Sunday, May 13, 2018

Fascists, Communists, and the Road to Hell

In the winter of 2014, as I traversed the United States entangled in work, I was religiously tethered to National Public Radio listening for updates from Independence Square in Kiev. After Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, rejected a European Union association agreement in November of 2013, in favor of closer Russian ties and money, shit had quickly hit the fan. Clearly, Vladimir Putin, who, it is believed, had a former Ukrainian presidential candidate poisoned, and rigged what would be a recall election in 2004, had been hard at work attempting to do with Rubles what poison could not; return Ukraine to the Motherland. Young Ukrainians that wished for future inclusion to the European community were not fooled, and completely opposed this corrupt direction of governance. They took to the streets in protest, and I was with them in spirit as I rushed to finish my work in the States so I could return to my motorcycle stored at a farm in Northern Romania, five miles from the Ukrainian border.
 
  Though protests had taken place throughout winter, between the 18th and 21st of February Independence Square was a fiery, smoke
filled, Hell. The reports I was listening to were incomplete at best. Information was often
inconsistent, and there seemed to be no hard proof of what was transpiring. At the inception it had been clear that the protesters were poorly equipped, brandishing clubs, and hurling Molotov cocktails in the clashes with riot police. However, what they lacked in equipment, they made up for in numbers. Reportedly, somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand demonstrators were at battle with the government forces. It didn't take the rag-tag army long to overpower the police, and government anti-terrorist snipers were positioned at strategic positions overlooking the Square. The opposition's body-count quickly rose. In an effort to thwart the snipers thousands of tires were set fire to black out the sky. A frigid snow storm blew snow into the mix as the fighting continued. I hung on
on the words of every new report as if my freedom depended upon this skirmish's outcome. I wanted to be there. The Clashes came to an end on the 21st, and Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia, claiming that terrorists had overtaken the government. 
    By the end of February I'd finished my work and scurried to depart the US for Romania. I would collect my motorcycle and head directly for Kiev. However, just before boarding my flight East there was a disturbing development in the Ukrainian saga. Vladimir Putin had taken Crimea. What were his intentions? How far would he go? After my plane touched down in Bucharest I was met by a good friend, and Romanian diplomat, Vlad. We had plenty to talk about over lunch and the trip to the train station. He was of the opinion that closer ties to Europe would be an uphill battle for Ukraine due to broad corruption, but that the revolution as a whole was a good thing for Europe, given that it presented resistance to Russia. He wasn't quite sure about the Russian annexation of Eastern Ukraine, nor did he possess insight confirming or denying reports of fascist groups involved in the revolution. Following an insufferably long ride on an old communist era train I reached Suceava, Romania, were I was met by Maurin, the farm's mechanic, and given a ride to Dersca, a village near the Ukrainian frontier. I arranged the supplies for my trip North and gave my Yamaha some basic maintenance. After packing my steed I took the remainder of the day to rest. My father called that evening to inquire about the trip to the farm. As it was big news back in the States, conversation drifted to the conflict in Ukraine. I address both the issue in Crimea and the Russia Today reports of Nazi involvement in the ousting of the Ukrainian president. National Public Radio had't given any reports about fascist elements within the revolution, but their coverage, though pervasive, seemed to be missing lots of details. I was apprehensive about accepting Russia Today news at face value. It had once been a good source of news, but at this point it was entirely State sponsored. My father was unsure about the situation in Eastern Ukraine, but as to the question of whether or not unsavory elements were involved with the opposition in Kiev, there was no hesitation. "I guarantee it", he said. "It's the communists vs. the fascists. It's been that way up there for a long time. There ain't a nickel's worth of difference between them. You aren't going to Ukraine are you? Tell me you won't go to Ukraine." I lied and said I wouldn't.
                     
