Fortitude, desperation and resolve in a city under attack.
Text: by C.J. Chivers, specially for NYT Magazine.
In the weeks after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv, the capital, became a city transformed. Much of its population evacuated. New defense units gathered and took up arms. Impromptu social support — field kitchens, aid stations, bomb shelters, evacuation convoys — sprouted into functional shapes. The city endured intermittent bombardment throughout. This altered streetscape became the uneasy milieu of Alexander Chekmenev, a Ukrainian documentary and portrait photographer who since the 1990s has visually chronicled his country’s post-Soviet life.
Like many of his fellow citizens, Chekmenev, who is 52, took care of his family early on, ensuring that his teenage daughter reached safety in Slovakia. He himself opted to remain. In a climate of indiscriminate attacks, a circumstance in which anyone might be randomly harmed at any time, he felt an imperative to work, venturing out on assignment for The New York Times Magazine to find those who stayed put. Carrying a medium-format Pentax camera, equipment more commonly used in advertising or fashion photography than in the coverage of war, he met some people by appointment and approached others as they walked the streets, labored in their new roles or huddled in shelters. Chekmenev brought a professional ideology as well — his belief that ordinary people are worthy of personal dignity and artistic attention, whatever the geopolitical tide. “For me, the first place has always been the human,” he said, explaining his focus away from those conventionally regarded as important, including Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose telegenic resolve has earned him international admiration. “The country is made up of people, and I want to elevate and respect each.”
As a civilian, Chekmenev was bound by the same conditions and restrictions as anyone else. Kyiv was on a wartime footing. A state curfew forbade almost all movements at night. Newly erected checkpoints and antitank barricades blocked some routes. Subways no longer crossed the Dnieper River, further separating the city’s Left and Right Banks. Lines formed for medicines and food. Danger loomed. In a place at once anxious, ominous and curtailed, Chekmenev’s pursuit of his project required routine. In the morning, when residents were allowed out again, he roamed Kyiv. At night, he was back in his studio, uploading fresh portraits, communicating with friends and editors and preparing for the forays of the next day.
Each day brought what it brought. To those who remained, sometimes the invaders felt just beyond sight, a foreign army grinding through cold mud outside the city, pressing forward but at any given hour held at bay. Other times, the Russian assaults, launched from afar, came close. These moments assumed modern war’s familiar but ever-startling forms: a rocket screaming down toward homes; a child dead on arrival at a polyclinic, too late for a waiting surgeon’s hands.
By the third week of war, as the Russian Army continued its shelling and creeping advance, Chekmenev had made a record of the ordinary people in the invaders’ way. He photographed a preservationist who guards the artifacts of a sacred 11th-century cathedral, an accountant who runs an open-air kitchen, an actor who repacks medical supplies into first-aid kits, a railway employee who helps fleeing civilians. His subjects’ expressions blended perplexity and anger, defiance and determination, weariness and fear. Assembled like a gallery, the portraiture forms a catalog of personal, street-level resistance in a community molded by existential threat.
Chekmenev rejected any description of himself as a journalist, even while conveying stories almost in real time, just as journalism can do. And as he focused on individuals, one meaning in his body of new work could not be missed. Putin, organizer of violence bent on breaking Ukrainian will, purveyor of the ahistoric idea that Ukraine was a result of little more than a Bolshevik mapping mistake, had thus far achieved the opposite of what he planned. In its reaction, Ukraine proved that it was not some wayward Russian territory waiting to be led back to the Kremlin’s nostalgic notion of its place. It was itself, and it would fight. “What’s happened now,” Chekmenev said, “is that in an instant — a single instant — the Russian fascists have turned us into a single nation.”
In interviews, Chekmenev’s subjects spoke of adaptation in the face of approaching menace. Choosing where to sleep — at home? in a neighborhood more distant from the fighting? below ground? — was a consequential gamble. Every day could demand reconsideration. Choosing how to participate was a gamble too, and a matter of balancing the options of resistance with individual skills and personal choice. Some residents blended Molotov cocktails. Others steeped tea. One man, Maksym Skubenko, who had no previous martial experience, signed on as an armed reservist and was rushed into combat the first night. “We have an instructor who taught us how to use weapons,” he said. “We have guns and some bullets and warm clothes, and we are trying to live like that.” What might a frightened citizen tell the world? Anna Abramenok, a film and theater actor, once appeared in a Kyiv production of Nikolai Erdman’s masterpiece, “The Suicide,” a Russian comedy of terrors banned for decades in the Soviet Union. Chekmenev found her assembling trauma kits from donated supplies. She urged Russia’s people to find their voices and call their soldiers home. “Bring your sons back,” she said. “Don’t go to fight. Don’t go to your death. Don’t go to kill. Stop your men.”
Ukrainian history is replete with outrages, sorrows and mass suffering. Its past century, much of it experienced as a Moscow vassal, was especially harsh, including the ordeals of Kremlin-directed repression and famine, Nazi invasion and occupation and the seismic confusions and corruptions that accompanied independence and privatization. Its existence alongside Putin’s Russia brought fraud and aggression, too. While millions of Ukrainians lived in near penury, part of its political and business elite amassed shadowy fortunes exploiting resources, enterprises and infrastructure formerly owned by the state. One of Ukraine’s presidents was poisoned during his run for office. Mass demonstrations at times were met with crackdowns. Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014, the same year it supported separatist uprisings in the country’s east — preludes to this year’s escalated war, initiated from Moscow to extinguish Ukrainian independence for good.
The past, be it days or decades ago, can at least be described. The future, kaleidoscopic and dark, offers neither stability nor clarity. No one could say how or where any of Chekmenev’s subjects might be by nightfall, much less tomorrow or in a week. The collective interrogation of what might happen next was both relentless and in vain. Who would fight for Ukraine? Who would secure its nuclear-power plants? Would there be a cease-fire? What powerful weapons might Russia’s military try next? Would NATO close the sky? On the streets of the capital, no one knew. What existed was the present, which fit Chekmenev’s urge to photograph Ukrainians where and as they were.