On Old Red Army Street

James Meek

Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.

There was a big upsurge in shelling yesterday across the line of control in Donbas, three hundred miles east of Kyiv, where Ukrainian government forces are entrenched opposite Russian-backed separatists. A new outbreak of fighting may point to further Russian intervention. One much foreseen scenario has been that the separatists would bombard government lines, then claim the government had begun an offensive against them, providing an excuse for Russia to step in openly. Sure enough, Denis Pushilin, the leader of one of the two self-proclaimed Donbas separatist republics, said he was going to have to evacuate civilians to Russia on the incredible premise that Ukraine was about to launch an onslaught against them. A similar scenario of grisly fakery played out in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.

The writer Andrei Kurkov told me at dinner last night at a Turkish restaurant in Podil that there were plenty of bookshops in Kyiv that stocked The White Guard, I’d just been to the wrong ones. The anti-Bulgakov movement in Ukraine was very small, he said; the divide between those who considered the Ukrainian-born Gogol a Ukrainian writer, and those who thought him Russian, was more of an even split.

I saw Andrei again this morning, in a café on Bulvarno-Kudryavska. He was with his publisher, Alexander, who’d come in from Kharkiv and was eating eggs Benedict. Kharkiv is just north of the Donbas front line and close to the Russian border. Alexander told me the city was well defended and much more Ukrainian in spirit, now, than in 2014, when it had seemed it might go the way of Donetsk and Lugansk. ‘It’s better than Odessa,’ he said. ‘There are quite a few people in Odessa who are waiting for Putin.’

It’s got to the point where people are passing on the wildest rumours to cheer themselves up. Alexander said he'd heard that Britain was going to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect it from Russian air strikes. When I told him the Royal Air Force didn’t have the capability to enforce such a zone against Russia by itself, he looked sad. I think I misunderstood the point of a rumour like that: it isn’t about whether it’s true.

Andrei and I talked about how hard it’s been for Ukraine to find rulers and civil servants who are competent, confident and credible in the use of authority, even before the question of corruption. We talked about the Faustian pact between working-class nationalist and liberal-bourgeois Ukrainians that has resisted pressure from Russia for Ukraine to become a loyal fiefdom of Moscow, in exchange for slightly cheaper gas and slightly higher pensions. ‘The only natural way for a Ukrainian elite to develop is the European way, probably the Polish way, maybe even the Hungarian way, which is not a very nice way, but it will be connected with nationalism,’ Andrei said. ‘Although active nationalists are a tiny minority in Ukraine, nationalist ideas are used … and probably instrumentalised, by people who don’t have nationalistic views.’

I walked down Kyiv’s huge central boulevards to Velyka Vasylkivska – if the city wants people to forget it used to be called Red Army Street, they’ll have to take down the old signs – and found my way, struggling with the arcane modalities of local numbering conventions, to a glass door without a sign. Inside were security guards in black and a shiny chrome turnstile.

‘I’m looking for the headquarters of Opposition Platform – For Life,’ I said. Nobody at any point actually confirmed that I was in the right place, though the calendars just inside the door told me I was, with their photos of the leaders of OPFL, the mainstream Ukrainian party most closely aligned to the Kremlin. OPFL is an umbrella faction for the people most alienated by the outcome of the 2014 revolution – or for those of them left outside Russian-annexed Crimea and the part of Donbas the separatists control. It brings together those who see the 2014 revolution that overthrew the legally elected – and extremely corrupt – President Yanukovych as a Western-sponsored coup, those who see Ukrainian nationalism as a vehicle for fascism, those who want to give the Donbas veto rights over Ukrainian national policy, those who believe Ukraine is deliberately suppressing the Russian language and culture, those who want Ukraine to step away from the EU in favour economic integration with Russia and Belarus, powerful business leaders and former bureaucrats who lost privileges, and hundreds of thousands of extremely poor people, many of them pensioners, who associate Ukraine’s break from Russia with poverty. It is very much the Kremlin’s favourite Ukrainian political party. The party’s chairman is the businessman Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin is his daughter’s godfather.

