An unexpected friendship: A barbershop bond amid the Ukraine war

Despite coming from very different walks of life, a former adviser to Zelenskyy and a Kyiv-based barber struck up a lifelong friendship just hours before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A photo of Igor on the right and Vitalii on the left looking at themselves through a mirror. Igor is sitting on a chair and Vitalii is standing behind him.
Igor Novikov, left, and Vitalii Yurievich met again in June 2022 for the first time after their initial meeting on the eve of the war [Courtesy of Igor Novikov]

When Igor Novikov, an affable 40-year-old former adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was told by a trusted source on February 23, 2022, that Russia would invade the country within 24 hours, he made a most unusual choice: he decided to book a haircut so he could look like Jimmy Fallon, the American chat show host.

As he sat in his elegant villa in a quiet, affluent village on the outskirts of Kyiv, soaking in the terrifying news, he recalled the time a year earlier when Fallon had shown a segment of an interview Igor had done with the US news channel MSNBC and pointed out their striking resemblance to the audience.

“When did I become a top Ukrainian official?” Fallon joked, pulling the same serious expression Igor had worn in the interview, before adding, “He’s a good-looking guy.”

Igor had previously been in charge of Ukraine-US relations and had worked closely with Zelenskyy during a turbulent period in the two nations’ diplomatic relations. This experience, coupled with the fact he had a native grasp of English thanks to his British schooling, meant Igor knew he would “be one of the people speaking for Ukraine” once the war began. He believed, at that moment, that reviving Fallon’s gag from a few years earlier could help bring more attention to their plight.

So, he flipped open his laptop and, with little thought to what establishment he chose, booked a last-minute appointment at a nearby barbershop.

In the early evening, Igor drove to his appointment in the Darnitsa neighbourhood of Kyiv, a residential area that he politely describes as “not the most luxurious”, navigating his black Lexus around the sprawling network of Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks before parking outside.

He smiles as he recalls the moment he met his barber, Vitalii Yurievich. “I was greeted by this very scary looking, big guy, muscly with a huge beard and tattoos,” he recalls. “He looked like a member of some motorcycle gang, but he turned out to be the sweetest guy.”

A photo of Igor posing in front of a poster of Jimmy Fallon.
Igor poses in front of a poster with his lookalike Jimmy Fallon, the American chat show host, outside Universal Studios in December 2019 [Courtesy of Igor Novikov]

‘So what do you do?’

Inside the barbershop, Igor turned down the offer of whiskey or water; his mind was racing and filled with thoughts of “impending doom”.

“So what do you do?” Vitalii asked as he swung a drape around Igor.

It was typical barbershop small talk. Igor was not in the mood to explain the eclectic multitude of projects he had on the go, so he told him what was easiest to explain, that he was a former adviser to the president.

There was silence. “Vitalii looked at me funnily. I realised, given the neighbourhood, I better back up my story, or else I look like a crazy person,” Igor recalls.

So he explained that he had been in charge of US affairs when then-US President Donald Trump had placed a call to Zelenskyy which ultimately triggered Trump’s impeachment trials. Igor then told Vitalii how he had trained President Zelenskyy to avoid Trump’s infamous tug-of-war handshake, which he would use to embarrass world leaders in front of the cameras when they visited the United States.

Igor even whipped out his phone and showed Vitalii a video where, after having spent so much time training Zelenskyy and his team on how to resist being pulled in by Trump’s handshake, Igor inadvertently pulled the move on the former US president, who was visibly caught off-guard.

They laughed at the story. The mood lightened before they fell silent again. Igor returned to thoughts of the impending invasion. But something was also on Vitalii’s mind.

A photo of Vitalii.
Vitalii, a chef turned barber, met Igor when he decided to get a last-minute haircut after hearing that the Russian invasion was imminent [Courtesy of Vitalii Yurievich]

‘3am … It’s happening’

Vitalii, a chef turned barber, had never been an anxious person. “I am the sort of guy if something happens, it happens, but I am not the type to worry,” he says.

