A Crimean-shaped thorn in Russia’s side

I can’t claim to know anything about what’s going on in the Black Sea with those Ukrainian and Russian boats:

Sunday’s naval clash was off the coast of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian coastguard ships opened fire before special forces stormed the Ukrainian vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.

Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.

What I do know is that Russia is probably not playing a very smart game here. When I was in Perth I spoke to a Russian who was adamant that Russia had no choice to annex Crimea in order to prevent NATO warships from being within striking distance of their Black Sea coast. Now you could hold an entire seminar on the delusions Russians subject themselves to when justifying their seizure of Crimea, but I wasn’t going to start arguing geopolitics during a social visit. As I’m fond of saying these days, politics shouldn’t interfere with friendship.

Instead, I said that regardless of the rights or wrongs of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this will be a thorn in their side for generations to come. There are certain historical events which occur between two peoples at a particular time which one party is able to use as a stick to bash the other in perpetuity. Both the relative size of the parties and the timing are crucial, which allows a certain narrative to form which, regardless of actual facts, never goes away. Russia’s mistake was stealing land from a weaker neighbour at a time when Russia was itself weak and also generally disliked. When Stalin’s USSR annexed land from their neighbours, they were strong enough to brush off criticism and people’s attention was focused elsewhere in any case. Similarly, China’s land and sea grabs don’t seem to have become a stick which their enemies use to beat them, at least not effectively.

But the narrative has formed that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and is illegally occupying it. Even if their administration of the territory is eventually recognised by the international community, this will be an issue Ukrainians and those opposed to Russia’s ambitions will use to thwart them indefinitely. Ukraine is a complete dysfunctional basket case and will in all likelihood stay that way, whereas in 10, 20, 30 years time Russia might have reformed enough to want to play a more positive political, diplomatic, and commercial role around the world. Frankly, nobody knows what Russia’s future holds but it’s at least possible that whoever succeeds Putin might want to involve Russia more in global business, for example. They’re likely to find that, despite any character reforms they’ve undergone, a well-funded and influential lobby group will pop up at every point and turn and say “Ah, but Crimea”.

A good comparison is with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. No matter what Turkey tries to do, there is a small but effective body of Armenian lobbyists who say “Ah, but the genocide”. Like Russia with Crimea, Turkey decided to massacre the Armenians when they were too weak to set the narrative, losing the war months later and being occupied by foreign armies. It probably never occurred to the Turks that, a hundred years later when anyone with even memories of the event is now dead, the issue would be thrown in front of them like a tank trap every time they want to do anything in the US or Europe. I suspect most Turks wish they’d just left the Armenians alone.

The other similarity between the two cases is that neither issue can be resolved. No apology from Turkey can bring back dead Armenians, and I suspect even now the Russian presence in Crimea is so entrenched it can never be returned to Ukraine without enormous upheaval and more human rights abuses. But this is the beauty of it from a fanatic’s point of view: an insoluble moral objection is perfect, because it’s a club that can be used to beat your opponent again and again. Sure, this isn’t exactly productive from the point of view of the person wielding the club, but fanatics aren’t normally motivated by progress. I’m reminded of a comment I read recently from someone who’d spent a few minutes listening to an Irishman rant about the British:

“So what are you going to do, keep protesting until the last 600 years didn’t happen?”

Like the Armenians and Irish, Ukrainians have little to lose by throwing a spanner in the works of their larger neighbour’s ambitions in protest at their perceived historical beastliness (look at the behaviour of the Irish over Brexit, for example). Ukraine won’t suffer for it, and they’ll find plenty of support from whoever Russia has managed to make an enemy of that week. I reckon that, like the Turks with the Armenians, Russians will one day believe Crimea is a lot more trouble than it’s worth and they should have left it well alone. Where this will leave Putin’s reputation among Russians as a geopolitical strategic genius I don’t know.


A Ukrainian Miracle of the Wrong Kind

This story is nuts:

The authorities in Ukraine have been sharply criticised for faking the murder of a Russian dissident journalist in Kiev.

An official from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said Ukraine was spreading “false information”.

