James Meek reports from Ukraine
The Russians and Ukrainians of the 1990s were able to temper regret at the collapse of the USSR with their own knowledge of the dismembered country’s shortcomings. A generation later, this is less and less the case. Many of the most articulate and thoughtful Russians and Ukrainians, those of middle age who knew the realities of Soviet life and later prospered in the post-Soviet world, have moved abroad, gone into a small business or been intimidated: in any case they have been taken out of the political arena. In Russia and Russophone Ukraine the stage is left to neo-Soviet populists who propagate the false notion of the USSR as a paradisiac Russian-speaking commonwealth, benignly ruled from Moscow, a natural continuum of the tsarist empire, disturbed only by Nazi invaders to whom ‘the west’ are heirs and the only obstacle to its re-creation. If you were born after 1985 you have no remembered reality to measure against this false vision, just as you have no way to situate those charming Soviet musical comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, idyllic portrayals of an idealised Russophone socialism, brightly coloured and fun, propaganda now in a way they weren’t when they were made. This is the context that has made it possible for Vladimir Putin and his government to sell Russia’s opportunistic invasion of Ukraine to his own people and to Ukrainian neo-Soviets: the idea that it undoes what should never have been done, an artificial division of Russian-speaking Eurasia by fascists/the West/America/rabid Ukrainian nationalists – in neo-Soviet discourse, avatars of a single anti-Russian monster.
The truth is that Russia and Ukraine have been reunited for a long time, in a corrupt mosaic dominated by Moscow. Putin didn’t begin invading Ukraine to bring it back into the fold but to stop it escaping. He established a patriarchal-oligarchic police state in Russia; the now universally despised Ukrainian president-in-exile, Viktor Yanukovich, was well on his way to establishing one in Ukraine; the leaders of Belarus and the Central Asian republics have established similar repressive polities. Russophone Ukrainians have real fears about Ukraine’s new leaders. Putin’s great fear is that the people of a future better Ukraine might inspire an entirely different unification with their East Slav brethren on his side of the border – a common cause of popular revolt against him and other leaders like him. The revolution on Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square in Ukrainian – is the closest yet to a script for his own downfall. In that sense the invasion is a counter-revolution by Putin and his government against Russians and Ukrainians alike – against East Slav resistance as a whole.
The Maidan revolution wasn’t a purely ethnic Ukrainian uprising, although ethnic Ukrainians seem to have taken the lead in storming police lines. In the week I spent in Kiev in the immediate aftermath of the revolt I met no one who objected to my speaking Russian. On Maidan there are ethnic Russians speaking Ukrainian and ethnic Ukrainians speaking Russian. In one of the sagging khaki tents pitched on the square I met Vladimir Malyshev, a 44-year-old from St Petersburg, who came to the city to join the demonstrations late last year after a period spent in the anti-Putin movement in Russia. ‘It’s the one form of struggle that seems possible against the particular kind of power that’s appeared in the post-Soviet space: these gangs of criminals and bandits – they can be fought by gathering a large enough group of people to defy them. You can’t bribe or destroy this force. My experience here confirmed that this was possible. It happened.’
An old friend, Dima, whom I’ve known since he was a boy and whom I last met during Kiev’s Orange Revolution in 2004, spent a lot of time at the protests this winter. He drew an analogy from the social media discourse that played such an important part in this, as in so many other recent revolutions. ‘Any time there’s trouble,’ he said, ‘I have to be here, working as a pixel.’
We were queuing for plastic bowls of Ukrainian fare – potato soup and slices of pork fat, salo, on brown bread – in the former Lenin Museum, taken over by Kiev’s revolutionaries to serve as a casualty station and canteen. At a trestle table, Dima described how he’d been caught up in one of the worst days of fighting, on 18 February, when heavily armed police exchanged fire with demonstrators. A few of the protesters had pistols or hunting rifles, but most relied on metal shields, wooden clubs, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. Earlier a fighter from the militant nationalist group Right Sector, which took the lead in using force against the police, had been hit and was taken to one of Dima’s friends’ flats to recover. Dima and his friend went to the Maidan to return the Right Sector fighter’s flak jacket to his ‘hundred’, one of the units of about a hundred men into which the fighting contingents of the Maidan protesters organised themselves. Dima was smoking when he and his friend saw a black mass of riot police moving towards them, hurling flash grenades and shooting. They fled.
