Russia is seen through prism of friendship in peaceful, poverty-stricken border village
Far from the seats of power, locals have deep affection for historical neighbours
Ukrainian youngsters run under a huge composite flag (Ukrainian and Crimean flags) containing thousands of signatures and being carried by a crowd in Independence Square, Kiev, yesterday. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
A bad old road splits the stubbled fields, the black earth glossy with rain, and then two flags appear over the treetops, snapping brightly against the marching clouds.
Only a few metres separate Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow banner from the red, white and blue of Russia, where the countries meet at this border post near the village of Oleksandrivka.
“To-and-fro, to-and-fro, people cross over all the time,” says Lyuda, a nurse at Oleksandrivka’s spartan dispensary, who sits talking to a friend and watching grubby geese take muddy baths in the potholed road.
“Alright, this is Ukraine, but we are one people here. The border doesn’t matter. Everyone has family and friends over there, and some of the men work in Russia. There’s no work here, after all.”
A succession of corrupt and incompetent governments have invested little in Ukraine’s infrastructure since independence in 1991, and none of it seems to have reached Oleksandrivka.
Like many villages and small towns around Ukraine, it feels like a semi-abandoned relic from the Soviet days, but without the public services and guaranteed salaries and benefits that came with communist rule from Moscow. Now there are few jobs, apartment blocks are decaying, and signs of poverty and neglect are everywhere.
All the old certainties died long ago here, except for one: friendship between Ukraine and Russia.
Now the countries are on the brink of war over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine, to protect Russian-speakers whom the Kremlin claims are under threat from “fascist” supporters of the new pro-western government.
Oleksandrivka is a 90-minute drive from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, but feels much further away; Kiev, where revolutionaries ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich last month, seems like another world, as does Moscow, far to the northeast.
But now their conflict has come here, with Ukraine and Russia conducting military exercises near their shared border and both preparing to impose a visa regime on people who are used to crossing the lightly guarded frontier whenever they like with minimum fuss.
“We don’t need politics and we don’t need war with Russia. We want peace,” said Zoya, her big voice booming around Oleksandrivka’s little shop.
“We are like brothers, us and the Russians. We have relatives, living and dead over there. The bus comes through here from Russia and we take it to Kharkiv,” adds Zoya’s friend, Vera. “Zoya’s son is a fireman for the emergencies ministry, and one of mine’s in the army – we don’t want any fighting.”
What they know about the revolution, the new government and the crisis in Crimea, they saw on Ukrainian and Russian television. And they have no idea what to believe.
“The Russians say American snipers shot people on both sides in Kiev and in Crimea, to stir up trouble,” says Vera.
“Ukrainian channels say that’s nonsense,” Zoya interrupts. “We’ll have to wait and see what this new government brings. If we live better we will support it, if not, we won’t.”
Lightly guarded border
In the dispensary and the shop, they say no Ukrainian troops or tanks have passed through Oleksandrivka, and the border post appears to be very lightly manned on both sides.
Russia has held a series of major military manoeuvres not far from Ukraine, however, and now Kiev has mobilised its troops to respond to a possible threat to regions like this.
Earlier this week, tanks and military trucks rumbled into Mali Prokhody, another village in the Kharkiv region close to the Russian border.
“The local population, our compatriots, our brothers, are supporting and welcoming us very warmly. They don’t abandon us at times like this. It’s a really positive moment,” said Maj Nikolai Bogomolov.
Ukrainian television showed people bringing the soldiers food, warm clothes and sleeping bags, although officers said they had all they needed.
The report appeared soon after Russian television had made much of footage supposedly showing locals in the nearby Donetsk region blocking a military convoy en route to the border and denouncing Kiev’s government.
“I really doubt they were locals. Maybe some, but behind them were Russian agents,” said Oleg Kolotei, a Kharkiv resident who supports the revolution.
“Few people in a remote Donetsk village would throw themselves in front of military vehicles. I think for anyone in a village or town, patriotism overrides other feelings. I don’t believe Ukraine’s population could support the Russian army.”
In these borderlands of rich black earth, where so many Russians and Ukrainians died together turning back the Nazis in the 1940s, few imagined such a question could ever arise.
“Life together was better,” says Lyuda, watching the geese splash in Oleksandrivka’s brimming potholes. “Why keep dividing us up, again and again?”