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«In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine», Tim Judah
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Dead Ukrainian soldier hanging from power cables. Novokaterinivka, September 2014.
Dying for Ukraine
This is what I saw: the bloated corpse of a man, hanging folded over the high power cables in the eastern village of Novokaterinivka. He had been part of the Ukrainian retreat from Ilovaysk at the end of August 2014. When a rebel or Russian missile hit his armored vehicle and the ammunition inside it exploded, the top of it peeled off like the lid of a sardine tin. His body was flung into the air and then caught on the wire. In the wreckage there were the charred remains of another young soldier and, by the blasted top of the vehicle, lying on the road, the blackened torso of a third man. His arm was held over his head. The body on the wire, which had completely escaped the flames, looked waxy and somehow unreal, swelling and gleaming slightly in the late summer sun. His trousers had come off, dangling from his feet, his shirt and jacket hung down over his head. It was a symbol of defeat — or of victory, depending on which side of the war you were on.
I tried to find his name, but failed. Quite possibly the dead soldier and I came close again a few months later in Lviv. Maybe he was buried here, almost 1,300 kilometers to the west, close to the Polish border in the grand Lychakiv cemetery. Much of the history of Lviv and western Ukraine is here. Literally. In November, the leaves are moldering in the damp and you can stroll past bronze men with bushily confident nineteenth-century mustaches and weeping, lichen-stained angels. Every tomb tells a story, but even more than that, every memorial, or at least the more recent ones, is still fighting the history wars for those who fell for their cause. Over here are the men of the Austro-Hungarian army who died fighting the Russians in the First World War. Up here are the Poles who died fighting the Ukrainians when it was over, and next to them are their Ukrainian enemies. Here are the people murdered by the Soviets in 1941. Here are the Soviets who died fighting the Nazis. Here is the monument to the local Ukrainian SS division. Here are the other Ukrainians who fought with the Nazis, against them, against the Poles again and then against the Soviets.
And now the new sections for a new generation: here are the heroes of Lviv who were killed fighting the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan revolution of 2014. And here, beginning a few months later, are eighteen graves piled high with wreaths and draped with yellow and sky blue Ukrainian flags. In the framed photos on top of the graves you can see how young were some of these men who died in the war in the east, or maybe some looked so young because the last proper portrait of them was taken when they graduated from school?
Olha Vaskalo was fussing around the grave of her son Roman, who was twenty-five, as though he was in the hospital and not six feet below her. He had joined up in May 2014 and was killed in July. He had been in Lugansk. He was injured in the leg with shrapnel from a Grad missile. «Was it worth it?» I asked. She looked confused, uncertain what to say. Then she replied: «The children are dying for nothing.» He had a two-year-old son and worked on the railways. An old lady called Nadya, who had been listening, joined in. «Only our boys are fighting,» she said, meaning boys from Lviv and the west of the country. «The rest are sitting around drinking vodka. As always!» It is untrue. But it is true that across Ukraine everyone believes that they are suffering more, contributing more and doing more while everyone else is doing nothing.
A few graves away was Ruslana Holets. «They had nothing to defend themselves with,» she said quietly. «They were just left there.» She talked to her son on Monday evening and he died on Tuesday. «They were surrounded and our army abandoned them. There were mines all around them. He said, ‘All’s fine, we have food,’ but it was not true.» It was drizzling, gray and cold. This is what many believe, that there was treachery, or that the top brass does not care what happens to its men on the ground. It is easier to believe this than that your son might have died simply due to incompetence or a lack of coordination in a military bled dry by more than two decades of corruption and theft of its resources.
On the other side of the line, in Donetsk, one of the two main rebel-held cities, is Vladimir Antyufeyev, a sixty-three-year-old Russian, who led a unit of Soviet special operations troops in the dying days of Soviet Latvia. For many years he was wanted by the Latvians for his role in an attack on their Ministry of Interior in 1991 in which five died. By his own account he escaped two hours before the Latvian «fascists» came to arrest him in 1991. Then he was sent to Moldova, or more precisely Transnistria. On the left bank of the Dniester River, anti-Moldovan activists declared its secession from Moldova in 1991 and then, with Russian military help, this was consolidated in a brief war against Moldovan «fascists» in 1992. Here Antyufeyev adopted the pseudonym of Major-General Vadim Shevtsov and set up and ran the breakaway statelet’s fearsome little KGB for twenty years. This oversees the territory’s smuggling empire, its main source of cash apart from its subsidies from Moscow. In 2012 he was ousted and charged with abuse of power and corruption. He also helped in security operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions of Georgia controlled by Russia. In 2014, in the wake of the Maidan revolution, he went to Crimea to prepare for it to be snapped off from Ukraine. Now he was going from strength to strength. In July he was setting up the security services of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR to use its Russian acronym, which had just declared independence from Ukraine’s «fascists.» He sat in a large conference room in the city’s central, Soviet-era regional administration building which the rebels had taken over. He was balding with a tidy gray, close-cropped goatee beard. He wore a neat white shirt and a black suit and black tie. Nearby, cradling a Kalashnikov, sat a podgy old man who looked as if he must have had trouble puffing all the way up to the eleventh floor of this building, because the lifts were not working. Also present, a younger, more serious-looking guard with an ever so fashionable, just slightly cocked Cossack-style black hat.
