Catch 22

Since this piece on exchange of prisoners in Ukraine was published in March, not a thing has changed. Since I first met Natasha Lazorenko and Natasha Gerasimenko back in August 2015, not a thing has changed for their husbands, mobilised Ukrainian soldiers who have been prisoners in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DNR’) since January 2015.

I say ‘not a thing’: Ukrainian volunteer fighter Nadia Savchenko got released from imprisonment in Russia (presidential plane, international interviews, bouquets of flowers), and for a few days there was talk of this being the first of many exchanges, until the latest contact group meeting over implementation of the Minsk protocols (supposed to resolve the east Ukraine war) announced that no progress could be made on freeing ‘hostages’.

I say ‘not a thing’: Sasha Lazorenko’s mother Ludmila gets more enraged and bitter (“I got angry with the whole world”). Natasha Gerasimenko accepts she is yet another day, week, month, year away from any possibility of conceiving the child she and her husband Kolya so wanted to have. Natasha and Sasha, married just a week before he was called back to the frontline last January, have less and less to say to each other on the phone when Sasha calls.

(He never knows when, or if he’ll be able to call; whether some more friendly guard will decide to lend a phone. He never knows if he’s going to get fed again. If he’s going to be sent to do unpaid labour today, or sent back to the lightless basement he spent three months in when no one knew if he was alive or dead. If he’s ever going to get out alive. If he comes home; if he’ll recognise his wife anymore when he does).

Last summer when I first met her,  Natasha recounted the phone conversations when Sasha talked about new recipes for fish soup he wanted to try, and plans to rebuild the balcony when he came back. Those conversations are long past – Hard to still have plans for balconies and ideas for recipes, after all this time. “Now his first question is always: When? What have you heard, what’s new? I could lie and say it’ll be in the nearest future, but he’s been there a year already; what nearest future? Or tell the truth, that he’s been forgotten – because sometimes that’s what it feels like.”

Meanwhile the two Natashas, modest clear-eyed young women working in ordinary dull low-paid jobs  in Kriviy Rih, the kind of town and the kind of women Kyiv and history ignores, get more involved in a life they could never have imagined for themselves.

As their husbands’ world got smaller, theirs got paradoxically larger. They are ‘hostages’ wives’ now, endlessly trekking to Kyiv with posters of their husband’s faces, to try and make someone take notice and do something. “I hardly recognise myself; I’m completely used to photographers and TV cameras now, I’m used to talking to government officials as if they were my friends.”

But they aren’t, those officials playing an incomprehensible game with the lives of the Sashas and Kolyas and Natashas of this world. The pilgrimages to Kyiv can feel like a pointless game too. “Every time we go to Kyiv we say we won’t go again. It’s just to tick a box, so we can tell ourselves we aren’t just sitting and waiting and doing nothing.”

The Natashas know they aren’t important. They aren’t even in the worst situation – Sasha and Kolya are in fairly good health, unlike some prisoners; they are not being beaten or tortured anymore; everyone knows where they are even if the ICRC still has no access to them.

But they worry about what their men are eating, whether they’re getting medical care, what’s going on inside their heads.  What they’ll be like when they are finally released. How angry are they going to be, how disappointed in a country that apparently abandoned them. “I don’t think he’ll be able to go back to being a taxi driver. He’ll end up shooting his passengers.”

Whether they have all become different people now.

Savchenko was exchanged after she was tried and sentenced in Russia, then pardoned and exchanged for two Russian officers tried and sentenced and pardoned in Ukraine. This process was a lengthy piece of theatre of the absurd, complete with murdered lawyer, hunger strikes, public admission then retraction (Yes, OSCE monitor, we are acting Russian officers; no we’re not, world, we’re retired Russian officers…), magnanimous petitioning victims’ relatives, memorable semi-mythical analogies (Joan of Arc of Ukraine…)

They were show trials, while the real show that is the war grinds on in the background, the thing everyone knows but no one can admit.

