Valhalla for some, luxury condos for others
Suspended in a reclining chair, swaddled in a plaid blanket, dark glasses on my nose — my shell of a body is under an apricot tree in the Ukrainian countryside, my soul still lost somewhere in the purgatory of flight. “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” yes — between two continents and several languages. Only I am not a child, and there is something indulgent in this momentary loss of will to remember or care about the particulars of my current coordinates. Anesthetized by fatigue, I do not yet miss my husband in New York, I am not yet choked with the normal tenderness and worry for my parents. They are right here tending to their summerhouse garden, in a village outside Kyiv.
The landscape I am shielding myself from with the screen of an iPhone is a sedate pastoral abstraction: trees dropping their sweet fruits into the grass, leaking juices and fragrant rot, attracting bees, flies, and ants; rolling hills; dinosaur-like storks gliding in the flat blue sky. For as long as possible I wish to remain in this amber peace.
And yet reminders of the world begin to penetrate the fence, tall like almost everybody else’s. First comes the sound of the neighbors’ radio, blasting its horrific playlist of folksy-kitschy criminal limericks intermixed with discussions of digestive-tract health and occasional bursts of political ads. Then the synthesizer beat of a chanson is interrupted by thunderous percussion — a barrage of tank shells, the staccato of machine guns. We are hundreds of miles from the front lines; these are the sounds of army practice coming from the nearby Desna army training center.
The roadside advertisements all pulsate with the same messages: corruption, desperation, money laundering, patriotism.Tweet
Once the largest tank-troops training camp in the Soviet Union, the center fell into disrepair after perestroika, the result of official neglect and theft of state property. The shooting range became a local destination for mushroom hunting (the very rare training days would be announced at the nearby bus stop), and the soldiers were more often seen sweeping the territory than practicing shooting. In 2012, Viktor Yanukovych’s son, famously fond of racing cars, organized a competition along the riverbank adjacent to the center. But recently discipline and morale have improved. Trainings are heard nearly every other day. The previously unguarded entrance to the campus now has a freshly painted concrete garden urn and a new block post attended by two young soldiers checking residents’ passes. As we drive by, I look into their young, taut faces (stern with the occasional bloom of pimples) and hope that none of them will be sent to the front.
For one also hears, from time to time, church bells tolling for the dead whose bodies have just been brought from the east.
Driving back to Kyiv, listening to the news: the law allowing people to dodge the draft for a fee did not pass. This is good; it means the system here has not entirely reverted to feudalism. Unofficially, of course, the practice is quite common. War, as always, is a tax first and foremost on the poor.
The roadside advertisements all pulsate with the same messages: corruption, desperation, money laundering, patriotism. They show pictures of the post-Maidan political class, their bodies frozen in dramatic flamenco-dancer poses, faces marked by stoic grief for their country and strong resolve in the fight against evil forces within and without. The names of their parties reflect the new trend toward communitarian rhetoric (People’s Front, Self-Reliance, Power of the People, People’s Control, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), and their images alternate with billboards for ELITE HOUSING—luxury loft apartments and “super-mall plazas.” This montage is interspersed with admonishments to pray for Ukraine (TIME TO PRAY!), to love it (LOVE UKRAINE!), and to remember that its HEROES DO NOT DIE.
Valhalla for some; luxury condos for others.
At the turn of the millennium, when I was a teenager, I lucked into joining a “social club” organized by a group of psychology and social-work grad students in Kyiv, funded by a British grant the students had obtained under the auspices of promoting sober living. They rented an apartment in an unfashionable area off Solomenska Square and invited whoever wanted to join to use the space in whatever manner they saw fit. Different people came by: hippies, bright-eyed university students, young boys avoiding the draft, artists, anarchists, communists, and Trotskyists with high-waisted jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. (I remember once going to a “workers’ film club” they ran, where they screened Pasolini’s Salò to an audience frozen in terror.) We published a journal, collected artistic samizdat, read popular social theory (my first Foucault!), and had endless “consensus-driven” discussions that doubled as group therapy.
The young social workers and their friends were exploring left politics and pedagogy, so eventually the scope of our interest extended beyond emancipating ourselves from tobacco and alcohol propaganda to a broader liberationist agenda. Many of us started calling ourselves anarchists. By then it was the early 2000s and Poland was preparing to join the EU. For the first time, Ukraine saw an influx of immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East trying to reach the European border: as a result, skinheads and antifascist subcultures were both on the rise. Our members fed the ranks of the latter. While the club existed, we registered the No Borders Project as an NGO — an organization that my friend Maksym has helped develop into one of the most active refugee-assistance organizations in Ukraine.
