Ukraine’s Democracy in Darkness

Author: Masha Gessen Source: The New Yorker
January 30, 2024 at 20:57
“I’ve spent almost two years living entirely in the present,” a sociologist on active duty says. “It eats up all your energy.”Photo illustration by Cristiana Couciero; Source photographs from Getty
“I’ve spent almost two years living entirely in the present,” a sociologist on active duty says. “It eats up all your energy.”Photo illustration by Cristiana Couciero; Source photographs from Getty

With elections postponed and no end to the war with Russia in sight, Volodymyr Zelensky and his political allies are becoming like the officials they once promised to root out: entrenched.

Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity began, according to legend, with a Facebook post. In the fall of 2013, after President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a deal that would have deepened the country’s relationship with the European Union, the investigative journalist Mustafa Nayyem wrote a post calling on people to gather in Independence Square, in the center of Kyiv. After three months of continuous protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Ten years later, Independence Square is desolate most days. Kyiv has imposed a midnight curfew. Martial law, in effect since February, 2022, when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, forbids mass gatherings. As for Nayyem, he is now the head of the federal agency for reconstruction, which is attempting to rebuild the country as quickly as the Russians are devastating it. On the tenth anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, this past November, instead of speaking at a rally, Nayyem was scheduled to preside over a different sort of ceremony: the reopening of a bridge that connects Kyiv to the western suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, where, in the first weeks of the war, some of the worst atrocities committed by Russian forces took place.

A few days before the unveiling, I talked with Nayyem in his office. The reconstruction agency occupies part of a stolid late-Soviet government building. Nayyem’s suite looks as though it was renovated ambitiously but on a budget, with vertical blinds, plastic panelling, and vinyl knockoffs of Le Corbusier couches in the waiting area. On the walls he had hung giant prints of the famous “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photograph and a panoramic view of Manhattan. “New York is my favorite city,” he explained. “And this is as close as I’m going to get to it in the foreseeable future.”

Nayyem was born in Kabul in 1981, the second year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His mother died three years later, after giving birth to his brother, Masi. When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, in 1989, Nayyem’s father, a former government official, moved to Moscow. Two years later, after marrying a Ukrainian woman, he moved the family to Kyiv. Nayyem rose to prominence in his twenties as a crusading journalist, uncovering stories of top-level government graft in Ukraine. Following the Revolution of Dignity, he served in parliament and played a key role in reforming Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt and violent police force. Before accepting his current job, he was a deputy minister for infrastructure.

The government launched the reconstruction agency last January, with the announcement that eighteen apartment buildings would be restored in Irpin, where an estimated seventy per cent of the civilian infrastructure had been damaged or destroyed. “We are all in a rush to give people hope,” Nayyem told me. “But that obscures the fact that we are a country at war. Our only real goal is to survive.” He was about to leave for a gruelling trip, travelling by car to the southern port city of Odesa to look at the damage sustained in recent attacks, and then to liberated territories in the southeast to begin a pilot project in which an entire village is being rebuilt. “You go to Kharkiv and realize that a bridge that’s been blown up means it takes three extra hours to get from one point to another,” Nayyem said. “That can mean the difference between life and death.”

Nayyem’s brother, Masi, was injured in combat early in the war, and brought to a hospital in critical condition. The car carrying him travelled over a stretch of highway that was later damaged. It has since been repaired by Nayyem’s agency. “We have to rebuild even if it’s going to be destroyed again,” he said. “We have no choice.” It’s building for the present, not for the future.

A new saying had taken hold in Ukraine: “None of us is coming back from this war.” People may emigrate or relocate, but the war is here to stay. The saying has a literal meaning, too: of the hundreds of thousands of people who enlisted in the early days of the invasion, only the most severely injured have been granted a discharge. In October, about a hundred protesters defied martial law and gathered in Kyiv to demand a limit on the amount of time a person can be expected to serve. The exact number of people currently on military duty, like the number of casualties and target numbers for conscription, is secret. In August, President Volodymyr Zelensky had fired the heads of all the regional draft offices, so pervasive was corruption in the system—and so high, apparently, the desire to buy one’s way out of being conscripted. Nevertheless, officials continue to hand out draft notices. In December, it emerged that the ministry of defense was working on a plan to start drafting Ukrainians living abroad.

