Yesterday I had cause to relay the most extraordinary story. When I was in Kharkiv, I was presented with an unusual commercial proposal. A man speaking a cryptic mixture of English and Russian approached me in an Irish pub in downtown Kharkiv. He was noticeable because the entirety of his arms were covered in solid black tattoos. He explained that this was so because he had Russian eagle and “Z” tattoos (the mark of the Russian Armed Forces in occupied Ukraine) all over his arms and when Russia invaded, he decided that he ought to cover these tattoos up (that certainly would have appeared wise) and hence he “inked” the entirety of his arms in solid black to disguise the tattoos that would have indicated an inclination towards supporting the Russian military. I think I may have mentioned this very strange man in an earlier diary entry, but my relaying this story to my interlocutor at work yesterday afternoon caused so much mirth and merriment between us that I thought I would tell the story again, to you. I hope it is not embellished.
This gentleman had various unusual and unattractive commercial proposals that he wanted to make to me, and he certainly had some very unusual friends. Two of them, who he introduced me to, were a man with similarly inked out arms, who he informed me was English; the other, the “wife” of the “Englishman”, was dressed in a certain dramatically elegant way, shall we say. Anyway they made a strange group of companions as they purchased a litre bottle of vodka for the four of us to drink at 5:30 in the afternoon (the bars close early in Kharkiv so you need to get started early, I suppose); and we got round to matters of business.
My new “friend” was offering to drive people to Russia, and in particular he could transport me to the Russian city of Belgorod, which is about 90 kilometres north of Kharkiv - the Russian border is about 30 kilometres outside Kharkiv, and Belgorod is the first place in Russia of any size that you reach. Apparently he offers this service as a matter of routine, and the fee is US$100. Travelling conditions, he explained, are not that comfortable: you have to travel in the boot / trunk of a car. Nevertheless it’s only a few hours, and you will be safely transported to Belgorod.
This commercial proposal, flatly explained and without invitation on my part, seemed rather unusual. Firstly it was not clear to me what route my driver, had I accepted this curious proposition, would have taken. That road is heavily militarised with checkpoints every few kilometres and the border itself is by all accounts closed. Presumably this would been an exercise in driving through a series of fields, in all possibility mined (this was the route by which the Russian Armed Forces sought to encircle Kharkiv in the early stages of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine) and the chances of the trunk of the car being opened and inspected, to find me inside, were surely extremely high. Moreover it wasn’t clear to me why my interlocutor thought I might have the slightest interest in this curious proposal. A British citizen arriving in Belgorod without a Russian visa or a Russian entry stamp, and with a Ukrainian entry stamp (but no exit stamp) in his passport, would surely attract extremely high suspicion. The period of time I would be likely to remain at liberty, had I gone through with this curious arrangement, would surely have been extremely short. Then I would be interrogated and possibly tortured, suspected of espionage, in a Russian prison, and then a few months later I would be appearing on Russian television making a public apology to Vladimir Putin about something or other before I was released, haggard and malnourished, in a prisoner swap a few months or years later. All highly sub-optimal.
Maybe the idea was that I would check into one of Belgorod’s fine hotel establishments and enjoy the Russian caviar. Maybe the idea was that he would sell me to the Russian Armed Forces. Maybe the idea was that he would just murder me and keep the US$100. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind accepting this curious offer, particularly a British citizen wearing a military jacket adorned with both Anglo-Ukrainian and American-Ukrainian flag patches. I was surely the least plausible candidate for such an unusual commercial proposal that one could ever imagine. Nevertheless, Russians are very odd people at times. They come up with the strangest of ideas and tell you flatly how bad something is going to be. “I can take you to Russia, you will arrive in Belgorod with no papers, you will travel in the trunk of a car, you may die, you may be stopped and arrested, the fee is US$100 cash payable in advance.” I was reminded of a Dostoevsky novel, in which the characters typically go around Russia in absurdly dangerous adventures in which everything goes wrong, often in the winter, all often drunk.
My friend and colleague spent much of the afternoon reflecting on how strange all this was. At the time I suppose I thought it was slightly strange; but not really strange. That was probably because I had spent too long in the East and the South and I had gone a bit weird. I know that people are smuggled over front line borders even in the middle of war; I have seen all this sort of thing in the Balkans and I know precisely how it’s done. It’s just that I don’t particularly want to cross the Ukraine-Russia border in this strange way and in particular with these strange people, who showed me all sorts of different fake ID’s they had for press organisations, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and who knows what else. They were extremely sketchy.
I concluded this tale to my friend and colleague by explaining that the problem with travelling East and South is that the closer you get to the front line, the more difficult and unpleasant everything gets and you have to be much more careful and it is much more boring and you have to take far greater care for your security, and everyone goes a bit crazy out there. It’s hard, living on or near the front line, and after you’ve done it for a while (I did it for two months, roughly) you need to get back to sanity. Now Lviv is not complete sanity, granted; but it’s not too bad. That’s why I’ve decided to make Lviv my home for my period in Ukraine. It’s fun, funky, grainy, groovy, whacky, nutty, and awash with culture. I don’t have to meet strange people with dubious offers and massive bottles of vodka. You can only do so much of that stuff. For now I am happy here chopping vegetables, organising logistics, meeting people, hearing their stories, making friends with some of the nicest people I have ever met in my life, and writing these diaries so that you, dear reader, can understand what life is really like in a war zone. It’s all very strange, but there are some moments of positivity and inspiration.