During January and February 2022, about 200,000 Russian soldiers had amassed along Ukraine’s borders. Rumours were circulating of a potential invasion, which Vitalii dismissed, especially when February 16 passed, a date US President Joe Biden had highlighted as a possible day Russia could attack.

But talk of an upcoming war had persisted, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic on February 21. It had been the main topic of conversation in the barbershop on the 22nd and the 23rd, with every other customer saying it would happen. So as Vitalii cut Igor’s hair, he thought to himself: “Who better to end the debate than this guy?”

“Do you think there will be an invasion?” he asked Igor.

“3am in the morning. It’s happening,” came the abrupt response.

Vitalii felt shock flood through his body as his heart pounded in his chest.

They fell silent for about three minutes before Vitalii asked: “What should I do?”

Pack all your valuables, plenty of water and some essentials into suitcases and be ready to run, Igor advised.

After the haircut was over, they went outside for a smoke. With his freshly cut hair, Igor looked up at the towering buildings around him and thought to himself, ‘What will the war look like? Will these buildings get blown up?’

The two men, who had puffed away in silence, eventually stamped out their cigarettes and wished each other well as they parted ways. It was a moment that would signal the beginning of the most traumatic experiences of their lives but also of a new friendship – even if they did not know it just yet.

A photo of Donald Trump shaking hands with Igor.
On the eve of the war, Igor showed Vitalii a video of himself locked in a tug-of-war handshake with former US President Donald Trump [Courtesy of Igor Novikov]

‘Here is some whiskey. Now, let’s get drunk’

After Igor left, Vitalii went to the small kitchen at the back of the barbershop. A Union Jack flag, a nod to the traditional school of British cut and shave barbershops that the establishment was styled on, and a picture of the Irish mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Conor McGregor who he once admired, hung on the wall. He pulled on his long thick beard and felt moisture on his moustache; he looked down at his fingers which were covered in blood.

“Because of the stress, my blood pressure must have shot up and caused a nosebleed,” he recalls.

He cleaned his beard and closed up the barbershop, and just like Igor had done an hour earlier, he filled up his car’s tank and bought a bottle of whiskey.

He can vividly remember his conversation with his partner when he returned to his high-rise apartment in Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv.

“I’ve just spoken to a former adviser to Zelenskyy who says there is going to be war. I have high blood pressure – here is some whiskey,” he told her, placing the bottle on the table. “Now, let’s get drunk.”

Shocked, she shared a glass with him before they frantically followed Igor’s earlier advice and packed two emergency suitcases.

Afterwards, he grabbed another drink. Soon a heady concoction of whiskey and his naturally sceptical disposition triggered a creeping doubt in Vitalii’s mind. “It just sounded so unbelievable, so by the time I went to bed, I had convinced myself nothing was going to happen,” he recalls.

Igor was sure his information was correct. So when he returned home, he also poured himself and his wife some whiskey. The couple had been made aware through Igor’s sources that an invasion would likely happen many months previously and had decided to stay in Kyiv with their two children. It was a brave decision, but as the hours ticked towards the 3am deadline, Igor felt himself taking comfort in the whiskey bottle long after his wife had gone to bed.

Three in the morning came and went, but nothing happened. There was silence. Finally, tired and drunk, Igor decided to join his wife in bed.

His information had been incorrect, but only by an hour. At 4am, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A photo of Igor on the right speaking to Zelensky on the right.
Igor, left, with Zelenskyy at a conference in May 2019 where Zelenskyy made his first public speech as president of Ukraine [Courtesy of Igor Novikov]

‘Night turned to day for a few moments’

Vitalii remembers waking to several car alarms wailing in the street below his apartment. A wave of concern passed over him, but with a mild hangover creeping in and having convinced himself there would be no invasion, he went back to sleep. A few moments later, he woke to a loud bang.

