Friday, September 12, 2014

from iserman to uber man

This past March, fresh from Peace Corps and with more time than money or common sense on my hands, I decided to give driving for Uber a whirl. I was partly inspired by this piece in GQ by Mickey Rapkin and its depiction of taxi driving as a form of entertainment: "The job becomes akin to binge-watching a TV series late at night on Netflix:", he writes, "Okay, just one more." In fact, that became my mantra. No Netflix, just Uber. Instead of catching up on the years of Breaking Bad I missed in Ukraine, I got up to speed on what's on the minds of American University and George Washington students (who by far constitute the majority of Uber riders in DC, presumably because of how easy it must be to enter mom's credit card into the app).

What I found, among other things, is that GW students are just absolutely the worst.

Let's just take last night for example. I started the evening by chauffeuring a pair of young women (college women always travel in twos and always have amusing conversations) to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop ($7.45) while one of them commented on how my barebones Jetta compared to her BMW 750Li. Bored with this, they moved on to talk about birthdays. “My mom misses me so on my birthday now that I’m at school. She always gives me 100 times my age to go shopping? So like, this year I got $1919.19? [here’s where her bff interjects: “Mine does that too!”] But this year she gave me a little extra just because felt bad she couldn’t be here to see me.”

Dubious math aside, giving any child that much money “for shopping” is obscene.

Or this exchange on a recent Saturday morning, between two girls going from student housing to Kafe Leopold in Georgetown ($8.23):

Student #1: “I don’t know what I’m going to get for brunch. I feel like having breakfast, but I should have a salad. I’m so fat.”
Student #2: “Ugh, me too. I’m so fat. I’m definitely getting a salad.”
Student #1: “I dunno. I kind of want eggs.”
Student #2: “Well you get breakfast and I’ll get lunch. The perfect brunch!”
Student #1: “Huh, breakfast… lunch… that’s kind of funny, it sounds like brunch.”
Student #2: “Uh… yeah.”
Student #1: “Oh my god, is that where that comes from?”


But there are other people who are also the worst. Be wary on weeknights after 9 pm when picking people up from downtown—that’s when high-powered Stress Freaks emerge from their lairs, like this guy:

SF: “I used to be an investment banker in New York, but then I came here to work on economic development for the White House.”
Me: “Do you like it?”
SF: “Well it’s definitely not the kind of pace I’m used to. I have to book my own travel because people are teleworking four days a week. And the pay is kind of a joke—just a fraction of what I’m used to. I like DC itself ok, from what I’ve seen.”
Me: “What kinds of differences do you notice?”
SF: “In New York, people are full of themselves, but they have the money to back it up. Here, everyone is so focused on their title and their status, but they don’t have the money to justify being like that. Maybe that’s a douchey thing to say, but it’s true.”


Like Rapkin, I have grown to love the way driving a taxi gives me a birds-eye view of what’s happening in the city. Part of this is facilitated directly by Uber—they send emails and texts to let drivers know about the week’s events and their locations. But even without that initial heads up, all you have to do is look at the heat map of the city on the driver app to see where DC’s young and beautiful people are concentrated. On weeknights, it’s Foggy Bottom and the western edge of downtown. Weekend mornings, Georgetown and the waterfront. On Friday night, U Street, Chinatown, H Street.

Speaking of demand, I absolutely loathe surge pricing. Just hate it. Whenever I see a part of the city starting to turn from orange to red, meaning riders will have to pay a multiplier of the normal fare, I try to get out of that zone as fast as possible. The reason is easy to understand: as soon as the price of taking an Uber becomes twice as expensive, I get passengers half as quickly, if that. The worst part of driving (besides GW students) is sitting in the car waiting. These days, now that Uber’s lowered prices and its user base is growing, the time between passengers is usually short, but as soon as surge pricing goes into effect, I’ll find myself sitting for as long as an hour before some heedless spendthrift decides it’s worth spending $40 to get from their happy hour in Dupont Circle to their home in Friendship Heights. Something is obviously broken about that, because the ostensible purpose of surge pricing is to attract more drivers to get on the road. But hey, I’m just a driver.

