A light serving of Kyiv culture and politics. (Cue laughter.)


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Memoir: The concert in my flat.

The following is the first in a short series of memory entries—which is to say, things I should have written a long time ago but was either too lazy or too distracted to do so.

 January 14th through 22nd, 2011

I ended up in Paris for one night. I’d been flying home to Miami for winter holiday last December, too late for western Christmas, too early for the Orthodox version, when I landed an hour late in Charles de Gaule airport. As a heavily agitated Air France attendant worked to get me home (by way of the French Indies and Haiti, as it turned out), I scored a hotel room in Paris. Several hours and a hundred euro in cab fare later (yeah, I got shafted), I was toasting French wine at an old friend’s apartment, a little piece of Cuban Miami in the wintry French capital. As for Haiti, the most I can say is the absence of lighting above the land at night leaves a peculiar impression, somewhere between pity and nostalgia.

And then I was back. Old New Year, the Slavic holiday based on an extinct calendar system, happens to fall on my birthday on the 14th, which happened to be midnight when I returned. A chatty taxi driver pointed all this out to me, along with the concert being set up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). There was snow on the sides of the road. But not much. It was cold. Much.

I am sure his name was not actually Suzuki.

Concerts defined that first week back. A friend took me down to a little basement spot near the maidan, tucked behind one of the narrow roads that feels its way out beyond the now advertisement-laden façade—just past the restaurant “Le Borsch.” It was an art gallery turned into a slam poetry/folk music jam session. A petite, blonde journalism student threw down in Ukrainian that was way too advanced for me, and the bandura players struck up a woeful playlist “enhanced” by electronic music blasting from speakers in the background. One player’s instrument featured the face of Taras Shevchenko printed on the cover. The highlight was clearly a Japanese player who happened to become initiated in the Ukrainian tradition, whom another band playing with more traditional instruments greeted with a rendition of “Suzuki the Bandit,” in which they thanked the Japanese for their wonderful electronics and automobiles. (Political correctness does not exist in Ukraine, and quite possibly not outside of America, either.)

Just like back in high school. Except, underground, because there are no basements in Miami.

Then, my birthday party.

My apartment is very old-Kyiv, with Soviet encroachments built up over the years. That means, in the living room that is my roommate’s bedroom, there are high ceilings, massive drapes, a cheap chandelier, rugs everywhere—especially the walls— and a grand piano. And through the connections of friends, two bands performed a nightlong concert.

I put the cumulative body count at over 50.

Jim’s group went on first. He and some of his buddies arrived early to do a sound check and eat (read: fry kolbasa and down cognac). Jim (not his real name, I think), is an artist with a workshop on Andreivski Spusk, the main tourist trap of Kyiv that consists of a winding cobblestone road leading from the area around St. Sophia’s cathedral to the old Podil section of the city. He showed me some of his work once—the only piece I could remember was “St. Bunny,” featuring a psychedelic-looking, rather Donnie Darko zaichik with a cross around his neck. Towering at easily six and a half feet, scruffy and leather jacket-clad, one almost couldn’t tell he’s a starving artist. My grandfather once pulled me onto my family’s porch when I was 9—old enough to have stopped touting “painter” as my life’s aspiration, young enough for my grandfather not to risk my changing my mind again— and explained to me the horrors of the starving artist’s life (and the virtues of an MBA). Looking at Jim, who was far happier with his life than any MBA I’ve met, I can’t help but sadly disagree. My grandfather still knew what his father and grandfather had gone through when they left what is now Ukraine to come to America, and having lived through our Great Depression, I can’t blame him for the lessons he drew.

Once the group was ready and his groupies from Kharkov in the east arrived, we were treated to what for brevity’s sake I’ll describe as a slow Sublime with even heavier reggae overtones. For the Ukrainians reading, Jim named “Pyatnitza” as his main influence. (All of this was broadcast live on the internet).

But as great as Jim’s group was, it was Toporkestra who made that night.

Klezmer music is, I think, considered Jewish, the kind of thing you’d see in Fiddler on the Roof. But at least in Ukraine, and especially around the Odessa region, klezmer can also describe a related brand of gypsy music. Without defining it too strictly, you can expect to find a range of instruments in a klezmer band—violin, clarinet, piano, trombone, accordion, guitar, among those that came first to my mind. Toporkestra formed in this tradition, and after spending more than a few nights in past years crashing in what is now my apartment, they returned to perform one more time.

They showed up with a massive plastic jug of wine, which I and my friends presume was brewed in someone’s bathtub (probably not one of their own—they’re mostly homeless). We obliged them with vodka and cognac. And then they played all night. What more can I say than that? That their musicians embraced me like an old friend? That nobody—and certainly not so many—people have ever danced so hard in my own home? That the music was, as it were, hott?

Such are the things I’ll remember about Ukraine, even as I think more and more that it won’t be too long before I come back.

(For those in Ukraine, Toporkestra’s playing again on the 15th at Sullivan Room.)

