In the final part of his exclusive series for E&M, Christian Diemer travels to Sakhnovshchyna in eastern Ukraine, where celebrations are also taking place to mark the anniversary of the village’s liberation during the Second World War. The atmosphere proves, however, to be very different from that of nearby Lozova, and just 150 kilometres to the east, war is again darkening Ukrainian skies.
At seven in the morning, Anna knocks on my door. I am supposed to be taking the elektrychka [regional train] from Lozova to Sakhnovshchyna at 8:46 a.m. Sakhnovshchyna, a small town with around 9,000 inhabitants in the Kharkiv region, is 50 kilometres from Lozova. The Red Army took a day to get there. Consequently, Sakhnovshchyna celebrates its city holiday one day later than Lozova.
But my friends have thought things over during the night. “It is written in your face that you are a foreigner”, says Anna. “Times have changed. The war has attracted bad people to our region. It is dangerous for you to go by elektrychka. I will drive you to Sakhnovshchyna.”
“Are you afraid to drive with me? I can drive. Only my car is very old.” Actually I am quite OK with having company. Anna has a cheerful, vivid voice and laugh. And I immediately fall in love with her car. An egg-yellow Lada, ordered back in the 70s by some relative with good party connections. I can adjust the angle of my seat with a screw. When Anna brakes, my seat slides forward. However fast she drives, the speedometer stubbornly points to 0. And Anna goes fast, hammering over the potholes and crevices, slowing a little or pulling around hard only for the meanest traps. And I understand why this car is made for those roads. It swallows it all, uncomplainingly. “We don’t need a speedometer or a safety belt. These streets are our safety belt, our built-in speed limit. No one can go too fast on them anyway.”
There are no traffic signs whatsoever. Through endless green plains the concrete path drags on, like an uneven coordinate line. Once in a while, another betonka [a street made of a series of concrete blocks], straight like a die, crosses, groundlessly, directionlessly: whichever of the four directions you take, there is no difference, green, gently curved plains, cornfields, an endless horizon all around.
Anna is not sure whether we are lost. But then in the middle of green nowhere, a sign appears: Sakhnovshchynskiy Rayon – Sakhnovshchyna district. On the horizon, the flour factory that gave the town its coat of arms – two ears of wheat – comes into sight. A goat waits on the outskirts of the village.
Wrestling free from the Past
The town celebration is only 50 kilometres away from Lozova’s yesterday, and yet it differs in many ways. Flowers are put down in front of an awe-inspiring, gloomy Soviet monument to soldiers, but instead of Soviet military marches, this year it is Robert Schumann’s Reverie, sung by an ephemeral choir, that plays on an endless loop. Where Lozovan school pupils produced an endless wall of embroidery on the topics “Glory to the veterans” and “Day of Victory”, the works exhibited in Sakhnovshchyna relate to the current situation, the mottos: “Ukraine, unified country” and “Peace”. The late summer wind is not shy with the pupils’ masterpieces: an unfortunate gust blows apart a map of Ukraine that has been laid out in petals, severing the east of the country from the west. The geographical resemblance to Putin’s Novorossiya ambitions is unmistakable. Anna is eager to repair the damage, carefully spreading out the remaining petals over Kharkiv, Odesa, and Donets’k.
Anna considers it better that Sakhnovshchyna is less caught up in the Soviet past than her hometown, Lozova. “How many of the veterans may still be alive? It is 71 years ago that the war ended, and even more since it started, and they were at least 15, maybe 20 years old back then. Of course it is important to keep in mind their sufferings. But people should also confront themselves with all the horror Stalin brought upon them afterwards.”
In the Palats Kul’tury [Palace of Culture], an oversized Soviet cultural centre at the end of a short tree-lined avenue, the programme also proves different from yesterday’s. While in Lozova most speeches were in Russian, the ceremony here is held entirely in Ukrainian. The mayor, when he commends the veterans, does more than only touch upon the current victims at the front in the east, but makes an emotional plea for Ukraine’s unified and peaceful future, and there it comes: Slava Ukrayina! Glory to Ukraine!, battle-cry of the Maidan, idiom of the patriotic west Ukrainians. The response scheme is not internalised here around, instead of replying Heroyam Slava! Glory to the heroes!, the audience applauds wordlessly.
War songs, Russian pop, Ukrainian folk, dance performances, even bellicose metal are played alongside, the scene flashes in kitschy red and blue. While I am trying not to get distracted by the fact that the sturdy pop diva is singing too low again, I notice Anna crying. The song, she says, tells of a mother waiting for her son. The son doesn’t come home any more. I don’t have a handkerchief.
Just as in Lozova, the celebrations have been reduced to a minimum, due to the war. Where previously, performances and samples of music, bread, dumplings and home-made Samohon [a type of spirit] from all the neighbouring settlements would have lined the avenue, people now disperse home. Lenin looks down on autumn leaves blown over the empty square, where last year dance competitions, shashlik and a noisy pop concert took place. The small cafe terrace, where a few stay for a coffee, has a view of a gaudy fountain and an earth closet. The lady at the coffee machine wants to know where I am from.
There are only a few steeply priced places to eat out in Sakhnovshchyna. In some, people sit chatting, drinking Cognac. In front of the tiny, light blue train station a Chrysler with young yobs from the Caucasus patrols around at walking speed, bass booming. “Hey, comrade policeman, what are you saying to those people?” they shout out of the tinted window. The egg-yellow Lada is waiting for us.