While this was happening, Dima’s mother, Oxana, an art teacher who lives in Belgium, was sitting at her computer. She knew Dima was at the protests and was watching live streams of events on and around Maidan from multiple webcams. She was able to see the police closing off streets and called her son’s mobile, telling him the best way to get out. For Oxana the internet was boon and menace, giving her the sense that she had some control over events eleven hundred miles away, but offering the horrific possibility of witnessing the stilling of a pixel that might be her son. Social media make it incomparably easier for protesters to mobilise and organise, but they exact a psychological toll, too – greater, paradoxically, on those who are not directly involved, yet have a stake in the outcome. Months of protests, culminating in the Russian invasion of Crimea, have reduced the citizenry of Kiev to a querulous, febrile state. They take their smartphones, tablets and laptops to bed, and after hours spent refreshing feeds, clicking through links, they are exhausted. Anya Fedosova, a psychotherapist who lives and works a few hundred yards from Maidan, said she’d advised her patients to stay away from their computers.
There was an idea, in the early days of the internet, that it would be a way for people to grasp an absolute truth about events. It would enable citizens of countries where the media are tightly controlled to overcome state propaganda. By comparing reports from different points of view, people would ascertain what was really happening. The effect of the internet during revolutions has turned out to be more complicated. In situations like Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Tahrir Square, where there are two overlapping cores of protest – stubborn but non-violent idealists, and combative idealists – a single burst of information in the form of a series of video clips can add tens or hundreds of thousands to the committed few in a matter of moments, creating vast crowds whose pixels will resonate globally.
It wasn’t the decision by Yanukovich, on 21 November, to back away from a deal for closer ties with the European Union that brought about the Ukrainian revolution. That merely set off demonstrations; a small-scale attack by protesters on the government on 24 November was easily beaten off by police firing tear gas. The catalyst for something more momentous was a series of video clips of an incident six days later, when the authorities made a heavy-handed attempt, in the small hours of a Saturday morning, to empty the square of a peaceful, unarmed crowd, many of them students hanging out to discuss the situation. Hundreds of riot police went in with batons, laying about them and shedding blood. Later the authorities said they had to clear the area to put up Kiev’s New Year tree. The images of police brutality accompanied by the screams of terrified protesters flashed around the country, and brought thousands of people in coaches from Lviv, the centre of Ukrainian nationalism in the west, and a hundred thousand or more Kievans onto the streets of the capital. The first full-scale battles, between police and masked anti-government fighters (or government provocateurs), took place on 1 December. Petrol bombs were hurled, the square was retaken, surrounding buildings were occupied and the tent city was set up on the Maidan.
There is no indication, though, that the internet has done much to change people’s minds about Ukraine’s revolution; it seems instead to intensify the opinions people already hold. If you put the word ‘Maidan 1 December’ in Cyrillic in Google’s video search box, you get clips of stirring calls to revolution from radicalised moderates, a vast peaceful crowd singing the Ukrainian national anthem, Ukrainian revolutionary rap, a video of a savage Rodney King-style assault by Ukrainian policemen on a defenceless civilian, and as much more in the same vein as your eyes can bear. If you replace ‘Maidan’ with ‘Banderovtsy’, the catch-all term opponents of the revolution use to refer to its activists (after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who tried to use Nazi backing to create a Ukrainian state in the 1940s), you get a different set of clips, reinforcing your pre-existing view that fascist bully-boys are taking over Ukraine. ‘How They’re Turning the Schoolkids of Lviv into Future Fascists,’ is there, as is ‘Banderovtsy Wipe Their Feet on the Soviet Flag’; there is film of people who say they were beaten by ‘Banderovtsy’ in Kiev for wearing the orange and black St George’s ribbon, the symbol of Soviet victory in the Second World War, and film of actual young Banderovtsy marching through the Ukrainian capital.
When Putin spoke of ‘chaos’ in Kiev and Ukraine as a whole, in his press conference a few days after the Crimean invasion, he must have realised that his foreign audience, as well as the citizens of Kiev and all the people of Ukraine who favoured the revolution, knew there was no chaos. His audience were those who both believed and wanted to believe the ‘Banderite’ revolution had brought anarchy: neo-Soviets on both sides of the border who yearn for an enlarged Russophone space – socially conservative, militarily strong, inheritors of the cherished myths, martyrs and achievements of imperial and Soviet times – but who nonetheless don’t feel bound by the old Soviet restrictions on travel, Orthodox Christian piety or consumerism.
