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

The final installment of Franz Nicolay's Ukraine tour diary.


Artwork by Mitch Clem and Nation of Amanda

This is the third 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 one is available here and part two here. Some names have been changed

None of the cab drivers knew the address of the venue for my last show, on the outskirts of Kyiv—because, it turned out, it wasn’t a venue so much as a graffitied warren of self-storage units nestled in the hills. I trudged up the dirt road, past a napping stray dog, into the abandoned-looking alleys of locked gates. Up one alley, I found a band practicing; up another, an open fire and a makeshift plywood bar. In one unit, a silver BMW sat on blocks next to a trash pile that crept toward the neighboring unit like a man-made landslide. The Kyiv punk scene was beginning to gather: tattooed young men in shorts and band shirts, canvas shoes and no socks, sat on stoops and drank beer; hip young women in nice dresses sipped wine (as usual, the women were dressed way up and the men ostentatiously down). Two shirtless older men, sarcastic and amused, washed the roof of their storage unit, lugging buckets and gas cans of water up a homemade wooden ladder, pouring it, and sweeping the excess off the ledge with a straw broom. They were re-cementing the roof. Once it was clean, they started the mixer turning, poured water in its rotating mouth, and began carrying the cement up bucket by bucket, trowel by trowel. They spread the cement over the sheet metal and tarpaper roof, while the young people milled around, drinking and smoking. The lone black dog roamed and lurked ingratiatingly. On the cliff on the other side of the valley sat the concrete hulk of an administrative building; behind a latched gate, another shirtless man in navy sweatpants scythed at weeds with the dull edge of a shovel.

The center of the scene was a steamy and nondescript storage space with a PA at one end. A couple of people from last night’s show were already here, one with his young son, who rocked back and forth on a derelict office chair while one of the opening bands sets up. Dima bantered with the muscular soundman. “We were remembering the old days,” he told me, “when people would come two hours early to shows and get drunk. That was before the internet age.”

Dima put a latter-day World/Inferno record on the PA while the soundman smoked a bowl with his girlfriend, a Louise Brooks manqué with oversized, black-rimmed glasses, like a Berlin gallery intern. The “owner” of the space pulled up part of the floor, and disappeared into a crawlspace beneath it. The space had been open since February and had hosted just a few shows, including the “DIYstvo” festival, which they’d organized like a street fair: bands in one unit, bar in the next, workshops down the street. We could’ve done the show at a bar, Dima said—he’d had Eugene Hutz’s downtown Gogol BARdello in mind. “But at a club, you have to deal with the manager, they want to have a say [in] who are the opening bands… Here, maybe I pay a little more—to rent the space and the backline is maybe two-thirds of the budget—but at least I know them, and I know this is how they make their living, and my friends who don’t have any money can come. [Plus] most bars around here don’t want to book any show if you say it’s punk rock. If you say it is a garage show, they say, ‘Cool.’ Or post-rock. Or even post-punk, they are into it. Anything ‘post-’ is cool.”

So you do punk in a garage, split the difference.

“Ha ha, yeah! When I came here on the tram, I saw an ad that you can rent out a tram car for weddings or parties. I think we should do an acoustic show there.”

When the World/Inferno song finished, one of the older men fixing the roof next door asked Dima, “Who is this band? Can you write down the name for me?”

We walked to the supermarket to pick up bread, cheese, warm beer, and wine for the bands. On the way back, we ran into two women from Ai Laika, one of the opening acts: Nastia, thin, dark, in a cut-off Blink-182 shirt, wearing round black sunglasses and with a distant air; and Lyera, friendlier, in sandals and a yellow fanny pack, wearing anchor earrings. They would play first, then Phooey, whom Arseniy had recommended the night before.

“Phooey is the best Ukrainian band,” Lyera agreed.

“We are probably second-best,” her bandmate added, dryly.

“Maloi is great too.”

I played with them last time, I said.

“They are even better now.” (“All of those guys are in like six or seven other bands,” Arseniy from Zhytomyr said of Maloi. “It makes them better, I think.”)

Odessa, the girls agreed, has the best punk and hardcore scene in Ukraine. There’d just been a big festival there. “Also the kids are younger. Here we have a good scene but there are no younger bands.”

Why?

“Maybe they see they can’t make a living at it.”

