The Russians Are Coming

‘Like everyone else in Kiev my friend has been having nightmares’

Dispatches Eastern Europe
The remains of revolution: Stalinist edifices and barricades as high as sand dunes in Maidan

Kiev was always the city of very cheap prostitutes. But it was never the city of nightmares. Kiev was always the city of dreary bars. Never the city of war.

Like everyone else in Kiev my friend has been having nightmares. This one happened more than once. My friend wakes up. Rubs his crusty eyes: and there they are. They are in the corridors. They are on the sofas. They are in the rackety lift shaft.

My friend trembles, panics. Russians are here. Russians in balaclavas. The Russians have taken over the apartment block. My friend tries to run, to get out, to get to the underground. But Russians can run faster.

The revolution was over. But the war had not yet begun. When I arrived, the airport was ticking over normally. The waitresses were taking orders normally. The roads were clogged normally with second-hand German cars. Until Independence Square — Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

I blinked at Maidan. This was where it happened: the remains of the revolution that overthrew Viktor Yanukoych three weeks earlier. Between the baroque Stalinist edifices were the barricades: rubble, earth and singed tires, planks and smashed glass, netting of copper wire — as high as sand dunes.

Pale sun shone. It was not quite spring. Maidan was peaceful. Maidan was a family day out. Mothers held the hands of little boys. Father stopped for photos with happy daughters. Militia, unshaven, held court in tarpaulin tents with their “exhibits” hammered to wooden planks: bullets, shrapnel, shields and helmets of the riot police who had tried to kill them.

The revolution was over. But the militia were still there. Military tents and makeshift tarpaulins squatted the avenue and covered the square. Maidan, a pretty Facebook activist told me, had changed. Maidan kept changing, beginning with the internet-savvy and ending with the unemployed who still camped waiting for the war.

These were the “self-defence” forces of the revolution: construction workers and teenagers unable to leave Maidan. Aimlessly they warmed chapped hands with crackling oil-drum fires. Afternoon after afternoon, they wandered through the tarpaulin encampment — stuck.

The Facebook activists were exuberant: online government, radical transparency, post-party politics, civil society and social connectivity. They were also in denial. The EU flags were no longer Maidan’s majority. The red-black flag was: the flag of Western Ukraine’s forest partisans who,  led by Nazi collaborators, fought the USSR into the 1950s.

The Twitter-active were in denial. They ignored the militia recruiters on soapboxes and food crates signing boys up for the cause. These were the ones I wanted to talk to: the revolutionary heroes. People were posing for selfies nearby. But I had crossed an invisible line, too close to the loitering thugs.

“Fuck you, you fucking paedophile.” His breath stank: it was vodka. This was a militiaman, his eyes behind yellow shades. “You fucking European paedophile gay rapist.” Drunken anger brought its head close to mine, hinting at a headbutt: “This is gonna be fucking World War Three . . .”

Night fell over Maidan. The barricades smelt beautiful: they were lined with blankets of flowers to the revolutionary dead. Maidan was one enormous cemetery. Blankets of flowers were lined by hundreds of candles in yoghurt-sized coloured glass pots: massacred souls turned into 30-metre-long rows of orange, blue, green, yellow, purple light. Men knelt to sob at photographs. Mothers left icons for their sons, with the wood-sprite face of the Slavic Christ. Piles of wilting roses were pinned with plastic dividers holding watermarked poems from little sisters. Dead faces — with the forced smiles of school portraits and Facebook pages — were pinned to lamp-posts and trees sliced through with bullet marks.

The revolution: fascism, Nazism, Jew-baiters. Russia TV pumped out this account hourly. Among the flowers I wandered with a voice of Maidan — the charismatic TV host and activist Nataliya Gumenyuk. Pretty and slight, she was braver than Maidan’s camouflaged six o’clock shadows. Because the ancien régime loved to abduct powerful journalists, to slice bits off their ears.

“Aren’t you frightened of these militias — these unemployed men from the countryside and teenage losers camped out here with guns?” Barricades of flowers and rubble lined an avenue where 30 or more protesters were shot by the Berkut riot police.

My friend winced. “Don’t you get it? The people terrorising Kiev were not on the square but in power. They sent paid thugs to beat up, to chase out even random people who came to the square. They were the ones who sent death squads and then sent out the kidnappers. Fascism? This was everything — a messy everything — lefties, rightists and my liberal friends.”

