Kharkiv - Misha's Neighborhood Tour

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Anastasia and I met Misha and his girlfriend Valeria at LF Music on our second evening in Kharkiv. As with most things in Ukraine, our meeting would be fortuitous.

Whether related to the recent bombing or not, I’m not sure. Still, the otherwise charming hotel Anastasia and I were staying in ceased having running water on our 2nd day. I could shower at the gym (yes, there was an open gym) and Anastasia at her cousin Maria’s the first day. Still, later, when it became apparent that water would not return anytime soon, Anastasia reached out to Misha, who happened to have two apartments nearby that could be rented to tourists.

As you can imagine, because of the war and constant bombardment, tourism in Kharkiv is nothing compared to what it is typically this time of year. This is another example of the daily hardships Ukrainians are forced to endure beyond the risk of being blown to bits by Russian bombs. The economy reels, and without international support, things would get even more desperate than they already are. This is why the US must continue to support Ukraine militarily and economically. The war will be lost if the Ukrainian civilian economy collapses before Russia’s. The good news for the U.S. is that this investment is cheap and effective.

Misha was happy to have us stay in the apartments, and we were delighted to have a nice place to stay with running water. The previous hotel graciously offered us a refund for the days without water (I’ve never had a bad experience in Ukraine with the hospitality industry, for what it’s worth), and we moved locations.

The next day, we were due to take the train back to Kyiv late in the afternoon, well after our noon checkout, so Misha kindly offered to not only let us store our bags at his apartment in the meantime but to show us around his neighborhood. Kharkiv has been a long-time educational and cultural center since before Soviet times. Universities and colleges surround his neighborhood.

Since being de-occupied and forced out by the Ukrainian army in the fall of 2022, Russia has relentlessly bombed the area since early in the war, mainly because of its proximity and the reach of cheap munitions from Russia. As stated before, in Kharkiv, air raid sirens are of little use as bombs explode before the air raid sirens have a chance to engage.

Like when Dima and Maria showed us around, Misha’s tour allowed a more personal viewpoint of the devastation, explaining what each pile of rubble once was. We visited his former gym, now just bombed-out ruins, and several educational facilities no longer operating. Surprisingly, one university seemed to be in session, with students patiently waiting for entry.

Misha also showed his family’s bomb shelter, a far cry from the somewhat luxurious bomb shelter we’d toured at our hotel. This was a root cellar slash bomb shelter from World War Two. He and his extended family had spent many weeks in that cellar, and it was hard to imagine having to stay down there for more than the few minutes we toured it.

A very aggressive mother dog made our exit precarious on the way out. It seemed her owner had left to shelter in Western Ukraine, and she’d since had some pups and was very protective. I’ve found that Ukrainians LOVE their pets and have gone the extra mile to ensure they are cared for. They are typically well-fed, and you see very few strays running around.

Misha gifted Anastasia and me two lovely plush Ukrainian rugs that his family’s business specializes in making. But, of course, this industry has been interrupted as well. I hope to help him import those rugs to the USA someday.

Misha showed us a gentle and tranquil spot near his apartment on the Kharkiv River that felt a million miles away from the city, much less the war.

Anastasia and I filmed ducks floating blissfully along with the current, and it was so serene and peaceful one could easily forget the madness unfolding around us daily. This was a perfect spot to film a video diary summarizing my first Kharkiv trip.

Then Misha picked up his girlfriend, Valeria, and we went to a well-known and semi-famous fast-food spot called Bufet (Buffett in English?) to sample some authentic Ukrainian fast food.

It was a delicious and cheap departure from my regular diet.

After a quick lunch, it was time to bid adieu, so we headed to the train station, where Misha and Valeria insisted on going through security to see us off to board the train.

Several soldiers were saying goodbye to their families, which would have offered great footage, but I didn’t have the heart (or the chutzpa) to film such a private moment, so you’ll have to use your imagination, but it was incredibly moving and emotional.

Anastasia and I took the several-hour but comfortable train ride back to Kyiv, where her boyfriend Vlad was due to pick us up in a Bolt (like an Uber). Anastasia and I discussed how incredible it had been hanging in Kharkiv and meeting folks like Dima, Maria, Misha, Valeria, Icey from LF Music, Paul and Mac, and the folks from H.U.G.S. Ukraine, and all the friendly and grateful folks from Kharkiv.

As I type this summary from my notes, the U.S. government faces another political inflection point. Ukraine is again left wondering if the cradle of modern democracy and freedom will continue to help.

Selfish, greedy, shortsighted, and myopic power-hunger politicians in the USA are once again debating whether to continue to support Ukraine, no doubt, in the process empowering Putin to continue his brutal assault on people like our new friends in Kharkiv. It’s demoralizing and scary to think they’d even consider abandoning these folks at a time like this.

Sadly, the US no longer resembles the country I thought I grew up in or loved so much. It’s a different version that seems determined to destroy itself and many good people in the US, Ukraine, and other places in this inexplicably self-destructive process.

I hope and pray I’m wrong and just seeing things with a pessimistic filter. But it sure feels as if Russia’s propaganda has been especially effective here in the once “land of the free and home of the brave.”