Until a few months ago, everyone in Ukraine seemed to know how the war would end: Ukraine would liberate its territory, including Crimea, and this, it was assumed, would burst the Russian propaganda bubble and bring about the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s regime. But then the long-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive, which began last spring, failed to achieve any meaningful breakthroughs. Russia still holds about twenty per cent of what was previously Ukrainian territory. Now, when I asked Nayyem about the end of the war, he said, “I’m afraid to think about it.” He went on, “I don’t know what it would mean for the war to be over. I think that in my lifetime there will not be a time when I won’t fear that war may start again any minute. Because Russia is not going anywhere.”

I heard similar notes of weariness from countless others. “What are we fighting for—land?” Katerina Sergatskova, a prominent journalist who started a safety-training program for members of the media, told me. “We say that we’ll keep fighting until the Russian empire falls apart. But it’s not going to fall apart.” Denys Kobzin, a sociologist from Kharkiv who is on active military duty, told me that, before the war, he used to attend classes on how to live in the moment. “Now I’ve spent almost two years living entirely in the present,” he said. “It eats up all your energy. You can’t dream, you can’t immerse yourself in memories, you are always a little bit ‘on.’ This life of total uncertainty—it’s like you went out for a run but you don’t know how far you are running. Sometimes you have to speed up, but mostly you just need to keep breathing.”

In November, the former nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had long tried to help bring about peace negotiations, suggested that natomight accept a Ukraine that didn’t include the territories currently occupied by Russia. Such an arrangement could effectively turn the front line into a border and end the fighting without opening negotiations with the Russians. Nayyem thought the suggestion was reasonable—after all, following the Second World War, West Germany became a nato member while the East was still occupied by the Soviet Union. “You know what was good about the Second World War?” Nayyem asked wistfully. “It ended!”

As it turned out, Nayyem’s unveiling ceremony was overshadowed by a different news story. Andriy Odarchenko, a parliament member from Zelensky’s party, was detained for allegedly attempting to bribe Nayyem. According to prosecutors, Odarchenko had offered Nayyem an incentive to channel reconstruction funds to a university in Kharkiv that Odarchenko had been selected to head. Nayyem had alerted anti-corruption authorities, who set up a sting. Once it appeared that Odarchenko had secured the funding, Nayyem received about ten thousand dollars in bitcoin as a kickback. Odarchenko was arrested minutes before a scheduled meeting of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee, of which he was a member. (He has pleaded innocent.)

As it turned out, Nayyem’s unveiling ceremony was overshadowed by a different news story. Andriy Odarchenko, a parliament member from Zelensky’s party, was detained for allegedly attempting to bribe Nayyem. According to prosecutors, Odarchenko had offered Nayyem an incentive to channel reconstruction funds to a university in Kharkiv that Odarchenko had been selected to head. Nayyem had alerted anti-corruption authorities, who set up a sting. Once it appeared that Odarchenko had secured the funding, Nayyem received about ten thousand dollars in bitcoin as a kickback. Odarchenko was arrested minutes before a scheduled meeting of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee, of which he was a member. (He has pleaded innocent.)

Such was the state of Ukraine as it entered its third consecutive winter at war: still battling the demon of corruption, still defiant, yet visibly reduced, palpably tired. Nayyem feared that, if the war went on long enough, Ukraine would become more like Russia: autocratic, corrupt, nihilistic. “Russia is Russia because Russia is ‘fighting Nazis,’ ” he said, referring to Putin’s false pretense for the war. “And we risk becoming Russia because we are actually fighting Nazis.”

It is a commonplace to say that Ukraine is waging a war not only for its survival but for the future of democracy in Europe and beyond. In the meantime, in Ukraine, democracy is largely suspended. According to the regular order of things, Ukraine should have a Presidential election in March. Up until the end of November—a few weeks before the deadline for scheduling the election—Zelensky’s office seemed open to having one, but ultimately decided against it. “We shouldn’t have elections, because elections always create disunity,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defense minister who now advises the government, told me. “We need to be unified.”

An estimated four to six million Ukrainians are living under Russian occupation. At least four million are living in E.U. countries, a million more are living in Russia, and at least half a million are living elsewhere outside of Ukraine. Another four million have been internally displaced. These figures include a significant number of people who became adults after the war began and aren’t registered to vote. “Elections are a public discussion,” Oleksandra Romantsova, the executive director of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, told me. “But a third of the population is connected with the military. Another third is displaced.” With so many people excluded from the public discussion, what would an election even mean? There is also a more practical problem, Romantsova said: “Elections cause people to congregate,” and, when Ukrainians congregate, Russia bombs them.