Back at the venue, a folding table had appeared, strewn with a few demo cassettes, zines, and a handful of vinyl for sale: Fucked Up, Government Issue, a Hot Water Music seven-inch. I asked Dima what were appropriate prices for my merchandise.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Let me ask around. I haven’t done a show since the currency changed”—the post-crisis inflation that left the hryvnia worth around 11 to the dollar. (In general, since my records are on UK labels, I sell CDs at break-even or at a loss, since the arbitrage between buying in pounds and selling in hryvnia is not forgiving.)

I went outside to do some people-watching, and greeted Vladimir, whom I’d met at my last Kyiv show. He was earnest, with a hardcore crewcut. He’d been in a band on the American hardcore label React, as well as the World/Inferno-influenced Bad Ideas. He’d been touring in Belorussia. “I really like Minsk, it is like Kyiv but easier. I don’t like Moscow or St. Petersburg because everyone is moving really fast, and pushing.” He mimed throwing elbows.

Ai Laika began their set—upbeat, melodic pop-punk, including a cover of Ace Of Base’s “All That She Wants.” I asked Vladimir what he thought of current Ukrainian bands. He mentioned Dakh Daughters and Dakha Brakha, a pair of female-fronted acts centered around the Dakh Theatre in Kyiv, whose Dresden Dolls-esque “freak cabaret” had made them viral video sensations. Dakha Brakha “are doing really cool things. They did a soundtrack for [a classic Ukrainian silent film]. I took my dad, because he liked this film, and he said, ‘Get me all this band’s records.’“

His mother worked at the chocolate company Roshen, the centerpiece of the new president's business empire (often referred to in headline shorthand as a “chocolate king” or “the Willy Wonka of Ukraine,” Poroshenko’s portfolio includes interests manufacturing, telecom, trucking, banking, commercial real estate, insurance, TV and radio, and more). “He is not really an oligarch [in the same way as] Akhmetov, who made all his billions at once in the 90s. [Poroshenko] made it as a businessman over 20 years.” And, he thought, Poroshenko was a relatively straight dealer in a way uncommon, to say the least, at the highest levels of Ukrainian business. Most companies, he said, paid their employees a different wage in cash than on paper, a tax-avoidance scheme. Roshen, at least in his mother’s experience, paid above-board wages. “I voted for Poroshenko because I didn’t want a [runoff]. We didn’t have time as a country for more months and more tax money for more elections.”

His mother had her own political awakening recently, as well. A Russian from the Caucasus, she went to Crimea on vacation. “She saw all the houses, the architecture was Tatar, but there were no Tatars. Before that she was a Russian nationalist; then she thought, this is not right.”

Phooey set up. They were a shaggy trio with a 90s-revival sensibility. The singer wore thick glasses, a bowl haircut, and a Sonic Youth T-shirt. They sounded, indeed, like Sonic Youth, or Dinosaur Jr., or a noisier Smashing Pumpkins. I asked Vladimir about the Kyiv punk scene’s involvement in the Maidan protests, whether as occupants of the square or in the support teams, organizing food and medical supplies.

“I am glad the punks got involved,” he said. Russian propaganda was hysterically insisting that the Maidan protestors and the new Ukrainian government were perpetrators of a neo-Nazi coup, and one after another, Russian-language news sites were being taken over by the Kremlin machine. “I woke up one morning and overnight the first website I checked every day had been replaced with [stories saying] ‘Crimea has always been Russian territory.’“ It was all confusing some European punks and activists habituated to respond to calls for anti-fascist action. “Some Italian hardcore leftists wanted to do a tour of ‘Novorossiya’ [the separatist name for the southeastern regions] because they thought it was all anarchists and Communists” fomenting anti-fascist revolution. “Then they got there, and posted one photo on Facebook and nothing more, when they saw the crazy people that were there… Many of the people I work with, their parents are in the East, and I hear them on the phone: ‘We have a checkpoint 50 meters from the house. We haven’t left the apartment in two weeks.’"

