In the sixth part of E&M‘s exclusive series on current developments in Ukraine, we find our correspondent Christian Diemer in the city of Korosten’, where he gets into the spirit and celebrates the deruny (potato fritter) holiday like a local.
“Korosten’, the city of the Drevlyans, welcomes you”, says a wooden board somewhere in the town. “Korosten’ is a city of bandits”, says Sasha, the cab driver.
Korosten’, is certainly one of the best connected cities imaginable. A place of some 66,000 inhabitants that not even all Ukrainians would know, yet with direct train connections not only to L’viv and nearby Kyiv, but also to Uzhhorod, Kharkiv, Odesa, Warsaw, Chişinau, Sofia, Minsk, Saint Petersburg, Moscow. The endless rattling and clattering of trains resounds from all sides. It doesn’t even seem connected to the railway lines at all; placeless, ubiquitous comings and goings float around the lonely car garages, one-storey huts, scrapyards alongside the empty streets. The barking of two dogs chasing each other slices through the dawn. Other dogs answer, their howling from afar and near merges with the rattling of the train, or was there even a train? An early bicycle bumps by. A radiating sun rises, shooting its beams onto slab buildings.
I have found the centre. It is the negation of a centre. A vast square, surrounded by faceless tower blocks. Some seem to bear mysterious decorations. One carries an aerial. It is nothing. Every notion of meaningfulness in individual parts of the centre is negated by the utter emptiness of its whole. With seven lanes, the road running through seems improbably large. Once in a while one Lada howls by.
A thousand years, lost
Korosten’ is the failure of a thousand-year-old past. Its history is a collection of catastrophes. First mentioned in 914 under the name Iskorosten’ as the capital of the Drevlyans, an east Slavonic tribe, it was torn down by duchess Ol’ha of Kyiv for not complying with the Kievan Rus’ and massacring her husband. In 1240, the Mongolians came and destroyed it again. Under Lithuania and later Poland-Lithuania, it got Magdeburg city law in 1589, but was on the wrong side again when it allied itself with the Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytskiy. Only when in 1902 the at the time Russian province town was connected to the newly-constructed Northern railway line was a tremendous upturn brought about. Korosten’ survived the German invasion in 1941 relatively undamaged, but was flattened when conquered back by the Red Army in 1943.
The Soviet times saw the agglomeration of large machine, concrete, flint, porcelain, and textile industry, as is still testified by the over-dimensional infrastructure. The years 1986 and 1989 would ultimately end the success story. Korosten’ is situated close to the Chernobyl voluntary evacuation zone. Most of the industry has collapsed. Everyone who was able to has left.
At Hotel Korosten’ I ask whether they have a free bed. It is only later that I realise the bitterness of this question. The huge complex of long-gone communist good living must be close to empty. A noisy wedding is taking place in the hotel-restaurant Continental. A feeble-minded Swedish sex tourist has been stranded in the lobby, on his way from Kyiv to Zaporizhzhya, where an online woman is said to be waiting for him.
Amidst the concrete blocks, a church with golden domes was erected in 2001. A strange, discordant bell rings out, but appears to be played from tape. The river Uzh meanders through its granite valley, as it might have a thousand years ago, when duchess Ol’ha took bloody revenge for her husband. Fishermen stand in the wetlands. The railings over the bridge have been painted in blue and yellow. Some paint has been spilled. Placards say Ukrayina peremozhe – Ukraine will win, and Tvoya Ukrayina, tvoya Svoboda – Your Ukraine, your freedom / Svoboda party. Election campaigning in Korosten’.
The bandit city
“Why did you come to Korosten’ – there is nothing in Korosten’,” says Sasha, the taxi driver. The erratic seven-lane road is long behind us, we are bumping out of town. Truth be told, I have come for the potato fritter holiday. An annual celebration of the famous Ukrainian dish deruny, which transforms the empty city centre into a fair of stalls, vyshyvanki [traditional embroidered clothing], and folk music. This year, due to the war in the east, the mayor has cancelled the celebration. It has required quite some research on the part of the hotel ladies to find out that a small offspring celebration is taking place in a settlement outside the town. Sasha thinks I am hours too early.