As a driver I’ve seen a fair bit of crazy stuff in my back seat. Makeouts. Awkward first dates. A multimillion dollar contract being signed by two businessmen on the way to the airport. A breakup. A member of Congress. I’ve driven journalists on their way to cover a protest, and soldiers on their way home from deployment. At this point, I’m way too hooked on the experience to give it up (lord knows the pittance they pay these days isn’t worth it alone). I’m in it for the stories. So if you see me behind the wheel in DC I hope you have a good story to share. And it had better not be about your classes at GW.

Monday, August 25, 2014

here's how you can help

For the past few days the inimitably energetic Casey Magee, a fellow former volunteer in Ukraine, has been working to set up a way for Americans to donate to help those displaced by the chaos in Eastern Ukraine, including my own little corner of Donetsk. If you saw the videos and photos I posted earlier, you have some idea of what ordinary people, my former neighbors, are going through. Rockets are being fired in crowded urban areas and the homes of people who never in their lives imagined they'd be caught in the middle of a war zone are being shot to bits.

Outside of Donetsk there's a small town called Dobropol'ye, where thousands of people have gathered to escape the violence. There's no running water or spare housing there, but at least it is safe.

Dobropol'ye is also home to a friend of mine who runs an NGO that is currently helping to cope with the crisis by collecting food, blankets, clothing and bedding for the tiny town's swelling population.

If you've heard about what's happening in Ukraine and wanted to know how you can help, here it is. You can go to this page and donate, and more importantly, tell people you've done so and encourage them to do the same. Any little bit helps.

Friday, August 22, 2014

points for style

This facebook post is too great not to translate and share:

My dear compatriots, honored Russians, as well as brave guardians of public order of the city of Moscow. I Grigorii (the same as Mustang Wanted), a citizen of Ukraine, am forced to make a confession, not to bring attention to myself but aimed at freeing of the innocent Russian citizens accused of hoologanism who are at risk of becoming victims of Russian jurisprudence, widely known for its fairness.
I am the one who in a burst of sincere patriotic feeling climbed the roof of the high rise on Kotelnicheskaya embankment and repainted its star in the colors of our native Ukraine flag, and then raised the flag of independent Ukraine, about which I have video and photographic proof. This process turned out to be rather labor intensive and took me almost all night; I finished my work around 6 in the morning and was glad to sleep. The Russian citizens who have had a criminal case opened against them and are threatened with 7 years of prison were not seen by me at the time when I was on the roof of the building and it is worth noting that we do not even know each other. But as is well known, the Russian courts are the fairest in the world!
I acknowledge that I am guilty of "hooliganism" and I am ready to stand before those same courts in exchange for the freeing of the wonderfully brave Ukrainian girl, Nadezhda Savchenko.

She is certainly not guilty of anything, and I at least painted the star.

I consider my action performance art and dedicate it to the Ukrainian Independence Day, and also to the people now defending my homeland.

Glory to Ukraine!

With respect, Grisha Mustang Wanted

https://vk.com/mustangwanted

https://twitter.com/MustangWanted8

https://www.facebook.com/mustang.wanted.25?ref=profile

Thursday, August 21, 2014

more of the wreckage

A friend sent me another video of the wreckage of my old neighborhood after it was bombarded. This one is not as gruesome, just lots of broken windows and holes torn in buildings.




And here's a piece of unexploded ordnance someone found right outside the college I taught at:


I wonder what it was like in the old days of Peace Corps before Twitter and Youtube, when you wouldn't have had any contact with your old country of service if it fell into chaos. Maybe a postcard or two could have gotten through back then, if it wasn't stopped by the rebels, and assuming the postal service was working. Would that have been easier?
Of course it's also rather rich for me to fret over what's easier or harder as I watch all of this happen at a distance. Even after two years living in that neighborhood, I never really understood it--didn't fully grasp its rhythms or inside jokes. My former neighbors lived their whole lives in that one place, from grade school to retirement. The trauma in these videos is theirs, not mine.
I won't be able to stop grasping for whatever news I can get about Makeevka as this terrible phase of the Ukrainian army's "Anti-Terrorist Operation" continues (that Orwellian name freezes my blood when I see who its victims have been). I won't stop hoping for it all to end soon. But I'll also try to keep some perspective too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the violence hits home

The neighborhood where I lived in Ukraine was shelled today. My counterpart sent me a link to the video below; he and I were neighbors there (he has since left for Odessa). Let me tell you now that this video is graphic. It's also produced by a group related to the separatists for obvious propaganda purposes. But the caption reads "Without Commentary." You know, they report, you decide. I can't deny the feeling of being punched in the gut after watching this.