Sure, he said, there are right-wing elements in Ukraine. “There are two different kinds of right-wing: imperialists and anti-imperialists. All Ukrainians are anti-imperialists. There are even Russian [anti-imperialist] nationalists who hate Putin, because all their tax money goes to [non-ethnic Russian regions like] the Caucausus.” It speaks to a dangerously vague taxonomy in both the propaganda and the reporting surrounding the conflict, which blurs the distinctions on both sides between legitimate fascists, Soviet-imperial revanchists, ethnic purists, pan-Slavic utopianists, Trypillian neo-pagan primordialists, and simple patriots, lumping them all under the multiform adjective “nationalist.”

“I don’t see why anyone would care,” said one of the guys from Maloi, an ambitious punk bro in a Hot Water Music shirt, rolled camouflage shorts, a backwards baseball cap, and the ubiquitous sockless slip-on shoes. “It’s not like the poor rising up against the rich. It’s just geopolitics.” He had other priorities. “Do you know a good [mixing engineer]? We have a new album recorded, and I want to get someone good to mix it. I was thinking to ask the guy from the Posies.”

What do you want it to sound like? I asked.

“Kind of like the Posies.”

Phooey finished their set, and I dropped my tuner and cables in front of the center mic in the middle of the floor. Their singer, Nikita, packing up his guitar, approached me—with, it soon became clear, an agenda, and a message he wanted me to receive. “Do you need help setting up?” he asked. “Sorry, maybe that sounds condescending.”

No, I said, my setup is pretty simple.

“No,” he said, “to play acoustic is simple. They asked me about putting on your show last night in Zhytomyr, but you needed too many mics. I don’t know anyone with that many mics, so I declined.”

(I use one vocal mic, and lines for one, two, or three instruments.)

“I think maybe there weren’t too many people?” he continued, with a kind of deadpan smirk.

Actually, I said, there were a couple dozen. Not bad for me.

“Uh huh, yes, shows are not as good there these days.”

Shows, if that night was indication, were quite good in Kyiv these days. After the show, Nikita had some more opinions. “It was really great the way you combined humor with sadness and anger. I usually go outside. I am like an old person. I only like my own music. Maybe that sounds egotistical.”

I had to agree, to myself. Maybe it did.

“So, you’re going to come have a drink?” Dima asked, after we’d cleaned up. Maria and Lesia were in bed, so I was.

“This is a classic old Soviet bar,” he said, after a short walk. “Just beer and dried fish.” It was a utilitarian, brightly-lit room, a cross between a bodega and sports bar, prosaically named for the neighborhood (not that you would know from any sign). The proprietor was round and balding, with spectacles low on his nose. His shirt was unbuttoned and his chest hair graying.

“No vodka, and there never will be!” advertised signs Sharpied on cardboard and posted throughout. An old propaganda poster showed a handsome, principled man rejecting a shot of vodka: “Nyet!” While it looked like the owner had furnished and decorated the bar entirely with promotional items and branded miscellany from beer companies, the handful of taps all poured local brews. TV screens on each wall played soccer highlights.

The real innovation—practically a sellout!—is that the bar has started selling chips.

“These chips, they are Soviet invention,” says one, a long-haired hesher with a flat-brimmed Chicago Bears cap. “You can set them on fire. I have the right equipment.” He demonstrated with a lighter. The paper-thin wafer, indeed, burned like a taper.

A man approached our outdoor table, recited a stanza of poetry, and got a round of applause for his troubles. Another tried to sell us an electric cigarette lighter: “It’s Russian,” he offered.

The abuse was instant, and general.

“OK, OK,” he said, backing away. “Slava Ukraina.”

****

The battle cry of the rump Maidan, and the young activists who claim that the Maidan had achieved none of its aims, is “Lustratsiya”—lustration, or the removal of anyone associated with the old regime from the new government. A spray-painted banner to that effect hung from a statue in the Maidan when I went to walk around the square one more time on our last day.

