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«In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine», Tim Judah

Civilians were suffering, as they do in all wars, but in this one older people were suffering the most. The morale of soldiers on both sides was high, and their leaders were thinking and talking of eventual victory rather than a peaceful end to the war. The rebels could not survive without Russian military support, but with it the Ukrainians could not defeat them. The war was thus both one between Russia and Ukraine and at the same time contained elements of civil war in the east. Many pro-Ukrainians tried to deny this because it complicated their simple picture of Russian aggression and terrorists, but for anyone who had been on both sides of the line, it was evident. That was not to deny Russian involvement though, and, as Valentin Fedichev, a proud Ukrainian army colonel who briefed me, said, even in a nightmare «we never thought we could be attacked by Russia.» He was an Afghan war veteran and, as he pointed out, an ethnic Russian. What Vladimir Putin had done, he said, was to commit an act of «geopolitical treachery» against Ukraine. Everyone was waiting to see what he would do next.

36.

The War Poets

Before the war, Olena Maksymenko, a tall twenty-nine-year-old, loved to write and travel. «I traveled a lot, in the Caucasus, Georgia, Mongolia, Baikal. I was also interested in ancient history, archaeology and mythology.» Not many Ukrainians are travel journalists and poets, but Olena was carving out a nice career and name for herself here.

But, as for many middle-class educated Ukrainians, something changed for her with the Maidan revolution. Like so many others, all she wanted for Ukraine was for it to be a normal European country, not one that continued to linger, as it had done since independence in 1991, in the gray zone between Russia and the rest of Europe, all the while crushed by a culture of economic and political corruption that left poor a country which should be rich. So, Olena’s poems became political and she read them from the stage on the Maidan.

In March 2014 she went with colleagues to write about what was happening in Crimea. Close to the border she was picked up, or kidnapped, by people she described as «just guys with guns.» They were, she said, Cossacks, Berkut and Russian soldiers. They threatened to kill her, pointed a gun at her and fired, though it was not loaded, hit her and chopped some of her hair off. «They said I was an agent of the USA and they tried to get information from me about other journalists. Three days later, I was released.»

When she came back from Crimea she discovered that one of her best friends, with whom she had spent the Maidan months, had committed suicide. By complete chance this moment in her life coincided with a writers’ residency she had won, organized before the revolution, in Latvia. There, a novel about her friend and the Maidan simply poured out. She was angry. She trained to fight, but she told me that only women with the right connections were being allowed to do so. «If there is a choice between a woman with training and a man without, they will choose the man.» Women like her, she complained, were being shunted into HQ paper-shuffling jobs or detailed to cook for soldiers.

We traveled together to Pervomais’ke,[1] close to Donetsk airport. She was attached to a group of volunteer medics based in what had been a hotel before the war. Here, the doctors had set up a first-aid treatment and evacuation center for soldiers injured in the fighting. All the medics, including medical students who were doing time at the front, were enthusiastic and fired up by the cause of doing their bit to defend Ukraine. Standing behind the hotel reception desk was Oleksiy Reznikov, aged twenty-two, who had a shelf of small bottles of different-colored inks behind him and above his Kalashnikov. «This is a war we need to fight, and everyone needs to find their niche,» he told me. His was that of frontline tattooist. «It raises morale… and then the fighters do a better job.» Soldiers and medics were having him tattoo them with their blood groups and nicknames, and some with patriotic Ukrainian themes and symbols.

From here, we could hear fighting, but the intensity was much reduced since the ceasefire of February 15, 2015. Bored, Olena was filing stories and collecting more which might appear in another novel. From her childhood, she told me, she had thought that it would be amazing to be a war correspondent and «that I would go to foreign wars… but unfortunately war came to me.»

In Kiev I sat with a senior security official whom I know. We were talking about the various scenarios facing Ukraine in the next few months. Then he mused that even though Ukraine had become an independent state when the Soviet Union had collapsed, it was not something that Ukrainians had fought for. Now they were fighting «a classical war of independence… we have to force, or persuade, the Russians to consider us a separate people, entity and state.» And he added, «but wars of independence have a second step and that is a war for borders.»

In rebel-held Donetsk, I met Anna Iureva, aged eighty-seven. Anna is a tiny, sprightly, gray-haired woman. For the last eight months she and her family had lived in a dingy nuclear bomb shelter. With the ceasefire most of the people who stayed here had gone home, but some, like Anna, were stuck. She and her family had fled from their damaged house a few minutes’ walk away from the hotel-cum-field-hospital in Pervomais’ke.