Maps of Ukraine, divided into south-east and west according to language and ethnicity, tell only part of the story. The real awkwardness is within families, split between those of a neo-Soviet persuasion, however mild, and the pro-revolutionaries. Dima married a Sevastopol girl, Ilona; they had a child together before separating amicably. Normally the first thing Dima’s mother does when she comes to Kiev is rush to see her granddaughter. But Dima’s mother-in-law, from Crimea, Ukraine’s most neo-Soviet region, was in town too. ‘I want to see my granddaughter but I just want to avoid this conversation with her other grandmother,’ Oxana said. ‘Otherwise I’ll have to hear about how everyone on the Maidan is a Banderovets.’ And later: ‘Ilona’s girlfriend called. She’s from Dnepropetrovsk. It was two minutes about the weather, then: “Why did they start this? The riot police are heroes! Those fascists are sitting in the centre of the city!” Everyone has a different experience. Some watch Ukrainian TV, some watch Russian, and some, like Anya, are in the centre of Kiev anyway.’
The city is no longer the urban Russian island in a rural Ukrainian sea described by Mikhail Bulgakov in The White Guard, his novel about the Russian Civil War. It is a comfortably bilingual place, most of whose schools and colleges use Ukrainian as a teaching medium, but where Russian is commonly spoken. The uncertain atmosphere Bulgakov describes – of not knowing which camp your neighbour leans towards, and not knowing whether your own camp is to be trusted – prevails today.
After meeting Anya I went with Oxana to a mini-mart on the corner so she could buy bottled water and bread for some people she’d met on Maidan. While the checkout girl was ringing up the purchases she was talking on her mobile. ‘I’m going to go to Crimea and get my Russian passport,’ she said. ‘I’m going to go down there and have a nice life, and fuck the Ukrainians.’
I got to Kiev on a Wednesday evening, four days after Yanukovich fled and the revolutionaries took over the government. Lena, a friend of a friend, took me straight from the airport to the Maidan, where the temporary government, supposed to rule till elections at the end of May, was due to be presented to the crowd.
The square is bisected by Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main street, a broad north-south thoroughfare lined by the looming Stalinist spires and arches, the heavy façades, of the postwar reconstruction. At an early stage the protesters staked out most of the length of Khreshchatyk as well as the Maidan as their turf. The square sits in a kind of urban valley; to the west, narrow streets lead steeply up to the grand Silver Age houses of Volodymyrska Street and St Michael’s Monastery, blown up by Stalin and rebuilt in the late 1990s. To the east, another set of steep streets, Hrushevskoho and Instytutska, lead up to the government quarter and parliament. The area between the square and the crest of those eastern cobbled streets – about a tenth of a square mile – was the battle zone over which the protesters and the police fought, with the police holding the high ground.
I entered the greater Maidan area through a gap in one of the barricades the protesters had built out of planks, burned-out vehicles and stacks of white fertiliser bags stuffed with rubble. In places mounds of filthy snow that had been part of the midwinter fortifications were still unmelted. It was grey and dank, just above zero. Grimy, exhausted figures in layers of mixed market-stall camouflage and army surplus gear, some with helmets, many with wooden clubs to hand, sat around barrels that blasted heat, flames flickering from their rust-holes. Women handed out plastic cups of soup. There were stacks of tyres for burning, stacks of cobbles for throwing, crates of petrol bombs for serious attacks, corrals of twisted pine-trunks where men hacked out firewood with axes. Underfoot, the ground had a smooth, black, rubbery texture where cobbles had been prised from it. The Maidan defenders live in baggy, old-fashioned military tents with the name of the region they come from written on the outside. The stoves keep them warm inside and duckboards keep them dry. Inside the tent from Donetsk, Maidan protesters slept on home-made plywood bunks; much of the floor was covered in food, jars of pickles, sacks of potatoes, bags of bread.