“People here are bad, dishonest. One in five has sat in prison.” When the Soviet industry imploded in Korosten’, Sasha claims, it left a generation of people raised in boarding schools, prosperity, irresponsibility. A generation of bandits in the making.
Sasha speaks Ukrainian. The majority considers Russian cooler. Russian, the language of bandits. Some Korostentsi even went off to the east to fight. Not for Ukraine, but for Russia. “Korosten’ is poor. The separatists pay well.” The money comes from Russia, where else: “Yanukovych has stolen three times the amount of the Ukrainian state budget! I don’t think Putin pays the separatists from his own pocket. Yanukovych is preparing for his comeback, and defending his power base in the Donbass.”
Ukrainian flags can be seen across the city, and yet patriotism is lousy: “The babushky have them in their windows, because they think the flags look nice. They can help in traffic controls. The penalty won’t be according to the law anyway, but it may be lower with the flag.” Sasha himself has a Ukrainian flag on his windscreen, but he claims he really means it.
“Vil’ne”, spells out a wooden sign at the roadside. I get out. Two women in traditional costumes wait at a fence. Vil’ne is not even a village. A handful of wooden houses spread over a green lawn, gently sloping down towards the river. Birches rustle in the wind. The warm sun glitters on the water, a Finnish idyll. I sit on a tree trunk, ants and beetles crawl over my feet. A man in cowboy boots plays the harmonium. An ample woman heaves her grandchild onto a rickety see-saw. Bear-chested youngsters play volleyball next to a crooked flagpole: a black and red ensign perched atop. Some twenty people spread across the site, all seem to know each other. I cannot help thinking of a hippie commune.
The hippie village
“May I ask you where you are from?”, a Ukrainian voice sounds from behind me. Allow me to present: Hennadiy Nikolaevych Pachinskiy, 60 years old, landlord of Vil’ne. He has built all of the houses in old Ukrainian style, with floors of clay and roofs of straw. Old wine presses and spinning wheels stand inside. “I would like to erect a church here, in the middle”, Hennadiy says, pointing to the canopy where the harmonium player sits. “Not a church to pray, not this brainwashing. Just a place for people to sit and think.”
Hennadiy shows me around excitedly: “Look at those trees, the river. This is paradise. I simply want to live purely, honestly, beautifully.” Hennadiy, a native of Korosten’, had a car show room in Kyiv. “But I understood money is not the most important thing. I am this hippie, a little bit.” So he returned, bought a piece of land at the riverside, and erected Vil’ne. When the mayor called off the deruny holiday this year, he invited his friends over to celebrate it on a smaller scale.
The thief, the smuggler and the sniper
The black and red flag is Hennadiy’s. “I had it on the barricades on Maidan. How could I have sat here in my armchair!” And Hennadiy is preparing to set off again, to east this time: “I want to fight, I want to die, for my country. Come, meet my friends”
In front of a hut, Oleg, Misha, and Vova, all in their late thirties, are drinking beer and vodka. An excited dog jumps around the table and knocks the bottles over. Ol’ya, the only girl around, has to bring a chair and some freshly-made deruny for the German guest. 100g vodka on the acquaintance. I have not had breakfast yet.
In contrast to Hennadiy and Sasha, Oleg, Misha, and Vova speak Russian – and what a Russian it is. Swearwords are as common as pauses for breath. Yet whenever friends pass by, a powerful Slava Ukrayini – Heroyam Slava! Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the heroes! is exchanged.
Misha is interested whether Hitler is taught in German schools. He points over to the city, and it seems as if they all vividly recall the Nazis arriving. “Is he taught as a good example or as a bad one?”, Misha wants to know. He is convinced that East Germany was against, and West Germany for Hitler. Vova shouts: “Who was Hitler any good for, fucksake? He destroyed all of Germany, he destroyed all of Europe! He was just the same condom as Stalin!”
Vova gets drunk astonishingly fast. He is a thief. Educated as a mechanic, he does not make a living from honest work. “I have a wife and two children. I live for my children, I would die for them.” What does he steal? “I want to live in this world where resources are saved, where mankind lives in harmony with nature. I have a vision, I even have a complete programme. But in this country, fuck, no one will listen to me. I am a nothing, fuck. I am fucked.”
