I met Serhii Tytkov on a night train from Kyiv to Kharkiv. He was standing at the window of our compartment, looking up at the shell-bursts from Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns. ‘He no sit,’ I thought he said, with a big smile on his face, talking about himself in some weird action man slang. But then I realised he didn’t speak English, and what he’d actually said was henosid, as ‘genocide’ is pronounced in Ukrainian.
Serhii refused to speak Russian as a matter of principle. So our conversation had to accommodate two different languages, a bit like the Minsk Accords, which failed to resolve a dispute over language rights in Donetsk and Luhansk in the seven-year hiatus when Vladimir Putin could still plausibly claim that he was defending something.
Serhii was travelling to the front line in Kharkiv with a consignment of body armour, camouflage and eggs. He placed the camouflage in an overhead luggage rack and the body armour under the couchette with the eggs. He’d brought a picnic of bread and fruit that he offered to share with me. We ate cheerfully in the dark because all the light bulbs in the train had been removed to avoid giving the encircling Russians a visible target. On his phone he scrolled through pictures of his wife and eight-year-old twin daughters, who had moved west but not yet joined the refugee exodus out of the country.
‘What will you do?’ I asked.
‘We will win,’ he replied, with another big smile.
Serhii was always smiling. The only time I saw him look sombre was a day or two later when he showed me a photograph of a bombed building in Kharkiv, his family home.
I expected non-stop shelling in Kharkiv but when I arrived my hosts said there had been a reduction in Russian air activity in recent days, as the Kremlin focused its murderous attention elsewhere. They introduced me to ‘Aslan’, a thirtysomething hipster who’d dyed his beard blue and yellow. A month ago, he would have been sipping turmeric lattes in one of Kharkiv’s pavement cafés. Now he was in command of a group of guerrillas engaging the Russians in the city’s streets. One day he took me to inspect a captured Russian tank and predicted that the Ukrainians would shortly repel the occupiers. ‘Right now we are not just defending our city,’ he said. ‘We are counter-attacking!’
Such details were impossible to verify. They often changed. Aslan boasted of catching twenty Russian agents provocateurs within Kharkiv’s city limits, but there was no solid evidence, and the next day the number had been revised down to ten. A week later, a report to Nato’s Atlantic Council gave the number of captured GRU agents in Kharkiv as three. I asked Aslan about the different figures. He became impatient. ‘Don’t listen to propahanda,’ he said. ‘Tell the truth, my friend.’
At the traffic lights on Sumy Street, in the centre of Kharkiv, a convoy of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles marked with a white letter ‘Z’ turned left towards Freedom Square. One of the largest squares in Europe, it’s home to Derzhprom, or the Palace of Industry, a spectacular constructivist building made up of towers and skyways that was photographed by Robert Byron in the late 1920s, and praised by Béla Bartók as a mix of Manhattan and the Bauhaus. There’s a black-and-white photograph of a Soviet T-34 tank parked in front of the Derzhprom during the Battle of Kharkiv in 1943.
On 2 March, during this year’s battle, a cruise missile damaged the building, creating a massive fireball that gutted the Kharkiv regional government headquarters opposite. A week later, I saw a couple of boys looking through a blown-out window next to the Derzhprom, and reckoned they must be using the bombsite as a playground, a bit like the characters in John Boorman’s movie Hope and Glory. But then I noticed the boys were apparently wearing combat uniform. Not quite child soldiers perhaps but hardly out of their teens, they were members of a much romanticised foreign legion of volunteers fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army.
An estimated 17,000 foreign fighters, including young people, mostly from the UK, US, Ireland, Canada, Spain and Portugal, have flocked to the conflict. Asked on television on 26 February if Britons should go to Ukraine to join the battle, the foreign secretary replied: ‘Absolutely!’ Doing so is a criminal offence under the Foreign Enlistment Act. Liz Truss later withdrew her remarks.
I met a veteran US marine who’d been in Kharkiv for three weeks, training volunteers. At first he wouldn’t divulge anything. He stared into space and avoided eye contact. Then all of a sudden he began to open up. ‘They want me to go to Kyiv but I’ve got to put this behind me. I just can’t sit and watch it happen any more.’ For him, the war in Ukraine was not ‘the decisive thing of this century’, as Claud Cockburn described the International Brigade’s view of the Spanish Civil War.
‘It’s a shit show – with a 70 per cent suicide rate!’ he said. (He didn’t mean they were deliberately killing themselves, but that they might as well have been.) ‘I’m seeing things now you wouldn’t believe. Young unemployed kids living at home, with no training, no military experience, never even shot a gun. One day they’re sitting on the couch watching TV with their parents, the next they’re being sent straight to the front line.’
He showed me a photo he’d taken of a twenty-year-old Canadian’s passport. ‘He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing here. I said: “Go home, I’ll even pay your ticket.” Because there will always be another conflict. There will always be another battle.’
He was talking very quickly now, and without preamble. I grabbed inside my rucksack for a notebook, which I couldn’t find. The only thing that came to hand was the book I’d been reading on the train to Kharkiv, my old Penguin Classics edition of Homage to Catalonia. The US marine hadn’t heard of it, but he smiled at the irony once I’d explained, and got out his phone to take a shot of the cover.