The current government was never meant to last. Zelensky, a former comedian who starred in a sitcom about a schoolteacher who guilelessly rides a wave of anti-establishment sentiment into the office of the President, was elected at a moment when Ukrainians wanted someone, perhaps anyone, who was not a career politician. He promised to serve for just one term. During the parliamentary election that followed Zelensky’s inauguration, in 2019, his Servant of the People Party allowed only first-time candidates to run on its ticket. “New faces only” was the slogan. The party secured two hundred and fifty-four seats out of four hundred and fifty. Now, with elections postponed indefinitely, Zelensky and the generation of people he brought into politics are becoming like the officials they once promised to root out: entrenched.

At the start of the war, when Russia was bombing Kyiv daily, the parliament had to consider the risks of continuing to hold meetings in its building, which has a glass roof. It decided to do so, but to vote only on bills that a majority wanted to bring to the floor, and to limit discussion of amendments. This effectively shifted the center of legislative work to the President’s office. Among other bills, the parliament approved the declaration of martial law, introduced by Zelensky on the first day of the war, and has regularly renewed it. Martial law enables the cabinet of ministers to control who can enter and leave the country—since the start of the war, men under the age of sixty have been forbidden to leave—and to regulate the work of all media outlets, printing presses, and distribution companies.

Zelensky’s office created the United News TV Marathon, a round-the-clock program of war-related news and talk shows, supplanting what had been a vibrant and varied television news market. The segments appear on six of Ukraine’s major channels and, at any given time, all of them are showing the same thing. Despite its name, United Marathon was clearly designed to be a sprint. In the early months of the war, the programming had a sense of urgency, of novelty and shock. Now even the worst days—when Russia fires a barrage of rockets that kill civilians across the country—are like all the other terrible days, when people are killed in the same way, in more or less the same places. There is little to analyze anymore. “The one thing all Ukrainians agree on is that we need an end to the Marathon,” Romantsova told me.

Other government-controlled media target an international audience. Gleb Gusev, a forty-four-year-old with a shaved head and a trimmed beard, used to run Babel, a highbrow news site. After the invasion, he decided to join the war effort. As part of a forty-person team, he makes social-media videos for United24 Media, a Zelensky initiative aimed at popularizing the Ukrainian government’s messages for the English-speaking world. “Putting it harshly, it’s propaganda,” Gusev told me over coffee at a fashionably folksy café and gallery called Avangarden. “Putting it mildly, it’s advertising. Our job is to illustrate whatever message the government wants to convey.”

During the summer, Gusev’s team promoted Kyiv’s vision for a victorious postwar Ukraine. “But then the counter-offensive fizzled and we switched gears,” he told me in November. The focus shifted to the woes of importers and exporters, and then to human-interest stories about people affected by the war. United24’s YouTube channel has more than nine hundred thousand subscribers; another three hundred and forty thousand follow its Instagram account. “My journalistic instincts rebel,” Gusev told me. “But then I think, This work can make a difference.”

Martial law has effectively stalled and even reversed some of the most important democratic reforms adopted after the Revolution of Dignity: decentralization and the creation of elected governments that control local budgets. In cities and villages where elected mayors have disappeared, resigned, or been driven out—or, as in the case of Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, been accused of misusing funds and suspended by a court—military administrations have stepped in. (In Chernihiv, the national parliament ultimately intervened on behalf of the civilian government.) The result is a patchwork of governmental authority that varies from region to region and town to town. In November, after months of conflict between military authorities and community councils to control income taxes paid by military personnel, Zelensky signed a law diverting that money into the military budget.

Oleksandr Solontay, a political organizer and a former elected official who has fought efforts to replace civilian rule with military administrations, has questioned whether he should continue his work. “If we are not fighting for democracy, then what are we fighting for?” Solontay told me. At the same time, he went on, Russia is “trying to erase us as a nation. So we have to ask whether we can keep talking about democracy when our very survival as a people is in question. Maybe we shouldn’t be wasting our time on issues like inclusion or the rights of minorities, on all the things that make us different from one another. Maybe we should just send everyone to the Army.”

For Zelensky, the autumn began badly and ended worse. He and his people have spent most of the war barricaded in the building of the Presidential administration, on Bankova Street in Kyiv. The block is surrounded by military checkpoints. The building itself is mostly dark. Pleated drapes are drawn over stacks of sandbags that cover the windows. In October, a profile in Time portrayed Zelensky as exhausted and increasingly isolated, his administration demoralized by a dawning understanding that the war was unwinnable.

