When Igor Novikov, an affable 40-year-old former adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was instructed by a trusted supply on February 23, 2022, that Russia would invade the nation inside 24 hours, he made a most uncommon selection: he determined to guide a haircut so he might seem like Jimmy Fallon, the American chat present host.
As he sat in his elegant villa in a quiet, prosperous village on the outskirts of Kyiv, soaking within the terrifying information, he recalled the time a 12 months earlier when Fallon had proven a phase of an interview Igor had completed with the US information channel MSNBC and identified their putting resemblance to the viewers.
“When did I turn out to be a high Ukrainian official?” Fallon joked, pulling the identical critical expression Igor had worn within the interview, earlier than including, “He’s a handsome man.”
Igor had beforehand been accountable for Ukraine-US relations and had labored intently with Zelenskyy throughout a turbulent interval within the two nations’ diplomatic relations. This expertise, coupled with the very fact he had a local grasp of English due to his British education, meant Igor knew he would “be one of many folks talking for Ukraine” as soon as the warfare started. He believed, at that second, that reviving Fallon’s gag from a couple of years earlier might assist deliver extra consideration to their plight.
So, he flipped open his laptop computer and, with little thought to what institution he selected, booked a last-minute appointment at a close-by barbershop.
Within the early night, Igor drove to his appointment within the Darnitsa neighbourhood of Kyiv, a residential space that he politely describes as “not essentially the most luxurious”, navigating his black Lexus across the sprawling community of Soviet-era high-rise house blocks earlier than parking exterior.
He smiles as he recollects the second he met his barber, Vitalii Yurievich. “I used to be greeted by this very scary wanting, massive man, muscly with an enormous beard and tattoos,” he recollects. “He regarded like a member of some bike gang, however he turned out to be the sweetest man.”
‘So what do you do?’
Contained in the barbershop, Igor turned down the supply of whiskey or water; his thoughts was racing and crammed with ideas of “impending doom”.
“So what do you do?” Vitalii requested as he swung a drape round Igor.
It was typical barbershop small speak. Igor was not within the temper to elucidate the eclectic multitude of tasks he had on the go, so he instructed him what was best to elucidate, that he was a former adviser to the president.
There was silence. “Vitalii checked out me funnily. I realised, given the neighbourhood, I higher again up my story, or else I seem like a loopy particular person,” Igor recollects.
So he defined that he had been accountable for US affairs when then-US President Donald Trump had positioned a name to Zelenskyy which finally triggered Trump’s impeachment trials. Igor then instructed Vitalii how he had skilled President Zelenskyy to keep away from Trump’s notorious tug-of-war handshake, which he would use to embarrass world leaders in entrance of the cameras once they visited the US.
Igor even whipped out his telephone and confirmed Vitalii a video the place, after having spent a lot time coaching Zelenskyy and his group on how to withstand being pulled in by Trump’s handshake, Igor inadvertently pulled the transfer on the previous US president, who was visibly caught off-guard.
They laughed on the story. The temper lightened earlier than they fell silent once more. Igor returned to ideas of the upcoming invasion. However one thing was additionally on Vitalii’s thoughts.
‘3am … It’s taking place’
Vitalii, a chef turned barber, had by no means been an anxious particular person. “I’m the kind of man if one thing occurs, it occurs, however I’m not the kind to fret,” he says.
Throughout January and February 2022, about 200,000 Russian troopers had amassed alongside Ukraine’s borders. Rumours have been circulating of a possible invasion, which Vitalii dismissed, particularly when February 16 handed, a date US President Joe Biden had highlighted as a doable day Russia might assault.
However speak of an upcoming warfare had endured, particularly after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Individuals’s Republic and Luhansk Individuals’s Republic on February 21. It had been the principle matter of dialog within the barbershop on the twenty second and the twenty third, with each different buyer saying it will occur. In order Vitalii minimize Igor’s hair, he thought to himself: “Who higher to finish the controversy than this man?”
“Do you assume there will probably be an invasion?” he requested Igor.
“3am within the morning. It’s taking place,” got here the abrupt response.
Vitalii felt shock flood by way of his physique as his coronary heart pounded in his chest.
They fell silent for about three minutes earlier than Vitalii requested: “What ought to I do?”
Pack all of your valuables, loads of water and a few necessities into suitcases and be able to run, Igor suggested.
After the haircut was over, they went exterior for a smoke. Along with his freshly minimize hair, Igor regarded up on the towering buildings round him and thought to himself, ‘What’s going to the warfare seem like? Will these buildings get blown up?’
The 2 males, who had puffed away in silence, ultimately stamped out their cigarettes and wished one another properly as they parted methods. It was a second that may sign the start of essentially the most traumatic experiences of their lives but in addition of a brand new friendship – even when they didn’t understand it simply but.
‘Right here is a few whiskey. Now, let’s get drunk’
After Igor left, Vitalii went to the small kitchen in the back of the barbershop. A Union Jack flag, a nod to the standard faculty of British minimize and shave barbershops that the institution was styled on, and an image of the Irish combined martial arts (MMA) fighter Conor McGregor who he as soon as admired, held on the wall. He pulled on his lengthy thick beard and felt moisture on his moustache; he regarded down at his fingers which have been lined in blood.
“Due to the stress, my blood stress should have shot up and induced a nosebleed,” he recollects.
He cleaned his beard and closed up the barbershop, and similar to Igor had completed an hour earlier, he crammed up his automobile’s tank and purchased a bottle of whiskey.
He can vividly bear in mind his dialog together with his accomplice when he returned to his high-rise house in Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv.