Encouraged by my older brother, who had emigrated to the States in the late ’90s, I left for college in Philadelphia in 2002. The club ceased to exist around the same time for natural reasons: the founding members finished grad school and had to search for real work, and the rest went their separate ways, though all preserved a moderately liberal, if not left, political outlook. The most passionately pro-Ukrainian nationalist among us, who has recently taken to wearing national costume almost exclusively, is also the author of the Being a Lesbian in Ukraine handbook. It has a folk ornament in its cover design.
Residents of the capital prepare for the ground to split open while trying hard to maintain normalcy.Tweet
The club was the first place where I got to know young people who spoke Ukrainian at home, whose parents were Ukrainian intellectuals. Although I learned Ukraine’s language and history in school, my private life was conducted entirely in Russian and in the tone of secular cosmopolitanism. (My parents are nonreligious Russian speakers; in Kyiv I attended a Russian school, and I spent vacations with my grandparents in St. Petersburg. I was told that my ancestors included Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and maybe some Roma — a typical mix for the region.) It was only at the club that I met people for whom Ukrainian culture was something lived-in and intimate — not a folksy bureaucratic caricature promoted in school textbooks and national parades. Their libraries contained the same volumes of Russian classics that we had on our bookshelves, but also books by Ukrainian authors, and with them a different rhythm of imagination, a living and complex cultural memory. I borrowed the books, asked questions. Their pronounced ideological investment in the national culture, reinforced by a history of struggle and oppression, seemed to me noble, though I never wished to adopt it. No one ever treated me with the slightest degree of chauvinism.
This group of my childhood friends now has a Facebook page. It’s a struggling affair, this group, having run the course of resentment and fatigue typical among people who’ve known one another for twenty years. Not much is ever going on, but there was a surge of activity this summer when it became known that “one of our own,” S.N., had joined the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) in the east. The liberals sent their support; the rest sneered that he had always had a weakness for camouflage and military knives.
I begin to make the social rounds of Kyiv, with some trepidation. Hearing my friends’ stories is, as I see it, a matter of necessity rather than choice, even though I’d rather not take on their anxiety.
The first friend I visit is Tania Salyuk, one of the old social club’s founding members. After locating her new address and meandering through the poorly lit and pothole-ridden streets, jammed with illegally parked cars, I enter her building and press the button for the twenty-fourth floor. The heavy metal elevator door opens, and I am released into a narrow hallway smelling of fresh stucco. Later we peer down from her balcony at a city that looks almost beautiful from this height, the carcasses of unfinished and abandoned high-rises bleached in the fading light.
Tania — very thin, blond, with a dry sparkle to her — earned this brand-new apartment herself, without the support of parents or a “male patron.” For the past twenty-odd years she has been working at the HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine, researching and managing the spread of infection among injection-drug users. She recently earned a PhD in epidemiology. Perhaps it’s the nature of her work, but Tania does not lose herself in sympathy for any individual person’s suffering. She concentrates instead on statistics and problem management, and is as unsentimental as she is emotionally intelligent. Her presence is both light and grounding.
We discuss what happened to the maintenance-therapy patients in Crimea after the annexation. Russia does not believe in therapy, she says, and offers only forced-detox hospitalization — a treatment not only extremely cruel but ineffective. As a consequence, after the annexation, buprenorphine and methadone patients in Crimea, nearly nine hundred people, were left to their own devices. Some of them fled to continental Ukraine, dozens died from suicide or overdose, others disappeared — to either suffer on their own or try to score on the street. These people do not make popular victims in a country where addiction and HIV are still stigmatized (although incomparably less than in Russia); they won’t be counted as victims of Russia’s invasion.
The threat in the air is diffuse and complex: it’s not just the acute fear of an attack from Russia. The war in the east has brought guns to the city, as well as men in camouflage who are not affiliated with the army, who may or may not be members of volunteer battalions, who may take orders from no one. While I was in Kyiv a strange shootout took place in the town of Mukachevo, in western Ukraine, not far from the border with Poland. It turned out that members of Right Sector, an ultranationalist group that emerged from Maidan, had clashed with corrupt local authorities over the control of contraband crossing the border. A few weeks later a hand-grenade explosion during a protest outside the Rada killed 4 soldiers and left 131 people wounded.
