KYIV, Ukraine — On Feb. 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kolya Rybytva gathered his grandmother and younger sister and left Kyiv “quickly and without unnecessary sentiments,” he said, heading west. His parents and brother stayed behind to help in the war effort.
“The decision was made in minutes,” he said, “and it was one of the most difficult in life, but we all understood that war does not provide comfortable solutions.”
At the time, Rybytva, 24, understood that he might never return. But two weeks ago, he did, reentering Kyiv, the capital, just as Ukrainian forces were starting to push Russian troops out of the suburbs and, eventually, into a full retreat. After a month of artillery attacks that ravaged buildings and had Kyiv residents seeking shelter in the subway stations, a sense of relative calm is being restored.
And people like Rybytva — who also works for the Free Belarus Center, a group dedicated to helping people flee the brutal Lukashenko government in Belarus — are returning to their homes.
“The feelings are strange,” he wrote in a series of text messages. “It’s hard to explain. It’s not just a house. It is a symbol. And of course, I really wanted to hug my family and friends.”
In Kyiv this week, instead of seeking shelter in the subway, people are now riding it; it is running on all lines, though not all of the stops are open. About 150 buses and 30 trams are working again. The City Council reported that more than 500 businesses had reopened within the last week. The Kyiv school district has started online instruction for students, including those in western Ukraine and locations elsewhere in Europe.
There are still checkpoints and barricades on some streets, and sandbags are part of the city’s architecture. But there are also large lines of cars now forming on highways into the city, a reversal from the first days of the war when tens of thousands fled and traffic jams clogged the roads out.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Smyrnov, told Ukrainian news media organizations that city officials were considering restarting hearings in the courts because a sufficient number of judges had returned to the capital.
Although many residents evacuated Kyiv, others were defiant in staying behind, despite lingering dangers. City officials estimate that close to half of Kyiv’s prewar population of around 3 million remained in the city.
Like Rybytva’s parents and brother, a large number of those who stayed behind joined an army of volunteer activists, a component so important to Ukraine’s defense that Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, called it the country’s “fourth branch of the military.”
Volunteers, including many who in ordinary life were far removed from military matters, provided body armor, bought rifle scopes online and gave them to soldiers. They organized a system of battlefield medical evacuation and set up field kitchens to feed forces at checkpoints.
This flurry of volunteer activity highlighted a key difference between the Russian and Ukrainian armies: Russia’s military is top-down, while Ukrainian society and even its armed forces are largely organized horizontally, Danylyuk said.
“Let me get to the heart of it,” he said. “Volunteers are another force in this war. Without them we would have half of the capacity to fight. Volunteers are doing a phenomenal job, sometimes with risk to their lives. I’m proud of this.”
Now, as businesses open up, they are blending support for the army with a return to for-profit activities. Yana Zhadan, a restaurateur and a founder of the Foodies gastronomic group, reopened a pizzeria called Bus Station last weekend. She said her company had been providing free pizza to soldiers and civilians.
“I see three main goals in our work,” Zhadan said. “To support the company’s employees, to support the city’s economy and livelihood with taxes and utility payments, and volunteering.”
The head chef had at any rate been cooking free meals over the past month, she said, but a shift to regular business activity was needed to sustain the operation.
“Everyone wants to be able to do their job, because that’s how you can influence the most, help the most effectively,” she said.
“The city lives — there are children on the streets, flowers in the markets — and Kyivans want to be close to each other,” she said. “And it is food that helps to feel safe, at least for a while.”
When Rybytva headed west with his grandmother and sister, he did some volunteer work, but soon he was yearning to return.
“The feelings are strange,” he said. “You seem to be returning to your usual life, realizing that it will never be normal again.”
Just to be able to return, he said, was “real happiness.”
“When you see the first familiar streets, you can’t even believe you’re here,” he said. “It is strange, joyful and painful.”
His apartment was not damaged, he said. In the corridor, which his family used as a shelter, there were blankets scattered on the floor as they had left them and a board game, “which we tried to distract ourselves with.” There was uneaten soup in the kitchen.
Despite the disruption to his life, returning to Kyiv provided a kind of “triumphant feeling,” he said. “But you understand that it is deceptive. Victory is far away, security is fragile, and in many parts of the country, everything is getting worse. You are not happy, and you cannot be happy, remembering what happened in the suburbs,” he said, referring to atrocities like those in Bucha. “There is no joy, only anger and indifference, infinite gratitude to all those involved, that you have a place to return to. Pride that Kyiv resisted.”