The Road Out of Kyiv
Fleeing my hometown. Again.
The night before Russia started the war, my friends and I met to come up with a plan. None of us really ever thought Kyiv, where we lived, would fall. At worst, we figured there would be some sort of staged terrorist attack in the city to get the government to capitulate, but we decided to have our most important things ready anyway: passports, marriage certificates, cash, watches, jewelry.
I got home around 1 a.m. on Thursday. At 5:30 a.m., a friend called to tell us that there had been an explosion in Kyiv and that a Russian invasion was underway.
My wife and I shot up and started packing. I grabbed my Timberland boots and sneakers, in case we’d have to abandon our car and walk through the forest to safety. We took layers to keep us warm and water bottles. I also packed my computer, phone, chargers, and my Bitcoin hardware wallet. (After becoming a successful poker player, I’d founded an eSports company, Qlash. In the past six months, we had been trying to figure out how to enter the crypto market, and I had invested a bit of my own money.)
Thankfully, the night before I had filled up the gas tank, thinking we might have to flee. We were in the car a little more than a half-hour after getting the call. We stopped at my wife’s office—she owns a women’s clothing brand—to grab cash that she kept in a safe there. She paid all of her 40 employees two months’ salary in advance via a banking app.
By now, it was 7 a.m., and there was already a sense of panic in the streets. Traffic was jammed. People without cars were walking with their luggage.
Staring at the long line of VWs and Toyotas and Renault Clios winding through the center of Kyiv, past Independence Square and the old, gold-domed Orthodox church, I remembered the morning of August 20, 1991, when my mother and I fled Kyiv the first time. I was 10 years old and the Soviet Union was collapsing in slow motion. We were in a taxi, and I remember the nervous look on her face. It was dark then, as now, and no one knew where they were going to sleep that night, or whether they'd make it. When we finally landed in Ireland, en route to New York, where my father was, I asked my mother to buy me Coke in a can, which I had never had. She did, even though it cost us one dollar. We only had 56 dollars to our name back then.
Now, I was fleeing my hometown—the place where I had met my beloved wife—for the second time.
My friends—two other couples plus my wife and I—had decided to go west, away from the front. We settled on one of their parents’ country homes, about 35 kilometers southwest of Kiev. Our internet was still working, and we used Waze to get to the countryside. When we arrived at my friend’s parents’ house, they made us borscht (none of us were very hungry) and welcomed us in.
We figured we would sit tight in the countryside for a few days. Then, we started hearing stories of friends who had already gone west—about the checkpoints, the traffic, and the lines forming at gas stations and at the border. We watched videos of tanks coming in through the Crimea, in the south, and Belarus, to the immediate north, and soldiers near Cherkasy. We saw military helicopters overhead. I wasn’t sure if they were ours or Russia’s. We decided to leave at five the next morning and push on to Poland.
Another friend had arrived in the countryside from Kharkiv with an SUV. We left our sedan behind, piled in and drove. Big cities were being bombed, so we tried to avoid them as we drove south toward Odessa, on the Black Sea. Halfway there, we veered west, driving through farmland and countryside to avoid military installations like airports and bases that were being attacked. At one point, we saw a massive explosion in the distance.
I was scared—we got news that Chernobyl had been taken, and Mariupol and Odessa were being attacked—but I tried to focus on getting west.
I kept thinking about a line from World War Z, that Brad Pitt zombie pandemic movie, when he tells a Spanish family he’s trying to save, “Movement is life.” My wife and I made a pact that even if there were missiles exploding in front of us, even if our car broke down, even if we were exhausted, we would keep moving. If we had to, we would drop everything and run. We would do anything to get to the border with Poland. As I drove, it felt like there was a great fire right behind us.
We got word from a friend who used to work in border control that there were fighter jets over Lviv, and that the border to Poland was closed. We changed course and drove on dirt roads toward Ivano-Frankivsk—the Hungarian border.
The first eight or nine gas stations we passed were closed. There was no fuel left in the pumps. But we found a few that were open farther west. There were long lines, and there was a limit on the amount of gas we could get, about 20 liters per car, but we were able to refuel a few times. We arrived at Ternopil, at about 4 p.m. There was a massive crane and men building a checkpoint, cobbling together walls made of sandbags.These weren’t military people. Just local men who put on uniforms to protect their home. This was western Ukraine, where Ukrainians, more than anywhere else, thought of themselves as Ukrainians—not Russian subjects.
While I drove, Anna checked the news and navigated. Russia was spreading disinformation about “denazification” and about Ukraine committing genocide. Anna is a history buff. She thought Putin was trying to recreate Stalinism, and possibly a new Iron Curtain. I was thinking about when East and West Germany were broken in two. First, they put up a fence. Then a wall. And then it was like two different universes.
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Sometime Friday afternoon, we heard that men between 18 and 60 wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country. Many of our friends are among them.
I was very fortunate: I am an American citizen. Most people who emigrate to the States don’t go back to Ukraine. But I had spent more and more time there competing in poker tournaments, and eventually met and fell in love with Anna, whose life was there.
I cannot stop thinking about my friends who don’t have what I have. My countrymen who don’t have access to a car, and have no place to go. I think that’s why the Ukrainian people have been able to resist with such courage: They are fighting for their kids, their home, their nationality—everything they’ve ever known.
These past few days have forced me to change my mind about a few things.
The U.S. had been saying that American citizens should evacuate Ukraine for weeks, but the message out of the embassy was super cautious; I assumed that they just didn’t want unnecessary crises to deal with and, like many people over the past few years, I also have become much more wary of officials and experts. But when it came to what they were saying about Ukraine and Kiev, I was wrong.
Also, I wasn’t a big fan of President Zelenskyy when he was elected. My wife and our friends didn’t support him; they didn’t think the former comedian was serious or particularly effective. But in the past few days I’ve seen that the man has balls of steel. I get goosebumps when I watch him speak. This is a man who leads from the front. As Nassim Taleb would say, he has skin in the game. If he loses—if Ukraine loses—he’s going to lose his life. I respect him so much now.
When we heard that the government was handing out weapons to citizens who wanted them, we didn’t think anyone would get in line. But we’ve been told thousands of people are standing in line, old and young, to get these guns. I wonder if my neighbors can do it. Can Ukraine withstand the third largest army in the world? If you asked me Thursday, I’d think the chances were low. Now I am sure they will.
At 7 a.m. on Saturday, the Hungarian border opened. The endless line of cars began moving, and we finally passed through the border patrol, and customs in Hungary. I can’t describe the relief we felt to be in the EU. We pulled into a gas station, where my wife, steadying herself on a vending machine, wept.
Since we’ve gotten to Budapest, we’ve been doing everything we can to help people get out. It started with friends, then friends of friends of friends. My wife and I both have large followings online and we are using them as best we can. My wife posted her phone number on her Instagram story, and has been getting diabetes medicine to hospitals in Ukraine, or water to families—whatever she can do. Hundreds of people in Europe have contacted me offering their apartments up to refugees, so I have been connecting them. A family of seven will sleep safely in Krakow tonight in a kind stranger’s apartment.
I haven’t seen even 1 percent of this war. I can only imagine what the people of Kyiv and Kharkiv are seeing now. They are the brave ones.
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And if you want to understand more about the war—and the West’s response—don’t miss Zoe Strimpel’s essay from last week.