The perfect day in Kyiv requires being simultaneously over-caffeinated and just a tiny bit hung over. I drank enough coffee today to achieve the former, and my jetlag felt like the latter. That’s good enough for me.
Kyiv (also known as Kiev, from the Russian) always offers itself generously up to tourists. Today it was especially photogenic, as downtown was overrun with patriotic Ukrainians wearing faux-linen shirts embroidered in more or less traditional Slavic fashion. The city had received a fresh coat of yellow and blue paint to match the national flag. Ukrainian and European Union flags lined the boulevard from Boryspil Airport to railway station. I saw the British ambassador and his family painting the cement flowerboxes outside the British embassy to match the rest of the city (“Oi, mum, fetch me the blue”).
This is, after all, Ukraine’s 23rd Independence Day, and definitely the most problematic since the day when Ukraine wrenched itself free from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. Though Kyiv looks much the same as the other times I have been here over the past sever years, it is impossible the forget that a revolution of sorts occurred mere months ago, or that people are fighting and dying 500 kilometers from here.
Independence Day parades are de rigueur around the world, but as Ukraine paraded its military might through downtown Kyiv today, I thought of the other nations in which such shows of force are popular: Iran, North Korea, and, of course, the Soviet Union. Somehow, the parade this morning left a bad taste in my mouth. Is it less acceptable to drag hugely destructive machines and ordinance through the street when there’s a war on than when it’s all for show?
President Petro Poroshenko has promised to revitalize the Ukrainian military, so he needed a photo-op on a dais above a convoy of rocket-launchers. I get that. Still, a Soviet or North Korean military parade merely implies the ability to inflict massive damage on the enemy. It is a war game. Here, spectators were left to assume that all these weapons would soon enough be hauled off to Donbas, where they would be used against other Ukrainians. Portentously, the parade led directly in the direction of Luhansk, one of the rebel-held cities. In my mind, the tanks and rocket launchers continued down the street, over the Dnieper and through the endless fields of Poltava Oblast and on, following the M03 highway past the smoking ruins of Slovyansk to northern Donbas, where they would be turned on the beleaguered rebels still holding on in a few places. The crowd went wild in a way that made me want to turn away.
Here in Kyiv, everyone is talking politics. Everyone. In some places, this is unsurprising, but I have found most Ukrainians (and most Russians) reticent when talk turns to politics. No longer. On the plane from Frankfurt, the couple in front of me discussed the fate of their family in Donbas, while behind me two strangers argued about the culpability of ordinary people in Russia. One held that, sure, Putin was bad news, but the Russian people were fine. The other argued that all his Russian friends love their president and want him to do more for Donbas rebels. On the bus from into Kyiv, an elderly couple lamented the fate of their tiny pensions in the face of Poroshenko’s expansion of the military. All around me, on the street and in cafés, in the train station and the squares downtown, everyone talks about the Russian aid convoy, the latest round of shelling in Donetsk, and the Russian-ness or Ukrainian-ness or Donbas-ness of southeastern Ukrainians.
Ordinarily, I find myself keeping aloof in these moments. I often feel the urge to observe, rather than partake. Only at the most feverish moments of certain sporting events (1993 World Series, Michigan-Michigan State football game) have I found myself absorbed enough in what is happening to stop observing those around me and feel a part of the event.
Ukraine, though, pulls me in. I first noticed this about myself more than seven years ago, when I stumbled upon a Yulia Tymoshenko rally. I knew little about Ukraine, and less about Yulia Tymoshenko (except her Princess Leia hairdo!), but I found myself clutching an orange flag and jumping up and down with the rest of her groupies. I couldn’t even understand her—she spoke in Ukrainian—but I felt a part of something momentous. Of course, Tymoshenko was hardly the savior Ukraine was looking for, and her story has not ended the way she wanted it to. I didn’t even especially support her. But still.
Ukraine is the one place I can’t remain neutral. I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Today, I wanted to buy an embroidered linen shirt and drive around, Ukrainian flags streaming from both sides of my car.
I know I should be more skeptical. I know I should spend more time thinking about those rocket launchers headed to Donbas and less time thinking about the pensioner I saw in traditional dress, holding a giant Ukrainian flag. Or about the woman, born in Chornobyl, who told me that she was finally hopeful for her country. Or about the way the sunset filtered through the trees on the bluffs overlooking the Dnieper and made the children playing soldier glow as their parents smoked and looked on and talked about the war.