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Changing the Country, We Apologize for the Inconvenience: A Ukraine Tour Diary, Part One

Franz Nicolay tours the Ukraine with a banjo, his wife, and one-year-old daughter.


Artwork by Mitch Clem and Nation of Amanda

This is the first installment of a three-part series by Franz Nicolay recounting his experiences touring Ukraine earlier this year in the midst of its ongoing political upheaval. Part two is available here and part three is here. Some names have been changed.

Kyiv in July was, on the face of it, a city going about its summer business, if somewhat depopulated by vacationers gone to country dachas or the beaches of Odessa. A young brass band by the Golden Gate played Herb Alpert-style arrangements of Abba, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Guantanamera,” and other international classics. If I didn’t hear “Hotel California” or the Godfather theme, I’m sure I just missed that part of their set. The coffee trucks set up alongside the park for the working-class men in anonymous-brand polo shirts or short-sleeved button-downs tucked into tight jeans. (This class of Ukrainian men also has a predilection for a kind of armpit-purse.)

It was a city going about its summer business, but with a creepy sore at its heart: The Maidan Nezhalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square, and the surrounding streets remained blocked off by a dirty tent city, makeshift memorials to the “Heavenly Hundred” shot by government snipers at the height of the protests that winter, and the rotting remains of the barricades. What began, just a year before, as an Occupy-style student protest against the scrapping of a vague agreement of “cooperation” with the European Union, had curdled into a quasi-military camp for lean, dirty men in camouflage pants, sketchy and borderline homeless. (And a man in a Darth Vader costume, possibly the same one who had attempted to run for the presidency.) Bums and drunks were part of the Maidan from the beginning, one member of “Maidan Self-Defense” told me, riff-raff brought in by the government to discredit the protests. But those protestors who had homes and jobs to return to had done so; the rump stayed, with nowhere—or nowhere better—to go, living a paramilitary fantasy surrounded by the relics of the winter’s heroics, neat piles of cobblestones and tires, pop-up cafes for beer, and souvenir stands hawking anti-Putin propaganda: the Russian leader with a Hitler moustache (“Putler”), or doormats and toilet paper printed with his face or that of ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich.

“EuroMaidan turns into a shady place,” said a headline in the English-language Kyiv Post, the site of “robberies, assaults, and beatings” as the remaining occupants ignored Mayor Vladimir Klitschko’s increasingly direct hints that it was time for them to leave. On our first night there, about 200 yards from where I picked up pizzas, a group of men in balaclavas and brass knuckles attacked the Maidan tents, reportedly looking for people “who didn’t look Slavic.” A gun battle ensued and they were driven off, with three reported killed, and the story disappeared from the news.

My wife Maria and I were returning to Ukraine after two years. She, an ethnomusicologist of Ukrainian descent, was to follow up on her research on two indigenous groups. I, a musician who’d thrown aside a rare sinecure for a keyboardist in an alternately mocked and respected rock band for increasingly far-flung adventures in DIY troubadourship. When you’re on the train, a friend said, and you realize it’s not going where you wanted to go, you have no choice but to jump off: you’ll get bumped and bruised, and you don’t know where you’ll stop rolling, but the train’s not swerving from its track. I was here in Ukraine to see the kind of music festivals and play the kind of DIY shows that would be familiar to anyone with a full Fest punchcard or years logged on the German squat circuit.

Punk in Ukraine, like almost everywhere, is a bourgeois phenomenon (a base-level security is a prerequisite for rebellion based on ideals) staffed by students or young people with mid-level advertising or programming jobs, with decent English, internet access, and a powerful if unfocused belief in received DIY ideals and the privileges of a western, liberal society. But those sorts of assumptions have a kind of power too, in that they breed a powerful resentment when unfulfilled. And punk and DIY on the American model constitutes training wheels for the kind of self-organizing civil society pundits long for in developing countries, taking the unused semi-public space the former Communist world is full of and commandeering it for the common good—or at least enjoyment. Or if not enjoyment, at least the feeling of doing something in common, with the idea that it might push the ball an inch toward a better society.

We’d last toured Ukraine in 2012 on our way to Siberia, but that was when shows in places like Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk registered vaguely as post-Soviet backwaters if they registered at all. We were returning to a Ukraine at war, a strange new kind of war of unmarked soldiers and undeclared objectives. In the months before, Ukraine had seen a toothless student protest and a ham-handed government crackdown spiral into its second popular revolution in ten years. The euphoria quickly curdled as a stung Vladimir Putin launched a sub rosa invasion, against which the new government and the remains of the popular movement found themselves confused and impotent. It was the dumbest and most pointless war in recent memory, one which it sometimes seemed Russia only started out of embarrassment after their man in Kyiv was run out of town with a dog, a cat, his mistress, and a parrot.

We had already postponed the trip once, calculating that after the Ukrainian presidential election in late May, we would have a better sense of whether the tensions with Russia would escalate. “Are you sure you want to go to Ukraine right now?” said anxious, not to say disapproving, friends and family. “And with a one-year-old?”

