Explosions over the Elephant at the Kyiv Zoo
Kyiv endures one of the most brutal waves of missile and drone attacks since the full-scale invasion broke out; and we meet Ross, my Ukrainian reporting partner.
On Tuesday morning at around 3 a.m., a series of loud, concussive blasts woke Georgy up in the middle of the night.
One of the explosions he heard, from his home on the left bank of the Dnipro River, was an air defense missile blowing an incoming Russian projectile out of the sky.
The shrapnel scattered across the capital city, with a piece slicing through a tree near his place of business: the Kyiv Zoo.
More than 115 years old, the zoo is the largest in all of Ukraine.
The piece of twisted metal landed near enclosures with vultures, bears, giraffes and camels. No animals were hurt in the incident, and the local police showed up in the morning to pick up the fragment for investigation.
This morning, we sat with Georgy just feet away from where the shrapnel landed. He’s an illustrator and portrait artist, now selling sketches of passing visitors for 50 hryvnia a pop (about $1.35).
“It’s good that no one got hurt,” he said, musing about the shrapnel.
But Georgy is not exactly excited to be interviewed about his work today.
The 58 year old artist draws book illustrations full time, but the war has meant that business has dried up. And before that, the COVID pandemic also meant a time of extended suffering.
"Art is the thing people need least in these circumstances," he sighs. "If I do one good portrait, the day is not for nothing."
His very presence here is a signal of his desperation. In a way, he is ashamed to be doing pencil sketches at all.
"I was in the drawing academy," he said proudly, pencil aflutter. "Portraits are not seen as prestigious in our circles. It's like a musician playing in an underground bar, or like a prostitute, on the side of the road. Or beggars on the street. It is okay for some amateur, but not for someone who has higher education."
We’ll have more on the zoo after the news headlines.
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Good morning to readers.
Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands, but was the site of one of the most aggressive barrages since the invasion began last February.
The explosions were part of what the local government called air strikes of "exceptional intensity," and got me out of bed in the middle of the night, along with much of the city. Explosion after explosion rocked the early morning sky, with streaks of anti-missile air defense lighting up the air and punctuating the blasts.
You could feel the concussive force of each explosion shake the windows, the vibrations reverberating through your chest.
Here’s what it sounded like when I woke up: (Warning: explicit language)
A Ukrainian official noted that the attack by drones and missiles was the eighth wave of strikes in Kyiv since the beginning of the month.
Ukrainian authorities initially claimed that 18 out of 18 Russian missiles had been shot out of the sky, while the Russian government said that one of their hypersonic missiles hit a U.S.-made Patriot defensive missile system. Subsequently my friend Natasha Bertrand over at CNN reported that a U.S.-made Patriot air defense system was likely damaged in the incident.
The air defense systems now working around the city are the difference between a rude awakening in the middle of the night and destruction on the ground like we saw in the city on New Years Eve, when three people died.
The mood in the city is of deepening cynicism and pessimism. It’s not the outcome of the war that people are pessimistic about, but their leaders.
My Ukrainian reporting partner Ross has been reading deeply about a story involving piles of cash on a couch: The chief justice of Ukraine's supreme court has been detained, and dismissed, for allegedly taking bribes from an oligarch. The amount in question? Some $2.7 million. A new chief justice is likely to be voted in soon, the Financial Times reports.
In my conversations with young, liberal-minded Ukrainians, there are two things they are most concerned about for the future:
1) the demography of the country – millions of Ukrainians have fled due to the war, and many are unlikely to return; the longer the war goes on, the fewer will come back.
2) Corruption and the autocratic inclination of those in power: the fear that the war will strip away liberties that Ukrainian officials will be loath to give back once the conflict is concluded.
It's not a surprise that those who have a choice are leaving: 7.1 million Ukrainians are now living in poverty, according to the World Bank, after the country's economy contracted nearly 30 percent in 2022. That led to a fifteen year set back in the World Bank's poverty reduction goals, the organization said.
The Kyiv Zoo is among those feeling the economic strain. It closed when the invasion began in February 2022, and reopened a few months later in May 2022, said zoo spokesperson Igor Oliynuk. While they don’t have formal numbers to provide, attendance is way, way down.
Some people are still having a fun day out, despite everything.
Children and adults alike chattered and mingled among the exhibits, with giraffes and donkeys and vultures nearby. “Look, a bear!” said a mother to her daughter. Also spotted: a small child being pulled along by a woman, bawling his eyes out and screaming while wearing a shirt reading: ‘Chilling All Day’
But animals are pretty oblivious to the regular explosions above the zoo.
"It’s affected people more actually. We are trying to do whatever we can to make them not stressed out," Oliynuk said. "They don’t realize the nature of the sound. Keepers are trying to calm them down and distract them. [Imitating a zookeeper:] ‘It’s good, it’s good.’ When they see people are calm, they are calm.”
Nothing I do in Ukraine is possible without my Ukrainian reporting partner Ross Pelekh, who has been working with me since Spring 2022. So I wanted to make sure that our readers got to know him better.
Born in Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, Ross is 29 years old. When he doesn’t know the answer to something, he likes to say, “I’m just a simple man, from a humble village.”
A fan of classic rock music – Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix – he studied at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, graduating with an undergraduate’s degree in history and a master’s in archeology.
From there, he went to London, where he found his impressive education lacking in usefulness.
So he worked in construction, bartending and selling shoes in White City, London – while teaching himself English. He’s a fan of reading about philosophy, and will commonly interject notes from Marcus Aurelius into casual conversation.
He’s the kind of person that gets more calm, the more stressful the situation – the exact characteristics most useful when you’re partnering with the kind of Type A, restive reporter that I am.
Ross has a habit that I consider an abomination: pouring orange juice on his cornflakes for breakfast.
He also likes Asian food – and in fact ordered Chinese delivery for lunch today. Most importantly of all, he and I tried pho for the first time together – and he’s into it.
While we haven’t had pho yet on this rotation, we will track some down!
Today we’re skipping the dog of war in favor of an Elephant of War: and not the type Hannibal took over the alps – instead, the Ukrainian zoo version:
Stay safe out there.
Thank you, Tim, for your great reporting! It's important to hear the human side of the war, and the very real fears of Ukrainians beyond the immediacy of the war. I had forgotten about the corruption issue, but it's another reminder that democracy and the rule of law are fragile and very much dependent on adherence by those in power and by those who can hold them accountable. . . Stay safe!
Thank you for the in-depth reporting, from the elephant to the poor kid who’s unable to “chill.” And I’m sure I would’ve dropped more than one F bomb. Sending all the “stay safe” vibes I can to you, Ross, and all Ukranians.