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“Freken Bock” from Kramatorsk. About life in a front-line city that had to be evacuated

By Dmitry Galko

It is not as scary in Kramatorsk as in Kharkiv or Mykolaiv. It’s chilling in another way. We stayed here almost until the end of July to document the massive Russian offensive predicted by Ukrainian intelligence. The journey from Pokrovsk to Kramatorsk only intensified our emotions: only military vehicles were moving in the same direction as us, and ambulances and hearses were moving in the opposite lane.

We expected to see the continuous fierce fire of enemy artillery, which meant living on the brink of death. Fires, abandonment, humanitarian catastrophe, disoriented, desperate people…

The attack didn’t happen.

You hear gunshots and birds chirping

In Kramatorsk, as well as in the neighbouring Sloviansk, ruins don’t jump at you. You mentally prepare to see the massive damage, but houses greet you painted bright green or bright yellow. You raise your eyebrows in surprise. If you’re not deliberately looking to see any destruction, you might as well miss it, especially if you have been to Northern Saltivka these days, the most long-suffering district of Kharkiv.

The main battles are going on outside the boundaries of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. For most of the day, the sounds of shelling are muffled and distant. They mix with the chirping of birds and are absorbed by it. It’s nothing like the hellish explosions shaking Mykolaiv, where 20 to 40 missiles are fired daily at civilian houses. There is running water, electricity, and cell service. You can have a coffee and order pizza delivery. In the” Chudo” supermarket, you can buy almost everything at the same prices as in the capital. It is better to avoid small shops along the main roads since they are designed for those who are passing through here and are in a hurry: prices can be three or four times higher.

Kramotorsk. Photo: Georgy Ivanchenko

In a word, it’s a tidy city, which its people continue to look after. They clean rubbish, mow lawns, and plant and water flowers. There are just a few people around.

Spacious squares, long alleys and boulevards are empty. Modern stops where no one is waiting for transport. Water dispensers from which no one draws water. Fanciful murals and sculptures without spectators. The city seems to pretend to be dead to survive. The lack of disturbing music in the background is the only thing that distinguishes Kramatorsk from a complete set for a post-apocalypse movie.

Human habitats

We get the same feeling when we spend some time in Kramatorsk. In the studio apartment where a friend set us up, the windows are tightly hung with carpets and lined with wardrobes – amateur protection from incoming missiles. Pillows, dishes, fridge magnets, other trifles – everything seems faded, long abandoned by the owners and inanimate due to poor lighting. Very reminiscent of the ghost town of Pripyat.

A few days later, Kramatorsk seemed to get used to us, put its guard down and opened up a little to us. At night, I went out on the balcony to smoke and heard Angie Kreida’s hit song “My dear enemy, the witch will tell your fate” and a dull male bass trying to sing along. The most popular habitat for locals, especially in the evenings, is Yubileynyi park. A young mother who fiddles with a wheelchair and willingly poses for pictures. On a scooter and a bicycle, an older girl and boy ride together around an 80-meter flagpole with the Ukrainian flag. A bunch of teenagers listen to loud music. An older man walks his Irish wolfhound. A waddling soldier on leave sits relaxed, bare-chested.

Two women are resting side by side on the lawn. One spread her arms to the sides, the other put hers under her head and bent her knees: a picture-perfect sunbather. When this picture is posted on Facebook with the inscription “Kramatorsk right now”, emoticons with a tear appear. I can’t figure out why until someone leaves a comment asking if they’re still alive. It’s all about the inscription. There is so much grief and death that the mind refuses to perceive a post about the Donetsk region in a non-tragic way.

Kramotorsk. Photo: Georgy Ivanchenko

For beautiful ladies!

A real sensation among friends was a photo with the caption “Kramatorsk. A lady with a cat”. In the picture, an older woman is dressed as if for a festive promenade: a white lace hat, a white blouse and a white summer blazer, a pale yellow pleated skirt and grey lace-up shoes. Earrings, a silver bracelet, and a manicure and lipstick to match. And above all, a calm, benevolent facial expression. As if no war had ever brushed close, as if they don’t cook food on an open fire in the yard of the high-rise building where she lives because there has been no gas in the apartments for a long time… Next to the woman, a cat curled on the bench, complementing the image of the “photo model”.

We met this woman near the bread shop and she asked us to help her cross the road. And she charmed everyone so much that I decided to find her and ask her questions the next day. “Oh, you’re looking for our Freken Bock! Oh, sorry, we call her that behind her back,” the neighbours down the street reacted to our description of the lady we were looking for. They vigilantly asked why we were looking for a “lady with a hat”.

We went up to the correct entrance floor in a building pointed to us. We told her through the locked door what optimism the photo caused; we asked her how she would like to give us an interview. Of course, we saw her confusion. But tell me, what woman would not be flattered when journalists burst into her house, fascinated by her impeccable taste as a challenge to devastation and shelling! Alas, our heroine was locked in the apartment by her grandson, who left for the day to work. But she still could go out on the balcony.