Reporters Without Borders said it was “part of an information war”.

Babchenko’s wife said on Tuesday she had found her husband at the entrance to their apartment block with bullet wounds in his back, and he was reported to have died in an ambulance later.

But on Wednesday there were gasps at a Kiev press conference when Babchenko entered the room.

“There was no other way,” he said.

I don’t know whether this course of action was essential to keep Babchenko from being killed; if so, then it was worth it. If it was just to catch the bloke who ordered the hit, then I’m a little more skeptical. Whatever the case, it is appalling PR.

It is quite reasonable to blame much of the chaos in Ukraine on Russian interference, not least the low-level war going on in the east of the country. But nobody can deny that Ukraine is a dysfunctional mess regardless of their meddlesome next door neighbour. The most damning thing about Russia’s annexation of Crimea was how easy it all was. I understand the Ukrainians didn’t want to risk mass bloodshed and a full-scale Russian invasion by fighting back, but the fact remains the place was completely undefended in the first place. A half-competent military could defend Crimea from a few dozen little green men flown or shipped in, but Ukraine fell far short of even that and lost the whole peninsula within hours. For all the outrage about what Russia did, few seem concerned that it was Ukrainian complacency, corruption, and incompetence that allowed it to happen.

The other undeniable fact is Ukraine has been independent for for 27 years and hasn’t shown the slightest sign of being anything other than a dysfunctional, heinously corrupt state mismanaged by squabbling factions each looking to further their own ambitions and enrich themselves. I remember the hope at the time of the Orange Revolution in late 2004; what followed was years of bickering and backstabbing and a confusing merry-go-round of leaders, one of whom ended up in jail. Things were also hopeful when Ukraine hosted the 2012 UEFA European Championship jointly with Poland, but things appear to have only gone backwards. It would be almost unthinkable to hold a major tournament in Ukraine now.

It’s a shame because the Ukrainians I know seem okay, and they obviously have competence at the individual and company level, but on a national scale they seem to be a perpetual basket case. Even their ability to resurrect dead Russian journalists isn’t going to help them with that.


The tragedy in Kemerovo brings forth a much greater one

There is a story developing in the aftermath of the Kemerovo shopping mall fire which is getting uglier by the day. It concerns this man:

Last week Igor Vostrikov was a successful businessman, married with three young children. Today he says that he has “nothing more to lose” and will fight for justice to be served.
Vostrikov recalls that his wife, Elena, had been “beyond panic” by the time she reached him at around 4pm on Sunday. Elena, who had been in the cinema with Vostrikov’s sister and three of their children ? a seven-year-old girl and boys ages five and two ? knew that her husband was away in a nearby town, so she initially called her mother-in-law when smoke first began pouring into the movie theater.

But miles away, Vostrikov knew differently. Elena told him on the phone that she was “suffocating,” and he instructed her to get down on the ground and breathe through a wet cloth.

“Why aren’t they coming to save us?” his daughter asked. Recalling the moment when he stopped hearing the voices of his children in the background, he now thinks that they may have already been dead, even as Elena stayed on the line.

“Igor, we are burning here, I love you,” she said. He continued talking into the phone for several minutes, but there was no reply.

By the time Vostrikov arrived in Kemerovo, the death toll was rising. His wife, sister, and three children are among the 64 who have been officially declared dead.

For a man to suddenly lose his wife, sister, and three young children in this way is a level of tragedy I can barely imagine. News reporters quickly picked up on his anger and grief, and his name began to spread around the internet. Most people felt desperately sorry for him.

However, at some point in the past few years, Vostrikov had posted remarks on social media which were supportive of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and derogatory towards Ukraine. This enraged Ukrainians online who openly said they had no sympathy with someone who made such remarks, and losing his family in a fire was an act of karma. Now we’re getting stories like this:

I expect this already deeply unpleasant situation will now get even worse.

Among the rather disgusting remarks aimed at Vostrikov was one that had some merit, and that’s the regime which Russians praise for “recapturing” Crimea and putting those uppity Ukrainians in their place is the same one which presides over corruption and dysfunction such that deadly fires in shopping malls occur. It is unlikely you can have one without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. It’s a point I’ve made often in the past, that the characteristics of Putin’s regime that Russians cheer are the same characteristics which make their life harder on a daily basis. Very few see it that way, though.

