On July 17, when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, mistaken for a Ukrainian military plane by incompetent insurgents, I was reading the memoirs of the Kyiv-born Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky. You probably haven’t heard of him; he was a gifted writer and observer, living through two World Wars, the Russian Civil War, the Russian Revolution, mass famines, and Stalin’s purges, among other things. I suspect that he has been forgotten in the West partly because no one ever killed him. For the most part, he kept out of politics, though his memoirs burst with compassion for the poor, for women, for the Jews, for everyone who suffers.
I still had Paustovsky’s voice in my head when I saw the news about the plane crash. The news was close, and not only because it was recent. I had been reading Paustovsky because I was writing about the years I spent in Ukraine, where I worked with HIV prevention programs. As it turned out, many of the passengers on the plane were going to the International AIDS Conference, which I had been talking about with friends just a few days before, and had attended twice. I recognized the names of several of the victims from work correspondence. My Ukrainian ex-boyfriend, with whom I no longer speak, emailed me to say he hoped I hadn’t died on the plane. (Idea for a greeting card: “Hope you’re not dead.”)
During World War I, Paustovsky volunteered as a medical orderly, traveling around what is now the territory of Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and Belarus. His memoirs describe how his hospital train follows the troops, picking up the wounded and caring for them as best they can, burying corpses. Sometimes they stop the train for surgeries, and Paustovsky assists:
Every quarter of an hour, I mopped up the blood on the linoleum-covered floor of the operating car and washed out the hardened bandages. Then I would be called to the operating table, where, without knowing clearly what I was doing, I would hold the leg of a wounded man and try not to look while [the surgeon] cut, with a little steel saw, a bone that looked like white sugar. Suddenly the leg would feel heavy in my hands and through the fog in my consciousness I would realize that the operation was finished, and take the amputated leg over to a metal box, to be buried later at our next stop.
“Get used to it, young fellow,” Paustovsky’s older colleague tells him after they visit the trenches for the first time. “It will get worse.”
Hundreds of corpses, bloating in the sun, lying in a field in Eastern Ukraine, shot down by a missile fired by deranged militants, the kind of people who have nicknames like “Demon,” “Bogeyman,” and “The Nose.” One of the leaders of the insurgency is Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, who has a background in the Russian military and a fondness for Stalin-era martial law. His hobby is historical military reenactments, and there are pictures of him online, pretending it’s World War I. (He also writes fairy tales for children; clearly, this is a man with a rich inner life.) Maybe he has a point, I thought, as I continued reading.
The bodies of the MH17 passengers were left in the fields for days, as armed insurgents, along with journalists, volunteers, and rubberneckers, waded through waist-high wheat and sunflowers as tall as men. Eventually the corpses were put on a train that sat for a whole day in the station of a small coal-mining town, releasing an unbearable stench. The process was supervised by masked, armed men, some of whom may or may not have been drunk, many of whom seemed to feel quite sorry for what they’d done. International monitors were only allowed to peek in at the piles of bodies. People were still trudging through the fields, collecting body parts and whole corpses that hadn’t made it onto the train. One of the first photographers to arrive at the scene found a naked body that had fallen through the roof of a dilapidated house with faded blue woodwork, the kind you see all over Ukraine, the kind that seem to have been there forever, a remnant of a more pastoral life. Ukraine is a beautiful country.
The war took Paustovsky to Donetsk, now a center of the conflict between insurgents and the Ukrainian government. At that time it was still called Yuzovka, after John Hughes, a Welshman who built a steel plant and several coal mines there in the late 19th century. (From 1924 to 1961 it was called Stalino.) Paustovsky didn’t like Yuzovka:
Greasy soot dripped from the sky. Everything that was supposed to be white took on a dirty gray color, with yellow designs in it. The curtains, pillowcases, and sheets in the hotel were gray, all shirts were gray, even horses, cats, and dogs were gray instead of white. It almost never rained in Yuzovka, and day and night a hot wind blew around rubbish, coal dust, and chicken feathers.