The afternoon is still young. On our way back to Lozova, we stop at a reservoir of the Dnipro-Donbass-canal. Constructed in the 1960s, rumour has it that entire settlements and cemeteries lie buried down there under the glittering blue surface of the water. The swell glugs gently against the shores. Fish jump out of the water. Crickets chirp. Once in a while, an old car or a Kamaz [a Russian-made lorry] bawl by on the straight betonka. Gradually, over hours on end, a golden sun bears down upon the gleaming water that is in turn ruffled by a friendly, yet feral wind. A horizon drenched in light and beauty readily absorbs the burnished orb at its first touch. A rose-tinted sky, mildly drunk on the day’s abundance, drowses away. The wind pauses in bated awe. A day rolls by like a heavy wheel, night sinks. The earth falls asleep and will remain asleep until a new sun rises, as it has always done and always will. A jeep pulls over. A man with a German Bundeswehr uniform savours a cigarette at the shore. His dog can be heard, but not seen, splashing noisily somewhere amongst the reeds, chasing ducks during their evening gatherings.
Our yellow Lada has been waiting for us at the roadside just like a good friend. Anna switches on the lights and the heating and we are back on the road. Past us, the rose-coloured sky dims to night over the endless fields.
I say something about borderless freedom, miracles and wonders. “Isn’t just everything somehow possible on those wonderful grounds, in this blessed country?” “For you, maybe! In this country, everything would be possible, but they have corrupted it all. In this country, nothing is possible.”
In this country, everything would be possible, but they have corrupted it all. In this country, nothing is possible.
Anna is a Russian speaker, but has German roots. “Sometimes I imagine this may be similar to what the Russian Ukrainians feel. This sort of nostalgia I have in my heart when I hear the German language. But then again, they can pack their bags and go to Russia if they want. I can pack my bags and go to Germany, if I want, although it is much more complicated for me, actually. I cannot sit here and ask for Germany to come to me.”
Anna does belong to a political party, but she actually prefers to maintain an unpolitical position.
“What I wish for most is for there be peace again.” She doesn’t think those people who initially wanted to join Russia did so simply because they are uneducated. “Kharkiv is a centre of university education anyway, and so are Donets’k and Dnipropetrovs’k. If people are uneducated anywhere, then in the villages of western Ukraine. The standard of living is simply very bad here, and it is better in Russia.” Anna is a lawyer. She earns 2,500 Hriven [at the time around 150 EUR, now less than 100] a month. “But I personally don’t want to be in Russia. No. I am Ukrainian, this is my country, my home.”
Anna doesn’t really want to return to Lozova. “Sometimes I just want to settle somewhere, in a house, a few geese, ducks, nature, silence, peace, nothing else. Leave everything behind.” Anna laughs. “I’ll pull over, I’ll just stay here, forever.”
A night at the train station
Anna drops me straight at the train station in Lozova. “Use this entrance, sit down in the restaurant, don’t leave it until your train arrives”, she warns me before heading home. I take a beer under the stucco ceiling. Dubious figures enter, get themselves 100 g of vodka at the bar, stagger out. A guy with a crutch, looking around belligerently, pesters a couple at the neighbouring table, but is thrown out na khuy – on the dick. The waitress has a nice smile.
Despite Anna’s arrangements, everything goes wrong. For the first time ever in Ukraine, I miss my train. Lozova is a mayor rail intersection, with platforms on both sides of the station building. Waiting for the departure for Kharkiv on the wrong side for just a minute too long, I see the train leaving dead on time on the opposite track. The next train departs at four in the morning. The restaurant has closed. I am trapped.
An unkempt woman with sunglasses approaches me. “Are you going to the ATO as well? Well, I am.” The Anti-Terroristicheskaya Operatsiya [anti-terrorist operation] is the official name for the Ukrainian efforts to combat the separatists 90 kilometers east of here. The policemen get interested in me. “Isn’t Ukrainian beer terrible compared to German beer?” An elderly man joins us, “Nikolayevych, drunk again. And what about this kind of creep, do you have them in Germany as well?” I ask the policemen how dangerous Lozova really is. “Tah well, there are good and bad people.” In any case they all agree the situation has deteriorated a lot due to the nearby war. People of all kinds and from both sides pool in the city. “And he is the worst of all”, says one of the officers, teasingly pointing at his fellow policeman.
Out of the blue, a train is conjured up bringing me to Kharkiv only two hours later than the one I had planned to take. I don’t even have to buy a new ticket.
For safety reasons, or maybe out of curiosity, I remain under their supervision. I am taken to the station mistress, a whale of a woman. Out of the blue, a train is conjured up bringing me to Kharkiv only two hours later than the one I had planned to take. I don’t even have to buy a new ticket; “If she says she will arrange for that, it will work out”. I am invited to take a seat and wait in the office, I am offered coffee, a bottle of Ukrainian beer in exchange for a German beer – or even a machine gun? When the steaming train finally rolls in around midnight, a contingent of three armed policemen and two train station ladies escorts me on the platform. I shake hands with all of them before climbing up into the high carriage.
When I check my emails the next morning in Kharkiv, many Ukrainian friends have written to me. The night before, two grenades exploded at a military headquarter in Lozova. Nobody was injured.