But the main point of this post is to highlight what an absolute, utter, appalling tragedy this pointless conflict between Russia and Ukraine is. As I said before:

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko. If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six. Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably. The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian. By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian. I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes. Okay, maybe not most, but a lot. The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

There is no easy dividing line between Ukrainians and Russians, and the origins of this conflict seem to concern how people want to be governed in future rather than by whom, and had little to do with ethnicity, language, culture, national security, or any other excuse that’s been wheeled out by the hardliners on each side since.

A few years ago no Ukrainian would have dreamed of saying a Russian deserved to lose his family in a fire, and no Russian would have gloated on the internet about Russian military victories over Ukraine. The whole thing is so pointless, and the wounds will take decades to heal, assuming they ever do. This artificial driving of a wedge between two peoples reminds me of the way many Scots now see England, despite there being little meaningful cultural differences between the two peoples that an outsider could coherently describe. I’d like to say the relations between Scotland and England are not as poisonous as those of Ukraine and Russia, but I’m afraid I can’t. Ten minutes on Twitter will tell you there are people north of the border quite capable of telling an Englishman his family deserved to die in a fire because of his place of birth or political beliefs.

It’s tragic. How the hell did it come to this?


A Brace of British Brownshirts

A few years ago, when I was roaming the wilds of the planet with various oil companies, I was sat with my sister, who is a journalist, pitching ideas for a story at her. I could have directed her towards umpteen utterly scandalous situations, but each time she said:

“But what’s the British angle? For a British publication, there has to be a British interest in it somewhere.”

Flicking open The Guardian yesterday, it seems establishing a British angle is a lot easier than I thought. Consider this article by Natalia Antonova (yes, she of “survivor” fame):

From Britain to Ukraine, the far right is thriving on shared emotion

And what better person to delve into the British national psyche than “a Ukrainian journalist and playwright based in New York”?

While reports of Britons being recruited by Ukrainian neo-Nazis to fight in a war against Russia appear to be somewhat exaggerated – two men hardly constitutes some sort of far-right stampede to the eastern edge of Europe – this is a good time to remember that hate is on the upswing, and to think of it as a localised phenomenon is to miss the bigger picture.

Two unnamed men hardly constitutes anything, but is more than enough to justify running the author’s garbled opinions in The Guardian. British angle, indeed.

Members of the Ukrainian and the Russian far right are willing to riddle each other with very many bullet holes over such issues as the legacy of the second world war, and who the real heroes were. Ask them about abortion, however, or feminism, or migration, or antisemitism, or LGBT rights, or human rights in general, or, for that matter, government transparency and accountability, and suddenly these mortal enemies will seem more like good buddies who had a little tiff over history and national identity but will happily join forces to oppress whoever gets in their way, should the current conflict come to an end.

Warring militias on Russia’s borders don’t share the same social justice goals as a journalist in Brooklyn? Who knew? And note the casual assumption that anyone who opposes abortion is far right, and that a lack of government transparency and accountability is a hallmark of the same group. Because the left are paragons of virtue when it comes to those two things, aren’t they?

As the editors of the anarchist publication Nihilist.li have argued, “the differences between the Kremlin and Ukrainian fascists are tactical – not strategic … Both Russian and Ukrainian far-right groups have the same values and the same political ideal – crony capitalism.”

Good job those two British chaps allegedly went to Ukraine, isn’t it? Otherwise we’d be wondering why she doesn’t harangue some Ukrainians about this.

Ukraine’s problems with the far right are Britain’s problems, are Bulgaria’s problems, are Austria’s problems, and even, ultimately, Russia’s problems.

Eh? Why is it Britain’s concern that there might be far right Ukrainians? In the 2017 UK General Election, not a single far right party stood in any meaningful sense, let alone won. Even if we accept the left’s description of UKIP as being far right, they got wiped out. Is Antonova even aware of the makeup of Britain’s political parties?

