“Ukrainian uncle” is the nickname used by a Chinese national living in Kyiv whose short video clips and tweets from the front line of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earned him more than 35,000 followers on Twitter. He posted close-up clips of his local cafe, harrowing glimpses of Ukrainians moving on with their lives, and before-and-after shots of bombed-out buildings. He recently spoke to the FRG Mandarin Service about the war and why he is staying in Kyiv:
RFA: So where are you in kyiv?
Ukraine Uncle: Right in the city center.
RFA: Is it in the center of the city or near the outskirts?
Ukraine Uncle: If the center is the Dnieper, I am further from the river bank, further from the city center.
RFA: What is the situation in kyiv at the moment? We see that the Russian convoys are all on the outskirts of the city, but they don’t seem to have settled there, do they?
Ukrainian Uncle: The only thing the Russians can really do is bomb us. But in the northwest corner of kyiv, more than 200 people were reportedly killed today, so I guess the shelling there is more serious. I don’t think it’s very likely that Russia will move to Kyiv [with ground forces] because there are too few of them. They only have about 70,000 or 80,000 Russian troops to take a city as big as kyiv. They would need at least 500,000 or 600,000 or even a million troops for a ground attack.
RFA: We have seen the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians throughout this war. What is your understanding of their behavior?
Ukraine Uncle: Actually, I really liked it here in Ukraine, as soon as I arrived here. I felt like they got rid of the overreliance on government that they had during the communist era. The people here are like wild animals in their natural habitat, as opposed to rabbits and kittens caged as if they were at home. They yearn for freedom and have a strong ability to govern themselves. After I arrived, I saw that the subway here is not managed at all, there are no security measures or security checks, and you can enter casually. My roommate said that in thirty years there has never been a major criminal or terrorist incident. This shows that these people can live freely and peacefully without any surveillance, with very good public order. Putin claimed that there are pro-Russian forces in Ukraine that want to return to the era of the Soviet Union, but there are none.
RFA: Apart from you, are there other Chinese in the area?
Ukraine Uncle: I haven’t met any other Chinese and I haven’t contacted any. I guess most of them leave.
RFA: Is there anyone at the Chinese Embassy?
Ukrainian uncle: To be honest, I don’t even know where the embassy is. They can’t offer much help, anyway. I called them and they told me to go on my own by train. I thought, what’s the point in that? I can leave if I want. Many friends of mine have managed to find transportation to the west of the country. If I wanted to leave, I would just have to ask them.
RFA: Do you have a normal supply of water and electricity, and an Internet connection?
Ukraine Uncle: Everything is normal, including the heating, etc. Its good. There is bread, milk, eggs, etc. at the supermarket, this is all normal. In the mailbox, it looks like our property charge bills are still being produced, showing that businesses are still operating as normal.
RFA: How are the prices there now. How much do you charge for a cup of coffee?
Ukrainian uncle: Exactly like before the war.
RFA: How much does a cup cost?
Ukraine Uncle: In general, an Americano coffee costs 25 or 6 hryvnia [around U.S.$0.88].
RFA: How do ordinary people there see the war?
Ukrainian Uncle: Most Ukrainians are pretty well educated and they must be very angry at Russia’s attack. Especially in places like Mariupol, those eastern cities, where the shelling and shelling was really bad, just terrible. They think Putin is unreasonable and crazy, and there is no point in attacking them. We think he may be trying to consolidate his own grip on power. His military operations in Georgia and Syria may have gone a little more smoothly than here, which probably contributed to his delusions. I don’t think he would have ever imagined that he would encounter this kind of resistance from Ukraine.
FRG: The Polish Prime Minister said a few days ago that if Ukraine falls, Europe will no longer be Europe. What do you think of this comment?
Ukrainian uncle: Until now, Ukraine has done everything to show its determination to defend its freedoms. So if [Western nations] don’t help them and don’t let them down, it will be a blow to the heart of European values. Personally, I am always grateful for help from Europe and the United States. They have done the right thing so far. They decided not to get involved in the war, and I think they must have good intelligence so that Ukraine can deal with it.
RFA: But Putin seems to be taking a tough line, saying Russia will never back down.
Ukraine Uncle: Putin has no choice. Personally, I think it’s almost impossible for him to retreat, because retirement equals failure, and that would be his end. However, I am also disappointed in those people in Russia who still swallow government propaganda, despite having open access to the Internet. It’s so strange to me. China is locked behind the Great Firewall, but the Russian Internet is functioning normally.
RFA: And the future?
Ukraine Uncle: I want it to end as soon as possible.
RFA: Do you think that will be the case?
Ukrainian uncle: I might be forced to retreat if the shelling gets really heavy, as soon as a humanitarian corridor opens up.
RFA: Have you ever been bombed?
Ukraine Uncle: I heard the shelling, but I don’t think it happened in my neighborhood. I think it happened about a mile away.
RFA: Why haven’t you left yet? Aren’t you afraid?
Ukrainian uncle: Right now, my assessment, my personal judgment, is that the probability of death is not very high. And then there’s the fact that the people around me, including the Ukrainians who live next to me, are still there.
RFA: How many civilians are there in kyiv at the moment?
Ukraine Uncle: According to the media, there are still about two million people in Kyiv, which is about half of the population. But probably less than half in the area where I live. I estimate maybe a quarter.
RFA: You said about a quarter of them are still there. Why don’t they leave?
Ukraine Uncle: Probably not even that much. I interviewed a lot of people.
RFA: What did they say?
Ukrainian uncle: So when I needed my watch repaired, I asked the repairman [why they didn’t leave yet], and when I needed a haircut, I asked the hairdresser. Everyone started out saying that was not an option. What if the Russians attack, did I say? And they said, I’m not leaving even if they leave. I mostly asked people between 30 and 50, and they all said they didn’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave either.
RFA: They feel that their destiny is linked to the city, don’t they?
Ukrainian uncle: Oh, it’s not that noble. But… they don’t panic. Sometimes there are a lot of people buying things in supermarkets, and there are controls on how many people can enter, which means there are long queues, everyone doing tail outside.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.