In this first installment of E&M‘s new special series On the Brink, Christian Diemer shares a Ukrainian driver’s views on Putin, women and Europe. A word of warning, though: it does contain some colourful language.
“Ukrainians should erect a golden memorial to the sprinter”
For more than twenty hours, with just a few ten-minute toilet breaks, Andri has been sitting behind the steering wheel, hulking neck, bald skull, tracksuit bottoms. A golden sun set over the endless plains of eastern Poland hours ago, while the white van was sailing along towards the end of Europe. Past it, beyond the border, the sailing has turned to trudging, rolling, shoving. Deep potholes, ruts, clefts, rifts, lengthwise and right across, make the paved road an obstacle course, forcing the speed down to almost zero every few metres. Dawn is still far off. Howling diesel in a lightless night, curving in erratic wavy lines, the sturdy Sprinter fights its way to where it looks as though the fewest bumps and traps lurk (and that is, if at all, on the opposite lane, where else). “What would Ukrainians do without the Sprinter!”, shouts Andri. “What those cars have to endure on our Ukrainian roads, and still they never break!”
Rosnyvka, Kohuty, Novoyavorivs’k – nameless villages appear and disappear, a forgotten Danube-Swabian steeple here, a few golden cupolas there. “In western Ukraine – beautiful old houses everywhere. In eastern Ukraine – nothing but bums and idiots, without teeth in their mouths. They don’t understand anything. Some of them hung out their flags and called for Putin because they wanted a Russian salary. Now they have got their Russian salary, in Crimea this is. And what? They got Russian prices as well, so they can afford less with their Russian salary. And they blubber, of course they do. But I am not sorry for them. Once a traitor, always a traitor.”, Andri shrugs. “And now we have this… shit there going on in the east. The entire world has told Putin that he is an arsehole. But he won’t listen.”
Howling diesel in a lightless night, curving in erratic wavy lines, the sturdy Sprinter fights its way to where it looks as though the fewest bumps and traps lurk.
Should they just be allowed to go over to Russia then? “Well, that’s not possible either. Things don’t work like that.” But Andri concedes that the initial few who desired Putin have long been infiltrated by Russian foreigners. Instead, Andri calls for the government to be much harsher with deserters. Does he support the new president, Poroshenko? “Tah, the government, the women, all whores…”
“This is Germany, you can’t pull over and take a piss”
3 a.m., L’viv emerges, the ancient Polish Lwów, the Austrian Lemberg, the eternal Leopolis. Baroque domes and façades look down on deserted cobblestone boulevards that might have been laid out by the Austro-Hungarians and never renewed since. Tearing uphill, alongside run-down 19th century façades, neo-Gothic pinnacles, uneven tram lines, the train station appears, enthroned at the vanishing point of an endless road that seems even more endless as it can only be tackled at walking speed.
A cigarette in front of the train station. A cab driver with a moustache and jacket joins us, hand courteously behind his back, butler of the long-past Habsburg era. He is not really specific about whether he wants to drive with us, or whether he wants to take us with his Lada. Where does he even want to go? – “Feodosiya.” – “That’s in Crimea.” – “I think it is on your way to Chernivtsi.” – “It’s 1500 km east from here, you are a dumbo.” – Admittedly not quite sure himself, he shakes his head carefully: “I do think it is on the way to Chernivtsi”, and discretely walks away. Chernivtsi is 250 kilometres away. Another six hours on Ukrainian roads.
“Es gibt nix umsonst, nothing is for free”, says Andri, when the night road has us again. Nor is Europe. Andri knows what he is talking about. He has a small business in Germany. “People here don’t have the slightest idea what Europe means. I ask my friends in Ukraine what they pay for their electricity. – 500 Hriven [30 EUR] per year. – Well, I pay 60 Euro in Germany. – Woah, 60 Euro per year? – Per month, idiot!”
Regularly driving through Germany and Poland, Andri hardly sees a difference any more between the two, “Praktiker, Kaufland, Autobahn, all already there.” But why is that so? “The Germans did not build to make shopping and driving easier for the bloody Poles. They buy everything, replace what is there with their own. And that is good, that is right! For them. But if they come to Ukraine now, it will break people’s necks. The Ukrainian economy will just be taken away.”
Many women have chosen the other way round, Andri claims. If Europe doesn’t come to them, they go to Europe. “Yes, all those bitches, they all want to live in the EU, have a German husband, a nice house, a nice car. And that means they are birds in a golden cage. They are not happy because they have sold themselves. It’s all about money these days. The women think their cunts are made of gold, and the man has to pay for it until his dying day. I tell you.”
Andri is in full flow now. “Look, the mentality. Here everything is a bit free. We are not so afraid of the police, we know people here and there. We live simply, you understand, yes, somehow or other, but we live. You tell the policeman, come on, you are my brother, leave me alone. If you get drunk the night before, you call your boss, you say, hey, I won’t be able to come in for two days, I’ve got a massive hangover. Go ahead and do that with Volkswagen, Siemens, with a German policeman!”
“I drive my father to Germany. Autobahn. He says, Andri, pull over, I want to piss. I say, Papa, this is the Autobahn, this is Germany, you can’t pull over and take a piss! In Ukraine you can stop and piss wherever you want. You can drink a bottle of vodka and still drive and stop and piss wherever you want. In Ukraine, everything can be done in a way that nothing happens. There are ways to get out of the water dry. Not in Germany. Everything is fenced around, regulated, organised, and that’s why things are in order. And until we understand that here, hundreds of years may tumble down.”
“So much has been stolen from Ukraine”
“So much has been stolen from Ukraine”
“Europe has to start here, in the souls, in the minds. Do your job, work hard, care for your wife, don’t fuckin’ throw your fag away on the damn street – this is Europe. Do you think you can just sit in here and Mrs. Merkel will come to you and present you with a Mercedes? Do you think that is ever going to happen?!”
Where is the road to Ivano-Frankivs’k? No signs. Signs one cannot read. A path up and down the hills through the woods, maybe the road to Ivano-Frankivs’k? Someone tells us the road to Ternopil’ has been rebuilt. Andri takes a left. Ivano-Frankivs’k may be the direct road, but you can only drive in first gear. “The poverty here! So much has been stolen from this country. This road could be made of gold.”
Someone has leant a piece of a garden fence across the road, like a symbolic barricade. No sign, no explanation.
But the road is not made of gold. It peters out. The dawn reveals piles of rubble on the lane, construction work. Yet the opposite lane seems to have been completed already, a cry of amazement. Driving on the wrong side of the road, hoping that no one with a few bottles of vodka meets us head-on? It doesn’t come to that: the second lane abruptly falls into in a ditch. No way through, not even with a Sprinter. Someone has leant a piece of a garden fence across the road, like a symbolic barricade. No sign, no explanation. Andri is too aghast even to curse. “We Ukrainians are very intuitive. If the lane stops, we don’t put up a sign. We need to get it from God that the road ends.” He turns and roars back: “Oh my country, my country! What are you doing to me!” And almost silently: “But I love this country. Very, very, very much.”
The pink glow intensifies, fog settles on the fields and in the valley of the river Dnister. The sun rises brilliantly over the gently curved foothills of the Carpathians. Andri is tired, he pulls the car to one side, to sleep for an hour or so. A crystal clear, dewy morning has come, somewhere between L’viv and Chernivtsi. Everything is bathed in gold.