“We’re not going any farther east than Kyiv,” I would say. “At most, it’ll be like being in New York if there was a war on in Cleveland.”

After an overnight train west, I left Maria and our young daughter in the provincial city of Ivano-Frankivsk, in the hands of the mayor’s wife, who was busy organizing fundraising efforts for the army (“The boys need socks and thermal underwear”). The Ukrainian army was depleted from its Soviet-era heights by corruption and inattention to as few, by some reports, as 6,000 battle-ready troops. They raised the age for mobilization to 60 and were now running a kind of Kickstarter war. Individual cities, mostly in the west, were sending local militias, outfitted by private donations, to the front. Handfuls of men, fired with patriotism, piled into old Ladas with some food and a few shotguns, and headed east. Refugees from the besieged eastern cities, sheltered in hotels in the safely nationalist west, were coming under increasing criticism if the able-bodied men in their ranks, having secured their families for the time being, didn’t turn back and return to the front.

The country had just held its first post-revolutionary presidential election, which, unusually, had been a triumph of pragmatism over idealism. The 2004 Orange Revolution brought to power a charismatic, populist savior-candidate, who failed; in 2014, they elected billionaire Petro Poroshenko—their Mitt Romney, basically, with all the enthusiasm Americans mustered for the original article: “He’s probably not a crook, and the alternatives are the laughable or the implausible.” As one woman told me, “We need a manager, not a revolutionary.”

I drove west to Kalush. “We call that road the chessboard,” a local friend had said, “all patches of black and white [i.e., potholed and patched].” It was no small improvement on the mountain roads, though. In 45 minutes, I pulled up at a freestanding Irish pub incongruously plopped in the middle of a cluster of bedroom-community apartment towers.

“I am Alex,” said the schlubby, jovial proprietor wearing a T-shirt that read “Music Is My Religion.” “This is Alexander Pub.” The interior was hung with all manner of Irish knick-knacks and “Proud To Be A Celt” football scarves. Alex had a clover tattoo. “I like Irish music, Irish football, Irish beer, Irish everything!”

He introduced me to his small crew of friends. Mark, from Odessa, had a trendy but short haircut, a red-checked button-down, and black-rimmed glasses: a preppy hipster, or a hip preppy. His greatest ambition, it turned out, was to live out a Carlos Castaneda fantasy and do peyote with a cult in Mexico. (A chatty hippie girl with a nine-month-old baby in tow overheard me tell Mark that I didn’t think you could just go to Mexico and get peyote these days. “Sure you can!” she chimed in, and gave him the details.) Mark loved Kalush, he said, though he couldn’t explain why. And, he said, it is an eco-disaster waiting to happen: a deep mining pit filled with chemical waste from a fabrication plant is just waiting to overflow.

I’d only brought my banjo this tour. You can find an acoustic guitar anywhere, I figured; and if they can scrounge up an accordion too, so much the better. Alex could. Not only that, he’d cooked a surprisingly credible falafel dinner. While eating dinner, I scrolled through Twitter and began to see unsettling reports that a civilian airliner had been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Early indications said that the Malaysian Airlines flight had been destroyed by the Russian-backed rebels. I excused myself to the patio and called Maria. “Did you hear what happened?”

She hadn’t. She was scared. “Should we drive to the Polish border?”

“Let’s give it a few days, see how it shakes out.”

It seemed like a game-changer: Hundreds of dead Europeans would surely be the spark that broadened this bloody but still regional conflict. I returned to the bar and sat down next to Alex. “Did you hear what happened?” I asked. He hadn’t, and he made a scornful noise.

“Donetsk and Luhansk, let them go,” he said. “They are not Ukrainian. They think they are Russian, but if they join the Russian Federation, the Russians will call them Ukrainians. They are stupid and aggressive [there]: drink, drank, drunk! In Soviet Union they had factory jobs, but in independent Ukraine, the factory closed down. It is all criminal gangs.”

Surely, I asked him, there are Ukrainian loyalists in the eastern regions?

“It is too bad,” he agreed. “Maybe some percent of people there want to be in Ukraine, but their family is there [in the east]… Like the [Crimean] Tatars. But they have Turkey looking out for them, they will be OK.”

Did you vote in the election?

“No. I have a friend who just came back from Slovyansk. He was in the army. He said it’s all just a political game.”

He dismissed my concerns about the plane and changed the subject. “You know Dima Poole?” he asked, indicating a poster for the show. Dima, from the border town of Chernivtsi, was the opening act. “Everyone thinks he looks just like you. We made up a myth that you were brothers; that you fell in love with a girl but she chose Dima, and so you went to America.”

When Dima arrived, I saw what they meant—he did resemble a version of me from a few years earlier. He wore a handlebar moustache and a bowler hat, and he sported a tattoo of a skeleton playing a banjo. He was dark with light blue eyes, and he wore a shirt tied around his neck like a golf pro. He sang the kind of romanticized Americana that is increasingly popular in Eastern Europe: a bandolier of harmonicas, a stomp box, a version of “Down By The Riverside.”


