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In eastern Ukraine, frontline cobbler fixes soldier boots for free


Sitting at his old sewing machine, Ukrainian cobbler Sergiy Kurchigin waits for customers in one of just a few businesses still open this close to the frontline.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, many shops shut down as thousands of residents fled the eastern city of Kramatorsk, including his wife and daughter who now live in Germany.

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But even as the sound of shelling grows nearer and Russian forces creep deeper into the Donbas region, the shoemaker in his sixties says he will not leave.

Kurchigin says he cannot imagine life without his trade, which he learnt back in the 1970s from Armenians in his home city.

“No work, no play, no satisfaction,” says the repairman who refuses to give his exact age, as he operates his 19th-century foot-powered sewing machine. 

“A man has to earn money to support his family,” he adds. 

By staying behind to work in his neon-lit workshop, he can also do his bit to help the war effort.

“When soldiers or volunteers drop by to get their shoes repaired, I don’t charge them anything,” he says, as a few members of the defence forces chat on the opposite pavement.

– ‘Until I die’ –

A war between two countries as culturally close as Ukraine and Russia is “absurd”, says the cobbler, standing in front of his “shoe repair” sign in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

Kurchigin opened his first shoe-making business back in 1976, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

It was so successful that he decided to open a second shop in the same city.

But because of the war, “there’s no one left there now,” he says of the second venture.

Business is by no means as good as it used to be in his first workshop either.

But “as everyone knows me here, I always have one or two people a day”, he says.

Even without new orders, there’s always something to do, he says, picking up an old pair of trainers from a shelf. For the time being, he only repairs shoes as war has made new leather unaffordable.

Between customers, he works out.

He picks up a small weight from the floor and lifts it a few times, then grabs his wooden-handled chest expander for some more exercises.

When asked when he plans to retires, Kurchigin says he has no idea.

“I’ll continue to work until I die because without work it’s very hard to live,” he says. 

Benoit FINCK

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