Two days later, The Economist published a column by the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, outlining what it would take for Ukraine to break out of a prolonged war: advanced airpower, more sophisticated equipment, and a better system for drafting and training fighters. In an accompanying interview, Zaluzhny acknowledged that the expectations that he and the Ukrainian public—and, he implied, nato—had had for the Ukrainian counter-offensive had been inflated. The subhead read, “General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is at a stalemate.”

Zelensky and Zaluzhny are the most popular men in Ukraine. Surveys show that more people trust the military, and Zaluzhny personally, than Zelensky. An open disagreement between them could destabilize the government and the country. So the administration closed ranks. When I met with Zagorodnyuk, the government adviser, in November, he told me that The Economist had misinterpreted Zaluzhny’s statements. “A stalemate is when no one can move,” he said. “We are always moving back and forth. What we have is equilibrium.” Zelensky, when asked about Zaluzhny’s grim assessment, had only halfheartedly contradicted his commander, saying that it wasn’t a stalemate. And, in any case, Ukraine had no choice but to keep fighting: “If we give away a third of our country, nothing will end.”

In September, Zelensky had travelled to Washington, where, earlier in the war, he had received a hero’s welcome—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had compared him to Winston Churchill, and Congress had approved nearly forty-five billion dollars in aid. This time, Zelensky was not invited to speak before Congress, where additional funding for Ukraine had stalled. In November, Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, went to Washington, but he, too, returned empty-handed. Outside the administration, there was some annoyance. “What is he doing in Washington?” Oleh Rybachuk, a politician who once held Yermak’s job, asked. “Why are we sending some clerk instead of the foreign minister?”

Meanwhile, even the aid that the United States and other Western countries had previously promised often arrived late or not at all. And some of the military equipment that had been delivered was proving to have a short shelf life. It was old, manufactured before Zelensky was born. When it did arrive in working condition, it would frequently prove unreliable. “It’s like if you take a fifty-year-old car, in pristine condition, out of the garage and start using it on your long daily commute,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to the administration, told me. “Something will crack.”

Leshchenko had just returned from the front line in the Donbas, where he had delivered thirteen Mavic drones. Everyone in Kyiv seemed to talk about nothing but drones. The faith and hope that Ukrainians and their Western supporters once had in themselves, in their fighting spirit and their Army’s tactical acumen, they now put in drones. An acquaintance who joined the military on the second day of the war had been flying drones; a journalist friend who had recently enlisted was enrolled in drone-operator school. At the Kyiv train station, as I was about to leave Ukraine, I ran into a group of Americans who said they were visiting the country on behalf of an American billionaire who wants to launch a drone production line in Ukraine.

A five-hundred-dollar drone can destroy a million-dollar tank or armored personnel carrier and increase human casualties by forcing troops to revert to doing things, such as demining, without the aid of valuable equipment. “It’s a technological revolution,” Zagorodnyuk told me. “It’s, like, there used to be the circus, and then Cirque du Soleil came along and changed the nature of the circus forever.” Ukraine had been flying drones from the early days of the war. Most of them were small, and had been crowdfunded in the West and brought in by volunteers a few at a time. The Russians were late to the technology, but they appear to have set up production at scale while the Ukrainians were preparing, interminably, for their counter-offensive. Now the Ukrainians were scrambling to catch up.

In early December, Ukraine stopped its former President Petro Poroshenko from leaving the country. Security forces suspected him of planning to meet with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, a longtime ally of Russia, saying that such a meeting “could be exploited.” Days earlier, Zelensky had said that Russia was trying to orchestrate a palace coup against him. Poroshenko, who had criticized Zelensky’s handling of Ukraine’s relationship with the West, claimed to be travelling abroad to help in the effort to secure aid from Europe, and denied planning to meet with Orbán. A couple of weeks later, Hungary blocked the E.U. from passing a fifty-billion-euro aid package to Ukraine. By then, Zelensky had flown back to Washington, in an eleventh-hour attempt to dislodge U.S. aid for Ukraine, but the mission failed.

