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Bungs, bears and barges

Two decades of extraordinary experiences in the Ukrainian capital


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I first visited Kyiv in February, 1992, on a contract from the British “Know-How Fund” to educate Ukraine’s new government in the wonders of enterprise and the free market. It was bitterly cold. Snow blizzarded by the shovel-load throughout my visit. On my way to my first meeting, at the Profsoyuz building (subsequently engulfed in flames during the Maidan insurrection), I inched my way along the pavement of the main street, the Khreshchatyk, in those days almost devoid of traffic.

At one point I saw an ominously bulky shape, barely discernible even at a couple of yards through the snow, looming towards me. This turned out to be a despondent fellow leading by a rope an extremely bedraggled bear.

“If I was so fucking clever, I should be fucking rich”

The government team I met in the Profsoyuz HQ were an uninspiring bunch, except for one. They were nearly all pen-pushers or ex-Party leaders without a concept in their heads. But Anatoliy was different. For a start, he was a giant, well over six foot tall. For another, he was a true genius, bristling with ideas, instant on both the uptake and the reinterpretation, witty and cynical.

It transpired he had been appointed to the team as the obligatory representative of the intelligentsiya. A professor of mathematics, he was a perfect exemplar of this class — and also spoke excellent English. Through conversations with him I gradually also discovered why as a class, despite the prestige it had precariously held throughout Communism, it was doomed to be eclipsed.

We spoke (when well away from the others in the team) of the political future of Ukraine. “It will be a disaster,” Anatoliy accurately predicted. “Power will simply go to the corrupt old communists, who know where the bodies are buried — both literal and figurative — and to the new criminal businessmen.”

“But Anatoliy,” I replied, “you yourself are well-known and influential — why don’t you go in for politics and rally people round? Or maybe go into business on your own account? — you could set an example by developing a real, efficient, Western-style business ethos; I’m sure you wouldn’t have any problems raising funding.” Anatoliy looked offended: “These are not things for people like me. We leave that sort of scrabbling to those who like to glory in the muck.”

I kept in touch with Anatoliy but we did not meet again until 1999 when a new job took me again to Kyiv. I told him that I was coming over and he insisted that he would meet me at the airport. As I came down the aircraft steps, Anatoliy’s car — a large Mercedes with a chauffeur — was waiting for me on the tarmac. I was whisked through a VIP lounge and we drove straight into town.

“Anatoliy, this is all rather unexpected,” I said, “what’s it all about?” Anatoliy looked almost sheepish. “Actually, I am now the chairman of a large insurance company here in Ukraine.” I reminded him of what he had previously said. “Yes — but then I thought — if I was so fucking clever, I should be fucking rich.”

Over the next few years I saw a lot of Anatoliy and his family, including his two young sons from his second marriage who were already chess geniuses. After a lapse in communications, in 2009 I was once again based in Kyiv, running a project for the European Commission. My old contact details for Anatoliy brought no response.

One of the sons whom I remembered was, it now appeared, a director of a large financial institution and in the meantime had become one of the most notorious Ukrainian oligarchs. I contacted his secretary. Yes, Anatoliy was also a director of the institution, but he was very ill, and had just been taken to hospital. A week later I learnt that he had died.

For six years I lived in a flat off the Khreshchatyk. I had arrived just in time to see the start of things going very seriously wrong in Ukraine, starting with the 2010 defeat of the EU-inclined Yulia Tymoshenko for the presidency by the former petty criminal Viktor Yanukovych.

The Kyiv Opera House, which I had not previously credited with political nous, staged on the evening before the election a production of Boris Godunov, opening with a scene in which the impoverished, starving and freezing people are beaten by knout-wielding boyars into the centre of the city to beg Boris to please be their Tsar.

Yanukovych soon began to display a pattern of corruption and subservience to Moscow, extending, for example, Russia’s lease on the naval base at Sevastopol — which in retrospect laid the groundwork for the 2014 Crimea takeover. But what did any of that matter to Westerners or the more prosperous Ukrainians who could buy off police intimidation for a few dollars or, if necessary, an application of blatt (influence)?

Monument to kitsch: Inside Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya estate. Picture Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

When my dear colleague Ksenia (who at the time of writing is spending each terrifying night with her family in a cellar in Kyiv hoping that they will see the morning) was stopped in broad daylight in the Khreschatyk by a group of the presidential bodyguard who fancied confiscating the flash 4×4 she was driving (bought through her own efforts as a dynamic and legitimate businesswoman), she offered them the keys with two alternatives: they could take the car and she would report them to her very good friend Major X, on which they would be deprived of their jobs, careers, and future; or they could hand the keys back (which of course they did).

I did not, to my present regret, keep a diary during the Maidan period of 2013-14, and that just goes to show what a callow fellow I was. It started out for me, living so close to it, as a jolly adventure to be able to see the sort of thing people could get up to; but it certainly didn’t, at first, seem like a real, destiny-changing, political revolution, as when I had been in Czechoslovakia in 198d9 when Václav Havel became president.

The demonstrators had erected a wooden trebuchet catapult

I recall the Maidan demonstrations starting fairly amiably in November 2013. My office was beyond the square’s northern side, so walking from my apartment I crossed the Maidan twice a day. All sorts of factions, united only by their detestation of Yanukovych, set up areas with their own placards, support areas, and speakers, a carnival environment which did not feel at all intimidatory at first, until gun-toting self-appointed “self-defence” units began to appear.

Although these never seemed very numerous, their literature with references to the nationalist, Nazi collaborator, Stepan Bandera (who had been “rehabilitated” in Ukrainian history by Yanukovych’s predecessor Viktor Yushchenko) inclined me to give them a wide berth.

Further down the Khreschatyk, in fancy tents, were corollary permanent “demonstrations”. One lauded the less-than-lily-white Yulia Tymoshenko, the one-time prime minister who had been jailed by Yanukovich but was beloved by Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs high representative. The other was in support of Yanukovych, but this was manned only from about 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening by whey-faced paid apparatchiks. No one paid these sideshows much attention.

After armed clashes began between rioters and police, I — being a coward — altered my route to work and confess that on occasions, when the noise of gunshots spread through the central area, I did not even attend the office.

Flanking demonstrations spread to areas adjacent to the Maidan. Some of these were more amiable than others, for example people singing in the sleet pro-EU songs to police and soldiers, to the accompaniment of an appropriately decorated piano.

But one evening, strolling to Hrushevskoho Street, I discovered that soldiers had occupied its upper part and placed a barrier across it. In response, the demonstrators had erected a wooden trebuchet catapult to lob torn up paving stones at them. I took a photo but did not hang around to see the consequences.

When Yanukovych finally fled to Russia in February 2014, I was amongst the first to take a tour of his “liberated” palace at Mezhyhirya, ten miles or so north of Kyiv on the Dnieper River. One of the great monuments of kitsch, it included — apart from an enormous mansion — numerous outbuildings and guesthouses and a 150 foot permanently moored luxury barge. What a useless extravagance, we all thought.

But even here we were wrong; it has finally found a purpose eight years later, as a shelter for the fleeing residents of Kyiv.

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