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What frightens us

Manchester is where as a little kid my mum took me to ballet matinees and for two magic hours my World was princesses in sparkly chiffon skirts. Manchester is where as a teenager I went for Life: shopping, bright lights, music and dancing. I wasn’t there in 1996 when the IRA bombed the Arndale Centre, but I remember it happening. My generation grew up with IRA terrorism. But I don’t remember ever being really afraid of it. We were more terrified of dying, slowly and agonizingly, in a nuclear holocaust.

I told a friend this morning about the 1996 bombing – the biggest bomb exploded in the UK since WW2. When I told her that the IRA called the police 90 minutes beforehand to warn them, she looked at me in disbelief. This was twenty years ago. In just twenty years, it  has become inconceivable that someone would warn the police before they committed an act of terror. Because of the warning, no one died, although 200 were injured.

My teenage fears about dying in a nuclear holocaust feel so old-fashioned and quaint now, even though there are nuclear weapons in the world now as then, just as there was terrorism then as now. Then we were scared of men in suits pressing The Button. Now –

Now I am thinking not just of Manchester, but of the little kids and the teenagers in Aleppo, Baghdad, Kabul, in so many cities, who can no longer go shopping, dreaming, dancing under the bright lights. I am thinking: how could it become inconceivable to us that a bomber would warn the police beforehand. How could it become conceivable to someone who was once a kid, once a teenager, that they should kill not only themselves with a bomb but also ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred boys and girls out dreaming, dancing – living.

donetsk man united ticket

I usually tell people in other countries I’m from Manchester, and they usually respond with “Manchester United!” This ticket was given to me by a young man living in an underground bomb shelter in Donetsk in 2014. When I said I was from Manchester, he ran outside to his nearby house to fetch it. It’s for a Man United match in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena in 2013 – before the war in East Ukraine, back when people in Donetsk could party all night and dance and go to international football matches.





When will there be good news?

Good news coming out of Russian-annexed Crimea is very relative, and even more short-lived.

On 25 January there was some good news from Crimea. Relatively. The Kyiv district court in Simferopol refused to extend the pre-trial prison term of Redvan Suleimanov, arrested in July 2016 on very unconvincing charges of sabotage. He would have to be released by the end of January because the investigation had failed to provide materials within the required seven days of the previous detention term’s expiry.

So you understand why this is good news in Crimea these days: under a regime which makes it abundantly clear that anyone can be arrested and sentenced, regardless of any truth of what they did or didn’t do, no one arrested on politicised charges of extremism or terrorism or sabotage or mass unrest has been found innocent. No one, once taken into pre-trial detention on these charges, has been released on bail or even house arrest. Around twenty people accused of such offences have been held in the horrible conditions of pre-trial prison for a year or more. They have not been allowed visits from their families. Two have been removed to prison in Moscow. The family of another Ukrainian arrested for sabotage in November didn’t know which prison he was in at all for over a month after he was arrested.

Suleimanov’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the majority of Crimean Tatars arrested in Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, reported the good news about his client on social media. On 26 January, the next day, he reported a house search by the FSB (Russian security services) of another Crimean Tatar activist.

On his way to the house, and while his own house was also being searched, Kurbedinov was arrested himself. He was charged with ‘public display or propaganda of banned symbols’, for a post on social media from 2012-13 (long before Russia annexed Crimea), and sentenced to ten days administrative arrest.

So relative is good news in Crimea these days, where anyone can be sentenced for anything, this honestly felt like a kind of good news. It is awful news, the arrest of the most prominent lawyer (out of a very small group) defending Crimean Tatars and others. But –  only ten days. Only administrative. It could have been so much worse.

Friends laughed at my naivety over this, and in welcoming the news about Suleimanov just the day before. Rightly. On 27 January, the same Kyiv district court in Simferopol heard Suleimanov’s case again. Kurbedinov of course, was not there to represent him. In his absence, the court extended Suleimanov’s pre-trial prison term.

Wish you were here

Beach postcard from Dnipropetrovsk. Three teenage boys throwing each other in the Dnipro river; an old lady in a 1950s swimsuit talking to herself; two lobster-pink women in skimpy bikini bottoms lolling on towels not caring that their legs are short and plump. Games of volleyball; a young couple who can’t stop kissing, in fact they’re actually having sex in the water; a moustachioed man standing pretending to read a book, getting off on watching the kissing couple. Here is a young girl in a pink bikini, knowing how young and perfectly lovely she is, standing adjusting her straps, dusting off sand, crying out look at me. Here are two young soldiers in striped telnyashky standing and not looking, hugging each other, hugging and hugging, drunk as skunks. It’s all here: the towels and the inflatable rings and the suntan lotion and the beer, the sandcastles the sex the crappy novels, bikinis and beach balls, tattoos and sausages and brown skin, peeling skin. Here is floating in the water staring at the sky, here is swimming sedately wearing a floppy sunhat. Plastic bags full of empty bottles; blue and green and camouflage; hardly able to stand up. Bottletops and cigarette butts; the vulnerability of bare skin, of shaved heads, of happiness, of this young woman in the water who can’t swim, who jumps every time a trail of green water lily stem brushes her shivering flesh and stares about in self-conscious fear of being noticed; of not being noticed; fear of living in public; fear of dying alone. Day coming to an end, the light growing richer, golden, more precious. That child drawing up water through a sieve. That child kicking sand into the water for the water to bring back. This older brother teaching his younger brother to swim; this dad giving his daughter a piggy-back ride through the water. That grandpa walking slowly past who, somewhere deep inside, is still a skinny naked child kicking sand. All of it everlasting and for one moment only, blue and green and orange sieve red bucket yellow buoys, yellow boys, golden girls and boys… The strange man who keeps walking to the river edge to refill two white plastic bottles so he can keep washing and washing his socks. The old man who keeps picking at an ugly mortal boil on his belly. The river has that colour in its unruffled blue that is more gold than blue. All is satin, all is lucid, a swallow skims the water with the tip of a wing. Little piggyback girl screams for joy; the kissing couple have swapped sex for selfies. The drunk wallows and splashes and a fish splashes away in a series of panicked quicksilver leaps. Time for a cigarette, time to fill the plastic bottle again to wash those socks that will never be clean. Time for another beer, shake out the towels, time to go home; girls are winding up the yellow ribbons that mark the volleyball courts; old women are quietly talking through their lives and loves and deaths and disappointments; the soldiers have passed out under a bench. Time for pigeons to peck up the empty sunflower seed hulls. Time for sand to fill the great holes where adults remembering how to be children buried each other – fill them up, softly and silently, grain by grain by grain.

