EXHAUSTED AFTER hours of thunderous roars and wailing sirens, Kyivians fell into one of three groups as the first day of the invasion drew to a close. There were those too alarmed to stay, and those who said they would sign up to fight. Large numbers were in the first camp: the main roads around the Ukrainian capital had been jammed from early morning as throngs of residents fled the city. Ukrainians lined up with their luggage and piled onto westbound trains, some of which snaked right past the battlefields. Some brave people were in the second camp. But the majority were in the third group–and were simply hunkering down. Queues formed at cash machines and supermarkets as people stockpiled food and money.
As night fell a sinister calm reigned in the almost deserted streets. Many people headed to metro stations to sleep. Turnstiles were opened to allow access to the deep platforms where people rolled out yoga mats or dozed on benches as trains carried on running as usual. Children played on tablets and pets seemed surprisingly content in their unusual sleeping arrangements. David, a 28-year-old programmer, said he had come down to Vokzalna metro because his home was close to the ministry of defense.
Police patrolling underground were jumpy. When The Economist took some pictures, your correspondent was quickly collared by officers demanding first identification and then that the photographs be deleted. In one station, a group of 25 or so burly men, not wearing a uniform, were congregating, some with Kalashnikovs hanging from their shoulders.
There is evidence that Ukrainian forces have slowed the Russian advance in some areas, particularly in the east. But the security situation in Kyiv, where the government still resides, hangs in the balance. Russian and Ukrainian forces have battled over the Hostomel airstrip to the northwest of the capital. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, admitted his country had lost control of the Chernobyl power plant 90km to its north. He claimed that Russian troops were preparing a terrorist provocation there. “Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” he said. Those claims have not been verified.
As the security situation deteriorated during the day, Kyiv turned into a city of heavy weaponry and fatigues. Internet and mobile networks are still working, but all day long they struggled under heavy loads. There may not have been the bombs that fell on other cities, but the acrid smell of burned paper and plastic from hastily destroyed documents filled the air. A plume of smoke rose from military-intelligence headquarters. Around noon, a column of armored cars and heavy guns arrived to protect the president’s office, a Stalin-era fortress that sits atop a hill in central Kyiv. The few shops and restaurants that were open around it shut summarily.
In the evening a press center set up to deal with the stream of questions from international journalists was hastily disbanded. An attack on the government quarter was expected, a spokesman said. Vitaly Klitschko, the city’s mayor, announced a curfew from 10 pm. In the central station, an official told sleepers that they could not leave after that time, but anyone trying to get into the stations would be allowed in.
Above ground, almost all shops were closed, but supermarkets still had plenty of stock by the end of the day. Trade had been brisk, but there were no signs of panic. Queues that had built up outside pharmacies dissipated. Kyiv’s central station was full but there was no pandemonium. Most trains were running but some–to embattled Kharkiv, for example–were left with delays. Lurking on the edge of the station were groups of armed police.
On the deserted streets of Kyiv, there were armed men in balaclavas. It is to them, as well as the armed forces, to whom the defense of the capital may now fall. Two dozen were gathered outside the city hall—a throwback to the Maidan protests of 2014, when protesters drove out the unpopular, pro-Russian president. Then as now, they were angry. They said the apparent reverses on the battlefield were a result of poor planning. But while they were not great fans of either Mayor Klitcschko or of President Zelensky, a common enemy had united them.
“First we’ll send these guys back where they came from—in their coffins,” said “Dima”, 33, a veteran from the eight-year-old conflict, who goes by a nom de guerre. “Only then will we deal with our own problems.”