In the Zone
Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.
I set out for Ovruch, a little town about two and a half hours drive north-west of Kyiv. If the Russian troops based around the town of Mazyr in Belarus were to invade Ukraine, they might well come this way. My driver Anatoly and I headed out of the city centre on good roads, past a neon-bright commercial sprawl of malls and petrol stations. I asked Anatoly what he thought of Putin. ‘He’s a madman,’ he said. ‘In the 21st century, he wants to fight a war in central Europe. It’s the Last Judgment.’
We went past new tower blocks and old dilapidated ones and handsome detached houses in an area known as Ministerka, where senior Soviet officials were given plots of land in the last years of the USSR. It took fifty minutes to clear the city. Houses gave way to forests of tall, spindly Scots pines and birches and ash trees thick with mistletoe. There were occasional potholed stretches but mostly the road surface was good. We saw little military traffic, only a handful of Ukrainian National Guard vehicles. We passed road crews, working on a lane, fixing a bridge.
‘Look, they’re making a new road,’ Anatoly said.
‘Maybe they should wait a bit,’ I said.
We left late, and the light began to fail. It started to rain. The dirty brown winter crowns of the trees seemed to bend towards the road and the slicked-up surface had a slimy sheen. We passed few other vehicles. ‘There used to be loads of rocket units here in Soviet times, hidden in the forest,’ Anatoly said. It seemed the atmosphere couldn’t get more ominous, but when we got to Ivankiv, the town greeted us with an enormous poster saying ‘Chernobyl-tour.ua’.
Thirty miles from our destination, we came to a police post and a striped barrier. A policeman with a Kalashnikov strapped across his chest allowed us to proceed but warned us that we shouldn’t on any account stop along the way. I wondered what he meant. We passed relatively modern buildings without glass in their windows, as if a significant settlement had been abandoned a long time ago. We passed through an area that had been swept by fire. Blackened birch trees stood with their crowns lopped off, like an endless henge. It was the world of Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
‘Is this the Zone?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ Anatoly said. Before we left we’d looked at the map and decided we couldn’t go along this road because it went through the radioactive exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station, but here we were, going along it anyway. It was quicker, and perhaps the policeman was right: if you didn’t stop, the radiation wouldn’t get you. Perhaps the Russian army would take the same attitude were they to come the other way.
It was dark when we reached Ovruch, which is in Zhytomyr region, just west of Kyiv region. People were doing their evening shopping. ‘For the time being, everyone’s carrying on calmly, although everyone’s worried,’ said the owner of a supermarket, who didn’t want to give her name. No one was panic-buying; no one was leaving. ‘Where would we go?’ she said. The border is only six miles away. Ovruch natives speak a triple variety of Surzhyk: Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian all mixed together. People used to come over the border to do their shopping all the time. ‘They have higher salaries, and we have cheaper goods.’ There aren’t many people crossing the border now.
Alexander and two other men in their twenties were hanging out at the back of the shop. They work as electricians on a building site in Kyiv and had come back to their native Ovruch for a holiday. Alexander said if the Russians came they’d get a beating. ‘We’re not afraid,’ he said, and banged his fist. When I asked if he’d served in the army, or had military training, he said he hadn’t.
‘The young panic less,’ he said. ‘The olds believe in media. They believe the television is always right.’
‘They won’t come through Ovruch,’ his friend said. ‘There are other, quicker routes.’
On the journey back I was following the news about Putin’s security council meeting as the car passed in and out of mobile wifi signal spots. As we crossed into the city, which seemed very huge and bright after the forests and the underlit little border towns, I began getting snippets from the Russian president’s address to the nation. I got back to my hotel room in time to catch the end. Perhaps he was reading from a prepared speech, but it seemed he was writing the text in his head from a stew of grievances, untruths, delusions and bitterly cherished slights that had been bubbling away for decades. The level of undisguised hatred for his western interlocutors and contempt for Ukraine was remarkable. He was addressing the Russian people, but addressing the Russian people like a man in a bar insisting to a slightly frightened friend that he was in the right and she was in the wrong, via every thing she’d ever done he didn’t like. The sighs; the righteous jaw lift; the pauses to show that, even now, he can’t believe this or that wickedness was done to him.
He announced recognition of the two self-proclaimed rebel republics of the Donbas, the DNR in Donetsk and the LNR in Luhansk. Later, to no one’s surprise, he announced that he was sending Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in to those territories. It’s the formalisation of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine that began in 2014. What’s difficult is that most of the Donbas – most of the administrative regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – are still controlled by Kyiv. Has Putin set himself the aim of using Russian force to expand the republics to include those areas, which would mean direct war with Ukraine? How can Ukraine deal with a man who doesn’t believe it has a right to exist?
Referring to the legally elected government of Ukraine – the second since the Maidan revolution – Putin derecognised it. He made plain that any attempt by Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression would be punished by further Russian aggression as if Ukraine’s defence were itself aggression. ‘From those who seized and continue to hold power in Kyiv,’ said Putin, himself elected with the help of electoral fraud, assassination, the crushing of dissent and complete control of the media, ‘we demand an immediate halt to military action. Otherwise all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be completely and utterly on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.’ No outrage is more deeply felt than that of the bully stung by a return blow; even the possibility of it is a mortal insult.
Read on: ‘22/2/22’