By the time Paustovsky was writing his memoirs, he notes, Yuzovka had already been replaced by a handsome city, and post-Soviet Donetsk was further beautified by its local oligarch. But this picture of a place literally blanketed in filth was familiar to me from stories I’d heard about other cities in Ukraine, notably Kryvyi Rih, an iron ore mining town (and, during the Russian Civil War, the center of anarchist Nestor Makhno’s insurgency). A Ukrainian colleague told me that the pollution from the mines was so bad that a white shirt was red by the end of the day. A Canadian colleague who did a workshop there told me that she felt quite certain that Kryvyi Rih was the worst place on earth.
They weren’t visiting the town for pleasure, of course, but for work: specifically, they were there to help in the prevention and treatment of HIV for people who inject drugs. Ukraine, and especially Kryvyi Rih, has an unusually large number of these people. Misery and addiction are nothing new in the mining towns of Eastern Ukraine. In his hotel in Yuzovka, Paustovsky befriends an elderly homeless man with a bad case of the DTs, and forms a kind of love-bond with a prostitute named Lyuba, who smashes a brandy bottle on the head of a prospective client and then weeps in Paustovsky’s arms. Today, however, addiction and misery are often accompanied by HIV: in 2007, it was found that a staggering 88 percent of injecting drug users in Kryvyi Rih were HIV-positive. In 2011 there were 19,398 people registered with HIV in a town of 664,499. Kryvyi Rih showed a lot of support for Maidan: protesters were defended by the Miners’ Hundred.
One of the people who died on MH17 was Joep Lange, who was involved in HIV research from the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, and who helped push for early initiation of treatment with combinations of antiretroviral drugs—the drug cocktails that made HIV a chronic illness instead of a terminal one. Russian and Ukrainian HIV patients and AIDS activists are still fighting for regular access to this combination therapy, and for HIV prevention programs; the Russian government, in particular, is more than happy to watch them die. At one point, during World War I, Paustovsky and his companions find themselves in a quarantined village that’s being wiped out by smallpox; all they can do is inject people with morphine so they won’t die in pain. A hundred years later, Russian patients can’t expect such simple compassion; this year, a Russian Navy admiral who was dying of cancer shot himself because it was so difficult for his family members to get morphine for him. In his suicide note, he said, “I ask that no one be held responsible, save the Health Ministry and the government.”
Paustovsky describes visiting a steel plant in Yuzovka during World War I, saying: “Everything was in just two colors, black and red. In the glow of the liquid metal, the workers looked like fugitives from hell.” Violence is always near:
Sometimes a fight would spread to include a whole street. Shirt-sleeved men would join in, using brass knuckles and lead-ripped whips, and cartilage would crack and blood would flow. Then a patrol of Cossacks would ride up at a trot from Novyi Svet, where the administration of the mines and factories lived, and disperse the crowd with knouts.
In Eastern Ukraine, the rich still call the shots, and can still marshal private armies and police forces. A few months ago, Donetsk billionaire and mining tycoon Rinat Akhmatov ordered his miners to join the Ukrainian police on patrol, and a local mining boss reportedly sent his miners to help collect the MH17 corpses. (“I wouldn’t call this volunteer work,” one of them told a journalist.) Cossacks still roam the steppe; a telephone call released by the Ukrainian Security Service indicates that it was a commander of a Cossack insurgent unit who ordered the missile strike on MH17. A Russian Cossack paramilitary group called the Wolves’ Hundred has been active in the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency, and Cossacks helped with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. The Russian state sponsors Cossack militias, in the grand tradition of the Russian tsars, who used the Cossacks for pogroms that helped distract the population from thoughts of revolution. Paustovsky’s memoirs record the 1905 pogrom in Kyiv. People have come out onto the streets of central Kyiv, the same streets where the Maidan protests took place this year, celebrating what are supposed to be their newly granted civil liberties, when soldiers start firing on the crowd. A troop of Cossacks gallops by. As Paustovsky returns home, he passes his neighbor, a member of the Black Hundreds. They’re getting ready for their latest pogrom; Paustovsky’s family and his other neighbors start hiding Jews.