In looking for solutions, we should consider the predicament the US now finds itself in – with a blatantly racist president who will reward any far-right group for as long as it sings his praises.

Presumably for reasons of space – or relevance – Antonova doesn’t cite a single one of these far right groups, nor how Trump rewarded them. But she calls him racist, so there’s that.

Reporters from elite publications are regularly parachuted into towns and districts that represent Trump’s “base” in order to file bewildered, slightly apocalyptic reports on how there are millions of Americans out there who do not care that the man they elected thinks there are “both sides” to a conflict involving murderous far-right violence.

Note that the problem here lies not with not bubble-dwelling “reporters from elite publications”, but the ordinary person who doesn’t subscribe to cartoon depictions of the US president.

Even as we continue to combat fake news, it has become glaringly obvious that facts alone won’t reach these racists and cheerleaders for racism – because support for Trump comes from a place that’s wholly different to the place where we compile and analyse facts.

She actually had the temerity to include this paragraph in an article whose entire premise rests on two unnamed “far right” Brits allegedly being recruited by Ukrainian neo-nazis.

Far-right advances across nations embolden the far right in other nations. This trend is likely to continue – and this is why a couple of Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight alongside neo-Nazis is something to take notice of.

Possibly at the editor’s insistence, we’re back to these two Brits again. Remember how often we were told not to worry about tens of thousands of citizens from European countries going to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS? That’s because the real issue is British neo-Nazis flocking to Ukraine in such numbers they couldn’t even form a relay team.

The causes of our current predicament can be debated – certainly a great number of economic and social factors are at play – but what matters is the simple realisation that what binds members of far-right groups can be exploited for good. Shared humanity, the idea of belonging to a common cause – these are the tools we have at our disposal if we wish to adequately address the rising tide of hate.

Somebody actually paid for this guff. True they only paid £90, but still.

To bring this back to Lakoff, what matters right now is not so much what far-right hate groups think, but what their members feel and believe.

Uh-huh. Now perhaps I’m being unfair. There’s no reason why a Ukrainian feminist living in Brooklyn should not be able to understand and write articles about British social issues in a national newspaper, so with that in mind I roamed around looking for what other insights she’s provided on the subject. And then I came across this:



White-Knights and Prostitutes

*This post has been updated*

A month or so back some people I follow on Twitter who are Russian-focused recommended someone’s writing, so I followed her. Thus far I’ve not seen much to justify the recommendation (her latest piece is a lame satire of Trump, as if there’s a shortage of that sort of thing) but following such people can nevertheless throw up some interesting discussion points. Last night the lady in question, a Ukrainian-American, took to Twitter to complain about how men stereotype her. Here’s how I responded to one of her tweets:

Bear in mind she started the topic with “Let’s talk about stereotypes of Slavic women”, and that she purports to be a professional writer and journalist; in my naivety I thought maybe she actually wanted a discussion. It turned out she didn’t, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t have one here.

Russian women do get stereotyped and it can be unpleasant for a normal woman when its assumed she’s a whore. But, as I point out in my tweet, there’s a reason for this. My Turkish friend, for example, takes a very dim view of Russian women because in her home country they are synonymous with the thousands of prostitutes who turned up to ply their trade, many of whom were at the very low end of the business having unprotected sex with truck drivers which spread disease and broke up families. It might be a view that’s unfair to Russian women, but my friend hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting ordinary Russians and so she’s going on what she knows. And there is no denying that there are a lot of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish prostitutes working in European cities – more than Turkish, Egyptian, and Portuguese, for instance.

If I walk into a bar in Thailand, or even down the street, the locals assume I’m interested in a prostitute. If I found myself in Pat’s Bar in Lagos after the rugby had finished, most people in there would think I was after a prostitute. If I went into the York International Hotel in Dubai in 2004, most people would assume I was there for the hookers. Similarly, when Brits turn up in certain Mediterranean holiday resorts, the locals expect trouble. If the England soccer team are playing away, the local police flip the safety catch off the water cannon before they’ve even cleared immigration. Any discussion on stereotypes and assumptions made about you based on your nationality must take into account the origins of those stereotypes. So in the case of this lady above, she ought to at least acknowledge that, for many people – especially the Arabs and South Asians she mentions specifically – the only Russian or Ukrainian women they’ve ever encountered have been prostitutes, and that many of her compatriots are prostitutes.