War is never mentioned in the Minsk protocols, which call for ‘release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”’, and – which the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ in Luhansk insist must be implemented before any exchanges – ‘pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular departments of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine.’

(What does ‘all-for-all’ mean when neither side can even agree how many it is holding or how many it accuses the other side of holding? What the hell does amnesty of ‘persons in relation to events in particular departments’ mean?)

No country or organisation calls what’s happening in East Ukraine an international armed conflict, not even Ukraine. So at the same time as Ukrainian government officials talk about Russian aggression, they can’t actually say that those people they sent to flight and who are now being held in Donetsk and Luhansk, or those Ukraine is holding prisoner on Ukraine-held territory, are prisoners of war.

Instead “There’s no war, there are no prisoners, there’s no nothing,” says Natasha, wife of one of those ordinary Ukrainian soldiers few bother to write about or support campaigns for their release because they’re not martyrs or medieval saints; no one would notice if they went on hunger strike since no one is obliged to feed them anyway; they have no lawyers; they’re not in Russia; they’re not prisoners of war; they haven’t been charged or sentenced; they aren’t even actually literally in prison.

They’re down the rabbit hole in Donetsk listening to ‘DNR’ radio and reading old books about Ukrainian independence from the SBU (Ukrainian security service) archive. They’re sleeping on the Donetsk SBU’s archive metal filing shelves like sardines in tins, day in day out for days and months and already years. They’re guilty of being soldiers, but at the same time they have none of the legal protections that soldiers should have in war.

They’re guilty of being sent to a war that isn’t a war, and leaving their wives behind.

free gerasimenko

Before he was moved to Donetsk, when Kolya Gerasimenko was unearthed from that lightless cellar he’d been kept in with Sasha for three months when no one knew if they were alive or dead, he said to his wife over the phone, “In these three months I thought you’d have already buried me.” He and Natasha got married in August 2014, when he was on leave from the front: “I wanted to be his wife in case he got injured or killed and then I’d be no one.”

And now who is she? The wife of a soldier who is and is not a prisoner of war; who may or may not even be an ‘illegally held person’ since the unrecognised ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ – following Kyiv’s example – have begun to try their prisoners under their criminal code.  That code is the Soviet criminal code – laws from a country that no longer exists.

 

Someone’s child

It is borderguards day today in Ukraine. This is for Oleh Kislitsky and his family, espcially his mother Nadezhda. Oleh disappeared near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia in August 2014, when his Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky borderguard unit was retreating from a Russian and seperatist offensive. A body was found and buried by local people in Luhansk region; it was exhumed by volunteers a year later, and identified by DNA matching as Oleh.

Now he lies in his local cemetery alongside his grandparents, and today the borderguards will put up a new monument for him.

oleh grave2

“I don’t believe it’s him,” Nadezhda told me in November last year. “I don’t know if my son’s buried or not buried.”

We were standing by the grave in the grey, leafless cemetery, two weeks after the funeral. “I think I did the right thing, because in years to come maybe they will find out who he is, and his family will thank me. He’s someone’s child. And I’m grateful to those people in [Luhansk region] who gave him to the earth, so that the crows didn’t pick him to pieces and he could never be found…”

We stood together contemplating the great mound of plastic flowers, and I suppose she was imagining in my place her tall son standing beside her. Nadezhda, whose name means ‘hope’, said “I’ll wait and hope as long as this earth carries me. I hope I’ll live for it, for when he comes back and says, ‘Mum, why did you do this? I’m alive!’”

Oleh is one of eleven Ukrainian borderguards who went missing in that retreat in August 2014.

When history turns its attention to Crimea

“If history turns its attention to Crimea someday, and if one Crimean Tatar searches for another, my writings may surface. It is quite all right, if this does not happen. Crimean Tatars lost their flag, their glory, and their land. What if I were to lose a few nights without sleep and days in grief …”

Thus wrote the Crimean Tatar linguist and academic Bekir Çobanzade (1893-1937), in a preface to a book of poems that was never published in his short lifetime. In 1937 he was convicted by Soviet authorities of supporting separatist national republics, involvement in terrorism, and being a foreign agent, and executed.

