Heroes never die
They just turn into this:
Heroes never die
They just turn into this:
They were a polite lot, the journalists at (ex) president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych’s press conference today in Russia. None of them openly laughed when he announced “I didn’t run away”. Not even as he was speaking from another country, staying with ‘an old friend’, with no particularly convincing explanation of how he had got there since disappearing from Kiev last friday morning without a word to the nation.
He was disappointed and surprised by Putin’s silence over Ukrainian events apparently (that’s going to make him popular with Putin when they finally do speak, I’m sure).
Even while insisting he needed international guarantees for his safety before he would return to Ukraine as its ‘rightful president’, he repeated that the international community (well, the West anyway) had tricked and betrayed him.
He owns no property abroad, no international bank accounts, he’s a poor honest man, he told those polite journalists who still didn’t appear to be laughing. He dodged around a lot of issues, but the one question he completely ducked was about Switzerland and Austria blocking his bank accounts along with those of his son and eighteen other Ukrainians, and launching a corruption investigation. Wonder why he didn’t answer that one.
Oh, he said say “sorry” though.
This last week in Ukraine, reality has outstripped most scary stories or fairytales.
Any story that was being told, of a choice between the European Union and Russia; of ultra-nationalists versus a democratically elected government; of a gradual exchange of power from president to parliament; of things reverting to normal once all the homeless bums realised they couldn’t live in protest tents forever and went back to whatever gutter they’d crawled from – whatever the story was, however coherent and persuasive the narrative, it’s been utterly overtaken by events.
Who could make up police snipers shooting down unarmed protesters with live ammunition? Or charter flights of the wealthy and well-connected with their suitcases of cash queuing nose to tail to take off out of the country? That the tanks and soldiers allegedly heading to Kiev would never arrive? That the president would sign an agreement to hold early elections and then disappear? That next day his country residence would be open to the public to wander around and gawp at his ostentatious and thoroughly kitsch display of wealth?
Truth stranger and more fantastic than any fiction. I’ve been making stories out of Ukraine for several years, both as a journalist and as a fiction writer. This last week I’ve mostly just stared in horror, astonishment, awe, sadness, cautious hope. I could never have guessed what would happen, let alone made all this up.
In the face of all the confusion and upheaval, people continue to make up stories. It’s what makes us human. One Ukrainian city greets riot police returning from Kiev as heroes; another makes them walk down a ‘parade of shame’. The Russian press narrative is that the interim government is made of bandits and extremists; the West’s story is that it’s a triumph for democracy. Many protestors in Ukraine are calling it a sell-out. The proposed new prime minister has his own story: “this is the government of political suiciders! So welcome to hell.”
And in Crimea today as unidentified armed gunmen have taken over the Crimean parliament building, once again it is terrorists versus the people, or freedom fighters versus mob rule, or something like that. No one has really had time to make up the story here yet.
Right now we are all too busy living through it. History will make its own story out of these events. We don’t know yet who will write that version. Who will evaluate it, embellish it, censor it, cross out and rewrite it, turn it into poetry, a children’s story, a romance, a tragedy – or (what I really want) a happy ending…?
A version of this post appeared on ABBA today
I remember when the new paving bricks were laid all along the wide pavements of Kiev’s main street, Kreschatyk; over most of Maidan Nezalezhnosti; up Institutska and Bohdana Kmelnitskoho, spreading like a sort of monotonous grey skin disease over the whole of downtown Kiev and then out to the suburbs.
Nobody liked them much; they were ugly and, worse, impractical (slippery in the rain, cracking in the frost). Why were they being laid absolutely everywhere, replacing pavements that seemed perfectly adequate already? Obvious, people joked; because they’re made in the factory owned by Jack the Kiev mayor’s son. Or is it Jack the president’s nephew?
Later that stopped being a joke, and was repeated as fact.
I don’t know if it’s actually true about the factory owner or not. I’m not sure it matters. What matters is that everyone joked about what they assumed was true, because that’s the way everything worked in Ukraine – favours, nepotism, bribes, backhanders: endemic corruption. Someone somewhere had to be making lots of dishonestly acquired money from paving most of Kiev.
Whatever factory they came from, Ukrainians colonised those acres of ugly grey bricks. Grandmothers sold cottage garden peonies or single cigarettes from upturned crates set out on them. Kids covered them in chalked pictures and chewing gum. Pensioners knelt on them to beg; well-dressed young people walked over them and felt European.
Then demonstrators dug them up and built barricades out of them. Activists threw them at riot police.
Over last weekend, they’ve been built into monuments for the dead, holders for candles, shelves for sheaves of flowers.