Antyufeyev — he had returned to his old self having shed his Major-General Shevtsov personality — spoke with the assurance of a man who knew that at long, long last he was back on the right side of history. He was back, after years in exile in dull, provincial Transnistria, war-wrecked Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is little more than a village connected to Russia by a tunnel. At last Russia was back and he had magically, for no one knew how, become a «deputy prime minister» of the DNR and was, at least for a few months until he vanished into obscurity again, at the center of things, where he should always have been. The tone was smug. Ukraine had squandered its chances. It was not disintegrating, he said, as opposed to, well, «disassembling.»
Ukraine was like «a kit,» he explained, made artificially at Russia’s will and in accordance with Russia’s geopolitical interests. Ukraine existed only within its borders, which he was now at the forefront of redrawing, thanks to Russia. Now, America and the European Union had intervened and so it was time for Russia to take back what was «primordial» Russian territory from this «artificial» Ukrainian state from which others, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania, would also sooner or later be reclaiming chunks. And for that matter, he added, Ukraine’s recent leaders were not really Ukrainians at all, but people from the west of the country who were «by their genetics, Poles, Hungarians and Romanians, pursuing interests opposed to the interests of Ukrainians.»
Maybe Antyufeyev believed what he said about genetics. But does it matter? What matters is what the majority of Russians and Ukrainians believe about what is happening and why. And here is a depressing thought: in 1991 at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars foreigners were at a loss to explain how millions of people appeared to have become crazed, to have turned on their neighbors, and simply suspended their critical faculties. Milos Vasic, the great Serbian journalist, used to explain it like this: if the entire mainstream U.S. media were taken over by the Ku Klux Klan, it would not take long before Americans too would be crazed. People had TV sets for heads, he said. Almost a quarter of a century later, the internet and every other means of modern communication not only have not made things better but rather, have made them worse. Now there are even more ways to spread poison, lies and conspiracy theories.
Despite being such a big country, Ukraine, for most of us who live in the western part of the continent, is, or was, somewhere not very important. Is Odessa in Russia? It is on the Black Sea, yes, but my geography is a bit hazy there. They had that revolution a few years ago, led by that woman with the braids, didn’t they? What happened to her? How quickly those days have vanished. For too long Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe after Russia, was one of the continent’s most under-reported places. For most of the last century, what little reporting in the foreign press there was, was done in the main by foreign correspondents living in Moscow, who inevitably absorbed some of the imperial and then former imperial capital’s patronizing attitudes. Now, with revolution and war, the interest of editors has inevitably been awakened, but most outlets still do not give journalists the space to make people and places really come alive.
The aim of this book is not to record a blow-by-blow account of events that led to the Maidan revolution of 2014, the annexation of Crimea or the war that has followed. Others have written that. Others will also write books which will answer who exactly gave the orders to shoot people on the Maidan during the revolution, the circumstances of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over rebel territory and how some forty-two anti-Maidan-cum-pro-Russians died in a fire in the Trade Unions House in Odessa in May 2014. This is not a history of Ukraine either, but I do write about what happened in Lviv and the west of Ukraine in the Second World War and look at the history of Donetsk because these two stories are key to understanding what is happening now. Each section of the book is a story in itself. Together they should give an impression of what Ukraine feels like, now, in wartime.