The revolution was over, but the forces still on the square anticipated a betrayal by the political beneficiaries of the blood that had been shed: they were determined to stay put. Everywhere there were shrines, with candles, flowers and photographs of the ‘heavenly hundred’, as the victims among the protesters have become known. Carpets of roses, dozens of yards long and sheaves thick, ran down Instytutska, lined with candles in coloured glass jars. When the Maidan got a makeover at the turn of the century Kiev sophisticates sneered at the kitsch monuments to the mythological protectors of Ukraine, among them the tall column topped by the figure of the goddess Berehynia. The intelligentsia may be stuck with them now; they’ve been sanctified. Everywhere there were printed posters, stickers, hand-drawn placards. ‘This is not for Europe. This is for Roads without Potholes,’ one read. ‘This Is Not Victory, the Fight Continues!!!’ another said.
On the stage set up at the point where Khreshchatyk crosses the Maidan – the site for a rolling show of speeches, hymns, sermons, poems and songs, punctuated by regular shouts of ‘Glory to Ukraine!’, to which the crowd answers, ‘Glory to the heroes!’ – the temporary government was being presented. It was to be led by the familiar European-style liberal Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose allies got the key economic posts. There were important jobs for supporters of the flamboyantly patriotic Yulia Timoshenko, just released from prison, for the ex-boxer turned politician Vitaly Klitschko’s team, and for some of the figures who had won the respect of the Maidan, like Oleh Musiy, organiser of the revolutionaries’ medical service, who got the health portfolio. Some of the new ministers were born in Russia. One, Volodymyr Groysman, who’d been the young mayor of the city of Vinnytsia, is Jewish. With the collapse of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, previously the biggest in parliament, the eastern and southern part of the country, the most strongly Russophone and neo-Soviet, is barely represented in the new government. But the former opposition felt they could not refuse places in the cabinet to one last group – the extreme right.
Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the main far right party in parliament, Svoboda (‘Freedom’), didn’t take a ministry himself, but four members of his party did; Oleh Makhnitsky was given the potentially inflammatory job of prosecutor-general. Makhnitsky was Tyahnybok’s defence lawyer ten years ago when the Svoboda leader was taken to court after giving a foam-flecked funeral oration praising the struggle against ‘Moskali [a derogatory term for Russians], Germans, Yids and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state’. Tyahnybok is a marginally more emollient figure now than he was in 1991, when he founded Svoboda’s forerunner, the Socio-National Party of Ukraine, which, with its swastika-style symbol, didn’t really qualify for the ‘neo-’ part of neo-Nazi. But his party still takes part as an observer in the Alliance of European National Movements alongside Hungary’s Jobbik and Britain’s BNP. Andriy Parubiy, the co-founder of Ukrainian socio-nationalism, has now been made the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council. Dmytro Yarosh, his deputy, is the head of the most aggressively combative force of the revolution, the enigmatic Right Sector. They’re a minority part of a short-term emergency government, and it is wrong to claim, as the neo-Soviets do, that Ukraine is under the control of Banderovtsy, or fascists. But they’re Banderovtsy all right, and they do have power.
Stepan Bandera, assassinated in West Germany in 1959, was not a Nazi in the literal sense; he was an extreme nationalist, prepared to fight or kill any group – Russian, Jewish, Polish or German – that he believed stood in the way of an independent Ukrainian state. He collaborated with the Nazis, and accepted their help, though the Nazis graded the Slavs as only marginally less worthy of extermination than the Jews. It is reasonable for the Russians to demand, as might Europe and the US, that western Ukraine move out of its atavistic bubble of 19th-century romantic nationalism and take a less one-sided view of Bandera’s campaign. But Russia must also accept its own historical responsibility for what happened in the west of Ukraine: for Stalin’s seizure of the territory in a pact with the Nazis, and the taking of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, most of them quite innocent, from the seized lands as slave labour.
Instead, Putin decided to help himself to Crimea. It is true that many Crimeans – a majority, I suspect – would like a very close relationship with Russia, perhaps reunification, but it would be hard to think of a better way of encouraging the most chauvinistic aspect of Ukrainian nationalism than invading Ukraine.
I went to try to talk to Right Sector at their base on Khreshchatyk. They’ve taken over the offices of the mobile phone company Kyivstar. One of the tell-tale signs of extreme right-wing movements is that their members love dressing up. Right Sector’s thing is the face mask, usually a black mask that leaves only the eyes showing, sometimes the mouth. It’s not a style conducive to trust. I asked the two big masked men on guard if I could speak to one of their group and they gave me a number. A few days later I found myself at a press conference given by Yarosh in the Dnipro Hotel. He spoke for only a few minutes, unmasked but saying nothing of significance, before striding off. The point of a scabbard poked out from under the hem of his green military sweater. Afterwards I talked to his spokesman, Artyom Skoropadsky. The name of the movement, he said, had been ‘situational’; it referred to an area of the Maidan that an informal group of like-minded right-wingers had taken for their exclusive use. Yarosh had been chosen as leader; prior to that he’d headed an organisation called Stepan Bandera Trident, the trident being Ukraine’s national symbol.
