In the hours before Russian troops began their assault on Ukraine, gun shops across the country were reporting scenes reminiscent of what we saw here in the United States two years ago after the first COVID “stay at home” orders were issued; long lines of customers looking for guns, ammunition, and a little peace of mind as their world turns upside-down.
“Of course I’m worried about the situation,” Dariia Olexandrivna said, speaking in the basement Praporshyk gun store, in central Kyiv’s Pushkin street. “I’m hoping for the best but preparing for everything.”
Olexandrivna said she and her husband began taking shooting lessons six months ago, when tensions with Moscow grew. They owned two handguns. She had come to buy 400 rubber bullets. “I saw Putin’s speech on Monday. I think he’s stupid enough to do it. He hates Ukrainian people,” she said.
Two weeks ago she packed the car with clothes, medicines, food, water and extra shoes. “My two children speak only Ukrainian. They don’t speak any Russian. If it’s no longer safe for us we will leave,” she said. Where would she go? “The west of the country, somewhere,” she replied.
While many customers were queuing up for arms that they hope to use in defense against Russian troops, others said they were buying guns because they’re concerned about violence and looting in the wake of an attack.
At the Stvol gun store around a dozen men were waiting patiently in front of a glass counter. The shop sells rifles, pistols, knives, and camping gear, as well as cumbersome safes and a medium-sized brass model of a wild boar. The owner said he had been told not to speak.
One customer, Zhenya Nedashkvskyi, said he had dropped in to buy a pump action shotgun. “It won’t stop the Russians,” he admitted. “I want to protect my house from looters. The situation has become hot. It could get worse.”
Nedashkvskyi said he would like to protect his elderly parents who live in the city of Smila in the Cherkasy region, about 200km (124 miles) south of the capital. He said he had his eye on a Turkish-made Veryon model, costing 17,520 Ukrainian hryvnia – about $600. “I’ll get that or similar,” he said.
I hope he made it to his parents house before the shelling began.
The Ukrainian Defense Minister also announced on Thursday that any Ukrainian who can hold a gun is eligible to join the nation’s Territorial Defense Force, which is roughly akin to the military reserves here in the United States. Thousands of veterans have also been called up to active duty, and some of them are bringing newly purchased rifles with them.
Dmytro Skatrovsky said he had not been notified by text but had turned up anyway outside the Svyatoshynskyi recruitment centre, in western Kyiv. He spent three years in the army and took part in the 2014 battle to evict separatists from the port city of Mariupol, he said.
“I’ve bought two sniper complexes with good optics,” he added. “I’ve also ordered a drone on Amazon. It hasn’t turned up yet.” Skatrovsky said a group of friends had chipped in to get the rifles – at a cost of $10,000 (£7,370). US contacts had paid $2,300 for the drone, he said.
The Ukrainian military gave veterans guns, but the process was slow and bureaucratic, he explained. “We can win against Russia. This isn’t 2014,” he said. “We have heavy weapons, thanks to US and UK. If they come we will shoot at them from every window.”
They have come, and the shooting has begun. Even after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced the start of the Russian attack and declared a state of martial law, there were reports of customers hoping to pick up one more gun or as much ammo as they can find.
One reservist told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was ‘prepared to die’ to protect his fellow countrymen from ‘Russian occupation’, raising the prospect of brutal close-quarters street fighting that could see many civilians killed as Ukraine teeters on the edge of chaos.
At a gun shop in Kiev, a manager buying cartridges said he will use his Soviet-era weapon which he bought in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea to protect ‘my family, my house, my country’ from ‘Putin’s guys’.
A young woman whose husband was buying a revolver told presenter Nick Robinson that she would use the gun if confronted by Russian troops, added: ‘It’s not the only weapon we’ve got, we’re just buying a new one to add to the stocks.’
The shop owner, who sells Kalashnikovs, told the broadcaster: ‘In the gun shop, we are now very busy. There are very many people who want to buy guns and there are many people who want to buy cartridges. We have cartridges, but not many, not enough. Every day, many many cartridges have been bought. We have (been really full)’.
And it could be quite a while before they get more ammo in stock. In fact, if Russia succeeds in its conquest, that gun shop in Kiev won’t be re-opening anytime soon.
Just how many armed citizens will take an active role in defending their nation and themselves remains to be seen, but for now at least it sounds like there are thousands who are willing to stand and fight; not necessarily on the front lines, but from the shadows and “every window” they can find.