I still don’t know who Jack is in this case; who it is that made those bricks that paved the city that built the barricades that honour the dead who died so that no Jack would make a dishonest fortune selling the bricks that paved the city…
Maybe it doesn’t matter, so long as in future, no one in Ukraine makes jokes about the country being paved by corruption as the only way to bear knowing it’s true.
People like to laugh at the first line of the Ukrainian national anthem: Ще не вмерла України – Ukraine hasn’t died yet. I used to think it was a bit funny myself.
I changed my mind a long time ago. Ukraine: country of lost causes. Country that just won’t lie down and die.
Here’s something I wrote about Ukraine around fifteen years ago, when I hadn’t been living there long. I was travelling around the centre and west in the Spring time, trying to understand and come to terms with this wonderful, mostly tragic place that bore a weight of history so utterly different from Britain’s:
“It’s a real country, although life in it is half-mythical. Its people are shadowed by insupportable ghosts who cling not so much to places but to souls. This countryside is so beguiling and innocent, and what lies beneath the ground has an affinity to flesh and imagination, not to earth and bricks. The hereditary poison is invisible (and of course I can easily find an analogy in the Chernobyl radiation that may be secretly destroying this land and people). It is easy to ignore that which cannot be seen, and while the thyme is still scented, the chestnut trees in bloom, the castle walls softly crumbling, why am I talking of ghosts?”
I think I was trying to describe places like Babiy Yar, that leafy park where children play over the ravine where Jews, Roma, and psychiatric patients were gassed or shot during the Nazi occupation of Kiev. Like the wood on the way to Brovary, where small white notices tied to the trunks of trees remember the thousands murdered by the NKVD in 1920–21. Like the green field near Khust, where the followers of Avgustin Voloshyn, founder of the independent republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, were slaughtered on one day.
That independent republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted all of 24 hours: between the 15th and 16th March 1939. Just one of Ukraine’s many experiments in statehood. Here are a few more: The Ukrainian People’s Republic, centred on Kiev, which lasted less than a year between 1917–1918. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets, centred in Kharkiv at the same time and even more short-lived. Over eight months in 1918–1919, Nestor Makhno’s grass-roots Anarchist state in central Ukraine, with its own economy and systems of education and social justice.
All this, as well as seventy years of Soviet domination from Moscow, five years of Nazi occupation, following centuries of fighting with or between Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, all of which have controlled this territory –
And Ukraine is not yet dead. It just won’t lie down and die, even if individual Ukrainians are prepared to die for it.
From the list of those killed in Kiev over the last three days: people from Rivne, Vinnitsa, Lutsk, Lviv, Kerch, Kharkiv, Donetsk oblast, Poltava oblast, Kirovohrad oblast. That’s all over Ukraine, east and west, north and south.
Ukraine continues to experiment with statehood, with systems of governance, with ways to live and keep living. Ще не вмерла України.
As the EU takes days to impose sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on Ukrainian officials ‘responsible for violence and excessive force’ – a total of 180 private charter flights left Kiev’s Zhuliany airport today, heading west or to Moscow.
“You never saw so many Mercedes’ in one spot”, I’m told.
On Ukrainian TV this morning, Berkut and spetsnaz (special forces) who are fighting protesters were filmed, saying that parliament deputies are leaving the country along with their commanders.
We don’t really know why we are here, they said. And why we are protecting the oligarchs. Away from the family for weeks, sleeping on the ground, and the salary is hilarious…
On both sides, I’m told, “lots of young lost faces. They did not expect being wounded.”
“Andrey is bringing food to activists on maidan everyday.”
“It’s been like a huge soup kitchen on maidan. Eveyone helping everyone else.”
“Another friend of mine is taking injured people from hospitals, where they’re in danger, and bringing them to the homes of people who are willing to shelter them”
“Ruslan went yesterday to donate blood after it was announced after the attack on the 18th that there is a huge shortage. There were a long queues, and all the blood banks were full by the middle of the day.”
“Lana took in four activists for a night from Maidan: they are from Lviv. She gave one man her dead husband’s clothes to change into, to disguise him.”
These are just a few of many similar messages from or about friends in Kiev. None of these people are ultra-right nationalists. None of them are the extremists that the Ukrainian and Russian governments claim make up the opposition in Ukraine. They are ordinary, peaceful, decent people… They’re my friends.
They have been to Europe and know what life is like in the EU. They know it’s not perfect in England or France or Germany. But they’re still fighting and supporting the fight for a chance to live like people do in England or France of Germany, because it has to be better that this. Better than being shot at.