Milove, Ukraine – A smartly-dressed young man walks down a footbridge over a village high street clutching a black laptop bag. Just several steps earlier, above the ground, Maxym Brus – a 20-year-old Ukrainian student – was in a different country, Russia.
The soft-spoken mechanical engineering student struggles to explain the paradox of his village.
Milove is a good visualisation of Ukraine’s current situation. Just like Ukraine, it is torn into two pieces by the weight of its historical past.
Following years of animosity between Moscow and Kiev, in August 2018, Russia – Ukraine’s historical master – erected a border fence along Milove’s high street that ironically still carries its Soviet name: Friendship of Nations Road.
During the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia were part of the same country. There were no borders between the Soviet states, and the administrative-dividing line that Milove sat on did not matter at the time.
Even after Ukraine became independent, Milove residents continued their intertwined borderless lives. But the situation changed drastically because of the conflict that erupted between Kiev and Moscow following the removal of Ukraine’s Russia-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovich, in 2014.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed armed separatists in the country’s southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The ongoing conflict has killed more than 13,000 people.
‘Nothing special here’
Russia’s move in Milove split families and friends.
“Before the fence, our village shops had everything. The population was bigger. Since the fence, people started to close up shops and move away,” Brus tells Al Jazeera.
“We used to go over there [on the Russian side] to the shops, and they used to come here. Everything was alive. Now, even on the market day, there is nothing special here.”
Brus, who is studying in Russia at the Road Institute of Shakhty, a branch of the South-Russian State Polytechnic University, just like each Milove resident Al Jazeera spoke, to blames politicians for the situation.
“Nobody [on the Russian side] knows why this [the fence] came. My friends can’t tell why this happened. If the Russian public had a vote on the fence, they would have rejected the project,” he says.
Lyudmyla Oleksiivna, 64, a vendor that sells various knick-knacks at a street market in Milove, misses the time when both sides of the borderline used to enjoy festivities together.
“Everything was well before [the fence]. We used to live in friendship. There were concerts and musicians used to come from all over. We used to have joint festivities in October. Nobody cared you were Russian or not,” she says.
“We [Ukrainians with Milove residency] are so far being allowed to cross over. But our friends and family from the Russian side need a travel passport and an invitation to visit.”
She says the village people find it hard to afford a passport.
“Each visit must be marked in the passport. How many pages the passport has? Soon you run out of them and you need a new one. And how much does it cost? Is it normal to need an invitation to visit a sister?”
Paying the price
Andrii Petrovych, a street vendor selling animal feed just across the fence, does not shy away from blaming Kiev for Milove’s woes.
According to him, the village is paying the price for Ukraine’s aspiration to forge closer ties with the European Union and the rejection of Russia.
“We lived together before, it was better. And then they wanted to go to Europe, damn it,” he says angrily and starts to pace around in the muddy path that is supposed to be pavement.
“Gas got more expensive, other amenities got more expensive. There is no work, there is no perspective for improvement and probably there will be none with our president, Petro Poroshenko. Maybe if they choose a different one [president], the militarisation will stop.”
Ukraine’s presidential elections are scheduled for March 31 with a record number of candidates vying to become the war-torn country’s sixth president.
According to opinion polls, President Petro Poroshenko is trailing in third behind opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and the frontrunner, a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Political novice Zelensky’s stronghold is Ukraine’s Russian-speaking areas such as Milove.
‘Messed up Milove’
Many residents of Milove are wary of naming the candidate they intend to vote for, but all of those who choose to share the information with Al Jazeera support Zelensky.
Even Oleksandr Tsygalo, who works in a campaign booth for Poroshenko distributing election material every day, says he will not vote for the current president.
“Look at the [pot-holed] roads in Milove. Does it seem like something was done for the town over the last five years?” he says.
Inna Soboleva, a 50-year-old shop assistant, says: “I am not sure who to vote for but I will for sure not give my support to Poroshenko. He messed up Milove enough. For him, Milove does not exist.”
Brus, who might have to commute back from Russia especially to cast his ballot on Sunday, says he will also risk giving power to the inexperienced candidate rather than support the top two corruption-tainted political heavyweights.
“It’s my first time so I guess I will go and vote. I think I will vote for Zelensky, since I don’t even want to think about Poroshenko. We are fed up with Tymoshenko as well.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v