Ukraine: Kyiv: Hope In The Darkness


Luke Cooper

August 30, 2023

During my recent visit to Kyiv, I finished reading Irmgard Keun’s 1937 novel, After Midnight. The book follows a day in the life of a group of young friends whose attempt to live ‘normal’ lives are intruded on and brutalised by Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime. It is a story of lost innocence, as the once apolitical find their jokes now constitute political crimes and they are forced to take on the identity of freedom loving people trying to survive a fascist system.

After Midnight’s closing pages contain this harrowing line, capturing the characters’ desperation in the face of the nightmare of Nazism, ‘Dear God, let a burning bomb fall from heaven and destroy everything, release us all’. That I came to the end of the book during my visit to Kyiv was a coincidence, but it felt like a meaningful one. The story depicts in the most negative of senses the freedom that Ukrainians are fighting for. It visualises the impossible choices that fascism poses to those that stand in its path; whether to flee from its terror, to perish in the face of it, or to stay and fight in the hope that others do the same.

To visit Kyiv in Spring 2023 is to see vividly what Keun understood as the precious normalcy of the everyday – the myriad of small acts that become dangerous in societies captured by fascism. Kyiv has won this right to everyday freedom through Ukraine’s successes in its liberation war. And this is marked not, of course, just by the return of the service economy – the bars, cafes and restaurants of Kyiv’s street scene – but the ability to speak and act in these spaces without the repressive oversight of an occupying authority determined to annihilate Ukraine as a meaningful historical community.

But the precious normalcy of the everyday has returned in a partial and surreal form, one continually distorted by the nature of Russia’s on-going war. Although the street fortifications have been downgraded as the focus of fighting has moved to other parts of Ukraine, reminders of the fact that this is a militarised society abound. Soldiers in uniform continually criss-cross the city streets and citizens endure daily air raid sirens and bombardment. Still, Ukraine’s air defence systems are mostly holding, and bombed buildings are few and far between. Reconstruction is also now underway with some damaged residential buildings having already been repaired.

“To visit Kyiv in Spring 2023 is to see vividly what Keun understood as the precious normalcy of the everyday – the myriad of small acts that become dangerous in societies captured by fascism.“

‘Civicness’: conceptualising Ukraine’s democratic resistance

The victory of the Ukrainian side at the Battle of Kyiv in the first months of the full-scale invasion remains the most consequential moment in the war. During the first two months of the war, the city emptied of its citizens and shops ran out of food and basic necessities. The veteran activist and retired academic, Natalya Belitser, who remained in Kyiv at this darkest moment, told me how it was impossible for her son to reach her due to the fighting and she was dependent on networks of volunteers delivering humanitarian aid to those in need.

These civic networks, which have become deeply embedded in Ukraine since the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ overthrew the corrupt Kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, have been a central driver of Ukraine’s extraordinary resistance in the war. In the terminology of the team I work on at the London School of Economics (LSE), we refer to this phenomena as ‘civicness’, a concept used to distinguish from the more common ‘civil society’ (that tends to be associated with organisations or social movements). By contrast, civicness may be exhibited by individuals and informal networks – like those that supported Belitser in the first two months of the full-scale Russian invasion. Many of the interactions in Keun’s novel may also be read as examples of a type of civicness forming in resistance to fascism, as individuals enter into informal associations to create the kind of self-help systems that emerge when society faces the tyrannies of imperialism and fascism.

Indeed, our research at LSE has found civicness to be ubiquitous in societies facing intractable conflict.[1] We discuss these networks as a type of public authority based on mutual obligation, or an implicit social contract, between individuals and groups, which may act as an alternative to the political regimes and groups that often dominate in conflict affected societies, i.e., those based on sectarianism, exclusionary identity politics, or rent-based kleptocracy. The kind of violence seen in Syria, for example, has involved a combination of identity-based, sectarian ideologies, crony capitalism, authoritarianism, and a political economy that sees violence morph into a strategy for accumulating resources.

