In Kyiv, a smug man in his fifties walks from an aging Soviet-era office building toward a black Mercedes. He resembles a sleazy Florida businessman – tawdry, superficial – button-down open one button too far, skin tanned and weathered, gold crucifix hanging from a substantial chain around his neck. A plaque on the building reads: “State Service for Geology and Bowels of Ukraine,” the quiet agency responsible for assigning mineral rights to corporations. In any country this would be a hub for high-level corruption, and in a country like Ukraine that’s especially true. I want to give that jaw of his a brisk rap, where it opens his mouth. The place where lies begin: the caviar-hole, the laugh-barker, the let’s make a deal maker.
In Ukraine today, don’t trust anyone over 50, especially the cabbies who wear aviator sunglasses and pull aside to buy petrol from hidden dealers, 8 Hryvnia per liter. At the train station in Odessa, a heavyset and thickly made-up woman in her mid-fifties, wearing a black dress and shawl, walks directly to the ticket counter and demands service. An gentleman of sixty or so wearing a blue athletic tee-shirt rebukes her. After a brief exchange between the two, the lady returns to the end of the line, waving her hands energetically and shaking her head. At the counter, the old man is joined by his wife or girlfriend who has been standing in a different line; then, the two get into a disagreement with the ticket saleswoman – he wants a better seat, cheaper. These people grew up in Soviet times, stayed instead of fleeing, were repressed into compliance. These men and women feel that every system owes them something, but also have no compunctions about cheating the system or using it exclusively to their advantage. It is related to Ukraine’s problem with corruption.
One of the most dynamic locations in Kyiv is the McDonalds by the Kreshaltska-Maidan Metro stop. Mentioned in an earlier dispatch, the restaurant serves as a meeting place for lovers, a study lab for students, a business hub for entrepreneurs, and a convenient performance space for artists, musicians, and street dancers. The restaurant is crowded from early in the morning until late at night, by the greatest variety of professional and personal aesthetics one can imagine.
Other familiar international franchises visible in Kyiv: Dominoes Pizza. Mercedes Benz. Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC. BMW. Louis Vuitton. Salvatore Ferragamo. Zara. Toyota. Chanel. Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental. Apple.
The price of Hryvnia has fluctuated from between 20.00 and 22.50 to the dollar since I arrived late May. Businesses will often accept dollars or euro for goods or services, while government agencies tend to require payment in Hryvnia. Banks require that one withdraw cash in Hryvnia – it is forbidden to withdraw large amounts of dollars or Euro for transactions. Ukrainians often prefer large payments in dollars, but when this proves impossible because I’m not a resident of Ukraine, they accept Hryvnia instead at a fair exchange.
In Odessa various shops will give between 2130 and 2250 Hryvnia per hundred dollars. I consider forgoing journalism (which has paid me no money since my arrival despite three standard pieces, pitched at reputable organizations) in favor of some small business, a la drug wars, a video game I played in junior high school after Jared Brown installed it on my T-82 calculator. 120 Hryvnia works out to $6.00. I figure I can make around $60 in a morning moving quick, maybe $50, but that goes a long way out here. This scheme feels typical.
On the docks, giant yellow cranes move metal cargo containers from supermassive ships filled with them onto platforms, or off of those platforms and onto empty ships. Some of the cranes are painted in blue and white, Ukraine’s national colors. They work day in, day out, all through the week, while lines of cargo trucks enable the cranes’ immodest squeals. Odessa (Odesa in Ukrainian, though my spell-check in Word and on Squarespace says different) is defined mostly by its importance as a port – at various times in the city’s history, this status has been more or less prominent. Since the loss of Crimea, Odessa has become Ukraine’s largest port, and as such has taken on a larger significance than at any time in its history since its occupation by the Germans, or its establishment by Catherine the Great in 1794. It is considered one of the two most beautiful cities in Ukraine, along with Lviv, and the reason for this is easy to see in the Tsarist-era architecture, the broad boulevards, the cobblestone roads, the great Orthodox churches. Odessa’s history is predominantly its own, and not that of the Soviet Union.
A sordid event: from the room above mine at the Palais Royal Hotel in Odessa, a man’s voice yelling in Russian, followed by a thumping sound. For the next half-hour, I listen to a woman weep and accost the man, also in Russian. I assume this drunken tragedy plays itself out routinely in their home – a private hell of domestic violence, fueled by vodka and a culture that encourages misogyny. The night before, I watched Carmen at the Odessa opera house.
