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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Wrapped in Fog

Voskrisenya, 17 Dekabr’

Uniformed Soviet-style, the woman behind the glass at the train station rolls her eyes when she hears I am a foreigner.  No helpful hand gestures, no speaking slowly, no writing numbers down on paper.  The people in line behind me start crowding, elbowing, edging in past me, even though the previous person negotiating three tickets to Almaty took twice as long.  Outside, too, the city is aggro, a jackhammer heartbeat clashing with its candy coating, ostentatious and metallic as a cellphone ringtone playing “Ode to Joy.”

The chatter of machines and mouths fills the air. Russian, Ukrainian, Surzhik—the local dialect combining the two. The languages are delicious in the mouth, plagued by an enfuriating grammar, and make every conversation between native speakers sound like an argument. Bourgeois shops and peasant street vendors mingle on Chernovo-Armeiska—Red Army street.  Casinos and slot-machine halls flash out false promises: “Dzek-pot!” the letters are in Cyrillic approximations but the neon hues translate perfectly.  Farther along, Khreshatik is closed to car traffic: it must be a weekend.  A golden angel perches on a pedestal a hundred feet in the air.  Seems timeless, but it could be just a few years old.  Dozens of monuments and historical buildings have gone up since Independence, as Kyiv tries to portray itself as a city that has always been steeped in its own past.

Before the Maidan Nezalazhnosti—Independence Square—youth on rollerskates wave orange flags and speakers mix words like snake oil from the beds of shiny pickup trucks.  It’s hard to tell, until you read their banners, whether this is a commemoration of the recent Orange Revolution, which peacefully toppled the Moscow-aligned autocracy, or if it’s a commercial parade sponsored by a cellphone company.  They become indistinguishable.  The Revolution was sponsored by the US, yet at the same time it brought out tens of thousands of people unaware of this backing to take over the streets and attempt to assert power over their government.  One column of a building along the Maidan is shielded with clear plastic sheets that protect the high water mark of urgent, delirious graffiti they left behind.  Elsewhere it’s been washed away.  The most common graffito is the slogan of the Revolution itself: “Tak!”  It means “Yes!” in Ukrainian; in Russian it’s the nothing-word you say before changing the subject.

Timoshenko is one of the Revolution’s politician-heroes; her face is for sale on t-shirts on the Maidan.  She looks like Princess Leia.  Which would make Putin the Emperor.  I bet he really can shoot lightning from his fingertips, though, that evil KGB bastard.  And this winter the Empire has struck back.  The pro-Russia gang got back into the electoral saddle after Moscow clarified the bread and butter question by toying with the westward flow of natural gas.  How’s that for getting out the votes?

Throughout Kyiv the most common graffiti is written in homage to UPA, the Ukrainian Rebel Army.  Trapped in the middle, they fought the Nazis and the Soviets during the “Great Patriotic War” and now their veterans want pensions.  Ukrainian nationalists see them as heroes and try to suppress the fact that they had a cozy relationship with the Nazis in the beginning.  Red Army veterans see them as enemies.  The Soviets left their own graffiti behind in the form of monuments and statues, hideous socialist realism depicting the most stout-chested, square-jawed men a patriarchal society could possibly envision, heroically harvesting wheat or charging Nazi tanks.  Included in all the scenes, from the battlefield to the factory, were enough token women in support roles to signify socialism’s politically correct gender equality.  Standing alone high above the banks of the Dnepr, some stern-faced Soviet goddess of war holds aloft a squat sword, which was shortened in production by the “godless” communists so it would not stand taller than the tallest spire of the city’s preeminent monastery.  Around the goddess’s feet, pedestaled tanks and jet fighters bid for the people’s loyalties and spell out what threat awaits the treasonous.

Kyiv CraneWhat are the Ukrainians looking at these war monuments thinking?  What are the Ukrainians walking in the streets thinking as a paroxysmic demonstration of the best the West has to offer in Mass Communications is grafted onto the cracked landscape?  Pedestrians and SUVs fight it out with one another, violently darning a new social fabric, drab buildings build themselves to the sky, dark coats hurry by; new town of mud, ice, steel beams and homeless dogs, old town of cobblestone and souvenir stands, pastel apartments with balconies and windows in long stacked rows, stone edifice in curving angling texture (neo-classical?), like Paris or Sankt Peterburg; churches, monasteries, onion domes of slatted wood, onion domes of gold, bulbed steeples of patient green on square whitewashed bodies; everywhere icons, saints, for sale or salvation; babushkas sell icons, young women cross themselves on the threshold, black-cassocked priests clasp their hands at the small of their backs, marriage celebrations stop traffic on weekends, on weekdays babushkas in their shawls wear reflective traffic-worker vests and sweep the gutters with homemade wicker brooms, girlfriends stroll arm in arm, well preened women mince down the street in stiletto boots, eyes flitting aside to appraise, sharklike, the fashions of their sisters, women wearing bambi and thumper, glancing for frequent reassurance to their prophets in the storewindow posters whispering kill thy neighbor as thyself; old women with purple or hennaed hair, ancient women—babushkas—wrinkled faces, shawls around their heads, look away from the unbridgeable gap of history between them and the young: they are going extinct, there will be no more babushkas; young men with soft faces and equine hair, men with evil faces, men with haggard faces, smoking cigarettes, talking football, conducting business deals, puffing out chests or hurrying to the Next Thing, old men dressed like Bela Lugosi; gangsters wearing shiny black clothes and shiny black cars, wearing the women on their arms; body guards, security guards; Megamarket parking attendants wearing blue camo and jackboots; policemen, militsiya, traffic cops, honor guards, officers, everywhere, with their doofus-caps and their dumb faces of happy power.  Boneheads in the metro. Bundled men sit by sandwich boards, selling phone cards, internet cards, waiting; advertisements, advertisements, shiny things to buy, shipments of Coca-Cola, bent grandmas begging, gypsy families begging, cold, cold, cold.  Women in short skirts and homeless dogs defy logic and extinction as the temperature drops.  The city wakes up wrapped in fog.  Questions, contradictions, and mostly the long bland pauses in between.  Walks to the park, traffic sounds, early darkness.  Every night, fireworks.  No reason, just fireworks.  In a graveyard on a hillside covered in trees, you can walk in peace and mouth the names of the dead, their syllables freezing in the air.  Then a thaw comes, the warmest December ever.  Global warming brings smiles and drinking in parks.  I’m pining for a blizzard.