If Ukrainian refugees enter Poland by foot, their first experience of the European Union is likely to be the Medyka border crossing. They then walk down a short path to get a bus either to the Humanitarian Centre, in an abandoned Tesco, or to Przemyśl railway station. A man who has driven a piano from Germany plays sad music. There is a candyfloss machine, and a Frenchman dressed as pirate handing out crêpes. Members of religious sects strum ukuleles, sing kumbaya, and pray loudly at people. Turn your back on the refugees and you could almost imagine you were at Glastonbury.
Also queuing at the border post was Alex Sokol, a 46-year-old human resources manager at a Ukrainian bank. He’d been skiing in the Pyrenees when the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, and he cut short his holiday to return home, even though he had no military background. ‘I have only seen weapons on TV,’ he said. ‘It’s better to give weapons to people who are experienced. But there’s lots of other things I know how to do. So I will do them, to help my country.’ One of the things he knew how to do was bulk purchasing. He’d left his skis in Andorra and flown to Poland with body armour in his luggage.
The Weigl typhus vaccine was made by the intrarectal inoculation of lice. Twelve-day-old lice were put in a clamp with their rears in the air. A very fine glass pipette was inserted into the anus and a tiny drop of fluid containing the typhus bacterium was pumped in. The intestines were harvested and ground up with phenol to make the vaccine. These processes needed people: injectors, who could infect up to two thousand lice per hour; dissectors, who could harvest three hundred guts per hour; and feeders to propagate the lice, kept in cages strapped to their legs.
A man named Victor is sleeping next to me. He is over sixty, a worker from the Kyiv suburbs. He has a moustache, calluses, grey hair. In the late 1980s he had some military experience, so he knows something about weapons and fortifications. In his downtime, however, Victor is constantly watching news on YouTube, which I find really annoying. When I ask him to use headphones he smiles good-naturedly: thank you, I’m fine.
At the traffic lights on Sumy Street, in the centre of Kharkiv, a convoy of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles marked with a white letter ‘Z’ turned left towards Freedom Square. One of the largest squares in Europe, it’s home to Derzhprom, or the Palace of Industry, a spectacular constructivist building made up of towers and skyways that was photographed by Robert Byron in the late 1920s, and praised by Béla Bartók as a mix of Manhattan and the Bauhaus. There’s a black-and-white photograph of a Soviet T-34 tank parked in front of the Derzhprom during the Battle of Kharkiv in 1943.
My peasant grandparents inherited morgens of agricultural land from their parents, but this zemlya was later expropriated from them. ‘I can’t give you anything,’ my mother recalls her father telling her, ‘so you must study and provide for yourself.’ After the Second World War the cities of Ukraine lay in ruins. Everything that might have been passed down from one generation to the next – houses, furniture, china, paintings, photographs – had been lost in the terrible destruction. But my generation inherited something, or at least we were supposed to: an old Soviet apartment, a small dacha plot, a collection of books, a set of dusty cut-glass tableware.
Odessa, the palace-city perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Black Sea, is staring down a naval flotilla. The ships are not English and French men-of-war, as during the Crimean War; they belong to Russia, the nation that founded the city after defeating the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92. My friends in Odessa fear their home is at imminent risk of invasion or, worse, severe bombardment like Kharkiv or Kyiv. Women and children are being evacuated.
On Saturday, 5 March, I was arrested in Zaporizhzhia, in south-east Ukraine, for trying to get close to a nuclear power plant that had just been shelled by Vladimir Putin’s invading army.
I spent three days this week trying to get out of Russia with my three-year-old son, who was visiting his grandparents in Murmansk for the first time (in retrospect perhaps not the best time to have made such a trip). There were no flights out, but also no spare tickets on any bus going to Helsinki; the train was still running (for Russian and Finnish citizens only) though everyone expects it to stop any day. At Finland Station payments to Russian Railways with Western cards were not working. I had to beg the lady to hold the tickets in the face of a long angry queue as I ran to a nearby Sberbank to withdraw cash.
