Almost everyone that knows me well has suggested that I be careful over here in Ukraine. I sometimes ignore such warnings, feeling that I’m an experienced “Industrial Traveler” and that the Ukraine is full of survivors untouched by the war. Yes, it’s called a war here. War…civil or instigated or terrorist, everyone calls it a war! Feeling that many are untouched was my first mistake. Everyone is affected. From the 50% rise in costs along with the inflation of the USD and Euro, to the collapse of the economy, to the crushing national debt, to the un-payable Russian gas bill, to the closing of banks, devaluation of currency, reduction in business and trade, the constant fear of the unknown…everything here is ready to go at any minute. Everyone says, it could go one way or the other. No middle ground. Mostly it’s safe…or relatively safe. Then things go awry quickly, very quickly. It is a power keg, with unknown players. The day is full of life, families, color and kids. Full of ice cream and shopping and walking hand in hand. But the nights are dicey and ornary and harsh and unpredictable. There is a collective fear and anger, an edginess that is palpable in the streets and conversations. That edgy uncertainty is part of the excitement, but that’s not all bad! Right? Things however turn on a dime, a very thin dime.
People walk right up to me in the streets and say “where are you from” (yes, many in the capital speak English). I guess with my white socks, Nike shoes, shorts and large camera…I don’t look much like a Ukrainian. Well, that and I don’t have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and my hair isn’t cropped close to my head! Oh and I don’t wear those off white shoes. Mostly they love us Americans. They throng to us when we are found out. Pats on the back, beads around the neck, ribbons around the wrist, kisses, hugs, Amerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-ica!
Then there’s the collective fear and anger. Tonight I went out from my apartment, which is right on Maidan Square, the place of the Black Thursday battle that killed hundreds on February 20th of this year. Constant rallies ring through the canyons of the buildings surrounding the Square. I went to the Square to hear a popular band play rally songs, Ukrainian National songs. The crowd knew the songs, fists in the air, screaming and chanting in time with the music. Tough tough looking guys with bloody scars on their faces and knuckles were mulling around the crowd. The same dirty, sun baked, unshaven thugs as the militia were practicing karate, kicking the shit out of a “test your strength” dummy on the edge of the square. Their karate kick would run the red numbers up to 100+ then they’d fist bump each other, or swing their foot to within a hair of each other’s nose. The crowd shouting in time to the music, pro Ukrainian songs, chants, cheers, when a rumble broke out in the middle of the crowd in front of the band. Instantly 20 thugs are at it in the middle of the plaza, the song still going on, guys dragged away. A group of karate kids dragged one of the perpetrators away to the side of a building and pounced on him. No cops, no law and order, no justice, more like the frontier. Keep your head down and your powder dry. I gingerly hid my camera and backed away.
On my way back to my flat, passing one of the camps in Maidan Square, a group of over a dozen militia was meeting in a circle. More bodies than usual and all in the militia uniform. The darkness split by the intrusive yellow haze of the sodium lights gave everything that eerie yellow glow. I always believe in asking for forgiveness and not permission when shooting photos. I quietly set my camera on the wooden fence around their compound. I get off one bad shot and set up for another, when these two militia descend on me and start yelling and grabbing. I replied in my best American English, that slowed them down a bit as did the fence. I made a hasty get away, fearing more for my camera than my own safety.
What does this have to do with “the price of Starbucks in America”? Well, nothing or everything. Our world is safe, predictable, controlled. We go to concerts and expect to have a Coke or a beer or a Starbucks and go home, go to bed and get up for the next 50 years just like we did before. Our collective conscious revolves around a very predictable set of parameters. We go about our days and maybe we stop long enough to discuss what the hell Putin is up to, or what could we do, or why should we police the world and where the hell is the European leadership and who really cares? Is Ukraine in Asia or in Europe anyway? We have the luxury of complacency…we think.
I can assure you that this powder keg is ready to explode into a significant war if we are not all very careful. The tensions here are higher than high. If Russia pushes any harder there will be a conflict that will make February 20th Black Thursday look like a day in the park. Ukrainian nationalism is powerful and universal. And it’s not just the thugs and militia. This is a fight for their country and for their freedom.
Earlier today, I decided to head to the museums of WWII down along the Dnieper River near the Lavra, the Vatican of the Russian Orthodox religion. A nice Sunday with beautiful blue skies and bright sun. I got out of the Metro, their subway, which by the way is mostly between 10 – 20 STORIES below ground. Thank you Mr. Stalin!
Anyway, I got 10 steps out of the station into the plaza and there were these regular folks, middle aged, older even, retirees, some older than me!!! handing out pitch forks and rakes and flags on really long poles! Too good to pass up, this is why I’m here anyway, so I let providence take over and scrapped the museum. Suddenly we are on a half a mile march right past Parliament to the President’s Offices, the equivalent of the White House.
Valari, a retired electrical engineer from the Soviet days and part time English teacher spied me (remember white socks and no cigarette). AH an English speaker! I’m full of questions! Where’re we going? What’s this about? What about Poroschenko? What about Putin? What about Russians on the boarders? What about Crimea? You know the answers already. This group of upstanding citizens, pensioners and retirees was marching with rakes and flags to the President’s Office to give him a piece of their mind, which was to push Russia hard, to demand, and fight, and declare and threaten and to do it NOW! Valari extolled in perfect English that they have a terrorist as a neighbor.
The gates of the President’s compound were swung open, military guards everywhere, plain cloths police around the crowd, I’m in the middle of it all, then the evening news showed up, guards hiding in the bushes and trees around the compound, guys with head sets, clip boards, bull horns. There’s chanting, shouting, fist pumping, a single voice of a slogan then the crowd replies, then more chanting, then the laying of the rakes and signs at the door step of the White House, then applause, chants, shouts…then it disperses. Everyone walks away leaving their messages on the ground for the all President’s Men to clean up.
By the way, this was one afternoon and evening! Yes, today’s activities! In the US, we have it very easy. We don’t have to even think about Mexico taking Texas and invading and terrorizing parts of New Mexico, Arizona and California. We worry about our Starbucks and if its skinny double half caf Frapa this that and the other thing. Or is there a storm brewing over the horizon we just can’t see? Time will tell. These people are dead serious I’ll tell you. Dead serious.
One last antic dote…they sell door mats here in the streets with an image of Putin’s face looking for all the world like Hitler right in the middle of where your feet would wipe the dirt. I hear they are very popular!