I hadn’t even changed money when a guy in a military jacket approached me for a donation for Ukraine’s war efforts, and he was quite persistent too. This happened in Maidan Square, now turned into a death shrine, with photos of sacrificed soldiers scattered all over. Of different sizes, many were draped with rosary beads and/or accompanied by a flag, flowers, votive candles, and/or pine twig. Many of the dead had faded or bled smearily. Some posed with pets, guns or cars. In his tent, a red bearded, smiling dude gave a thumb up. A chubby, bespectacled man hugged a tree, while a suited fellow appeared to be singing karaoke. Baby faced or wizened, all these men and a few women have died in a hopeless war with no objective save the American imperative to harass Russia.
As for their government, it is US-installed and seeded throughout with foreigners. Remember the tie-biting President of Georgia? He contributed 2,000 troops to the US invasion of Iraq then, egged on by Bush, decided to trade blows with Russia over South Ossetia, with predictably calamitous results. Mikheil Saakashvili is now head of Ukraine’s International Advisory Council on Reforms, as well as the Governor of Odessa Oblast, having been granted Ukrainian citizenship just the day before. Only a wrecked nation would recruit the wrecker of another to join its wrecking crew. Mikheil was plucked right out of Brooklyn, where he was moping to escape prosecution back home. The just-resigned Minister of Economy and Trade, Aivaras Abromavicius, was born in Lithuania and does not speak Ukrainian. Minister of Finance Natalie Jaresko retains her American citizenship, wisely, it must be said, so she can quickly jump off this sinking ship.
Taking the bus from Leipzig to Kyiv, I crossed all of Poland and half of Ukraine. This took nearly 24 hours of sitting stiffly, with over 2 spent at the Polish/Ukrainian border. All of the 61 passengers but me and two others were Ukrainian. One was a World Bank financial advisor in her 60’s. Half Russian by blood and born in Tennessee, Carol, not her real name, has spent most of her adult life in Europe, working in Frankfurt, Moscow and now Kyiv, with brief assignments to Manila and Banjul. Her father was a chemist on the Manhattan Project.
Out the windows, villages passed by, their houses humble and somewhat dilapidated, though a few were quite grand. Colorful churches cheered up the grim winter landscape, as did decorated wooden crucifixes. Here and there, a Madonna shrine. Stores and hotels also stood out. A cheeky motel mimicked a castle with turrets. Peddling seven heads of cabbage, a forlorn man displayed them on the hood of his rusty Lada. I spotted vehicles I didn’t know were still extant. Inside cement bus stops, well-bundled folks waited stoically. One shelter had a painted helicopter. Black coated women under flowery babushkas waddled down frozen paths. I even saw three horse-drawn carts. “You’ll see more off the main road,” Carol informed. “You know Adidas has saved many lives here. Their clothes and shoes often have these reflectors. Before, you had all these people getting run over because they were walking on these dirt roads at night, drunk.”
“This highway is in pretty good shape, though.”
“Turkish contractors had to be brought in,” she laughed. “The locals couldn’t finish it. They were so corrupt!”
As for Ukraine’s political and societal dire straits, Carol pinned it all on Putin. He wants to invade the Baltic nations and the rest of Ukraine. He is causing unrest all over Europe by supporting extremists on both the left and right. Putin is destabilizing Bosnia and buying off Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Before reaching Kyiv, we paused in Lviv, Rivne and Zhytomir. I had seen enough concrete, Communist-era apartment blocks in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, but the Ukrainian ones seemed even more dismal. They contrasted quite grotesquely with the faux utopia of advertising billboards, where all faces were ecstatic, all bodies trim and fashionable and all products, even the most banal, lickably sexy. In Lviv, there’s a spiffy shopping mall called King Cross Leopolis. Over the next week, I would spot many more references to landmarks from that mythically prosperous Europe that most Ukrainians will never experience.
The outskirts of the capital were basically more of the same dispiriting Communist urban planning, but here and there rose new high rises that were not unattractive. I was surprised, though, by how beautiful and sophisticated the center of Kyiv was. With much of the country’s wealth parked here, brand name shops were everywhere, but all were bedecked quite stridently with large SALE signs of up to 90% off. Whatever was wrong with Ukraine before the Euromaidan demonstrations, it was clearly making progress, for otherwise there wouldn’t be all these shops for all budgets. Now, thousands of sales clerks and store owners stand around all day to look pleadingly at every passerby. As I strayed into the meat and fish section of the vast Besarabsky Market, each stall owner shouted a torrent at me to buy a just-killed piece of something, so that I had to wade through a sea of incomprehensible words just to get out.