In Love with Lviv, or how I took a bus ride through the western countryside

Lviv is the largest city of western Ukraine, a bastion of nationalistic pride and the soon-to-be 755 year old heir to the Polish-Lithuanian and Hapsburg empires. Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets from the bus station on the outskirts of the city, cinder blocks of Soviet-era apartments fading into the charming gothic and baroque of the center, my only thought was “when did I get to Europe?”

Landscapes shot from the bell tower of city hall.

I left Kyiv last Wednesday for Kamianets-Podilskyi, itself full of western Ukrainian charm, as part of a Fulbright promotion tour of sorts. The small-to-medium sized town is probably best known for its ancient fortress, which guarded against Turkish invasion in the days of the Polish empire. Legend has it (and so does Anna Reid) that a Turkish sultan once asked who fortified the city. “God himself”– to which he answered, “then let God himself storm it.” But as always, God needn’t do what we can do to ourselves, and the Turks did storm and capture the place once or twice along the way, until it nestled firmly into the Austrian busom from 1773 , right until the empire’s collapse in 1918.

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Scenes from a Ukrainian Easter

The bounty of Ukraine, on my kitchen table.

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Route 66 and insomnia-induced musings on classic rock

You’ve probably heard the band Scorpions before. They’re the German classic metal group who did “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “No One Like You.” Big hits back in the giant, amorphous blob that constitutes the music our parents grew up with. And in Ukraine, they’re huge.

Strictly speaking, they’re big all over Eastern Europe, and in their home of Germany. Musical taste defies measurement, and I can no more explain their popularity in these parts than I can that of any other group that’s made it big in America. The music industry is global anyhow, so plucking any one group out may be a futile exercise. I do, however, love it, and I especially love Ukraine’s appreciation for classic rock. That’s why Route 66 is probably my favorite bar here.

You would think that with that name, and with Southwestern-themed kitsch all over the place– think bison skulls, Rosy the Riveter, and foosball– it would be an ex-pat bar. If so, the Americans don’t come out on Thursday night: locals packed the place, and the live music centered on a band called The Crazy Khokhols (a derogatory word for ethnic Ukrainians– they were taking it back, so to speak) who pulled off some metal classic covers. Queen, Nirvana, Ozzy, Scorpions (duh!), and plenty of other vintage hits. They even got the American accents down, more or less.

Music doesn’t exactly influence geopolitics, no matter how much some pundits wish it so (possible exception for John Lennon). But it does romanticize far-off places, and it can give expression to some of the longing we feel within ourselves. Plato goes as far as to suggest in the Laws that changes in music signal changes in civilization, insofar as music reflects or even guides the configuration of human impulses– and often away from the “higher” parts of the soul. That’s why Allan Bloom condemned rock music in The Closing of the American Mind, a centerpiece from the last so-called “culture war” in America, as the adulation of human vulgarity. Sex, drugs, rock n’roll: but also, rebellion, individuality, transgression, sin, change, liberation.

Our grandparents probably couldn’t stand this stuff when it came out, but for our parents, it was everything, and for us, it’s part of the order of things. I can only imagine the introduction of rock to the USSR being just as controversial, and especially the sex and drugs part. One Ukrainian in her late 20s (a systematic survey, this is not) explained to me that her parents never were taught any sex education in school growing up, and their parents’ parents especially refused to broach the subject. Her own mother couldn’t discuss it with her verbally as a teen, and could only bring herself to purchase a book explaining all the changes she doubtlessly experienced at that age. “Children came from cabbage in those days,” she joked.

We all know who really brought down the Berlin Wall.

If that’s the case, I wonder how much of a life changing experience classic rock had to have been. And I wonder more if it means anything at all now. We take the Beatles for granted, Pink Floyd for a household name, even though imagining a world without their music strikes me as an act of masochism. So I also wonder if any of the hope that came in that wave of music survives. Sexual liberation has given way to alarmingly high AIDS rates in the region (Ukraine’s is the highest in Europe), hope for a better world to widespread political apathy (a phenomena we Americans are guilty of ourselves, if in a different package). But Route 66 is there to take everyone back to the time when it was all new, and enjoy it in a little slice of a place most people won’t get the chance to visit.

Plus, we definitely don’t have awesome sausage platters at our bars.

Zahar, Zimoy: Or, Winter Reaches Kyiv

Yaroslav the Wise rests by the Golden Gate, at the site of ancient Kiev. The city springs from his hands in an archetypal tribute to the act of political founding.

Winter has come, and with it a batch on the city’s first snowfall.

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My Tea Party in Ukraine

I hosted a discussion on the American mid-term elections yesterday, partly for interested Ukrainian students to practice their English, partly so I could meet said students. I would have to call the experience both humbling and enlightening. After graduating with a degree in political science, I found myself struggling to answer such questions as, “when did the Republican and Democratic parties come into existance?,” and “why is one marked as red and the other as blue?” (“Um, well, I know the Republican party goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, and the Dem’s are newer… but they didn’t really become what they are now until the Cold War… and I think the Republicans started wearing red ties and the Dem’s took blue to distinguish themselves.” Cue blank stares on that last point).

