Confusion in the Borderlands
From the archives... a little background color.
AMERICA JUST CAN’T DECIDE what it wants to think about Russia. Republicans have never cottoned to a roosky until The Donald found a European who loved gold bathroom fittings as much as he did. The Democrats have traditionally had a soft spot for pinkos until Bernie Sanders — America’s favorite crazy uncle — went nuclear hippie on the Clinton campaign. The Bern has expressed admiration for Soviet style breadlines as “fair,” and if his supporters are to be believed, millennials far and wide have heard the call and are pronouncing the free market and capitalism dead.
Maybe, but as Stanislav Lec said “He who limps is still walking.” Capitalism is still walking, but what about Marxism on this 100th anniversary of the first practical, large scale application of his principles. It has never actually improved the lot of the working stiff, and yet it is the idea that will neither fly nor die. In over a century of trying, communism has never survived in the wild, but has never died in the classroom. To see why, I went to Ukraine in the midst of its post-Soviet identity crisis.
YOU CAN ALWAYS SEE THE LINGERING IMPRESSION — like handcuffs ratcheted too tight — when arriving in a place that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. After two decades, the Modern European Affordable School of architecture is making inroads, but those blocky, Orwellian Soviet buildings still sit around like the drunk at a party who won’t leave. The old buildings have been painted and refitted, but there is only so much make-up can do for the fundamentally ugly. The airport in Kiev has the charm of a bus station next door to a porn theater. What the Kiev airport actually was next too, however, was a beautiful bit of country that the Soviets hadn’t gotten around to wrecking. It looks like rural Kentucky and, like the Blue Grass state, it is horse country. The heads of dreaming Ukrainian boys used to be filled with images of the Cossacks riding over these steppes the way America boys used to think of Cowboys until the internet came along. Now, like their American counterparts, they stay inside playing video games until they hoof off to college to make themselves obvious.
I’d arrived in August, a few years ago, as the country was celebrating its Independence Day from the USSR. There was a lot of talk about what it meant to be Ukrainian. These college students who were making such a fuss belong to what is called the “Independence Generation” — those in their early twenties or younger who have no memory of the Soviet era.
A group of these earnest youngsters had occupied the Hostynny Dvir or Hospitable Courtyard to protect the historic square from being privatized and turned into, they feared, a shopping mall. All in all, the same sort of thing American leftist students do, except that these kids cleaned up the place they were trying to save as opposed to burning it down. They declared it a “Hospitable Republic.”
Like undergrads everywhere, however, they hadn’t completely thought out the statement they were making. One protester explained how they were focused on forging a new identity “without the Soviet aftertaste.” They wanted a new, prosperous Ukraine where the government created lots of new jobs — but not, evidently, in shopping malls. A better way to lose that Soviet aftertaste, I’d think, is to quit gargling with a planned economy.
Yet defining what it means to be Ukrainian has proven trickier than just glancing at the passport. The name “Ukraine” is a corruption of an old Polish word meaning “borderlands.” For the last thousand years or so, everyone who has ruled this beautiful, fertile land has considered it something of a dumpy non-place — a bumper to the realm. The Soviets used the whole country as heavily armed speed bump. So, well-armed that when Ukraine broke with the USSR it became the world’s third largest nuclear power. Any swagger that might have brought was short lived. By 1996 the country had handed all its nuclear weapons over to their former overlords for “dismantling” in return for US, Britain and Russia agreeing to respect and protect its territorial integrity. And we’ll not comment on that.
Getting a read on Ukraine’s current troubles has been very much a moving target. Prior to the non-invasion by Russia, the cause du jour whether or not Russian would be granted official status as a second language. In Western leaning Kiev, the language debate was an affront to all those “ethnic” Ukrainians who fought to preserve their heritage under the Soviets. In the East, the retort is that being forced to listen to Ukrainians speak Ukrainian in Ukraine is a violation of their civil rights as Ukrainians who’d rather hear Russian in Ukraine. For the record, until the identity politics kicked in, the two were considered the same language, with Ukrainian a regional dialect. Regardless, once you start making arguments like that, it’s bound to end badly.
The discussion was never really dialectical, but political: Would Ukraine get back together with its domineering and manipulative ex, Russia? When the country voted itself independent of the Soviet Union, for the fourth time, in 1991 it only stucj because Russia Russia itself out of the Union a few months later. After that the band was like the Doors without Jim Morrison.
