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Changing the Country, We Apologize for the Inconvenience: A Ukraine Tour Diary, Part Two

Part two of Franz Nicolay's tour diary as he travels through Ukraine with a banjo, his wife, and one-year-old daughter.
November 24, 2014, 3:00pm

Artwork by Mitch Clem and Nation of Amanda

This is the second installment of a three-part series by Franz Nicolay recounting his experiences touring Ukraine earlier this year in the midst of its ongoing political upheaval. Part one is available here and part three is here. Some names have been changed.

I took the train up to Chernivsti—or down, since it was almost due south, by the Romanian and Moldovan borders—on the route to Odessa. I have never been able to fully assimilate the idea that one can go south into mountains, any more than that rivers can run north to the sea. I’d done some preliminary anti-hangover work with liters of weak beer, which we'll say constituted hydration. The filthy bathroom at the end of the train car was, despite the stench, the only place on the train to catch a gulp of fresh air. The old women, ever leery of the dreaded “draft,” prohibited with fearful glares the opening of the windows.

My contact was a red-headed young man with the unlikely name of Vadim Mustard who—it was news to me—was the mastermind behind my Ukrainian shows (and Dima Poole’s Moldovan and Belorussian adventures). The nickname “Mustard” was a relic from an American-run Baptist summer camp he attended in middle school: the religion didn’t stick, but the name did.

As it turned out, I’d met him once before: he worked at Kvartira Art Center in Dnipropetrovsk when Maria and I played there two years before. As a teenager in Chernivtsi, he opened a design studio, silkscreening bags and T-shirts. He first booked a show by a local band as a vehicle to sell some of his merchandise, and found that he liked putting on shows more than making bags: “It’s like a shitty tattoo; you get one, then you just want to get more.”

So he became a booking agent, organizing tours for Ukrainian and foreign bands—a lot of Italian hardcore, for some reason (“I don’t know why. I think they want to have sex with Ukrainian women”), not so much Romanian or Moldovan, despite their proximity (“They’re all guys smoking weed and [mimes playing bongos]”). He routed several of his tours through Kvartira in Dnipropetrovsk, was impressed with their operation, asked for a job, and worked there for two years. He’s since returned to his hometown, booking shows there and working as a producer for the local TV station.

We walked to the “Musico-Dramatic Theatre,” a gorgeous opera house decorated with chandeliers, maroon velvet, and gold leaf, to film a segment for a local TV program he produces. Like many of the driven young men who are the engines of their local scenes, Vadim propelled himself down the sidewalks with racehorse strides, twitchy with energy. I wanted to grab him by the shoulder and harness him to my pace.

Chernivtsi is a beautiful town in the Hapsburg style, but unlike many of them, it was freshly repainted on the occasion of its six-hundredth anniversary. And unlike L’viv, it isn’t overrun with tourists—just a few cars with Italian or Russian plates, the latter of which ostentatiously displayed Ukrainian flags. A trio of crew cuts in Adidas track suits glowered at an ATM. The language here is, Vadim said, about evenly split between Ukrainian and Russian speakers (“and maybe 20 percent Romanian,” he added). He himself was raised speaking Russian, but “I like speaking Ukrainian. You don’t have here, like in L’viv or Ternopil, people saying, ‘Oh man, why you speaking Russian?’ It is more democratic, young people wanting to make art.” He paused. “I hate borders.”

Did he, I asked, think that this was a common sentiment, that there was a generation of young people who wanted to move past the bifurcations of the past?

He was unwilling to generalize or predict. All of his friends from Luhansk and Donetsk were in Kyiv now, which is good for the concentration of like-minded people but not for the cultural future of the east. Poroshenko was, he said, “I don’t know the word in English—not good, not bad.”

Do you think it was all worth it, I asked—the chaos, the loss of Crimea, the war in the East—to overthrow the government and awaken the national consciousness?

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “It’s like I’m reading a book of history, and I don’t know how it ends.”

The PA at the coffeehouse alternated between James Taylor covers and the Stooges, which I suppose is as good an introduction as any for my show. The crowd was young, Europeanized hipsters, and they seemed rather affluent by Ukrainian standards: I counted at least a half-dozen iPad minis. One guy scrolled through the headlines, looked up, and said, “Today Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian parliament] banned Communist Party.” Plenty of technology, but not much reaction to my set.

“That’s just how Chernivtsi is,” said Vadim. I took the 2 AM train back to L’viv. It was too hot to sleep.