Lyubov Nikiforovna, 83, still remembers the previous war with the Nazis. She remembered the occupation and the words of a German soldier, who told her, a baby back then, how Stalin and Hitler should bang heads on their own. “This is their war, not yours and mine,” he said.

We learned that some time ago, Lyubov Nikiforovna graduated from Karazin Kharkiv University and worked as an economist at a water utility for many years. She always tried to dress to impress. And although she is the oldest in the yard, she is the first to go out after the shelling to clean up the missile debris and shattered glass. She takes care of the flower beds and so on.

Lyubov Nikiforovna, at our request, even took out a photo album and presented her portrait from the time of her service in the water utility from the height of the third floor… However, she wasn’t sporting a dashing hat in that picture.

Lubov Nikiforovna, 83, formerly an economist at a water utility, shows her “young” portrait. Photo: Georgy Ivanchenko

So the real surprise still awaited us later. We met the elegant “Lady with a cat”, the real “Frecken Bock” we had been looking for later on the street by accident.

Valentina Nikolaevna is ten years younger than Lyubov Nikiforovna, so this war is the first for her. She studied at the H.S. Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University and spent her adulthood teaching the Russian language and literature at a school.

“Now, as soon as you find out who I am, you may not even want to talk with me,” Valentina Nikolaevna suddenly took aback.

Is she a “waiting one”? This is what they call people waiting for the Russian “liberators” here. In Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, we were assured there were plenty of “waiting ones” here. Almost every second person was said to be like that. But we never met them. Except for perhaps an older woman we spoke to at the site of another shelling of a residential area. She advised us to study history, particularly to remember King Sigismund. She was convinced he was responsible for this mess and not “poor Russians who are always blamed for everything.”

The centre of Kramatorsk is built in straight lines to almost look like a sea battle game field. The missiles arrived a kilometre, five hundred meters, two hundred from us— miss, miss, miss. We felt shrinking inside because the next missile could mean “hit” or “sink” to us; we were as helpless as little painted ships. And all the protection is a closet and a carpet covering the windows. The shells miss you but not others. Each time we came to a shelling site, we saw these deaths.

Valentina Nikolaevna turned out to be a follower of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church (here we sighed with relief). Of course, she did not eagerly wait for the Russians to come. She knew what they were doing in Russia with her co-religionists, about the many prison terms they received, about torture. And she did not believe Russian propaganda. She trusted eyewitnesses and facts. For example, an acquaintance of Valentina Nikolaevna, a follower of the same church, was in the Mariupol Drama Theater at the time of the Russian airstrike:

– They shouldn’t lie that there was no shelling and no civilians inside!

“Freken Bock” considers Putin the embodiment of evil in the world, a satanic offspring.

And she does not leave Kramatorsk because she is ready to go to the next world. Ready to go there dressed smart and cheerful. However, Valentina Nikolaevna coquettishly tells us about her younger friend, immediately adding that “the church approves of their friendship.” And fixes his hat.

“I do not envy the enemy who wants to break into our city.”

The perception of Donbas, even within Ukraine, is a set of stereotypes. When confronted with reality, stereotypes often crack and crumble.

“The city had changed internally compared to 2014 when the war had just begun,” says Valeria Pimkina, a resident who has volunteered from the first days of the invasion. “When we faced war again, we didn’t sit on our asses in fright. On the contrary, we have become active. On the go, we learned a lot, alerted people abroad, searched and found what we needed. 

Local volunteer Valeria Pimkina with her daughter. Photo from Valeria’s archive

We remembered to hug each other often. Then we were surprised when we saw a mountain of sleeping bags, mats, axes and shovels people had collected. Old ladies carried pillows and blankets; business people brought money. We poured Molotov cocktails into bottles through watering cans and plugged them with rags. We work in harmony and with anger.

I see the look in the eyes of everyone and do not envy the enemy who wants to break into our city,” continues Valeria. And she goes on destroying the stereotypes:

– When we win, I will go to Europe for a vacation. First, I’ll go to a gay parade. I will enjoy bright costumes and sincere smiles from people of all ages, genders and nationalities. I will hug people, take stupid selfies, and maybe even climb on a platform and dance there. Then I’ll go to a rave, to some Armin Van Buren concert. I’ll drink energy drinks all night and dance. And then I’ll go to a rastaman party where they smoke and listen to reggae. And I’ll lie next to others, look at all this disarray and enjoy life. Here is my wish list. Maybe not quite the right fit for a mother of two, but that’s what it is.

Kramotorsk. Photo: Georgy Ivanchenko

Perhaps the empty streets of Kramatorsk are also a message to the “Russian world”. It is not as dangerous here as in Kharkiv or Mykolaiv, but people leave the city much more en masse. The Ukrainian army must be able to beat the enemy without fear of hurting the civilian population.