Notes From Ukraine: A Terrible Beauty

I’ve crossed this border many times before. Always, it’s a few hours wait. Long queues of cars and lorries and busses passing in both directions, all stopped for inspection. This time, it is virtually empty. Passports checked and stamped, we are on our way. No more than a 15-minute wait.

The bus itself is nearly empty too. Who’d be heading into Ukraine at a time like this? Just the night before, the capital was on the brink of civil war. One of my few fellow passengers, a Ukrainian, leans over to me: “You know, there’s no police in L’viv. The emergency services number doesn’t even work.”

I’d read that the police had fled a few days earlier. Conflicting accounts abound. Some said they didn’t want to carry out orders from the central government to crack down on protestors. Others said they feared for their lives when their stations, along with the prosecutor’s office and the appeals court, were ransacked and set ablaze in downtown L’viv.

The reality of the situation doesn’t really hit me until a few minutes later. The bus, approaching L’viv, is pulled over at an improvised checkpoint and briefly inspected. It’s a vigilante group, or ‘Self-Defense Unit’ as the locals call them. “Any titushka? Any berkut? No? You’re free to carry on.”

* * * *

I’m not sure what to expect setting out onto the streets of L’viv this morning. Last night, Euromaidan activists promised an armed insurrection should President Yanukovych not resign by 10 am today. It’s 8 am and the president is still in power. My imagination stirs. Perhaps armed bands of militants roving the streets waiting for orders. Perhaps anarchy and chaos, fire and flames.

But there is none of that. Aside from the steady drizzle of rain, there is silence. An old man chops kindling wood outside the Euromaidan encampment. A few men watch the news on the big screen TV adjacent to the stage. A rough looking, older man in military fatigues approaches me, claiming to be a medic and asking for money to support the Maidan. I give him the few zlotys I still have in my pockets. He is more than pleased. I’m fairly certain he isn’t a medic. And I’m fairly certain the only medical supplies he’s purchasing are vodka.

Ten o’clock comes and passes, and there is not a gunshot nor a cry of ‘Slava Ukrainia!’ Then the announcements come. Yanukovych has fled, his whereabouts unknown. His mansion has been seized by protestors. Key government buildings have been taken. Ukraine is without a government.

I wait for the militants, for the anarchy and chaos. But it never comes.

Students sip coffee in cafes, old men smoke cigarettes and read newspapers on benches, McDonalds bustles as normal.

This is what anarchy looks like, I guess. This is life without law.

* * * *

The crowd at the L’viv Maidan grows as the day wears on. Gaggles of onlookers brave the rain to watch the news unfold on the big screen. An activist tears down banners with anti-government slogans and replaces them with portraits of those slain in the days prior. Where is the jubilation? The celebration? Yanukovych is gone and you’re free! No?

Sure, the citywide prohibition on alcohol after 6pm must take some of the blame, but there is more to it than that. As I talk to people, I learn that, despite the day’s victories – Yakunoych’s fall, Yulia Tymeshenko’s release from prison – the city is in deep mourning. Thirteen citizens of L’viv were slain in clashes with government forces – the highest death toll of any city in Ukraine. And though Tymeshenko’s release stirs the passions of some, many view her lionisation on Kyiv’s Maidan stage as a return to the old order. What then did those 13 L’vivians die for, they ask.

The rain continues to fall and the crowd dwindles and the night passes without incident. Roving bands of baby-faced boys, no older than 16 or 17, patrol the streets armed with improvised wooden batons. The news reports a 300-percent drop in crime since the disappearance of the local police and their replacement with Civil-Defense Squads. They must be doing a good job.

* * * *

Sunday comes, the day of funerals. Sobriety and solemnity still grip the city. The rain holds steady. Some police have returned. They help cordon off the streets to accommodate the masses attending the Maidan’s memorial services. Priests and family and friends eulogise the dead from the stage. Memorials are erected and sprawling constellations of candles grow. Throughout the day, liturgies and hymns ring through the streets.

This was not a victory, I realise. This was a tragedy, a massacre. Seeds have been planted for new a state, a new future, but L’vivians are sceptical whether the bloodshed was worth the fruit that has yet to come. Or if it will even come.

* * * *

It’s Tuesday, and the L’viv division of the Berkut is paraded on stage. They kneel before the crowd, they beg for forgiveness. I wonder if this is sincere or the result of fear. It’s hard to tell during times like these. Perhaps both. Or perhaps there’s someone offstage, miming a sliced throat.

* * * *

I finally make it to Kyiv on Thursday, the birthplace of the Euromaidan movement, the place where 75 activists died less than a week earlier. ‘Apocalyptic’ is all I can think. The ground, stripped of its paving stones, is soiled with a thick layer of ash and soot. The earth is scarred and the monuments are scorched and the buildings are charred skeletons.

The barricades still stand – snarling walls of tires and barbed wire and scrap metal and ice and military machinery. The scent of burnt rubber loiters. Demonstrators burn rubbish in steel drums to keep warm and wafts of smoke wander the Maidan like wounded ghosts. Children climb upon weary catapults and pose for pictures. Balaclava-masked boys, wielding golf clubs and dismembered table legs and baseball bats, rosary beads slung around their necks, guard the banks and shops and keep order.