Ah, but this is Twitter and I should have known better. Within minutes of posting the white-knights appeared.


Alas, this is pretty standard on Twitter: a vaguely attractive woman posts something and you get a handful of men falling over themselves to agree with her. If you say something remotely contradictory, they all pile in. This is why I am so fond of this pic (origin unknown):

Naturally, the original poster didn’t respond, but was content to like the responses to me. But that’s by the by. What i found ironic is the assumption that these tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian women who worked as prostitutes had no choice (note the usual lefty debating trick of deliberately conflating “most”, “many”, and “all”).

There’s a habit of western men when they first meet a bunch of developing-world prostitutes to assume they’re all bright young things down on their luck whom life has dealt a miserable hand and they’re in need of saving by someone just like them. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with a bunch of third-world prostitutes will know they’re ruthless bitches who have lied so many times they barely remember their real name. When it comes to Russian prostitutes, they became adept at telling gullible men they were well-educated and wanted to work in a normal job but had no choice but to become prostitutes in Dubai and Bangkok because of the economic hardships at home. I used to hear this back in 2003-4, then I worked out these women were not well-educated, they came from broken homes with seriously fucked-up childhoods, and simply made the choice to make some good money quickly. Again this is fair enough, but one should never forget that for every woman who chose to become  a prostitute, there are plenty who faced the same hardships but chose differently.

Now there might have been some women from Russia and Ukraine forced into prostitution, by which I mean they’re in chains and controlled by gangsters, but I I’m not convinced more than a negligible number work abroad in such conditions. Certainly this was the case when I lived in Dubai, because the girls would have talked about it. They were bound to their sponsors once they got there (as are many legitimate workers) but nobody forced them to come, or hoodwinked them. Long-time readers may remember I actually witnessed one girl being recruited for the job when I made that trip to Nizhnekamsk in 2004 in the company of another girl who knew the process rather well and, without batting an eyelid, told me everything about how it works. And as has been discussed in the comments at Tim Worstall’s on several occasions, trafficking Eastern European women for the purposes of prostitution makes absolutely no sense whatsoever: all major cities are awash with young women working voluntarily and prepared to do pretty much anything for a couple of hundred quid. Where’s the economic sense in kidnapping a woman, chaining her to a bed, and risking a lengthy jail term for people-trafficking in such a market?

What the white-knights are doing is assuming these poor Russians and Ukrainians had no choice but to become prostitutes, thereby implying any Russian or Ukrainian will turn to prostitution should the right economic conditions arise. Given these remarks appear in a thread in support of a Ukrainian woman complaining men often presume she’s a hooker, it’s rather ironic. Even more ironic is she approves of these remarks. It’s a funny place, Twitter.


The whole thing turned into a big pile-on yesterday afternoon. One person in particular took objection to being called a white-knight:

A man on the internet leaping to the defence of a woman who is “a personal friend” after incorrectly believing someone insulted her, followed by an attempt to look tough, is pretty much the textbook definition of a white-knight. Does this guy not realise he’s so deep in the friend zone that he could tweet his little fingers off all day long and still not get anywhere? His threats didn’t stop there, however:

I’m trembling so much my knees are knocking.

Some others were simply dim, chief among them this woman:

She’d give Cathy Newman a run for her money. Then white-knight pops up again:

According to Twitter, the reputation Russian and Ukrainian women have in the Middle East and elsewhere stems from women who were trafficked there, forced into prostitution against their will. If you follow the thread, we learn none of them have actually met any of these women – but from their offices in the US and Canada they have read reports and studied papers which show they have been trafficked and few are there voluntarily. How so many are free to take boyfriends and get married remains a mystery. Perhaps their pimps are the romantic sort?