But really, the discussion centered more on popular opinion in America than on the elections themselves. I loved some of the questions I got, first because they say a lot about the issues that make the news in Ukraine, and also because they put into sharp relief just how ridiculous some of our politics can be. Take a look at their questions and my (perhaps too blunt) responses:

1. What happened with this mosque that was being built near Ground Zero? Why was there such a reaction to it?

Z: I think it was technically a prayer center– I guess a mosque is considered a holier place– but in any case, it was (is?) a ridiculous situation. There were always Muslim prayer spaces in the Twin Towers, mainly for all the workers there who couldn’t leave during the day. It was never considered a problem by anyone, and of course the people who actually worked in the building respected the custom of daily prayer. But there was a shift in the way a group of Americans saw Islam after September 11th. And when I say “shift,” I mean that lots of Americans didn’t know anything about Islam at all before then. Tons of people live in their towns, never travel much, never interact with different kinds of people, and just don’t know that much about what’s going on in the world or how other people live their lives– I think it’s like this for lots of people in every country, really.

So for some, maybe even a lot of Americans, their first encounter with Middle Eastern politics distorted their views of the religion. They didn’t know how to distinguish the very small groups of extremists from the religion as a whole, and they didn’t know how to separate some very complicated politics from the religion either. And so, I am very sad to say, I think some Americans have an irrational fear of Islam. But what happened with this prayer center is politics. Some politicians saw an opportunity to exploit these fears, to paint a very ordinary construction project as part of a bigger conflict, and to win reputation for themselves by claiming to protect people from a threat that doesn’t exist. It’s one of the oldest tactics in history.

What really changed the day those towers fell? I used to argue that September 11th didn't change as much as people thought it did, that the war in Afghanistan was the only direct result, that the war in Iraq was at most made more convincing, but really was not caused by the attaks. It's becoming harder for me to make that point. 9/11 left a deep imprint on American opinions about the world, and politicans have begun to reflect those opinions.

2. What’s the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats?

Z: Wow, what a great question! The differences used to be obvious, but today, I’m not even sure what I would say. I think the Republicans have become a party that believes in limiting the role of government in social programs as much as possible. As little interference in people’s businesses or private lives as possible, or so the narrative goes. But I think some Republicans mean “as little interference with the right way to live our lives,” and “as much protection of what we consider the right lifestyle as possible.” So the same people who want small government want the government to have control over certain lifestyles, like those of gay Americans. But in any case, Republicans see themselves as championing private responses to social problems over government involvement.

And I think the Democrats have become the party of social engineering. They believe that the government must play a role in correcting social and historical injustices, such as continued inequalities in living conditions and access to opportunities for American minorities, especially the conditions inherited from years of slavery and then racism for black men and women. You might know that slavery existed in America until the civil war, for instance (“even Abraham Lincoln owned slaves,” mentioned one girl– “I know there were U.S. presidents who did own slaves– I don’t know history well enough to know if Lincoln ever did up until abolition– but in any case, hypocrisy is a big problem in politics”). But even after that, freed slaves remained second-class citizens by law until the 1960s. So the Democrats became the advocates of the civil rights movement, and today they focus on correcting problems through government involvement. Public health care is a good example of a problem the Democrats believe the government has to fix. Sometimes it works, though sometimes I fear the Democrats are a bit too naive about how easy it is to fix some problems. And they’ve certainly upset the Republicans with the huge health care program they’re trying to start, who see it, of course, as massive government interference.

Lincoln, the most famous Republican president, whose party probably differs completely than its descendent today. Centuries do that to political positions.

So I guess the biggest difference is Republicans tend to advocate private liberties mixed with defending a certain vision of what American lifestyle is supposed to be, and the Dem’s defend equality and believe that if organized action is not taken (by the government or social movements), things won’t get better for the disadvantaged.

I hope that was fair and balanced for you guys. (Nobody got the joke.)

3. A friend of mine visited Washington, and somebody told him that the U.S. government is truly responsible for September 11th. What is this situation?

Z: Ah, yes, conspiracy theories. There are some Americans who are so isolated from the rest of the country, and who don’t understand what happens in Washington so much, that they think the national government is actually their enemy. These are very few Americans of course– most people who don’t like the national government see them as immoral, but not as trying to actually hurt them. But to these small groups, it’s easy to make up a story about the evils of the national government, and they are happy to believe it. So some people, amazingly, think the U.S. government destroyed the twin towers itself. It’s embarrasing for me to talk about, but I don’t think most Americans take that idea seriously.

4. Could we talk about something not dealing with politics next time?

Z: Not dealing with politics! Everything in America is political! I don’t even know how to talk about something distinctively American without seeing politics. There’s baseball, there’s the entertainment industry, but I can’t think of anything to be discussed in American culture that is not politicized. Even Lady Gaga is a social advocate, and entertainers who advocate total disinterest in politics are considered to be engaging in a political act.

Dear lord, are we really that political? Maybe I think this way because all I’ve done for the past four years is study theories of society and politics, of war and justice. But you tell me: where does politics end and culture begin in America?