Whenever Oleksiy was planning a trip from his home in the occupied region of Kherson, he would come prepared with a “legend” for the journey, a persona that helped him avoid suspicion at Russian checkpoints.
He found playing the character of an elderly Russian farmer worked best.
He brought props to back up his story – a flashdrive loaded with Russian songs he could play in his van, a shovel, and a tractor’s licence. The fact he was born in Russia certainly helped him too.
It was useful during the three months under occupation while he ran errands helping his community, including delivering groceries and distributing medicine.
And ultimately, Oleksiy’s legend helped him escape the occupied zone after smuggling a Ukrainian armed forces veteran, who the Russians had been hunting, across no man’s land and into free Ukraine.
The Russians had moved into the area surrounding Oleksiy’s village a few days after they invaded southern Ukraine in late February.
“The first week after the Russian invasion we did not leave our homes,” he told Sky News.
“I felt enormous fear, animal fear for my life, family, friends and neighbours”.
This fear soon turned to rage at Russia’s invasion, the country where Oleksiy spent his childhood before moving to Kherson for naval college. The anger motivated him to get out of the house for the first time, doing runs to the grocery store and to his farm where he grew berries.
Over time he did more by giving lifts to healthcare workers and delivering supplies, trips which involved passing Russian checkpoints.
Being a Russian speaker helped him in these encounters, but he knew his phone could be his downfall. Oleksiy had begun sending information about Russian military positions that he spotted on his trips to a Telegram channel belonging to the Ukrainian security service.
Friend was asked in which knee he would prefer to be shot
“I carefully prepared for passing checkpoints by cleaning my phone: I deleted Viber, Telegram, Signal, YouTube, all photos and videos, and cleaned queries in Google. But if the phone was checked by specialists, they would definitely find something.”
When Russian soldiers found an anti-Russian Facebook post on the phone of a friend of his, they put him against the wall for over an hour and asked him in which knee he would prefer to be shot.
The soldiers ultimately let the man go unharmed, but it was a warning to Oleksiy.
He also began hearing stories of Russian soldiers entering people’s homes to search for weapons and Ukrainian armed forces veterans. Rumours circulated that in the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region the Russians were demanding that farmers register their plots of land with them. It wasn’t long before soldiers visited Oleksiy’s farm.
“A large Kamaz armoured truck followed by an armoured personnel carrier drove straight into my yard… eight soldiers with machine guns poured out of the vehicle. One approached me and asked politely how I was feeling. I replied that it had been much better before they arrived.”
The Russians were lost and looking to locate a huntsman with records of weapon owners in the area.
These encounters didn’t stop his acts of resistance, however.
When morale was flagging in his village, for example, he turned on the sound system when cleaning his car to blast out a Ukrainian folk song that had become an anthem of defiance.
“I turned on ‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ very loudly and opened the door so people around could hear it. My neighbours didn’t expect this, because it was a dangerous move if the Russians heard. But it worked, it raised the spirit in the neighbourhood.”
‘My patience ran out’
Despite Oleksiy’s urge to resist the occupation, his family, including his son and daughter-in-law living abroad, had been urging him and his wife Svetlana to leave the occupied zone. But Svetlana’s elderly mother needed care and five people were employed full time at his farm, a business he had built up over 13 years. Without him around he worried about their future.
“I hoped that we could be patient a little and we would be able to save the staff and the plants. But every day it was getting worse and more alarming. Searches of friends and acquaintances, threats of execution for a phrase in my correspondence, the cutting off of communications. My patience ran out.”
In late May, Oleksiy began to plan his escape, hoping to join the estimated 50% of people from Kherson who had fled to other parts of Ukraine and beyond by this time.
He was aware of Telegram groups – a popular social media messaging service – where tips on how to leave the occupied zone were shared, as well as information about where Russian checkpoints were.
As he was planning his trip, one of Oleksiy’s employees came to him with a request – she wanted him to take her husband and two children on his journey out. Her husband, however, was a recent veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, one of the people the Russians were looking for, and his van was already full.
Oleksiy had to make a decision; help a friend and potentially risk his life or prioritise the journey of himself and his family.
“It was madness to take another man and two children. We talked for a long time; I didn’t know how to say that I had no space in the car. We began to discuss what to do if he was arrested at the checkpoint. She sobbed, asking to save the children and take them to relatives. I still cannot forget these sobs… all in all, I realised that we will all go together, to hell with the stuff, we will squeeze in somehow.”
Oleksiy had already promised transport to three female health workers and two of their children, meaning 11 people would now need to pile into his van.
“My requests for people to take no more than one bag per person were in vain, there was a mountain of stuff,” said Oleksiy.
There was just enough room to fit in one last passenger, Otis the cat, who crawled across the sea of blankets and bags after being thrown inside.
When they set off on 2 June they headed east towards the frontline at Vasylivka, more than 180 miles away.
There were around 25 checkpoints on the route and Oleksiy made sure to have one of Putin’s favourite songs playing on the radio to show the Russians he wasn’t going to be trouble.
No one knew exactly what to expect as they neared the frontline. Some people had reported passing through in a day, others having to cower from fighting for several days amid a queue of cars stretching for miles.
“We drove up to Vasylivka at 3pm. There was a queue there and we were 73rd. Groups of 10 cars were formed, and you had to write down everyone’s name, gender and year of birth.”
It was a warm day and three generations of people – and a cat – ate lunch and sought shelter from the sun with the sound of fighting in the distance, not knowing how long they would be.
A Russian guard let one of the children play with his assault rifle and Oleksiy asked if there was a chance to pass through the Russian lines, stressing that his mother-in-law couldn’t stand the heat well.
“I think they somehow remembered us. After 5pm, the inspection began, 10 cars were allowed through at a time, after they inspected belongings and documents.”
Miracle of crossing no man’s land
They moved forward accompanied by a Russian armoured personnel carrier and came to one last checkpoint. The Russians were looking for evidence of tattoos on people that would suggest serving with the Ukrainian forces and they ordered the ex-veteran out of the van.
“He crawled out of the bunch of bags. They checked whether he had any tattoos on his body and once again all the passports were checked.”
With no way of knowing that this man had been in the armed forces, the Russians let the group pass through.
“After that we were free and into no man’s land.”
Once into the neutral zone between the frontlines Oleksiy floored the accelerator. The bridge over the river separating the Russians and Ukrainians was broken so they took a detour along a dirt track.
Artillery started to fire overhead and heavy rain began to fall, turning the marshland they were crossing into a quagmire. A fire truck and two military tractors belonging to the Ukrainian forces ahead had to be called in to pull the caravan of vehicles across the swamp.
Eventually they made it across, a feat Oleksiy described as a miracle.
Once beyond the Ukrainian frontlines the police escorted them and other vehicles in convoy to Zaporizhzhia, a city of 750,000 people about 20 miles behind the fighting.
Upon arrival they registered at the local office, got some tea and coffee and were given a bed at a local nursery school, where over 100 mattresses were laid out on the floor.
Oleksiy and his family are now staying with relatives in Zaporizhzhia, while most of his passengers moved west to Lviv or Odesa.
He is also back volunteering, helping equipment get to Ukrainian troops and medical supplies to the Red Cross in Kherson.
Having grown up in Russia, Oleksiy might be the type of Ukrainian that Vladimir Putin expected to give his troops a warm welcome. His reaction to the invasion and his resistance shows just how wrong the Russian president was.
“I overcame my fear a long time ago. I have only rage left.”