Still, that gritty Soviet aftertaste never really went away. Almost to a man, the officials from the old government formed a new one, outlawed the Communist Party and confiscated all its property. The QED being that the government appropriated its own stuff and changed the logo. Throughout the nineties, Kiev remained staunchly pro-Russian and had the rigged votes and stomped-on press to prove it. Some things did change; a brand of tidy civil protest the Soviets would have never allowed began to flourish.
Almost immediately, the cracks in Ukrainian society began to appear. Or rather, one massive crack right down the middle announced itself. West of the Dnieper River that cuts the country more or less in half north to south, people began to tear down Soviet era monuments and change the names of the streets to something less Bolshevik. In Kiev, the massive city center Square of the October Revolution was recast as the now famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti — Independence Square.
East of the Dnieper and in Crimea, the majority still speak Russian and see something of faded Imperial glory in soulless, grey boulevards with names like “Lenin” and “23rd of August.” I asked one local in Kharkov why they hadn’t taken down the eight-storey monument to the Russian soldier rendered in DC Comic proportions in the city center. It was one of the more practical responses to a political question I’d ever heard: “How would we? It’s very big… what would we do with it?”
FAR EAST OF THE DNIEPER, is Kharkov, a city of about 1.5 million about 20 miles from the Russian border. In fact, most of the population claims to be Russian — the very people who I was convinced as a child were going to rain a fiery, atomic death from above and melt my topsiders. The modern reality wasn’t so harrowing.
A local photographer I’ll call Irina and her mother left a sushi bar to pick me up at the Kharkov airport. The place isn’t all vodka, bears and furry hats. Nowadays it’s vodka and a lot of other stuff, like sushi. At night, if you are tired, it can be beautiful. The streets are wide and public spaces enormous. The few buildings that pre-date the Soviets and survived the world war are glorious — by night. Irena assured me that not all of Kharkov is like this.
It’s not. In the daylight, Kharkov can be dismal — but it’s a very Bolshevik kind of dismal. How the Soviets managed to make something so boring and so sinister at the same time is a mystery. Apartment buildings take up entire city blocks with absolutely no regard — to the point of aggressive denial — of the humans living there. In mad juxtaposition, the trees and bushes that line the sidewalks are wild and unkempt in some counter-offensive to the standardization of the buildings. Marxists have a desperate love affair with heavy industry as a quantifiable testament to standardization: A system that requires countless cogs and only a few lever pullers. Like America’s rustbelt, the people in the east have an almost suicidal nostalgia for a manufacturing golden age whose lack of adaptability is the main cause of its collapse.
Like most grim places, Kharkov wasn’t without its sense of humor: Old Soviet era posters and images are used to roughly the same kitschy affect that American use the stylized images of the 1950’s. I asked Irina, a member of the Independence Generation, about the transformation of the old Soviet big brother spy state into a cartoon. “I remember nothing of the Soviets.” She said with a disinterested shrug.
“What about your mother, does she talk about it?”
“I suppose.” The only thing a millennial finds less boring than a foreign journalist, evidently, is her mother. In short, the very real danger of an empire that suppressed all of human individuality into a collective economic puree had, in one generation, become the local variant on America’s Gramps walking to school in the snow uphill both ways story.
When asked if she was worried that the government was still spying on the people, Irina seemed genuinely amused that I thought a) the politicos in Kiev were competent enough to pull off a spy program and b) had a desire to do anything than get rich. The general feeling is that the flourishing civil protest is less a sign of liberal reform than general incompetence and apathy on the part of the government. She waved her smartphone at me, “Everyone knows where I am anyway.”
She also thought the language debate in the east was absurd, but a different absurd than west of the Dnieper. “Everything is in Russian already!” she said pointing to a billboard. I had to take her word for it. Then she said something that caught me off guard. “America, it is bilingual. Yes?”
“Ah, well. Not officially, no.” said. “I mean, sure…pretty much every government agency and most large corporations print documents in both languages. And in some areas of the country the businesses are entirely in Spanish, sure. But no, the United States isn’t bilingual.”
“How is that NOT bilingual?”
Well, she had me there.
The deeper anxieties are no less absurd. The ethnically Russian fear of oppression by the Ukrainians is not some ancient hatred. Soviet bureaucrats assigned ethnicities based on criteria like neighborhood, language and other slipperier measures; those famed put-upon Kulaks were merely peasants who’d managed to hold onto a decent savings account. Imagine being classed ethically “Middlebrow Kansan.” Once sorted, Moscow proceeded to set the groups on each other like cats in an over warm sack.
