How Ukrainians living on the border with Russia view the threat of Russian invasion – NV exclusive
Those living in Chernihiv Oblast – right beside the Russian border – do not have a sense of impending doom, but instead recall the days of “the friendship of the peoples.” They don’t criticize Russians, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, and remain skeptical that a full-scale war could break out.
Kyiv — Novhorod-Siverskyi — Chaikino — Kyiv
To recall the days of tripartite friendship between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus from two decades ago, one has only to travel to Novhorod-Siverskyi, a town of 13,000 residents in the northern reaches of Chernihiv Oblast. Here one is just 300 kilometers from Kyiv, and only 50 kilometers from Russia, with Belarus nearby as well.
The presidents of then-friendly Ukraine, Russia and Belarus visited the town on June 27, 2004.
Ukraine’s president at the time, Leonid Kuchma, together with his Belarussian and Russian counterparts Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, visited Novhorod-Siverskyi’s Transfiguration Monastery for a theatrical performance. They were returning from a “friendship festival” on the border between the three countries. Afterwards, the three presidents shared a meal at the Slovyanskyi Hotel, next to the monastery. Kuchma and Putin then left for the village of Chaikino some 35 kilometers north of Novhorod-Siverskyi: Ukraine’s second president hails from Chaikino.
But in 2022, hardly anything remains of the “friendship between three brotherly peoples.” Russia is amassing troops along the Ukraine border, preparing for a likely military escalation of some sort. Belarus is hosting the “Allied Resolve” joint military exercises with Russian forces. Military experts describe these “exercises” as yet another threat for Kyiv.
Kuchma has long since retired; Ukraine is led by its sixth president. Meanwhile, Putin and Lukashenko still rule their countries.
NV retraced the route of the top-level visit, in order to examine how the “friendship of the peoples” fares nowadays in such proximity to the enemy.
Iryna Zenkova, the acting director of the Slovyanskyi hotel, meets us in the lobby. The hotel has about 30 rooms, and is rather cold. “They shut off our (natural) gas. We can’t pay for it an advance, and we have no income during winter, since the place is empty,” explains Zenkova, before giving us a little tour.
She has been working in the hotel since it first opened, and vividly remembers the visit of the three presidents in 2004. In those days, the Slovyanskyi was positively luxurious: deluxe suites, a 103 square meter “presidential suite”, pool table, beauty parlor, and two restaurants.
“That’s right, we hosted the presidents here. Nothing major – a simple buffet. They had their tea, coffee, and left,” Zenkova says, recounting the events of that day.
The state-owned hotel properly opened in 2005, and initially enjoyed a healthy influx of guests, mostly from Russia.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the steady stream of guests staying at the Slovyanskyi dried up.
Now only Ukrainians visit Novhorod-Siverskyi, but even in the summertime the hotel is at best half-booked. Some years ago, the government tried to sell the Slovyanskyi off, but no one was interested. The hotel is now up for lease.
Zenkova is charged with seeing the Slovyanskyi through winter without having its power cut as well. “Our January revenue is UAH 130,000 ($4,600), and we already owe UAH 190,000 on our electricity bill. Winter is the most difficult time for us,” she explains. Of the 60 employees the hotel used to have, only 17 staff remain.
The enormous, hot tub-equipped “presidential” suite did not entice any of the presidents. One night’s stay in it costs UAH 4,200 ($150).
Zenkova admits that the town’s residents aren’t really afraid of a Russian invasion. Locals are living their lives, paying little attention to “big politics.”
There have been some troubling recent developments, however. Lyudmila Tkachenko, Novhorod-Siverskyi’s mayor, told us of some “guests” frequenting the tightly-knit town this year. For example, some neatly-dressed guy was chatting up the girls working at a local clothes store. He was asking them how they feel about their local government and how they would like to see it changed.
“I think it’s the Russians. We reported all such cases to the security services,” the mayor tells us.
In January, the Territorial Defense Force established an HQ in Novhorod-Siverskyi.
“We might be far up north, very close to Russia, but our town is pro-Ukrainian” Tkachenko says. “Nobody here is getting ready to greet (Russian troops) with bread and music. Trust me – no one wants the Russians here.”
Some 400 veterans of the conflict on Donbas live in Novhorod-Siverskyi.
Friends no more
The village of Chaikino is 30 minutes away from Novhorod-Siverskyi, situated amidst pine woods and birch groves, mere 12 kilometers away from the Russian border. A stone slab greets visitors as they are entering the village, informing them that Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, was born here.
The former president still owns a house here, and supports the village and its 320 residents. For example, Kuchma occasionally pays the medical bills of some locals. As a sign of their gratitude, they have since renamed Chaikino’s Lenin Street to Kuchma Street.
There are only three streets in the village, with Kuchma Street being the longest, central one.
It was visited by Putin in 2004. “They (Kuchma and Putin) stopped in the (village’s) center, popped in the church, talked with people some, and went on their way,” recalls Vasyli Shavsha, Chaikino’s alderman.
“(Russia and Ukraine) were fraternal republics then. We’ve been friends for centuries, in constant communication. (We) lived peacefully and merrily,” Shavsha says, standing in his office, in front of a portrait of Kuchma. The alderman initially met us outside, shoveling snow.
Administrative reform in Ukraine has left Shavsha in charge of several more nearby villages.
According to him, locals used to work and study in Russia; many have close relatives living across the border. Now, people are hurting from the deterioration of Ukraine-Russia relations.
Valentina Kuzmenko, headmistress of Chaikino’s school, for example, has relatives living in Russia: a niece and two grandchildren. Her sister’s grave is across the border, too. “So I’m especially hurt by this situation, distraught even. When calling each other, we tend to avoid these touchy political subjects,” says Kuzmenko, who used to think of Russians as kindred spirits.
“But when their invasion started in 2014, when I heard of them seizing Crimea, it felt like a personal insult,” she adds. “Of course, I now treat them differently: Despite family ties, it’s hard to think of them as brothers.”
Most of the village’s residents are employed in the public sector: school, kindergarten, post office and forestry. Chaikino also has three stores. Young people tend to leave for Chernihiv and Kyiv, or even for seasonal work in Poland and Czechia.
Traveling to Russia has become difficult: the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the Hremyach border crossing between Ukraine’s Chernihiv and Russia’s Bryansk oblasts. Even those who used to take trips across the border to visit relatives have since stopped doing so, Chaikino’s alderman tells us. Russia-bound trucks are now diverted through Sumy Oblast.
It seems that locals are not panicking due to the recent barrage of grim news about a potential new Russian invasion, and hope the escalation won’t develop into a hot war.
Kuzmenko says there is neither an atmosphere of fear in Chaikino, nor preparation for war, despite folks watching TV and discussing current events in person and on social media.
“People I work with (at the local school) tend to think an invasion is unlikely,” Kuzmenko muses. “Russia won’t go against the whole world that openly.”
She thinks that even if Putin was nursing invasion plans, the robust Western response will have been enough to deter him.
“And Ukrainians are not the same as we were in 2014, so this time it won’t be as easy for Putin as it was with Crimea,” the headmistress says, before returning to her work.
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