Maidan had few people like Nataliya left on it. But they had begun the revolution: internet activists, anti-corruption campaigners, foreign MAs, now running revolutionary supply lines — but it was not them who tipped Maidan over the edge. The state had barred its teeth; the militia fought back. They were the ones who ran Russia’s criminal puppets out of Kiev.

Nataliya and the democrats were uncomfortable. Yes, Maidan had been everyone. Yes, the revolution was not what Moscow called it: “a Nazi-Fascist coup”. But when the Berkut fired and the rock concert turned into urban war, it was the Right who fought the hardest. This left the liberals uncomfortable. Grateful and awkwardly deferential.

Nataliya took me to the activist media hub: the top of a hulking tower block filled with excited reporters — exulting in revolutionary access — staffing online TV stations and campaigning newspapers. Maidan, or what I had seen there, felt distant.

Morning was hopeful. But evening grew dark. I sat down to talk with the liberal icon Mustafa Nayem. “Fascist” is a word even Russian propaganda struggled to pin to him. Because Mustafa was born in Kabul, the son of Afghan refugees, and is now a Ukrainian media star.

Nayem was distracted. Bad news was rolling in. He kept repeating how unreal, how surreal, were both the revolution and these new rumours of war. Nayem was the man whose Facebook call to protest went  viral. “I hardly expected anyone to come. But thousands came. I had no plan. Nobody had a plan.”

This was how Maidan began — the angry English-speakers of Kiev. This crowd was lamenting Yanukovych’s decision to break off signing a crucial trade accord with the European Union. The crowds camping out in the rain were lamenting a turn backwards to Russia — which wanted Ukraine incorporated into its own customs union.

Nayem stressed: “There was more than one Maidan. Repression was a radicaliser.”  The violence called people to the square. First came the thinking elite: men from the IT departments. Then came more: factory workers. Then came everyone: peasants from the West. Yanukovych turned to Putin. The stakes were now clear. Maidan had become a street battle for Ukrainian independence.

February was the cruellest month. Repression radicalised Maidan into a militia. Live rounds began. Negotiations broke down. Rightists from the square jeered politicians. Berkut fired on the crowds and tried to drive them from the square. Nayem was no longer leading events. The Pravy Sektor — the Right Sector — a radical and mysterious right-wing militia, led the final charge.

Yanukovych fled. There were days of joy. Mothers, fathers, children, militiamen wandered through his palace at Mezhyhirya. They used his toilet, sat at his desk. Ukraine was free to choose: the European Union and its lifestyle.

Putin struck back. It was more Blink-krieg than Blitzkrieg. Russian forces occupied Crimea. Putin was back in the game. Russian propaganda was becoming true. The Kiev militia were growing — and the fringe Right Sector, though out of power, at less than 5 per cent in private polls — felt in charge in the tents of Maidan.

Nayem was out of sorts that night. The entire office was out of sorts. It was sinking in that Russia forces had not only occupied Crimea, they were planning to annex it. There was a shudder: that meant war.

Nayem threw his hands into the air: “Just look how they are fucking you . . . The UK and the USA guaranteed our territorial integrity . . .  and if they do nothing. China will be next. But this is the middle of Europe and . . . and they are silent.”

Nayem had a pained voice: the pain of a man who knew Russian propaganda could come true. He knew the mysterious Right Sector was growing in strength. He knew Russian invasion meant the promise — of a free, online, EU-standard Ukraine — would turn to shit.

The office watched Russian propaganda. Newscasts were obsessed with the Right Sector and its stubble-faced commander Dmytro Yarosh. Russian TV made the Right Sector the revolution. Anchors calmly explained Yarosh was nothing less than a new Ukrainian Hitler.

Russian TV broadcast fantasies: more than a million were fleeing Right Sector terror into Ukraine. Hysterical fantasies: the Right Sector had shuttered more than a third of the shops in Kiev. According to Russia, the Right Sector was in charge of the security service, while its hoodlums robbed in the streets. And above all, they wanted Jewish blood.