Over the past week Moldova has received more than 166,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war. Helped by thousands of volunteers, the Moldovan authorities turned hospitals, universities and wedding halls into refugee centres. Also this week, Moldova commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of post-Soviet Russia’s first war against one of its former colonies.
Last night, the Russian army surrounded Kherson in southern Ukraine, near the mouth of the Dnieper, setting up checkpoints on roads leading into and out of the city. Today, they entered it. Footage proliferating online shows a school destroyed by shelling, damage to residential buildings and soldiers looting local shops. The city of 290,000 people used to be on the way to Crimea. Since Putin annexed the peninsula in 2014, however, Kherson has been the final stop before a militarised border. Ukrainian officials from Crimea relocated there. The ‘border’, they assured me a few years ago, was temporary, one day to be redrawn. Now the Russian military is redrawing it daily.
‘You’re occupiers. You are fascists. Why the fuck did you come here with your guns?’ This is the widely shared video of an anonymous woman confronting Russian soldiers in Henichesk, in southern Ukraine. ‘Take these seeds and put them in your pocket so, at least, sunflowers will grow on your graves.’ That’s my loose translation of a few lines I’ve seen rendered more literally, if more obscurely (‘so at least sunflowers grow when you all lie down here’). The translators are doing an excellent job, catching almost everything, though the full range and depth of Russian obscenities – which overlap with Ukrainian obscenities – is notoriously hard to convey written down, even in the original. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky described a conversation consisting, entirely, of one ‘unprintable noun’.
It is striking how many commentators in the west have described Vladimir Putin, since he invaded Ukraine, as ‘detached from reality’, when he is not detached from reality. He is reality.
An airborne assault by Russian paratroopers using dozens of helicopters has seized a cargo airfield to the north-west of the capital. Ukrainian forces have fought back with the limited array of armour and missiles at their disposal. Aircraft have been shot down; tanks have been burned out; civilians killed and injured. In what so far seems like a pinnacle of willed madness, Russian and Ukrainian troops were reported to be fighting over control of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
The baleful alternative of Kyiv Beta, the Kyiv of war and the rage of slighted men, seemed closer. And that presence compels me to imagine – especially since I lived in Kyiv for two and a half years, at the time Ukraine came into independence – the choices faced by Kyivans. To stay or flee? To flee when, where, how? To stay and take up arms, or hunker down and look to your family? And if defence fails, what then?
Every day I ask people in Kyiv, and ask myself, whether the Russian president could seriously intend an assault on the Ukrainian capital. After Putin’s rant, and his announcement that he considers areas of Donbas controlled by Ukrainian forces no longer part of Ukraine, it seems more possible. More young men could be ordered to lay down their lives violently on Ukrainian earth around Kyiv, even as the bodies of Soviet soldiers from the 1940s are still being found.
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.
My friend Nastassia recently returned to London from visiting her parents in Moscow. At a dumpling party, as guests kneaded dough at the table, a recently qualified ornithologist had told a weird story. Her new job involved feeding birds of prey, with mice she’d kill by swinging them against a wall – and that wasn’t the weird bit. Moscow Zoo wouldn’t take her on until she passed a lie detector test to show she wasn’t a thief or drug addict. ‘Unbelievable!’ Nastassia said.
Artem Chekh served in the Ukrainian army in the mid-2010s, on the front line in Donbas. He wrote a book about it. He’d be first in line to be called up in the event of mobilisation. He has a bag of odds and ends left over from his service; most of what he had he gave away to other soldiers. He still has a three-point strap for an automatic rifle, boots and a summer uniform. He’ll go if he has to.
In the morning it was grey and windy and although I couldn’t see any snow as I walked along there was the faintest rattling on the shoulders of my coat, as if tiny snow particles were hitting it. Last night Joe Biden repeated his belief that the Russians intend to attack not only eastern Ukraine but Kyiv itself. Perhaps it would be better to take the grey skies as a blessing, since it would make it harder for aircraft to strike.