Residents of the capital prepare for the ground to split open while trying hard to maintain normalcy. Not many succeed in keeping hysteria at bay — in fact, most don’t. The psychological deformations on display here are numerous and varied. My parents and friends say they’ve grown reluctant to call or meet up with acquaintances; conflicts could erupt over minute differences of political opinion. People who’ve known one another for decades might suddenly discover over dinner that they had in their midst secret Russian imperialists, Ukrainian nationalists, or separatists. In the face of much daily stress — the collapse of the currency, a near tripling of utility prices, regular doses of horror broadcast on TV and the radio, the general humiliation of being a country under invasion, a growing suspicion that Maidan did not change anything — kitchen parliaments become all too heated. Families split, old friends stop talking to one another, all without the slightest impact on the conflict. The fantasy of the country joining in a collective epic chorus (as expressed in Sergei Loznitsa’s film Maidan) has splintered into cacophonous gossip.
War has certainly given many people a hobby and a boost of purposefulness. They may grow reluctant to give it up.Tweet
Even my parents, who are rather even-keeled, could not withstand the pressure of hysteria. Both of them are Russian speakers with family ties and relations in Russia, although my father spent his childhood in western Ukraine; they’ve lived most of their lives in Kyiv, where they were sent to work after graduating from university in St. Petersburg. They are retired now, and generally lead private lives. My mother detests Putin (a sentiment she has been expressing since he first got elected) and has no inclination to seek comfort in propaganda of any sort, be it Russian or Ukrainian. Generally self-contained, she cries whenever she speaks of the protesters killed on Maidan, the “Heavenly Hundred,” as they are called. Their sacrifices will be forgotten, she says, and they may have died for nothing. My father, on the other hand, has a harder time maintaining a healthy skepticism toward ideology and gets much more easily impassioned, reciting with self-abandon all the recent news items about Russian invaders, the poor state of the Ukrainian army, and local corruption. It’s not the emotional investment that worries me; it’s the pleasure one gets from voicing indignation without any chance to act on it. He regularly sends money to the Ukrainian army, and that’s the extent of his participation. During the first few months of the invasion he had a harder time negotiating his wounded male pride at being a citizen of an invaded country. At the end of a particularly impassioned monologue, he let it slip that he, too, might consider joining the army. My mother coolly reminded him that he took a handful of pills for his heart condition every day, and that the rocket launchers he once studied at the university as part of mandatory Soviet military preparedness were long since outdated. In a moment of anger he told her “to go back to her Russia” and fell silent for the next two days. Now they laugh about this incident.
My aunt on my father’s side, also Russian and retired, has thrown herself into the ecstasy of patriotism and volunteer work, fueled by a flood of Facebook reposts of sensationalist spam news about Russian stupidity and Ukrainian heroism. Whatever good deeds she may be doing for the army by knotting camouflage nets are outweighed by the excessive pleasure she seems to derive from letting everyone know how much she suffers for the country’s cause. Her son’s Facebook page shows him wearing a traditional embroidered shirt against a blue-and-yellow banner bearing the image of a fierce-looking Cossack, although from what I know he is working as a car salesman and has no plans to join the army. I hope he never has to.
War has certainly given many people a hobby and a boost of purposefulness. They may grow reluctant to give it up.
The ideological confusion of Kyiv can also be found in its bookstores. On the shelf of most popular books one finds an incongruous jumble: the books of Serhiy Zhadan — the superstar of Ukrainian contemporary literature who until recently actively professed leftist political views (under the pressure of the war in the east, he has become less critical of the nationalist agenda) — sit beside the collected works of Dmytro Dontsov (a far-right ideologue of Ukrainian nationalism from the 1920s) and an array of coffee-table editions about Maidan and the ongoing war in the east. One senses a certain desperation to grasp the situation, an indiscriminate hunger for information. There is a definite demand for documentary literature. One noteworthy example is a recent selection of war journalism compiled by three Ukrainian journalists under a title that could be loosely translated as War Is a Four-Letter Word (Война на Три Буквы). Told in a combination of Russian and Ukrainian, the collection provides vivid snapshots of some of the internal contradictions and horrors of the country in wartime — a country whose residents have to negotiate, to borrow a phrase from one of the fighters from the Aidar volunteer battalion, “a hierarchy of evil” in which Putin’s regime occupies the first place and the rest is a convoluted tangle of oligarchs old and new; marauding and raping Ukrainian and Russian soldiers; and many traumatized people searching for someone to blame and punish for their losses. This war, as described by the soldiers fighting it, is not a heroic battle of “good versus evil” but a muddy, contorted, increasingly factionalized and illegible conflict that with every day, every death, and every new rifle picks up greater momentum. “It’s the desert of the real,” says one Aidar fighter, quoting Žižek to explain how all humanism and strong convictions that fighters from both sides of the conflict may arrive with melt in the face of the atrocities that invariably accompany any war.
