In August 2014 I went to Georgia looking for traces of Romanian shepherds who had reputedly been there from the late 19th century up until the time of Stalin’s purges. On the way, I made a stopover in Kyiv, capital of a beleaguered Ukraine. This is a piece I wrote about that brief first visit. (I had hoped it might be accepted for the BBC’s radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent, but it didn’t make it that far).
The courteous man in the crisp, short sleeved shirt made room for me next to him. Speaking excellent, slightly accented English, he helped me pay the right fare in the crowded bus from the airport to the city centre and asked me where I was from.
“Ah, you are very British”, he said when I told him, still flustered from flying into Kiev for the first time in my life. “Take it easy, breathe slowly.” After a few moments, he tried again.
“What do you do?”
“I´m a writer”, I said airily, “I write about sheep”.
“Oh, that´s very noble”, my companion replied, with the hint of a sneer. So I asked him in return.
“I´m Russian, a journalist actually. I´m on my way back to Moscow. I was covering Wimbledon in London and I´ve just been in Spain for the golf.”
He leafed through the Ukrainian newspaper that someone had left on his seat.
“The EU economy isn’t doing too well these days.”
I took in his tan, his smooth good looks and his simian smile.
A few days before I´d finished Anna Politkovskaya´s searing account of corruption and brutality in the Russian state. This was a bizarre way to start my Ukrainian stopover. Anna Politkovskaya had given her life for the truth and here was this hack talking about golf.
Oleksii met me in the street. He was a tall, straight and slender man in his early 30s. His face was pale but his eyes were burning. I had found him on airbnb, and had arranged to stay one night at his flat on my way to Georgia. He showed me the modest but spotless room in his equally spotless and modest home. Then he suggested an impromptu tour of the old city centre because “it would be a shame to miss it”.
It was already dusk in the Maidan but the barricades were still there, along with the Christmas tree covered in placards, the rousing slogans painted onto the walls of tall buildings, the khaki tents and the tyres. The subdued street lighting made the vast interconnected squares seem even larger than they were. Without traffic to pollute it, the air was fresh.
“It was so quiet here in the spring”, Oleksii told me. “It was the first time I had ever heard a nightingale sing.”
It was quiet now: a few people were still using the tents, but Oleksii said they were mainly tramps. My eyes fell on noticeboards carrying photos of the missing and the dead. One showed a man holding a cat in his arms; he looked to be no more than 35, and he was laughing straight at the camera.
It was hot on that 6th of August night. A couple of guys with bare chests and wearing camouflage trousers had ducked under a café umbrella in front of us near the composite portrait of Bandera, Ukraine’s controversial freedom fighter*. Many of the young men had gone to fight separatists in the East. Although he had been to the protests every day, Oleksii had not joined the fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk because he had been recovering from an illness that had left him bed-ridden for four years.
When he offered to take my photo in front of a pile of tyres, it felt as though I were feeding on carrion. Hundreds of people had died here earlier in the year, and now we were moving through a carapace: the revolution was elsewhere, MH17 had crashed only three weeks beforehand, and whatever that Russian reporter had been doing, I was an intruder too.
We left the Maidan and walked on. We passed heroic Soviet statues that punched the air under arches of rainbow neon, and were deafened by karaoke bars. Oleksii brought us to a halt at a parapet overlooking the Dniepr River. The sky was quite dark by now and the river looked like an indigo inland sea.
Walking back to Oleksii’s flat, I saw a pile of scrap metal. It had a sign beside it, that Oleksii translated. It said “Excuse the inconvenience, we are rebuilding our country”.
We crossed a road where, in February, snipers had mown down protesters.
“I saw people dropping to the ground for no reason”, Oleksii told me. “We heard shots, but didn´t connect them with killing. We had no idea what was happening until we saw the tv pictures.”
“Who was doing the shooting?” I asked.
“The secret police.” He had no doubts.
A few minutes later, we came to an avenue of handsome, floodlit buildings. Oleksii pointed to one of them, which had a magnificent, curved and pillared façade: “That was the first women’s college in Europe.”
Oleksii told me he had qualified as a doctor but abandoned the profession to study business because medical salaries were so low. He was married and his wife was still at work when I’d arrived.
After booking my room, I had found them both on facebook. They had posted a video tour of Kiev’s famous sights with themselves as the guides. They appeared in each location wearing smiley masks made of bright yellow plush. In war you have to find happiness wherever you can.
If I had been confused as to Ukraine’s status within Mother Russia, Oleksii put me straight. “My country has a very long history”, he explained. “Archaeologists have proved that there were people living here 35,000 years ago, and DNA tests show they have the same genes as modern Ukrainians.”
I had tentatively mentioned Kievan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, having read that Kiev was considered to be Russia’s birthplace.
“Kiev was here long before Russia”, Oleksii averred.
We came to more recent topics, the cloudy, push-me, pull-you situation that had developed since Ukraine declared its independence, in 1991.
“NATO and the EU are our only hope.” He wasn’t starry-eyed about the EU, but saw it as the better of two evils. “All I want is a decent future. We have a chance, there are millions of us, not like in Chechnya or Georgia. But first we have to win the war.”
Back at the flat, Oleksii showed me the tidy bathroom, and the minute kitchen where he would make my breakfast before I left the next morning. “Will you be up in time?” I wondered, always the anxious traveller. “Oh, yes, don´t worry: I´m not working during the day right now because Tanya and I have been collecting money to buy medicines for our wounded soldiers in the east. We´re planning a six-day round trip by road to Prague to buy Celox, and other stuff which we can´t get here.” Celox is a blood coagulant, good for emergency surgery.
When I gave him a donation, he looked surprised, then grinned for the first time that evening: “It´s our first British contribution. Don´t be afraid: we´ll use it well.” In a rush of confidence I told him about reading Anna Politkovskaya´s book, which had never been published in Russia or Ukraine. Oleksii looked confused, then understood. “They killed another campaigning journalist a few weeks ago”.
I must have been one of the last foreigners to see the Maidan in its revolutionary clothes. The next day, the authorities started stripping them away.
As the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing lifted from the runway on its way to Tbilisi, the passengers clapped. My neighbour crossed himself. I wondered what the man I´d met on the bus was doing, or writing about, now. Covering some other, well-funded sporting activity perhaps, while a handful of his fellow journalists, brave to the point of suicide, were picked off for getting in their president´s hair.
*Black, white or somewhere in between? Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) was a leader of the Ukrainian independence movement. He was born in the period when Ukraine was still under Austro-Hungary. He declared Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1941, eight days after the German army invaded the USSR. Although the Germans incarcerated him and liquidated several members of his family, Bandera has been vilified for anti-semitism, for causing thousands of Polish deaths, and for collaborating with the Nazis. He was murdered by the KGB. According to a 2009 poll, two-thirds of Ukrainians believe Bandera was a force for good, and a third think he was very bad.
Anna Politkovskaya on wikipedia
Anna Politkovskaya’s book, Putin’s Russia
Robert Legvold on Putin’s Russia, a failing democracy
Update on the Pussy Rioters
Euromaidan press for the latest news from Ukraine