There are also pictures. One of them is of the building I lived in.

("Photo. Sever-Daki [name of neighborhood]. Makeevka. August 19, 2014 after the shelling")

I don't have any more words for this right now. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

food for thought: donetsk as i knew him

The article below was published today in Ukrainian Pravda's Life section. It reflects some of the same thoughts I've had before, about the changing character of Donetsk prior to the events of this year and the sad end they have come to. The author raises a superb point at the end: I will survive this situation... But will I and people like me want to return if by the time Donetsk is quiet again I have already managed to carry out new plans and sow new seeds?
This question brings to mind what happened in the States when Katrina devastated New Orleans and former residents were slow to return.

If you ever lived in or near Donetsk, this article is really worth reading. I translated it into English below; the original Russian can be found here.

Media activist Anton Nagoliuk is a native of Donetsk. He writes here about what the city was like before the armed conflict began.


Until the end of spring he was working to assist foreign journalists. He was assaulted more than once by representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic [the separatists claiming to control the city] for his pro-Ukrainian position, and was threatened with harsh treatment, which forced him to leave the city.


I can scarcely remember Donetsk in the 90’s. Possibly that’s because of my young age, or maybe it’s because it was then a faceless post-Soviet city, having lost its UNESCO status as the greenest industrialized city in the world, the “city of a million roses”--in the 90’s all that reminded us of roses were thorns.


Sometime around 2003 after Yanukovych became Prime Minister, Donetsk started to act like the government’s second capital--and in my view, momentarily “won” this fight.


Intellectual Kharkiv, economically developed Dnepropetrovsk, beautiful Odessa and soulful Lviv could not be compared with Donetsk: in contrast with the current opinion of people from Donetsk, which is as though nothing were left for them after the distribution of the state budget, Donetsk was starting to be the most well-financed city, for reasons that could be easily understood.


For example, at that time the first real supermarket, Amstor, was opened in Donetsk, and the first SUVs started to appear and as far as I remember, from this time on the city began to actively change.


The transformation did not come easily.


I remember the first protests of older women against cutting down old trees on Pushkin Boulevard and my own disgust that a good half of the Central Lenin Komsomol Park, where I spent my whole childhood, was put behind a high fence, behind which construction on Donbass Arena began. I remember the terrifying force of the explosion that shattered the glass at my school, School #2, when the old hotel Donbass was demolished. In its place in 2004 the five-star Donbass Palace hotel appeared.


It was all a wonderful reminder of who was in charge of the city and the moving force behind these changes, and for this reason nobody was particularly willing to throw themselves in front of the steamroller of the city’s transformation.


The main changes in the city and the largest construction projects were usually started at the end of spring and in summer, when it was necessary to present a new centerpiece for the “main holiday of the year,” the Day of the City, which in Donetsk is celebrated on the same day as Miner’s Day.
Renovation of the waterfront, parks and boulevards were strictly necessary for this day--this is how the city’s backwards patriotism and pride are cultivated. This is how “Pavlov” developed a conditioned response for his “dogs.”


The strongest impetus for developing the city was the Euro Football Championship in 2012. The sketched concept for changes ultimately received the money that was needed for making those changes, and then some. I admit, I never particularly liked my native city, but after the completion of preparations for the Championship the center of Donetsk became, in my subjective opinion, the most “brushed” and groomed city in Ukraine.


Millions of dollars were spent for a new airport, aquapark with a unique cupola, the ice hockey arena “Druzhba” and other items the city to look genuinely European. In my observation, the quality of the roads, the number of trash cans and park benches, the care for flower beds and lawns and just the overall cleanliness and niceness in the past few years was never been higher in Donetsk.


After all these cosmetic changes even we ourselves changed. The amount of money available grew, and the open internet and desire not to be worse off than the rest of the world quickly changed people.


These people are not going to return to the city. Now imagine who’s left.
Donetsk, March 2014


Well-heeled young people already could not imagine a Friday evening or weekend without hanging out and promenading in expensive cafes in the city center. And those with smaller budgets started to gather on the riverfront of the Kalmius with guitars, discussing the creative works of contemporary Ukrainian writers and poets, singing contemporary Ukrainian music, like the song “Vona,” by the band Plach Yeremiyi.

