As if one war wasn’t enough

The East Ukrainian ‘republics’  bizarre and brutal ‘war on drugs’. My latest for Foreign Policy.

Curiouser and curiouser

The first day of Spring, and a cold wind blowing in Chisinau, Moldova.

News is still coming in about opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder in Russia beneath the Kremlin’s walls. It’s just over a year since Crimea was invaded by Russian troops that the Kremlin lied about. Two days since the Kremlin declared a national holiday for the Russian special forces that are sustaining a war now in Luhansk and Donetsk in east Ukraine, and that created one 23 years ago on the right bank of the river Dnistr that split Moldova before it even had a chance to be one country.

In Chisinau, the morning streets are lined with stalls selling red and white crocheted amulets – bells, flowers, hearts, suns. It’s Martisor today, a spring holiday based on ancient myths spread across this region, about blood and snow and rebirth.

“I don’t know,” says my taxi driver, when I ask what the festival is about. “It isn’t my holiday. I’m not Moldovan.”

Sergei – let’s call him that – says he’s Ukrainian (almost every taxi driver I’ve encountered so far has been Ukrainian). He left Luhansk years ago to live here; his father is Moldovan. I say he’s lucky he left Luhansk long before the war started; he shrugs and says, “It’s not so great here. Everyone I know has left or is leaving.”

Life is visibly very hard in Moldova; not enough work, horribly low salaries and pensions. Sergei lists his friends who have gone to seek work in Canada, England, Ireland, Germany… He himself wants to go to Russia. “I’d be comfortable there. It’s all familiar, I know the language. I never managed to learn Moldovan, it’s not that I couldn’t, but… I feel comfortable in Russian.” He tells me about a friend living now in Germany, and how she doesn’t like that everything there is not like in Russian-speaking Moldova. “Even the way they visit each other at home is different,” he says, with a sort of resigned, vaguely surprised disapproval.

He asks me if it’s true that it rains all the time in England. “I couldn’t live in a rainy country,” he says, and rhapsodises about the joy of sunshine in Spring, which is a joy common to all of us.

Russian popsa is playing on the radio; if I asked him to switch to a news station it would be in Russian, of course, and it would be listing, in that important voice of supressed excitement that Russian newscasters have perfected, the numerous ridiculous theories about who murdered Nemtsov, and Putin would be abusing the word ‘provocation’ and offering condolences to Nemtsov’s mother who just days earlier warned her son he was likely to be killed. Outside, Moldovans are buying pretty red and white knitted amulets to celebrate spring, in another world as far as Sergei is concerned here in his closed Russian-language information bubble.

It isn’t just closed to him by a language barrier, it’s closed by his lack of interest, motivation or curiosity. He doesn’t speak Moldovan, he doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have to, there are dozens of Russian TV channels here to choose from, there are thousands of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he may not have bothered to learn Moldovan but most Moldovans have bothered to learn Russian.

It’s very easy to stay snug in his information bubble, protected from a big bad world that doesn’t have a place for him. It’s much easier to retreat as he is told all the time that he is under imminent threat of attack from all sides, and yet is part of a unassailably great Russian-speaking empire.

It’s human nature to want what is familiar,what makes us comfortable, and god knows life is so hard for people here they could be forgiven for wanting to hide from it (god knows there are enough British people without that excuse, buying villas in Romania or Moldova without ever developing the slightest interest in those countries’ culture and language, god knows it’s a great British tradition…)

But it’s also human nature to be curious (isn’t it?)

The Soviet system killed curiosity. It spread a whole population of incurious monolinguists from Sakhalin to Chisinau who just want to be comfortable speaking Russian and are prepared to fight and to lie about who is fighting so that they can remain comfortable and ignorant.

Sergei is in his twenties. That’s the age when you’re supposed to want to see the world, learn new things, collect experiences. Somehow, Sergei and thousands like him have been denied that desire, not by an iron curtain across a continent but by something worse: an iron curtain inside their heads.

I never really understood the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’, but it might have been invented by Stalin or by Putin. Incuriosity kills tolerance. Kills development. Kills plurality, self-awareness, critical thinking, empathy, honesty – and even the small joys in life, like learning the weird and wonderful rules of hospitality in other countries. Like knowing what those red and white amulets are for, and being able to join in a celebration of Spring, which is universal to all of us.

moldova martisor

One year

Today’s one-year commemoration on Maidan: I thought I would walk with the crowds on Institutska street, and I would listen to what people were saying, and maybe I would overhear a sentence or two that would capture for me some kind of mood or meaning of 20 February 2015, central Kyiv, one year on from the bloodiest day of the Maidan protests.

But there was so little to overhear. There were a few ‘Do you remember…?’, a few ‘And this is where we…’; there was the national anthem; of course there was “Slava Ukrainy! Heroyam Slava!” Mostly, all there was to hear was silence.

And I guess that’s the mood and the meaning.

