SF-born tech entrepreneur shares what it’s like to be in Kyiv during Russia’s invasion

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Thomas Knapp, 55, a Bay Area product, has lived in Ukraine for less than a year. But he is willing to die for his new home.

As an air raid siren sounded in the background, Knapp told SFGATE he had spent most of the past few days indoors under a strict curfew in downtown Kyiv. Such restrictions have been common since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Those who venture outside without military dress or the yellow armband of a civilian volunteer risk being arrested – even shot on sight.

A recently taken photo of a destroyed bridge in Kyiv.

Image courtesy of Thomas Knapp

Hearing the bombs falling in a place he loves devastated Knapp. “I’m emotionally, physically, spiritually exhausted. I’m so angry that words can’t even describe,” said Knapp, who was born in San Francisco and worked in Silicon Valley for years.

This fury prompted him to take up arms to defend his new community: this week, he joined a civilian territorial defense battalion, a voluntary military unit. Because he doesn’t speak Ukrainian and doesn’t understand orders when his battalion is in a firefight, Knapp was paired with an English-speaking Crimean War veteran. Now armed with an AK-47, Knapp and his group prepare for the arrival of Russian forces.

“I’m learning as I go here, actually, because I’m just an entrepreneur,” he said.

Knapp briefly stopped in the middle of the roll call when he heard a bombshell. “It’s noisy, there’s one that just exploded, it’s like a sonic bomb, you can feel it. They are huge bombs. You hear them, even if it’s 3 or 4 kilometers away.

The sound becomes familiar, but no less terrible. “It gets to your head and you start having nightmares,” he said. “We need more ammunition, we need more guns, we need lethal and non-lethal supplies, medical supplies.”

Friends of Thomas Knapp in the Kiev metro station near his home.

Friends of Thomas Knapp in the Kiev metro station near his home.

Image courtesy of Thomas Knapp

As the bombs fell on the outskirts of town, Knapp said he was safe for now, as Russian forces had yet to reach the city center where his apartment is located. Although he did not participate in a firefight, he and the rest of his battalion prepare for violence. From what his new comrades told him, there are worse fates than death.

Thomas Knapp, left, alongside recent text correspondence with his daughter.

Thomas Knapp, left, alongside recent text correspondence with his daughter.

Images courtesy of Thomas Knapp

“I’m not afraid to die,” he told SFGATE. “I’m afraid of ending up in a Russian gulag. I’m afraid of being caught. the truth of God.
Knapp, an American citizen, grew up in the Bay Area, moved to West Germany for part of his childhood, then returned to attend San Jose State. Five months ago, he sold his 15-year-old home in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose and moved to Ukraine to found a global marketing company. He is the father of four daughters who live in the United States.

After moving to Ukraine on a three-year residency card, he fell in love with the country, where he found a better quality of life for less money than in the Bay Area. He has a girlfriend and many friends he hopes to keep for life. Staying in Ukraine at the start of the invasion was a heartbreaking decision, knowing he was leaving his daughters behind.


As we were talking, Knapp received a text: “Dad, please be careful. Please come home. I miss you so much. I hope to see you again soon… Dad, I need to be in your arms again, not through a screen, please.

But he cannot bring himself to abandon the country he so quickly considers his homeland.

“When you make a friend in Ukraine, you make friends for life,” he said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday February 24, with massive air and missile strikes and ground troops coming in from the north, east and south. Read “What to Know as Russian Forces Target Kiev” on SFGATE.

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