He was rehabilitated in the 1950s; I can’t help thinking that if he were alive today in Russian-ruled Crimea he could easily be sentenced again for those same alleged crimes. After all, the new authorities cancelled an academic conference to be held there in his honour in Summer 2014, apparently alarmed that it was a ‘provocation’.

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea - from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea – from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

I find those words he wrote painfully touching in their modesty. History has indeed turned its attention to Crimea – and so has that ineffable mix of politics, music and kitsch that is the Eurovision song contest, with Jamala’s win with a song about the Crimean Tatar deportation. I do hope that someone somewhere now is reading Bekir Çobanzade.

More on Crimean Tatar collective memory and literature, including my book Dream Land which is indebted to those memories, on the British Library European Studies blog. 

(And here is a Foreign Policy article I wrote in March about the Crimea Tatar battalion and blockade.)

Thicker than water

It’s time for collecting birch sap in the woods round the village. Pulled from deep underground the sap runs quick under the trees’ skin, just a little thicker than water, a touch sweeter, a bit more green, a bit more gold. Tastes like nothing; like things growing. Like every year.

Eight-year-old Styopka has a big sloshing bottle of sap he’s collected, hung from the bicycle handlebars. As we walk along the village main street he shows me the plinth where Lenin was standing last time I was here. “Dad cut him down, before he left. Got his saw and sliced him right off.”

Like many men here Styopka’s dad Tolik is a monumental mason, trained in the granite quarries nearby that turned out Soviet monuments and war memorials and gravestones. For the last few years he’s joined the thousands of Ukrainians working in Moscow, where he can earn enough to keep his three children back home fed and clothed, buy crocuses and lilies for the garden and a wrought iron gate of great pretension with lions on the gateposts. His wife divorced him a couple of years ago but he still stays with her and the children when he comes back, in the house with the fancy gate (both gate and divorce a great topic of village gossip).

When he’s back he teaches Styopka how to collect birch sap, where to pick mushrooms: things Tolik’s great grandfather would have known, and that Tolik learned when he was Styopka’s age, when Lenin was up on the classroom wall and great-grandpa was the one no one talked about.

Tolik is as patriotically Ukrainian as can be. He teaches Styopka things he never learned himself when he was Styopka’s age: that great-grandfather, arrested in 1937, was a machine gunner in a local resistance movement that fought against the Soviet collectivisation of their lands. The family has relatives in Russia – who in Ukraine hasn’t? – but they don’t really speak anymore; blood is thicker than water but politics are thicker than blood. In Moscow Tolik lives with other ostarbeiters, speaking village Ukrainian, earning money carving memorials for dead Russians.

“Dad’s going to look for work in Poland,” Styopka tells me. I assume it’s for political reasons – and it turns out it is, in a way. “His boss in Moscow said that because of the crisis, people have even stopped dying.”

People haven’t stopped dying in Ukraine. The plan is to replace Lenin with a monument to the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ who died on Maidan. The village cemetery has just extended into a new patch of earth levelled ready for the next deaths from illness and alcoholism and old age and war. There might not be enough well-paid work for Tolik but the monuments get bigger and fancier every year; great slabs of the local granite with portraits engraved on the front and pictures on the back of a dream car, a favourite birch grove, a machine gun.

Last time I was here, over 200 call-up papers had just been delivered to local men, Styopka’s mother Natasha told me. I thought she’d be worried about Tolik going to fight in the ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation: Kyiv’s official name for the war). “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “Firstly, Tolik’s in Moscow. Secondly, he’s not registered anywhere. And thirdly, we’re divorced.”