The show in L’viv was a last-minute affair in a crowded stone basement bar. Olena, a journalist, puts on shows “for a hobby. People say L’viv is the cultural center of Ukraine, but it’s not true. There is no club to have loud music, like punk rock or grindcore like I want to put on. People only want cover bands that can play while [customers] eat. So for now I am only doing acoustic shows.” Anyway, she thought, it’s inappropriate to put on big shows with wounded soldiers coming back to L’viv hospital from the east. People would rather, she hoped, give blood and money to the war effort than pay for an expensive rock show.

Appropriately for a venue that looked like something out of Greenwich Village in the 60s, the crowd were hipsters—in the beatnik sense, not the contemporary one; quiet, attentive, serious listeners. Maria and I caught the night train back to Kyiv, the “Bulgaria Express,” Sofia to Moscow. The usual shirtless, potbellied drunk harassed the hallway, alternately grumbling, belligerent, and supplicant.

Often, I’ll tour a country for the first time, and a person—almost always a young man—will come up to me and say, “Next time you come, let me organize the shows.” Two years ago, in Kyiv, it had been the voluble, scruffy Dima G., and I had indeed reached out to him this time around (though, as it turned out, he delegated most of the shows to Vadim). We met up for lunch at Kult Ra, a new-agey theme restaurant and local outpost for a trendy neo-paganism centered on the prehistoric Trypillian culture, which flourished on the territory of western Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania five to seven thousand years ago. He was the picture of an Anglo hipster-punk in a Propagandhi T-shirt and pink Rayban knockoffs, a guy who plays bike polo on Saturdays. He is from a circus family on his mother’s side—a strongman, an illusionist—though, he conceded, “there are no pictures of them. They could have just been some alcoholics.” He works for a website run by Ukrainians but based in San Francisco (an “automated proofreader and personal grammar coach”) and so has a much-coveted US visa, though he hasn’t made use of it. He books a few shows a year for foreign bands: the Brooklyn-based group Obits, someone from Austria. Malaya Opera, where we played last time, was shut down shortly thereafter, and the scene had moved to a big hanger, which also didn’t last. Now it’s centered on a garage run by a small collective, who recently put on a successful festival called “DIYstvo” (a pun on dyjstvo, or “happening”).

The Kyiv punks, though, are more social club than fount of artistry; the kind of institutional memory and history that can be a foundation for creative breakthroughs is missing, for a familiar reason. “I have a friend, Timon, who is 40, and he is like the elder statesman. He was around in the late 80s, early 90s; he saw Sonic Youth play here to like 20 people, saw VV [Vopli Vidopliassova, a seminal Ukrainian rock band led by singer/accordionist Oleh Skripka] when they were a punk band, before they decided to go for commercial success. There was a pretty good noise-punk scene here then. And then everyone got into drugs, and now Timon is the only one [older] than late 30s who comes to shows. It is too bad. The punks now think they are the first Ukrainian punks; but really, because of the internet, it is just imitations of American punk.”

That day, the Ukrainian parliamentary leadership, led by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, resigned, which the international media reported as a fatal breach in the governing coalition, but which had the feel of a choreographed and scripted maneuver. The leadership of the government had changed after former prime minister Yanukovich’s flight to Russia, but the Parliament hadn’t: The revanchist Communists and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions still held their seats. Yatsenyuk’s resignation would trigger a new round of parliamentary elections in the fall, which would be expected to wipe out the disgraced old guard and bring in a unified, reformist government. (A few days later, President Poroshenko refused to accept Yatsenyuk’s resignation.)

Dima never spent the night on the Maidan, but he was part of groups that brought medicine and supplies. “I didn’t agree 100 percent with their goals, because I don’t like the EU. I think we should be independent. But if the choice is EU or Russia, of course I choose Europe. I voted for Poroshenko. Usually my vote is for nobody,” but under the circumstances, he felt, it was important to vote, and Poroshenko was the least-worst option.

“Maybe,” he said, echoing the consensus opinion, “he will be a good manager. Oligarch or not, I don’t care. It is just money. Give any of those poor people on the square money and they would be the same.”

I asked him what he thought about the rump occupation.

The people left on the Maidan, he said, “have nowhere else to go. They don’t want to go to work. Eventually people will stop giving them money or food.”

Dima Poole had described the Maidan’s effect on the Ukrainian psyche as an unlocking of a patriotic sentiment. “I never liked patriotism,” said Dima G., “but during the Maidan, I felt patriotic. In Dnipropetrovsk [where he had lived], it was a very Russian city—not as much as in the east, but very few people were speaking Ukrainian in the city center. Now it is one of the most patriotic cities. But [patriotic sentiment] has gone too far. Everyone is painting”—he gestured to a low stone wall painted the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. “I think these are ugly colors, actually, but if you say that now, people say, ‘Get out of here, you Russian!’”