It was almost as if Russia wanted the Right Sector. Why had they appeared from nowhere at the end of the revolution? Why at the revolution’s crescendo had Yarosh met Yanukovych? Where had the money come from to rent the four-star Hotel Dnypro as its HQ?

Nayem was frightened. Russia might invade Ukraine, handing the far-Right the revolution. Nayem was an optimist: just give Ukraine stability and it could become a big, chaotic, metaphysical Poland. But Russia was reinforcing Crimea. Twitter flickered with war rumours.

Nayem had started to panic. Yarosh was not Hitler. But it was not all a lie: “If the EU does nothing, then there will be war. What if the Russians invade? If the West does not support us, then Yarosh will become a fairy-tale leader to the people. This man wants to build a military country out of the east and out of the west.

“What will happen if the Russians come and we are alone? We will be alone. And what can we do then? Nothing but terrorism, shootings and partisan war. And then the people will listen to Yarosh. And we will be the next Afghanistan . . . the next Chechnya. And in that case . . . I hate the West.”

The Ukrainians who knew if Maidan was a Nazi revolution were, of course, the Jews. That is why I knocked on the door of one of the most famous painters in Kiev — Alexander Roytburd.

He loved painting breasts. Roytburd spoke with his hands, with his cheeks, with his eyes — as if an undercurrent of Yiddish sign language was necessary for his words to be understood.

Roytburd made tea and became exasperated. This was not an anti-Semitic revolution. This was the Jews’ revolution. The artists, the writers, the dentists had wanted Yanukovych out most of all.

Roytburd was categorical. He was not frightened of the revolution. The Right Sector had never made hate statements fixing on the Jews. They had made this clear at a meeting with the Israeli ambassador. The Svoboda party was populist; its sadistic anti-Semitic days behind it.

Roytburd moved around his New Yorkstyle apartment of exposed brickwork and objets d’art to show me a painting of some lovely breasts. The militia? He was not afraid of them. No! His Israeli dual-national chum Nathan Chazan was running one. True, there had been two attacks on Hasidic Jews. But that was true of any six-month period in London or Paris.

He shuffled back the canvas of breasts. “You know what? The only thing I am afraid of is Russian occupation. You never know what is in the mind of a sick person. That is not my judgment on Putin — that is Merkel’s judgment. He’s living in his own hallucinations. Somewhere in the 19th century.”

He poured some tea. “You know, anything is possible. I couldn’t imagine the revolution. Then I couldn’t imagine the invasion of Crimea. And if invasion happens . . . I’m not a hero. I’m a Jew. I will go to Israel . . . or America.”

There was a reason Jews were being evasive. Terrified of being branded Russian agents, they had little choice but to deny any fear they felt. The level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine was so high normally — a general revulsion towards Hasidic Jews-that as long as the pogroms did not return they were keen to keep as quiet as they could.

That night Maidan looked like a barbarian encampment. And smelt like one. The thud of wood-chopping echoed through the tents. The air smelt of fire smoke. Electric hisses came from the protesters’ stage. Liturgy echoed from a priest chanting to four drunks on the empty square.

These militia were mostly rural people, village people, from Western Ukraine. They had taken the night train to the revolution. But not all of them. Round a crackling oil-drum I shared a tea with Sergey, decked in hiking gear. He worked in IT, had a friendly face, and guarded Maidan nightly.

“How can you be here, with these people Russia calls fascists?”

His accent was the one I was used to: clipped Muscovite Russian. “Don’t believe the lies. I’m not the only Russian citizen here. I’m a Russian citizen who married in Kiev and lives in Kiev and wants a better Kiev. Maidan was not about blood. It was about getting rid of thieves.”

That night a rabbi was stabbed. The candles were out, the flowers were dead. Through the orange street light, the half-lit male faces, the psychologists of Maidan waded through the tents. The madness workers are here. There are more than 400 working here: psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, even spiritualists.

The occupied McDonald’s was their headquarters. Pinned to heavy glass doors the very big letters: “PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP.”

Morning was tenser. Ukraine was coming under sustained psychological warfare. Russian troops were surrounding Ukrainian bases in Crimea. The tense standoff flicked the city mood up and down. Bandits had robbed a Kiev bank. Militia-boys muttered about Russian scumbag provocateurs.