Individuals and groups will often cope with these hardships through civicness. From individual behaviour that recognises a sense of obligation to other citizens, to the formation of civic networks and associations, civicness can become a means to survive, which serves to mitigate the absence of a state and rule of law system protecting citizens.[2] Existing research has for the most part explored civicness in sites of intractable conflict, usually with a multiplicity of armed groups that utilise violence as a means to exploit vulnerable populations. Ukraine doesn’t fit this register of analysis – especially, as the Ukrainian state and society has so far averted the danger that state institutions and authority breaks down.

In this sense, Ukraine is fighting a conventional high intensity war that is defined around very explicit and competing political goals. Ukraine is striving for the freedom to choose its leaders, for its territorial integrity and to uphold and continue to strengthen the rule of law system. Russia is fighting for ethno-nationalist and imperialist goals – and ‘at home’ appears more and more to resemble the kind of fragmented, gangster-based political order that it saved in Assad’s Syria through intervention by its conventional forces, and that its paramilitary wing, the Wagner group, has actively cultivated in Mali, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere. Ukraine’s resistance to being drawn into such a system of violence means that unlike in situations of intractable conflict, which can see groups with few substantive differences ‘go to war’ for sectional ends, the Russia-Ukraine War is a political contest.[3]

So, Ukraine is conducting a conventional war – and the scale of the civic mobilisation behind the war-effort, both inside and outside Ukraine, is a key factor in ensuring its resistance retains a democratic character. What’s more, Ukraine’s defence of its national sovereignty has also been powerfully driven forward by a web of transnational ties. These include – at the formal interstate level – military aid, loans and grants, but also the criss-crossing civic mobilisations ‘from below’, which traverse and may even problematise national borders.

“Ukraine is striving for the freedom to choose its leaders, for its territorial integrity and to uphold and continue to strengthen the rule of law system.”

Not just a ‘national’ phenomenon

In After Midnight, the world beyond the nation-state offers a release from the nightmare of fascism at home. But the border separating the Nazi state from its neighbours, with its securitised and militarised fences and fortifications, provides the point of maximum tension. ‘The border means fear’, as Keun puts it. To cross the border is to survive, and to know the possibility of ‘a little sunlight tomorrow’. Ukraine’s resistance to 21st century fascism adds many layers of complexity to how the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ level connect in times of war.

Millions of refugees have fled Ukraine, but they overwhelmingly tend to be women. Under conditions of martial law men of fighting age are unable to leave, and are expected to make themselves available for conscription into the armed forces. A temporary protection order passed by the European Union has given Ukrainians fleeing the war rights to live, work and study in its member-states that are broadly analogous to the freedom of movement system.

Thus, the combination of Ukraine’s successful military campaign, and the reception policy towards refugees of EU member-states, has meant that many engage in circular migration, moving back and forth by train and car between Ukraine and its neighbour states in the war. Working class women saying their goodbyes to their partners before boarding the night trains at Kyiv bound for Lyiv and Poland has become a routine, heart wrenching sight.

Borders and transboundary interactions have shaped not only the nature of these interpersonal relationships, but also the form of civic mobilisation. Ukraine’s struggle for national self-determination has, in this sense, been driven forward by international connections and interdependence. These civic networks are forming ‘from below’ to support Ukraine, and are playing a very concrete role in Ukrainian and regional security. [4]

These networks are raising substantial financial resources. They are shaping narratives and political discourses and have emerged to some degree as a powerful actor in both Ukrainian and European politics. They thus take on a quasi-political role, undertaking advocacy among Ukraine’s partners. Inside Ukraine, some of these groups have built up a very substantial following, which could become a force in domestic politics in the future.[5] These ‘bottom-up’ movements have acted as a lifeline for Ukraine’s state and society. They also tend to operate on an international level, as networks at home are linked to activists abroad.

There are several notable features of these movements that the research team led by Karolina Czerska-Shaw at Jagiellonian University have observed.[6] First, they have been led by Ukrainians overseas, both recent refugees and more long-standing communities. Second, they interact with traditional institutions in a notable and sometimes contentious way, creating networks that are simultaneously vertical and horizontal, a phenomenon that gives a ‘post-Fordist’ dimension to this form of humanitarian relief and assistance. Third, they blur the conventional distinction between human and military aid – with an outpouring of support for direct assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces, driving the relief effort.

For these networks to sustain themselves a deep sense of interpersonal trust is required. The idea of mutual obligation – i.e., the ‘civicness’ which shapes these self-help systems – requires individual volunteers to trust one another, and to be confident in the ability of the networks to deliver civilian and military aid to where it is needed. This is often driven by pragmatism, the need to ‘get things done’, and moves faster than bureaucratic institutions. It also creates an interesting dynamic in the institutional politics of the Ukrainian state, where traditionally corruption has fed low confidence in public authorities and generated popular support for low taxes, which are not linked to income. There are signs this might be changing as ‘patriotic Ukrainians… rush… to pay their taxes’,[7] knowing how important it is to the war-effort. So, one of the issues facing Ukraine’s reform efforts going forward is whether the civic mobilisations can help develop the country’s state capacity, institutions, and social infrastructure, putting the country on a socially and ecologically just development path – or whether they continue the old model of filling the gaps left by a failing state.

Either way, Ukrainian networks overseas seem likely to play a major role, in one way or another, in their homeland’s war-effort and the debates over its future development.

“Russia is fighting for ethno-nationalist and imperialist goals – and ‘at home’ appears more and more to resemble the kind of fragmented, gangster-based political order that it saved in Assad’s Syria…”

The alternative that is already here

After Midnight can be read as a challenge to the normalisation of fascism that was well underway in 1937 – indeed, from British appeasement, non-intervention in the Spanish civil war and American isolationism, it was a critical, and at times defining, sentiment of the Anglo-American elites at this moment in history. Keun resisted this normalisation by pointing to how the cruelties and absurdities of fascism left societies in a vengeful and broken state.

After Midnight is a warning that when mutual obligation breaks down, and individuals become convinced of the need to kill others and worship at the altar of power, society will simply unravel. ‘I really don’t wonder at it any more when I see people being crazy and unhappy… only… when I see them acting like normal people’, as the book’s young narrator puts it. With Russia now appearing to be lurching towards outright warlordism, the ultimate form of power and violence without rules or obligations, Ukraine is fighting for the right to reject this fate, and to find happiness in the ‘normalcy’ of the everyday. This civicness – and its myriad of transboundary connections to the outside world – is the alternative that is already here. Winning the war and securing the peace perhaps involves identifying this element of mutual obligation and thinking about how it can be supported.

Luke Cooper is an Associate Professorial Research Fellow in International Relations at the LSE and the Director of PeaceRep’s Ukraine programme. He is the author of Authoritarian Contagion (Bristol University Press) and a co-founder of Another Europe Is Possible.

“This civicness – and its myriad of transboundary connections to the outside world – is the alternative that is already here.”


[1] See the special issue of the Journal of Civil Society (Volume 18, 2022 – Issue 2) on ‘Civicness in Conflict’.

[2] Kaldor, M. and Radice, H., 2022. Introduction: Civicness in conflict. Journal of Civil Society. Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 125–141.

[3] Kaldor, M., 2022. Old War Logics, New War Realities. Koerber Stiftung. (Accessed 3 April 2023).

[4] Czerska-Shaw, K. and Jacoby, T. (2023). Mapping Ukrainian Civicness Abroad in the War Effort: A Case Study of Poland (PeaceRep Ukraine Report). Conflict and Civicness Research Group, London School of Economics.

[5] There has generally been a lack of analysis of Ukrainian domestic politics in the English language since the start of the war. An exception to this ‘retreat from the political’ can be found in Bohdan Feren’s piece for a recent volume published by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies. He identifies Serhiy Prytula, a former politician with liberal values, whose foundation has played a major role in fundraising for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as someone who has created a basis through the civic networks that may create the basis for a return to politics in the future. See Ferens, B. 2023. ‘How the Russian war changed domestic politics in Ukraine’, in Andor, L. and Optenhögel, U., Europe and the war in Ukraine; From Russian aggression to a new Eastern policy, FEPS: Brussels, p. 121.

[6] Czerska-Shaw, K. and Jacoby, T. (2023).

[7] The Economist, Patriotic Ukrainians are rushing to pay their taxes, 27th April 2023.