resident Georgi says: “Our soldiers have to fight with one artillery weapon against 10. How can they win this war in the long term? Help has to come from outside; Ukraine cannot organise this alone.