A wide circle of patriots was quickly formed in Donetsk who seriously discussed the political life of the country, while politicians churned out the same drivel for the 20th time on TV.


Our people often wrote poetry in Ukrainian. They organized poetry competitions and duels in bars and on the streets. Nobody demanded support from the government in such things.


For us it was enough that they didn’t bother us.


We wanted to focus more on emotions rather than things. Rock groups came to Donetsk from Kyiv and Kharkiv. Members of old cult European and Russian bands started to visit Donetsk and Kyiv. But only one band always brought out the biggest crowds--Okean Elzy. Only Ukrainian music could rock tens of thousands of people at the Druzhba stadium.


The further we went, the more it seemed that we were already in Europe.


Naturally, climbing Maslov’s pyramid and imitating Western tendencies, we started to organize movements for entertainment: book clubs, pillow fights, mass bubble blowing parties on the pedestrian bridge in Shcherbakova park, water fights, scavenger hunts, and flash mobs. We actively participated in “Struks,” which is what we called field trips to other cities in Ukraine.


We were doing something important, which 80% of the population of the Donbass was not doing: leaving the city to go to other regions of the country and talking there with local people, drinking at night with the local flashmobbers, inviting them to visit us in Donetsk, and they came gladly.


We didn’t have a sensation of isolation.


Every year at the end of March and beginning of April we always went to Crimea and had flash mobs there, greeting spring earlier than everyone else, while in our own cities it was still winter.


This year nobody went anywhere, of course.


I like that I can say that it was a guy from Donetsk who organized the first Sweding event in Ukraine--that is, amateur remakes of well-known films. This is where it was really possible to speak from your soul and show everyone your point of view. Completed works were demonstrated in an art-house cinema, where blockbusters and vulgar Russian comedies weren’t shown. It was possible there to see a classic of world cinema for a dollar or two with a viewer discussion afterward and with commentary from film critics. Speaking of which, I just want to add that young people in Donetsk were never passive and apathetic, and were hardly any different from those in western Ukraine. Such a number of things invented and organized by us was possibly made possible by the fact that we lived in the most industrialized region of the country, and all around there was little of anything beautiful, cultural or intellectual. We had to create our own acceptable surrounding reality.
Paradoxically, we were able to become the postindustrial tip of the rusty Donetsk industrial iceberg.
Of course it goes without saying that not everyone was not like this, and at the same time other young people in Donetsk were degraded and later became followers of Vadik Titushko [that is, thugs] and could take violent revenge for our long hair, skinny jeans, lattes and iPhones--in January when we were dispersed with clubs under the statue of Shevchenko.

The appearance of the city and the views of young people progressed faster than the minds of the average person from Donetsk. The cultural initiative center called Izoliatsiya helped us with this. The city was once again lucky: right close by there was a unique cultural center, a gateway to the world of contemporary art, free thought and experimentation.

It’s hard for me to imagine where hipsters, creative types and simply artistic people met in the years before Izoliatsiya in Donetsk. But immediately after it appeared, students from the local art and architecture schools went there in droves.

The art center, located on the edge of the city, which was only possible to reach by one bus that runs every 20 minutes, became a Mecca for people wanting and able to create and not just consume. But even for consumers there was something there to do, see and learn.

But coming back to that bus, I want to say that even there it was see at a glance two different sides that were not yet in conflict. People with heavy bags, tired expressionless faces and a universal sorrow in their eyes sitting across from 20 year girls in colored tights and high-top Dr. Martens staring at books about Bauhaus.

I’m not surprised if the terrorists from the Donetsk People’s Republic occupied Izoliatsiya on a tip from the inhabitants of the Budenovka, who hated the postindustrialized world’s occupation of the former factory that made insulation materials [the name Izoliatsiya means “insulation” in Russian]. One can make many plays on words, but the capture of Izoliatsiya did in fact bring the isolation of all Donetsk.


I don’t know where this hatred in people came from.


Because until then African and Asian students, Orthodox Jews and dozens of other ethnicities lived calmly and peacefully together with locals. It is fantastic that in this tolerant region Russian speaking Ukrainians suddenly started hating the same kinds of people as themselves. One way or the other, because we let this hatred appear between us, we lost everything that had created and accumulated with so much work.


It’s hard for me to understand how it is possible that, despite the fact that in summer of 2012 the whole city was covered in Ukrainian flags, many people were walking around in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and were singing the national anthem, a year and a half later Santa Claus has come and dumped all of that in the toilet.