They all agree on one point: Europe won’t help anyway.
“Fuck, man, you are wasted already!”, says Misha. He used to work in a Ukrainian-French company, but quit two months ago and started smuggling cigarettes to Poland. For the Ukrainian customs officers small portions of 100 hriven [as of September 2014 around six euro, now less than five] are enough. The Polish ones are not to be bribed. He has already had to pay a 6,000 złoty penalty [1,500 euro]. But he continues to take the risk. “Yes, we are thieves. But we only steal from the government. The government steals from us, we steal the from the government. It is give and take. After all, we and the government, we are good partners. I would say, we have a good relationship.”
“Of course it is Russian aggression! Fuck, what else.” Vova turns tearful: “But honestly, I don’t give a shit. No one gives me money anyway. Not the Ukrainians, and not the Russians either.”
They all agree on one point: Europe won’t help anyway. “They express their concern and don’t do a shit. And your Merkel is the worst, she is Putin’s advocate. No wonder, she served in the Stasi, she is his colleague!” Bald-headed, fleshy Oleg, who still seems to be mourning the ex-wife who left him some years ago, has bought a sniper gun, with scope. “I have two children to defend.”
The only person denying Russian aggression is one of the two soldiers sent from the eastern front to take charge of people’s collections for the army. “There are no Russian soldiers in the east. I know it, because I see it. It is a Ukrainian civil war.” Russian volunteers may fight on the Russian side, Polish and even Italian volunteers on the Ukrainian. “It is open for anyone.”
“You won’t understand anyway”, he shrugs, “you have not served. We are not human beings, we are flesh. We don’t have anything to decide about.”
“Fuck the Ukrainian army”, say Misha and Hennadiy. “It is all for sale. There is nothing but going to fight yourself.”
It has turned dark and cool. Meanwhile, perhaps a hundred people have gathered at the site. A rock band from Zhytomyr is performing. Covers of Ukrainian folk songs are belted out. The audience is frenetic. Pu-tin! one starts. Pu-tin! many echo. Pu-tin – chuylo! Pu-tin – chuylo! [Putin – dickface!] A girl with incredibly long black hair is throwing her hair around. Some more vodka for me, I am invited on stage…
I stumble in the dark, towards the road. It is a bad idea to walk back to Korosten’ through the night, an idea born out of too many 100g measures of vodka and too little deruny. I stagger forward. Lights on the horizon, out in the dark. Korosten’? Miles away? Nowhere at all? Not coming any closer. Lights in the dark pretty much everywhere on the horizon. Like out of a surreal dream, a petrol station appears in front of me, with an old cab waiting in the loneliness. “To Korosten'”, I murmur. The driver sets off without a word.
The next day, stranded in Korosten’. Outside, between deserted industry complexes, the open-air restaurant-museum Kolyba. Traditional Ukrainian food under traditional wooden pavilions, solemn patriotic songs and ardent folk choirs played through speakers. A Ukrainian Hells Angels group rests before roaring off on their bikes. The smell of apples on the way.
Back in the city, close to a fountain, where a park winds down to the granite valley of the river Uzh, Russian pop is played from speakers up a flight of steps. People of all ages dance gently. A toothless man in a shabby, brown suit, grins at girls and swings his arm, against the rhythm of the music. The discordant bell rings out from the church.
That evening, Hennadiy invites me over to Vil’ne again, for some fresh fish from the river. Under a crystal clear starry sky, he shows me the hill where the Germans came down. Drunk, he will later fall in his own courtyard with his own dog attacking him. His wife will make hot coffee for us both.
Hennadiy says that it has all just started. A young generation is to rise that simply doesn’t comply with corruption any more. He says he firmly believes in a better future. He grumps at his wife for not watching the news about the east, but instead a stupid movie.
This time, Sasha has a drunk, blonde woman driving around in his cab with him. “By the way, you are the first foreigner I’ve driven”, he tells me. Apart from some Turks. Not even true Turks, Turkmen. “Not even true Turks come to Korosten’.”
The girl is enthusiastic. Whether I want to marry her. Handshake. We are to meet tomorrow morning. Sasha will drive us all the way to Germany, where will live happily after.