In the final days of 2023, Russia unleashed a barrage of rocket and drone attacks on residential neighborhoods in cities across the country, killing dozens of civilians and causing wide-scale destruction in ways that were reminiscent of the early weeks of the war. People inside the Zelensky administration, after almost two years of publicly proclaiming the impossibility of negotiations, had begun saying that Russia was refusing to come to the table. Unlike Ukraine, whose main objective remains the liberation of occupied territories, Russia is now invested in war itself—military advances are secondary to the goal of keeping its war economy and propaganda machine churning. “This war is not going to end with negotiations,” Zagorodnyuk told me. “Why would Putin want to negotiate?” With the Ukrainian counter-offensive failing and Western consensus cracking, time was on Putin’s side.

In December, the Times reported that the Kremlin was putting out feelers for a possible ceasefire, but addressing only American and Western officials, without negotiating directly with Kyiv. A representative from Yermak’s office suggested that these overtures were “signals” designed for Western audiences. “They are either informational operations of Russian special services or unconfirmed rumors discredited by powerful missile strikes on Ukrainian cities,” the representative said. “Claims about Russia’s readiness for negotiations are an unfounded disregard for reality.” Ukrainian officials now see any negotiated settlement as an opportunity for Russia to regroup and resume the fighting, again and again. “Russia is not fighting for land,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, told me. “It is fighting for its right to live in the past.”

Five months before the Russian invasion, in September, 2021, I saw Zelensky speak at an annual political conference organized by the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. The event, held at Kyiv’s national art museum, was a lavish, performatively progressive affair. Pinchuk brought in prominent Western journalists, including Fareed Zakaria, of CNN, and Rana Foroohar, of the Financial Times, to moderate panels. Attendees included the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who happens to be Pinchuk’s father-in-law. There were elaborate lunches and dinners, all vegetarian; cookies came in individual packaging, which noted that they were prepared by adolescents with special needs.

Zelensky, who had then been in office for two and a half years, appeared onstage with Stephen Sackur, the combative host of the BBC’s “hardtalk.” Zelensky’s popularity rating was a fraction of what it had been at the start of his term. When Sackur asked him a question about the fight against corruption, Zelensky seemed to grow agitated. “I don’t like the spirit in which you ask your questions,” he said. Zelensky accused Sackur of perpetuating a “caricature view” of Ukraine that ignored its achievements, including recent judicial reforms and the creation of a high-tech industry that, he claimed, made Ukraine “the digital capital of Europe.” As Zelensky walked to his car, a journalist asked him whether he planned to seek reëlection. At the time, it was apparent that, for Zelensky to make good on his commitment to address Ukraine’s corruption problems, he would have to break his promise to be a one-term President. Zelensky told the journalist that he’d prefer to finish what he started and go on vacation.

After the Soviet Union broke apart, between 1989 and 1991, more than a dozen states tried to reconstitute themselves out of a unique kind of rubble: vast bureaucracies, command economies, and corrupt networks that made the systems function in spite of themselves. The Hungarian political scientists Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics have written that the resulting regimes fall into three categories: liberal democracies, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; patronal autocracies, such as Russia and Belarus; and patronal democracies, such as Ukraine. A patronal democracy has a plurality of political actors—if an autocracy, in Magyar and Madlovics’s definition, is a “single-pyramid system,” then a democracy is “multi-pyramid”—but the competing political networks are each beholden to the money and power wielded by one person, generally a man, who has positioned himself as a successor to a part of the Soviet state’s bureaucracy. Magyar and Madlovics have termed these networks “stubborn structures.”

Part of the problem with patronal democracies is that the patrons are also the pillars of the political system. “I call Ukrainian reforms ‘kick-ass reforms,’ ” Rybachuk, the longtime politician, told me. “You kick some ass, reforms move forward a little bit, you kick some more ass, they move forward some more.” But today, when the West demands such reforms of Ukraine—a country that has borne unspeakable losses in its fight for democracy—it can feel painfully unfair. “It’s difficult to build anti-corruption mechanisms in the middle of a war,” Mustafa Nayyem told me. “Corruption levels decrease when there is less money. There is a lot of money in war.” He pointed out that Western law-enforcement agencies still hadn’t devised a method for seizing Russian assets abroad and diverting them to Ukraine as real-time reparations. “So,” Nayyem said, “you are telling me that you don’t have the resources to seize assets on your territory, in London or New York? And we are supposed to have the resources to arrest people engaging in corruption?”

