You may have noticed that despite the dozens of blogs I’ve written from Kyiv over the last nine months, I’ve not posted much about the military. Not surprisingly, sharing any military information on social media is very much discouraged. Nobody wants to inadvertently reveal details that might jeopardize Ukrainian troops. Just like during WWII: “loose lips sink ships”.
However, I can certainly share my impressions of the typical Ukrainian soldier.
A break from fighting
In reality, Ukraine has been at war with Russia for over nine years, ever since Donbas, Luhansk and Crimea were invaded in 2014. The current 2022 invasion of the entire country is being repelled by hundreds of thousands of men & women fighting every day to rid the country of Russians once and for all.
Because the war is primarily being fought in the south-east, very few soldiers are seen walking the streets of Kyiv. However, if you’re lucky you’ll meet them at places like Hotel Bursa when they’re taking a few days off from fighting on the front. Indeed, it’s extremely important for active-duty soldiers to take breaks from time to time to maintain their mental and physical health.
No professionals here
It’s important to remember that the Ukrainian army is largely made up of volunteers, not professional soldiers. Those I’ve met are musicians, teachers and computer programmers who’ve taken up arms to defend their country and way of life. In other words, honest and hard-working real people. Perhaps this is why they’re some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.
I’ve chatted with Maksym at Bursa a few times and he’s quick to answer questions about what’s really going on in places like Bahkmut and Kherson with smile and a laugh. This war is surely no laughing matter but Maksym always maintains a sense of humour, especially when taking a break from his frontline job as a Special Forces, Reconnaissance Commander. He’s also one of the biggest humans I’ve ever seen. At six feet, six inches tall, covered with tattoos and easily over 120 kgs, he’s certainly not someone you’d want to mess with!
A shot from the Gulag
A few months ago, I stopped by an ‘informal’ bar that specialized in shots of home-made liqueurs called Semahon. It’s essentially a grain spirit (vodka), infused with local Ukrainian herbs and fruit. Sergeii the owner served an amazing variety of shots like blueberry-sage and apple-currant, but my favourite was the cinnamon-spice concoction reminiscent of Masala tea. Incredibly, Sergeii explained that he created the recipe while being held as a POW at a Russian camp in Luhansk in 2014.
A fellow hotel guest told me about meeting a General who was shot in the head in 2018 then left for dead in Donbas. After two days lying in a field surrounded by dead Ukrainian soldiers with the back of his skull missing, he was evacuated and taken for treatment in Kyiv and Europe. Today the General has a plate covering the back of his skull and walks with a cane. However, he’s also in charge of training all military cadets in Ukraine.
My friend added that the General was one of the nicest guys he’s ever met, and I’ll say the same of Sergeii and Maksym. It’s been a great honour to meet a few of the ordinary but brave people who continue to fight for the freedom of Ukraine and indeed Europe. There’s no question in my mind that this time, these nice guys will finish first.
Slava Ukraini! Heroiam Slava!