This time, I noticed billboards in the neighbouring town centre showing the faces of three local men who’ve died in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die. Next to them there’s a billboard for ‘Paris boutique’ selling cheap perfume, and another advertising swimwear.

heroes never die

The village has two returned war heroes from the east, brothers. Sasha drinks most of the time, and cries in his sleep. He came back to find his job had been taken by someone else; after three attempts he gave up trying to get the papers confirming he’s an ‘ATOshnik’ (one of those strange new words that’s entered the language, it means a participant in the ATO, entitled to benefits). His brother Serhiy is in the ‘spetsnaz’ – special forces – who stood for months on Maidan in Kyiv fighting protesters, until they killed the Heavenly Hundred – and got killed themselves, some of them. When Serhiy’s division came back from Maidan local people gave them funeral wreaths, and spat at them. Serhiy went straight from that to become an ATOshnik fighting ‘separatists’ in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die.

I wonder what pictures those brothers would have on the back of their gravestones, when the time comes for them to go down into the ground. Hope that time doesn’t come soon. They can’t afford to die; both have small children, younger than Styopka.

All the village children are collecting plastic bottle tops to make prosthetics for wounded Ukrainian soldiers. I wonder what kind of prosthetic you could make for Sasha’s wounds. Styopka has collected 120 tops so far. Another boy in his class collected 600! Have I got any bottle tops? Have I got any English coins? Styopka collects coins too. All children like collecting things; I remember how satisfying it is, like building a world that’s only yours.

Now Styopka’s collecting facts about England. “Are there lots of castles?” Yes, I tell him, some are ruined, some are like museums, some are still lived in… “Is there a lot of traffic in London?” I tell him about double decker buses, and how if you sit at the front of the top deck it looks like you’re going to crash when you go round corners.  “Are there horses on the streets?” I tell him about mounted police. “Are there carriages?” No, I say; well, every now and again, when the queen is going somewhere…

London sounds like a fairytale. In the next village to this one, children still go to school every day by horse and cart. When I first tried birch sap, it was like a fairytale. Horses and carts too. The tale of the great-grandfather, which changes a little every time I hear it. He was arrested in 1937 and the family never found out what had happened to him until the 1990s. His children looking up at the windows of the prison in the neighbouring town for years afterwards, wondering if he was still in there, never knowing he’d been shot three days after his arrest.

Now he’s in a romantic Ukrainian novel about that local resistance movement, a predecessor of the Heavenly Hundred and the ATOshniky. Heroes Never Die. I guess no one will ever know where he’s buried, under what uncut stone for a gravemarker, birch trees for a shelter. Birch roots pulling up the sap each year from under the ground where he lies.

For now, the ATO is like a fairytale for Styopka; something you can fix by collecting bottle tops, like his dad can fix history by chopping down a statue of Lenin with his stone cutting tools.

For just for a week each year the sap runs quick under the birch trees’ skin, a little thicker than water. Tastes like nothing, like things growing. Like every year.

Living memory II

In August 2014 I wrote this piece about Slavyansk museum in east Ukraine, where staff were collecting artefacts from the three months the town lived under pro-Russian/separatist/rebel/insurgent/take-your-pick rule before being retaken by the Ukrainian army.

With director Lilya Zander I discussed the difficulties of making any coherent historical narrative out of recent events, and the problematic labelling of objects when opinion is so freshly, painfully divided and words are weapons more effective than bullets. And I asked her what the exhibition would be called.

Over a year later, I visited the completed, untitled exhibition. The museum has got round the problem of narrative by scarcely offering any narrative at all, and the problem of labelling by providing consistently inconsistent labelling. This is a war exhibition which never mentions the word ‘war’; an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ exhibition which calls the object of the operation ‘fighters’ or ‘separatists’ more often than ‘terrorists’, an exhibition of occupation and liberation which lines up the most deadly weapons on the side of the ‘liberators’ and calls the dead simply ‘victims of armed conflict’.