‘People say we’re terrorists, extremists,’ he said. ‘In fact we are nationalist revolutionaries. There’s nothing extremist in us.’
‘Bandera can’t be a hero for the Russians or the Poles. But we don’t choose heroes for them.’
Right Sector, he said, was not yet a political party, but would probably become one. Its leaders saw Ukraine as part of a Europe of diverse nations, from socially liberal Denmark to socially conservative Poland, Right Sector’s preferred model.
‘We are against bribes and nepotism. We’re for the possibility of a change of power. Christianity is important, a role for the church in the life of society. We’re against same-sex marriage. The Gospels are the most important part for us. We shall live by them.’
In the course of our conversation I found out something interesting about Skoropadsky. He’s not Ukrainian: he’s a Russian, from Moscow, although he’s applied for Ukrainian citizenship. ‘I moved here after the Orange Revolution, because Ukraine still has the chance to become a European state, and Russia is a totalitarian police state,’ he said. ‘It’s advantageous to Russian propaganda to present us as fascists and terrorists. The Putin regime is very frightened about what’s happened here.’
Olga Bogomolets, one of the doctors who worked with the Maidan protesters, is a popular figure. She comes from a medical dynasty – Kiev’s National Medical University, KNMU, is named after her great-grandfather – but what seems to have won the crowd over was her reluctance to compromise with old-style authority, even when that authority was the opposition politicians the revolution had just brought to power. It was widely reported that she was about to be offered the job of health minister in the new government. In the end, she wasn’t. She told Ukrainian television (in a Russian-language interview) that she’d been approached, and said she’d only consider it if there were a full audit of the health ministry by European auditors, complete transparency and decentralisation of tenders to the regions, and a management team free of party appointees. The politicos who sounded her out, she said, took this as a refusal.
‘The way practically everyone I know thinks is that we didn’t carry out this struggle so that the opposition could come to power,’ she said. ‘We did it to change the system, and for the struggle against corruption, so that the whole Ukrainian people, in Donbass, in Crimea, got up off their knees and fought against corruption … In our view Maidan has not yet reached its goal.’
Corruption. Not Bandera, not Russia, not Europe – corruption. I asked the political scientist Olexiy Haran whether there might not be some advantage to Ukraine in a Russian takeover of Crimea, in the sense that it had the potential to unite the country. ‘Cynically, we can survive without Crimea; it might even be better from the voting point of view,’ he said. ‘The problem is the Crimean Tatars. They don’t want to go to Russia.’ Besides, he pointed out, there was another problem: a country that needs to change can’t be united. Somebody has to yield. It should have been the handful of extremely wealthy men who treat politics as a branch of business – the oligarchs. ‘Without Russian pressure, we would have put pressure on the oligarchs,’ he said. ‘With Russian pressure, we find ourselves having to make compromises with them in order to keep the country whole.’
Corruption is everywhere, high and low, in Ukraine as in Russia. Yanukovich’s son Olexandr, a dentist by training, quickly became one of the richest men in the country after his father became president. Just before the regime fell Olexandr Yanukovich’s companies were winning half of all state contracts. Dima told me about a friend who worked as a customs officer. His official salary was 250 euros; bribes took it up to 3000. Perhaps he was exaggerating. But people boasting about the size of the bribes they receive when they’re working for the state doesn’t bode well. In Donetsk I heard about the coal scam. Ukraine pours millions into subsidising deep-mined Donbass coal. It is subsidised by weight and so rogue strip-miners carve open-cast coal cheaply out of unlicensed sites, add that coal to a load of expensive coal, and collect a deep-mine subsidy for the lot. A miner’s daughter told how her father had been injured at work and needed an operation on his arm. The operation should have been free, but before the surgeon carried it out, he strongly suggested the girl’s father demonstrate blagodarnost – gratitude – in advance, to the tune of ten thousand Ukrainian hryvnia, about a thousand US dollars.