Anna said that she would like to go home but «fighting is constant there,» and anyway, she did not want to return while it was still under Ukrainian control. «They did a lot of harm to us. How many people have they killed? How many homes have they destroyed?» she asked angrily. Then she took me into a side room where her relatives and others slept in cramped bunk beds. It was incredibly hot, because here her forty-three-year-old granddaughter, who has Down’s syndrome, was sitting right in front of a fan heater. Anna showed me a can with oil and a wick that they used for light when the electricity went off because they had run out of candles, and which she said gave off a horrible, choking smoke. Then she gave me a sheaf of small and tidy sheets of paper on which she had transcribed her poems.

Иллюстрация к книге Anna Iureva and her granddaughter in a bomb shelter in Donetsk. March 2015.

Anna told me that as a schoolgirl she had written poems, but that because she had been the youngest of eleven, her parents could not afford to give her much of an education. Now, bored and unable to sleep at night, she had begun to write again. A poem called «Fighters» begins like this:

  • You are fighters of our country
  • Our husbands, brothers and sons
  • Liberators of our country
  • You are going to fight, not for the sake of honor
  • But for the State of Novorossiya

Novorossiya is the name of the would-be state comprising the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The poem goes on to refer to President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government:

  • Poroshenko decided to give mines, factories and land to the West and then flee abroad
  • And they destroyed so many towns thinking they were winning
  • But now they are wiping away tears and snot
  • They are wondering where to flee, and how to cover their bloody tracks

And finally:

  • You have to pay with your own life for everything that was destroyed
  • Oh God, bless the fighters going into battle
  • Save them from any evil
  • And bring them home alive

At this point, in the spring of 2015, Ukraine’s forces were not strong enough to retake what they call the «occupied territories,» and the rebels, even with Russian support, were not strong enough to take more territory from the government they called the «fascist junta.» Before the war there was no oppression of Russians and Russian-speakers in the east, as pro-Russians claimed, not least because President Yanukovych, who came from here, and his Donetsk clan actually dominated the whole country. There was no hatred between people. But the war had changed that: some were leaving and the region was becoming ever more of a strange, decaying and increasingly empty place that echoed to endless lofty-sounding exhortations to fight the fascists. What was clear, though, was that in a year the situation had changed. The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics had emerged as real political entities just as in the other post-Soviet breakaway regions, and like the Serb areas did in the former Yugoslavia. In Croatia, one, Krajina, was swept away by war in 1995, but in Bosnia the Republika Srpska exists today as a semi-independent quasi-state. People live side by side in Bosnia, but don’t have much to do with one another. Both scenarios are possible in Ukraine’s east, and Ukrainian politicians have talked about the «Croatian model,» by which they mean freeze the lines, build up your forces and reconquer when you are ready.

Whatever happened, Anna said that if her home remained under Ukrainian control, eventually, «in the worst case,» she and her family would see if they could make a new home somewhere in Russia. She was not typical in being an eighty-seven-year-old bomb shelter poet, and neither was Olena, as a poet determined to put down her pen and pick up a gun. But, to return to the thoughts of the security source, the problem now was that whatever opinion polls said before the war, whatever people thought then and given that the social structure of the rebel-held territories had changed, especially thanks to the flight above all of middle-class and younger people, it was not just those who fought for Ukraine who believed they were fighting a war of independence. Both sides did and thus both were fighting for their borders.

VI.

ESCAPING THE PAST

 

Иллюстрация к книге

37.

Defining Optimism

According to the press in Odessa, Andrey Stavnitser is one of the city’s wealthiest men. That does not put him in Ukraine’s oligarch class by any means but, as he runs a particularly successful port business, which was built from scratch, it makes what he has to say especially interesting. In October 2013 he was thirty-one years old. A month later President Yanukovych was due to sign the two key agreements which would begin the process of integrating Ukraine and its economy with the European Union. It was a time of fierce debate. Those who were against the proposal said it would harm the Ukrainian economy because those Ukrainian exporters who were dependent on the Russian market would lose out. They believed that Ukraine should instead join Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Supporters of the EU option said that while the transition would be difficult, the pain of transition would pay dividends within a few years. And there was a third position, as I found out from Andrey. Though for his business it would be better to enter the Customs Union because then he could expect more Russian cargoes, EU standards would be great if they could curb corruption and «as a citizen, I would vote for the EU.» In the Customs Union Russia would again dominate Ukraine and thus he said: «I would not go there again.»

