Personal account of a meeting in Kramatorsk, de facto new capital of the oblast of Donetsk.
Dinner was almost over. Just a few more sips of beer and we could head back to the hotel and finally get some sleep. The day had been exhausting. Instead, two waiters show up at to the table. Several plates full of закуски – cheese, cucumbers, marinated and fried vegetables. And three shots of vodka. “Compliment from the old dude over there”, one of the waiters whispers with a grin.
The “old dude” had been sitting there for a while, listening to our French and staring at us. He had decided to take action. Yet he was shy and hesitated to join. Yet. Three shots of vodka: this meant that there was one for him. He had to join. Eventually he comes over. In fact, he is not shy. Not at all. He is just fully drunk. Plus, we’re obviously foreigners. “Which language to communicate in? Aha, I learned German at school! No English, no French. My wife learned French. I learned German”. “Na gut, wir können ein bisschen auf deutsch sprechen” “No, I told you I did not learn French at school”… Ok, so Russian would do.
The first toast goes to the meeting. “After the first toast together, we are no strangers no more”. His name is Oleg. After drinking, I have the feeling I already know him. закуски, закуски. The delightful after-taste of my previous meal is already gone, washed down by sour snacks. Too bad. But one’s gotta do what one’s gotta do. “We can tell each other everything now”. So he starts. He is impulsive. He is Cossack. « I was born in the Rostov region. In my passport is written that I was born in the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic. Back then it did not make any difference. But I have been living here in Kramatorsk for many many years”. Oleg would not say that he is “Ukrainian”. He is “living here for many years” and that’s more than enough.
“Now I am 66 years-old, it’s already been 10 years that I live on my pension. But I had a very nice career. I started to work in a huge factory here when I was young. There more than 40,000 people working there! Now, it’s less than 15,000… And salaries… Sorry, you don’t speak Russian, I forget, you are foreigners. Ah yes, you understand! Alright, so we can continue talking”.
Not before another toast, that is. “The second one goes to you, my guests!” It does take a bit more than that before drinking it up because Oleg is obviously a master in the art of toasting. There is beauty in his speech, his loud breathing and vague looks. The most beautiful part of such a fatigue-tipsiness combination is that no one has to actually pay attention to what we toast on.
“You know, I finished my career as head engineer, it was a very prestigious position! But now it’s been ten years that I live on my pension. I live right upstairs, this is my street, my Проспект Миру. I got my apartment after many years working. I was head engineer in a big factory, you know”, Oleg recalls in-between two mouthfuls. And then one day, I see from the window these guys, this… crowd, marching on my street with all of those nationalist flags. Ukrainian flags, Red and Black flags… Banderists, here! I was shocked, I did not understand what had happened!
“Let’s go and smoke. You smoke? And you do understand Russian, right? You’re a good boy”. As he pets my shoulder, waiters don’t even hide their laughing any longer.
“And then the other guys arrived. Oh, these guys! I live on one of the main streets, so I saw them every day, I know what they did… At first, it was fine, they were talking about referendum, fighting against fascists, they were promising that everything would go fine. You know who they were? Vandals, thugs, bandits! We are used to bandits around here, but it was something new, I didn’t think I would see that one day ». One puff. Two puffs. Oleg stands still in the darkness of the hardly lit Проспект Миру. Three puffs. “And my wife, you know. She is a good woman, she is a very strong woman from Donbass. She is making my life impossible but she is my wife, what can I do! She was hysterical during these months… If I would not be 66 years-old, I swear to God, I would have gone and corrected these bandits myself!”
“One day I was driving with her, my wife. I was driving my car, a Ford Passat. I had a good car because I was a head engineer and I had managed to save enough to buy it”. One puff. Two puffs. “We will need a third toast. But let me tell you first: I was driving and we got to a blockpost. They decided to get my car, because it was a good car, a Ford Passat. I always keep a gun in the box in front of the passenger seat. Because I am a man; I have to protect myself and my family! I wanted to take it and defend myself. They had all kind of automatic guns and rifles. My wife was seating in the car. It was obvious that if I took the gun out, we would both be dead by now. They took my car”.
“Now, at least, it’s quiet…” Oleg simply states, heading back from the bathroom. « Guys, it’s life ». I wish yours will be easier. Although most of my life was actually not so bad. But to finish on such a note… » The third toast goes to peace. Not a Ukrainian peace, not a Russian peace, not a hybrid peace, not a doublespeak Orwellian peace. Just peace.
There won’t be any fourth toast. Oleg, please, don’t insist. It would ruin the moment. Plus the waiters just turned off the lights in the restaurant. Time to go. After shaking hands and hugging, we leave Oleg on his street. We hardly start to walk away that he is already talking to new people. He already replaced us. I light up a new cigaret on the way. From the depth of my drunken mind, I am not worried. Oleg has worked hard. His world collapsed. His mental world had to be redefined and reframed on several occasion. He has been disappointed and betrayed. Yet It looks like Oleg knows how to live through all that. Regardless of the changing company.