Such a gem of a city would normally be swarmed with tourists, but I saw almost none. Taking the subway several times each day for a week, I was clearly the only alien, with the lone exception a black man who didn’t look all that comfortable. I heard no foreign languages on these extended rides far underground, and the Kyiv subway is bizarrely deep. I wondered why most people did not hurry up or down the endless escalators, but those long, angled tubes were indeed soothing. A man sat down on a grooved, steel step.
Near Lisova Station, at the end of the red line, I found over a hundred businesses selling used clothes and shoes. Folks rummaged through enormous mounds, looking for suitable bargains. At one stall, one could even choose second-hand skis and skates. Appropriate to their wares, these complexes were mostly shabby, with corrugated tin or plastic walls. Often, I walked on planks or dirt under tarps through poorly lit passages. Among the merchants, there were Black Africans, Arabic speakers, and Vietnamese.
Vietnam’s only (publicly known) billionaire, 47-year-old Phan Nhat Vuong, had his start as an instant noodle magnate in Ukraine. Carol, “I ate Mivina noodles too. Everyone did. After the Fall of Communism, people had very little money.” There’s a Kyiv high school named Ho Chi Minh. There are also North Koreans in Ukraine. They do some of the hardest agricultural works, such as picking onions.
Kyiv restaurants that serve foreign foods, whether Japanese, Thai or Turk, etc., are almost always owned and run by Ukrainians. Sushi is hugely popular, with even chains like Burger Club and Mafia offering it. There are 22 Sushiyas, 17 Eurasias and 15 Murakamis. There’s a Chinese joint, Bruce Lee, one of only a handful. There are 32 McDonald’s, with one seemingly outside each subway station. At Minska, there are two. Taxi Bar, a 50’s styled American diner, is like a Day-Glo tableau from Grease.
Though its war and sinking economy have chased or kept foreigners away, Ukraine’s culture is intensely outward-looking, with international references everywhere. Cigarette stands have images of New York or London. Inside a Kyiv shopping center, there’s a gigantic English-styled phone booth, with a Sherlock Holmes scaling it. At the same mall, there are fake cactuses and two effigies of Mexicans, one dozing, one climbing onto a ledge, as if breaking in. Kyiv night clubs have names like Pink Freud, Rout 66, Carribean and even Franklin, with a huge picture of Ben towering over pedestrians. An American flag hangs in a neighborhood bar in Holosiivskyi. Ukraine, it is clear, wants very much to belong to the wider world, even as it’s receding in everyone’s rear view mirror. At least a million Ukrainians have already fled the country, and this number will only multiply as its human crisis deepens. In the warzone, many are starving or have committed suicide. Europe has another refugee crisis coming.
As of October 2015, the average net wage in Ukraine is only $136 a month, among the lowest in Europe. On Kyiv sidewalks, people sell whatever they can, with, say, three plucked chickens on a piece of cardboard. In trendy Podil, a woman picked up her bare, stiff fowl at dusk and marched away in frustration, while behind plate glass windows, hipsters sipped drinks in fancy cafés. I saw a boy of about 14 stand stoically behind some beets, onions and garlics. On subway trains, wandering, clearly desperate people tried to push calendars, toys, candies or icons, etc. Riders looked away as they delivered their sad pitches. With nothing to offer, many begged with a sign and/or a sustained yet exhausted plea. Inside stations, some stood in silence with heads bowed. Plopped next to her crutches, a woman stuck her destroyed foot out. Instead of toes, there was but a bloody stub. A one-eyed woman had a cardboard sign around her neck. Outside in all weathers, many beggars prostrated most abjectly. On magnificent and still glittering Shreshchatyk, a crone was bunched up like a giant toad, face hidden, with a hand on the cold pavement and a cane next to her. Near Vokzalna Station, a black-clad, young and blonde beauty knelt under an umbrella while holding a sign with a photo of her son. Sleet was slanting down.
