It had all started with a joke. “Some snow yet. Hopefully, there will be less in the summer,” said a friend of mine on March 16th, looking at a snow cloud over Kyiv on a web forecast. “Well, it happens,” I thought, knowing there had been something in the media about a snow storm in Belarus.
On March 21st the Ukrainian meteorological centre issued a warning about “difficult weather conditions” expected for the following day. Strong snowfall and strong winds, it said. Nothing out of the ordinary for Kyiv, as snow is nothing special, and the snowfalls are usually strong. Leaving for work on the morning of the 22nd many were more concerned with the fate of our troubled national football team in Warsaw that evening. “I’ll join you at 9.30 to watch the anguish,” he texted.
What happened next shocked the whole city. Getting away from his everyday worries at five o'clock my friend anticipated being home in half-an-hour, followed by a night of sport. It was already snowing; strong, but no stronger than in December, and he did pretty well on the roads. At first, it was like in December. The traffic, although not entirely normal, was moving: the first traffic jam – there’s going to be a bit of a delay. Half an hour later – probably change the usual route; the snow is getting stronger, and an ancient Soviet Zhyguli (a classic Soviet-era car – editor's note) is blocking the road. An hour and a half later – no way to do it here, something must have happened on the bridge. I'll use the Circular Road – it's wide and fast.
On the shambolic route to the Circular, however, it was obvious that chaos reigned: the snow and whirls were enormous. Passengers had left the public transport for a knee-deep break for the metro. Valiant passers-by pushed struggling cars forward like beached whales back to water. But the worst was the achieved aim. If everywhere before, through help, zeal and luck, vehicles and their passengers were moving, the Circular was stuck. Dead stuck, with lorries, vans and jeeps all turned into effete metal monsters, motionless and helpless witnesses to a lashing nature. No houses, no shops, no passers-by around. The Circular Road was a trap.
By the time the football team had miraculously scored three times, life in Kyiv had moved into a different dimension.
In the early morning, after a night of sharing food, warmth, nerves, shaking hands, quarrels and yes, sometimes laughter in the cold, and an hour of a sleep in a freezing car, my friend left his car to walk the five kilometres through deep snow to the nearest metro station.
Dawn unveiled a city of three million people brought to total paralysis. Used to snow, Kyiv has never seen so much of it, and there were many traps that night. Abandoned and frozen in awkward poses and facing the opposite direction, trolley-buses and marshrutki (minibuses) had been left in the streets. Darkened trams stood to a halt on the rails like ghosts of a lost city. Pristine hills of snow marked the cars. Groups and lonely trail-blazers leaving the traps scrambled through what used to be roads; there were no pavements any more.
The metro was very different: stress was palpable, talk and laughter – unusually loud; some got drunk straight away and devoted snowboarders were making their way towards new tracks, that is, the snowed in streets of the hilly old town.
Most citizens confirmed no sign of snow-clearing vehicles until Saturday afternoon. From personal experience, the first seen (at around 2 o’clock) old Soviet-type snow-cleaner got stuck right in the middle of the road. It took ten people about an hour to get it out.
Blocked and drawn in the snow, Kyiv’s vital arteries remained plugged. No bread and dairy products in the shops. Hospitals crying out for help. Flights cancelled, trains severely delayed, rare taxis the price of a train ticket, and those trapped on the roads now removing sections of the road-barrier to use the other side.
“Where are they?!” the enraged Kyivites asked each other on the Saturday, following the screaming lack of the city authorities’ reaction to the anomaly. The city is run by a non-elected head of the Kyiv state administration, a former KGB-man Oleksandr Popov. Its last elected mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy, himself mired in notoriety and corruption, was de facto removed from decision-making in 2010. The elections, due to take place in May 2012, were postponed by the ruling party, and this issue is still at the centre of torrid political debates, as the ruling party desperately tries to invent a way of postponing them once again, this time by obtaining the decision of the Constitutional Court.
The city had not heard of Popov until Saturday evening. Rumours had it he was away with the president for the football match in Poland. But they were only rumours. In reality, he was with his wife in Vienna. Meanwhile, the internet exploded with pictures of dysfunctional city roads contrasted with the sterile clean highways to Koncha-Zaspa woods, where many of the country’s ruling “elite” dwell, and the Mezhygyria natural reserve, where the country's president, Viktor Yanukovych, landlords on 140 hectares behind a five-metre-high fence.
The traffic police, who appeared randomly here and there, had a straight and uniform answer to all questions: “we don’t know”. Kyivites were practically left on their own to face the cataclysm.
In the morning, came the army. Armoured carriers pulled out lorries, which were jamming most of the thoroughfares. Soldiers cut the ice and shovelled the pavements. Women of their mothers’ age bought them pies from nearby kiosks. Men gave them cigarettes.
Political parties also took part. Some hired ad hoc groups of students in party-colour vests to show off with shovels at crowded places. Others, joined by non-party volunteers, arranged a non-stop action to help those in real need. One can guess which was more effective.
However, it was the self-organisation and mutual cooperation of its citizens that got Kyiv through. Some were selfish, ruthless and all too ready to wreck others on their way out. But others rescued children from a tourist bus stuck immobile with an empty tank; opened restaurants, cafes and petrol stations for a free rest, tea and snacks; left their homes at night to bring hot drinks, food and medicine to those struggling on the roads; formed mobile cleaning groups or simply brought an elderly neighbour some bread. Many households in the city have a story to tell. “Can I help you?” was the question heard unprecedentedly often.
Almost a week later, citizens wait for the bus on the road near a still snowed-in bus stop. A man points to the white field covering the tram tracks and sneers that they should not expect the tram until next week. A discussion starts featuring comparisons with the highway to the government’s villas, “like it has never snowed there”. They are fed up with all this, they say. And with the issue of Kyiv elections crucial for the development of the political situation in the country, the events later this year will show, whether they really are.
By the end of the week, Kyiv was reminiscent of a tired army with its heroes (many unsung), traitors, alarmists and regular soldiers, doing their job silently and diligently, which had gone into battle, being led by donkeys.
The snow will melt of course; which, given the state of the city, presents no less of a problem than the snowfall. But Kyivites will remember an overcrowded central railway station, its metro station closed because “it has run out of tokens” (tickets for Kyiv’s metro). They will remember shiny pictures of the exemplary cleaned square near the presidential administration and youth-volunteers cleaning up the snow drifts which block the entrance to the children’s surgery. And they will certainly remember what meaning the standard traffic slogan “Give Way” might sometimes have.
Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.