I am having a beer with another old friend, Maksym, and his wife, Sasha. Max is in many ways Tania’s opposite, though they are close friends: he is all soulful license, personable charm, and rings of smoke, with a cigarette and alcoholic drink always at hand. He is the only one from our old group who would call himself a Christian. His Christianity did not deter him from considering himself an anarchist from an early age; it rather, I think, fed his humanitarian zeal. I borrowed most of my first punk and industrial tapes as a teenager from him.
Sasha is a leftist activist from Russia who moved to Kyiv about six years ago to escape the political climate of Putin’s Russia.
We’re at a bar near St. Sophia’s Cathedral, up the hill from Maidan, called “Under the Paving Stones , the Beach,” after the Situationist slogan from 1968. The ambience, decor, and rich hipster clientele swinging on kindergarten-style swings suspended from the ceiling throw Max and Sasha’s grim sense of humor into sharp relief.
We’re here because the bar is close to their office at the No Borders Project. Until the war, No Borders worked primarily with Uzbek refugees seeking political asylum in Ukraine. Now they concentrate on internally displaced citizens — people fleeing from the east and from Crimea — offering legal advice, attempting to arrange a centralized distribution of prescription drugs, and negotiating the thorny process of finding people temporary housing. The latter task is not easy. Refugees are treated with suspicion at best, and more often with open hostility. It is not unusual to see apartment ads state openly, “We do not rent to refugees.”
Maidan’s souvenirs are now used as decorations for local bars.Tweet
For almost a year now, Max and Sasha have housed a family of three in their two-bedroom apartment. The husband, a journalist from Luhansk, was kidnapped by the separatists on suspicion of being a “spy for the Kyiv Junta”; he was tortured, then released. He still suffers from post-traumatic amnesia, frequent headaches, and shell shock. His 9-year-old son often remarks that it must be his own fault that people had to flee his city. Sasha recently enrolled in graduate school for psychology. Her goal is to acquire the skills and credentials to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in children.
Max confesses that from time to time, especially during moments of predawn insomnia, he fantasizes about some kind of radical gesture, like going to the front, even though he knows it would do neither him nor anyone else any good (he is far from the healthiest person and would not last two days there). Besides, the fantasy itself has become more complicated: if during the early days of the Russian invasion it was possible to consider joining a volunteer battalion fighting in the ATO “defending the revolution” — since for that brief moment, it seemed that Ukraine had no government and no proper army, and that signing up for one would effectively be like joining a Republican militia during the Spanish Civil War — no one could claim that now.
Max also guiltily acknowledges emotional fatigue from having to share an apartment with a refugee family of three and having no time for himself anymore.
Walking in the streets of the city center at night, having left the Beach a little drunk, rather tired, but also at ease, I listen to them reminisce: here is the building where their friend rents a room and where they would sleep during the most heated events on Maidan; this is the intersection where their taxi driver hit the brakes and made a rapid U-turn on spotting a suspicious roadblock and hearing gunshots; that next intersection is where their friend Vyacheslav Veremiy, a journalist for a local newspaper, was killed by anti-Maidan thugs on February 19, 2014. Looking at those familiar streets, I confess that it is impossible to imagine them as the site of urban warfare. Sasha and Max respond that to them, too, the months of Maidan seem like an impossible projection — a film that just doesn’t stick to the surface of these days, a recollection of a failed revolution.
Maidan’s souvenirs are now used as decorations for local bars — I see helmets dirty with soot hanging on the wall of a cocktail bar on Volodymyrska Street, the type where expatriates, encouraged by the conversion rate of the devalued hryvnia, go to flirt and buy drinks for local girls. Maidan itself was “cleared off” back in the summer of 2014, on the eve of last year’s Independence Day parade; now protest rhetoric is seamlessly exploited by the new crop of politicians eager to be integrated into the system of bribery and corruption.
While illegal construction is popping up on every corner and the already challenged infrastructure is falling into even further disrepair, the city council occupies itself with the task of renaming the streets. To spite the Russian Consulate, it renamed the street it stands on Volunteer Battalions Street. The mayor, Vitali Klitschko, has promised Boris Nemtsov’s daughter that he will rename the street on which the Russian Embassy stands after her father. And there is an ongoing competition of wit in the city council over what to call Moscow Square. Since the city lacks money to actually carry out the projects, the funds for the renaming will be taken from the residents of the renamed streets.
