“On hearing the rockets, mines or projectiles coming in towards the hotel or after hearing explosion lay on the floor in your room away from the windows,” said the welcoming letter on the desk of my room at the Ramada in Donetsk. “It is also necessary to do when hearing shooting by an automatic weapon nearby the hotel.” In the end it was not necessary to do, and my three days (November 1-3) as an independent election observer in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic were somewhat disappointingly devoid of drama. It was nevertheless a memorable experience.

Still feeling a bit queasy after a late dinner at the Metropole last Friday, I left a chilly, drizzly Moscow early in the morning on the first day of November and arrived two hours later in Rostov-on-Don. The city was basking in autumnal sunshine, with the noon temperature in the mid-60s. The airport bus transferring passengers to the terminal was a sight to behold: its apparently Central Asian driver has adorned the front of the vehicle with rich Persian carpets and silk draperies (but no Kuranic verses). The city, a key southern hub – and the take-off point for the Wehrmacht push into the Caucasus and towards Stalingrad in the summer of 1942 – has a million inhabitants and keeps growing. It reflects a disturbing trend all over Russia: the growth of regional metropolitan areas at the expense of an increasingly depopulated countryside.

The drive to the Ukrainian border near Kuybyshevo took two hours. We left the freeway half-way to Taganrog and turned north on an arrow-straight, tree-lined local road. The landscape could be anywhere in the prairie states, except for the war memorials. This area saw some extremely bloody fighting in August 1943, when the Red Army broke the fortified Mius river line. The villages are visibly more prosperous than I remember them from the late 1990’s. After a decade of precipitous decline under Yeltsin, Russian agriculture has posted a gradual recovery in recent years. Small family holdings are now producing in aggregate value considerably more than the large corporate farms that succeeded the old collective system. Increased mechanization reduces demand for manpower, however, thus contributing to the continuing rural flight.

Exiting Russia at the border crossing near Kuybyshevo took over an hour. All luggage is X-rayed, apparently in order to prevent the smuggling of arms by private individuals. There are long lines of cars with Ukrainian number plates both entering and leaving Russia. The flow of refugees from Donetsk and Lugansk has stopped after the September ceasefire, but an estimated 300,000 (mainly the elderly, women and children) still remain in Russia, apprehensive of the long winter ahead. Shortly after 4 pm the border post commander finally let us proceed, on foot, a hundred yards to the yellow Donetsk city bus waiting just beyond the last Russian ramp. No controls. An armed escort takes the seat next to the driver, and we enter the war zone. He has the Novorossiyan sleeve badge, which is bound to warm the heart of every Confederate nostalgist, and a 5.45 mm submachine gun with folded bipod. Frankly it looks a tad too large and cumbersome to be used effectively from inside the vehicle, but he smilingly reassures us that the road to Donetsk is as safe as any Moscow boulevard.

The border crossing was the scene of bitter fighting last summer and the debris of war litters the surrounding fields. To the right there is a partially burned Ukrainian 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled 152 mm howitzer. The crew probably got away, as the turret looks undamaged – although the weapon’s M-84 tank chassis and power train are gone. No such luck, apparently, for the crews of several badly burned MT-LB APCs to the left of the road, or a light tank to the right. The village of Stepanovka, a couple of miles ahead, is very badly damaged. About a third of the houses appear to be beyond repair, with the roofs gone. It is getting dark by now. The road is bumpy, not least due to the extensive tracked vehicle traffic in recent months. Gas stations are open, as well as a huge shopping mall at Makeyevka, a major industrial town ten miles before Donetsk.

The Ramada reminds me of other war-zone hotels I knew, especially in ex-Yugoslavia. There are Western journalists trading gossip and writing stories – purportedly from the front lines, of course. There are Turks, Armenians and Central Asians discussing deals with their local partners, heavy-set chain-smokers all. There are off-duty soldiers and there are blasé-looking ladies of the night in the designated smoking area of the bar. It is decorated like a West German disco in the 1970’s; as my Venetian friend Alessandro Mussolino says, “right out of an episode of Derrick!” The food is mediocre, the drinks overpriced, the service indifferent – but this is the place to be, as the 11 pm curfew approaches. No nocturnal artillery barrages come from the ceasefire lines ten miles to the west. A good night’s sleep ahead, after a long day…