What I thought was that between journalism and academic books there was not much which explained Ukraine, that made it a vibrant place full of people who have something to say and to tell us. Wherever I went I found, as in few other places I have been, just how happy ordinary people were to talk. Then I understood that this was because no one ever asks them what they think. Often, when they started to talk, you could hardly stop them. If we listen to people we can understand why they think what they do, and act the way they do. In Ukraine (and not just in Ukraine of course, but across much of the post-communist world), people have been taken for granted for so long, as voters, or taxpayers or bribe payers, that when finally the rotten ship of state springs leaks and begins to list, everyone is shocked. But they should not have been. It was just that no one, especially in the West, was asking what was happening below deck. This book is about what I saw, what people told me and also those parts of history that we need to know in order to understand what is happening in Ukraine today.Just Angry
The war began in the wake of the Maidan revolution. Russian propaganda holds, and quite possibly Russian leaders really do believe, that it was all a cleverly orchestrated Western coup. What they cannot see is that it was nothing of the sort. In reality there was no mystery. People were just angry. When President Yanukovych, after Ukraine’s years of work on preparing two key agreements which would begin the process of European integration, announced, on November 21, 2013, that the deals were off, he unwittingly lit the blue touch paper of revolt. For those who supported the revolution — and in the end hundreds of thousands came to demonstrate their support — it was hardly because they believed that the strictures of gradually implementing a dull-sounding Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement with the EU was going to quickly change their lives, but it was something more fundamental, primal even. In a country rich enough to provide its inhabitants with very decent lives, the EU deals were seen as some sort of lifebuoy to grab on to. By linking their fate to the West, many thought that the gradual implementation of the agreements would create the thing that had been missing in their lives — a state of law. It may yet happen, as the agreements were indeed signed after the revolution, but it will be a long haul. Even if membership of the EU is not, at least for now, on the agenda, the agreements do foresee many of the same reforms gone through by all of the other former communist countries which have joined. They commit Ukraine to a process which is supposed to, and if the experience of the other former communist countries is anything to go by, would to a good degree transform and modernize its institutions. In that sense the Maidan revolution was a collective plea: «Save us from these people!» And likewise, while it was natural for many in the west and center to look westward for a savior, it was also natural for many in the east to look to Russia, because of their historic, ethnic, language, family and business ties. I am generalizing of course because the picture was not black and white — but it was not so complicated either. To a Westerner Ukraine seems very familiar on the surface, but, while obviously Western countries have all sorts of political, economic and social problems, on balance, and with the exception of countries such as Greece, which never went through the type of transformative process now required by the EU, they tend to pale in terms of what these problems mean for the individual Ukrainian.A remnant of the Maidan revolution, Kiev. The car has a Ukrainian trident symbol inside the European stars. April 2014.
It is not right to compare Ukraine to Britain or Germany, or even the tiny Baltic states, but a serious point of departure is to be made with Poland, a country whose population size, at 38.5 million, is in the same ballpark as Ukraine’s. In 1990 the GDP per capita of both countries was similar, as were life expectancy rates. Just before the war began, Poland’s GDP per capita was more than three times greater than that of Ukraine and Poles could expect to live almost six years longer than Ukrainians. Likewise Russia’s GDP per capita, which started at more or less the same place, was some three and half times greater before the war, and while its life expectancy rate was virtually identical to Ukraine’s it had increased more than its neighbor’s since 1990. Ukraine was and is not a poor country, but the experience of Poland, and even that of the Baltic states rather than oil- and gas-rich Russia, suggested to what extent Ukrainians had been shortchanged by their leaders since independence and explained why they no longer wanted to continue hearing about their country’s potential rather than actually seeing and experiencing it.Next Year in Donetsk
When wars begin there is a strange period when ordinary, pre-war life continues before the new rhythm of wartime begins. It is also the period of disbelief and delusion, euphoria or shock. At the beginning of the First World War millions across Europe enthusiastically cheered their men marching off to fight, having no inkling of the catastrophes that lay before them. In 1939, in the West, after war was declared and before the Germans began their advance, we had the «phoney war.» In our times, in Bosnia in 1991, as war raged in neighboring Croatia, many assumed that it would not spread because, as everyone knew and said just how bad it would be, no one believed that anyone would be so stupid as to actually start it. When it did start in 1992, the first months were chaotic. No one knew who was firing at whom and from where. Then things settled down: frontlines became clear and for three years people got killed, cities and towns were besieged and hundreds of thousands fled or were ethnically cleansed, but the front did not move much until the very end. All of this was in my mind as the war began in Ukraine. All too often I saw similarities with the Balkan wars, all of which I had reported on. A period of the surreal preceded the new reality. You could see this both in Kiev and Donetsk where, even if people talked of war, it was clear that they did not believe it was really coming.
