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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #360

First impressions of Kryvyi Rih are not particularly auspicious. Actually, second impressions are not particularly auspicious either. People ride donkeys pulling wooden carts around the city centre, as though a scene from an eighteenth century village. This is in a city with a metropolitan area of over one million people. Old ladies sell chunks of animal carcass, un-butchered, out of the back of vans in the centre, while packs of wild dogs roam around every building. Men in more or less informal paramilitary uniforms wonder around shuffling ammunition and goods into and out of an eclectic array of hammered vans and exhausted old cars. The city is spread over a huge area and virtually every car on the road is a banger. A fleet of tired trolleybuses and minibuses ply the main roads in this enormous coal mining city. It was obviously at once a mere hamlet, and there is an old town centre consisting exclusively of dilapidated buildings from the 1920’s or earlier, before Stalin’s Five Year Plans. That neighbourhood, that lies just behind the gargantuan railway station, is now full of potholes and the infrastructure barely exists. At some point the Soviet planners got involved, and sprayed poor quality concrete buildings and roads liberally across a wide area and that is what we now have. There is no city centre per se - just a clump of low-lying buildings around the sole serviceable hotel in town, one of which appears to be some sort of nightlife centre that I will investigate later. I anticipate an early night.

I tried to visit the sole apparent tourist attraction in Kryvyi Rih - a cathedral of a sort, in a park - but I never got there. The old ladies at the bus stop gave me misleading information as to where the minibuses ran from, telling me to stand in the wrong place as though old KGB agents trying to confuse a foreigner. Then I got on the right bus but the driver didn’t bother telling me it was going only one stop - to the station, the geographical and economic centre of the city, because everything of value comes into and out of this city by train. The station itself is fairly grandiose, albeit that the infrastructure around it is horrendous. I tried to cross the station tracks on the only route available to pedestrians, a rickety swaying high railway bridge made of wood with alarming doors on the sides of the bridge from which you could fall to your death. I was overcome with acute vertigo, panicking and staring straight ahead not looking down about 30 metres onto the train tracks or looking at the sides of the bridge because the sides were only about a metre high and there were no proper hand rails. There were gusts of strong wind and you could be blown right off there; yet old ladies gloomily paced across the bridge with their shopping to and from the old village slum from behind the railway station. I gave up looking for the cathedral and precariously returned across the bridge, no less panicked the second time I had to cross it.

I had previously been informed that there is no train to Nikopol, on the coast of the Dnipro reservoir and opposite Enerhodar, the Russian-occupied nuclear reactor complex. But that turns out to be wrong, for anyone who wants to go there by train. There is a schedule on the internet and the trains apparently run as per schedule. They appear on no board on the railway station, you cannot buy tickets other than from a dopey little office in the corner of the station, and the trains look as clapped out as hell; but there are indeed trains from Kryvyi Rih to Nikopol (and presumably back again). In any event my journey to Nikopol has been restored, because I am not going by bus to Kherson tomorrow anymore - a colleague is conveniently collecting me from Kryvyi Rih in the early hours, so that we can take supplies to the starving and benighted of Kherson. That is a story for another day; but one of my contacts today left me a message of the utmost distress and agony as to the situation in Kherson and I dread to think once my colleague and I arrive there. It seems that all hell has been unleashed in Kherson and the residents of that city have descended into Hades itself. We will see what we can do for them, after a mild detour via Nikopol beach and the front line along the River Dnipro. This is all definitely body armour territory.

I don’t know what to say about Kryvyi Rih. It’s one of those forgotten Soviet cities, built for a purpose which was coal mining and now forgotten by everyone in the midst of this cruel war. The population barely seem to know what is going on around them. There is little in the way of real work; all the men on the streets are soldiers; there is no investment and no infrastructure and just one hotel where the occasional unusual visitor such as me may stay whenever they may be passing through. Yet this is a major city in central Ukraine, one of the most important rail transit hubs in the country, and of course the place of birth of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. I see that Mr Zelenskiy is a man of humble origins, surveying the cityscape that is Kryvyi Rih. This is no land of Oligarchs, luxury goods, Kyiv frivolities or expensive girls with the latest Gucci bags and designer sunglasses. This is forgotten Soviet misery, alive and well today in the middle of Ukraine.

Kryvyi Rih is one of those large cities that nobody comes to. It is not in the news and it is not on the front line but it is close enough to have that edgy quality to it in which a sense of anarchy prevails and nobody is quite sure what is going on. What are we to do with cities such as these once the war comes to an end? It is too much to say that they need to be rebuilt; they were never constructed properly in the first place. There was never anything here except industrial grime. They are part of the forgotten majority of Ukraine that, war or no war, it will require massive resources to rejuvenate into modern twenty-first century cities.


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