In Lviv, I had dinner at a restaurant called “Atlas,” and saw the mayor of Lviv’s wife eating dinner with one of her friends. In Odessa, I am eating dinner at the hotel when I notice that people walking by pause and stare at a table where an older man eats with three younger men in their twenties or early thirties. Some passers-by take pictures. I ask what the commotion is about, assuming that it’s a celebrity sighting of some kind. I learn that the older man is the mayor of Lviv. So I have eaten dinner with the mayor of Lviv, and his wife.
Everyone mentions that Odessa is famous for its sense of humor – many people attribute this to Odessa’s Jewish population, and an ironical sensibility they possess and other parts of Ukraine do not.
One of the Right Sektor liaisons with whom I spend the most time, a man whose nom-de-guerre is Lodomyr, describes himself as a conservative libertarian. In the four days I spend with him and his friend, Yura, I am not given cause to doubt this claim. “Right Sektor’s first priority is anti-corruption,” says Lodomyr, “and the means to this end is full governmental transparency. In Georgia, all policemen are made of glass, all governmental buildings have glass walls. This is how it should be in Ukraine.” Whether or not this is true about Georgia, I share Lodomyr’s belief in the illuminating power of transparency. The extent to which a democracy is able to function correctly is the extent to which its citizens are given access to the operations of the companies that do business in their country, and the functioning of their governmental agencies.
Right Sektor, like Azov Battalion, has a reputation for being a far-right, extremist nationalist organization with either strong neo-Nazi ties, or an overtly neo-Nazi agenda. I have not met any members of Azov Battalion, but I meet many members of Right Sektor while in Kyiv. Most of the people I meet describe themselves as libertarians, or pro-transparency activists who want to be able to do business the way the understand it can be done in Western countries. Nobody denies that there are neo-Nazi members in their organization, but the political activists with whom I spend time in Kyiv are dismissive of these people, characterizing them as unsophisticated younger members who “like the style” of Nazism. This permissiveness for an idea or set of symbols that is criminal in Europe, and is almost criminal in America, raises interesting questions about what is happening in Ukraine, and why.
So that neo-Nazi thing is real, I’m sorry to report. I don’t think it’s the organizing logic behind Right Sektor – not that I’ve seen, anyway – but it’s present, and the closer one gets to the war, the more conspicuous neo-Nazism becomes. I saw something like it in the U.S. military, with many soldiers, sergeants and officers from the South and Midwest sporting bumper-stickers of the Confederate flag, and slogans like “The South Will Rise Again” – a shock to my Yankee sensibilities, to which I quickly became desensitized as I served alongside them and found them, on the whole, to be decent humans. In Ukraine, that ideological impulse toward violence and nihilism is expressed through the swastika, and relies on selective memory of history that focuses not on the anti-Slavic elements of Germany racial purity, but on the creed’s vehemently anti-Russian narrative. The defense I heard of the Confederate flag while in the military is that it represented a simpler time, and state’s rights – rather than white supremacy and slavery. I do not believe either set of symbols to be acceptable for use in civilized society.
There’s an old man sitting on a bench at the corner of a park, holding a battered paper cup out to passers-by. He has a broad white mustache and wrinkled, leathery skin, and his mouth works silently and ceaselessly. Further along, a young priest stands and lectures a middle-aged parishioner who sits, shifting a cane from one hand to the other, his head bowed.
A strange and reassuring paradox of the war against Russia is that while extremist groups have accumulated social credibility through war, their political power has waned among mainstream voters in Ukrainian society – moderates – while parties preaching peace, rapprochement and toleration have gained in stature. According to many with whom I’ve spoken, a key component of the current President’s (Poroshenko) campaign was to resolve the war with Russia quickly. That this has not yet come to pass is a great disappointment to many, but the extremist appeals to violent action have not met with any substantial degree of support among most Ukrainians. Instead, extremism is tolerated among the volunteer battalions because they have, up to this point, borne the brunt of the fighting.
Citizens of Odessa help weave camouflage netting by a long table, while other volunteers take up donations of money or equipment for the military, or sell mementoes for the same end. This is part of their military procurement system.
“Hitler was defeated at the height of his power,” says one Right Sektor member. “People remember him as strong… it took the whole world to beat Germany, and they still almost won.” To some people here, Hitler is like King Arthur. Their stories about the Waffen-SS “Galicia” division’s actions against the Soviets remind me in style and composition of Beowulf, or the Battle of Maldon. There’s a power that a native military unit achieves, a weight of legend and significance that attaches itself to defeat, which must explain what in any other context would be recognized as cause for celebration.
