from Russia with bias

Archive for September 2017


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I’ve recently spent five weeks in Ukraine, doing a travel guide rather than gathering for a political story, so I didn’t interview anyone and mostly avoided talking politics. But I had a few interesting encounters, which I wanted to share.

The first one actually happened in Riga, just before I went down to Ukraine.

Anatoly drives large tourist buses, and I happened to spend a couple of days travelling with him around Latvia. He speaks Russian with a thick Baltic accent, so I was slightly surprised when he introduced himself – his name sounded too Russian. But then I recalled Anatolijs Gorbunovs, the first leader of newly independent Latvia, and also the fact that my own name has a perfectly Latvian form – Leonīds, which allows me to celebrate my Latvian vārda diena (name day) a week before my actual birthday.

We had some beers one evening and Anatoly told me that he sometimes drives buses across the Russian border, so I asked how he goes about the visas.

“I don’t need one”, he replied. “I am a non-citizen”.

Wow, I thought. I had been assuming he was from Latgale, an eastern region where cultural landscape is shaped by Polish and Russian cultural influences. But the “non-citizen” status meant he had no historic connection to Latvia at all.

He turned out be Ukrainian, from Sumy region in the north. Ukrainian was his native language and he didn’t study Russian at all until fifth grade at school. He remembers when he first met a Russian-speaker. It was an engineer sent to his village from Moscow, when Anatoly was eight or nine.

“I remember my surprise – I could understand most things he said, but it was another language and it sounded so funny”, he recalls.

Anatoly came to Riga in 1978 as a migrant worker and soon married a Latvian woman. He speaks Latvian to his wife and two children, but at work the main language is Russian and he helps his Russian-speaking boss and other drivers with anything that involves Latvian language, when necessary. “When inspectors, especially those from the language police, pay a visit, the boss lets me do all the talking”, Anatoly says.

Anatoly voted for independent Latvia in the March 1991 poll and participated in Latvian People’s Front’s rallies. But from the standpoint of the newly independent Latvian state he was a Soviet occupier and an agent of Russian cultural influence, so as many people like him – he was denied citizenship and received the grey-coloured non-citizen’s passport.

He felt humiliated, so he decided no to go through the naturalisation process, which basically requires passing a basic Latvian language test – something he would have had no problems with. When dust settled, it turned out that his status denies him only one right – to vote. But he doesn’t want to vote in Latvia since that last faithful vote he gave for the country’s independence. “My wife is a citizen by the right of birth, but she doesn’t vote either – these politicians are all the same for her”, he says. Their children are building white collar careers in Western Europe.

I didn’t ask him about Ukraine, but at some point he burst into a tirade that included the vocabulary of the Russian propaganda – banderovite fascists, drunken Poroshenko (picturing Ukrainian president as Yeltsin number 2), American puppets turning Ukraine into battlefield with Russia. I asked him, if stays in touch with anyone in his village. He said yes. He heard that some of his nephews had been called up to the frontline, but he claimed that everyone over there was just as unhappy with the new government in Kiev as he was. To me, it felt like he did’t know much about realities on the ground in Ukraine.


Andrey (name changed) is a night-time guard at a hotel in Myrhorod, the town known under its Russified moniker Mirgorod to those who have read Nikolay Gogol. He was the only person in the lobby, when I sat down to do some work and he had a very friendly face, so I asked him how things were in Myrhorod.

He said life was difficult because of the war and post-revolutionary reforms. But, he said: “Slowly, step by step we are getting closer to Europe. Maybe my daughter will see Ukraine become as good as Poland or Czechoslovakia”. He said Czechoslovakia, which I guess is forgivable for a man in his 50s, who lives in a small town.

Aleksandr is from Novgorod in Western Russia. He came to Ukraine in the USSR’s final years because he fell in love – “with a woman, with the land, with food, with every sunflower around here”. Being in the Soviet military, he got himself transferred to the Mirhorod air base and, when Ukraine became independent, he joined the new Ukrainian army without much hesitation.

He says that although the air force was badly underfunded, it was fun to be a part of it. As a technician preparing aircraft for flights, he travelled to various international air shows, even to America. His travel experiences re-enforced his conviction that post-Soviet countries, both Ukraine and Russia, should move towards adopting the Western approach to both politics and economy.

Back in Ukraine, however, he was increasingly upset about deteriorating safety standards in the air force – no one bothered to repair old Soviet planes, which were getting increasingly dangerous for pilots. He kept writing complaints and warnings about imminent tragedies to all of his commanders, including defence minister. Finally out of sheer desperation, he wrote to a plant in the Russian Far East, which produced those planes and was theoretically responsible for servicing them. The Russian response, addressed to high-level Ukrainian military, said that the planes were absolutely unfit for flying and needed an urgent repair. That finally prompted the government to take action, but Andrey had to resign because his immediate commanders thought he was too troublesome.

That happened not long before the start the war in Donbas. Myrhorod-based aircraft were deployed there at the initial stage, but then the sides agreed to not use the aviation at all. Andrey said he wouldn’t hesitate to fight against the Russians, because his country was Ukraine and he made an oath to it.