I pushed open the McDonald’s door. The kitchens were sealed off and spewed over easy-wipe tables and their uncomfortably designed seats was the chaos of a makeshift clinic. Printers, papers, documents. Tired-eyed men holding the hands of clear-eyed specialists. They were Freudians, Lacanians, New Agers, everything. Here men in uniform with dangling plastic rosaries sought help.

That is where I met a night-worker of Maidan, a holotropic rebirthing specialist, Nataliya Stepuk. Somewhere in her forties, she had very pale eyes and a manner that sometimes calmed me, sometimes unnerved me. She had been on Maidan since the start, through the carnival and the clashes.

Nataliya told me psychologists’ stories. There was the boy who had fought with his father on Maidan. The bullet that killed his father had sliced his leg. He could not sleep. He could not sleep without seeing his father and the charging Berkut and the smoke and the screams. He came to Nataliya and that night he clutched her in trembling holotropic ecstasy. And now he was better.

Nataliya told me about the gruff mercenary who by grease-crusted cooking pots in his military tent opened up to the psychologists. The man, who had fought in both Chechnya and Bosnia, began to discuss his own trauma, then his inner stress.

The 400 psychologists worked in shifts. They worked for free — some manning the McDonald’s help point, others wading through the tents. They treated about 80 people a day, mostly Ukrainian widows and dazed Maidan men. They were working through the hospitals, with about 200 bandaged, strapped-up patients.

Nataliya took my pen and began drawing circles of trauma in my notebook. The first circle, Maidan. The second circle, families of Maidan. The third circle, those watching Maidan. The fourth circle, those who had only heard of Maidan. These were the nightmares: “Those in the first and second circle see the Berkut charging them with their metal shields. Their nights are full of sounds. Explosions. The faces of the dead. The fires.”

Kiev is a city in post-traumatic stress. At first the schoolboy in me couldn’t understand this. I learnt the map of Ukraine as the map of the German advance for my GCSEs. I learnt the names of Ukraine’s regions by memorising details of Soviet atrocities for my degree. Ukraine I thought of as “bloodlands”.

The schoolboy in me, of course, had completely missed the point. Ukraine has not known mass violence for close to three generations. Every time politics came to the street the nation exulted. Independence was a time of passionate kisses and cheers for the blue and yellow flag. The last revolution in 2004 was more rock concert than rebellion: peaceful, dramatic people power.

Ukrainians thought slaughter in their city as impossible as we do: it could not happen. It was like a film. This is what people always say about unthinkable events. But it was sounds and smells that had really scared them. That stuck in the head.

That night, Nataliya had eight people in her apartment, a Maidan squat. They started to unfurl the thin mattresses she handed them onto the parquet floor. “We are all the first and the second circles of trauma.” The lights went off: the Maidan fighters, paramedics, night doctors, daughters, supporters, friends began to breathe.

Nataliya could hardly be seen. Her orange-rimmed form glided round the room. Tinny Indian music began tinkling away. “Breath, slowly: and if you start to sob, sob, and if you need to scream, scream.” We breathed for an hour. And inside me, picture-thoughts began to swirl. Russian tanks. Right Sector. Black Hundreds.

“Breath fast now, deeply, deeply.” I heard it in others before it began in myself. The oxygen-overdose. The hyper-ventilating. The sobbing. The moaning. The writhing. The moans of the Maidan. Nataliya and the Maidan psychologists touched us. Their shapes I could barely see; placing their hands on hearts, soothing, helping the paramedics to scream.

Collapsed, exhausted — the Maidan psychologist pulled the sheets over us, covering us up to the neck. Pixels, lights, picture-thoughts danced through me. Then dimmed. Time passed. I heard sobbing. Then slept.

Lights were switched on. Nataliya was speaking: “I hope we are better now. If you feel heat burn. If you feel pain in your heart, it is not your heart, it is the war. It is the situation in Crimea. You are not having a heart attack. This is not heart disease. This is the fear of war.

“We met some men from Crimea on the Maidan. The men told us to leave it, leave us to our fight. Let us sort this out. Don’t come. That is the way we all die. That is the way there will be blood everywhere — in the streets, the forests, in the cars, in the prisons, in the baths — so don’t go. If you have a heart flutter, you are not having a heart attack. This is the fear of war. Take valerian. And drink some hot milk with honey.”