Eighteen months later the political landscape had utterly changed. The Maidan revolution had come and gone and there was war in the east. Odessa’s people were divided, but the city remained firmly under Ukrainian control. Every now and then bombs exploded at Ukrainian volunteer recruitment offices, but as they went off at night they were clearly designed to intimidate rather than kill. Similar attacks plagued Kharkiv. On May 2, 2014, violent clashes had taken place between pro- and anti-Maidan crowds. The result was that one pro-Ukrainian had died and some forty-seven anti-Maidan pro-Russians, including forty-two in a fire in the large Trade Unions House. After that, the climate in the city changed. Pro-Russians understood that Ukrainians would fight back and Odessa and the south would not be snatched from them without resistance as Crimea had been. Maybe, many concluded, this was a cause not worth dying for. Ukraine’s security services were now on the lookout for separatist activists, and so many of them had fled to Russian-occupied Crimea or the east.

Odessa, founded by Empress Catherine the Great in 1794, is famous for its colorful history and stories. But for Westerners its name more often than not triggers associations with a city that no longer exists. It might conjure up images of the booming nineteenth-century cosmopolitan port in which every language from French to Greek to Albanian was spoken, or the great city of Jewish memory in which a third of the population were Jews. It might make one think of Isaac Babel, the famous writer, born here in 1894 and executed in 1940, a victim of Stalin’s purges. Or possibly the first association might be with the famous Odessa city steps, which lead down to the port and were immortalized in the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein Soviet movie, Battleship Potemkin. In the film, about the 1905 revolution, we see crowds fleeing tsarist troops who are firing on them, and in its most famous scene a pram with a baby careens down the steps. In reality none of this ever happened. Still, Odessa has a lot of history, Odessans are proud of it, but it is history. It is good for bringing tourists here from Ukraine and from Russia. Before the war, large numbers of Westerners also poured off Black Sea cruise ships to be marched around the historic center by fierce, matronly guides. Now I wanted to hear a story of modern Odessa and to hear what Andrey Stavnitser thought of the future.

The source of Andrey’s wealth lies on a deep inlet from the Black Sea, twenty-seven kilometers east of the city. The company and port are called TIS, or Transinvestservice. Ships sail up the inlet to either unload imports to Ukraine or, more likely, load its exports. Bulk carriers filled with fertilizers, grain, iron ore and coal leave from here. As grain pours down shoots into ships berthed at the terminal, clouds of dust rise from the holds. Along the dockside there are hills of coal and iron ore pellets. Vegetable oils and wood chips also flow out of Ukraine from here. The machinery is modern, the steel silos gleam in the sunlight and the foundations of a vast new warehousing section have been dug. Over the last twenty years some $350 million has been invested here, and it shows. The company employs about 3,500 people, and this is as modern and successful a business as you will find anywhere in Ukraine.

Andrey is burly and wears a sky-blue, long-sleeved T-shirt. The history of the port is «very simple,» he said. Oleksiy, his Jewish father, was born in 1943, the son of a well-known mining engineer whose job at the time was to sabotage mines before the Nazis reached them, so during the invasion of the Soviet Union, he was always working one step ahead of them. Oleksiy could not have chosen a more different career. He became a mountaineer and was head of the mountain rescue service in the Caucasus until 1988, when he returned home to Odessa. The period that was beginning was one of huge opportunities for those who knew how to grab them, and Oleksiy did. In 1989 he started opening shops selling imported goods. They were a success. In 1994 he came to this spot with Oleg Kutateladze, his lawyer and friend, to inspect a derelict port site. Just before the end of the Soviet Union the authorities had begun building a terminal here, primarily to unload phosphates from Morocco. The project ran afoul of the new ecology movement which, as everywhere else in the Soviet Union, preceded the emergence of political parties. One ship came to dock but, confronted with protesters, never unloaded, and sailed away. The port was mothballed and the project left as an unfinished building site.

Oleksiy and Oleg thought this would be a good place to load fertilizers for export. First they rented the land, went on to form a joint venture with the authorities and finally bought the place in 2001. The port began work in 1996, and in 1997 it handled its first million metric tons. In 2014 it handled 26 million metric tons and 720 ships. In 1998 they began building a grain terminal. During the Soviet period, most of Ukraine’s grain went to the rest of the country. With independence, producers began to export outside of the former Soviet Union. Oleksiy was a driven man and a workaholic. He built a house next to the port so that he could live right next door to what he loved most in the world. He took to the challenge of building a business as if climbing the hardest of mountains. He micromanaged everything, Andrey told me, and he delegated no decisions, whether they were about «$50 or $50 million.»