Alexei Inozemtsev, a student in his sixth and final year at KNMU, told me the trouble was that patients understood that doctors were so poorly paid – $170 a month is typical – they couldn’t live without taking backhanders. And because the politicians and senior bureaucrats who have the power to change the system assume that doctors, teachers, police, judges and so on are on the take, they feel no urgency about finding ways to pay them decently. Ukraine’s population has shrunk by more than a tenth since independence, yet it’s easier for governments to pay civil servants starvation wages and let them get by on bribes than pay them properly by cutting their numbers, or increasing taxes on the rich, or both. The quality of medical education, Inozemtsev said, was high, and a student would not be allowed to graduate without adequate practical training. But many teachers in the first three years – the theoretical part of the course – were corrupt. You could pay them to have work that was merely adequate marked up to ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Some KNMU students have their tuition paid by the state; others, like Inozemtsev, pay fees. ‘I already pay to study,’ he said. ‘Why should I pay extra so as not to study?’
KNMU wanted to take on more students, and was allowed to on condition it built an eighth hall of residence. On paper, there is an eighth hall, and student numbers have increased sharply, but the eighth hall was never finished. In 2012, with the government budget under strain because Ukraine and Poland were co-hosting the European football championship, word came that costs had to be cut. Students on state living allowance can have it stopped if their marks fall below a certain level, so staff went through the records, retrospectively marking students down and ending their stipends.
Inozemtsev himself has only paid a bribe once. Medical students have to take a certain number of PT classes and he missed some. He could have caught up with the classes, but the teacher encouraged him to pay instead. ‘I paid ten dollars,’ Inozemtsev said. ‘I gave it to him personally, in his office. The teacher kept saying: “Why go to those classes?”’
Inozemtsev is 22, about the same age as independent Ukraine. Reading through my notes from our talk, as he described the process of his radicalisation and its consequences, I had the strange feeling that he was speaking in the second person, as if he felt that I, and everyone reading this, could equally well have lived through his experience:
You’re 12 years old when the Orange Revolution comes. Your parents take you specially to the square, to show you what the spirit of freedom is. Later you understand the politicians deceived you. They promised you they’d put the bandits in prison, and corruption would stop, but nothing happened.
Your mother is a doctor, but she isn’t paid enough, and she doesn’t like taking bribes, so she goes into business, but it doesn’t work out, so she becomes a doctor again.
You see video of the students being beaten in the square on 30 November. You’d never seen the police acting so brutally against people like you. You can’t sit at home. You feel you have to be there. It’s winter, minus twenty degrees, late on a Sunday afternoon. The police begin firing tear gas. You’re a peaceful person but you understand the time has come. You start trying to take cobblestones out of the road. You’re surprised at how easily they come free. You join a human chain passing stones forward. You see the first Molotov cocktails being thrown.
Snow falls and people use it to build huge ramparts. You break cobblestones in half to throw them more easily. You carry food. You carry snow. The first wounded begin to appear.
You’re trapped on Instytutska with a rock in your hand. You see a young guy near you in a mask with a pistol. You go to him while he’s loading it and say: ‘Please don’t.’ He swears at you and says: ‘They’re killing us.’ You become afraid because you see now their hands will be untied.
The police go on the attack. A policeman throws a rock at a woman and it hits her on the hand. You see police firing rubber bullets down an escalator. You volunteer for night duty at the October Hospital. They bring in riot police with broken arms and protesters with missing eyes and beaten heads. There’s no fighting in the hospital.
Just when they’re on the point of sweeping across the square, the police stop. You don’t understand why. By the time they try, the resistance is too strong.
On the Sunday after the revolution, several hundred medical students in helmets, carrying shields, go to the rectorate. You know the rector’s there. You demand his resignation. He seals his office and leaves.
Next day you and 2500 students march to the ministry to demand the rector’s removal and a commission to investigate corruption at KNMU. They tell you it will be done. But then they tell you that sacking the rector is legally very difficult.
