Life is tense, these days in Kiev. The faces of the locals are stiff and their reactions are fast, as in an emergency ward. One cannot lose one's nerve in a life threatening situation.
The street-fights are over for now, while the war tourism has started. In the famous Maidan Square where a hundred protesters were shot dead in the February struggles, the paramilitary camp tents are still standing. Rubber tyres are piled in long, tall, ugly barricades, and the revolutionary militia are sitting on stools inside their tents and bomb shelters, chain-smoking and brewing coffee on campfires of scrap wood. However, the ex-President Yanukovych has fled for Russian sanctuary, and the stands of tourist attractions have arrived.
Ukrainian women sell tiaras of plastic flowers with the national colors of yellow and blue. Fridge magnets carry symbols of the uprising: flags, militia logos, Internet memes, pics of Vladimir Putin depicted as Adolf Hitler, and so on.
The "EuroMaidan" is loud with the sound of mourning for the nation's fallen. Orthodox priests have the biggest stages and the loudest amplifiers, these days. In their tall hats and gilt robes the priests endlessly chant and croon, and the random passers-by join in with their hands pressed devoutly to their hearts. The EuroMaidan is like a wounded heart still pulsing after an attack, trying to heal.
The recently-elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, swore into office these days with the words: we are not giving up Crimea. The Crimean region of Ukraine seceded to Russia, or it was seized by Russia more or less, while refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk, the Russian-ethnic dominated cities, are fleeing every day to Kiev. The nation is splitting up on ethnic lines. It is the beginning of a national struggle and not its end.
The "Mezhyirya Festival," a one-time international conference about investigative journalism, activism and hackers, was held in an estate once commandeered by Viktor Yanukovych, in a huge park north of Kiev: http://mezhyhiryafest.com. The event was organized by the Yanukovych Leaks group and the Share foundation from Serbia. The scenery was fantastic: a privatized hunting-grounds half the size of Monaco, next to the vast public reservoir for the city of Kiev, which is a beautiful and rather radioactive artificial lake on the Dnieper River. The numerous and lavish buildings and villas in this huge estate were conquered by the rebels, after Viktor Yanukovych fled the uprising for safety in Russia.
Strange militia figures in makeshift uniforms, with walkie-talkies and black wooden batons, patrol this vast park. The secret elite stronghold has been opened to the citizens of Kiev and even a few of us tourists. Wedding parties have appeared, along with improvised carts and trucks offering bottled water, ice cream dispensers, local beer… No one seems to drink from that lake, and there are no sign of swimmers despite the June heat.
We stayed inside an administrative building for the State Guard of Ukraine, the men who guarded the blind metal gates for the secretive estate they called "Object 109." Behind the vast, rambling, two-story-high metal walls, crowned with security videocameras, Yanukovych and his inner circle built odd structures like huge, half-empty hotels. Our rambling former guard-house seemed scarcely used: the Revolutionaries had arrived and kicked in the door-jambs, removing the police computers and leaving snarled wiring, scattered DVDs, fancy sofas and ugly chairs. However, the karate gym, numerous security brochures and antiterrorist shooting targets made it entirely obvious to us that this was the headquarters of Yanukovych security.
I slept inside a narrow room that declared itself to be "bookkeeping" for some alleged company called "Grosser," yet it was full of abandoned almanacs and empty notebooks for the uniformed Ukrainian State Guard. A few kilometers down one of the best-paved roads in Ukraine was the colossal hunting mansion of the former President.
This Citizen-Kane extravaganza, now widely known as the "palace of corruption," blazed all over with crystal and gilt. Money can really hurt when its controllers lack taste. This palace is now well-symbolized by one of the ex-President's ideas of refinement, a gold-plated loaf of Ukrainian bread.
Our little group of activists and journalists had to visit this legendary, sinister palace, and by night, as well. Although we numbered a round two dozen, we were like mice in this vast over-lit labyrinth of conference rooms, gyms, spas, a vast indoor tennis court, a private full-sized boxing ring, dangling hosts of golden crystal chandeliers, Gothic viewing rooms with huge TV screens and robot massage chairs, marble saunas, baroque inlaid elevators, endless parquet floors, acre-sized plush carpets, hosts of antique bronze statuary and several spotless white grand pianos, one of them crowned with a skinned and stuffed housecat.
Despite its "private" status, it was entirely clear that no one had ever had any private life in this mansion. It was a deliberate showplace in which a tiny, anxious elite attempted to impress itself.
One of our journalist hosts was a young Ukranian woman who had never seen the palace herself. Now they charge people twenty American dollars to see all this mess, she told me. The sight of it will make only people more angry, but it will take a lot of cash to keep this park running.
The privatized compound has become a national park nowadays, run by revolutionary volunteers. Someone has to feed the exotic ostriches and mind the giant wooden galleon and the antique car barn, so moms with toddlers clean the rooms, while old men mow the weeds. Somebody also had to feed us foreign conference tourists, so bright-eyed women in braids and kerchiefs and aprons somehow appeared, to make us blintzes with jam, and potato pancakes, and pork chops.
There was no packaged food. This brand new revolution of the Ukrainian poor is like some refusal of the industrial age. Viking-tall yellow-haired women with big blue eyes are like the personification of the blue-yellow Ukranian flag. They were the main audience for us invited foreigners, and they listened to our ramblings politely, took notes and said almost nothing.
Of course we had plenty to tell them — mostly about surveillance marketing, the collapse of free expression on the Internet, and the many depredations of the American NSA. Bewildered and shy, they listened.
In October 5, 2000, Milosevic was toppled in Serbia. The same heady post-revolutionary atmosphere reigned for a while — maybe a hundred days. However, the Serbian revolution never achieved a "lustration" like in the Czech republic, or the "truth and reconciliation" of South Africa. Milosevic died in a Dutch prison in The Hague, but Serbia, fourteen years later, is mostly ruled by the younger and smarter people from the old Milosevic establishment.
A revolution that fails to make a clean break with the past is just a changing of the guard. The people of Ukraine people are aware of this, which is why there are still wary militia camps inside the Maidan. But whose government is it, when your nation shatters in the struggles between superpowers? It has been a hundred years since a young Serb shot and killed the royal heir to the great throne of Austria-Hungary, and to this day no one knows if he was a hero or a terrorist.
It was an honor and a pleasure to visit Kiev: it brought me sadness, but it felt important and necessary. I lived in Serbia during our own political mayhem, and when strangers came to visit us notwithstanding the so-called danger, we felt better and safer. Of course we were stuck there on the ground while they had a jet return-ticket in their pockets: but at least there were those, few precious moments when we looked them right in the eye.
(Photos by Bruce Sterling)