“Where are the pictures of civilian casualties?” one of the museum staff said, when I told her about the article I wrote.

There were no such images in the exhibition. “Has the museum collected such pictures?” I asked.

“Oh yes. We can’t show them. No one knows how many died, they say around 120 but no one knows, no one wants to admit it. And no one will ever get any compensation.”

I tried to ask her whose decision it had been not to show pictures of casualties, and if the exhibition had divided the staff. “Are you asking me my opinion of what happened?” she said sharply. “My opinion is that they had no right to bomb us.”

slavyansk museum hall

An elderly woman was visiting the exhibition with her grandson. “This is what they shot with,” she said to him, as they wandered from left (covering the Ukrainian army’s period of retaking the city) to right (about the other side, and the time leading up to that) and back again. “This is what they wore.” “These are the leaflets they printed.” “This is what they ate.” It was a weirdly pointless and neutral commentary. I asked where she was from – Lisichansk, on Ukraine controlled territory of Luhansk, near the line that increasingly separates one reality from another.

“What do you think of the exhibition?”

“I always visit the museum first in every town I visit. It’s important to know history,” she said.

Her grandson took pictures of the dummy dressed in ‘separatist’ uniform, practically identical to the dummy in Ukrainian army uniform in the opposite corner. “Pray god all this never happens again,” said the woman, the only comment with any emotion or opinion in it I heard her make.

‘Badges and chevrons of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer divisions’

‘badges and chevrons of seperatist formations’

I tried to imagine what a visitor from the future, or from another country, uninformed about these events, would learn from the exhibition. I had to conclude they would learn pretty much nothing.

Some unnumbered and unnamed people held a referendum for confused anti-European reasons which their own leaflets do not make at all clear; there is some mention of fascists; they built barricades with portraits of Lenin and Orthodox icons and Russian flags; they used Russian army medical supplies and soviet-era rifles, and produced militant recruitment fliers copied from the posters of Hollywood action flicks. On the opposite side the Ukrainian army and unexplained ‘volunteer brigades’, eating American army rations and firing gigantic Soviet ‘hurricane’ rockets, lost in some unexplained way a helicopter, lost named men, gave out bread and soup and produced anti-propaganda propaganda leaflets. Someone put up a small monument somewhere, to unnumbered and unnamed civilian casualties ‘of armed conflict’.

I don’t mean all this as a criticism of the exhibition, exactly. History is written by the victors, but in Slavyansk museum I sense that no one is sure who the victors are, only who are the losers. No information, no certainty, scarcely any judgement. Just objects.

When I asked the director last year what the exhibition could be called, she said, “Trophies from an incomprehensible war.”

'In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014

‘In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014’

 

On Alexander Litvinenko

This is from my novel Petrushka set in London in 1907 – about, among other things, Russian secret services operating in Britain, and a relationship between a double agent and his handler. I started writing it in about 2008; it’s based largely on historical events at the turn of the 20th century.

I think I’m posting this particular extract because this strange sad detail jumped out at me from this account of Litvinenko’s death:  that his MI6 handler apparently had no idea he was even in hospital with poisoning.

(For Okhrana read FSB, for Special Branch read MI6… you get the gist.)

“…I knew what would happen to Neschastny – to Kyril Voronin.”

Gideon wanted to hold Jeannie’s hand, but he hadn’t had a chance to wash his own, and the last person he’d touched had been a lonely megalomaniac wearing most of his guts on his outside. “When the Okhrana put me on to him last year, yes maybe I thought I’d be doing my bit to protect innocent bystanders from bombs… But I know the Okhrana’s reputation. It wasn’t information they wanted anymore from him. What they wanted was trust.”

By then agent Neschastny had become a liability, likely to break down and confess all. The Okhrana did not want him, and neither did Special Branch once it became clear he had nothing useful to tell about his comrades or his masters. “They just needed him to feel he was still important, still protected – and that was my job. To become his friend.”