                 
                 "This ain't no Upwardly Mobile Freeway.... This is the Road to Hell"  -Chris Rea

  I've never spoken much about my trip to Kiev in March of 2014. It's not that it wasn't a story worthy of telling, rather it was an experience that stole my words along with a portion of my humanity. I didn't want to think about what I saw, much less struggle finding the means of expressing my understanding of what had transpired. It would still be trapped within my mind were it not for a recent event in the United States that sadistically rousted my dormant memories of that night exploring a disorganized, burned out, practically post-apocalyptic Independence Square, and those suspicious stares of apprehension and mistrust. I'd have never imagined that any social problem in the United States would unravel to the extent that the madness in Kiev would look like a possibility. However, Stateside, desperation has supplanted sanity in the years succeeding the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis. After several banks plunged into insolvency, casting global markets into peril, the richest were the first to receive help generating easy wealth with generous loans from the FED. They flourished, and though the economy improved those at the bottom never really benefited. As unemployment rates descended to levels that would have raised incomes of the poorest Americans, monetary accommodations were lifted. The economy slowed and income inequality continued to widen. People awoke each day to find their plight had become more desperate. Regardless of political affiliation, or belief systems, desperate people do desperate things. They haphazardly trust when they no longer believe in themselves. The American Dream is a distant memory for some, and nothing but an apparition for others. I wasn't all that surprised seeing political divisions deepen, however, I can't say I was prepared to see Fascists fighting Communists on the streets of Virginia.

Wondering if I should apply both
  I departed the friendly confines of the farm in Dersca, Romania for the 350 mile trip to Kiev a
couple of weeks after the fighting had ended. I figured the journey would be safe enough as long as I avoided the contested Eastern portion of the country. Engaging folks frequently along my path North, a few things became clear; The people that could be bothered to talk politics seemed very critical of the "kids" in Kiev, they had a soft spot for Putin, and Ukrainian girls quite liked me (must have been the beard). The roads in Ukraine are of the bone jarring variety. Rarely is anything smooth. Bikes deal with rough surfaces better than cars, but the going was still relatively slow. I rode well into the evening, but the late night winter temperatures had me searching for a good place to climb into my sleeping bag. A John Deere dealership with a gap in its fence provided just the sort of accommodations I was looking for. I slept soundly and didn't emerge from my tent till the mercury had risen well into my morning time comfort zone. I slugged down some sort of diabolical Ukrainian energy drink, packed up, and parted the company of my guardian tractors. It was a beautiful, bright, and cool Sunday for the remainder of the ride to Kiev. I grinned every time I passed old communist war memorials, and sighed in relief each occasion I was waved through a police checkpoint. This day the sparsely occupied roads weren't quite as rutted, and I covered the final 130 miles in about two hours, leaving plenty of daylight to make my way to the heart of town.

  The Dnieper river led me north into the city. On the outskirts there was a large group of police profiling passers by, but apparently they were doing nothing aside from observing. The multi-lane highways leading into the city were almost entirely devoid of traffic, and I didn't see another cop the entire time in was in Kiev. As I drew closer to the downtown, I was overtaken by two Porsche suvs leading and tailing a Maybach Mercedes in very close formation. They were traveling somewhere in the vicinity of 110 miles per hour, and the convoy's mighty jet wash blew my well loaded bike to the shoulder. Those were clearly not the guys anyone wanted to mess with. They were no doubt as well armed as they were corrupt. I crept into downtown and was troubled to see a litany of well dressed, youthful Ukrainians wrapped around the block serving the passport office. Weren't these the protesters? Hadn't they prevailed? I assumed their flight was due to Russia's invasion of Crimea. I couldn't say that I blamed them, but, but in hindsight, perhaps they knew more than I.