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.
The central Kyiv metro is deep. The old escalators take an age to clank down to platform level. I want to say that the great depth of the metro is reassuring, vis à vis air attack, but that possibility still seems fantastical. ‘How,’ my evidently flawed subconscious logic seems to go, ‘could Russia launch missiles against a city with so many nice coffee shops?’
The Ryanair cabin crew weren’t supposed to wonder if they might find themselves flying into the war universe of Kyiv Beta. I asked if they were volunteers. They weren’t: unless they were told otherwise, Kyiv was just another Euro-destination, like Malaga or Berlin. I had the luxury of preparing for both. I thought I’d better have a helmet and a flak jacket, and a satellite phone.
When I went to look round President Viktor Yanukovych’s former estate, on a mild Sunday in October, the so-called Museum of Corruption was full of visitors. Children clambered onto giant his-and-hers thrones set up opposite the mansion; couples swooned over Italianate gardens; people solemnly fed alpacas. The Trump impeachment inquiry had recently begun. The editor of the Mirror Weekly, Julia Mostovaya, wrote that both Democrats and Republicans in the US were once again using Ukraine to play ‘domestic political golf’ with little regard for the country’s own interests – including its need, in the light of ongoing Russian aggression, to stay in the good graces of both American parties.
After we crossed the second checkpoint in Marinka, the taxi driver told me the clocks had gone forward. Donetsk time is Moscow time. It isn’t far from the frontline, but Donetsk city centre is calm at the moment. You could almost forget there’s a war going on.
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
The three Home Alone movies all featured in a list of the ten most watched TV programmes in Ukraine in January and it’s tempting to speculate that the popularity of the franchise reflects the way the country sees itself: abandoned by those who should be responsible for it, under attack from bigger powers and having to improvise its self-defence with anything that comes to hand. This isn’t just about the latest Russian aggression. Historically Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by everyone in the region: Romania, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.
Springtime for Europe. Magnolia buds jut from the bough, and the Netherlands is gripped by Euro-referendum fever. Or, if 'fever' is too strong, the vibe in Amsterdam's smokeasies is at least lightly tousled. For we're talking not of the UK's in/out poll on 23 June, but the one that really matters, here on 6 April, on ratifying the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.
One of the problems with Ukraine is that no one really knows where it is. For many people, not least Vladimir Putin, it’s an extension of neo-tsarist Russia. For others it’s a Central European state of frustrated blood-and-language nationalism which just needs the chance to build strong institutions to express its essence. The Nestor Group, a collection of Ukrainian thinktanks and intellectuals, has meanwhile concluded that Ukrainian value systems reject both the Russian model (deification of paternalistic authority) and the language-and-bureaucracy-makes-a-state logic of Central Europe. Instead, Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds: the 'sotni' who made up the revolution on the Maidan, the volunteers who fund and feed the army, church congregations and small business associations, criminal gangs and football hooligans. According to Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a member of the Nestor Group who was involved in both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Maidan in 2014, this puts Ukraine in the same bracket as Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Greece.
There is a dangerous false assumption at the heart of the West's negotiations at, and reporting of, peace talks in Minsk over the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It is that Russia wants to have direct control over a small area of Ukraine – about 3 per cent of the country; the area, slightly smaller than Kuwait, now under separatist rule – and that Ukrainian forces are fighting to win this area back. You can't blame Western negotiators or journalists for thinking this is what is going on, because it's what the Ukrainians are bound to tell them. That doesn't mean it is the underlying truth. The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.
Will Vladimir Putin order direct military intervention in Ukraine? Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily, and promotes the portrayal of the Kiev government as cruel, illegitimate fascists in Russian-language media. The key leaders of the rebels, like Igor Strelkov, Alexander Borodai, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Kozitsyn and Vladimir Antyufeyev, are Russian citizens or Russian nationalists from ex-Soviet territories under Russian control.