Finally, given this started out with various women complaining men treat them like prostitutes, allow me to pass on some advice to my female readership. If you find men are routinely presuming you to be a prostitute, I recommend you:

1. Look at the places you are hanging out in.

2. Look at the men you are hanging out with.

3. Look at your own behaviour.

I know many women, and many Russian and Ukrainian women; very few have told me they get mistaken for a prostitute. If it’s a problem for women, it doesn’t appear to be universal.


A Change in Government

I expect there are a few examples like this:

In 2008, eight years into his addiction, doctors told him he had one year left to live and Georgy realized he needed help. He began a drug substitution therapy called OAT to safely wean himself off drugs.

At that point, Crimea, where Georgy lived, was still part of Ukraine and substitution therapy (OAT) was legal. But when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the peninsula’s new leadership announced the therapy would be banned.

By May that year, more than 800 drug users who had been receiving OAT, including Georgy, found themselves cut off from treatment. Now local and international rights groups say the ban is fueling a resurgent HIV epidemic with fatal consequences.

Amid the many legal and ethical problems with Russia annexing Crimea in the manner it did, it’s hard to claim it was actively opposed by the majority population. However, I suspected they thought there would be only upsides – understandable, given the shambolic state of Ukraine – but over time various drawbacks would present themselves. Some were obvious: being cut-off from the rest of Russia and dependent on Ukraine for electricity and water were two, as well as the collapse in foreign tourism. This ban on OAT treatment is another, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before a Crimean mother is weeping over the death of son drafted into the Russian army. Whatever the situation becomes in Crimea, I suspect decent reporting on the subject will be scarce and we’ll be squeezed between propaganda on both sides supplemented with the occasional rumour.


A Weekend in Kiev

My trip to Kiev was nice, but very short.  Snow had fallen in Kiev the morning of my departure, leading to flights out of Boryspil airport being delayed.  Perhaps the Ukrainians were taken by surprise by this sudden onset of wintry conditions having expected balmy summer days until next May, but it reminded me of the time when I was delayed 5 hours in Sheremetovo airport on my way back to Sakhalin from Istanbul because snow had arrived in Moscow.

Anyhow, I lost two hours of my Friday evening and it was dark when I arrived.  I had a choice of taking a bus from the airport to my hotel in the city centre for about 2 Euros which would take about an hour, or a taxi for 20 Euros which would take half that.  This was the first inkling I got that Ukraine was on that rapidly-shrinking list of countries that are still very inexpensive.  I plumbed for the taxi.

As is now the case in Moscow, almost all the cars I saw on the road were foreign-brands, and only a handful Russian.  The roads and signage and other paraphernalia were well maintained, telling me Kiev has emerged from the decrepit post-Soviet era along with the Baltic capitals I visited 4 years ago.  I have no idea if this is the case in Belorussia, but it would be interesting to find out.  I saw plenty of signs of foreign investment, the French ones catching my eye: Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Auchun.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I spent the day walking around the main sights of the city centre, which consisted mostly of nice looking Orthodox churches.

It was cold.  The actual temperature was only -5C or so, but that’s as cold as I’ve experienced outside a ski resort in a long time, and any residual toughness from my time in Russia disappeared years ago in the heat of Thailand and Nigeria.  I had the right clothes on, but I was not tempted to stay outside too long hence I didn’t see all that much of the city.

I was surprised by how small Kiev was.  I didn’t see the suburbs, but the city centre didn’t seem that big and I was amazed – on a late Saturday morning – by how few people or cars were about.  There didn’t seem to be any traffic even on the city’s main boulevards, which isn’t the case in most capital cities.  For some reason I’d gotten the idea it was a giant megalopolis approaching the size of Moscow, but it was actually far smaller.

Below is a picture of Maidan Square, the location for both the Orange Revolution in 2004/5 and the Euromaidan protests in 2013.

The place was deserted.  One thing that struck me when standing in that spot was that Ukrainians ought to schedule their protests a little better: both took place at roughly the same time of year I was, and I didn’t envy them camped out in the snow.