Stare Misto

I caught a sweltering bus by the McDonald’s at the Kyiv train station, bound for Bila Tserkva (“White Church”), a small provincial city an hour and a half down the road towards Odessa. I found a wide, sleepy commons, with grass growing between the asphalt tiles, and in the center a Mexican-looking plastered and enclosed plaza. There was something Graham Greene Mexican, or Hemingway Cuban, about the town in general—the overgrown and bedraggled square, depopulated buildings painted pastel blue and yellow, idling taxis, groups of young men and overdressed women gathered around a motorcycle, a small café with plastic gingham tablecloths. On one end of the square was a low, wide, empty pedestal, obviously the former home of a Lenin statue, now holding only an emasculated, rusting iron pipe and some crumbled cement. Beside the empty pedestal was a long banner memorializing the Maidan dead; beside it, scattered, wilting flowers, and a bottle of Nemiroff “Distinct” vodka. Well, not a bottle, that wouldn’t have lasted—just the empty sleeve the bottle came in, with a floral wreath.

Just off the square, up a white, white staircase, was Stare Misto: a beautiful restaurant with low, arched brick ceilings and rough, sturdy wooden tables. The short, barrel-ceiling stage was backed with generic classic-rock wallpaper images: Jim Morrison, Hendrix, Zeppelin. The café walls were painted in the earthy brown and red tribal patterns familiar from Kult Ra, and a red-and-black nationalist flag hung over the sun-drenched back exit. I ducked under the flag and walked out onto the wide, enclosed patio. At the far end of this enclosed market plaza was an empty, festival-style outdoor stage. To my left were café tables. To my right was a crossbow range. A seven-year-old boy with a cocked crossbow in one hand was taking a cellphone call from his mother with his other.

Some local parents had organized archery lessons for the town’s children, and young mothers corralled kids, from toddlers to ten-year-olds, while men in tank-tops helped the older ones pull, aim, and shoot. At 30 yards stood two straw-stuffed targets—one circular, one a burlap-sack mock torso—mounted on sheets of plywood to protect the building’s walls. On tables nearby lay a collection of homemade longbows and crossbows; wooden arrows, some with whittled points, some with dangerous-looking hand-filed steel heads; and 11x17 color printouts—headshots of Putin and Yanukovich—which the event’s leaders stapled to the targets. A balding man in sandals demonstrated an even more impressive piece of artillery, a chest-high stationary crossbow with a ratcheting windlass. It took two young boys to cock and aim it, and the arrow missed the target and sunk a half-inch into the plywood. A man picked up a foot-long pair of pliers and wrestled it loose.

An elegant young woman named Daria opened Stare Misto a year ago, as not just a restaurant and music venue, but a “local center for this kind of thinking”—promoting a proud, muscular Ukrainian patriotism for a young generation. The menu offers buckwheat noodles and borscht; a burlap-bound copy of the poetry of the 19th-century national icon Taras Shevchenko is on each table. Light electronica pulses from the DJ booth, which is painted in the “native” Trypillian style. They sell local crafts—a great advance, Daria says, for this “Soviet-style” town. In addition to today’s archery workshop, there is a “support our troops” event for kids tomorrow morning: a drawing class, the results to be sent to soldiers on the front. (Next week, Tim Burton movie night.) She organizes camping retreats to the Carpathians: rafting, hiking, music.

Daria was slim, dark, and self-possessed, though shy about her English. She was working in logistics in Kyiv when friends told her that this space in Bila Tserkva was available. The similarities between this open-air market building and those in Latin America was no accident, she said, they were both Jesuit: This plaza had been a Jesuit market, built some two hundred years ago by a local Polish lord.

An elderly man with a Shevchenko walrus moustache and a shaved-head, Cossack-style topknot ordered a beer. Daria introduced me to her friend Ksenia, a friendly redhead in a loose green dress, with an earnest, up-talking lilt. Ksenia had been an English instructor in Indonesia and now worked as an online translator. As we talked, she encouraged Daria in a teacherly way to join in and practice her English.

Ksenia, in her own guileless and gregarious fashion, was a fierce Ukrainian patriot. “I think Maidan should be no more,” she says. “Maidan is in the heads of people now. Maybe the people [still] there lost their jobs, or maybe they are from the east and have nowhere to go, but the money and food that is going to them should go to the soldiers now.”

Does she, I asked, feel that the Maidan movement was a success?

“There will be a second Maidan,” she said firmly. “We didn’t achieve any of the aims.”