Before the war, Zelensky signed an ambitious law that aimed to shield Ukraine’s politics from the super-rich. The law created a registry of oligarchs who would be banned from financing the activities of political parties and from bidding for government assets at large-scale privatization auctions. Mikhail Minakov, a Ukrainian political philosopher, has written that the war helped accelerate what has been called de-oligarchization, both by strengthening the Presidency and by costing the oligarchs parts of their fortunes. Now that the oligarchs were weakened, Minakov wrote in early 2023, the question was what would replace the patronal-democracy system: a liberal-democratic framework or an autocracy. “With the centralization of power, full control over mass-media information flows, and the discipline of martial law, society may eagerly accept single-pyramid patronal rule in exchange for victory and fast economic recovery,” he cautioned. He then reassured his readers that, with a Ukrainian victory apparently imminent, support for such a centralized system would quickly evaporate.

Zelensky, once an outsider, has something of his own patronal network. The office of the President is run by Andriy Yermak, a fifty-two-year-old former movie producer. People who have regular interactions with the administration talk about Yermak as though he had more power than the President. Yermak is said to have placed his associates in high-level, lucrative positions in state organizations and on oversight boards. One of Yermak’s deputies, Oleh Tatarov, has been plagued by bribery accusations. But, when Ukraine’s anti-corruption authorities opened an investigation, Yermak defended Tatarov publicly; the investigation was subsequently closed. More allegations have since come out, but Tatarov has kept his job. Yermak seemed unwilling to do anything that might distract from getting things done. (Yermak’s representative said that Yermak has never been involved in any investigation concerning Tatarov.)

This stance—that war is a time for action and the details can be sorted out later—has gained traction in the administration. “The risk of authoritarianism that Zelensky presents is different from what we used to have,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, one of the country’s leading journalists, told me. “It’s not that he wants to get rich—it’s his desire for efficiency.” She paused, catching herself. “I’m not saying this is better.”

Back in 2021, the conference at the museum ended with a farewell dinner in the main dining room. But about three dozen guests, including me and several other journalists, were invited to join Pinchuk in a separate room. A menu at each place setting promised steak and a selection of wines from the billionaire’s collection. “I am sick of this vegan shit,” Pinchuk announced, during a toast. (Pinchuk’s office contested my recollection of this.) He added that the wines would be introduced by Zakaria, the CNN host. Though the attendees weren’t sworn to secrecy, Pinchuk clearly assumed that no one would write about his casual disparagement of his own gathering’s proclaimed values. This is how patronal networks function: there are formal rules, and then there are the rules for the wealthy and the well connected, who assume, based on decades of experience, that people will do them favors and keep their secrets.

Ukrainians do arrest officials suspected of corruption, even as every arrest amplifies the sense that corruption is pervasive and intractable. In September, after journalists had uncovered evidence that the defense ministry was buying food and clothing, some of which was unsuitable for the fight, at inflated prices, Zelensky was forced to dismiss his defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. (Reznikov has called some of the irregularities “technical mistakes,” and the government launched a series of investigations.) Ukraine has also found ways to seize business profits and use them to build new water mains in areas that once relied on the Kakhovka Dam, in the country’s south, which Russian forces blew up last June. The construction, carried out by Nayyem’s agency, was finished in a matter of months; in peacetime, he said, it would have taken years. His agency was able to simplify many parts of the process, including an environmental review. “Yes, many things can’t be transparent in wartime, and many people abuse this,” Nayyem said. “We’ll figure it out, but we are losing time.”

In November, I crossed over the restored bridge to the western suburbs of Kyiv. When I last visited Bucha, in June, 2022, trains carrying modular houses donated by Poland had just arrived. The houses looked neat and modern, like white shipping containers with water and electrical connections, but Bucha residents were suspicious of them. Ukrainians keep their houses in families for generations. They think that a real house has a foundation and is built of brick. Nayyem calls this “the Naf Naf mentality,” for the most practical of the Three Little Pigs. When his agency has offered to replace destroyed homes with houses made of lighter, contemporary materials, many former homeowners have felt they were being offered a bum deal. There is also a general lack of documentation—a house may be registered in the name of a relative who is now abroad, or landownership may not be documented at all—which, in many cases, has made it difficult to begin construction.