Since May 2021, Medvedchuk has been under house arrest in Kyiv, awaiting trial on charges of treason. There has been speculation the arrest is a casus belli for Putin; it’s personal. A number of TV channels that support the party have been shut by the Ukrainian authorities, accused of lying for Russia. And yet the party is still there, operating openly and legally. Ukraine is not the oppressive state that Russian TV – and Tulsi Gabbard – claim it to be. President Zelensky’s party won a clean sweep of constituency MPs in Kyiv in national elections in 2019, but in local elections in 2020, OPFL picked up a string of seats on the city council. The party has areas of strong support in the south and east of Ukraine, although in the country as a whole it’s too unpopular to gain power by fair means. Medvedchuk has been named by the US as the possible leader of a future Kremlin-installed regime in Kiev, a notion the OPFL has ridiculed.

The party, like the Ukrainian government, is treading a fine line in times of deep suspicion and fear. The Royal United Services Institute in London has published a report, drawing heavily on briefings from unnamed members of the Ukrainian security services, that portrays a country deeply infiltrated by Russian agents. It includes the startling claim that there are ‘around two companies of Russian covert special forces operating in Kyiv’.

Artyom Markevsky, the head of OPFL’s youth wing and a shareholder in one of the shut-down TV channels, led me to his office. He had a new MacBook on his desk, but the geography of the rented block was pure Russian-Ukrainian closed-plan: long corridors lined with solid doors, leading to a separate secretarial ante-chamber, leading to the inner sanctum, with a big desk for the occupant, and a little, lower desk in front of it, with chairs set at right angles, forcing the visitor to look up to the exec. To give Markevsky his due, he sat opposite me at the little desk. He’d just recovered from a bout of Covid, which is rampant in Kyiv, and we were masked, until his desperate need to vape obliged him to ask if he could take his off.

There would be no invasion, Markevsky said; it was a hoax dreamed up by the US and Britain to get Europe to buy American instead of Russian gas. Russian troops on the other side of the border were simply exercising in their own country; why shouldn’t they?

Markevsky was careful to say his party wouldn’t support an illegal seizure of power in Ukraine. ‘We are a political party. We’re not radicals. We act, and will and have always acted, only within the framework of Ukrainian law. What happened in Donbas in 2014 was in principle what happened across the whole country during the so-called revolution of dignity – the seizing of administrative buildings, bearing illegal weapons, that’s against the law. We will not and cannot support such actions. We’re for democratic methods.’

At the same time, were Russia to engineer, militarily or otherwise, changes of power in Ukrainian cities, they would find in OPFL a ready-made vehicle whose platform happens to coincide with the Kremlin’s hopes: early elections and referendums leading to a radical federalisation that would give the east of the country veto powers over deeper ties with Europe, while reintegrating its economy with Russia’s.

‘I don’t believe Ukraine is independent now,’ Markevsky said. ‘Our economy is directed from abroad. Our political elite is controlled from abroad. We’re completely dependent on the west. We’re completely dependent on credit.’

Read on: ‘Fog of War’


  • 19 February 2022 at 11:25am
    Petr Favorov says:
    "A similar scenario of grisly fakery played out in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008". The EU mission report, though, blamed mostly Georgia for starting the war, and contained nothing about fakery. I don't think such comparisons to highly doubtful past help anyone to understand the present.

  • 20 February 2022 at 10:39am
    Camus says:
    Why are western leaders so abysmally bad at their jobs? I listened to Johnson's speech at the Munich conference yesterday and found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the shoddiness of his language and his inability to string ideas together.
    President Selenskiy , who must have only spent a couple of hours away from Kiev was clear and concise in his criticism of the West to do anything except make empty promises. His argument was that the Ukraine is defending itself against the military pressure applied by Putin, who has already seized parts of Ukrainian territory and is planning to grab some more. So why don't NATO and the European nations do more? Because all of the "interventions " of the past thirty years, from Irak to Libiya, Afghanistan to Mali have been strategic errors and Biden, Johnson and Macron have no idea what to do next. As President Selenskiy said, they will have to live with their consciences .