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.

When will this be a book

Surreal moment, in a gigantic muddy field where an electricity pylon has been blown up by saboteurs, as two mud-covered jeeps arrive with a load of large scary men in camouflage from volunteer paramilitary groups, knives in belts, an automatic rifle in the back seat – and one of them stares at me very hard and I’m looking back nervously and he says: ‘Are you Lily Hyde? I’ve read your wonderful book.”

I can write funny little stories of strange meetings in muddy fields in south Ukraine with fans of my book, Dream Land. But the people that book is about, the Crimean Tatars and their national struggle to live in their homeland – that is the real, big story; that is happening now; not funny at all.

The man who said “I’ve read your wonderful book” had to leave Crimea with his family last year, when Crimea was annexed by Russia and he was detained by ‘Crimean self-defence militias’ (and what’s the difference between them and ‘Ukrainian voluntary battalions’ like the ones in that field…?) This was long before this man had anything to do with any paramilitary groups shouting either “Velikaya Rossiya” or “Slava Ukrainy”. At the time, he worked for non-government organisations on euro-integration.

Another man I met near that muddy field, driving from Crimea to mainland Ukraine, could not stop talking: “I know I’m being a bit mad,” he said, “but it’s the freedom of being here, it’s like being able to breath again.” He had come to support the blockade of Crimea by Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian voluntary battalions, and he wouldn’t tell me his name – not for my newspaper report anyway, this man who belongs to one of the most outspoken nations I know. Today, while he is in mainland Ukraine, breathing freely, his home back in Crimea is being searched by Russian security services.

This is not in fact a story; it’s not in a book. No punchline, no neat ending, no marketing strategy and author signings. It is losses and mixed allegiances and stranger alliances, shattered glass electricity conductors in a vast sea of mud, the horizon lost in freezing fog, one lonely tent flying the Crimean Tatar flag.

no more numbers

29 August 2014, Ilovaisk, east Ukraine: 366 dead, 429 wounded, 128 taken prisoner, 158 missing in action (Ukrainian military prosecutor’s office).

158 missing is just a number.

Andrey drove his mum mad by playing computer games late into the night in the one-room flat they shared. Igor was a miner, he went skiiing for the first time in the Carpathians just before the war, and took to it like a duck to water, said to his wife and daughters: why did I spend all my life underground and never knew there was this? Sasha loved camping and nature and taught all his fellow soldiers to dutifully bury their shits as they camped out at their check point last summer, before it all went wrong at Ilovaisk. Artyom could inhale one of his mum’s homemade cakes in one sitting. Herman made everyone laugh. Yura was born practically in a railway carriage travelling from Germany to Moscow. Yaroslav had a beautiful grin everyone remembered. Sergey was as proud and careful of his clothes as a girl.

Maxim’s mother sits at her computer, hoping against hope that her son will contact her again through social media: mumwe’reherewe’reallaliveall. In her cluttered inbox endless spam sits alongside messages from conmen promising to return her son alive if she will only send money.

Ruslan’s son is collecting money in his piggybank to pay the bad people to let his dad go free. His daughter came home from school crying because the other children said her dad was dead.

Igor’s wife wakes from dreams of joining a women’s volunteer army battalion where everyone welcomes her and there is work to be done and hope lies ahead – wakes to the same empty bed and the same hopeless question: what can I do? What if he comes home and asks why I didn’t I do more to find him?

Yura’s mother gets up every morning at 4am to pray; the stray cat she took in sits beside her purring. She thought it was a tom; when it turned out to be female Andrey’s mother advised her: keep it, because if a tom can become a female then for sure your Yura is coming home.

Andrey’s cat ran away a few months ago. In the empty flat Andrey’s mum dreams of aeroplanes, and of wrapping her belongings in a handkerchief and setting off, like the hedgehog in the fog, to wander far away from everything. But the hedgehog comes home in the end to its family, because it is in a children’s cartoon.

Come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home

5 percent terror, 95 percent boredom

There’s so little to do in Donetsk.

Many shops are closed. There’s nothing nice to eat, nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to. There’s hardly even the adrenalin rush of terror of shelling – everyone has got too used to it.

The poorly stocked supermarket (odds and ends from Ukraine, ‘Republican bread’ at 2.80 hryvnas/5.60 rubles a loaf according to the ‘DNR’ official exchange rate, ‘cheese products’ and ersatz coffee from Russia) has been nationalised. The prosthetics clinic has been nationalised. The pawn shop has been nationalised. Do you want flowers, do you want army boots? women call listlessly from their stalls at the market – nationalised, naturally – where everything is out of date or adulterated and no one much is buying because no one can afford to.

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

The fountains play on Pushkin Boulevard amid perfectly tidy beds of roses and mums pushing prams, young couples arm in arm, a grandpa walking with his grandson wearing matching Black Sea Fleet caps. Small armies of municipal workers weed, sweep up leaves, repaint railings and zebra crossings across quiet roads. Down by the river cyclists ride by in the closed world of their headphones and drunk militants pounce on babies to kiss.

Along the broad, deserted highway built to bring international guests from airport to stadium for the Euro 2012 football championship – just three unimaginable years ago – Ukrainian ‘Officers Corps’ jeeps whizz by on their murky quests to bring prisoners home. The road surface hums under the tyres with the dulling, soporific sound left behind by tank treads. The sound of Donetsk now.

Work for all! 'DNR' employment centre

Work for all! ‘DNR’ employment centre

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Posters everywhere promise exam-free entry to higher education institutions (“Donetsk National University – recognised by the whole world, the best in the Republic’); work for all (those armies of militants and municipal workers…); worthy pensions; more nationalisation; rebirth, revival, renewal, regeneration; hero status in the ‘DNR’ army (‘Daddy, where were you when they destroyed our homeland?’).

Daddy, where were you?

Daddy, where were you?

No one makes plans, no one receives letters, no one understands the point of anything anymore. There’s nothing to talk about except the high, high prices – even the rage got old, the propaganda got repetitive, the dead too many to count.

War is horror, is death, is hatred and terror. And war is stultifying, horizon-reducing, nullifying, degrading and dreary boredom.

Independence day

In Donetsk, Ukrainians stockpile supplies for the day the water is cut off, the food deliveries and humanitarian aid stops, the lights finally go out.

The woman who made these preserves picked the tomatoes and plums from her allotment where shells fly overhead from one side and from the other, day after day, night after night. A small rucksack stands next to her bed, packed with documents and cash, a pair of knickers and a toothbrush for the day she has to flee.

But she has no intention of fleeing, and her jars of hard-won preserves are not waiting for dark times ahead. “At 6pm on the day of victory, you are all invited here. We’ll open these jars and we’ll eat and drink it all, to celebrate the return of Ukraine.”


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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