In early April 2014, in the center of Kiev, on the Maidan and Khreshchatyk, the city’s central boulevard, and on the road leading up to Parliament you could see the remnants of revolution. There were makeshift shrines and candles for the 130 who died during the revolution, many of whom had been cut down by snipers. A year later no one had been brought to justice for this crime, which was widely assumed to have been ordered by Yanukovych or someone close to him. The failure to find the guilty, bad enough in itself, nourished conspiracy theories, namely that the pro-Maidan protesters had killed their own people in order to blame Yanukovych and hasten his downfall. There was no memorial for the eighteen Berkut riot and other policemen, many who came from units brought in from Crimea and the east, who had died fighting the protesters — deaths which were not forgotten or forgiven in the places they had come from, a fact which did much to engender bitterness.
Around the Maidan there was a tent encampment. Perhaps a thousand people remained here. They had collection boxes for their different groups. People dressed as bears, Mickey Mouse, or zebras ambled about hoping that you would want to pay to have your photo taken with them. There was a large catapult which looked as if it had been taken from the set of a film about the siege of Troy. The stage from where people had spoken remained, though now it sported a large ad for the newly formed military National Guard. It also had a large crucifix propped up in front of it. There were pictures of Stepan Bandera, the controversial and divisive Ukrainian nationalist leader of the Second World War, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who had been given a Hitler mustache and hairstyle. Those who remained here said they wanted to stay until the presidential elections on May 25. Many just seemed lost. They included men and women from outside Kiev to whom the revolution had given a sense of purpose for the first time in their lives; now they were staving off a return to humdrum lives back home. Between the Maidan and Parliament, all sorts of militias in different uniforms marched up and down, but to what purpose was not clear. Outside Parliament I asked Andreii Irodenko what he and his men were doing and might they not serve Ukraine better in the east, and he replied: «If we left this spot, provocations would start here.» He said that provocateurs could be agents of the FSB, Russia’s secret service, and other supporters of Russia.
While the threat of losing complete control of the east loomed, all sorts of people and groups demonstrated outside the building of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Some were demanding a lustration of judges and some were protesting about legislation concerning duties on imported cars. At the door of Parliament, Myroslava Krupa, who had made herself a cloak of cigarette boxes, was protesting because she had not received compensation for damage to her health caused, she said, by poor conditions at an American tobacco company she had worked for in Lviv. Strange groups roamed around and roads were blocked. Suddenly a black car driven by a glamorous woman frustrated at not being able to get to where she wanted, veered off down a path in the park only to be stopped and surrounded by an angry crowd. One man was dressed as the Grim Reaper, with a black cloak, mask and scythe on which he had written: «Putin, I am coming for you.» No one in Kiev quite seemed to grasp what was happening in the east, which was surprising since Crimea had already been lost more than a month before.Myroslava Krupa in a cigarette packet cloak protesting at the Verkhovna Rada. Kiev, April 2014.
Many were alarmed and disappointed. They had braved the bullets and the cold for a root and branch change for Ukraine, but now the leading candidates for president were Yulia Tymoshenko, the oligarch and former prime minister who had been jailed by Yanukovych, and Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire who had earlier been a minister under Yanukovych.
Middle-class Natalyia Yaroshevych, aged forty-eight, who sells cosmetics for the American company Amway, said she had liked what she had seen at the beginning on the Maidan, but later felt that «political games were being played» there by Russia, the EU and the U.S. As we sat in a café at Ocean Plaza, a Kiev shopping mall featuring a giant fish tank with sharks, the French supermarket Auchan, Gap, Marks & Spencer, and many of the other big Western chain stores, she said she was «anxious but not fearful» of war but what concerned her and many of her friends even more was the cost of living. Her husband, an engineer, had his own small company installing and maintaining industrial gas meters. Orders had plummeted because of the crisis and he was worried about the family’s income because like many, not only in Ukraine but other parts of the former communist world, they had taken out a mortgage denominated in a foreign currency. Few understood the implications of these when they borrowed. When the Yaroshevych family took out their mortgage, just before the financial crisis of 2008, the exchange rate for $1 stood at 5.5 hryvnia. Before the Maidan revolution started it was 8 hryvnia. Now it was 11 hryvnia. For ordinary people, whatever was happening in the east, bills still had to be paid and the risk of losing your home to the bank was a more immediate and existential threat to them than the idea of losing Donetsk in a war which might or might not come to Kiev. (A year later, $1 was 22 hryvnia, but the Yaroshevych family had been able to solve their problem. Natalyia’s husband sold his office and paid off the home mortgage.)