The big screens showed the names of the protestors who were killed on Maidan, the ‘heavenly hundred’. It’s right that the names are there, that Ukraine remembers each one of them, who they were, how they died, what they left behind.

But so much has happened in the year since then and I found myself wanting to see the names of all the others since: the soldiers, the volunteers, the journalists, the children and fathers and mothers and yes the militants and the mercenaries and even the Russian soldiers in east Ukraine too – the dead on both sides and on no sides since February 2014, because they are all people, and I don’t want to hear numbers, I want to see names, I want every one of the dead to be an individual and to be responsible and to count.

If they count, if every one of them on both sides and no sides counts, maybe those people who used Maidan to start and sustain a war (they also have names, they too are individuals with responsibilities) will be made to realise that this is too high a price.

I know that’s naïve. I know because as I walked up Institutska with the silent, dignified crowd I thought, can I imagine a commemoration like this in Moscow? And the answer is no. In today’s Russia, this would have been turned into a glorification of war and suffering. This would have been a heavily stage-managed vehicle for mass propaganda.

At the top of Institutska, I met friends and aquaintances from Crimea. The silence broke, as one told us about a call from her mother in Simferopol describing the pay-related test she had to take at work today. Not on how well the staff were performing at work, but on their knowledge of the Russian national anthem.

(“Slava Ukrainy!” called a voice from the quiet crowd walking past us. “Heroyam Slava” everyone who wasn’t crying replied.)

On this day last year, the ‘Return of Crimea’ began, according to medals minted by the Russian Ministry of Defence in April 2014. There’s a list of names somewhere, of every individual awarded one of these medals for the ‘Return of Crimea, 20 February-18 March 2014′.

Today on Institutska, surrounded by candles and flowers for the dead of 20 February are the Crimeans, Ukrainians who fought for Maidan too and lost their home.

Forty days

I wrote this in July last year. Inbetween trips to Crimea and Donbas, I spent a week in this central Ukrainian village, watching the sun set and the moon rise, and pretending nothing else was happening.

Baba Lena died in December – peacefully, everyone says, on her bunk by the stove in the little white-painted khata, like a scene from Gogol’s Evenings near Dikanka, and a village beekeeper’s stories of a Ukraine that never was.   

Baba Lena, 95, who lived through four years of German occupation, gives her verdict on the conflict in East Ukraine’s Donbas: “That isn’t war, its hooliganism.” 

Mercenary, state-sponsored hooliganism, in which civilians are dying. 

Baba Lena’s village in Poltava region, like most villages in Ukraine, looks too remote, sleepy and idyllic (in a falling-down, rubbish-strewn sort of way) to have ever been near a war. These are the villages from Nikolai Gogol’s Dikanka tales, where little white houses nestle like sleeping doves under the hillside, hollyhocks and sunflowers tower over sagging wooden gates and kudriavy panichi – crooked gentlemen, or Morning Glories – twine up the frilly iron-capped gate posts. 

Gogol saw these places in better days of course, before the collective farms took over, the shy maidens got emancipated and the dashing black-eyed young Cossacks put on Red Army uniform, or had to leave for Donbas and Siberia. Before the collective farms collapsed and everyone left, except for grandmothers like Baba Lena. 

Appearances are so deceptive. Just a few kilometers beyond the village is a monument to a division of Soviet border guards, slaughtered here as they retreated east before the advancing German army in 1941. Their captain survived, joined the partisans and fought all the way back west again through Zhytomir and Vinnitsa and further.  He was made a general, lived after the war in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv – and ended up being related to Baba Lena, when her son married his daughter. 

Baba Lena has never left this village in all her life. She doesn’t have too bad memories of the German occupation –or maybe she does, but she doesn’t talk about them. It was four years of some kind of stability, and like many people in east Ukraine now who have ended up participating in deadly state-sponsored hooliganism in the name of wanting a quiet life, she treasures stability above just about everything.

I suppose there were no Jews or gypsies in this village. The villagers had to work for the Germans during the day; in the evenings they could tend their own smallholdings. By 1945, families (women and children, mostly; the men were away fighting) had cows, pigs, chickens, or money from selling them. Four years is a long time. Maybe the German soldiers fell in love with local girls; thought about settling down. I don’t know about that. 

Then war swept through again, from east to west this time. The Soviets came back, and the collective farm took away all the livestock and money. Baba Lena has a medal from the Soviet Union though, for ‘valiant and selfless service’ during the war, awarded in 1946. That’s what she showed me, when I asked about her war years. 

Over eight hundred Red Army soldiers who died in this area between 1941 and 1945 are buried in a collective grave by the village school. The memorial stone has only eight names on it – I guess no one ever identified the rest. There is no monument to any civilians who died, though recently someone put up a new cross on the hill, to those ‘warriors who gave their lives for the peaceful present’. Even more recently – after the present got a good deal less peaceful – someone put up next to it the Ukrainian flag.  