  After a minimal amount of wandering I found my way to Independence Square. Though other parts of town had seemed abandoned and quiet, the Square was anything but. A vibrant crowd filed around the encampments, barriers, burned out buildings, and disabled government vehicles. I pulled my motorcycle next to a broken police riot truck for a photo op and was intercepted by a fellow biker named Oleg. He tied a Ukrainian flag ribbon around my handlebar, and then asked the usual battery of questions. I had a list of questions my own. Oleg gave me a daylight tour of the Square, and had answers to all my queries. "The police snipers were up there, and there". "The tire tires were for fires which helped to stifle the snipers". "Here is the memorial to the 120 protesters killed". "These guys are singing a song belittling Communists". "Yes, there are Neo Nazis among the opposition". Not that I really had needed confirmation of that last bit. They stuck out, even in the crowd. In the daylight stern confirmation of Nazi presence within the ranks of the government opposition, though disheartening, somehow seemed justified. I mean, most of the people here weren't fascists, they were fighting against a corrupt government that was dragging them back to the USSR. I tried to overlook the skin-heads as a case of the enemy of my enemy being my friend. However, these goons never have been, and never will be, my friends. I decided to leave Kiev without digging further into the Maidan Revolution. After finishing up my tour of the Square, I left town in a state of ambivalence.

   I turned my thoughts towards reaching the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Oleg advised me to ride North and cross the Dnieper river into Belarus and then return to Ukraine near Chernobyl. I should have done some homework before leaving town. In my haste to depart from Kiev, I neglected to check if it was even possible for me to enter Belarus. It was not. Fortunately, after wandering around the sandy banks of the Dnieper river (and a troubling encounter with a drunk, ex-con, boxer, also named Oleg, that wanted to trade shoes), I abandoned my plan to utilized a railroad trestle to enter Belarus after getting my bike stuck on the tracks. I was lucky a passerby saw my plight and came to help unhinge my Yamaha's skid-plate from the rail's lip (I saw a train crossing the bridge within 30 minutes after being freed). Eventually I came to a legitimate border crossing and was informed by the Ukrainian authorities that if I attempted to enter Belarus without a visa I would be arrested. Even I occasionally listen to reason. So, I road through the cold night back to Kiev.

A barrel fire at the International Center for Culture and the Arts
   Somewhat impulsively, as I reached the outskirts of the city, I decided I would return to Independence Square. All of the the turns I made on my way to the center of town seemed to be the correct ones, and I quickly found myself at the barriers surrounding the outskirts of the square. The mishmash of used tires, bricks, and Czech hedgehogs (armored vehicle impediments) blocking the entrance to the encampments was under the guard of walkie talkie equipped university students. At first they were very skeptical of my appearance. My yellow riding gear had the likeness of a HAZMAT suit, and I'd not shaven in six months. Nothing about me looked ordinary. Upon realizing that I was an American, they lowered their guard and the one that was apparently in charge briefly spoke into his radio and told me that I could enter on foot.

 The high pressure sodium lights' gloomy orange glow did little to overcome the darkness shrouding the square. The bright light of the day before had been kind to the makeshift camp. Even the Nazis
seemed somewhat innocuous, if not comical. The murkiness of a new moon had very much the opposite effect. The piles of tires, bottles, and general rubble complemented random barrel fires in an ominous, pit of Hell, fashion. Still, I was an imposing looking American, and I felt, perhaps foolishly, impervious to harm. I strode up the hill where so many of the opposition had been struck down by police sniper fire only a couple of weeks earlier. As I climbed the hill toward the arched trellis bridge connecting the International Center for Culture and Arts to the Music Conservatory I peered towards the buildings overlooking the street where the final strongholds' of the ousted government had been. Following comprehensive defeat in street clashes the police had requested assistance from the military. They were denied. "Anti Terrorist" snipers were then placed in strategic positions around the high ground of the northeast portion of the square. At first they made quick work work of the protesters. It had been like shooting fish in a barrel. The opposition fire bombed the building housing snipers closest to their encampment, and lit tire fires around the square to obscure the sight from less accessible positions. That was the status quo for the
days leading up to president Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia. So, there I trod, snapping pictures, attempting to assess my shifting opinion of what had transpired and what the outcome would be.