I was speaking Russian, not knowing a word of Ukrainian, and I from what I could tell there was a lot of Russian spoken.  I’m not sure if I could have told the difference, but on the few occasions I asked I was told it was Russian.  Which is to be expected, of course.  There were signs of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia though, some more subtle than others.  I noticed among a hundred brands of vodka on sale in a supermarket there was no Russki Standardt, nor was there Baltika in the beer section.  And the kiosks in the subways were selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s portrait on each sheet.

The food was good: I had two bowls of borsch, which is pretty much compulsory when visiting Ukraine, but couldn’t detect any difference from those I ate in Russia.  Although bowls of borsch are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  If you ever want to start an argument among Russians (and presumably Ukrainians) just for fun, ask two of them to tell you how borsch should be made properly (this also works with salad Olivier).  And the food was cheap: after years of Paris prices, it seemed it was almost free in Kiev.

I took a few photos, some of which are not bad, but they’re nothing special.  It was too cold to walk slowly, hunting around for unusual things in the back streets, and operating an SLR camera with gloves on isn’t easy.  I snapped the main sights I came across, and that was about it.

For those that are interested, the full collection of my photos of Kiev are here.

All in all it was a nice trip, and Kiev is worth a visit.  Only it would be a lot more sensible to visit in summer rather than winter, which is what I said when I came back from the Baltic States in late December.  Although there was something nice about the snow coming down and stirring memories of Russia, a place I’ve not been to in 4 years now.  My only regret is I didn’t go to see the Mother Motherland statue, which I completely forgot was there, but I’d probably have frozen to death if I’d tried.  Next time, perhaps.


The Rizla between Russians and Ukrainians

Anyone would think the Soviet Union never went away:

The director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature has gone on trial charged with inciting ethnic hatred against Russians.

Natalia Sharina is accused of disseminating banned literature classed as extremist.

First the prosecutor cited a long list of Ukrainian publications that are either prohibited or which she said experts had deemed “degrading” to Russians.

Russia bans books?  I confess, I didn’t know that.  I could well imagine that publishing something the government doesn’t like would mean you’d be investigated for tax irregularities or some heavies would duff you up a bit in entrance lobby of your building, but I didn’t know that Russia formally banned books.

And what are publications deemed degrading to Russians?  There are whole internet memes devoted to degrading Russians, albeit Russians who live in provincial villages and have no political clout whatsoever.  If the regime is hiring experts to ferret out literature which might be degrading to Russians then it’s not very sure of itself.

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.  To an outsider who has some clue about Russians and Ukrainians, I am somewhat baffled as to what differences they’re fighting over.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko.  If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six.  Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably.  The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian.  By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian.  I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes.  Okay, maybe not most, but a lot.  The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

What about the language?  Ukrainian is indeed different from Russian.

However, in September I met a Ukrainian lady from Zaporizhia who was visiting Paris.  I asked her what her native language was, i.e. what language she spoke with her parents.  She told me it was Russian.  I then assumed that she was an ethnic Russian.  No, she said, I’m Ukrainian.  Both parents are Ukrainian, three out of four grandparents are Ukrainian, and the fourth Polish.  She can speak Ukrainian perfectly, but speaks Russian at home to her Ukrainian parents.  Go figure.

Apparently, for some, the differences are stark enough that Ukrainian librarians are facing jail for publishing banned books which say mean things about Russians.  Me, I think it’s all bullshit.

(Actually, I know what they’re fighting over.  But the ethnic and cultural differences are being exaggerated in ridiculous fashion.)


Power cuts in Crimea

I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier:

Three-quarters of Crimea’s population remain without power after four electricity pylons were blown up.

Gas-powered generators have been providing power to major cities. A state of emergency has been declared.

The pylons brought electricity from Ukraine. Engineers were reportedly denied access to the site by Ukrainian activists.

Crimea was annexed by Russia last year, but the Ukrainian authorities have continued to supply power to the area.