On 15 October 1995, Akhat ‘Alik the Greek’ Bragin, president of Donetsk’s main football club, Shakhtar – the name means ‘miner’ – was assassinated during a match along with his bodyguards. His successor was Rinat Akhmetov, a little known businessman, who later said that by the time he gained control of Shakhtar he’d already made his first million trading coal in the ‘informal economy’ of the early 1990s. According to WikiLeaks, it was Akhmetov who persuaded Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, to appoint Yanukovich governor of Donetsk in 1997. The two men rose in tandem, Yanukovich filling the government with an ever expanding list of Donbass cronies, Akhmetov becoming Ukraine’s richest man, with an estimated wealth of $15 billion, invested in iron ore, steel, coal, pipe-making, electricity supply companies, banks, mobile phones, a big TV station and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions.
I flew in to Donetsk’s grand new Sergei Prokofiev Airport just when it was becoming clear that Putin’s Crimean holiday was going to be permanent. Everyone in Ukraine was wondering which region Moscow might grab, or liberate, depending on your point of view, next. Kharkiv? Lugansk? Both these eastern cities bordering Russia had seen pro-Russian demos and civilian attempts to seize administrative buildings. Donetsk is strongly Russophone and neo-Soviet sentiment runs hot in the Donbass.
The new government in Kiev had already sought help from the oligarchs. Ihor Kolomoisky, the bank, oil and airline tycoon, had been made governor of his home region of Dnepropetrovsk, while Donetsk was assigned to the wealthy homeboy Serhiy Taruta. Yet I found nervous local supporters of Ukrainian unity still hoping Akhmetov’s holding company, SCM, would intervene.
‘Pro-Ukrainian parties were always a minority in Donetsk,’ said Igor Todorov, professor of international relations at Donetsk National University. ‘But there are other, very interested parties. Rinat Akhmetov is absolutely not interested in an increase in conflict or separatism … I do not exclude that the forces of SCM might be used to keep order.’
‘The forces of SCM’ – to be clear, SCM is a private company, not a country. The scenario seemed fairly desperate.
Donetsk, a clean, solid city that belies its reputation as a bleak mining town, seemed to be going about its business peacefully. I was surprised at how many Ukrainian flags flew from buildings. But the tension was clear when I called on Serhiy Tkachenko, editor of a news website and a keen promoter of the idea of a civil society. All his journalists’ desks were empty. ‘We took a decision that everyone would work at home,’ he said. ‘We try not to appear at the office … at the end of November one of our journalists got threats and text messages. She saw cars in front of her house. She fled the region for several weeks. If somebody had told me two months ago that the result of this would be eastern regions being governed by oligarchs, I wouldn’t have been very happy, but now I think it’s the best for the time being. To bring people in from western or central Ukraine would be seen as a kind of invasion.’
On the way to my next meeting, with Maxim Rovinsky, head of public relations for Donetsk city council, I passed the regional assembly building. It was flying the Russian flag and crowds of angry men in black leather jackets and black beanie hats, some carrying Russian flags or wearing St George ribbons, seethed around the entrances. They were trying to get regional deputies to pass a resolution calling for a referendum on ties with Russia and were refusing to let them leave until that happened. Embedded in the pro-Russian crowd was a group of about twenty riot police, standing their ground but not intervening.
A group of journalists was also trapped inside the building. While I was there the women reporters were allowed to leave. Shaking and white-faced, they passed through the jeering throng. ‘Prostitutes!’ an old lady shrieked. ‘Rats!’ A man tried to leave the building, helped through the mob by some elderly men dressed as Cossacks, but the protesters followed him down the road. ‘Beat him! Beat him!’ one of the old women cried, chivvying the protesters on. He was dragged back inside.
It was peaceful in Rovinsky’s office, except that, between sentences, he would turn through ninety degrees and refresh his browser to get the latest news from the regional assembly, just a few blocks away. Like others I spoke to in Donetsk, people who have a stake in independent Ukraine, he believed the protests were being directed from Russia. ‘We don’t understand why the police and the SBU [security service] are behaving as they are. Illegal associations are taking power, they’re blockading government buildings, and there’s no answer from the police, from the SBU.’
I congratulated Rovinsky on his calm and he produced a packet of tablets from his briefcase. ‘I take these,’ he said.
‘It’s one thing to say: “We’ll defend you.” It’s another to say: “We will send troops.” There are radicals who want troops to come. I don’t know, but I think there are fewer of them than those who think …’ He showed me a badge on his computer screen. It consisted of the Ukrainian flag, with the words ‘Putin, Thank You: But No Need for a War.’
We talked some more. He refreshed the screen again. ‘They’ve taken the assembly hall,’ he said. ‘OK. Now what?’