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A day in the country

By Paul Beesley

People probably think of Ukraine as a land of war, of bombed, blasted cities of countryside that is a kind of rolling video game of minefields, trenches, exploding tanks and ruined villages.

Parts of it are. Long drives, bus rides and train journeys (particularly in winter,) do not give a favourable impression. Aid-runs to the areas which were/are fought over do not allow for sightseeing.

For this reason, I was pleased to accept an invitation to visit to visit a little holding, to the north of Kharkiv.


Saturday is a traditional day to visit your dacha, and this one was just south of the stop-line of the 2022 Russian advance.

A short drive, past checkpoints and lonely meeting spots that I remembered from food deliveries to army units (never more than twice for the same meeting-place.)

A well-made road led to a lane along the course of the River Lopan, a fishing lake, and finally, a little village of a few dozen houses (mostly single-storey, brick, behind fences or walls - typical of Ukrainian villages,) and a shop - too small a place for a church.

My host showed me his little, single-storey house with half an acre of ground. It had mains gas and electricity, sewage connection and its own well. The house consisted of kitchen, large, bed-sitting room (both heavily beamed) small, modern shower room and w.c. and even a little sauna (built over the steps to the storage cellar, which accounted for it's strange elevation at one end.)

The roof was corrugated asbestos, the walls a pale green stucco. There was a vine-covered pergola, hostas, herbs, lilies, sedum, as well as yellow Lysimachus and hellebores (just like my garden in England.)

The land sloped down to a fenced-off footpath and was planted with fruit trees, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, pumpkin a young walnut and several types of berry I have never seen before. 

My host's wife and children were in exile and the garden was showing her absence - particularly with regard to the flowers. Still, the beehives were productive and the cellar was filled with produce.

After a cup of mixed tea (black Indian tea and garden mint -surprisingly good,) we took a bike ride along some pathways.  Sergeii, my host is a competitive cyclist and the bike he lent me was a modern, ultra-light off-roader with a single, front pillar, off-set from the wheel. The suspension was unlike anything I was used to. Probably just as well, as no bike I ever owned would have stood up the going.

As we rode, he told me that, many years ago, on his first competition bike, he rode the along this stretch of the river and met a villager on his own, more modest machine. They got talking and Sergeii decided that as soon as he could, he would buy a place here.

The area is partly fields (sunflowers are the new, more valuable crop, displacing wheat), meadowland and thick, deciduous forest which covers the northern and western sides of the city. The trails were steep and I was gratefully for the advanced suspension. Entering the forest I was even gladder of the overcast day as it meant the biting insects were not active. Sergeii, pointed out a giant stag beetle - a good three inches long.

Things were going fine until something snagged my rear wheel and over the bars I went. It's all right - the bike was fine.

The River Lopan (a tributary if the Kharkiv River) was a small, green river appearing and disappearing between the trees and the little meadows - a little like Tolkien's description of the Withywindle, in The Old Forest.

A forest track (you couldn't call it a road), heading south was the line of the original Russian advance. With the Lopan, to their right and forest to their left, they had few options. The main resistance was a couple of miles north at a little town called Derhachy. To make doubly sure, Sergeii, got out his chainsaw and felled ash and young oaks across the roadway.

Some villages close to the fighting have memorials (a little like museums) of spent munitions, abandoned or captured Russian kit and the like. The fighting never quite got this far so here, there is no such collection.

Back at the holding, a little fire of apple and cherry logs had burned to embers in our absence, so we had barbecued sausage and beer with salad and black bread.

I could see that Sergeii missed his family, so I encouraged him to talk about his plans for a second house on the site of the little stock barn and the possible purchase of a neighbour's, unused plot.

It was quiet, with bird song and almost no traffic noises but every now and then, the "crump", of outgoing artillery. 

There had been evidence of troops in the woods and in the early days on last month's offensive, there had been a lot of hardware - probably preparing for a possible Russian breakthrough. Sergeii, like everyone in Kharkiv, I spoke with, knew the Russians could not take, or even surround the city.

As the apple-scented smoke of the barbecue rose up through occasional raindrops, Sergeii, considered the old USSR.

"Everything was built for the army, for industry. Nothing for the people. No one was happy. If anyone was happy, he knew nothing of Europe, or anywhere else. We in Ukraine were happy."

He meant, since independence, before the war, when people could arrange their own lives.

We cleared away the lunch things and, as we drove back to town, Sergeii, showed me the one house in the village that had been destroyed. Apparently, an air-launched missile, fired at Kharkiv, had malfunctioned and fallen short.


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