It was a line I heard from several activist youth, and one that willfully forgot that the stated demands of the Maidan protestors began with the removal of then-President Yanukovich. The final government peace proposal in late February, which included new presidential elections, was rejected by the protestors on the grounds that Yanukovych must leave immediately, and his flight the next day was the cue that diffused the energy of the protest. It was an attempt—like the men refusing to leave the square—to main the emotional momentum of the movement, though without allowing themselves the satisfaction of achievement. The paradox is, if you won, there’s nothing left to do; but if there’s so much more to do, did you really win?

“Well, Yanukovych is gone,” Ksenia admitted. “But that is just one thing.” Ukraine, she said, needs true independence. “There are people now who want to stop the war so it doesn’t come to them, but they don’t understand, Putin will just try to move the border closer. We have Russia as a neighbor,” she said, and Ukraine can’t just wish the Russians away.

I changed into my stage suit in their front office, which Daria had leased out as a tattoo shop. Tattoos, she says, have become popular in the last year, especially tattoos of Ukrainian symbols: one of the café workers has both the trident that is a national symbol, and the iconic line from the national anthem: “Ukraine is not dead yet.” Daria herself got the first tattoo on the new padded bench. It reads “Wanderlust,” though she hasn’t travelled widely.

The tattoo shop was decorated in revolution chic: a glossy photo of silhouettes against burning barricades, gas masks and other vintage military paraphernalia hanging from the walls, an artist’s jointed wooden hand arranged into an upraised middle finger, a poster-size propaganda calendar of “the patriotic year 2014” from the vodka brand Banderivska (a reference to the iconic nationalist leader), bearing the slogan “бандерібцька територія нескорених” (“Unbroken Banderist Territory”). On another poster, the scowling face of former president Yanukovych was drawn in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant, with the title, “Lawful [or Legimitized] Dictatorship.” With a series of captioned, black-on-red icons, it outlined the package of repressive laws the Parliament had passed over the winter in a desperate attempt to create a legal framework for a crackdown on the Maidan (“Participate in peaceful in helmet, uniforms, with fire—up to 10 days”). And in one corner, confusingly, were paired the European Union flag and the Confederate stars-and-bars. Chosen, no doubt, as a generic signifier for “rebels,” it is another disconcerting example of the resistance of symbols to cross-cultural translation. (Just to confuse the symbolism further, later in the summer, the pro-Russian separatists began to use a version of the Confederate flag as their “official banner.” The designer, reported the Moscow Times, “stumbled on the flag online somewhere.”)

It was their friends who had pulled down Bila Tserkva’s Lenin statue over the winter, with a truck-mounted crane—then cut him up with a blowtorch for souvenirs. “There is a difference,” Ksenia said, “between [younger Ukrainians and] people 40 to 45 [years old] who grew up partly under Soviet Union. [The latter] think Donetsk, Luhansk, they are Russian, not really Ukrainian, let them go. Younger people, who grew up in independent Ukraine, believe” in the idea of a singularly Ukraine and its territorial integrity.

There is an interesting demographic point there: in many ways, the conflict in Ukraine is generational. Most societies troubled by violent unrest have a large proportional population of young and unemployed (see North Africa and the Middle East). The Russian and Ukrainian population uniquely prone to manipulation by propaganda and populist appeal is the middle-aged, the lost generation trapped between the malaise of late Communism and the betrayed post-Soviet promises of liberalism and privatization. Without a memory of the Soviet Union, and with the positive example of their peers in Poland, the under-30s are immune to Putin’s pan-Slavic rhetoric.

I wondered if Ksenia, like Dima, was sympathetic to the more radical fringes of Ukrainian politics, but, like most of the pragmatic reformers, she had supported Poroshenko. “Poroshenko was not the best option. But in fact there is no good option. The three politicians who were on Maidan—[the nationalist Oleh] Tyhanybok, [centrist ex-boxer Vladimir] Klitschko, and [Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk—people saw that they were not good enough… Before last year, being a politician was a good job: you pressed a button, and got money. Now it means real responsibility, and people are dying, and no one wants to take responsibility.”

Her torrent of opinion slowed. She sighed, afraid I was bored. “This time has been very stressful. I know many people who have become actually ill, from reading the news every day. So,” she said, sitting up as if to physically change the subject, “I am hoping tonight we will just be having a good time.”


