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.