It spoke volumes of Ukrainian incompetence, real fears of an all-out invasion by Russia, or a combination of the two that Russia was able to take the Crimean peninsula so easily.  The Crimea is not accessible from Russia by road, and is dependent on Ukraine for both its electricity and water supplies.  Had Russia gone up against a different adversary, one would have expected to see both cut mere hours after the Russian takeover, and at the very least in the middle of the referendum which saw the population supposedly vote to become part of Russia.  I can only suppose that the Ukrainian authorities refrained from doing so because they feared it would be seized by Russia as an act of war and provide them with a handy excuse to mount a full-on invasion, helping themselves to more territory.

But it did occur to me at the time that the Ukrainians would simply not bother to maintain the infrastructure serving the Crimea.  They have no obligation to, I would have thought: presumably “independence” does not leave one dependent on the former power for vital services like water and electricity?  At some point, they’re going to have to get this stuff provided by Russia, but I suspect they’re going to be waiting a while.  There is little sign that the overpriced bridge they had planned will be realised any time soon, but they’ve put in place a temporary one which should at least alleviate some of the issues they’ve had with the ferries in the past.  So although I expected the water and electricity supplies to deteriorate, it hadn’t occurred to me that some pissed-off Ukrainians might decide to blow up some power lines and leave the Crimea in darkness.  This is clearly not state-sanctioned, and so there isn’t much Russia can do about it other than piss and moan.  But the Ukrainian activists seem to have stumbled upon a way of upsetting the Crimeans and the Russians, and it surprises me now that this didn’t happen a year ago.  I expect we’ll see more disruption to the electricity and water supplies in the future, especially if Russia starts cutting the gas off again.


An Interesting Choice of Leaders

Alex K. has posted a graphic account of the treatment of a woman suspected of being pro-Ukrainian in the city of Donetsk recently.

I made a comment under the post which I’ve decided to turn into a post of my own, because I am genuinely baffled here.  From what I have seen thus far, and the account above can only serve to reinforce this view, the separatists in east Ukraine are a bunch of violent, armed thugs accountable to nobody (anybody remember MH17?) who have taken it upon themselves to dish out arbitrary punishments to anyone suspected of being against them, operating with impunity and the full support of the Russian government.  And these people claim to represent the ethnic Russians who wish to secede from Kiev’s rule.

Is this seriously what Ukraine’s Russians want, these guys in charge?  I can understand why the thugs want it, but where are the middle classes, the educated Russians, in all this?  Do they honestly believe these roaming gangs of bandits, looking like extras from Mad Max 2, have their best interests in mind?  Or are they as horrified by what is going on as everyone else, but too scared to speak out?

I know a lot will turn a blind eye to the separatists’ methods because they will genuinely see the Ukrainian government as bringing war to their neighbourhoods, but I find it hard to believe that all ethnic Russians will apportion the blame in this manner.  And there is not enough of an ethnic, religious, historical, or cultural divide to generate the hatred that would cause thousands of educated, otherwise decent people to support marauding bands of armed thugs shooting their erstwhile friends and neighbours.

I find the whole thing bewildering.  Personally I think the idea of Scottish independence as presented is laughable (but good luck to them, if that’s what they want), but at least they have leaders who appear to be politicians.  What the east Ukrainians are doing is the equivalent of the Scottish independence movement being led by armed gangs of Glasgow football hooligans on a giant rampage.  Was Kievan rule really so bad that the Ukraine’s Russians see this as an improvement?

The closest parallel I can think of is the Catholics/Republicans in Northern Ireland.  Their independence movement was to a large extent led by murderous thugs (albeit better presented than Ukraine’s equivalents), and their lower ranks enjoyed beating the shit out of anyone they suspected of disloyalty along with running protection rackets and other criminal enterprises.  Yet despite their thuggish violence they still enjoyed the support of much of the ordinary Catholic population.

So perhaps it is the same with Ukraine’s Russians, and they are hopeful that these men will secure them a place in the Russian Federation after which Moscow will take over and the local headcases and Ossetian mercenaries will quietly pack up and go home.  But I’m interested to know where are the educated, semi-respectable (at least on camera) leaders of the separatist movement, the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?  Waiting in the wings in Russia?  Who knows?

But for now, I guess they’re happy with a bunch of shitfaced hooligans who 6 months ago were drinking beer in the local park at 10am.