It’s sad to think about what will happen to all these beautiful places.

But it’s even sadder to know that these people, once they have been forced to leave the city will hardly want to return.

They won’t be reluctant to return because they were offended there by their own people with the active support of others, but because businesses will leave the city, which are at death’s door because of the difficult business climate and suffocation.

How much time must pass to allow not the terrifying silence to reign, as it does now in Donetsk, but rather the quiet stability that investors love, so that they can money and people again to the city? I don’t even know what is more destructive, radiation or pain and a feeling of injustice.

I long ago noticed that no matter how broken you are after a few years you will without fail become more compromising and conservative. My teenage dreams to get out of Donetsk to America, Europe or even to Kyiv always ended at the level of desires.

I consider this turn of fate for me personally and for many people of my age to be even useful and sobering. I will survive this situation and be able to accept it calmly and with gratitude. But will I and people like me want to return if by the time Donetsk is quiet again I have already managed to carry out new plans and sow new seeds? Almost all my friends have already found both housing and work in new places. They all talk more often about everyday things and work than the war and their former life. Yes, we all miss it, but I am sure that that that will pass faster than the situation will manage to finally find a resolution.

But while the quiet of the city is disturbed by the roar of shelling, Donetsk is continuing to fight not for the right to be the second capital of Ukraine, but to contend with Gaza for the the dubious honor of being the hottest point on the continent.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Building a bridge to the past

It’s August, which is usually a big old nothingburger of a month: a time for vacation and autoresponse emails. In Ukraine, the country’s Independence Day is just around the corner, which also means that Miner’s Day (the preferred holiday in the Donbass) can’t be far behind. Around this time last year I was sunning myself in Crimea, blissfully unaware of what the next 365 days would bring to me or Ukraine. Far from being uneventful, August has brought one crisis after another in Ukraine, as the world is now watching a convoy of allegedly “humanitarian” nature consisting of repainted army trucks as it treks from Moscow to Lugansk.

Meanwhile my own life has moved on. I stopped blogging for months as I searched for a job and focused on living life where I am, which is Washington DC (these days “DC in the Donbass” is a misnomer—more like the reverse). I haven’t stopped reading everything I can about my former home, however, or feeling heartbroken when I see images like these from a place I once knew as completely stable and peaceful:


Images of destroyed bridges like this capture the sense I now have of a severed connection to Ukraine. The place I once knew now lives in a few trinkets decorating my workspace:



Even though I miss Ukraine, I must admit that life on the whole is easier now that I’m no longer a volunteer. Having a regular income is certainly handy, as is doing work that has a greater impact. Last month I started a new job at an international development organization. It’s kind of like a “grownup” Peace Corps: people who are driven by the same idealism and focused on many of the same problems, but with a lot more money.

On the side, I’ve had lots of time to enjoy being in America again. Last weekend I went to New York to see my friend who served with me in Makeevka one last time before he left for grad school in Berlin. And while it’s no Crimea, I've noticed while visiting the Atlantic coast this summer that it does offer some advantages, such as a notable lack of scolding babushkas and trash-strewn beaches and guys named Dima drinking vodka and swearing loudly in Russian.

Another pastime I’ve taken up since returning to DC has been driving for a certain well-known app-powered taxi service. It started as a lark and a way to pay for having a car, but these days I mostly do it as a way of indulging my gregarious nature. Last night I was driving a guy who was eager to talk about his upcoming three-month globe-trotting vacation, from Berlin to Sofia to Cambodia and Tokyo. He said he’d wanted to stop in Ukraine, but his “mom would have freaked.” I did my best to assure him that Ukraine is safe and worth visiting, particularly right now (I still don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as a field of Ukrainian sunflowers blooming in August). But he wasn’t buying it. The daily drumbeat of terrible news from Ukraine is hard to counteract.

I’m hoping that those stories will change. I’m hoping those bridges will be rebuilt. And I’m hoping I will be able to return to Ukraine before too long. I’ll keep doing what I can to make that happen from where I am.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

interview with the chocolate king

Here's a translation for today of an interview with the new president of Ukraine, made before the election on Sunday. The original interview was published in German here.

