The Destruction of Ordinary Lives in Kyiv

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been powerfully conveyed to the world in dozens of indelible images: Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, isolated at his long COVID-inspired table; throngs of refugees at train stations, lugging their belongings; Volodymyr Zelensky, in central Kyiv, vowing to stay put; pregnant women at a maternity ward in Mariupol, fleeing for their lives; civilians lying motionless on the ground in Bucha, outside Kyiv, executed by retreating Russian forces.

The photographer Jérôme Sessini first came to Ukraine in late February, 2014, just as the Maidan Revolution was reaching its violent conclusion. He saw people felled by sniper fire, then watched the protesters mourn their dead after Viktor Yanukovych, the nation’s Russian-backed President, fled the country. After that, Sessini kept returning to Ukraine, spending time, in particular, in the breakaway republics in the east. After the Russian invasion, he returned to Ukraine, travelling to some of the hardest-hit spots in the country, photographing what he saw.

His photos show ordinary Soviet interiors. Some of them survived, more or less intact, but others had been obliterated. Furniture was upended, walls burned, cabinets smashed. The people who lived here were not wealthy. Late last year, two months before the Russian invasion, a one-bedroom apartment at neighboring Chornobylska 9 was listed for sale for fifty-two thousand dollars. But some had saved for years to buy here, or perhaps had privatized their apartments after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineteen-nineties. Their stove tops were narrow; the outer walls were not sufficiently insulated against the Kyiv winters; the ceilings were barely over eight feet high. But there is a preschool across the street, and a school, and, nearby, a small park. Sessini said that he wanted the photos to show the destruction of ordinary lives. “I was thinking about the people spending their whole lives saving money to buy an apartment, and in two minutes everything is gone,” he said. “I thought, It could happen to me. It could happen to anyone.”

Sessini said that one apartment had remained intact, and that its owner, a seventy-five-year-old man named Nikolai, who had lived there for some forty years, intended to stay. Other residents were moving in with family or with friends. At a time when a slow trickle of people is coming back to Kyiv, this building will not be one they can return to. The items they took with them, on their final visit, were clothes, kitchen appliances, some family heirlooms, and photographs.

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