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

Journey in the dark

In Luhansk, the rows of tower blocks stand dark against an indigo sky awash with light – brilliant stars, a more brilliant moon. Usually it’s near-impossible to see starlight in a city. Here it glints off the broken trolleybus wires and tram rails, the many shattered windows. Not a single streetlight is working in this city anymore. Large areas still lack all electricity. Finding an open restaurant, an internet café powered by generator, feels like a small miracle.

The internet works, the heating doesn’t; the few people in the cafe are hunched in coats and hats. The man in charge stays open late for us – “I’ve got no electricity in my flat,” he says with a shrug when we thank him.

His mother is sitting in the flat in the dark, waiting for him to come home. His father was killed minutes before a ceasefire was declared, because he refused to leave the family house in Kommunarka, just outside Luhansk, now a flattened wreck. “He couldn’t wait five minutes for the ceasefire, just five minutes… The really stupid thing is, he’s a veteran from Afghanistan. Got through that whole war, and he was killed in his own home.”

Full moon, two nights later. There never was a ceasefire. Artillery fire from around Donetsk airport arcs upwards in orange streaks, four by four by four, that burst in mid-air like gigantic, monotonous fireworks. Beyond Makiivka, full of convoys of trucks and mounted guns, of jittery militants who count the cost of everything in Russian rubles, the highway north is almost deserted.

There are rumours everywhere of imminent attack, of this strange war that never stopped starting all over again, Russian invasion, Ukrainian advance… There is nothing happening on this highway tonight, just the ghosts of mortars in dents and holes, of tank treads in left-behind, humming song.

Moonlight turns the world silver and indigo and unreal. Off the highway, the country roads are just as dented and full of holes, although there was no battle here, just years and years of neglect. At checkpoints the bus driver turns off the headlights and we are plunged into silver indigo brightness, Ukrainian flag, separatist flag, the stripes of yellow tape the Ukrainian soldiers use to identify themselves all turned the same, silver, indigo.

I’ve done this journey several times now. Each time there is a looking glass moment of crossing from one territory to another; each time, I wonder if I will fall into a chasm between them. This time the moon turns it all utterly dreamlike. We will wake up from this dream soon, this country will wake up and ask itself: how could it happen? How could we do this to each other? Pull of the darkness.

The theatre of war

At the Donetsk drama theatre, which put on a performance of wry, funny, subtle and humane Chekhov today, while outside the shells and the mortars fell.

Means of attack and defence…

Please do not bring means of attack of defence into the theatre

Please do not bring means of attack or defence into the theatre

The truth about war

The truth about war is not that the Ukrainian army shelled this school today or the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) shelled it; that the Ukrainian army shelled it because the DNR shelled Ukrainian positions from the school first, or that the DNR shelled it because the Ukrainians shelled the DNR because the DNR shelled the Ukrainians first and the school was stuck in the middle–

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

 The photographs and videos and analyses of missile damage angles and sun shadows and nearby artillery positions and types of artillery with their stupid innocent names like ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’ don’t matter. The interviews with soldiers and militants and military experts and injured and bystanders don’t matter. All that matters is that the supporters of the DNR will believe one thing about what happened, and the supporters of Ukraine will believe another. ‘Both sides blamed the other’, that is the truth of war. 

 I always understood war, at its most basic level, if you take away all the stuff about religion or property or governance or liberation, to be a matter of A killing B before B kills A. Surely that is what war is. That is what weapons of war, the ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’, are made for. 

Now I see that war is something quite different. War is about A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is more of a bloodthirsty vicious world-threatening [insert insult of choice] than A (or B). 

The truth about war is that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is that everyone has their own version they want to believe and are made to believe. 

And the people who died – they’ve been made into weapons of war; they could be  ‘blossom’ perhaps. Or ‘mayflies’. Something helpless and short-lived, in the stupid euphemisms of military hardware.

The truth about those people who died today is that they had parents and children and lovers and friends; hopes and beliefs and prejudices and regrets. They had lives, and now they don’t. Does that matter, to anyone, anymore?

semenovka rubble


Lenin in London

He has disappearing from much of Ukraine, his statues toppled by gleeful or angry crowds. But London doesn’t mind remembering that Lenin was here.

lenin in london

36 Tavistock Place

Of course, he didn’t stir up a revolution in England – he found the proletariat too torpid.

What happened to equal opportunity?

Brilliant articles here from Lucy Mangan and here from Michael Rosen, about inequality in the education system and the insidious, cynical and vicious way it is being perpetuated. Hurrah for these writers, articulating what I am simply too angry about to be able to articulate properly.

Go read. Get angry.

I’m elsewhere

on ABBA again today, ruminating on the power of story and the overlap between fiction and activism in narratives from Kony 2012 to the Hunger Games.  Pop over, have a read, leave a comment.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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