  Upon taking to the bridge, with a commanding view of the soot covered, and blood stained, street below, I was alerted to large group of camouflage clad pseudo military types chanting in unison as they passed the encampment and made their way up the hill in my direction. Their chants were brief. I suspect they were intended to announce their undertakings to those in camp. What were they doing?  As the group drew closer, I could see that they were being led by someone wearing a nicer, more form fitting, uniform and a beret. There were also two guys in non-military dress. The one towards the front was just a kid. He was clearly in distress, he could barely walk and was gripped by the two soldiers marching at his sides. The other civilian looking fellow, I've determined after examining the photos, was equipped with a camera and looks to be free. The cavalcade made their way to the top of the hill, past the Hotel Ukraine, and out of sight. Approximately one minute passed before a gunshot pierced the night. It's a memory that I will take to my grave. If I'd felt secure in myself on my way to the bridge, that courage was shaken and I found myself looking over my shoulder regularly on my way back down to the encampment. At
one point I nearly leaped from my boots when a couple of curious, camouflaged, commandos approached me behind as I was taking a photo. They spoke no English but the they understood the word American, and the inquisitively critical looks faded from their continence. After calming myself I snapped the duo's picture and continued on my way to the main camp. A memorial had been erected on the outer wall of a large prominent tent on the corner of the largest encampment. Just as I was about to photograph the many pictures of the deceased my attention was diverted to the growing sound of an
office chair rolling on asphalt. Two under-aged smokers came rushing by engaged in cheap thrill seeking. I snapped my favorite photo of the night. Kids will be kids, I thought to myself, even when the skinheads in the camp next door are executing people. Still, their youthful exuberance was infectious. After returning to survey my picture the duo invited me into camp to make a copy for them. As I came to find out, there was clear division among the various sects of the opposition, from their attire to their encampments. My two new friends were part of the plebeian camp. The contengent here had no uniforms and, from what I could tell, consisted primarily of poor kids and the working class. As I was led into the camp I was offered a rather warm reception. Though I was on the receiving end of an awkward glance or two, I didn't feel as though the people here were all that bad, certainly they weren't evil. These folks simply wanted more from life than what their corrupt government would allow them to have. They could see the prosperity growing in Poland and Romania, and wanted nothing to do with Putin and Russia. If the revolution had consisted entirely of these guys I'd have been more at peace. They simply wanted the freedom to work without having to compete with corruption.
  Unfortunately, as my young friends gave me a nocturnal tour of the square we came across the skinhead camp. There were several different sects of ultra-nationalist, skin-head, Nazi, motherfuckers encamped adjacent to the square. All fell under the directives of Svoboda (loosely translated "freedom" (freedom, my ass. they hijacked that term)), the largest, best known, opposition to the government, though they already held a voice in parliament. Svoboda was formed in the mid 90's as an anti communist organization. Given the failure of communism in Ukraine, one could understand
the desire to oppose it. However, rather than expanding freedom for the Ukrainian people by safeguarding against corruption, this organization simply wanted all the powers of oppression for themselves. They were feared by their own supporters, and when I critically spoke of the Nazis in our midst, my English speaking tour guide quickly quieted me and whispered that this encampment acted as the police for the movement. Clearly these turds were not to be crossed. I was struck by ambivalent feelings of both pity for my young friends and hatred for their leaders. These assholes were the ones that had marched the poor doomed kid under the bridge earlier. They wore ruthless countenances, and embraced terror. The vestige of their misdeeds enveloped the square with a malevolent stench. These were evil men. As I directed our group away from the monsters, a trio of well groomed officers passed us in conversation. One of them, a physically attractive, and no doubt wealthy, young lady in a well tailored uniform stared at me as they passed. She smiled broadly, and giggled a little. I gazed blankly in return, and though of the gunshot earlier. What a dirty fucking bitch.
  I had seen enough. My stomach was churning, and I was ready to hastily depart Kiev. I led my new friends to my motorcycle for a photo op and said my goodbyes. Though their names are now lost to me, I will always remember their faces. Unlucky kids without an escape. I sped out of Kiev and didn't look back. I was nearly to Poland as the sun rose, and I bedded down in a forest looking for sleep that refused to come. Though I'd left the demons of Independence Square behind, their evil pervaded my thoughts, and stained my memories. How duped I'd been. The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 was a farce. It hadn't brought peace or prosperity, or freedom. It wasn't a path forward. It was simply a marker along the road to Hell.





 

  
    

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