9 a.m. EST, Thursday, July 7. Well known Ukrainian broadcaster, Peter Zalmayev, is talking to me on Zoom from a table outside the Sto Rokiv Tomu Vpered Café (translation: 100 Years in the Future) on Volodymyrska Street in Central Kyiv. He’s sitting outside, it’s summer, jazz is cascading out of the café, and scooters are parked on the curb. “In an ironic way there isn’t a better place to be right now than Kyiv,” he says. With 10 million Ukrainians in exile and/or internally displaced, traffic is light in this beautiful European city, and except for the occasional night-time air raid siren and the sound of distant shelling, it’s quiet, a new kind of normal. Shelling? How casual Peter is when he says this. He’s living solo in a city of mostly men awaiting mobilization, trying to keep their businesses open, or volunteering, as needed. Peter has a popular daytime and weekend cable program in Ukrainian and a You Tube channel in Russian. Tri-lingual, having spent his college and graduate school years in the United States, he is able to talk to everyone. “Surprisingly, Russians — writers, artists, some dissidents — are still talking to me. I worry I might be an accomplice in their arrest if they say too much.” So far, that hasn’t happened, but it’s dangerous in Russia. Even the New York Times has pulled its staff; Anton Troianavski, is reporting from Istanbul.
Peter’s wife, Olga, and his two sons — 5 and 3 — have been in Warsaw since February and will soon be on their way to spend a few months in Japan to take advantage of their new refugee program. “Olga always wanted to go to Japan. Many of her friends have been,” Peter explains. It seems a strange way to get there. How normal could this be? Not very. Ukraine is still very much a country at war, families separated for months and months.
“When the Russians failed to take Kyiv,” I knew this would be a long war,” Peter says. That Russian debacle is already referred to by Ukrainians as “The Battle of Kyiv.” How many more battles will there be before this war is over? Just two weeks ago, the son of one of Peter’s friends, Taras Ratushnogo, was buried in central Kyiv. An activist long before the war, he was killed in action. Thousands turned out to his funeral procession, knelt and wept. “He was well known, already a legend, streets will be named after him,” Peter says. “It was the most emotional experience of my life.”
I didn’t notice anyone with masks on the street. Did the war obliterate Covid? I wondered. “From one day to the next,” Peter says. “We joke about it. Those were the days, we say, the days of innocence. With everything else going on, Covid suddenly seemed like a walk in the park.”
Carol Bergman, a journalist based in New Paltz, compiled and edited “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories” with a foreword by John le Carré. She last wrote about Peter Zalmayev for HV1 in “Hope in a Stamp.”