In Bucha, those who survived the occupation could afford to be picky. Countless foreign dignitaries had come to visit the ruins and the sites of Russian war crimes. Howard Buffett, the son of the billionaire Warren Buffett, had visited several times and committed five hundred million dollars to helping Ukraine rebuild. In November, I drove down Vokzalna Street, through what is now called Buffett Square, with Kateryna Ukraintseva, a lawyer and an activist who is a member of the Bucha city council. In the spring of 2022, this street was strewn with burned Russian tanks and the dead bodies of local residents, some of whom had been dragged out of their houses and executed. Back then, there seemed to be no intact structures on Vokzalna. Now the street is lined with pastel-colored stucco homes, behind shiny metal fences that match the roofs. But, Ukraintseva said, “some people don’t have money to buy furniture.”

Many residents of Bucha, which used to be a middle-class suburb, are struggling. This is partly because the more affluent residents have left the country, but Ukraintseva also sees unemployment all around her. She had recently advertised for an assistant at her law practice, which reopened in the summer of 2022, assuming she would hire someone young, with limited qualifications. She received a number of résumés from attorneys in good standing who could not find other work. Ukraintseva’s practice is oriented toward businesses, particularly condo associations. In addition, she has been helping women navigate the legal system to find the bodies of their loved ones and to get them properly interred. One case involves three misidentified bodies, each transferred to the wrong village or town under the wrong name.

As a city councillor, Ukraintseva is in the opposition to the mayor, Anatolii Fedoruk. Like many people I met in Bucha, she holds him at least partially responsible for the town’s lack of preparedness at the start of the war. Territorial defense hadn’t been mounted, evacuation plans hadn’t been drawn up, and Fedoruk was, to the last, reassuring people that there would be no invasion. (Fedoruk has said that defense and evacuation efforts should have been organized by higher authorities and that he did everything he could.) Fedoruk has been mayor of Bucha for twenty-five years—“Like Putin!” Ukraintseva exclaimed. But he can’t be ousted now; municipal elections, too, are suspended under martial law.

The container houses from Poland hadn’t moved far from the railroad station where I had last seen them. They now stood in a parking lot between a small outdoor market and a large apartment block. From a distance, they looked like rows of single-car garages. Most of the inhabitants were not Bucha residents whose houses had been destroyed but Ukrainians displaced from the east of the country. Permanent residents of Bucha passed these containers on their way to and from the market; the windows were at eye level. Every room contained two bunk beds—perhaps the designers had had in mind single people or families with children, but many of the rooms brought together two couples. A significant number of Ukraine’s internally displaced people are now living with a physical or a mental disability. Strangers sharing rooms are pulled into one another’s care willy-nilly.

The war has created a new socioeconomic hierarchy. Even before the invasion, millions of Ukrainians were dependent on remittances—money sent back by family members working abroad—but, in 2022, total remittances decreased by some five per cent, and the amount seems to have fallen further in 2023. The shortfall is largely made up for by international aid. “You know who the biggest enemy of democracy is?” Solontay, the political organizer, asked me. “Poverty. You can have a rich country without democracy, but you can’t have a poor country with democracy. All the organizations that distribute humanitarian aid are working to save our democracy. They fix the pipes and install generators. So we don’t have millions of people who have nothing to lose.”

Still, internally displaced people form a new underclass. Most have no jobs. Their housing is often suitable only in an emergency—which is what this war was, before it started looking like it would never end.

Ukraintseva’s own high-rise apartment building had been hit by a mortar shell and raided by Russian soldiers. It has since been repaired. These days, Ukraintseva runs a volunteer operation out of a small office on the ground floor. She is raising funds to buy equipment for the military, which helpers in the West purchase and send as unaccompanied luggage on passenger buses. On the day I visited her, we drove to the bus station in Kyiv to meet a shipment of Starlink terminals that had arrived from Germany. Ukraintseva showed me photos of soldiers whom her group has helped. Not all of them were still alive. Each photo came with a story. One group of guys had asked for a Wi-Fi booster that they could hang on a tree, allowing them to use their cell phones to get online. She pulled it out of a desk drawer and showed it to me.

“But that’s not secure,” I blurted.

“None of it is secure,” she said.

I met Denys Kobzin, the sociologist, at a brewery and steak house on the outskirts of Kyiv. It was crowded with men who looked like they could be office workers, but, like Kobzin, many of them were active-duty soldiers living nearby, grabbing a beer between the end of the workday and curfew. The last time I’d seen Kobzin was a couple of weeks before the invasion, at his office in Kharkiv. Now he told me that, even though his first degree was in psychology, he had had no appreciation of P.T.S.D. until he faced the trauma of war. “Your prefrontal cortex gets overrun,” he said. “The amygdala gets stronger. You are always sensing a threat everywhere. It’s exhausting. You can’t focus. Add to that the death of a battle buddy, a conflict in the family, and you can’t cope.” He has offered counselling sessions to veterans and servicepeople. “I was able to talk down a couple of people who were about to take their own lives,” he said.