That night Russian paratroopers landed on the borders north of Kharkov and east of Donetsk. Russian tanks rolled into position. Russian planes began avoiding Ukrainian airspace. Twitter filled up with phone shots of armour trundling through railway stations out of Karelia and Siberia. Knife-wielding mobs clashed in the east and the Russian foreign ministry announced Ukraine has lost control of the security situation.

The morning was sunny and dark as I entered the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada. Before the colonnades and the marble coated walls a table was laid out with pictures of the dead, the frames balanced by crowns of thorns. Piggy ancien régime officials from the ousted government eulogised the EU to the cameras. The eyes of teenage guards in camouflage uniforms stalked secretaries in painful stilettos.

From the gods, I felt I was watching the fall of Ruritania. In London, their fate was being debated by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. In the Rada, clownish new leaders vowed to prevent the Kremlin annexing Crimea. Boxer-turned-party-leader Vitaly Klitschko raised the Crimean flag at the podium. Hysterical motions were passed in minutes. The provisional government fluttered with nerves.

This was living through brinkmanship.This was Ukraine’s Cuban missile crisis. Deputies reeking of cologne wandered in and out of the chamber wondering if there would really be war.

Collaborators could be found here in the hallway. Yanukovych had gone but his once-loyal deputies from the Party of Regions, representing the east and south, had gone nowhere. Anatoliy Bilznyuk, a deputy and former governor of Donetsk, had the hair, and air, of the Gorbachev generation. He stuck closely to the Kremlin script: there are no Russian troops in Crimea.

He accused the authorities: “When it happens in the West it will happen in the East. This government killed people in Donetsk. The people may call for Russian protection.”

Politicians rushed out and began speaking about partisans. Bells rang. And I found myself with the soft-voiced Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, now in government.

Tyahnybok has a pub landlord’s face. Russians call him a Nazi. But he was already speaking like the leader of the underground resistance. “The EU needs to support us harder. We need much harder support. The EU and the US gave us a guarantee. Now that’s been thrown into doubt.”

The Rada whistled with rumours. Russia was ready to strike: “If Russia occupies Eastern Ukraine, it is possible that my men will go and join the partisans to fight the occupation. I don’t exclude partisan war in Crimea if Russia annexes it. We have power and army to defend ourselves but if Russia occupies our land . . .”

Cars honked outside. Dozens of militia-boys had marched up from Maidan. They were smiling. But they had shaved their heads for war. True to their Cossack blood, they had shaved their heads but for one lock running over the top. Firecrackers were thrown onto the steps of the Rada. Tires were piled there — a grunt had to be pulled off from setting them alight. Then a proclamation was read.

“We demand that the government do something! People are dying in Donetsk and Kharkiv, and they are only talking.”

Nationalist deputy Yuriy Mikhalchyshyn stood outside. Black brogues, black trousers, black shirt, enjoying the situation. He was ready to fight: if the army lines broke Mikhalchyshyn was ready to become a partisan.

He threatened in impeccable English: “Ukrainians have a long and proud tradition of partisan resistance and even though it will cost us more in the first blows I am confident we will kill many more Russians in the long run.”

There was a teenage boy sitting behind some makeshift barricades. He had shaved his head like a Cossack and, sitting on some old carpets flung over benches, was trying to fit a new sim card into his mobile to call someone — maybe his mum. He said he was ready to become a partisan.

Russian psychological warfare was torturing Kiev. The Right Sector was coming: Russian propaganda was growing louder. They were coming for the Jews. To test this theory I checked into the Right Sector’s headquarters — the Hotel Dnypro, a socialist-era edifice.

The inside reminded me of a bad movie, maybe a South American coup. What Russia called the Nazi headquarters had an Angolan doorman, Claudio Miguel, in a comic blue jacket. He was withering about the guests. “They are not fascists . . . they are peasants.”

The Hotel Dnypro was theirs. Boys in uniform wore the black-red Right Sector scarf outside. Others sat in inattentive security in the corridors. The third floor was headquarters, and where the party boss Andriy Tarasenko met me. The lights were dim. We sat on a sofa next to a slightly handicapped volunteer.

The mood was of the front line. Tarasenko bored into me with dark-brown, almond eyes. He was bald save for the sides. And he wanted to bat away talk of the Jews.