This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.
‘Russia,’ the Russian writer said, ‘is pitted against the West because of its deeper sense of spirituality.’ He was speaking at a conference in Kiev bringing together ‘international intellectuals to carry out a discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world’. It was hot in the room. I felt sick and went down to Maidan, my first visit since the revolution.
On Thursday, while Ukrainian government troops began an attempt to disarm, arrest and if it came to it kill the heavily armed pro-Russian fighters who have taken over government buildings in the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, Russian government troops carried out an almost identical operation in the Russian town of Khasavyurt, in the Caucasus. Ukrainian troops killed between one and five anti-government fighters in the course of their operation. Russian troops killed four anti-government fighters during theirs.
Most informed sources in Ukraine and Russia believe that the annexation of Crimea was planned and carried out by the siloviki (former KGB and security service officials close to Putin), and not by the foreign policy elite (including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu), whose influence has been waning since Putin veered to the right in the wake of the 2011-12 anti-government protests. A senior figure in the Yeltsin group told me that Putin is using the Ukraine crisis to cleanse the elite and to consolidate his support with the non-metropolitan public at large. It is no coincidence that the last few weeks have seen the Russian authorities cracking down on liberal and internet media. A former intelligence officer told me that influential members of the president’s inner circle, such as Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, view the confrontation with the United States and European Union as a good thing for Russia, an opportunity to make a long-advocated turn towards China.
Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions:
In 1878, as the Russo-Turkish war raged and Britons feared Russian expansion, the music-hall star G.H. MacDermott was crooning the ditty that gave the word ‘jingoism’ to the language. As McDermott pointed out, ‘we’ve fought the Bear before’ and ‘we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.' Now we’ve got few men, no aircraft carriers, and we’re broke. All that’s left, like a feedback screech, is the high moral tone.
The games the Kremlin is playing in the Ukrainian theatre of almost-war are an extrapolation of the techniques it uses in Russia. Postmodern authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call the 21st-century system the Kremlin has developed with its puppet politicians and simulated ideologies and pretend conflicts and real killing and corporate KGBism – is going on tour.
Crimea is de facto frozen and now the focus is on Eastern Ukraine. Putin says he hopes he won’t have to invade – unless the locals really need his help. Kharkiv is a focal point: Ukraine’s second largest city, right on the border with Russia. it's where Yanukovich fled (or was told to flee) after he decided he couldn’t hold Kiev. It's where crowds turned out to defend the local statue of Lenin from being pulled down by pro-Majdan activists. It's where, it was briefly thought, a separatist leader might announce a breakaway Eastern Ukraine. The choice would be symbolic: Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine up until 1934. It had always been a town of merchants and traders, a town of movement and wandering, but in the Soviet Union it also became a military-industrial centre. It’s now officially defined as ‘Russian speaking’ while the surrounding countryside is ‘Ukrainian speaking’. The writer, poet, leftwing activist, academic and ska group front man Serhiy Zhadan talks of ‘surfing languages’ in the city: one person can be speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian in the same conversation; or the language can change as the subject changes (Russian for oil business; Ukrainian for horse trading).
Trotsky on 'The Ukrainian Question' in Socialist Appeal, 22 April 1939 (via Counterpunch): The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force...
I was on holiday in Yalta a few years ago, trying to write a script about the last Whites fleeing Soviet Russia for a film that would never be made by the feature film director I would never become (I was still at film school at the time). It was the second half of September, the end of the tourist season, and I could afford to rent a large apartment in the old part of Yalta among lazy 19th-century mansions sunk in liana. It was a writer’s fantasy but I wasn’t getting much done and spent most of the time exploring the peninsula.
Over the past twenty years Russia has removed a set of territories from other countries. It removed the eastern part of Moldova, now known as Transdniestria; it removed the north-western Black Sea part of Georgia, Abkhazia; and it snipped away the territory controlling Georgia's main road to the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia. The intention now appears to be to carry out the same operation in Crimea, removing it from Ukraine.
