Fragments from a War Diary, Part #67
My welcome to the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine was not particularly auspicious. I arrived tonight at the railway station at about 9:15pm. The conductor on my carriage was particularly keen at screaming at passengers waiting on the platform, and as I prepared to alight at Dnipro she was good to her record. She seemed to decide that the people waiting had the wrong types of ticket even before I had got off. I tramped along the seemingly endless platform with no signs in sight, until I found an underpass that unceremoniously dumped me in a Soviet-era square with taxi drivers, soldiers and Police officers milling around in it. I had memorised my directions to my hotel, but the principal challenge was crossing this huge great square when it was getting close to curfew. The local kiosks in the square, as well as offering their usual paraphernalia such as cigarettes and bad liquor, were also offering gold jewellery and handguns for sale. With only my wooden walking stick for protection, I already felt distinctly under-armed for this adventure.
The streets were barren but this is after dark and it is a city in eastern Ukraine close to the front line with an imminent curfew. I had really arrived too late but this was the train that fitted my work schedule. I arrived at the hotel, purportedly one of the best in the city, to find all the lights off and the building eerily deserted. Eventually after some wondering around, I found a doorway into the reception, that was pure porno pink in every detail, from the frosting on the glass to the light bulbs and the paintwork. The receptionist behind the desk did speak some English; she knew the word “no” but not a lot more. A grave security guard stood scowling at me in a shabby suit while I underwent the check-in formalities.
Travelling around wartime Ukraine, you get rather used to staying in strange uninhabited hotels, eating dinner on your own in restaurants with no customers, having a beer in a bar with nobody else in it, or going shopping in a mall with no other shoppers. Nevertheless this hotel feels curiously empty and unsettling. I cannot put my finger on it. Maybe it is the lingering reek of cheap cigarettes around every corner and alleyway. Maybe it is the obtuse professions of luxury contained in the solitary elevator that takes you to long, dimly lit corridors full of seemingly empty rooms. Maybe it is the effortlessly uncomfortable brown leather upholstery in the bedroom, manifestly dating back to the Soviet era, together with the brown carpets and the brown wallpaper, the brown doors, the brown cupboards and the brown wardrobe. I should also mention the brown curtains. This room is a study in brown.
I am wondering why I came to Dnipro. Is it going to be possible to meet any of the people I anticipate? Are any of these people actually in town? Are any foreigners in town? Is anything going on in this town? Once a city of almost a million people, it seems to have had an interesting history both before and during the Communist period but I have not yet established what it is. It was once the fiefdom of the notorious Ukrainian Oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the man in the photo accompanying this essay, who is seen in his office in his own personal fortress in central Dnipro. That photograph was taken by a foreign journalist when Mr Kolomoisky owned the scandal-prone and now nationalised Privatbank, at one time the only bank in Ukraine licensed to undertake foreign transactions. Now Mr Kolomoisky languishes in a Kyiv prison, wanted by the United States Federal Bureau for Investigations, the Ukrainian Prosecutor and also with Mr Putin desiring to see him dead. Mr Kolomoisky has made a remarkable number of very serious enemies.
If you look on a map, Dnipro is clearly of historical strategic and logistical importance. It lies at the epicentre of Ukraine’s waterways and also its railway network. Obviously something has been going on here or a city of a million people would not have sprung up out of nowhere. It is reasonably close to the Donetsk Oblast front line and therefore I can expect that it will have the usual influx of refugees and facilities to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But I cannot see the immediate charm of the place.
I think I am just a bit bad tempered tonight. The temperature has dropped dramatically and my feet are aching; I am wearing in some new boots and I have been carrying around a heavy rucksack all day. What did I expect from a hotel near Dnipro railway station arriving at night close to the curfew in the middle of a war? Dancing girls and a nightclub full of beautiful people? Maybe this hotel had all these things, once. Now it is a dreary, solemn place with a gas station next door and a motorway passing by. The internet seems to work; that’s a good sign. I have seen no indications of war damage. That is unusual by the standards of cities in eastern Ukraine; usually you find it immediately upon arrival and particularly in the vicinity of the railway station. Dnipro may have been spared much of the damage done to other cities near the front line; if that is so then it begs the question why. I wonder whether Mr Kolomoisky had anything to do with it. He had a lot to do with everything in Dnipro, at one point; he ran his own private militia out of this city consisting of Privatbank employees, and he became so powerful that he could demand that the President of Ukraine appoint him Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast without democratic process.
This city is a mystery, and 10pm is a late time to be reflecting on anything in wartime Ukraine - particularly on a Sunday. I shan’t pop down to the bar for a quick drink, because there isn’t one. I shan’t pop into the casino for a quick game of roulette, because it’s closed. There is some breakfast tomorrow, and I should consider myself lucky for that. Even breakfast is a luxury in contemporary Ukrainian hotels. I am going to engage in that luxury that assists us in solving all life’s problems. I am going to go to sleep. Goodnight.