You’d think World War Two – the Soviet ‘Great Patrotic War’ – was the only thing of note that ever happened here. But up on the grassy, windswept hill is the site of a much older castle or fortress, I don’t know exactly what since the Soviet-era notice helpfully says ‘architectural monument’ without further details. 

Also on the hill was the grand panichy dom, the house where a rich Polish family lived until the revolution, with their own bakery and church. The local grandmothers still talk about that, and the scandal when the Polish gentleman married a woman from the village. There’s nothing at all left of the grand house, but the cottage he built for his village wife is still standing, pretty and white and blue-shuttered, like a khata out of a Gogol tale where a black-eyed Cossack woos a shy young beauty under the lovely Ukrainian moon. 

Ukraine often makes me think of that supposedly ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Baba Lena might seem to have led the least interesting life imaginable, here in this falling down village. Nearly everyone she talks about these days is dead – in wars and epidemics, in some kind of stupid, horrible village accident, or just of old age and disappointment. 

The collective farm is in ruins, and Baba Lena’s own plot is a weed-smothered expanse of potatoes and carrots and rotting melons that her grandchildren (who grew up in Kyiv, descendants of that Soviet general) inexpertly sowed but haven’t found time to come back and harvest. Ukrainians in cities still rely on their grandmothers in the villages to supply potatoes and carrots; their safety net when the gas is cut off, when the economy collapses yet again.  

This black, crumbly Ukrainian earth is as close to sacred as Baba Lena gets. Everyone died, everyone left, but worst of all, they let the land be overtaken by buryan – a wilderness of  weeds. 

Flowers blue and yellow, birds and small bright-eyed creatures flourish in the weeds and wilderness. The river shelters turtles and floats many-petalled water lilies; beneath a fine skein of mist its still, rose-flushed surface is illusorily brighter than the twilight sky. A crescent moon is setting over fields to the west, golden as a promise… It’s illusory too that interesting times feel a long way off, happening in another country, to someone else.



It just goes on and on, and I don’t know why I’m not immune, desensitised to the inevitable horror of it by now.

Why I still can’t believe that anyone could post on twitter a photograph of a dead Ukrainian soldier in Donetsk airport; not just of a dead soldier but, from his wallet, the ‘photo of the three daughters he’ll never see again’. Three daughters. Those are real people, those girls; not dead, not fighting a war, not anyone’s idea of an enemy. Is that tweet the last they will see of their father?

(I’m not putting a link to it, it’s too disgusting.)

Why I can’t believe anyone would parade Ukrainian soldiers captured at the airport to see a blood-filled trolleybus in Donetsk, eight dead people there, or thirteen, just now, they just died just now in a bomb/mortar/who knows what attack – and encourage survivors and witnesses to attack the PoWs.

I can’t believe it, even though I knew it would happen. I can’t believe that people want this war to continue, but they do, they must do, to behave like this. They want to forget that they are all the same, all flesh and blood, could all die like this, would never in a million years want their own children to become war propaganda.

You did it. No, you did it. No you did it so it would look like we did it. That argument, over the bodies of yet more nameless people with children they’ll never see again.

Back in Autumn, when it looked like Donetsk airport might fall to the (pro) Russians, a young Ukrainian ex-student fighting there (I forget where he was from, Kyiv maybe, somewhere a way away from Donetsk) told a journalist “We’ve got to keep fighting for it, we can’t give it up, too many have died for it already.”

An ex-miner from Makiivka near Donetsk, leading a division fighting at the airport on the other side, couldn’t explain why 70 percent of his division were from Russia. I asked him why his side needed Russians –  why weren’t locals fighting there? He said, “When I was on leave a month ago I went out in the evening in Makiivka. There were mountains of guys on the streets. I asked ‘Why aren’t you with the militants? Why aren’t you fighting?”

The miner, arm in a sling, cigarette dropping ash everywhere, looked at me in amazement. “They said ‘There are enough there already’. Can you imagine? And they are out drinking, with girls…”

He told me about his daughter living in Kyiv with her boyfriend. In Kyiv, where the government sends soldiers to Donetsk airport and the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag flies everywhere. Isn’t Kyiv enemy country? “If anyone insults her there, I’ll come to Kyiv myself and tear them limb from limb,” he said.

I reckon his daughter and that Ukrainian student fighting at the airport on the other side would be about the same age. It would neaten my story if he was from Kyiv, but I can’t remember, and this isn’t a story.

 I don’t know if they’re dead by now, the ex-miner and the ex-student; their corpses on twitter. If they felt they had to die because no one else was stupid enough to, or because so many others had died there. At the time, I thought, what stupid reasons.

In Donetsk now, these are the reasons for this war. That’s why photos of dead soldiers and their daughters are posted online, that’s why the PoWs are paraded. So that there are more deaths for more deaths, and we all forget our humanity.

Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

Define ‘sanity’

It says something about the state of things in east Ukraine, when the psychiatric hospital in Stakhanov feels like a small haven of sanity.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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