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It’s February 15, 11 p.m. my time and just past 6 a.m. the next day Kyiv time, still dark. The Reuters livestream camera is pointed at Independence Square. Maidan. Light from the city reflects in the predawn sky, which turns purple, then red, then pink, then gray. This may be the day Russia moves deeper into Ukraine, American intelligence reportedly says. In the bottom-right corner of my screen, I notice that the building that burned during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity has been rebuilt. I forgot! I haven’t seen it in person in nearly three years. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away.
The livestreams are new. Over the past couple of months, foreign journalists have descended on Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent more and more troops to the countries’ shared border. Fears of an escalation in the eight-year war have been growing since November, when satellite images began to show Russia massing supplies near Ukraine’s eastern front. World leaders attempted diplomacy and threatened “swift and severe sanctions,” but on February 21, Putin officially recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Lugansk and Donetsk as “independent republics”—a direct move against Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. Today, a Pentagon official told reporters that Russian troops are ready to invade as soon as they get the order. What happens next isn’t clear, but I’ll be watching part of it unfold through a strange little portal on the internet. It helps.
I found the Reuters stream accidentally, in a Facebook group. Others have cropped up since, including one from a Chinese state channel. For weeks now, technology has taken over all my waking hours. Everything is online. Misleading pro-Kremlin videos are all over Telegram. TikTok serves up clips of young people in Ukraine explaining what’s going on and videos of military-equipment shipments. The Twitter debates are endless. A Zello channel is always chattering in the background, a kind of citizen radio. The news delivered by this technology has been overwhelming. Putin may be further invading either now or later. And if and/or when he does, he may bomb Kyiv. My home.
LIVE: View of Kyiv's Maidan square amid Russia-Ukraine crisis https://t.co/nRnPhRQMS5— Reuters (@Reuters) February 15, 2022
The stream of Maidan is different from all the noise. Nothing’s fake here; there’s no algorithm; and once I hide the live chat, there isn’t even a conversation to parse. It’s not a green screen against which TV pundits discuss Russia’s next move. The livestream is not trying to convince me of anything; it’s just showing me things as they are. Cars are rushing off somewhere before the sun is up. Window by window, the morning light climbs the buildings. Kyivans begin their morning routine.
Maidan is used to being filmed. In 2014, social media was full of images of Kyiv on fire and determined protesters refusing to leave the square until the president left his post. Snipers opened fire on them eight years ago, almost to the day. One of the streets off Maidan has been closed to traffic ever since and now hosts a memorial to the people who lost their life during the revolution, whom Ukrainians call the “Heavenly Hundred.” Signs of war and revolution are everywhere in Kyiv, but most of the world moved on after social-media streams filled with other news.
Our information environment is an endless tug-of-war. It has been a defining medium for the world’s revolutions. Social-media technology has hosted calls to action that have toppled governments. Governments quickly learned how to manipulate it in response. The channels are filled with grief, gunfire, and tanks, but they have also given me this little livestream. The internet is filled with carnage but also, sometimes, earnest hope and honesty.
When I look at the Reuters livestream again, there are more cars on the road. The digital clock atop the revolution building is flashing 7:22 a.m. I text my dad good morning. A Reuters cameraman shifts the equipment and sighs. I sigh with him. I already know the time in Kyiv, for the same reason I know how many kilometers my grandma’s kitchen table is from Belarus and the front line. For the same reason I follow every online community I can find that offers me news and chatter, even if it’s buried under misinformation and hostile debate. Putin is escalating the war. He lies about Ukrainian history. He talks about Ukrainians as if we don’t exist. He has occupied Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and called it Russia. The war has killed about 14,000 people already, among them men and women who joined the army when there was barely an army to speak of. He refuses to stop.
The livestream doesn’t stop either. In a spectacular maneuver, someone flew a drone in front of the camera at 1 p.m. Kyiv time, while I was asleep. It was holding a sign that said Garage For Sale, and listed a phone number for the Russian embassy. That’s that Ukrainian sense of humor, baby.
Five days later, American intelligence agencies say that Putin has given the order to move his troops farther in, and I’m back to the livestream. It’s 7 a.m. in Kyiv, and the sun is lighting up the tops of the buildings. It’s blue and gold all over. The Telegram channels have already started posting in unison about what they call Ukrainian aggression, terrorism, genocide. The Donetsk Zello channel has just come alive. “Good day, everyone,” a man on the other end of the line says. Each hour seems more fraught than the one before. The escalation seems unavoidable. I don’t turn off the livestream.