This silence is counterbalanced by the media’s buildup of some other, greater, as-yet-unannounced but imminent heroic war.Tweet
The new politicians have also vowed to carry out “decommunization”: getting rid of old Soviet and generally left symbols not only in toponymy but also in architecture, statuary, and so on, and replacing them with the “patriotically Ukrainian.” The initiative belongs to young city council member Ruslan Andriyko, a member of the nationalist Svoboda Party. Watching a video of a press meeting between him, a panel of art historians, and subway administrators made my brain ache and my blood boil. Andriyko is, he admits, “not a specialist in art, although an admirer of oil paintings”; he holds a degree in ecology and law, and, as his website proudly mentions, completed a course in the English language. (All this culture does not prevent him from frequently cursing on his public Facebook page — a sincerity of expression that American politicians would not dream of.) At the meeting he refused to recognize the aesthetic as well as financial intricacies of his project, suggesting that they could “simply” replace every hammer and sickle with a Ukrainian trident, every image of a Red Army soldier with a corresponding image of a fighter from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The currency conversion for Lenin was not specified.
The situation resembles the puzzle of renaming the Argo. Jason’s ship, you’ll remember, was reconstructed plank by plank during its long journey after the Golden Fleece. Was it the same ship or a new one? Say no one bothers to repair a single plank of wood on the rotten Argo but still renames it the Ship of the Heavenly Hundred (and splashes some blue and yellow paint on the deck). Will it sail or will it sink?
I leave Kyiv for a week and fly to St. Petersburg. For the first time in my life I must enter Russia with my foreign rather than domestic Ukrainian passport. After an hour in customs (an intimidating experience similar to entering America as a foreign visitor), I finally leave the airport in time to catch the last bus to the metro. A massive billboard instructs me to TAKE VACATIONS IN CRIMEA! — it will turn out to be one of the only reminders of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that I encounter on this trip. Perhaps that is the privilege of the aggressor country: not to remember the wars it is waging, to spare its citizens the anxiety and keep them in the dark about how many of their children die for an unspecified cause. Even in the news, the conflict is mentioned only in passing, as some provincial barbarian affair that does not merit full metropolitan attention. This silence is counterbalanced by the media’s buildup of some other, greater, as-yet-unannounced but imminent heroic war. On TV is a near-constant stream of World War II films, news items praising the achievements of the Russian military–industrial complex, and evening talk shows on the subject of “Are we ready for war?”
“Your family are not fascists,” I try to reason softly. “Why would you be an enemy?”Tweet
But as long as I only talk to like-minded people and ignore the TV, the war and all its pathos disappear. And not only the war — gone are the embarrassing posters instructing me to love my country, gone are people wearing folk costumes. The color scheme of the city is not limited to that of the national flag. It’s seductive, this silence and appearance of stress-free enlightened neutrality. This magic spell of normalcy can be acquired with just the slightest bit of compliance. To maintain an imperial disdain for faraway squabbles, all you have to do is refuse to ask questions.
Back in New York, standing on the Q-train platform in the airless oven of Union Square, I wait for S. with a plastic bag of vitamin and valerian pills: a humble care package his sister asked me to pass along to him from Kyiv. S., a kind, middle-aged man who was once our neighbor, won a Green Card some twenty years ago and has since been living in Brighton Beach in a subsidized apartment, bare but for a laptop, photos of his family in Ukraine, and a large flat-screen TV connected to Russian channels. He dedicated himself to hard work so that he could send money home and pay for his daughter’s education in Kyiv, and dreamed all along of moving back. Over the years I’ve seen loneliness and isolation do their work on him: his mannerisms have become more nervous, his speech more rapid, his conversation more often than not taking the direction of mystical musings. Now he works seven days a week to pay off the debts he incurred during his mother’s illness and ensuing funeral.
I ask him how he is. “Everything is for a reason,” he says, his eyes not focusing on my face. “My entire life here I was thinking about how I would return. And now there is no need, for I am an enemy there, a traitor.” Who thinks so? “All of them, my family — Kyiv is plagued by fascists.”
“Your family are not fascists,” I try to reason softly. “Why would you be an enemy?” He points to a black-and-orange St. George’s ribbon tied to his backpack: an old symbol of military distinction in the Russian army, used on the Soviet medal to mark the triumph over Nazi Germany. It was resurrected in 2005 and is worn by the separatists in the east and their supporters in Russia. I never noticed it before. He proceeds to deliver a confused speech about his grandfather fighting in World War II, Europe being dominated by Nazis, Putin being a shameful liberal, and Ukrainian fascists allied with hostile Western forces intent on suppressing his Russian spirit. All this is spoken with a heavy Ukrainian accent that would earn him much mockery in Russia if he were ever to proclaim himself a proud Russian there. “If I were there,” he says, “I would consider taking up arms.”
I walk away with a heavy heart. I count S. among the casualties of this war. Alienation, confusion, and aggressive broadcasts over propaganda channels have made yet another bewildered person, whose confusion can easily become real aggression.