Evening falls as I look out East across the Dniester. The river flows slowly, heading towards the Black Sea at the pace of a babushka wheeling her groceries home. The sky, the grass, the water – they’re all a muted shade of bluey-grey. Despite the depressive nature of it all, there’s a kind of beauty to this melancholy. I should be here back in the 50s, smoking my last cigarette, waiting for the NKVD to send me out to Siberia. That sort of violent history seemed far away, but now it’s outlined on the horizon.

I’ve made it this far, as far as the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, but now my progress is halted. 

The bridges across the river are blown; the Ukrainians aren’t taking any chances – they want to secure every stretch of the frontier. And the frustration is terrible, because a lot of reporters might want to cross that river just to get a good story and earn a nice cheque, but the truth is, I just want to cross that river to see my friend. I just want to see Nikita one last time, even if it’s only for a day. 

He’s in Odessa, and that’s only 30 kilometres away; you can almost smell the cordite blowing on the sea breeze. When I was there last August the city smelt of salt and garden barbecues; it smelt of falling asleep after Sunday lunch. But now Nikita is woken by the shudder of bombs in the early hours, the smash of his porcelain bowls falling from the kitchen shelf. 

I told him yesterday that I was in reach of his city, that I might be able to see him, albeit briefly.

“There’s not much time now,” he replied, “they’re going to ship me from the city to the front very soon; I’m living the life of a real soldier now!”

He sent a photo of his first dinner with the troops: “Porridge with a side of porridge,” he wrote underneath – proof this wonderful man still has a heart as light as it ever was, despite the enemy closing in from the North and the East, despite the fact that soon bread will be a luxury item.

They’re expecting an attack any day, any minute. 

I met another Ukrainian in Chisinau this morning. He has friends in Odessa, too. 

“A few Russian warships already tried to land troops,” he told me, “but they failed – the sailors on board didn’t cooperate. They knew they would be killing their Ukrainian brothers as well as themselves; they refused.”

And so an unspeakable tension hangs over Odessa, and still I wish I could see my friend again, because as much as anything else I need to pinch myself. It’s all so surreal; “awful and wonderful”, Nikita said. 

I want to make sure that whatever this man does (and I know it will be something remarkable), that his actions are remembered, that Nikita doesn’t just fall into the bracket of a statistic on a news website, that his voice isn’t drowned in the noise and the numbers of war.

Drowning is something this man cannot and will not do – he’s an ex-sailor, after all.

“It might be hard to find me if you come,” Nikita explains, “I don’t know where I’ll be by tomorrow.”

The last thing I see of my friend is a photo of him in uniform. Last week he only had some reused overalls, but now they’ve given him proper khakis, boots, a beret with blue and yellow stripes. In the photo he leans against a street corner looking into the middle distance. 

He looks splendid, if “splendid” is the word you can use in this context – they probably said the young boys looked “splendid” as they marched off in 1914. 

There’s a silent sense of tragedy there, behind all the romance. In the chaos and the heroism of war I imagine you can’t hear it so well. But back here on the banks of the Dniester that silence is deafening. 

The sky over Odessa is growing darker.