Born in 1982, Andrey was only a child when the Soviet Union collapsed, but he was a teenager in the chaotic mid-1990s as his father was building a multimillion-dollar business. The relationship between father and son was tense, and besides, in this violent period, the threat of kidnapping was real. At the age of fifteen Andrey was dispatched to a boarding school in England. He hated the weather, and the food and the school were not much good. The following year he was sent to an American school in Switzerland, not least because his father was worried about drugs in England. When Andrey arrived, one of the first people he met was a Russian boy who said, «Shall we go and get some weed downtown?» After this he was sent to a French business school in Moscow to do an MBA. This was another error, he said: «Don’t ever do an MBA before you have five or six years’ experience.» Andrey belonged to the first generation of children of wealthy Ukrainians and Russians to be sent abroad, and they learned by their mistakes.

Even though he was also studying in Moscow, Andrey began working with his father. One of the most difficult things was that he wanted to see results straightaway, but in the port business it can be five years between an idea becoming a plan and turning into a working reality. «I had lots of conflicts with my father, it was very difficult to get along and I quit twice.» Then, when he was twenty-five, his father got cancer. At that point, he says, «all of my pride disappeared. Everything became very simple after that.» His father divided the shares of the business between Andrey and his older brother, who now looks after the finances, and started preparing them to take over the company. Just before Oleksiy died in 2011, Andrey was made CEO. «No matter how hard you prove yourself,» he told me, «you will always be the son of the founder… no matter what. It was very difficult, and everyone was twenty years older than me.» Had he enjoyed it? «It was fun…» In front of the TIS office building there is a statue of Oleksiy.

If the company had withered after Oleksiy died, the skeptics would have gloated that the former fun-loving party boy was not worthy of his father. But, in the last five years, turnover has tripled as has income. Despite the turmoil of 2014, the venture still prospered. Some Russian business was lost but new partners were found, and anyway, said Andrey, much of what they do is a function of global demand for commodities. As long as Ukraine is still producing grain and iron ore and everything else the world needs, all of it will still need to be exported. His colleagues who have really suffered, he said, are those dealing in imports, especially of consumer goods. The decline of the hryvnia has slashed everyone’s purchasing power. The next two or three years could see setbacks even for him though. Credit is virtually impossible to get for most businesses, and this will affect production, especially in the agricultural sector. If that means less is produced, it means less to export too.

In these turbulent times Andrey has made no secret of which side of the barricades he is on. At the entrance to the TIS port is a giant Transformers-style robot sculpture holding a Ukrainian flag. For its mouth it has a red digital ticker-tape screen along which run the words Slava Ukraini! «Glory to Ukraine!» More than a year after the beginning of the war in the east, Andrey was fairly confident that the critical point of risk had passed and that Odessa was not about to fall into separatist or Russian hands. Anyone watching television can see what is happening in Donetsk and Lugansk, he said, and so can make their own realistic assumption about what would happen here if conflict were to spread. When there had been anti-Ukrainian demonstrations in the city in 2014, he had mingled with protesters to hear what they were saying and was shocked that middle-class people were among them. «There were doctors and teachers and government officials, and their salaries are way bigger in Russia. They were just fed up with low salaries and low pensions.» At the time many thought that Odessa might fall into Russian hands like Crimea, but one key difference is that perhaps most people in Crimea wanted to become part of Russia when the opportunity arose, while the same could not be said about Odessa.

Иллюстрация к книгеRobot at the entrance to the TIS terminal. Vizirka, April 2015.

Andrey said it was hard to know what his workers thought, not least because he had decreed that politics must be left at the port gate. He estimated, «We had people in favor of Russia, perhaps thirty percent and maybe they still are, and then seventy percent for Ukraine.» The difference would be if 10 percent of the pro-Russians were actively propagating their views. When the war began and a port train driver stuck a Donetsk People’s Republic flag on his locomotive, Andrey says he was fired within two hours. More sinister was the day his security men found a man dressed like a homeless person snooping about. When they searched him they found he had a Russian military officer’s identity document on him. He was handed over to the Ukrainian security services. He must have been a low-level operative and a dimwit at that for carrying ID, but it was clear what he was doing. «This is where military ships could berth.» If Russia was going to land men and military equipment in a bid to take Odessa, the TIS port would be the ideal place to do it.