One shouldn’t be surprised by the obscene contrast in Kyiv between comfortable, even affluent normalcy with stark destitution as largely caused by the war. As long as people are not dodging bullets or bombs, they will carry on like the rest of us, and if they can afford it, they will eat sushi and savor martinis. There were large ads in Kyiv for a concert by the Japanese jazz pianist, Keiko Matsui, and Scorpions, a German heavy metal band, was also coming. The megastar Red Hot Chili Peppers will be in town in July.
Even in places of enjoyment, though, there are nods towards the war. In Kupidon, a hugely popular bar on Pushkinskaya, there’s a pork dish called “Crimea is Ours,” and a 75 cent pint of Lvivske 1715 is listed as “we drink so that Moscals won’t get it.” On the door of Baraban, a joint popular with journalists, there’s a notice below the MASTERCARD and VISA sign, “Dear Friends, you should know that by spending money in Bar Baraban you support Ukrainian Army and National Guardia, which fights international terrorism in the eastern Ukraine. We spend 25% of our turnover to provide necessities for our military.”
Inside, I met quite by chance Dmytro Potekhin. Son of a diplomat, former advisor to the Japanese embassy in Kyiv and occasional journalist, Potekhin is best known as a US-funded and trained activist from even before the Orange Revolution. On August 7th, 2015, he was captured by Russian separatists in Donetsk and jailed for 48 days. Potekhin, “You know, I’ve visited Dachau, and the concentration camp in Donetsk is worse than Dachau.” He said that to me. Publicly, he has accused his captors of feeding him cold soup twice a day and hitting him hard once in the head. He claimed others were beaten bloody. As for Russians being terrorists, Potekhin declared on Ukrainian TV shortly after his release, “Russia annexed the Crimea and Russia is helping the terrorists in Donetsk, and Russia itself is a terrorist organization basically. We still for some reasons call it ‘country,’ for some reasons this organization has its diplomats in the UN Security Council, and here in Kyiv, but actually they are not diplomats, they are representing Russia, but they are representing not a country, they are now representing terrorist organization called Russia.”
In Kyiv gift shops, they’re selling Putin toilet paper. According to Potekhin, it’s not Ukraine that’s disintegrating, but Russia. He explained that with the embargo and cratering oil prices, Russia has been forced to dip into its cash reserves, so it can last another six months maybe, maybe a year. As for the war, “We can easily take those provinces back militarily, but the bigger challenge is to prove to those people that we have a better model and future. When they see that Putin can’t take care of them, but we’re improving, they will want to come back.”
On the bar, there were two remote control tanks, one called “POWER KING,” in front of the Ukrainian and European Union flags. On the walls were two images of Che Guevara and one of Bob Marley. It was ridiculous to see Che idolized since Ukrainian nationalism is supposed to be anti-Communist, but such is the power of Western pop culture. Agreeing with me, Potekhin added that the bar owner had studied in the US. The music on the sound system, Cab Calloway, Roy Orbison, Gogol Bordello, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, B.B. King and Carl Perkins, etc., showed his musical taste. Beneath a photo of a pensive Miles Davis were these scrawls, “NEVER be bought never be SOLD” and “PAIN IS TEMPORARY BUT PRIDE IS FOREVER.”
Hearing American music everywhere, much of it black, I can’t help but conclude how greatly Uncle Sam has benefited from driving his emancipated population into the deepest despair, for whether they sign blues, jazz, or rap, the United States does not lose but gain billions of admirers. Black culture is a huge component of Uncle Sam’s soft power.
Nearly each night, there’s a pianist at Bar Barbaran, and I was lucky enough to catch the inspired performances of Elena, then Anton Ryzhenko, who also had a snare drummer. Playing driven, obsessive jazz, the stern Elena kept her black, faux fur-trimmed hooded coat on and unleashed gorgeous runs although practically no one was paying any attention to her. Done, she took her small payment from the barmaid and left sorrow-faced.
A television host got off the couch to say hello to Potekhin, then turned to me, “We haven’t gotten anywhere. We’re still at the same place.”
“So what’s the solution?”
“Stay calm and carry on.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t stay calm?”
“We tried that the last time!”