Dima Poole

“[I] love gypsy music,” he said, singing mock-theatrically. “In every song, a gypsy horse thief is falling in love with the daughter of the”—we debate the translation—”mob enforcer.” Earlier in the year, he had done a 40-day tour in Moldova and Belorussia. The former is harder, he said: The number of permissions required to hold or advertise a show is prohibitive.

Unusually, Dima mixed the unionist/progressive leftism common to most folk-punk Woody Guthrie fetishists with a radical militancy. “I played in Kyiv, at the Maidan,” he says. “It was an honor… [Maidan] was worth it not so much for the results but because it turned a tumbler in the minds of Ukrainians.” He mimed a key turning beside his temple. “That we have to work together. [Like] the people from the medical school coming out under fire at help the injured. Like the American Communists, like Upton Sinclair; there is a history in America of organizing and popular uprising that we don’t have.”

I commented on the irony, in a former Communist state, of looking to American communism—which had, after all, been even less successful in practical terms than the Soviets—as a future for Ukraine. He made a gesture of acknowledgment. But pacifist, Occupy-style activism was too weak to force change, he said.

“People learned that the government only respects force. The first people in Maidan, they were doing art actions, flash mobs—the government came and beat them up. But the next time the government came, they were burning cars and setting fires, and the government said, ‘OK, we will negotiate!’”

“I voted for Yarosh,” he said—Yarosh, the leader of the Pravy [Right] Sektor, the militant nationalist faction. “Yarosh, in the election, they gave him money, he did other things like a regular politician, but…” He shrugged. “I think it will be better, whether you have strong arms from Europe saying ‘You have to do it this way,’ or strong arms from the government… I think there will be a second revolution, and it will be tougher, like Germany in the 30s. You have these men coming back from the Russian war in the east, with guns, knowing how to kill people, saying to the government, ‘What are you doing?’ And there will be a leader, an Adolf Hitler type. Because the police are demoralized: one day [they] are fighting for the government, for the laws, and the next, you don’t know. It will be a long process and a long struggle.”

It was a frightening but all-too-plausible scenario, coming from a member of the young cultural alternative. The seductive power of revolution porn—the barricades, the Molotov cocktails, the “All Cops Are Bastards” rhetoric—is easily co-opted by the rhetoric of militant populism, looking for a muscular defense against a powerful, aggressive, and unpredictable neighbor. The line between honorable, defensive patriotism and explosive, aggressive nationalism is blurry and not always apparent until it’s already been crossed.

Dima wrote a song about the separatists, he told me, specifically the Russian and Daghestani mercenaries crossing the border “killing Ukrainian people and making money.” Later, he sent me the recording, a duet with an accordionist from Kalush credited to “Dima Poole & Zydeco Fam.” It’s “the first Ukrainian zydeco,” they declare at the top of the track (despite the accordion, the music has nothing to do with zydeco).

від і до (“Back And Forth”)

якби хто запитав, що дорожче йому безтурботне життя чи валюта?

жив у горах собі, вівці пас на коні, піл віно, єл шашлик

тепер тута у камазі лежить

ну а міг собі жить кілька діб—путь туда і обратно від і до—

це коли мертвих сєпарів у той самий камаз влазить більше, ніж живих

If you were to ask him: what is more important, a carefree life or cash?

He lived in the mountains, herded his sheep on a horse,

drank wine, ate shashlik

Now he’s here lying in a Kamaz car

He could have lived a few days—at least to there and back and forth—

This when that same Kamaz car can carry more dead separatists than those who are alive.

“There was one battle,” he wrote me, “when our army destroys a big group of separatists. They were riding Kamazes [‘the most popular car of separatists in beginning of conflict’]. Just [a] few days before, they [were boasting], posting photos of how they are riding [in] Kamaz[es] with guns in their hand[s]. And then there was photos of the same cars, but full with the bodies of separatists.”

The club’s cleaning lady, Pany Lesia, left a vase of fresh flowers at the front of the stage for my set: a blue vase, of course, with yellow blooms—the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Alex and his friends were ready to get rowdy, and I ended my set a capella, atop the bar, clutching my banjo.

“Your folk singers,” the bartender told Alex, shaking his head. “They always want to get up on the bar.”

But the locals weren’t ready to let the show end. Dima grabbed his guitar, and I grabbed my accordion, and we sat at the bar for another hour hootenanny-style. They wanted to hear the iconic Johnny Cash bad-boy hits: “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues”—a vicarious, non-implicated thrill, like white Americans who love gangsta rap or narcocorridos. The hippie girl’s baby was asleep on a bar table, sprawled on his back in pajamas printed with little monkeys. The war in the country’s east had suddenly escalated, but there was samohon–local moonshine­—to drink and rebel songs to cheer, and what had the east to do with them? I understood: scary events in real time take time to process. On 9/11, I was on tour in Germany, and tried to play the sympathy card to hit on a girl (and the next day had to explain Communism to our guitarist). Stuff happens, but you can’t let a big thing like history ruin your day.

For daily coverage of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, head over to VICE News.

Franz Nicolay is a musician from New York. His new album, To Us, The Beautiful! will be out in January. He is working on a book about punk and DIY in the former Communist world. - @franznicolay