A year ago, he travelled to Novgorod for a school reunion. His classmates booked a hotel on the lake Ilmen and they partied there for three days. “We never spoke about politics. If anyone tried to mention Ukraine in my presence, girls would start shouting and the person would shut up”.


On an intercity bus between Dnipro (former Dnipropetrovsk) and Zaporizhya, the Ukrainian outfit of the Moscow-based Russkoye Radio blared cheese Russian pop. The driver and the woman, who sold and checked tickets, had to talk in loud voices so they could hear each other.

Ticket woman’s elder son was a contract soldier in the Russian army, in a unit based in Samara. He went there before the war. Now she wanted to find a way for her younger son to dodge the Ukrainian army service and get enrolled in the Russian army instead.

She extolled the benefits of being a Russian military – the flat her son was given in Samara, the kindergarten his children go to, how clean and tidy his area of town is, how they helped him to obtain Russian citizenship.

Now that everything was so complicated between Ukraine and Russia, she wasn’t sure how to proceed. The driver, evidently a former military, asked competent-sounding questions about life in the Russian barracks. At one point in conversation, he offered to contact his pals in the Russian military, because perhaps they could be of some help.

I found this conversation extremely surreal, given that both Dnipro and Zaporizhya are only 300km from the frontline Donetsk. In Dnipro, I had just seen a memorial to the paratroopers who died defending Ukraine in this ongoing war with Russia. I had also visited the newly created Museum of ATO – an open-air display of bullet-ridden and burned-down military hardware from Donbas.

I kept wondering when someone on the bus would start yelling at them. But people sat silently – looking into their gadgets or dozing off. It felt like I was the only one who actually cared.


Ivan, an ethnic Moldovan/Romanian who runs a smallish tourist business in southern Bessarabia (Odessa region), asked me to explain what I thought about the war between Ukraine and Russia. I didn’t want to engage in this conversation for too long, but he kept asking very specific questions about Putin, the Russian involvement, Maidan, Poroshenko’s government, Crimea and so on. So I had to present my views, which are basically sympathetic of Ukraine and its revolution, but sceptical about its future, and unsympathetic about Russia as is now, but hopefully realistic about its intentions and internal constraints.

He listened attentively, but never gave away his own views. When we parted, he suddenly gave me a book and said that I would understand a lot by reading it. Titled “Lost Legions Enter the Battle”, the book was written by a self-styled historian from the town of Kiliya, on the border with Romania. An old man interested in archaeological excavations in the area that used to be settled by ancient Greeks and Romans, he developed a theory, according to which ancient Slavs preceded and nurtured all other world civilisations with their talent and wisdom. The book was interspersed with his World War II memoirs, which sounded way more interesting than his civilisational concepts, but they were somehow meant to prove his theory.

His ideas echoed those that I found – to my huge amazement – in the books I read while working at the now defunct cafe Kult Ra in Kiev. Run by (tongue-in-cheek) nationalists, it contained a whole library of weird right-wing literature, as well as portraits of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera. One book described the story of proto-Ukranians from Tripillia culture who spoke pure Ukrainian language before the advent of any other known civilisation and spread their culture in the Middle East, building Babylon and Egyptian pyramids. Those books in Kiev were obviously a fine example of blood and soil nationalism. The one from Bessarabia was more ecumenical and didn’t give a preference to either Ukrainians or Russians, but rather regarded them as one nation. Which politically, I guess, puts them into the pro-Kremlin box, though I don’t think it was the author’s intention.

I was wondering what Ivan, with his Romanian roots, finds in these Slavic-themed fantasies. But it was too late to ask.


Viktor had an accent, which sounded Caucasian to me, but he turned out to be West Ukrainian from Ternopil region. He had only just come back to Ukraine from Moscow, where he had lived for 15 years. “Oh we he had a perfect life there and we were making so much money! But not any more”, he sighed.

His Moscow career started at Vorobyevy Gory observation square (best view of the city), where he ran a stall selling matryoshka dolls to foreign tourists. All the policemen, who racketeered/protected his business, were his best friends, and he was doing brisk business.

In the wake of the economic boom of the early 00s, he switched to construction business. It started with small groups of repairmen, but eventually he and his brother created a whole network of itinerant construction worker teams, bringing them in droves from Carpathian regions.

When the war started, it seemed the Russian authorities would make it even simpler for Ukrainians to work in Russia, which received around 400 thousand refugees from the war-torn eastern regions. But promises never materialised, while the police started clamping down on illegal migrants from Ukraine, while ignoring Central Asians, who make the bulk of migrant work force in Russia. Official licenses were available, but the cost was so big, that Moscow could no longer compete for migrant workers with Poland. Eventually all the Ukrainians left, and Viktor literally switched off the lights in his workers’ hostel before leaving as well.

“Tell me, when all these troubles will be over? Can Russia fight with America in some other place, not in Ukraine?”, Viktor asked. He clearly wanted to go back to Moscow.




Written by fullofbias

September 25, 2017 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized