An Irishman’s Kyiv: You don’t know how much Kyivans love their city, but you will find out

Ronan Goggin gained a lifelong bond with the Ukrainian capital when he lived there

Sasha, Ronan and their daughter, Nellie

The last time I tried to put Kyiv into words it was a beautiful Saturday morning in April 2018. I was sitting over my coffee in our high-ceiling kitchen, with spring breaking through and Velyka Zhytomyrska radiating its usual weekend calm on the other side of our giant window frame. What we loved about our home in Kyiv was that even cosy tight inside that kitchen, you couldn't keep out the hum of Kyiv's history, nor the giddy anticipation of its future.

My restless soul has taken me to many cities, but I had never lived in any for longer than three or so years, and never lived as happily or for as long in any apartment as our home adjacent to Mikhailovskyi and Sofiskyi squares. I finally departed Kyiv at the end of November 2021, but what became of us during my six years there, as well as what Kyiv was becoming itself, sucked us into a lifelong bond.

The Mikhailovskyi cathedral pictured from Sofiskyi square in Kyiv, 2012. Photograph: iStock

Kyiv was a sequence of beautiful moments. We had plenty of gripes, of course, but Kyiv’s energy was compelling. You felt something magnificent was unfolding, and fortunate to be in the midst of it while it was still nascent and novel, whatever ‘it’ was. This was part sense, part actual truth. After the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 (which I also avoided by a matter of weeks, having lived in Odesa from 2010-13), Kyiv soon became a city transformed, a place of ideas, enterprise and innovation. The city absorbed a younger cohort of visionary Ukrainians who brick by brick, were cementing a new Kyiv, dragging it away from the country’s Soviet past towards an exciting new future. These forces were indifferent to the admitted inadequacy of political reforms in those years since Maidan. It was an elaborate piece of art-work in motion, consuming and absorbing, the final destination of secondary importance to the thrill of the ride.

Many of those who flocked to Kyiv were professionals and entrepreneurs from Donbas; they set up new businesses in the city and nobody ever looked on them as “refugees” because they didn’t waste one second acting as such, they just got on with the future. So new small businesses started to crop up everywhere – photographers, barbers, artists and designers came to make Kyiv their base, a vibrant IT sector emerged to tap into the city’s talented young workforce, chefs came to run kitchens in new restaurants offering all of the world’s cuisine, a web of incredibly cool underground ‘speakeasy’ bars opened up to cater to the burgeoning professional class, and there was music and busking around every corner. Ukraine’s homegrown hipsters, unlike Berlin’s gap-year recreationists, were cultural revolutionaries, engaging and manic in their intent on carving out something different.


I had this odd sense of foreboding for a year or two before we left Kyiv. But we never expected this

Despite all of its well-documented political and economic struggles, Kyiv felt invigorating and free. For me, the relationship was personal. Kyivans are tough-nutted pragmatists, who not only tolerated my dopey sarcasm, they returned it to me with interest. Perhaps the election of a comedian as president three years ago was not all that surprising, in retrospect.

The person who best exhibits those Kyiv qualities walked into my life, totally randomly, on August 24th, 2016, Independence Day. Much like Kyiv, I soon realised that Sasha would capture me. In that Velyka Zhytomyrska apartment, we built the foundations for our future, hours of cooking, conversation, laughter, listening to music, slow breakfasts at the weekends. Our daughter was conceived in that apartment, and born in Kyiv in the middle of the pandemic.

Velyka Zhytomyrska

For us, the most powerful echoes of Kyiv are the turning of the seasons, walking Nellie through its majestic parks, getting lost on Truhanov Island, and stopping to listen to members of the public play one of the street pianos dotted around the centre. Kyiv for us is our landlords Zina and Anatoly, whose monthly visits and chat we cherished. Anatoly would often bring honey from his brother’s place in the countryside. It was the sweetest of honey.

At work, we had become a close team of 10. Only a few short weeks ago I was bidding them farewell in Kosatka, my local bar that epitomised everything about the new Kyiv. They had gifted me a framed image of me leading them out of an inferno, buildings about to collapse behind us, a sweet gesture and nod to what my departure would lead to. But it was supposed to be a joke.

As of today, my erstwhile Ukrainian colleagues are displaced, having fled Kyiv for western Ukraine. Lena, my closest comrade and confidante, was stuck for days in a bomb shelter in Kyiv but managed to get out with her mother and son on Tuesday night, on a train to Lviv before joining Dariia, my colleague in Odesa for three years, as refugees somewhere in southern Poland with Dariia's husband and son. Sasha's family are in a more worrying situation – her parents are in their apartment on the 14th floor of a residential building in Pozniky, about 12km from the centre, which the Russians will pass on their way into the city from the east. Her grandmother is on the fifth floor of a similar building in Obolon, around 8km from the centre, which the Russians already passed through a few days ago, before being pushed back. Sasha's grandmother and grandfather won't leave Kyiv, therefore her parents won't leave them.

Ronan Goggin with his daughter, Nellie, and wife, Sasha. The photograph was taken last year in Sasha’s parents’ apartment in Pozniky, Kyiv

Perhaps it was Covid, but I had this odd sense of foreboding for a year or two before we left Kyiv, and always said that November 2021 would be the absolute cut-off point. But we never expected this. I see the bombed headquarters of the Regional State Administration building in Kharkiv and recall that not so long ago, I stood in that building. I hear the Russians name the intelligence headquarters in Kyiv as a target, and realise that means our old neighbourhood will soon be in Putin's crosshairs. I think of the border guard and police officers I worked with for almost 10 years, and pray their resolve is holding up.

Bizarrely, I read some journalists repeat the scurrilous lie of Putin that Ukraine and its government are neo-Nazis wanting to destroy the Russian language. It is quite the tall tale. President Zelenskiy hasn't done so bad for himself in such a place, I muse, given that he (like Lena) is Russian-speaking and Jewish. Now I see the Russians have just bombed Babyn Yar outside Kyiv, a (recently refurbished!) memorial to Jews slaughtered by the Nazis during the second World War. Are there Russians who still seriously believe his nonsense?

You don’t know now how much Kyivans love their city, but you are in the process of finding out. The support from friends and family is staggering, everybody pitching in to support Ukraine however they can. We need your prayers, even if you don’t usually pray. We cry sporadically throughout the day, me much more so than Sasha in recent days. Sasha, being from Kyiv, doesn’t tend to flinch, but this is too much.

Ronan Goggin moved from Kyiv to northern Spain in November 2021 with his Ukrainian wife, Sasha, and their daughter, Nellie