He leapt out of bed and trepidatiously approached the window. As he inched closer to his curtains, a huge flash filled the room, followed by another boom. Shockwaves tore through the flat knocking kitchen items off the top of the fridge.

He recalled Igor’s earlier warning and thought to himself, “Bloody hell, so, really?!”

He woke up his girlfriend, who was wearing earplugs, and they grabbed their suitcases before exiting the high-rise block. His parents lived in a low-lying house with a cellar that could be used as a bomb shelter, so he decided that they should head there in the car.

As they made their way to the vehicle, there was another flash. This time, it was so bright, he recalls, that “night turned to day for a few moments” before another powerful explosion almost knocked them to their feet.

Unfortunately for Vitalii, Brovary was one of the areas Russian forces targeted during their siege of Kyiv in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion.

Later that day, a cruise missile flew over his parents’ home. It was so close that he says, “If it had been going any slower, I would have been able to make out its serial number.” Vitalii decided it was time to travel with his partner and sister, who had also made her way to her parents’ home, to the relative safety of Ukraine’s western regions near the Polish border. 

It was a decision that would bifurcate Igor and Vitalii’s paths during the roughly nine-week siege of their city.

Igor would be thrust into the media limelight, handling international press engagements as explosions rattled the windowpanes in his house in Kyiv. The family’s nervous mollycoddled corgi, Cookie, became their canine early warning system as she could always sense a powerful explosion before everyone else and would begin frantically barking, giving Igor and his wife some vital extra seconds to usher their children away from the windows.

Vitalii put his physical strength to use in the country’s west, working 10-hour shifts loading international aid supplies onto trucks that would then distribute them around the country. Then, in May 2022, he returned to Kyiv and began working at the barbershop once again.

A photo of a damaged building.
When Vitalii returned to Kyiv in May 2022, Russian forces had destroyed large parts of the city’s outskirts [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘Gratitude that we both get a second chance to meet’

When June came around, an increasingly dishevelled Igor decided it was time for another haircut, and he knew there was only one person for the job.

The two men had been so distracted on the eve of the invasion, they had forgotten to exchange details. Igor did not even know Vitalii’s full name. So, he logged back onto the barbershop’s website and scrolled through the pictures of the staff until he found a familiar face smiling back at him.

When Igor walked through the door, Vitalii instantly recognised him.

“I felt gratitude that both of us are alive,” says Vitalii. “War changes people a lot. I cut the hair of military personnel, and sometimes they reappear with shell shock or no leg, but there is always gratitude that they are alive. So, when I saw Igor, there was gratitude that we both get a second chance to meet,” he explains.

“The feeling is mutual,” Igor adds.

The two men updated each other on their experiences since they last met. Since then, Russian troops had been and gone from the areas north of Kyiv, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

A customer having his hair cut next to Igor chimed into their conversation, telling them a missile had largely destroyed his home but he had been working on rebuilding it. “You’re an optimist!” Igor told him jokingly.

After the haircut, Vitalii and Igor went for a smoke; this time, there was no silence, the conversation flowed, and before they knew it, they had finished half a pack each.

‘Friends for life’

More than a year after their first fateful conversation, Igor has been back for many more Fallonesque haircuts, and the two men enjoy a familiarity that makes them seem like childhood friends.

They joke together as they reminisce over how they met.

“I can trust his word,” Vitalii says about Igor before joking: “I now have his number, so every time I hear a scary noise, I ring him.”

Igor laughs, and responds: “I have become your private intelligence agency!”

The two men may look different – Igor is clean-cut while Vitalii boasts a Spartan beard and an arm full of tattoos – but their friendship is a testament to how war can thrust people from widely different backgrounds together.

Will they stay in touch even when the war ends? “We’re friends for life now,” Igor answers.

This article is part of a series, Unexpected Friendships, telling the stories of friendships forged in unlikely circumstances.

Source: Al Jazeera