Fight corruption, I thought, but be mindful of the American experience with lustration of the Ba’athists in Iraq: it encourages petty vengeance, and creates a new class of disaffected unemployables in opposition to the new government out of a caste who tend mostly to be apolitical, ass-covering bureaucrats. The process of nation-building is no less messy and heterogeneous than nations built. The idea of a politically uniform, self-sacrificing polity of parallel ideals is the Communist one, not the liberal-capitalist-social democratic one, which requires jostling room for the pacifist left, the militarist right, the pragmatist center, and the 99 percent who just want to get on with their lives without unnecessary hassle: everyday life is hard enough. The Ukrainians now had a politically awakened populace aware of their strength. Few, if any, nations have had two successful liberal revolutions in a decade.That distinction also contains the criticism: they’re getting good at the revolutions, but not the follow-through. You don’t need another revolution if the first one worked (is Yanukovych the only leader in world history to be overthrown twice by popular revolution?). And Ukrainian history, and statuary, is on a battle footing, full of doomed or Pyrrhic characters (exemplified in the anthem’s “Ukraine is not dead yet”). Most of the Ukrainian heroes are problematic men, on horseback with a club, or up in the hills shooting all comers: valuable icons for revolution, but unhelpful in encouraging stable, relaxed democracy.

I was in the final stages of writing a book about DIY and punk in the ex-Communist world, from the Balkans to China--concentrating on this part of the world not just because DIY punk touring in the United States, Western Europe and the British Isles is, both literally and metaphorically, well-trod ground. I wanted to hone in on what I think is an interesting dual story about the past and future of underground punk and rock in formerly Communist states. On one hand, it is a backward-looking story, in which a surprising number of aging rebels, from scenes and bands that in the 1970s and 80s had defined themselves in opposition to authoritarian Communism, took in the 90s and 00s an unexpected (or not, like grouchy old American punks who discover a misanthropic taste for guns and libertarianism) turn toward reactionary nationalism.

On the other hand, you can just about see a snapshot of of a young and Internet-enabled generation with a utopian idea of American punk, DIY, progressive politics, and communitarian ethics not unlike the romantic idea of the “Imaginary West” that anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes in their parents’ Soviet generation. While having little real analogue in the actual, distracted and fickle punk scene in the United States, their idea of punk provides the moral fortitude to carve out a fragile, tenuous, but extensive and resilient autonomous zone for themselves; and to defend it against the real, physical threat from police and right-wing gangs, and the psychological battering of cynicism and disillusionment of life in what must often seem to be societies existing, in the words of Rebecca West, in “a permanent state of simultaneous anarchy and absolutism.”

In Ukraine, though, unlike the stagnant and cynical young people of, for example, Russia or Serbia, one could see an awakened and engaged group feeling their way toward a new civic sensibility. As every good politician knows, war has its drawbacks, but there’s nothing like it for uniting a country. And unlike the nouveau-bourgeois Russian protests of 2011-12, the Maidan movement engaged across class lines. Begun by the usual Occupy demographic of college students and young hipsters, it spread to include the unemployed working class as well as bringing to power the billionaire president.

This is not to say these people are central to the political reinvention of Ukraine, but, in the same way that you can extrapolate the health of a lake from a dropper of water, you can get a sense from them of the new expectations for Ukrainian society. As Vadim put it, “It’s like I’m reading a book of history, and I don’t know how it ends.” Most likely, none of the people described here will be the men and women in the headlines, but their lives, whether they want to be a part of shaping their countries or just want to drink cheap beer by the dam and listen to punk rock, will be parts of that story, and this is by way of marking their small claim.

There was a small noon rally in front of the now-empty festival stage from which, at the height of the protests, the anthem was sung hourly. A “commander” in a beret and aviators took the wireless microphone and sang, tunelessly, a patriotic song to a line of three dozen (along with a filthy, bearded monk and a handful of patriotic tourists) standing at semi-attention in mismatched motley: camouflage, Hawaiian shorts, striped tank tops. The donation boxes mostly stood empty. A bearded young man wandered over to the upright piano, painted the flag’s blue-and-yellow plus the EU circle of stars, and picked out a tune. The cobblestones, ripped from the streets and sidewalks that winter for use as projectiles, were stacked neatly, and some workers had begun to replace them. Toward the center of the square, some cobblestones had been painted—yellow and blue, of course—and set out on the ground to spell messages for some theoretical airborne viewer: “Patriotic Idea Maidan,” “Stop Propaganda: Here Is Not Fascism!” and, simply, “Ukraine…” (Ten days after we left, the square was finally cleared.)

I walked up Institutka, past the moldering barricades, stacks of rusting homemade shields, and flower-draped memorials to protesters shot by government snipers. At the top of the hill, a black-on-yellow mock street sign sat propped against a wall of tires. “Changing the country,” it read. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

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