Those who have stayed in the country often have little patience for Ukrainians abroad. “I am very angry at women who go and leave their husbands here,” Ukraintseva had said. “You are either a family or not a family. You should be going through things together.” Divorce rates have risen sharply, and it is conventional wisdom that many women who left for Western Europe have made new lives for themselves. “Every guy I know who sent his wife and kids abroad has now been divorced,” Kobzin told me. “The gap between those who’ve been fighting the war and those who haven’t is growing.” Leshchenko, the Zelensky adviser, agreed. “It’s time for people who see themselves as Ukrainians to come back,” he said. “Schools in Kyiv are open—they all have bomb shelters. My friends who keep coming up with excuses stop being friends.”

The only person I interviewed who disagreed with this sentiment was Nayyem’s brother, Masi, a lawyer who became a soldier. He had lost his right eye when the vehicle he was riding in was blown up. “It’s been psychologically challenging, because they removed this part of my brain,” he told me, rubbing his forehead, above his missing eye. “It’s hard for me to control my emotions. I get very anxious. I’ve had fits of paranoia.” Masi still runs a law firm, which employs some thirty attorneys. Recently, when a dishonest client exposed the firm to a wave of public criticism, Masi cried for three hours, an outburst he attributed to his trauma. “I am grateful to the people who left Ukraine and took their kids,” he said. “As I am grateful to my father, who brought me here at the age of five so that I didn’t see as much war as I could have.”

While the war creates new social and economic divisions, the Army itself erases them. “I’ve spent much of the war among people I couldn’t have imagined being in a room together in peacetime,” Kobzin told me. “An Azeri man, an Armenian, a Jew, an antisemite, a small-time criminal, and a major entrepreneur—all of them managed to avoid conflict, at first because we all had a common higher goal and then because we’d formed connections and were now invested in accepting one another as we are. A guy might be going on about some antisemitic conspiracy theories. But he is a member of the family. Tomorrow you go into battle and you have no one but each other.” Out of the hundred-person company Kobzin started out with in February, 2022, he figured that some thirty-five have been severely wounded and more than a dozen have been killed. The rest remain on active duty.

When I was in Ukraine, the parliament, which resumed at near full capacity a year into the war, was considering bills that would legalize same-sex partnerships and the use of medical marijuana. The first measure would help the country comply with European Union requirements for entry and, parliament sponsors have argued, is only fair to L.G.B.T.Q. people who are serving in the military. The other measure was advertised as helpful for veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. (The parliament voted to legalize medical marijuana in December; the fate of the same-sex-partnership bill remains uncertain.) “These are all signs of society moving in the direction of European practices,” Leshchenko told me.

In mid-December, the European Union began formal negotiations with Ukraine on its accession. Ukraine will have to live up to legal and social standards of democracy—including functioning political institutions, protections from discrimination, and lack of corruption—that even some standing members, such as Hungary, don’t meet. A National Democratic Institute report on Ukraine’s compliance with the European Union requirements identified the lack of media pluralism as a key issue. But the institute’s survey also found increased support for L.G.B.T.Q. rights: seventy-two per cent, compared with twenty-eight per cent in 2019. Unlike many other societies at war, Ukraine seems to have become more, rather than less, tolerant during the past two years. “Europe itself is the ideology,” Solontay, the political organizer, said. “It’s a beacon, and we are swimming toward it.”

Solontay also told me that, in his efforts to help elected administrations retain power despite martial law, he has found that “there is more and more war and less and less democracy. Where democracy still exists, it’s an accident.”

All of the people I spoke with this fall and winter in Ukraine—politicians, government officials, civil activists, journalists, a book publisher, a movie producer, and several soldiers—said that they no longer thought about the end of the war. They could not imagine it. This was by far the most worrisome sign, not only for the fight but also for the thing they’d fought so hard for. Democracy is, after all, the belief that the world can be better. Ukrainians are not surrendering. But, as Kobzin told me, “I’ve given up my freedom so I can fight for my freedom. And this is true of most everyone I know.” ♦

Published in the print edition of the February 5, 2024, issue, with the headline “Democracy in Darkness.”

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