Last week, the Russian media spread a rumor that Ukrainian forces had crucified a toddler in Slovyansk, near Donetsk, and dragged the toddler’s mother to death behind a tank. In order to debunk this rumor, the intrepid young Russian photographer Evgeny Feldman made a surreal video, in which he goes from bench to bench in a Slovyansk square, asking toothless women in colorful housedresses about whether the rumor is true. (The first woman he interviews has a helium voice and a bottle of Rum-Cola in her hand.) The women answer: “nonsense,” “gossip,” “stupidity.” Some refuse to speak to Feldman, and just sit with their heads in their hands. Until recently, Slovyansk was the stronghold of the insurgents, and its inhabitants have been living without gas, water, or electricity, taking shelter in basements from shelling and gunfights.
Paustovsky believed that it was the writer’s task to travel all over his country, speaking to all kinds of people, spending hours in trains and taverns, eavesdropping and making new friends. One of the few comforts during this conflict has been to hear from those rare people who have resisted hysteria, hatemongering, and stupid generalizations, and who have done their best just to observe. Many people in Eastern Ukraine, in towns like Slovyansk or Kryvyi Rih, are poor, downtrodden, and angry, and this helps explain a lot of what’s been happening. But this simple fact is often lost in talk about Putin’s secret thoughts, or the war for freedom. A recent article in the New York Times mentioned watching a group of rebels picking through the crash victims’ possessions in the field: one of the men had never seen a boarding pass, and asked what it was. Two worlds are colliding, violently, and to a certain extent these are the worlds of the privileged and the poor.
In Kyiv this May, I met a young woman named Natalia, a student at Kyiv-Mohyla University. Originally from northwestern Ukraine, Natalia was active in the Maidan protests. When things went wrong in Crimea and then in Eastern Ukraine, she started thinking about how little contact she and people in her social circles had with people who lived in Crimea, or, especially, in the Eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, places that most Ukrainians from other parts of the country tend to avoid. In April and May, Natalia decided to go and visit these regions: Better late than never, she thought.
Natalia may have been one of the only tourists ever to visit Slovyansk, and she attracted a lot of attention. As she took a picture of a blue garbage can near a blue door, a man wagged his finger at her. She assumed that he thought she’d been photographing him, so she came over and showed him he wasn’t in the frame. He took her iPhone and tried to delete the photos, but he didn’t know how.
Giving up on the unfamiliar technology, he asked, “Why are you photographing that?”
“It’s an interesting color combination,” she answered. She was telling the truth.
The man made a phone call, and soon two armed, masked men arrived, saying they needed to check her documents. They saw that she had a Western Ukrainian passport with a Kyiv registration stamp—that she was, in effect, an enemy alien—and they asked what she was doing in Slovyansk. She told them that she had come to look at the city. They took her to the police station they’d seized, and gave her to some other men, to be interviewed. These men were almost friendly.
“Are you drunk?” they asked her.
“No,” she answered.
“Then why are you talking like that?”
“I probably have a different accent than you have in Slovyansk,” she replied. Though they were Ukrainians themselves, they didn’t understand that she had a Ukrainian accent.
They called a nurse to check her eyes for signs of drug intoxication, but the nurse confirmed that Natalia was sober.
“Why do you want to be in Russia?” she asked them.
“Because in Russia, the pay is higher,” they said.
Natalia tried to suggest that in the end, the protesters and the separatists wanted the same things. “Let’s work on it together!” she said, optimistically.
But the separatists just shook their heads. “It’s hopeless,” one said. “They’ll just steal everything, the way they always do.”
Then they gave Natalia lunch, and told her she was free to go. They had taken off their balaclavas long before. It was clear that they were amateurs, unprepared for war.