Nothing makes me happier than being in a novel place, and though a distressed Kyiv was still magical, I could feel no elation, for everywhere there were signs of grim endurance or outright despair, so that I was constantly reminded of how our small lives can be so casually destroyed by unseen hands. Men are most belligerent when they risk nothing. Born in a devastated country, I could see in Kyiv more than enough of myself, so I cursed, if only under my breath, those who have reduced such a beautiful and dignified people to such a condition. Rushing up to me, a woman blurted, “Help me!” At dusk, at least two dozen ordinary, well-dressed citizens lined up in Maidan Square for a mobile soup kitchen. Surely many Ukrainians must know they’re being used. During the Soviet years, they suffered the Holodomor (in which up to 7.5 million starved to death) and Chernobyl on top of daily Communism. Now, they’re bankrupt and dying. To be unmolested for any stretch of time is a rare respite for any small nation.
For six nights in Kyiv, I paid less for a room than one night in NYC, and my hotel was right on Maidan Square. An excellent and varied hot breakfast was part of the deal. One morning, I heard American English spoken behind me, the first time in several days. Before I could turn around and ask, “Where are you folks from?” I heard the woman’s hesitant voice. It was clear she wasn’t a native speaker. They weren’t Mr. and Mrs. Balanchuk visiting from Chicago. As they left the breakfast room, I could see a middle-aged man in a sweatshirt with “TOKYO” on it, and she was a young blonde who belonged in a glossy magazine. He’s probably convinced he’s saving her, the way Victoria Nuland has saved Ukraine.
For nearly three years, I was a regular commentator for Iran’s Press TV. On March 8th, 2014, I was supposed to debate Taras Kuzio, once the Head of Mission of the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Kyiv. Our TV tussle never got off the ground, however, as Kuzio became enraged at hostess Marzieh Hashemi’s very first question. After a gruff response, Kuzio terminated the live feed and simply disappeared. I have never seen anything like it. One would think a US-trained and funded mouthpiece would be more eager to broadcast.
On April 19th, 2014, I gave Press TV another Ukraine commentary. Rereading the transcripts, both available online, I stand behind every word, so here’s the second, more succinct statement:
“America brings ruination to each country it interferes with. Just look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Ukraine. Just look at the continuing war in Syria. While posing as a force of good and democracy, the US brings nothing but destruction and death. My fear is that America will become even more violent as it collapses.
The US has instigated this entire crisis, but it is blaming everything on Russia each step of the way.
After it staged a coup against the Kyiv government, it accused Russia of fomenting unrest in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, but it is only natural that ethnic Russians in these regions would want to be reabsorbed back into Russia. They don’t want to be second-class citizens in a country that’s wrecked by American economic manipulation, and they don’t want to be a pawn in a dangerous game of provocation against Russia, maybe even war against Russia, whom they identify with. Ukraine is being used by the US to disrupt the economic integration of Russia and Europe. The US is trying to prevent both Russia and China from becoming vital economic partners of Europe, because this would leave no room for the United States.”
You have to be insane or an American policy maker to think Russia would let go of its seaport on the Black Sea (Sevastopol) or the Mediterranean (Tartus), and that’s why Putin had to put the kibosh on Uncle Sam’s hubris in both Ukraine and Syria. Though it’s doubtful that Putin will be satisfied with annexing these key locations when there are plenty more containing oil reaching further into Ukraine
Either way it is the people that suffer for this and would suffer more should conflict happen again. Many Ukrainians are bracing themselves for this with survivalist supplies, some even getting a gas mask dog outfit for their pets, at least from heresay. At this time, there’s no way to tell if their fears come to pass.
Before leaving Kyiv, let’s have one final cup of coffee. I had just gotten off the metro at Teremky, the end of the blue line. Negotiating the ice, snow and slush covered sidewalk, I noticed a strange bus painted with cupcakes, cakes and a large cup of coffee. On its roof were pine branches and fake presents.
Inside were lace curtains, seats lovingly upholstered in geometric patterns and an image of Times Square. The ceiling was fringed with plastic snowflakes and pasted with smiley faces and reflective hearts. A calendar said, “The TREE of Life.” Stevie Wonder was wailing, “I just called to say I love you.” The owner of this trippy establishment was a burly man of about fifty.
For more than an hour, I was his only customer, and I would be very surprised if he got more than a handful the rest of the day. Though he knew I couldn’t understand him, the man would say this and that and look in my direction. Though obviously friendly, not once could he muster up a grin or smile, the way strangers often do, especially when they don’t share a language. From seeing so many other empty businesses in Kyiv, including a vast bowling alley nearby, I think I have a pretty good idea where he’s coming from.
The most laughter I heard in Ukraine was on the bus leaving it. The Milky Way expanded as soon as we entered Poland.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 20, 2016, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.