Because that was what Gideon Thwaite did. Even when he’d been a regular copper, he hadn’t just moved on vagrants and fished out suicides, had he; he’d made friends with them first. Yorkshireman Thwaite, the maverick joke at Special Branch with his peculiar relationships with riffraff and revolutionists; the even-tempered eccentric no one could help but like.

“And did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Become your friend.”

That was his Jeannie: straight to the point. What was the last thing he had ever said to Neschastny? He had already given the order by then, to call off his men who shadowed the Russian day and night. The Okhrana had made no enquiry about their agent for weeks; the commissioner had blinked his habitual blind eye long enough to ask a pointed question about Thwaite’s interesting assignment of manpower. Thwaite had already known when he had said, mostly reluctantly, “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Don’t get killed, will you.”

“I won’t.” Neschastny had smiled a crooked smile. “I still have one thing left to live for.”

And the man had lied, because he was an informer and what informers do is lie; days later he had got himself killed by a Russian state assassin on British soil in scandalously public fashion.

And did he become your friend?

Gideon stared at his hands. “Yes, he did.”

“Poor him.”

“Yes.”

Living memory

Talking with friends about the new documentary about maidan ‘Winter on Fire’: “I don’t want to see it,” said one. “I don’t want to be reminded. It’s still too close.”

I wonder when these things will cease to be too close. Yesterday I was searching online for articles about Donetsk in April-May 2014. I wasn’t expecting, when I found and read these short, dry news accounts, to be almost physically plunged back into that atmosphere of dread and confusion and incipient terror that was in Donetsk then, before the war had started, when you simply literally could not believe what was happening or where it would lead to.

I’ve just come back from East Ukraine where I was interviewing local humanitarian aid workers recalling how it was a year or almost two years ago, before the war got old and ordinary and turned into the dull horror of everyday hardship and loss. How did we get used to this? They ask. And yet it’s getting harder and harder to remember that less than two years ago Ukraine was a very young country that had never seen war.

In some ways, in some places in east Ukraine it seems to have changed nothing. Those roads almost impassable because of potholes – they aren’t holes from shelling, they’re holes unfilled in years of neglect. That factory that’s a ruin – it didn’t get bombed, it just closed down in the 1990s and was looted for scrap metal. That village that has no healthcare facilities whatsoever and where people are living without hot water – they never had these two things, not in living memory.

And yet it’s changed everything. The language you use. The TV station you watch. The documents you show, and the ones you hide. The people you talk to and the people you can talk to no more; the things that can be said and that cannot be said. The home you lost; the loved ones you’ll never see again.

I talked to a family – grandmother, mother and daughter – who fled non-Ukraine controlled territory (the unthinkable language you use these days that’s become ordinary…) for Severodonetsk, where they are living on humanitarian handouts because there’s the pretty pigtailed toddler to look after and no work to be had, not in a small town whose population has increased by a half in the last two years. “What do you hope for, what do you wait for?” I asked them. “For a miracle. For peace. For us to be able to go home…”

Back in the town they fled in 2014 they didn’t have work either, because there wasn’t really any work to be had; the granny was on her pension and the mine couldn’t employ everyone, and there was nothing else to do but a bit of desultory trading on the market. Now the mine has been flooded, and no one is ever going to rebuild it. They live in Severonetsk in a wierd displaced bubble, surrounded by all their neighbours and aquaintances from back home who are all now in the same position: “Almost the whole town is here.”

“Do you know anyone who’s managed to settle down here and get work and rebuild a new life?” I ask; they shake their heads. They don’t know how long the handouts will continue. “When they stop paying them, then we’ll go somewhere else… The best thing would be to go home and then we wouldn’t need anything.”

“But there’s nothing really for you to go back to either,” I say, feeling cruel.

The little girl has finished her lollypop; she starts jumping up and down, her pigtails bouncing: “Give me another! Another! Another!” She doesn’t remember home; she’s hardly known a Ukraine without war.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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