An unexpected friendship: A barbershop bond amid the Ukraine war

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.”‘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.

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