In the past 48 hours Ukraine has reached that tipping-point where the romantics become realists and the realists romantics. In the conventional world, romantics are those who think in terms of national destiny, the will of the people, of battle, of glory and self-sacrifice, of the radical political gesture; the realists those who prioritise money, balance sheets, personal safety, resignation, fatalism, the acceptance of an unjust, imperfect world where people know their place and limits, where things change slowly.
Twenty-five people died in Kiev last night. Before it started, when the day was still bright and my main thoughts were about dealing with my feverish four-year-old twins over half-term, I sent a message to a friend who also writes about Russia (I’d put the twins in front of a cartoon). ‘Just had an odd thought,’ was the gist of what I wrote (it was in a social media shorthand). ‘But what if all the stuff the Kremlin has been doing the last few months – destroying the relatively free RIA Novosti, taking TV Rain off the airwaves, pressuring radio Ekho Moskvy, ramping up the anti-Americanism and traitor-hysteria – is not just a case of a general "turning the screws", not a reaction to social change, but actually active preparation for a huge operation in Ukraine. They want their informational bases covered. They’re planning something.’ ‘Ummm. Maybe,’ my friend wrote.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek takes a scalpel to the late Soviet period. The surface, spoken ideology, Žižek argues, was not what actually held the system together. You could joke about ‘great leaders’ and the inadequacies of Marxist economics: the system let you have a giggle. The real holy of holies was the idea of the narod (‘common people’), in whose name the leadership could validate any action. Thus the deeply subversive nature of Milos Forman’s early, Czechoslovak films such as The Firemen’s Ball, which portrayed the narod as stupid, greedy, ugly. This was a cut the system couldn’t take and Forman had to leave. Over the last few days Russia’s only independent (and really rather small) TV channel, TV Rain, was accused by the Kremlin of stepping ‘beyond the limits of the permissible’. Most cable carriers dumped the station, leaving it in crisis and its future under serious question.
Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.
Outrage over Ukraine. Demonstrators blockade the government headquarters in protest against the government. The prime minster causes further offence by referring to the demonstrators as 'Nazis and criminals'. The government then tries to close down protest using force. John Kerry expresses 'disgust'. Less outrage over Spain, where the conservative government is to introduce legislation to forbid, among other things, unauthorised demonstrations outside government headquarters.
‘The Subtleties of Organ Smuggling’, a short story by Serhiy Zhadan, is a series of interconnected sketches set on the EU-Ukraine border, where a rag-tag collection of pining lovers, gypsies and ageing prostitutes try to bluff their way over the Schengen line. As an awkward teenage Hungarian border cop searches through the contraband of Ukrainian women ‘smelling of life and vodka, talking in broken English and broken Russian’, he has to take away their surplus alcohol, take away their electric shavers and chocolate, take away their explosives and hand-grenades, take away their copies of Hustler (for his boss), take away their methylated spirits, cocaine, aromatic sticks smelling of hash, herbal oils with heroin extract for Thai massages, haemorrhoid suppositories, glass jars full of gypsy women’s hair for wigs, fish and human blood in thermos flasks, frozen sperm in empty Kenzo perfume bottles, grey slices of human brain hidden in plastic bags with Russian salad, hot Ukrainian hearts folded into fresh Russian newspapers – all these objects they’re trying to smuggle over the border in their rucksacks, bright canvas hold-alls, fake-leather briefcases and laptop bags.
When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was a young hoodlum on the make in late 1960s Soviet Donetsk – or so the story goes – he made his first money through the following ruse: he would lurk in a cubicle in a public toilet in winter. When a man came into the cubicle next door, he would wait for the opportune moment, then lean over, grab the man’s expensive fur hat and make a run for it: the victim, caught with his pants down, mid-crap, was in no state to give chase. Whether the story’s entirely true or not – Yanukovich was definitely a hoodlum and served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970 – it captures something of his operating methods.