On the third day of my ride with Right Sektor, two Ukrainians are arrested, for killing a pro-Russian journalist. The Ukrainians are well-known to the Right Sektor members as a Maidan activist and anti-corruption advocate. The arrest is widely perceived by the Right Sektor members to be payback for Maidan, carried out by a vengeful and deeply corrupt police force. Theories about the what and where and how proliferate before me like May flowers.
Outside the station, a young man who has fought with the volunteer militias in the East wears a silver ring. It has the Teutonic sigil on it, and the Galician lion. It is the ring of the Waffen-SS “Galicia” division, which was an SS division in World War II composed of ethnic Ukrainians. He talks with reporters from Ukrainian television stations about the injustice of his friend having been taken prisoner. I ask one of the reporters what she thinks of the situation. “It’s very suspicious,” she says. “Apparently the person they detained was about to deliver a speech about corruption in Parliament. Corruption is a big problem in Ukraine.” This is what is remarkable about the situation to her. I can’t take my Western, American eyes off that ring, which glints and gleams suggestively in the morning sun while the young man, a veteran of the East, gesticulates contemptuously toward older men in short-sleeved white button-down shirts and khaki slacks standing by the building’s entrance.
The war in Ukraine has cost the country nearly 7,000 lives since its inception last year, not 4,400 as I claimed in an earlier dispatch.
I require a Ukrainian to purchase a ticket from Kyiv to Odessa online – my credit card is not accepted, but his is. I reimburse him for the ticket in cash. It’s that, or bring an interpreter to the train station and wait in one of those awful lines.
Odessa, which is often reported in the media to be a pro-Russian city, is not. There are Russian-speakers there, but there is no evidence that the city has any Russian loyalties. On the contrary, Ukrainian flags fly conspicuously in the windows of most residents. On the train from Kyiv to Odessa, a resident of Odessa laughs when I ask him about the city’s loyalties. “No, no – no way,” he says. “Odessa is a pro-Ukrainian city. Where did you get this idea?” When I tell him that I got it reading accounts in the western media, he shakes his head. “Maybe it’s Russian propaganda, something like this.”
This dispatch, along with the others written recently from Kyiv and Lviv, reflect the attitudes of the people with whom I have spoken in Western Ukraine. I do not mean this collection of stories to be taken as an absolute truth about Ukraine, and there is no sense among the people with whom I have spoken that those living in the separatist areas, or closer to the separatist areas, share the same views. Clearly what is needed here is a greater sample size.
About half the people I speak with in the West admit to not speaking or knowing Ukrainian – they learned Russian. They consider themselves Ukrainian, and are pro-Ukraine, but do not speak the language. Ukrainian seems most popular in the far West, places like Lviv. In Odessa, I hear “Da,” the Russian word for “yes,” more than I hear its Ukrainian equivalent, “tak.”
In a public square in Odessa, a small festival organized around Ukrainian patriotism. People have created collages of photos from the war on several four-sided stands organized by volunteer battalion affiliation. Right Sektor has its display, as does Azov Battalion and OUN. A banner declares that the exhibit is in memory of the Ukrainians who have died fighting in “the war between Ukraine and Russia.”
The city of Odessa is collapsing. Buildings wilt in the ocean humidity; facades crumble revealing decayed weather-beaten wooden slates. There is no money for upkeep or renovation. Monuments to Tsar-era generals and admirals are popular. In one square, a small aristocrat statue stands jauntily in bronze dressed in the Prussian style, confident that his efforts will not go unappreciated.
Cats roam in the parks of Odessa. It is a city of feral animals and olive-skinned people. In the port, a Ukrainian destroyer sits silently, its radar and antennae heavy with disuse. At the public beaches on the eastern side of the city, men stand about 100 meters out along a great concrete breakwater that stretches for a kilometer beneath the Black Sea’s surface. The men (and it is only men) are visible from the calf up, like a line of human sentries keeping watch over the people on the beaches, protecting them from accident.
There’s a fantastic movie that was made in Soviet times (1964), called “Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors,” about a particular culture in Ukraine from the mountains. It’s among the most haunting and sad movies I have ever watched. The Soviet authorities placed its director in prison for delivering a movie that did not conform to official propaganda. It reminds me of Sacre du Printemps and some of the 19th century Russian composers’ more disturbing work, like Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Though it teaches me little of importance about Ukraine, it’s invaluable as a portrait of human existence in small shepherd communities, and therefore human existence as a whole.