Zhytomyr is north and west of Bila Tserkva, in the opposite direction to Kyiv. Unfortunately, there were no direct buses, so I had to retrace my route to the Kyiv station, then take another bus from Kyiv to Zhytomyr. Arseniy met me there: thin, heavy-browed, with a prominent Adam’s apple and a penetrating, ironic look. He had light, cloudy blue eyes and dark Italianate hair. He, like so many of the other young people involved in the DIY scene, did outsourced work for a foreign company: in this case, market research for an ad agency which had been founded by Americans, then sold to Indians. He has been putting on shows in Zhytomyr for about five years, mostly foreign acts. “People don’t want to see Ukrainian bands, they think they can’t be any good. Phooey, who you will play with tomorrow, they are interesting noise-rock. Most other Ukrainian bands are just trying to imitate European or American bands.” Like Vadim, he gets a lot of Italian bands; also like Vadim, he couldn’t explain why. And Belorussians: “They are not like Ukrainians—they are serious about the ideals. Belorussian and Ukrainian punks have the same ideology, but in Belorussia they are serious about it… Now European bands are scared to come here. They don’t know the war is nowhere near [Zhytomyr].” As Dima G. had said, “If the shit hits the fan, the Russians are only five hours from [Kyiv], but for now…”

“We can’t give Russia those regions,” Arseniy said. “They will just come for more regions. They will want Kyiv. But there won’t be a second Maidan. The same people are in government as before, and the war is good for them, because they can go on stealing while” the country is distracted by the war. The fever, he agreed, broke with the flight of Yanukovych. “Maybe every ten years we will have a revolution.”

Zhytomyr has a good punk scene, Arseniy said. Probably the best in Ukraine after Kyiv and Odessa. He has a band himself. “We are playing screamo.”

What do you play?

A slight grin. “I am screaming.”

Despite my detour through Kyiv and the early show, we had some time to kill, and along with some of the other members of Arseniy’s band, went on a walk. Zhytomyr is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, dating to 884 in the Kyivan Rus period, but, Arseniy says, “was destroyed in the war, so now it looks like any Soviet city.” (It was also, briefly, the capital of a post-WWI independent Ukraine.) Like any self-respecting Soviet city, they had, until six months ago, “one of the biggest Lenins, bigger than Kyiv. It took them two hours to pull it down, with chains and a car.” The empty plinth is now spray-pained “Heroes!” and, like Bila Tserkva’s, holds a banner with images of the “heavenly hundred.”

(Old bragging habits are tenacious, though. The side of one office building is covered with a Ukrainian flag: “The biggest in the world,” Arseniy claimed. “It is now in the Guinness book.”)

What is Zhytomyr known for? I asked.

A rocket scientist, he said. And socks. “You go around the country, and people say, ‘Where are you from?’ Zhytomyr. ‘Oh, Zhytomyr socks!’“ And, a serial killer: “A maniac, who killed 53 people” over two years in the 1990s. He gained the nickname “The Beast of Ukraine,” and died recently in the local prison. Arseniy had brought an Italian band over recently, and their first question was “Where’s the maniac?”

Across from the venue was a lovely park with a huge stone commemorating the founding of the city. A group of tattooed kids sprawled in the grass, backpacks thrown on their scattered bikes. “Those are the anarchists of Zhytomyr and Kyiv,” Arseniy said. “They held a lecture today on [Ukrainian anarchist Nestor] Makhno… They don’t do any direct action, just talking about their ideas.”

We climbed a hill towards a weather-beaten column, a World War II memorial on the high ground overlooking a wooded canyon and a dam. Plastic beer bottles littered the overgrown stone tiles of the plaza. We opened our own and passed them around. The Nazis, one of the young men said, called this river canyon “Ukrainian Switzerland.”

“Over there, that rock?” He pointed. “That is the ‘head of Chotsky.’“ In local legend, a Cossack named Chotsky, galloping away from his enemies, came to the edge of the cliff, and dove off rather than surrender. His horse kicked the rock on the way down and formed the profile.

“I’m having a feeling of deja vu,” I told them. I did virtually this same thing in Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, two years before, hiking to the dam and drinking beer with my hosts.

Arseniy laughed. “I think it is common,” he said, “drinking by the dam and the monument.” In the typical post-Soviet city, what else are you going to do?

I sang my songs in a neon-lit basement bar, under the gaze of pictures of Bowie, and Lou Reed, and David Lynch; and in front of a pair of disembodied plaster hands clutching an American flag. Some of the crowd knew my song “This Is Not A Pipe” and sang along, under the gaze of the local TV camera. In the rest of the country, violence was spreading: the house of the mayor of L’viv was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and the mayor of Kremenchuk, downriver from Kyiv, was shot dead. I caught the bus back to the capital, the sun still up, at the stop where the tank rested atop a stone pedestal.

For daily coverage of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, head over to VICE News.

Franz Nicolay is a musician from New York. His new album, To Us, The Beautiful! will be out in January. He is working on a book about punk and DIY in the former Communist world. -@franznicolay