There’s a greater sense of victory here, in the smouldering epicentre of Euromaidan. The demonstrators proudly display their war booty: Captured police vans and other assorted riot gear. There’s laughter and chatter about Maidan, no doubt helped by photos of the pornographic levels of kitsch inside Yanukovych’s mansion circulating on social media. Babushkas are taking selfies in front of rubble and ruins. Chants of ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and ‘Glory to the Heroes!’ and ‘Glory to the nation!’ resound through the square.

* * * *

March 1st, the dawn of spring. Forests of flowers and bouquets begin to grow – mounds and mounds of them, delivered by those who’ve come to grieve. Over the next few days, the barricades begin to recede and hide beneath thick layers of funeral flora. Memorials are constructed from weaponry and homemade shields and forgotten combat boots, carnations and roses and tulips sprouting from every nook. I’m reminded of a documentary I saw about Chernobyl, how a pristine nature reserve has paved over of one of Europe’s grimmest manmade disasters.

But now, surveying these consecrated grounds of terror and joy, of honour and heroism, of death and destruction, of will and might, of tyres and bricks and broken glass, I hear the sound of the war drums in Crimea growing louder. Fifteen thousand Russian troops have landed in Crimea, they say, with more to follow. The Ukrainian military has been activated for combat. It’s not over, everyone here knows. I think of the men and women who gave their lives here. I try to look at the wreckage and rubble and wonder what might grow from this. But I can only think of Yeats: “A terrible beauty is born.”

All photos: Kevin Cullen

9 thoughts on “Notes From Ukraine: A Terrible Beauty

  • March 7, 2014 at 7:22 pm
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    Very well written with keen insight.
    Way to go Kevin!
    Be safe

    Reply
  • March 7, 2014 at 7:58 pm
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    Yes, perhaps there are parallels with the Irish Republican Movement – (the aspirations of the small state to be independent of its powerful neighbour) – and if so, one possible scenario would be that perhaps this will ultimately end in separation as well? Loyalists at one end and a Free State at the other?

    At the moment it looks as though all the pressure is on the various US, EU and Russian foreign ministers to come up with a workable and face-saving solution. No more lives should be lost where dialogue is possible.

    As another great Irish writer, James Joyce, once said: “Nations have their ego, just like individuals.”

    Reply
    • March 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm
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      But of course, the divided state solution stores up problems as well, as we have seen over the years. This is a tough one and latest BBC reports are not too promising. Lavrov is being intransigent saying the Russians ‘didn’t create the crisis’.

      Whatever happens, I echo the first comment: “stay safe”.

      Reply
  • March 8, 2014 at 2:54 pm
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    So much support for the neo-fascist ultra nationalist that brought this upon themselves. I find it sad that this is written in a Polish newspaper. You should know better.
    Ukrainians could have waited one more year for elections and removed the president in a peaceful way. there was no real need for violence.
    And it’s clear to everyone that the new government is not going to be less corrupt, just a bit different.

    Reply
    • March 8, 2014 at 3:52 pm
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      Support? Read the above article again. It’s an objective piece of reporting. I don’t see any bias in it at all, one way or the other.

      As for the stance of the Krakow Post; where do you see any declarations of support? I think the KP has been, on the whole, very unbiased in its coverage of events in Ukraine.

      I’d agree with you insofar as things in Ukraine are by no means as simple as some (western) commentators would have us believe and the so-called ‘West’ should listen carefully to the points being made by Russia (and I wouldn’t call myself a Putin supporter), but is there ever a justification for armed intervention?

      As for the former Ukrainian government, you yourself described it as corrupt. Isn’t it up to the Ukrainians themselves to determine who they are governed by, without any interference from either West or East?

      Reply
  • March 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm
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    I found nothing during my foray into Ukraine to indicate the Maidan revolution was ‘fascist’ or ‘ultra-nationalist’. Do you have any proof of this beyond Russian propaganda?

    Moreover, the Ukrainians did not remove the president using violence. Yanukovych voluntarily fled after *his* use of violence backfired.

    I suggest doing some fact checking. Here’s a great article to begin with debunking the “fascist” and “neo-nazi” claims: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/03/04/5-important-facts-that-the-western-press-is-getting-terribly-wrong-in-ukraine/

    And another: http://www.timesofisrael.com/ukraines-jews-lambaste-putin-in-open-letter/

    Reply
  • March 10, 2014 at 11:04 am
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    Ukraine will remain corrupt until it rids itself of the filthy influence of Russia. Division within the Ukrainian people and the 6 million or so ethnic Russians within its borders are the biggest hurdles the Free Ukraine movement faces. Russia is on its last legs now. The West must offer any support that the Ukrainians need to escape the brutality of living under Russian domination.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2014 at 7:40 pm
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    №06-03-14 on March 06, 2014