If you ever want to see where America’s heated identity politics are taking us, you could do worse than picnic on either bank of the Dnieper. And yet these fake ethnic rivalries mask an older worldview that the Russians have of themselves. Ukraine is the homeland of the Rus, a tribe of Vikings, and widely considered the birthplace of Russian culture. Before they built Moscow, their capital was Kiev. This is an honor the Ukrainians wish they didn’t have. For all the debate among the students and the newspapers, Vladimir Putin wants the borderlands back in the fold and he doesn’t seem interested in discussing the matter.
I asked Irina how the Russians and Ukrainians — all of whom look like tall, pale first cousins — could even tell each other apart. She couldn’t say how she could discern one from the other, only that she could, like some unnamed, niche market ESP. As near as I could tell it was predicated on where you’d rather say you are from, or more to the point, bullshit.
AT A LONDON-THEMED RESTAURANT in Kharkov called Big Ben, some young Ukrainians to explained the Soviet nostalgia. They said repeatedly that Independence Generation bemoans the lack of social services that their parents and grandparents enjoyed under the old order. Although the term “enjoy” doesn’t quite capture the zeitgeist of a once-a-decade famine engineered by Moscow to show who was boss; or that atomic über-rave called Chernobyl. Today, the nostalgic East “enjoys” a higher and younger death rate, a higher AIDS infection rate and more crime. The birth rate is lower, but those fewer children have a much higher rate of fetal alcohol syndrome.
That last one isn’t mere WHO hand-wringing either. While packed into one of the city’s buses I saw a boy, maybe 12, walking down the street with a quart of beer and a cigarette dangling from his lips. I wasn’t the only one who saw it, just the only one who thought it odd. A policeman gave him a light.
Ukraine does “enjoy” universal healthcare… it’s also a train wreck. I met with a heart surgeon I’ll call Sergey to get his read on the healthcare system. Since he’s devoted his professional life creating a Western style cardiac unit, he must not think very highly of the old way. His small, tidy office has a series of charcoal Don Quixote prints on the wall. He’s got his got his work cut out for him, and to judge by the metaphorical wall art, he knows it.
“We are dealing with essentially the same healthcare system we had under the Soviet Union. Many politicians seem to think that we still are under the Soviets. This breeds corruption.” He said this in that very detached way Slavs talk about tragic things. “Constitutionally, legally, healthcare is free to all Ukrainians. Practically, it’s very expensive.” In Ukraine, about $268 is spent per capita annually, compared with $7,164 in the US. The Ministry of Health still insists on centrally planning healthcare the same way it planned the entire economy in the good old days. With largely the same results: A coronary stint that goes for $1,200 in the US costs — after government fees, taxes and concessions — about $2,800 in Ukraine. Because the healthcare is free, and the government only funds the system to the tune of $268 a head, it means that nearly all the stints wind up on the medical black market going to the highest bidder. After a bidding war, that stint costs about $5,000.
The irony being that legal and free-market capitalism is probably the Ukrainian healthcare system’s only hope. The cardiac wing I visited had recently been refurbished. Sergey told me that the money came from donations from the US and Europe and — this is very crucial — locals. “Many Ukrainians have done very well since independence and there is a sense among many in the private sector that this is our country and we’ve got to take care of it no matter who is ruling.”
“If this is the state of social services,” I asked, “why do so many people want closer ties with Russia?”
The good doctor unwittingly unlocked the shiny element that makes communism the idea that won’t go away and has kept it on academic life-support for a century now. The sort of answer you’d never get from students in a bar. “Under the Soviet Union, the stores were empty. No one had anything. Except government officials…” Sergey gave a dismissive wave, “but they were different. The rest of us, we all had nothing. Nothing together. Now some people have done well. You see Mercedes and Range Rovers on the street. Other people ask, ‘Why can’t I have these things?’”
So that was it. It has nothing to do with kindness, equality or even simple math. It is jealousy driving that crackpot idea.
Say what you like about Karl Marx — swell beard, ham-handed economist, chronic unemployable — he was the most influential political theorist of all time. Sure, he married the Baron of Westphalia’s daughter and lived off a stipend which Friedrich Engels skimmed off his family’s textile firm — but why should practical application get in the way of a really big idea? And it was big: A bare hundred years after his death in 1883, nearly one half of the planet’s regimes described themselves as Marxist.
If it were so well received, the idea must have some merit, it must be fundamentally healthy. Well, let’s go back to that unattainable coronary stint for the answer. Remember that McDonald’s is the most influential restaurant of all time — much to the same affect.
Originally published in Whiskey Barrel, 2017