The Couple Who Fled Russia for the War in Ukraine

Ukrainians could leave Russia via a western border and enter Ukraine through Poland. This was not an option for Russian citizens. Alex urged Halyna and Nataliya to go ahead while he figured out what to do. Alex lost this battle. Instead, all three of them took the cheapest possible train to Belgorod, a Russian city twenty miles to the border with Ukraine. Halyna carried their cat, Lucy, in a backpack.

The next day, they hitched a ride to the border and approached the crossing on foot. Russian border agents looked at them like they were crazy.

“Where are you going?” one of them asked.

“Home,” Halyna said.

“Do you even know what’s going on there?”

“Yes,” she said.

They were waved through.

After about twenty minutes, they passed a sign that read “State border of Ukraine,” or what remained of it. On the other side of the road, a line of cars waiting to get into Russia was at a standstill. Eventually, a lone driver going in the direction of Ukraine offered them a ride. They ended up in Vovchansk, a town that had been under Russian occupation since the first day of the war. The keeper of a roadside hotel told them they could stay and pay her in buckwheat and canned goods, which she said they would be able to get in humanitarian-aid packages distributed by the Russians. The fact that buckwheat, a staple, had become a tradable commodity suggested that there was essentially no food in Vovchansk. Indeed, what food there was in the stores was prohibitively expensive. Occasionally, Russian cars arrived with humanitarian aid, but it was only for the elderly and the town’s residents.

Alex, Halyna, and Nataliya spent nearly two weeks looking for someone who would drive them to Kharkiv, which was about forty miles away. Desperate, they finally decided to walk. The wheels had broken off one of their bags, so a local sanitation worker who had taken pity on them gave them a wheelbarrow. About a mile outside of town, a small pickup truck pulled up, and the driver asked if they needed a ride. The truck driver delivered bread to Vovchansk, making regular runs to and from Kharkiv. He had an arrangement with soldiers on both sides, which probably helped explain the exorbitant price of the bread.

They passed two Russian checkpoints before reaching a Ukrainian one. They handed over their documents through the window. Seeing a Russian passport among them, the soldier commanded the family to get out of the car and to line up facing it. The truck driver was forced to the ground. The soldiers bound their hands behind their backs with Scotch tape, and placed black plastic bags over their heads. The bags had been used to store potatoes. They were dusty and smelled of soil. The family was loaded into the car and taken to a different location. Alex, Halyna, and Nataliya thought they were about to be executed. The car stopped, and someone helped them get out and led them inside of a building. They were directed to sit down. Halyna realized with surprise that she was sitting on something soft, probably a couch. Then they heard a man’s voice. He sounded angry. “What did you bring me?” he said. “I thought they were armed men. They are three broads with a cat!”

The bags were removed from their heads. The owner of the angry voice, a Ukrainian officer, demanded explanations. “I have a house in Slovyansk, two goats, a cow, and chickens,” Alex heard himself saying. “I can’t lose my farm! If I had a gun, I’d take it and shoot myself.” He’d never farmed in his life.

The officer asked why Halyna was shaking and crying. “I’m scared,” she said. A soldier brought apples, tea, and some valerian-root pills to help them calm down. The officer looked through Alex’s phone. Alex had scrubbed it clean before leaving Moscow, so only one Russian phone number remained. The contact’s name was Kotyonok, which means “kitten” in Russian.

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