“Look . . . I met the Israeli ambassador and I told him we want absolutely normal relations with Israel. I want to trade with Israel. We have Jewish members. What I want is a national state. We want the people to choose the state. We want the people to choose the judges. We want the people to choose the sheriffs. We want people to be able to carry arms.”

Tarasenko stared past me.  “Every day we get bigger and bigger and bigger. We are watching the people mobilise. We are watching every day more and more supporters. We want to change Ukraine. We are ready to fight for Ukraine, to fight for our land.”

Was Tarasenko taking Russian orders? Ukrainian politics had disintegrated into rumours. And because this was Ukraine any of them could be true. There was no way of telling. Russian sources confided in me: their Kiev had an agreement with the Right Sector to guard the perimeter. But the fact of the matter was this: they wanted war.

The night I checked into the Hotel Dnypro was not the night to be there. Militia were glued to the lobby TV. Oligarchs were pouring millions into fuel for Ukraine’s tank fleet. The talks in London had broken down. Yarosh threatened explosions in Russia’s pipelines, pumping through Ukraine. Riots were rocking Donetsk and spreading to Kharkiv. There was talk of stabbings.

Putin was pushing Ukraine into panic. I was not immune. I felt the first creep of fear that night in the lift. The button only went green on my floor. And I was the only guest. Right Sector HQ: militiamen were panting with pushups on the level above me. There was a commotion, something was up. Downstairs an armoured black car drove away.

Twitter informed me the Right Sector had come under fire in Kharkiv. Russia’s foreign ministry announced blood might force it to root out the Right Sector in Eastern Ukraine. Miliita boys ran up and down the corridor: we could come under attack.

I began to panic too. I was in a Russian military target now. Jewish in a Russian military target, when the name of the game was framing stabbed Jews. Right Sector boys meandered through the corridor. Who the hell were these people? Kremlin plants? Crypto-fascists? Killers? There was no way to find out.

Dawn. Maidan looked nothing like it did on my first stroll. Barricades loomed large in the hard blue light. The European flags were almost gone. There were only black-red flags of the anti-Soviet partisans.

Dmitriy, a Right Sector militia boy in dreadlocks, was smoking at Maidan’s edge. He looked as if he should be in a ska band, not dirty olive fatigues. “War looks more and more likely but I’m ready.” Then I spotted them: Molotov cocktails. He smiled: “These are a precaution only.”

A priest and a nun stumbled into the eerie dawn emptiness. Russia had announced its right to intervene in Eastern Ukraine. The priest chanted wildly, the cross held before him. The nun clasped her icon — Saint George, the blood-red winged guardian — in front of her tiny red eyes.

I dithered in Maidan. Russia helicopters had made an incursion into mainland Ukraine. The provisional government was mobilising the militia into a National Guard. The Right Sector were pulling themselves together in the encampment. They snarled: “Go! Go . . . get out!”

Graffiti was scrawled on the street walls leading to other, quieter, Kiev squares. RIGHT SECTOR. National Revolution.

I became lost in the Tsarist alleys. I was followed by wild dogs. Russian tanks would rip up these cobblestones. The militia would fight house to house. Now in the hard dawn light everything is clearer than it really is.

Between the pie crust architecture I breathed in the cold morning air. We are at peace. They are not coming. I began to laugh a little: we are still at peace.

That night was the last time I walked on Maidan. Through the drizzle and the orange night glow.

Kiev shuddered. Crimea was being amputated. Russian tricolours were raised in Yalta. Hysterical crowds swallowed Sevastopol. The fake referendum was complete: Anschluss.

And on Maidan, the lights were going out. Annexation was certain now. The rain turned to flakes of snow. The flowers were dead.

Blueish faces from the provisional government shimmered across the mega-screen. But nobody was really there. Three staggering drunks, mouths open, stared at the trembling prime minister’s face.

Abroad, there was talk of resolve: but nobody said — from Washington to Berlin — they shall not pass. Kiev whimpered like a beaten child.

Maidan was almost over. The lights went out on the stage. Militiamen were packing their bags. The call-up order had gone out.

There was a little song coming from the tents. Behind the crackling oil-can a woman with braided hair sang soft lullabies to her camouflaged lover: tomorrow he left, she feared, for war.