Ukraine’s Election Favorite Petro Poroshenko:

“Germans should boycott Russian Gas”

By Paul Ronzheimer and Daniel Biskup (photos), translated by Richard Iserman

It’s 12:47 a.m. when the Presidential favorite Petro Poroshenko (48) receives us in his office.
He drinks tea and has “Roshen” chocolate pralines placed on his desk. “Do you know why Roshen is called that?” he asks.
“It’s my name, just without po and ko.”

BILD asks him: Why did Klitschko rescind his candidacy for you?
Petro Poroshenko: What Vitali Kitschko did has never happened in our country. He restrained his own ambitions so as not to endanger unity in the country. During the Maidan Revolution all of us in the opposition swore to stand together. The country can’t now have a dirty campaign, which in the end could be used by Russia and provoke a new invasion. For this reason Yulia Tymoschenko should also understand that we have awoken in a new country after the many dead on the Maidan, a country that deserves new mentalities and new politicians.”

BILD: But you yourself are not new to the business of politics. Why do you think you are capable of leading the country?
Poroshenko: “I have changed a lot. Could you imagine that a man who is on Forbes’ list of the richest Ukrainians could demonstrate in the middle of the Maidan, with gunshots and violence? I stood there every day and fought for the freedom of Ukraine, supported the demonstrators and understood their needs. I stand for a breakthrough in our country.”

BILD: Does it make a difference to the demonstrators on the Maidan whether you’re poor or rich?
Poroshenko: “No, most certainly not. That is what is changing: it didn’t matter anymore about poor or rich, educated or not educated. What mattered and matters was the issue of whether someone is for a new Ukraine or for the old system of Yanukovych.”

BILD: Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to belong to the richest Ukrainians as a presidential candidate?
Poroshenko: “That fact that someone is rich doesn’t matter. For me this is what matters: I have always proved in my years as a businessman that I am transparent. I am one of the biggest taxpayers in the country, have created numerous jobs. And I have managed this without using political contacts.”

BILD: During the revolution on the Maidan the role of oligarchs was critically examined. Why now should of all things an oligarch like you become president?
Poroshenko: “I am not an oligarch and an oligarch should never become president! For me oligarchy means that a certain pressure is being made, the political system is being used for business. I have always done the opposite. In recent years my business was at the brink because Yanukovych and Russian were fighting me for political reasons. And if you look for example at my TV channel “Channel 5” you will see many people of various political leanings working, the freedom of the press is the highest good.”

BILD: The German Finance Minister has compared Putins behavior in the Crimea crisis with Hitler. Is he right?
Poroshenko: “I avoid such comparisons, they lead nowhere. The behavior of Putin in Crimea is a clear breach of human rights and Ukraine will never accept the annexation of Crimea. We will fight for our rights with all our might, turn to the courts, and demand sharper sanctions.”

BILD: How do you want to normalize the relationship with Russia again?
Poroshenko: “Just for our own security we need a dialogue with Russia. But we will never be able to exclude the topic of Crimea from these discussions. At the same time we need new connections in the West that can guarantee our security. For a while now it has not been only about Ukraine, any country could be attacked next, even Germany. We too could never have dreamed six months ago that Russia would march into Crimea. Russia’s military aggression must be stopped. It worries me greatly that Putin has taken the majority of the population of my side with his propaganda. In reality it’s just about approval ratings, because they have been getting worse and worse recently because of Russia’s weak economic development.”

BILD: Does Ukraine want immediate entry into NATO?
Poroshenko: “No, and that isn’t up to us, but to NATO. We have the sense that the members of NATO are divided on this. We saw these problems already in 2008 when Georgia was promised membership soon and then it didn’t work out. As president however I would like new ties to our neighboring countries and to talk about additional defense possibilities.”

BILD: Do you expect a Russian invasion in Eastern Ukraine?
Poroshenko: “I don’t think that this invasion will happen immediately now, but it remains a great danger further on. Russia should know: if they attack Eastern Ukraine, then we will defend ourselves with all military means at our disposal. There is a great readiness to defend our country. Even my son has just signed up to serve and is ready to go to the border. That makes me proud and of course at the same time makes me worry.”

BILD: Does Ukraine need military support?
Poroshenko: “It’s not just about military support. There is the possibility of further sanctions and economic embargos. I would consider it correct for example if Germany would boycott Russian gas until Russia ended the invasion of Crimea.”

