From the heart of the Ukrainian Spring

Our guest columnist, under the malevolent gaze of the Russian state, reports as the winds of change blow across Ukraine.

As I’m going through passport control at Kiev International Airport, it all hits me again. The sense of danger, the whiff of diesel and, of course, the draught down my legs. ‘Zip up’, the babushka down the hall used to say with icy menace. Ah, yes, I say to myself, here I am again, dancing in the arms of the Great Bear. It may have been four years since I left Moscow, but as soon as the young Ukrainian girl checking passports giggles at something on the computer screen as she scans my details, it is as if it was yesterday. They know I’m back, and they want me to know that they know I’m back. That’s why they’ve put something on the Ukrainian state’s foreign citizen’s database next to my name, something funny, but something hurtful, something most probably about my penis. How do they know about it? Because they know everything about me, that’s how.

They, of course, are the Russian state-mafia - that post-Soviet edifice peopled by ex-KGB thugs, supine oligarchs and corrupt politicians. Yes, I know I’m not in Russia itself, but that most superstitious and monomaniacal of nations still treats Ukraine as part of its empire. Besides, when has foreign soil ever stopped them from trying to rub out their enemies. After all, that is what I am: an enemy of the Russian state. Thanks to my intrepid journalism, naming Russian business owners by name, and criticising Moscow traffic regulations, they quite rightly see me as a threat. It’s why I never go out if it’s raining. Too many umbrellas, or, more accurately, too many umbrella tips.

But I’m not in Kiev to be the mouse to Russia’s cat, even if, thanks to my famous 2009 expose of health-and-safety malpractice at a St Petersburg air-filter manufacturers, that’s how Russia sees me. No, I’m here to see a new Ukraine emerging, a Ukraine which looks West towards the enlightened values and nightlife of Brussels, rather than East towards the hard-man homophobia of Moscow. 

Standing in Maidan Square in Kiev, a blast of optimism shooting down my legs, I’m not disappointed. It is like 1989 all over again. Except because I’m here, at its centre, feeling the wind of change rushing through my trousers, and gripping my buttocks, it’s better somehow; more real, more vital. All of Ukraine is represented here in the square, except for the parts that aren’t. But those millions of people in the east and south of Ukraine, those who voted for President Yanukovich in 2012, they don’t matter in the long run. It’s the protesters here with me in this square in Kiev that matter. Them and me, standing proud against the homophobia of Russia.

It’s not just talk of gay rights that sets my pulse racing alongside those of the protesters’. The barricades are also alive with talk of the European Union integration agreement and the difficulty of deficit cutting without IMF support. It’s the stuff political dreams are made of. But that’s what we Western journalists are like - always chatting about the politics while the natives get on with fighting and posing for Getty.

Admittedly, the Ukrainians I speak to are an inspiring bunch, too. A feeling I suspect is mutual given my journalistic contribution to their fight against Putin the Homophobe. They talk in glowing terms of something roughly translated as Social Nationalism, and the importance of Ukrainian blood and soil. One man, sporting a red balaclava nestling neatly across his deliciously high cheek bones, and accentuating his bottomless blue eyes, speaks eloquently of the ‘Musovite Jewish Mafia’, a reference, I assume, to the intolerant social policies of the Moscow-based state-mafia - a subject I have myself written about to award-winning effect for many years. These brave young men don’t just sound good, they look the part, too. This is due in no small measure to the omnipresent Wolfsangel they wear on their fatigues, a lovely runic symbol harking back to some period of Second World War heroism.

Yet even here, as I am drinking in the spirit of 1989, I know that they are here, too. I know the score: where I am, they follow.

Suddenly, a man slaps his hand on my Barbour jacket, and points towards my corduroys - a gift from my slender-fingered editor, Alan R, during a glorious piano-playing Christmas break in Lake Como. He seems to be trying to tell me there is something wrong with my trousers. Or that’s what it would look like to the uninitiated. But for those who, like me, can spot the leather jacket of a KGB spook anywhere this side of Moscow, I know what his ‘zip up’ means. Shut it. Or else.

‘Zip up’, he says again, pointing to my crotch. I know what to do. Run, Timothy, run like a gazelle.

I run like a gazelle into an alley near Maidan Square. I check my trousers and notice that the fly is undone - it often will be, my therapist once told me - and the paisley boxers Alan R bought me for my fortieth are billowing ever so gently in the revolutionary breeze. But aside from that, the trousers are fine. Then it strikes me. The hand slap. Contact! He had clearly placed a bug on my Barbour jacket - the Barbour jacket Alan R had bought me for passing my grade-three piano exam. My heart sinks for a moment. But it is only for a moment, because I can now hear the chants of ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’ picking up in Maidan Square. My heart rises once again.

This is my life now, I tell myself. In an atmosphere thick with Russian malice, I must take in the Oxygen of Hope where I can find it. A gust of possibility brushes against my thighs.

Timothy Hardapple is the nom de plume of a fearless liberal journalist currently working in Kiev.

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