“I’ve simply spoken to a former adviser to Zelenskyy who says there may be going to be warfare. I’ve hypertension – right here is a few whiskey,” he instructed her, putting the bottle on the desk. “Now, let’s get drunk.”
Shocked, she shared a glass with him earlier than they frantically adopted Igor’s earlier recommendation and packed two emergency suitcases.
Afterwards, he grabbed one other drink. Quickly a heady concoction of whiskey and his naturally sceptical disposition triggered a creeping doubt in Vitalii’s thoughts. “It simply sounded so unbelievable, so by the point I went to mattress, I had satisfied myself nothing was going to occur,” he recollects.
Igor was certain his info was right. So when he returned house, he additionally poured himself and his spouse some whiskey. The couple had been made conscious by way of Igor’s sources that an invasion would doubtless occur many months beforehand and had determined to remain in Kyiv with their two youngsters. It was a courageous choice, however because the hours ticked in direction of the 3am deadline, Igor felt himself taking consolation within the whiskey bottle lengthy after his spouse had gone to mattress.
Three within the morning got here and went, however nothing occurred. There was silence. Lastly, drained and drunk, Igor determined to hitch his spouse in mattress.
His info had been incorrect, however solely by an hour. At 4am, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
‘Evening turned to day for a couple of moments’
Vitalii remembers waking to a number of automobile alarms wailing on the street under his house. A wave of concern handed over him, however with a gentle hangover creeping in and having satisfied himself there can be no invasion, he went again to sleep. A number of moments later, he woke to a loud bang.
He leapt away from bed and trepidatiously approached the window. As he inched nearer to his curtains, an enormous flash crammed the room, adopted by one other increase. Shockwaves tore by way of the flat knocking kitchen objects off the highest of the fridge.
He recalled Igor’s earlier warning and thought to himself, “Bloody hell, so, actually?!”
He wakened his girlfriend, who was carrying earplugs, and so they grabbed their suitcases earlier than exiting the high-rise block. His mother and father lived in a low-lying home with a cellar that could possibly be used as a bomb shelter, so he determined that they need to head there within the automobile.
As they made their approach to the automobile, there was one other flash. This time, it was so brilliant, he recollects, that “night time turned to day for a couple of moments” earlier than one other highly effective explosion nearly knocked them to their toes.
Sadly for Vitalii, Brovary was one of many areas Russian forces focused throughout their siege of Kyiv within the first weeks of the full-scale invasion.
Later that day, a cruise missile flew over his mother and father’ house. It was so shut that he says, “If it had been going any slower, I might have been in a position to make out its serial quantity.” Vitalii determined it was time to journey together with his accomplice and sister, who had additionally made her approach to her mother and father’ house, to the relative security of Ukraine’s western areas close to the Polish border.
It was a choice that may bifurcate Igor and Vitalii’s paths in the course of the roughly nine-week siege of their metropolis.
Igor can be thrust into the media limelight, dealing with worldwide press engagements as explosions rattled the windowpanes in his home in Kyiv. The household’s nervous mollycoddled corgi, Cookie, grew to become their canine early warning system as she might at all times sense a robust explosion earlier than everybody else and would start frantically barking, giving Igor and his spouse some important further seconds to usher their youngsters away from the home windows.
Vitalii put his bodily power to make use of within the nation’s west, working 10-hour shifts loading worldwide support provides onto vans that may then distribute them across the nation. Then, in Might 2022, he returned to Kyiv and commenced working on the barbershop as soon as once more.
‘Gratitude that we each get a second probability to satisfy’
When June got here round, an more and more dishevelled Igor determined it was time for an additional haircut, and he knew there was just one particular person for the job.
The 2 males had been so distracted on the eve of the invasion, they’d forgotten to alternate particulars. Igor didn’t even know Vitalii’s full identify. So, he logged again onto the barbershop’s web site and scrolled by way of the photographs of the employees till he discovered a well-known face smiling again at him.
When Igor walked by way of the door, Vitalii immediately recognised him.
“I felt gratitude that each of us are alive,” says Vitalii. “Warfare adjustments folks loads. I minimize the hair of navy personnel, and generally they reappear with shell shock or no leg, however there may be at all times gratitude that they’re alive. So, after I noticed Igor, there was gratitude that we each get a second probability to satisfy,” he explains.
“The sensation is mutual,” Igor provides.
The 2 males up to date one another on their experiences since they final met. Since then, Russian troops had been and gone from the areas north of Kyiv, leaving a path of destruction of their wake.
A buyer having his hair minimize subsequent to Igor chimed into their dialog, telling them a missile had largely destroyed his house however he had been engaged on rebuilding it. “You’re an optimist!” Igor instructed him jokingly.
After the haircut, Vitalii and Igor went for a smoke; this time, there was no silence, the dialog flowed, and earlier than they knew it, they’d completed half a pack every.
‘Associates for all times’
Greater than a 12 months after their first fateful dialog, Igor has been again for a lot of extra Fallonesque haircuts, and the 2 males get pleasure from a familiarity that makes them look like childhood pals.
They joke collectively as they reminisce over how they met.
“I can belief his phrase,” Vitalii says about Igor earlier than joking: “I now have his quantity, so each time I hear a scary noise, I ring him.”
Igor laughs, and responds: “I’ve turn out to be your personal intelligence company!”
The 2 males could look completely different – Igor is clean-cut whereas Vitalii boasts a Spartan beard and an arm stuffed with tattoos – however their friendship is a testomony to how warfare can thrust folks from broadly completely different backgrounds collectively.
Will they keep in contact even when the warfare ends? “We’re pals for all times now,” Igor solutions.
This text is a part of a sequence, Surprising Friendships, telling the tales of friendships solid in unlikely circumstances.
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