BILD: A boycott of Russian would hit Germany really hard.
Poroshenko: “Sometimes one must pay the price for democracy. The German army also costs Germany a lot of money, but it is necessary. A boycott of Russian gas would be a real means of sanction and would hit Russia economically where it hurts.”

BILD: If you are elected as president, which laws must be passed first?
Poroshenko: “We must save our country from economic bankruptcy in closer coordination with Europe and the IMF, which requires difficult reforms. For me it is important to pursue measures to fight corruption immediately. We want to show the people transparently that we are really changing this country.

BILD: What will you do as president with your Roshen company?

Poroshenko: “If I am elected I will make a clean sweep and sell the Roshen company. As president of Ukraine I want to concern myself only with the wellbeing of the country, and I will.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

the insistence of memory

I have two pieces for you to read today on Memorial Day. One is a superb piece of personal writing by a friend of mine about two best friends who went to Iraq for different reasons:
"Before I left for Iraq, my parents asked: “Why are you doing this?”
“I want to participate,” I said. “I don’t want to sit on the sidelines.”
I didn’t say: Because my best friend went, and he never came home. I don’t go, if I don’t at least try, this will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The other piece is about the situation in Ukraine. As a bit of context, voting was held yesterday to elect a new government to take over from the interim authorities that had governed since the departure of Viktor Yanukovych in February. This morning in Donetsk, armed men seized the international airport in what may be (hopefully) a last-ditch attempt to prevent the preservation of a united Ukraine. As I write now, my friends in Donetsk can hear thundering in the distance as the Ukrainian army tries to dislodge them with shelling.

As always, I should point out that this article doesn't reflect my own views, but I share it to allow some insight into what folks over there are talking about. The original article is located here.

War is Already Happening

The author of this piece is a soldier in the Ukrainian army who enlisted after the beginning of the events in Crimea. He asked not to reveal his name in order to be able to honestly tell about how his service looks from inside. Platfor.ma is publishing the direct speech of this volunteer.

I am a soldier. On the first of March, when our unbelievably brotherly friends got off their rear ends and took upon themselves the wellbeing and prosperity of the repressed Russian-speaking peoples, I ran to a recruiter and enlisted as a volunteer. On the 17th of March I got a call, and on the 18th I became a soldier. I was the first wave—the mobilization was being prepared. On the 15th of May we were ready and started. I myself formed a team at the staging and went with them myself and even began to serve with them myself in the Kyiv battalion.

This whole process was like going through a bureaucratic dust cloud to get to military happiness. Now I am on active duty, for which I am unspeakably happy. Everything is as usual, the battalion was formed in record time—in a week, which to me seems like a record for Ukraine currently. Now training and skill development is taking place—shooting, physical preparation, technology. In general, signal officers are deploying radio stations, medics are training to treat people, and infantry are firing grenade launchers at small hills. This all looks like the usual mess and stupidity for the higher command, which reminds of sabotage and treason so much, that conclusions are drawn.

Those serving together in the contingent are diverse. There are pot-bellied older men and skinny-legged hipsters. The backbone are those who serve in more or less normal troops and border guards. There is a catastrophic shortage of knowledgable specialists, who have been absolutely lost to the army for the last 20 years. The whole time we learn on our feet and by our own resources.

At the beginning the conditions were simply appalling. We arrived to an empty, naked barracks where sleeping was impossible: it was cold, the mattresses were crap, we were only given sheets after the first three days. We laid in our clothes and our teeth were chattering. Moreover, we had to equip ourselves by our own efforts. At first I saw the captains and majors dragging beds and furniture. Now it’s not bad. We were brought mattresses, sheets and pillows from the Yaroslav company that are very high quality. We have food, a canteen and can live. The worst problem is the shower. There just isn’t one. But the folks here understand the mess everything is in, and don’t complain.

The schedule goes: get up, exercise, breakfast and then training: either theory in the barracks (the officer sits with soldiers around him and tells them useful things) or practical training in the field. The theoretical training resembles a huge workshop—imagine an exposition where every display has a different lecture. I personally like this very much. Then lunch, more training, dinner, personal time and lights out. There’s no pressure for those who are tired.

An army base is an army base. We make everything from what there is. Just recently we were promised a bunch of ammunition, but it hasn’t come. But in comparison to conscripts we are just the dogs of war. For half a day the base learned to sleep during cannon fire, because the noise there is like being on the front.