    World Interpeople Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine
    HIS MAJESTY THE SOVEREIGN-EMPEROR
    OF THE TITLE SOVEREIGN PEOPLE OF UKRAINE
    Diplomatic Corps of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine
    КВЕД 99.00.0 ТРДПАУ 553515506-553515469 Diplomatic correspondence office: 40 Stanislavskogo St.,
    The Chernigiv city, Ukraine, 14027, tel/fax +380462232447
    №06-03-14 on March 06, 2014

    Her Majesty the Queen of the United

    Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

    Elizabeth II

    Copies: Embassy of theRussian FederationinUkraine

    Embassy of theUnited StatesinUkraine

    Embassy of theRepublicofPolandinUkraine

    Embassy of theRepublicofBelarusinUkraine

    Embassy of theFrenchRepublicinUkraine

    Embassy of theFederalRepublicofGermanyinUkraine

    Embassy of the People’s Republic ofChinainUkraine

    Embassy of theRepublicofTurkeyinUkraine

    Ukrainian Parliament

    Your Royal Majesty!

    In 1994, by the joint efforts of Ukraine and a number of Royal countries of Europe, including the efforts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the European continent, was established the Royal-economic space of the European Commonwealth and its member states. And the “Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation betweenUkraineand theEuropeanCommonwealthand its member states” became the “Constitution” as a basis for establishment this sovereign Royal-economic space inEurope.

    In 2001 the Indigenous People of Ukraine – Ukrainians defined itself in countryUkraine. By the will of Ukrainians was established the Royal-economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine in the countryUkraine.

    Since 2001, the sovereign Royal – economic space of the United Kingdom of Great Britain andNorthern Irelandand the sovereign Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine are equal components of the Royal-economic space of European Communities and its member states.

    In 2014, as a result of known events that occurred in the country ofUkraine, was formed the Ukrainian state near the Royal-economic space of theEuropeanCommonwealthand its member states. The Constitution of Ukraine provides for the existence of three states in a sovereign countryUkraine, these are the People’s State of Ukraine, theUnitaryStateofUkraineand the Democratic State of Ukraine. The Constitution ofUkrainedoesn’t provide for the existence of any other states.

    The People’s State of Ukraine, theUnitaryStateofUkraineand the Democratic State of Ukraine are member states of Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine. Newly formedUkrainianStateis under the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine.

    The subjects by the newly formed in 2014UkrainianStateare national political commercial-entrepreneurial legal entities and individuals. The subjects by the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine are the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine, the Sovereign People of Ukraine, the People of Ukraine, the Ukrainian People, the National Minorities of Ukraine and the Small Peoples of Ukraine.

    Issuer of all peoples in the world is God. All peoples and national minorities ofUkrainevoluntarily define themselves before God. Royal authorities of the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine are holder of all interpeople registers inUkraine. Peoples does not exist in the jurisdiction of newly formedUkrainianState. Scope of activity people-legal statistical units of countryUkraineis separated from the scope of activity the national juridical commercial and entrepreneurial non-statistical units inUkraine.

    Scope activity of interpeople relations of the countryUkrainewith other countries of the world is separated from the scope activity of interethnic relations of newly formedUkrainianStateunder the countryUkraine.Ukrainehas the principle of supremacy of law, according to which the national political reforms can not be carried out in countryUkrainewithout the consent of the owners of countryUkraine(Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine). Commercial and entrepreneurial national political reforms under the countryUkrainedoes not have any relation to the property and owners of sovereign countryUkraine.

    The title land right of the owners of country Ukraine is not transferred or alienated by the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine to the third parties of the newly formed Ukrainian State. Historic lands of the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine, the Small Peoples of Ukraine and the National Minorities of Ukraine are not subject to sale and transfer to any types of rentals.

    Interethnic external economic relations of Aquatoria of newly formedUkrainianStateand interethnic external economic relations of Factoria of the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine differ from each other.

    Political Cabinet of Ministers of Aquatoria to the newly formedUkrainianStateestablishes interethnic external economic relations in the synthetic easement system. Technical Cabinet of Ministers of Factoria to the the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine establishes interethnic external economic relations in the analytical beneficiary system.

    Interpeople external economic relations of the subjects to the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine are formed on the basis of different kinds mutual accreditation, joint, investment, industrial, manufacturing and trading activities.

    Financial and banking system of the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine is separated from financial and banking system of economic space of the newly formed Ukrainian State. Financial and banking system of the Royal – economic space of World Federative-Confederal Extraterritory His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine doesn’t have any external debts.

    Your Royal Majesty! I ask you to consider the possibility of delegating the consul-external financial and banking mission from the Embassy staff of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland inUkraine for her constant interaction in Extraterritory of Ukraine with the relevant authorities of the Diplomatic Corps to His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor of the Title Sovereign People of Ukraine.

    With respect to You and wish prosperity to people

    of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,

    His Majesty the Sovereign-Emperor

    of the Title Sovereign People ofUkraine

    О.А. Brylyov

    Reply
  • March 24, 2014 at 3:22 pm
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    “a 300-percent drop in crime”

    Given that a 100% drop would equal zero crime a 300% drop would mean some kind of negative crime?

    Reply

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