Oleksiy would always prepare a “legend” to travel from Kherson, his home in the occupied territory of Kherson. This persona helped him avoid being arrested at Russian checkpoints.
It was his favorite role to play, the elderly Russian farmer.
To support his story, he brought props – a flashdrive with Russian songs that he could play in the van, a shovel and a tractor’s license. He was also helped by the fact that he was born in Russia.
It was very useful during his three-month occupation, when he carried out errands for his community, such as delivering groceries or distributing medicine.
Oleksiy’s legend was ultimately what helped him escape from the occupied zone. He smuggled a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, whom the Russians were hunting, across no man’s land to free Ukraine.
A few days after their invasion of southern Ukraine in February, the Russians moved into the region around Oleksiy’s home.
Sky News reported that he said, “The first week following the Russian invasion, we didn’t leave our homes.”
“I felt immense fear, animal fear for me, my family, friends, and neighbours.”
Soon, this fear turned into rage at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where Oleksiy had spent his childhood and moved to Kherson to attend naval college. He was angry and ran to the grocery store to buy groceries. He also went to his farm to pick berries.
He was able to lift more healthcare workers and deliver supplies over time, which required him to pass through Russian checkpoints.
He was a Russian speaker, which helped him in these encounters. But he knew that his phone could prove to be his downfall. Oleksiy began sending information about Russian military locations that he had spotted while on his trips to a Telegram channel of the Ukrainian security services.
Friend was asked which knee he preferred to be shot
“I prepared myself for the checkpoints by thoroughly cleaning my phone. I deleted Viber and Telegram, Signal and Signal, YouTube and all photos, videos and cleaned Google queries. Specialists would find the thing if the phone were checked.
Russian soldiers discovered an anti-Russian post on a friend’s Facebook page. They put him up against the wall for more than an hour and asked him which knee he preferred to be shot.
Oleksiy was warned by the soldiers that the soldier would be allowed to go unharmed.
He began to hear stories about Russian soldiers entering homes to look for weapons and veterans of the Ukrainian armed forces. Rumours circulated that the Russians wanted farmers to register their land plots with them in Zaporizhzhia, a neighboring region. Soon, soldiers arrived at Oleksiy’s farm.
“A large Kamaz-armoured truck, accompanied by an armoured personnel vehicle, drove directly into my yard… Eight soldiers with machine guns streamed out of the vehicle. One of them approached me politely and asked how I was feeling. It had been much better than it was before they arrived.”
Russians lost their weapon records and were looking for a huntsman to help them.
However, these encounters did not stop him from resisting.
For example, when morale was low in his village, he turned the sound system on while cleaning his car to blast a Ukrainian folk song. It had become an anthem for defiance.
“I turned on ‘Oi U luzi Chervona Kalyna’ loudly and opened my door for others to hear. It was dangerous for the Russians to hear, so my neighbors didn’t know what I was doing. It worked and it lifted the spirits in the neighborhood.
“My patience ran out”
Oleksiy was unable to resist the occupation despite the fact that his family, which included his son and daughter in law living abroad, were urging Oleksiy and Svetlana, to flee the occupied area. Svetlana needed help for her elderly mother. Five people worked full-time at Oleksiy’s farm, which he had grown over the past 13 years. He worried about their future without him.
“I hoped we could be patient and save the staff as well as the plants. It was becoming more and more alarming every day. Friends and acquaintances were searched, threats of execution were made for one phrase in my correspondence, and communications were cut off. My patience was exhausted.”
Oleksiy started to plan his escape in May. He hoped to join the approximately 50% of Kherson’s fleeing people.
He was well-aware of Telegram groups, a popular social media messaging platform. These groups allow users to share tips and information on how to escape the occupied area.
One of Oleksiy’s employees approached him as he was planning his trip. She wanted him to bring her husband and their two children along on the journey. However, her husband was a veteran of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, one of those the Russians wanted to find, and his van was already full.
Oleksiy was faced with a difficult decision: help a friend, risk his life, or prioritize the journey for himself and his family.
It was insane to take another man and his two children. We spoke for quite a while; I was unsure how to explain that there was no room in my car. We discussed what we would do if he was detained at the checkpoint. She sobbed and asked to rescue the children and bring them to her family. These sobs are still fresh in my mind. I realized that we would all be together and, to hell with all the stuff, we will somehow squeeze in.
Oleksiy had already offered transport to three female health workers, and two of their children. This would mean that 11 people would need to get into his van.
Oleksiy stated that his requests to limit the number of bags per person were futile because there was so much stuff.
Otis, the cat, crawled through the blankets and bags to get in.
They set out on 2 June to head east towards Vasylivka, which is more than 180 miles from their base.
The route had around 25 checkpoints. Oleksiy ensured that one of Putin’s favorite songs was playing on the radio, to show the Russians that he wasn’t going to cause trouble.
As they approached the frontline, no one knew what to expect. Some reported being able to pass through within a day while others had to wait for days in order not be caught up by the throng of cars.
“We drove to Vasylivka around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There was a long line and we were the 73rd. There were 10 cars in groups and everyone had to be listed with their name, gender, year, and birth date.
It was a hot day, and three generations of people and a cat ate lunch. They sought shelter from the sun and heard the sounds of fighting off the distant.
One of the Russian guards let the child play with his assault rifle. Oleksiy inquired if it was possible to get through the Russian lines. He stressed that his mother-in law couldn’t withstand the heat.
“I believe they somehow remembered us. After the inspection had begun at 5 p.m., 10 cars were allowed to pass. They also inspected documents and belongings.
The miracle of crossing no man’s land
The Russian armoured personnel vehicle, accompanied by an ex-veteran, pushed them forward and they reached one final checkpoint. They were searching for evidence of tattoos that might suggest they had served with the Ukrainian forces, so the Russians ordered the ex-veteran to get out of the van.
“He crawled from the bag. They checked if he had any tattoos and checked all his passports.
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The Russians allowed the group to pass without knowing that the man was in the armed forces.
“After that, we were free and in no man’s country.”
Oleksiy stepped on the accelerator once he reached the neutral zone between the frontlines. They detoured along a dirt track to avoid the bridge that separated the Russians from the Ukrainians.
Heavy rain started to fall and artillery began to fire overhead, making the marshland that they were traversing into a quagmire. To pull the convoy of vehicles across the swamp, a fire truck and two Ukrainian military tractors were needed.
They eventually crossed the border, Oleksiy said was a miracle.
Once they had crossed the Ukrainian frontlines, the police took them and other vehicles on a convoy to Zaporizhzhia. This city of 750,000 people is about 20 miles from the fighting.
They were greeted at the office and offered tea and coffee.
Oleksiy, his family and friends are currently staying in Zaporizhzhia with their relatives. Most of his passengers have moved west to Lviv or Odesa.
He has also returned to volunteering to help with equipment transport to Ukrainian troops as well as medical supplies to Red Cross Kherson.
Oleksiy, who grew up in Russia might be the kind of Ukrainian Vladimir Putin expected to welcome his troops. The Russian president’s reaction to the invasion was not as he expected.
“I conquered my fear long ago.” “I have no rage left.”