Since the battalion is made up of 75% volunteers, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone. The roots of any “yeah well I have a wife at home and kids” are cruelly pulled out. 12 people were sent home, some for health, some for family reasons, or just because they were simply turned out to be morons and grumblers. The slipshod work of recruiters is evident here—they’d rather close the inquiry and report about their accomplishments, and you can do what you want with these vacuum cleaner salesmen. One of these cretins can do a lot of harm, so that’s why they got rid of them.

I myself can’t explain why I’m here. The issue is that all the words that are used for this are not very fashionable right now.

This is what I think about the events in the southeast [of Ukraine—that is the Donetsk-Lugansk regions]. There is a whole layer of politicians who fed people fairy tales for ten years about Banderites [a term used to refer to Western Ukrainian far-right nationalist movements] and robbed them. Then they got afraid about losing their wallets and decided to sell the peace of the region to a new authority for a guarantee of personal safety. For this they used the usual contingent of idiots, petty criminals and lumpen proletariat and, naturally, the support of Uncle Vova (i.e. Vladimir Putin). But the situation got out of control and now we have a criminal uprising of degenerates, mixed together with hysterical grandmothers and moronic street toughs. And the special forces of our enemy neighbor, which is neatly and humanely avenging the orderly factor on its side. This is the social bottom, dirt under its fingernails of the Ukrainian nation. Give every one of them a thousand euros and they will go to sleep with a portrait of the long-suffering Bandera under their pillow.

I’m 90% sure that we’ll soon be sent there. And I’m 50% sure that full-fledged war will start with Russia. May God do his duty and keep us whole. In any case it has turned out to be dramatic. It’s hard to talk about such things in any other way.

On the whole, the army has screwed everything up and what they haven’t screwed up they’ve rendered worthless. There’s only one thing left, and that’s morale, espirit de corps and belief in oneself. Every post from successful bloggers sitting in comfortable chairs is about how we need to understand the enemy and in general “we’reforpeace.” But this is a blow to the heart of Ukrainian soldiers who are lying right now in sweltering barracks listening to their neighbor’s snore. Attitude is very important. Screw this or that pacifist attitude or screw abstruse distraction. Ever since I joined the army, everything has become very simple: this is mine, this is someone else’s. Kill. It is a magical feeling especially after intellectual reflection during the Maidan [uprising in Kyiv from December 2013-February 2014] when I tried to understand this and that. 

And nobody will be able to sit out modern doctrines of “internal war.” That is not in the cards. When those clean-shaven guys whom you called “cattle” (and you did, don’t deny it) will hit you with a metal rod for a can of meat, you’ll give everything in the world to go back and have a chance destroy a dozen, but save a million. 


But it will be too late.

Friday, May 9, 2014

the bad times are killing me

I've had to stop blogging for the last few months as my former home has descended into chaos. But today is a day that personally feels like it deserves some commemoration. May 9th in Ukraine is Victory Day, a holiday to celebrate the end of the war with Germany. One year ago today, I was in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, watching a parade of Ukrainian and Russian veterans carrying their countries' flags side by side as the crowd shouted "thank you!" to an older generation of soldiers who'd served to defend their country.

Now there are soldiers in Crimea again, and elsewhere in Ukraine, but they aren't old men. And they're not defending anyone. They're the green men everyone has been talking about: Russian soldiers whose primary goal seems to be creating chaos in retribution for Ukraine's attempts to escape Russian hegemony. Watching all this happen from afar has been too troubling for words. Slavyansk, the town that has become the epicenter of conflict in southeastern Ukraine, is only a bus ride away from Makeevka. My ex-girlfriend worked in the administration building that was occupied by pro-Russians there. At this point, even from a distance, I feel the way my Ukrainian friends describe their own state when I talk to them on Skype: "tired." Tired of worrying about what will happen tomorrow, tired of the threat of severe economic crisis that already has wrecked people's savings through currency devaluation. Tired of crazy rumors (the latest being that someone has been going door to door in Makeevka asking for Ukrainian passports and tearing them up). Everyone seems ready to give up.

To top it all off, the Big Cheese himself decided to pay a visit to Sevastopol today for a victory lap. But while Putin enjoys his new conquest, I'm left feeling hollow. The places I'd hoped to return to this year for a visit: Crimea, Makeevka, Donetsk, all have been transformed beyond recognition. There is no victory here, just a profound sense of loss.