Sometimes you have experiences in a war zone that make you realise things are not all as they might appear. My initial arrival in Kramatorsk was not particularly auspicious. I arrived amidst the dull wail of a single-tone air raid siren, as I heard the sounds of relentless thuds that I knew to be artillery shells. However they were some distance away, and everyone was going about their business as though nothing unusual was happening. There were a number of soldiers at the station, but that was to be expected. Kramatorsk is where a large proportion of active service personnel arrive, by train, to fight on the Donbas front line. I took a battered trolleybus into town from the railway station, and I was able to walk to my impromptu informal hotel from one of the stops on the main public transport route through town. My hotel is really just a series of rooms in the basement, with a communal shower, and it’s just me and a bunch of soldiers. But it’s safe and calm and it’s in a basement, and the entrepreneurial Russian-speaking proprietor is cooking me some dinner as I write these words.
I thought I’d go out for a walk, to orientate myself around the town and to stretch my legs after 20 hours cooped up in a tiny stinky compartment on a train with a fat snoring man. The main initial impression I had of Kramatorsk was that it was an old-fashioned Soviet industrial town with wide streets and battered public transport, identikit apartment blocks on each corner, a large communal park for exercise and nothing else much to do. Then I noticed that despite being just a handful of kilometres from the front line, the city has suffered very little in the way of war damage. All those artillery shells are landing in the proximity of Sloviansk, where the International Legion is based, and presumably that’s Russians trying to kill foreigners to make a news story. Kramatorsk itself is occasionally hit but not nearly so often, and that alone is remarkable.
I went into a shopping mall of a kind. I found a shop selling luxury coffee, another one selling luxury tea, and one selling luxury fur coats. There was a luxury cosmetics store, and a luxury military store selling luxury guns. I bought a luxury military camouflage t-shirt and left it at that. The same store is selling all those things we’re raising money for, like gloves, hats, body armour, hand warmers, candles, stoves and everything else - and not for high prices either. That’s right: you can buy these things in as large a quantity as you want, just a few kilometres from the front line. So why are we trying to import them from abroad, when everything is available to the well-paid soldiers if they want to buy them? That’s an issue we’re going to have to return to; but for now I just want to say how strange I found all of this.
Then I left the shopping mall, which was closing at 5pm, and I decided to head to the supermarket. This didn’t look particularly auspicious at first either, but I thought I’d go in and have a look. The shelves were full. I bought red caviar (they also had black), smoked salmon, Mexican taco bread, pickled herring and all sorts of other delicacies. The shop closed at 6pm, and there’s no alcohol for sale, but you can’t say that things aren’t available here. Kramatorsk lets you live in luxury, if you’re in the military with one of these high salaries. Everything you want is right on the front line, and in circumstances of relative safety. This isn’t Kherson, with shells and missiles whistling past your front door. It’s an obscure quiet Soviet-era industrial city, with luxury items available to anyone willing to pay for them. And all this raises the question of why we are going to such mammoth exertions to create supply networks to distribute food, medical kits and everything else to the front line when all these items and far more are sitting in supermarket shelves on the front line where you can pay with your visa card.
I’m not sure I know the answers to any of these questions yet, but something must be amiss. For now, I am faced with a dilemma. This town is reputedly full of raucous if alcohol-free bars, and there is no curfew. I passed one of these establishments earlier this evening as I was walking home from my luxury food and goods shopping session, and I was tempted to pop in and see what was going by. As soon as I got back to this curious hotel, I was overwhelmed with fatigue - I have after all been the victim of a debilitating trans-Ukrainian train ride - and now I don’t know whether I have the energy to go out and explore this city’s mysterious liquor-free nightlife. I fear that if I lie down, then I won’t wake up again before 3.30am - and now it’s barely half past six in the evening.
I was initially regretting having arrived in Kramatorsk. I thought it was just going to be a dull and moderately dangerous front line dump. Now I realise that while in physical proximity to the front line and all sorts of adjacent danger, there’s no need for any of that body armour or other silly stuff and I need not have brought it. There are all sorts of adventures in Kramatorsk; I can feel it in my bones. The question on my mind is just whether I have the determination to head out into the dark night tonight to get myself into some silly sort of trouble in an alcohol-free bar with a bunch of soldiers.
Kramatorsk right now must be one of the most unusual places in the world and I almost regret not scheduling more time here. But right now I need a sneaky drink of vodka that I’m not supposed to have brought with me; a bit more of that red caviar wrapped in a Mexican taco roll; and perhaps a little bit of rest. Tomorrow, or maybe later tonight, I will try to make sense of what on earth is going on here.